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!

A Ripping Time

AN EVENING WITH JACK THE RIPPER

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 17th April, 2019

 

Having enjoyed the superlative Ebenezer’s Christmas Carol at this venue back in December, I am thrilled and honoured to be invited to be part of a select group at this try-out of a new event.  As with the Dickens show, the Tudor setting of this glorious old building lends itself surprisingly well to the nooks and crannies of Victorian Whitechapel – everywhere looks the same in the dark, I suppose! – and there is something undeniably creepy about the museum with the lights out, with the dark shapes of mannequins looming all around…

Based on an idea by Steve Mitchell, researched and devised by Janet Ford, with dramaturgy and script by Paul Norton, the scene is set for our investigation.  Our host is Inspector Aberline (Paul Norton) who gathers us in a briefing room.  We, the guests, are cast as fellow detectives and are equipped with clipboards and pencils with which to record our findings.  Aberline and his able assistant, Detective Swanson (Hannah Joyce) feed us a lot of information, placing the infamous murders within their social context.  It is immediately fascinating.

The briefing is interrupted by blasts from a police whistle, summoning us into the main house.  We troop in by lantern-light and are led up to the first floor, where we find the outline of a woman on the landing.  Aberline introduces us to the first victim, filling us in on her background before describing in forensic detail and with the help of a volunteer, the vicious murder itself.  (You may be called upon to lie on the floor!)  The inspector takes us through to another room – there’s the second victim…

We return to the briefing room to jot down our notes and discuss our thoughts.  Another whistle blast summons us back in for victims three and four…

There’s a break for tea and biscuits and more discussion, before we are taken to the fifth and final crime scene of the evening.  This is the most detailed, most shocking of the lot, with Hannah Joyce representing Mary Kelly on a bed.  Throughout the evening, Joyce has provided voices for the victims, making them people rather than props in a story, but here it really hits home as Mary Kelly addresses us directly.  Yes, the accounts are shocking, the details gruesome and in some cases, sickening, but the presentation is all the more effective because of its restraint.

We reconvene for a final sharing of thoughts and to posit our theories about the various suspects who were in the frame at the time.  It’s a thoroughly engaging experience but, inevitably, there can be no definite conclusion.  There is an enduring power to this real-life mystery; if Jack the Ripper were ever truly unmasked, the legend would lose some of its attraction.

Although proceedings need a tighter ending, this is an enjoyably intriguing evening that induces us to use our grey matter to tease out pieces of the puzzle.  Once again, it is an unadulterated pleasure to listen to the consummate story-telling skills of Paul Norton, and the splendid support he is given by Hannah Joyce and the unseen presence of Antony Hardy.

Out of necessity, numbers are restricted due to the nature of the site, but this is an excellent event for a group seeking something different, something that evokes both an intellectual and an emotional response.  Check out tudorworld.com for booking information.

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Soaping Up

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BOBBY (OFF EASTENDERS)

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 10th April, 2019

 

The titular Bobby is a young lad from the fictional London borough of Walford, famed for committing the murder of his elder sister and for braining his mum with a hockey stick before being caught bang to rights and carted off to a detention centre.  This play by George Attwell-Gerhards looks at the psychological effects of such storylines on the child actors who enact them.

Here, Annie (Laura Adebisi) is a twelve-year-old who, being no longer cute enough for yogurt adverts, lands a job in what seems to be a particularly sordid soap opera.  She puts a hockey stick to good use against her mother before getting locked in her father’s basement and fall victim to his sexual predations.  The action jumps from Annie’s audition, to shooting scenes from the soap, to her deteriorating home life… with Attwell-Gerhards’s script charting the blurring of lines between fiction and reality, the pressures of sudden fame on someone so young, the treatment of young stars by the media – there’s a lot packed into this hour-long piece and director Lucy Bird keeps things taut, as her cast of three flick between characters, like switching channels by remote control.

Tom Bulpett is Annie’s dad, thrust into a PR role for which he is unprepared and unsuited.  He is also a casting director, and Annie’s soap co-star.  Cara Mahooney is Annie’s mum, and a friendly make-up artist who takes Annie under her wing, and a TV director, feeling the pressure.  Both actors are top-notch and there is never any confusion about who they are at any particular moment, their characterisations are well-differentiated and clear.  The characters represent a range of abusive and exploitative experiences Annie faces – the play certainly exposes a kind of child abuse that is rarely considered: the effect on the young psyche of playing out extreme and disturbing situations.  We have all heard stories of grown-up child stars struggling to cope with life in the real world, and such stories invariably tell of crime and drugs and mental illness.

