Author Archives: williamstafford

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard!

Just My Cup of Chai

THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHAI

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

 

Marivaux’s 18th Century French farce, The Game of Love and Chance, gets an update from Tara Arts and Nigel Planer of The Young Ones, no less.  It’s a remarkably good fit, translating the action from the French bourgeoisie to a present-day Indian family in Britain, where notions of class and caste dictate social mores and aspirations.  Widowed Kamala-Ji is keen to marry off daughter Rani, who is a successful, independent young woman who works as a solicitor.  Rani wishes to retain her independence until she can marry for love, if there is such a match to be made.  She faces pressure from trashy cousin Sita, who contrasts with Rani in every way possible.  A prospective groom is on his way to size up his potential wife… Rani and Sita concoct a plan to switch identities and do some sizing up of the groom for themselves.  Unbeknownst to them, the groom has hatched an identical plan and has switched with his unlicensed Uber driver…

The script is peppered with bang up-to-date references along with Punjabi (I think it is) words and phrases but the performance style is all traditional.  There is a declamatory aspect to the delivery, direct audience address, and much heightened posing and posturing.  The characters are drawn with broad strokes and the action is almost cartoonish at times.  It is, all of it, hilarious.

Director Jatinder Verma has an eye for comic detail and doesn’t miss a trick, keeping things snappy so this fabulous confection has no opportunity to stale.  The action is broken up with Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, all performed with gusto and fun – where the French originals would have featured courtly masques or brief balletic interludes.  Claudia Mayer’s set gives us a garden of privet archways for the comings and goings, with a backdrop of suburban semis peering over the top.  Her costumes strongly signal the characters (and their disguises) and there is a glorious nod to Marivaux in the finale, courtesy of designer Adam Wilshire.

Goldy Notay is absolutely delicious as matriarch Kamala-Ji, with Deven Modha great fun as Rani’s camp brother Sunny.  Ronny Jhutti throws himself into the role of Nitin – the driver masquerading as the groom – with relish, while both Kiren Jogi’s Sita and Sharon Singh’s Rani clearly differentiate when they are pretending to be each other.  Singh is especially good, bringing more than a hint of snobbishness a la Penelope Keith to her portrayal of the snitty Rani.  Adam Samuel-Rai makes an energetic, passionate, even neurotic suitor, as the handsome Raj.  The entire ensemble rises to the demands of this kind of material, popping off quickfire asides and larger-than-life reactions with skill.

This fast and funny production reminds us that the old theatrical forms and conventions still have currency and that people have much in common whatever their cultural background.  A fabulous treat of a show; I loved every second.

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Adam Samuel-Bal and Sharon Singh wrestling (with their emotions)

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A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018

 

Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Labour in Vain

THIS HOUSE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th April, 2018

 

This hit production from the National Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre/Headlong comes to this town and reminds this reviewer of its brilliance.  James Graham’s script, dealing with the behind-the-scenes, Machiavellian machinations of the Chief Whips of both main parties, mines a rich seam of humour.  It is the 1970s and Labour has a minority government.  All the stops have to be pulled out to win over the ‘odds and sods’ to vote on the government’s side.

It’s a macho – or rather, blokeish world of hard drinking, hard swearing immaturity, where tradition is held in awe but nothing more so than the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’.  The opposing sides wind each other up, one-upmanship is king and fair play hardly gets a look-in.  It’s a chess game on a massive scale, with the Chief Whips sniping at each other like rival head prefects.

Martin Marquez is excellent as tough-talking Labour whip, Bob Mellish, with William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins as the perfect sneering foil over on the Tory side.  Graham characterises both sides in broad terms: the Labour lot are beer-swilling, down-to-earth working class men with ‘real jobs’ in their backgrounds; the Tories are privileged, entitled snobs.  Tony Turner’s Michael Cox remains decent in his desperation, while on the other side, Harry Kershaw’s member for Chelmsford makes a prissy and hilarious impression.  There is a running joke about apologising for swearing in front of that rare creature, a female MP – Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor soon proves she can give as good as she gets, and there is a delicious turn from Louise Ludgate as the member for Coventry South West, silently doling out the cash to pay a fine.

