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!

Windsor Takes All

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 17th August, 2018

 

Fiona Laird’s joyous staging of Shakespeare’s farcical comedy turns out to be the funniest RSC production of the Bard in a long while.  Blending the Tudor with contemporary Essex (familiar from so-called reality television), the design manages to be both traditional and fresh (the skeletal Tudor buildings are everything!), yielding delightful costume choices, designed from scratch by Lez Brotherston.  Check out Mistress Ford’s high collar and skinny-fit trousers in the illustration below.  This aesthetic enables David Troughton’s Sir John Falstaff to sport a John Bull waistcoat over a pair of baggy slops – with an ever-present, priapic codpiece.  Later, his anyone-for-tennis garb highlights how old-fashioned his brand of lechery is; he is an interloper in this glamorous suburbia, and the women, complete with TOWIE accents and dress sense, are empowered totally.  The play is an antidote to the problematic sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew.

Troughton’s Falstaff is everything you could want in the Fat Knight, brought low by his appetites – which is a staple of comedy: to mock Man for his baser desires.  Ruling the roost, running rings around Falstaff and tying him in Windsor knots are Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.  Their machinations belie the Essex stereotype of the dim-witted glamourpuss unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Their attire may be in dubious taste but their characters and antics are to be admired. Cordingly and Lacey are clearly having a great time – and this enjoyment transfers to the audience.

Indeed, the watchword of the production is Fun.  We know the plot is convoluted nonsense but we are able to take such delight in this retelling, thanks in no small part to the comedic skills of a talented ensemble.  Jonathan Cullen’s French doctor Caius would put Inspecteur Clouseau to shame with his mangling of the English language and his histrionic carryings-on; Vince Leigh’s Ford dons a ridiculous nose-and-glasses disguise, along with a compare-the-meerkat accent.  Subtle, it ain’t, but it works magnificently.  David Acton is also a hoot as Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, while Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly and Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter (all big hair and leopard print) are hilarious creations.  Tom Padley is spot on as thick-as-a-brick Slender, more than a little reminiscent of ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex in his delivery; Karen Fishwick’s Ann Page is all duck-face pouts into her smartphone and teenage surliness. Tim Samuels is nasally officious as Shallow, the Justice of the Peace, while Josh Finan makes an impression as Falstaff’s rugby-shirted follower, Nym.

The playing is as broad as the accents and Laird imbues the show with a knockabout style that suits the age-old comedic conventions of the piece, mixed with some present-day references to keep things fresh.  The traditional laundry basket is supplanted by a big pink wheelie bin, and it works brilliantly.  Surely, even the most stuck-in-the-mud purist would chuckle.  Similarly, an action sequence in which Falstaff, disguised as the Fat Witch of Brentwood, is roundly chased off the premises, is a moment of chaotic, cartoonish bliss.  His parting shot, a quote from Dick Emery, reminds us how out-of-synch he is with this world.

I would like more to be made of the spooking of Falstaff in the final act; the scene seems to be over too quickly but, for the rest of it, the pacing is impeccable, and Laird’s attention to detailed comic business is superb.  She has also graced the production with an original score of her own composition, blending period flavours with contemporary beats and sit-com stylings.  It is delicious.

A wildly entertaining romp, triumphantly hilarious, this is a Merry Wives to savour.

The Merry Wives of Windsor production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_258364

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in Lex Brotherston’s fabulous costumes (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Party Animals

MADAGASCAR

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 2nd August, 2018

 

Following a slew of sequels and spin-offs, Dreamworks’s animated movie from 2005 gets a new lease of life in this stage musical, with a brand-new score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan.

On the whole, it’s a jaunty score.  When it moves away from hip-hop (for, you know, ‘relevance’) it’s actually rather good: a sequence when the escaped zoo animals are shot with tranquilliser darts takes on a Beatles-esque feel, and the choral singing of the ensemble is lovely.

The X Factor’s Matt Terry takes pride of place as Alex the pampered lion.  As well as a strong and pleasant voice, Terry has all the moves, feline grace and innate power – even though the animals are deeply anthropomorphised and cartoonified.   Matching Terry for presence and vocals yet exceeding him in dance moves, is Antoine Murray-Straughan, thoroughly excellent as Alex’s best mate, Marty, who happens to be a zebra, a fact that doesn’t give rise to conflict until the animals are out in ‘the wild’ and Alex’s belly starts to rumble…

Also in the gang are Timmika Ramsay, as Gloria the sassy hippopotamus (Ramsay delivers great attitude and her singing voice is a dream), and Jamie Lee-Morgan as hypochondriac giraffe, Melman, whose costume combines with the puppetry used to stage the sneaky penguins and the aristocratic chimp.  Lee-Morgan’s Melman is hilariously brought to life; you forget it’s a fake head on a stick!