As the central figure, Laura Adebisi is credibly child-like, enthusiastic and eager to please.  Adebisi combines vulnerability with stroppiness, as Annie lashes out at her real dad, while chumming up with her onscreen, abusive dad.  We see her psychological decline in tandem with her onscreen character’s deprivations, culminating in a scene with an iron that must be a homage to Little Mo and Trevor, that iconic moment of a woman standing up to her abuser.

This is powerful stuff.  Darkly comic to begin with, satirising the industry, it develops into a gripping psychological drama.  The transitions are slick and effective, and there is dissonant sound underlining Annie’s distress.  I would suggest the TV screen that comes on at the end is too small to have the necessary impact, but the intimacy of the Old Joint Stock puts us right in the action, making us as viewers complicit in the exploitation of a child.

There are a couple of instances when they ask, “Annie, are you OK?” – and I can’t decide if this is unintentionally awkward or intentionally clever…

This is the second show from Birmingham’s Paperback Theatre that I have seen in a couple of months.  They’re two for two in terms of excellence, in my view.

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Tom Bulpett and Laura Adebisi

 

 


Homeless not Hopeless

STREETS APART

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 6th April 2019

 

First off, it’s very pleasing to see new work being created and produced in a town that thrives on centuries-old drama.   This brand-new piece by local playwright Jackie Lines depicts what life is like for an increasing number of vulnerable people who, through no choice of their own, wind up on the streets.  Passers-by give examples of the abuse faced by homeless people and illustrate the negative attitudes and common misconceptions about them.  It’s an effective start.

The play tells of the efforts of a group of volunteers in a centre as they strive, with limited resources, to make life better for the homeless.  We meet a range of characters from the streets, such as ex-army, PTSD sufferer Neil (a powerful Graham Tyrer) who declaims poetry and rants through mental illness, like a latter-day Vladimir or Estragon.  There’s Mick, a former plumber who lost everything after a life-changing injury that led to an addiction to opiates, played by Mark Spriggs with intensity, strength and vulnerability.  The inclusion of a couple of original poems by Spriggs enriches the show.

Largely, the story concerns the fate of young couple Tom (Tom Purchase-Rathbone) and Susan (Emma Beasley) who have found each other on the streets, having each come from horrendous childhood backgrounds.  At first, they are cautious about accepting help from the centre, but gradually, they blossom and thrive, although there are some setbacks along the way.  Mick, who, despite the intercession of bleeding heart Sandra (Rachel Alcock) declines help, does not end so happily: there is some kind of moral message here.  If you accept help, you’ll be fine; if you don’t, you won’t.

Among an effective cast, Zoe Rashwan’s forthright Carol stands out and the drama is leavened by comic relief from Gill Hines as doddering volunteer Edna.  Chris Musson (appearing as guitarist Barry) brings original music, along with Chris Callaghan’s Eddie, as volunteers running song-writing sessions to give the homeless a voice.

As the volunteers, we have Stacey Warner as Anna, Barry Purchase-Rathbone as Greg, and Karen Welsh as Diane – whose elegant exterior masks a tale of injustice and loss that put her on the streets for a time.  The play shows that there are ways out of homelessness, and not all of them are tragic!

In terms of drama, I would like to see more direct conflict, perhaps involving the kind of authority figures whose policies exacerbate the problem.  Certainly, these people need to be in the audience of a show like this.  Director Greg Cole handles the slice-of-life tone, with scenes coming over as credible and authentic, although there are some staging issues.  In-the-round is more intimate, yes, and democratic, which is fitting, but cast members need to ‘share their backs’ so everyone gets a fair look at them!

By and large, the production is an awareness-raising, thought-provoking, conscience-pricking success, depicting the precariousness of life in society today and emphasising the humanity we all share with the homeless.

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Cobblers

TIMPSON The Musical

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 4th April, 2019

 

This isn’t the first musical to mine Romeo & Juliet for material, but it’s certainly the funniest.  The setting, such as it is, is Victorian London.  Two rival businesses both alike in indignity, one mending shoes, the other making keys, give rise to a pair of young lovers.  You know the rest – or you might think you do.  The plot takes a few swerves along the way to its resolution: the union of the two families and the formation of the High Street business we all know, the shop where you can get your shoes mended and your keys cut.  Yes, this is the world of the Montashoes and the Keypulets.