Labour’s Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and his oppo Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) share a mutual if grudging respect for each other and each other’s methods in a relationship that encapsulates the cut-and-thrust of party politics at that time.  Meanwhile, off-stage, rises the spectre of evil that will poison politics for decades, like Voldemort gradually taking physical form, as the member for Finchley, unseen, climbs the ranks to Tory party leader, ultimately becoming prime minister.  As the lights fade, an extract from Thatcher’s inaugural speech brings the fun and games to a chilling end…

Director Jeremy Herrin maintains a cracking pace, keeping the barbed remarks and the fur flying, eliciting energetic performances from his ensemble.  A live band keeps the energy levels up, with short and long bursts to cover transitions or to underscore the more stylised sequences depicting the arcane rituals of the House.

It’s a hilarious piece, a satirical cartoon of a show recounting a remarkable time in British politics, but be aware: the current mob who occupy This House for real are not playing for laughs.

THIS HOUSE

Best of frenemies: James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon (Photo: Johan Persson)


Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

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Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Pinkie Blinder

BRIGHTON ROCK

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th April, 2018

 

This new production from Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal rocks into town with an irresistible swagger.  Composer Hannah Peel’s score is designed to quicken the heartbeat, the drum-heavy arrangements tribal and exciting like jungle drums.  Our jungle is the criminal underworld of 1950s Brighton, where rival gangs of protectionists rule the streets.

Leading one such gang is Pinkie – a perky performance by Jacob James Beswick.  His Pinkie is cocksure, tough and volatile, who sees his youth (aged 17) as no handicap.  In fact, his lack of years is a plus: he can’t be hanged for his crimes.  He also has a cavalier attitude to eternal damnation – planning to play the Catholic get-out-of-Hell-free card by repenting in the last minute of his life.  Superstition is a recurring theme, be it church-going or dabbling with a Ouija board.

Brighton Rock 2018 Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie..

Pinkie promise: Jacob James Beswick (Photo: Karl Andrew Photography)

Sarah Middleton is the perfect contrast to Pinkie in every way as Rose, the girl whose affections Pinkie waylays in order to stop her from going to the cops with what she knows.  Rose is blinded, not by the vitriol Pinkie waves in her face, but by his attentions, proving herself fiercely loyal albeit misguided.  A tight ensemble plays the supporting roles, notable among them is the versatile Angela Bain, as Spicer, a priest, and others.  Jennifer Jackson, appearing as the ultra-cool rival boss Colleoni, is responsible for the stylised movements – the violence is savagely choreographed – and Jackson performs a sinuous bit of expressive jazz dancing to accompany the turmoil of the lead characters.

Dominating the action is Ida, seeking justice for a murdered beau.  Gloria Onitiri is thoroughly magnificent.  Funny, determined, passionate and with a dirty laugh, she also treats us to her rich singing voice in a couple of cool torch songs.

The show is ineffably cool in the way that bad boys are cool.  But we are definitely on Ida’s side, as the moral compass of the story.

Director Esther Richardson keeps things slick and sharp as a razor, employing the ensemble as stagehands to keep the action continuous and the transitions seamless.  Bryony Lavery’s splendid adaptation of the Graham Greene novel delivers the feel of the era, the argot of the underworld, while Sara Perks’s all-purpose set evokes Brighton Pier chief among the other locations.  There is a Kneehigh feel to proceedings with the stylisation, the onstage musicians and so on – and there’s nothing wrong in that.  Quite the contrary!

Gripping, entertaining and inventively presented, this is one stick of rock that has QUALITY running all the way through it.

