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!

Stream Scream

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Online

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1st-31st December 2020

The annual treat of the Belgrade pantomime is not cancelled, thank goodness, but is available to stream from the theatre’s website into the comfort (or otherwise) of your own home.  Panto without audience participation might seem like the odds are stacked against it, but such is the effectiveness of this specially filmed production, you barely miss the auditorium.

The mighty Iain Lauchlan has been the engine, the heart and the soul of the Belgrade’s panto for over a quarter of a century now, and the film begins with him strolling onto a bare stage and gazing out at the empty stalls.  Voices and laughter from previous productions can be heard.  It’s quite a downbeat start, reflecting the sadness the entire industry must be feeling this year, but the mood instantly picks up when he sits on the edge of the stage alongside his longtime comedy partner, Craig Hollingsworth, who has an idea of how the pantomime can still go ahead this year: stream it online.  At once, you can see the chemistry between these two; their partnership is the biggest draw for me to keep going to Coventry every year.  Their effortless banter and crosstalk is second-to-none.

And so the panto proper begins, with Lauchlan as the Fairy narrator, able to use her wand for digital effects you can’t get in the theatre.   The set and costumes are very much what you’d expect to find on stage but crucially the performance style has been altered to suit the screen.  The acting is still non-naturalistic, but its heightened just enough to maximise the comedy without going over the top.  Addressing the audience is replaced by direct-to-camera and this works brilliantly for Dame Trott’s monologues (Iain Lauchlan is the consummate dame) and also for quick asides and punchlines.  Craig Hollingsworth, usually called upon to be a master of crowd control, here demonstrates another impressive set of skills, those of acting for and to the lens.  I did not think these two could get any higher in my estimation, but they’ve done exactly that.

With Lauchlan and Hollingsworth playing most of the parts (due to the necessity of having limited numbers permitted in rehearsals) this is a real showcase for their talents.  They are joined by perky principal boy, Morna Macpherson as Jack Trott, with Arina Li as the feisty Princess.  Trish Adudu is somewhat underused as the Giant’s wife, appearing in a Zoom call with Hollingsworth’s Fleshcreep (who reminds me of Dave Hill from Slade!)   The troupe of young dancers is led by the dashing Ayden Morgan, adding to the vibrancy of this colourful and inventive production.

Lauchlan’s script is bang up-to-date, riddled with topical references, as befits any panto worth its salt.  He has always been an innovative panto creator and this year, more than ever, his ability to marry traditional tropes with technical advancements is crucial.  Everything is so well thought out.  Even Daisy the cow’s costume has been amended to include social distancing for her front and back legs!  There is plenty of slapstick and silliness, along with saucier jokes for the adults, and it’s all splendidly directed (by Paul Gibson) to suit the medium.

This is by no means a question of performing a panto and standing a camera in front of it.  This is a true marriage of form and content, of timeless tradition and contemporary communications.

It’s available to stream for the whole month of December from belgrade.co.uk so people far beyond the bounds of Coventry can get to see it, and it’s excellent value and an absolute scream.  Oh yes it is.

*****

Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth face off with a bake-off (Photo: Chloe Ely)


Improv with bells on

SHORT FORM SCRATCH NIGHT

Reflex Theatre, You Tube, Wednesday 29th July, 2020

 

With theatres still closed, canny theatre companies are putting new technologies to good use to get their work out there for audiences.  Norwich based Reflex Theatre put on these evenings on a monthly basis, I understand, and I was lucky enough to be invited to watch from the comfort (or otherwise) of my own home.  The premise is this: actors take the first and last page of a brand-new piece of writing, and they improvise the middle bit.  A bell signals to us viewers the transition from the written lines to the improv section, and the return to the written conclusion.

A varied programme kicks off with Collapsing by Thomas Heath, a two-hander father-and-daughter zoom call.  Zoom is not just for boring team meetings, you know.  It can be quite the medium for creativity.  As the scene unfolds, I find there’s something voyeuristic about watching this conversation, with its dual p.o.v.  The scene builds nicely, but I wonder if the actors could be given key points to include – or if they give themselves key points to include.  What I would say is they shouldn’t be afraid of silences, of pausing the dialogue so we get the opportunity to see things sink in.  Nevertheless, it’s a fine start.