Writer-director-performer Sam Cochrane, the driving force behind the project, comes and goes as a range of characters, from a talking portrait to a winsome maid.  He is aided and abetted by versatile maniac Alex Prescot, who seems indefatigably energetic in his quickly-changing portrayals, in an irresistible performance.  I fell for him at once.

James Stirling is bluffly bombastic as Master Keypulet, the Machiavellian patriarch, contrasting with Susan Harrison’s diminutive dipsomaniac Lady Montashoe.  Madeleine Gray is hilariously histrionic as Monty, the Romeo figure, while Sabrina Messer’s Keeleigh (the Juliet) is simply sublime.  Messer can belt out heartfelt numbers and then within the space of a semiquaver, drop into a deadpan aside, forever undermining any emotive content the show might have.  She is delightful, to put it mildly.

It’s a good job there is no scenery to speak of, because this lot would be chewing it.  The acting style is over-the-top-and-a-half, the jokes come thick and fast.  Even the songs are laced with daftness with the onstage trio of musicians (Sophie Walker, Dan Hester and MD Lewis Bell) joining in proceedings.  Those songs, with lyrics by Sam Cochrane and Chris Baker, and music by Tom Slade and Theo Caplan, cover a range of styles and are all fabulously entertaining.  They are performed with gusto by the cast – even the choreography, by Ellie Fitz-Gerald is bloody silly. And they all keep instep!

This tale of cobbler meets key-maker is cutting edge (heh) and performed with sole (heh heh) and is a shoe-in to get tongues wagging.  This show has the power to heel… I’ll stop now.

timpson

Alex Prescot and Madeleine Gray

 


Double Double

WISE CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019

 

On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.

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Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

 

 


Nazi Piece of Work

COLLABORATION

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019

 

Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance.  Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist.  All goes well.  The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.

The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.

Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast.  Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war).  Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault.   At other times, the action is a little stiff.  When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging.  I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.

There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph.  As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.

Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception.  Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.

The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold.  It never ends well.

A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.

collaboration

Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


War Wounds

GLORY DAZED

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th March, 2019

 

It’s closing time in a backstreet pub in Doncaster, and mild-mannered barman Simon and his staff are tidying up.  The peace is shattered by pounding at the door.  It’s Simon’s best mate, former squaddie Ray, ex-husband of Simon’s lady friend Carla, demanding to be let in for a lock-in.  Against their better judgment, they let him in, and what should be an after-hours drinking session turns into more of a hostage situation.

Ray is a bully and boor, a walking war zone with an extremely short fuse and a nasty sense of humour.  We laugh, uncomfortably – in case he turns on us, it feels like!  The humour is very dark and comes a distant second to the tension in this intimate, intimidating piece.  Director Tracey Street makes us feel as though we are in the pub with them, pitching the sudden changes of mood perfectly to keep us on edge.  It’s a gruelling experience and an irresistible one.

Dominic Thompson is in great form as barman Simon, nervous and timid upon Ray’s arrival, before dredging up some inner strength along with some unsavoury details about Ray’s wartime experiences in Afghanistan.  Karendip Phull is suitably dim as teenage barmaid Leanne in a well-observed portrayal, and Sophie Handy is heartbreaking as the ex-wife, embittered and standing her ground while still having feelings for her troubled ex.  She storms it, in fact.

Inevitably, perhaps, the show belongs to Ray.  In a towering performance, Paul Findlay brings this psychotic, damaged individual to scary life, dominating the scene, oozing menace and lashing out.  And yet, such is the power of Cat Jones’s writing, Tracey Street’s direction and Findlay’s rounded performance, we actually feel for the man, as we learn about his harrowing past.  The play highlights the damage, the PTSD, inflicted on soldiers.  As Carla wryly observes, if he’d come back with his legs off, everyone could see it.  Mental trauma is invisible.

Tautly presented, this discomfiting piece packs quite a wallop.  A superlative cast and a director who can orchestrate mood swings like a symphony deliver this sordid and powerful story in a production it is difficult to fault.  I emerge feeling punch-drunk and exhausted from the tension – just like a proper night out!

glory dazed

Sophie Handy, Paul Findlay and Dominic Thompson