Brighton Rock 2018 Gloria Onitiri as Ida

The mighty Gloria Onitiri as Ida (Photo: Karl Andre Photography)

 


Nailed It

TURN OF THE SCREW

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th April , 2018

 

Henry  James’s classic ghost story is often cited as an inspiration for Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black – and  in this masterful new stage adaptation by Tim Luscombe, you can see why.  A stranger arrives at a lonely mansion, there is mystery about dark deeds of the past, and apparitions stalk the scene…  Where the James differs from the Hill is the emphasis is on the psychological aspects.  It’s a slow-burner and we’re never sure if the ghosts are ‘real’ or figments of the imagination of the young Governess (Carli Norris).  Freud would probably say the apparitions are manifestations of the young woman’s repressed sexuality – she did take a fancy to her dashing employer (Michael Hanratty) before he dashed off, and indeed the action that suggests the show’s title, a young girl twisting a mast into a toy ship, triggers one of the Governess’s episodes… Also, having the same actor portray all the male roles supports the idea of her fixation on her employer, the uncle of her two charges.

A scene from Turn of the Screw by Henry James (adapted by Tim Luscombe) at the Mercury Theatre Colchester. Directed by Daniel Buckroyd. Designed by Sara Parks. Lit by Matt Leventhall.

Michael Hanratty (Photo: Robert Workman)

Carli Norris is splendid as the composed, older Governess, come to attend an interview.  As her story unfolds and she becomes her younger self,  she is driven to distraction by events.  Her interviewer is spirited and commanding, and in the flashbacks becomes young girl Flora, energetic to the point of exhausting, in a highly effective performance by Annabel Smith.  There is some steady character work from Maggie McCarthy as the lowly Mrs Grose, lending bags of atmosphere to the piece, and in the male roles Michael Hanratty demonstrates his versatility and magnetic presence – especially as young boy Miles who has been expelled from school for unmentionable reasons.

Director Daniel Buckroyd builds the intrigue, punctuating the storytelling with moments geared up to jolt or cause a shiver.  Sara Perks’s set keeps things simple: covered furniture becomes landscape, for example, so the one location – the Governess’s room (or her mind, depending on how you look at it) – serves for all.  Matt Leventhall’s lighting makes excellent use of side-lighting, giving the characters a dramatic, almost statuesque, appearance, and John Chambers’s compositions and sound design underscore the action to an unsettling degree.

This is a classy, stylish and captivating production, made in conjunction between Dermot McLaughlin Productions, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Wolverhampton’s Grand – it’s especially gratifying to see the latter extending its reach into producing new work.  Bravo, the Grand!

Carli Norris (Photo: Robert Workman)

 


Copping It Sweet

POLICE COPS IN SPACE

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 6th April, 2018

 

Wondering whether the show will live up to the promise of its title, I settle into my seat.  It’s a packed house – word has got around that the Pretend Men (Nathan Parkinson, Zachary Hunt and Tom Roe) are in town with their award-winning brand of theatre.

A sequel to Police Cops, which I regret not seeing, this is a fast-paced frolic, telling the story of Sammy Johnson (Parkinson) who, following the murder of his Police Cop father, seeks to become the best damned Police Cop in Space ever.  Sammy teams up with Ranger, an alien pilot (Hunt), and they go after the killer, megalomaniac robot Tanner (Roe).  Along the way, we meet a host of unsavoury characters, all portrayed with infallible gusto by this energetic trio of performers.  The action is choreographed to maximise the silliness.  Characterisations are broader than the Milky Way and the script is riddled with nonsense and word-play.  If the Pretend Men were ever tamed, they could be churning out comedy programmes for Radio 4.

I enjoy the wild inventiveness of it all.  It’s not so much low-tech as no-tech – although judicious use is made of glow-sticks from time to time.  Very much a physical show, the movement of the actors is at the forefront of the performance, the daftness augmented by some silly props, among them a rat sellotaped to a remote-control car… The show is packed with moments of genius – a motorbike conjured out of next-to-nothing, for example, a balletic sequence between Parkinson and Roe, depicting the love story between Roe’s Terminator-like character and Sammy, his target… Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl crops up later, and it’s never been put to better use.

It’s an hour of non-stop delight and a great workout for your laughing gear.  Sometimes a show comes along that represents everything I love about the theatre.  If Police Cops in Space has something other to say, perhaps its holding up models of masculinity for our examination and ridicule.  Perhaps it’s just celebrating the daftness of genre fiction as a version of the human condition.  I don’t care; all I know is I had a great night.

police cops in space