Next up, is something more removed from reality.  Wednesday Evenings by Emma Dawson, involves a Princess at the mercy of a Narrator, who forces her to endure a catalogue of dastardly situations as part of her punishment for ‘bringing down the kingdom’.  Or something.  The set-up has strong potential for humour, and they do get more than a few laughs out of me.  The scene touches on the role of princesses in fairy tales and how they need to be liberated from perpetual victimhood.   This could really develop into a sharp satire.

Pals by Hannah Westall is a three-hander.  Bee is getting ready for a date, while her two pals, Anne and Debbie, like devils at her shoulder, try to persuade and even scare her out of going.  This one needs to be pacier, I feel.  And Anne looks so worried and upset throughout, I want to know her story; it seems like there is fertile ground there!

Trauma by Rogerio Correia is a monologue.  Mark (an excellent Leon Bedwell) is undergoing his weekly online therapy session.  He relives an incident from his youth, an example of the relentless homophobia of his father.  It’s just his face, filling the screen, talking directly to us, and it makes for the most powerful piece of the evening.  It’s actually very moving.  And, of the lot, it is the most successful in terms of the format.  If I didn’t hear the bells, I wouldn’t have known what was written and what was improv.  Splendid work.

The evening is rounded off with a return to comedy, and it’s the funniest piece of the lot.  A Date Worse Than Death by Catherine O’Hanlon, has gothic psychopath Heidi (a scarily funny Ellie Scanlon) meeting mummy’s boy and jigsaw puzzle fan Darren (Joseph Betts) on a blind date.  I don’t know about their romantic prospects, but this pair are perfectly matched when it comes to humour.  The characters are well-rounded, the wit is quick, and there’s plenty of good old improv back-and-forth that is a joy to behold.  All it needs is a little tightening to get where it goes a little quicker, but it’s a hugely enjoyable piece.

All in all, a worthwhile way to spend ninety minutes.  Artistic director Callan Durrant and his cast are to be applauded for getting new material and live performance out there.

You can check out the pieces via their Facebook page here.

four stars

reflex


Video (et gaudeo)

BARD FROM THE BARN – Shakespeare’s Greatest Characters in Lockdown

YouTube, Wednesday 1st July, 2020

 

With theatres closed, indefinitely it feels like, some companies are streaming live recordings of past productions to keep us entertained.  Others are seeking to produce new work, using whatever means they can.  Last week, I enjoyed a play performed live on Zoom.  This week, I’m looking at a collection of pre-recorded monologues, put together by the Barn Theatre.

There are almost three dozen to choose from.  You can dip in and out as little or as much as you like, or you can select PLAY ALL and work your way through, so there is flexibility there, and of course you can watch it on your laptop, your smartphone, or your big telly, making the viewing as formal or as informal as you like.  You choose the way you watch.

For review purposes, I’m sitting back with a cuppa in front of the big telly.

What plays out before me is an impressive range of ideas and variety of means of presentation, as actors in isolation perform speeches from the tragedies, histories and comedies (some better known that others).  In general, the dramatic speeches tend to come across better than the comic ones – that being said, the knockabout comedy of Tweedy the Clown as Dromio of Ephesus (Comedy of Errors) appearing on a sort of Jeremy Kyle show, is very funny!

They’re all worth a look.  Some feel like extracts, some feel like short films complete in themselves, like Daniella Piper’s Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona) tearing up a love letter from Proteus and trying to piece it together again.

I can’t mention them all but here are some of my favourites.  Aaron Sidwell (who also produces) appears as Marc Antony, a media-savvy politician giving an address on a rolling news channel – the medium is perfectly suited to his rhetoric; Adam Sopp’s Iago, exudes menace in a triptych of mirrors; Ryan Bennett’s Edgar, where the jerky smartphone filming represents his state of mind; Ben Boskovic’s Richard II, vlogging in his bedroom; Sarah Louise Hughes as Juliet, recording her final moments in a onesie in her bedroom, before she takes the fateful drug; and the pent-up passion of Jasper William Cartwright’s Romeo, who is homeo aloneo.

Some are simpler than others, with directors letting the actors’ talking heads do all the work. Dominic Brewer’s housebound Hamlet, bitter and depressed, for example.  Others use everyday technologies to do something flashier: Tricia Adele Turner’s Hermione (The Winter’s Tale) is an Essex girl in a clip that combines social media with reality TV – some kind of commentary here, that these ‘celebrities’ are awarded almost royal status, perhaps?  David Haydn’s Titus Andronicus is a deliciously horrific vignette of grisly, suburban revenge.

We get a Benedick taking his daily exercise in the park, Macbeth’s porter receiving a welcome delivery of toilet rolls, and there are a few facetime calls along the way.  All human life is here, certainly as experienced over the past few months in quarantine.  Taken as a whole, this collection is a chronicle of the present, seen through the prism of Shakespeare.

Producers Aaron Sidwell, Hal Chambers and the Barn Theatre are to be applauded for this inventive body of work.  I’m sure they’ll forgive me if I don’t stand on my doorstep to do it.

The-Cast-of-Bard-From-The-Barn

See for yourself by clicking HERE!


Cloud Pleasers

UP, UP, UP AND AWAY!

Zoom, My Place, Friday 26th June, 2020

 

During lockdown, we have not been starved of theatre, with plenty of National Theatre productions streaming for free on a weekly basis, and such.  This online production by Super Stories With City Actors (presented by Creation Theatre) takes a savvier approach by charging for access to their live show, performed on Zoom right before your very eyes.  But why pay when there is so much free stuff out there?

First up: it’s interactive.  Rather than plonking the kids down in front of a screen, and providing a passive experience, this play invites and encourages participation from its remote and divided audience.  In the safety of your own home, you can take part and do all the moves.  Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as arduous as a Joe Wicks workout.

Secondly, you get to influence the story.  This fast-moving adventure, loosely based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, involves Captain Calamity (Rowland Stirling) and his young cadet (Ryan Duncan) as they travel the world in a hot air balloon.   In fact, we are all recruited as ‘cloud cadets’ to go along for the ride.  And you get the chance to volunteer suggestions for magic spells and special salutes, and lots of things the plot requires.  But only if you want to.  No one is picked on.  It’s all “Hand’s up if you’ve got an idea”, so you can be as shy as you want.

Ryan Duncan befriends us from the off, as the plucky Apprentice.  He is our guide into the Captain’s crazy world.  Duncan has the energy and heightened delivery of a kids’ TV presenter, without being annoying, and he is a splendid physical comedian.

The versatile Rowland Stirling is the embodiment of silliness as the camp Captain Calamity.  He also appears as a slightly villainous magician, who speaks in rhyme and stands behind a moustache on a stick, and perhaps most delightfully, voices the leader of a flea circus, revelling in the name of Timoflea Charlemagne.  Which gives you some idea of the humour we’re dealing with here in the script by George Rennie – who is also hard at work, video-mixing live, which is like stage managing, conducting, and scene shifting rolled into one.

The music, written and performed by Jessica Dives, adds to the action and the fun. There’s a home-made quality to the backgrounds, combining stock photographs with cut-outs, animation, and green-screen trickery.  That you can see the join from time to time merely adds to the charm.  The combination of high- and low-tech elements works like a dream.  And it’s as funny as it is inventive.

The show embraces the medium to the hilt, presenting the story elements in creative ways, and it’s perfectly pitched at its target audience of youngsters.  You can see the engagement on their little faces.  And you can see the enjoyment of the mums/dads/court-appointed guardians on their larger faces, as they join in with the moves.

There’s a lot going on, and not just in the knockabout plot.  It’s about sharing an imaginative experience, sharing ownership, taking part, and colluding with the artifice of it all to keep the balloon in the air.  It’s uplifting stuff and worth every penny.  People have got to get used to paying for theatre again.

Subsequent Zoom meetings I have to endure are never going to live up to this!

five stars

You can book your ticket to a performance HERE!

up up up ryan

The only way is up! Ryan Duncan as the Apprentice


Czech, please!

ONCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th March, 2020

 

Continuing the fad of adapting films into musicals comes this staging of John Carney’s 2007 film, which at least had original songs.  These have been developed into a full score (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) and although the action takes place in Dublin it’s not all diddly diddly dee – although there is some of that to give local flavour.  Enda Walsh’s book is brimming with wit, warmth and charm.

An Irish pub forms the backdrop, the kind of place where everyone can sing and play a musical instrument; the ensemble remain onstage throughout, observing like a silent chorus, reacting with subtle choreography, and contributing physical theatre where necessary, as well as shifting furniture and pianos and so on to keep the story flowing.

The story is a little slight: girl meets boy, helps him reconnect with his musical ambitions, setting him up for a life-changing trip to New York City…

The boy, or ‘Guy’ as he is referred to in the programme, is a vacuum cleaner repairman, disillusioned with busking and his musical aspirations.  He is about to walk away from his guitar for good when up steps the ‘Girl’, a kooky Czech lass who imposes herself on him with unrelenting directness, in a resistance-is-futile kind of way.  The result is a sweet and gentle love story, infused with a vibrant, rich score of pop songs and ballads, informed by Irish and Czech traditions.  It is lovely stuff.

As the ‘Guy’ Daniel Healy is the least kooky of the lot, and it’s a treat to hear him sing and play.  His numbers smack of Damien Rice – and this is a good thing, as Healy’s voice builds in power and expression and the ensemble joins in.  Searing and emotive, the songs get you right in the feels.

The ‘Girl’ is winningly portrayed by Emma Lucia, getting lots of laughs from her character rather than from a comedy Czech accent.  She sings very sweetly and when she duets with Healy, it confirms our suspicions that the two are made for each other.

Among the ensemble there are notable turns from the likes of Dan Bottomley as music shop proprietor Billy, Samuel Martin as a bank manager who can’t sing (a hilarious number!), and Susannah van den Berg as the formidable Baruska, the Girl’s mother.  Lloyd Gorman makes a strong impression as Svec, ripping his trousers off to play the drums and learning English from a tawdry soap opera.  In this performance, the sultry role of Reza is played by Hanna Khogali, bringing an exotic touch to proceedings – the show demonstrates how music unites us, wherever we’re from.  It is part of what makes us human and something to which we can all relate.

A toe-tapping, hand-clapping, heart-warming production that celebrates differences between cultures while reinforcing the similarities between us all.

Grand!

Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy - Once UK Tour - Photo Mark Senior (3)

Dublin duo: Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy (Photo: Mark Senior)

 


Lashings of Drama

THE WHIP

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd March, 2020

 

This cracking new play by Juliet Gilkes Romero is set in the politically turbulent year of 1833, when the abolition of slavery is in the air but, as we learn from the politicking and the shenanigans on display, passing the Act through Parliament comes at an enormous financial cost (with the public purse compensating the supposedly hard-done-by slave owners for their loss of income!).  We also learn that abolition does not necessarily lead to emancipation; it is posited that liberated slaves will have to work a seven-year unpaid ‘apprenticeship’.  What price freedom, eh?

At the forefront of the wheeling and dealing is Lord Alexander Boyd, the Chief Whip (the play’s title has a double meaning, you see!) presented in a charismatic performance from silver fox Richard Clothier, the richness of whose voice is superbly suited to the corridors of power.  Boyd is a man trying to do his best for his fellow man, although it soon becomes apparent that his views of ‘our negro brothers’ are limited within the attitudes of the era.  Clothier is a commanding stage presence, giving us the strengths and frailties of the man in public and in private.

As Boyd’s assistant, the runaway slave Edmund, Corey Montague-Sholay is dignified and empathetic.  Beneath his ‘civilised’ veneer lies heartrending loss, having been torn away from his family and his culture.

As chirpy Northerner Horatia Poskitt, Katherine Pearce almost steals the show with some delightfully comedic moments as she tries to fit into her new role as Boyd’s housekeeper.  This renders her grief over a daughter, horrifically killed in a cotton mill, all the more effective.

As runaway slave and abolitionist Mercy Pryce, Debbie Korley holds her own in this white man’s world, detailing a harrowing account of the abuse she suffered in slavery (amping up the Jamaican accent to suit her Hyde Park Corner audience) while comporting herself with dignity and righteousness – making a fine contrast with John Cummins as despicable Tory Cornelius Hyde-Villiers; boorish and crass, he’s out for the biggest bail-out he can get.

David Birrell shows the arrogance of entitlement as conniving Home Secretary, Lord Maybourne, holding out offers of high office as inducements, while being riddled with hypocrisy: he purports to be an abolitionist but is a proud slave owner himself.  Politics still attracts the same kind of people today, alas!

What the play demonstrates is that the ruling elite haven’t changed a jot over the centuries and that decisions taken, ostensibly for economic reasons, are rooted in deep-seated racism: the freed slaves will be “too lazy” to earn a living, is just one example dredged up in support of the unjust apprentice scheme.

In a range of minor roles, other actors from ‘The Furies’ an ever-present chorus, observing the action.  These include Riad Richie, marvellous as the Speaker of the House, and the ever-captivating Bridgitta Roy.  Nicky Shaw’s costumes make this an attractively clad period piece, while a superlative quartet of musicians performs Akintayo Akinbode’s stirring Beethoven-informed score to perfection.

Director Kimberley Sykes maintains quite a pace; the characters lay out their arguments, moral and otherwise, with clarity and passion. It all makes for an engaging and entertaining polemic.  We can be appalled by the attitudes of the past, but it doesn’t take another bankers’ bailout to remind us that such conduct is still prevalent today.  “The citizens with all the power are hurting those with none,” we are told.  Ain’t it the truth!

The Whip production photos_ 2020_2020_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_304233

Richard Clothier reading reviews (Photo: Steve Tanner c RSC )

 


Great Danes

HAMLET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020

 

I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity.  It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech.  But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.

Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent.  Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront.  Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes.  Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus.  A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.

That being said, this production has some moments of excellence.  Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable.  Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer.  Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator.  Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes.  As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life.  Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.

Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet.  Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark.  Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words.  His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.

The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience.  Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.

Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak.  This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.

hamlet hobbis

Sweet Prince: Jack Hobbis as Hamlet (Photo: Jack Kirby)


Home Turf

The Norman Conquests: ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 29th February, 2020

 

Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit Theatre Company have taken it upon themselves to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy.  To this end, the theatre has been transformed so that the plays can be staged in the round, as Ayckbourn originally intended.   The action of the plays takes place in and around the same house over the course of a weekend and each play interlocks with the others like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle but the good news is, each piece stands alone in its own right to provide an entertaining couple of hours.

This one, as the title gives away, takes place in the garden.  Annie (Lily Skinner) is planning a dirty weekend with brother-in-law Norman (Roger Ganner) but their departure is delayed until the arrival of brother Reg and his wife Sarah, stepping in to look after the invalid mother.  Lily Skinner gives us all of Annie’s fretfulness and neuroses – a carer in desperate need of a break – while Roger Ganner shines as her unlikely paramour, the shabby, selfish Norman.  The least likely thing about him is his job as a library assistant but then everything about Norman is inappropriate, and yet Ganner imbues him with a particular kind of charm.

Andrew Lear is the monstrous Reg, the kind of man who communicates by advising which A-roads you should have taken.  Lear booms, dominating conversations, making empty vessel Reg a joy to behold.  Vicki Jameson is also great as the haughty and frazzled Sarah, Reg’s longsuffering wife.  Thomas Hodge is in superb form as Tom, a hanger-on who uses his status as local vet to keep coming around to tend to Annie’s cat.  Hodge’s Tom is an affable twit – we quickly get the feeling this is a play about women’s frustrations with men, who are all infuriating in their own way.

We have to wait until the second act to encounter Norman’s wife Ruth – an ice-cold Zoe Mortimer, whose searing condemnations of the male sex give the play its social commentary.  Ayckbourn writes women’s points of view exceptionally well, and Ruth is a prime example.  “Oh, I suppose those kinds of women must exist,” she snaps, ”in books.  Written by men.”

As you might expect from an Ayckbourn, these middle-class, middle-aged monsters are caught in a hell of their own making.  Each character has their own moment and director Nicky Cox does a bang-up job of getting her actors to shine, balancing the tensions with the inherent humour, the farcical action and the wonderfully funny lines.

The set, designed by Cox together with Ginny Oliver, keeps things simple: an oblong of turf framed by paving stones, with a couple of things to sit on, and an unruly clump of foliage in a corner, is all you need.  It’s a play about the people, not the garden, after all.  The transformed auditorium keeps things up close and personal and it all works like a treat.  A splendid ensemble giving a virtuoso performance of a fine piece of work.  I can’t wait to see the other two!

round and round the garden

The cast


Faust-Forward

FAUSTUS (THAT DAMNED WOMAN)

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Wednesday 26th February, 2020

 

There is more to gender-swapping in Chris Bush’s take on the Faust tale.  Her protagonist, Johanna Faustus, tries to use the diabolic powers granted her by her pact with Lucifer, to do good in the world.  At first, she is driven by her desire to know whether her executed mother had been, in fact, the witch men claimed her to be – this learned, she races through centuries trying to eradicate death so that notions of heaven and hell will become irrelevant.  At every step, her intentions are thwarted – the Devil is a slippery bastard, after all.

In the title role, Jodie McNee is cranked up to eleven, rarely dialling down to less than an eight.  This works well to show her passion and her drive as she almost bursts with energy.  She does a great deal of pacing around, as though her legs were generating her thoughts.  On the whole this is fine, but every once in a while I feel like crying out, Oh just stand still for a moment.  She is all energy without stillness, all sound but no silence.

Danny Lee Wynter’s laconically foppish Mephistopheles is a treat, understated in his campness, offhandedly confident in his infinite powers – in contrast with Faustus’s incessant hamster-on-a-wheel approach.  Barnaby Power doubles as Johanna’s Dad and as Lucifer, father of lies – there is a suggestion that Johanna’s adventures might be all delusion brought about by her insane obsession with her mother’s cruel demise…

There is strong support from Emmanuella Cole as the tortured mother and later as the cool and collected Dr Garrett, history’s first female physician.  Johanna later befriends Marie Curie (Alicia Charles) and it is these encounters that give the play a Doctor Who educate-and-entertain feel.  The action leaps ahead – there are no strong females in the 20th Century, apparently – and we are in the far future, and what’s left of humanity is still to be saved.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s stunning set evokes the belly of a shipwreck and the ribs of a beached whale.  It is also a time-tunnel, a vortex, an abyss…  Director Caroline Byrne conjures up many effective moments – the workings of supernatural forces are exquisitely done, enhanced by Richard Howell’s lighting and Giles Thomas’s sound and music.  But somehow, the play fails to capture the imagination.  Grand ideas are toyed with but seem undeveloped.  And so, as Johanna Faustus and Mephistopheles, hurtling through time like Bill & Ted, turn out not to have an Excellent Adventure, but something of a Bogus Journey instead.

faustus

Jodie McNee and Danny Lee Wynter (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.

It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day.  It’s character building, you see.  Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him.  But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.

James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids.  It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better.  Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.

Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace.  Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear.  There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation).  Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda.   Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that.  Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.

Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards.  Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.

The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.

HOLES. Leona Allen, James Backway and Rhona Coker. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)