Almost stealing the show is Jo Parsons as lemur King Julien, performing on his knees – which is somehow instantly funny.  Parsons gets to deliver the film’s stand-out moment, an obligatory rendition of I Like To Move It that brings the house down.  Fabian Aloise’s choreography is bang up-to-date with dabs and ‘flossing’ aplenty.

This brash and colourful show is great family fun.  There are plenty of funny lines for the grown-ups, and ostensibly the ‘message’ is about putting aside one’s baser instincts for the sake of friendship.  So, perhaps it’s about remaining in the EU…  More likely, it’s a metaphor for the plundering of Africa by the West, if you want to get geopolitical about things.

The Lion King it certainly isn’t, but there is enough charm and humour to keep us engaged and give us a good time.  Yet another high-quality production from Selladoor.

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Mane event: Matt Terry as Alex

 


Leaps of Faith

BOX OF FROGS

Glee Club, Birmingham, Sunday 29th July, 2018

 

Those who remember ground-breaking TV series, Whose Line Is It Anyway? will know what to expect at an evening like this: a succession of games and set-ups that allow the actors to flex their improvisational skills.  And so, the format is pretty familiar, but it is the content that remains unexpected.  Our host is the amiable Jon Trevor, who sketches in the ‘rules’ for each sketch before selecting which improvisers will play. With plenty of input from the audience (occupations, objects, delusions…) the team members are firing on all cylinders to keep the laughs coming.  The hit rate is pretty high and there’s a certain tension in the air, that things won’t work – and, on the rare occasions when they don’t quite come off, are usually as funny as the moments that do, thanks to the wit and easy-going nature of the troupe and especially the host.

It is one thing to have us shouting out suggestions or have us write them down on little postcards prior to the performance, but whenever audience members are ‘volunteered’ to appear, this is where things don’t work so well.  A sound effects game falls a little flat; as does a stunt involving audience members manipulating actors as giant puppets – proving that improv takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice to be able to maximise each moment.  Participants need trust in each other and faith in their skills.  Wisely, our host blows the whistle on these scenes pretty sharpish.

For the most part, though, the laughs keep coming thick and fast.  What the group does best are the musical games.  There is something extra magical about pulling tunes and lyrics out of the ether.  A scene involving Jen as a barmaid, dispensing advice along with the drinks, is a scream, as three other improvisers approach with problems gleaned from the audience.  Likewise, an improvised opera in gobbledegook and simultaneously translated, miraculously appears from nowhere.  A blues number is a scream. Best of all is the ‘charity single’ that closes the show – on this occasion it’s an appeal for Viagra for lovelorn lepidopterists, demonstrating how in tune with each other each frog in the box truly is.  It features a rap sequence by team member Rich that is dazzling in its wit and relevance.

Karen, Grant, Lee, Nick, Jen, Suzy, Rich and Jon,  I salute you all – and a very special mention to keyboard wizard Geddes.  The brilliant and bouncy Box of Frogs is definitely a group to see at least once before you croak.

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Gleeful: another Box of Frogs show gets under way

 

 

 


Madskillz

CIRQUE BERSERK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 26th July, 2018

 

Circus has changed – evolved – since its inception by Philip Astley 250 years ago.  Exotic animals have come and gone (thank goodness) and what we have today relies solely on the skills of human performers.  Gone too is Astley’s innovative ring in this ‘made for theatre’ show.  And with no ring, there is no ringmaster; the acts follow each other unannounced, giving the show an organic feel.

The Timbuktu Tumblers from Africa get things off to a flying start.  Dressed as walk-ons from Hamilton they hurl themselves through a skipping rope then pile onto each other in a range of configurations.  In the second half, they set fire to a limbo stick, setting the bar high – or rather, lowering it at increments.  They’re an engaging bunch and I look forward to seeing them later in the year at the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime.

Luciana Gabriel and Carina treat us to a display of bolas spinning, to dazzling and percussive effect.  I can only think of the bruises they must have incurred during training!

Our clowns for the evening are a double-act from Brazil, the Mustache Brothers – imagine if Charlie Cairoli had sired the Super Mario Brothers and you get some idea.  Their make-up is subtle if their expressions are not. Their dumb-show antics are charming and, yes, funny, involving a ladder, a bucket of smoke, and a table.  The universal language of slapstick speaks to us all.

Other acts that impress are aerialists Rosey and Jackie, Odka, a contortionist who arrives on stage in a jar, unfolds herself and performs archery with her feet.  The Tropicana Troupe from Cuba use a platform, a seesaw and a crash mat to gobsmack us all, their deadpan expressions making them all the more camp.  Toni the Czech knife thrower is the most traditional act of the night; the brave woman who stands unflinchingly before him amazes me the most.  I also enjoy Laci Fossett and his aerial pole work, Germaine Delbosq who juggles on her back, using her feet to manipulate a cube, a cylinder and a ring while her hands deal with balls, Zula with his tower of chairs…  I would have liked more to be made of the flame-throwing robot.

The big finale for both halves concerns the ‘Globe of Death’ a spherical cage into which a man on a motorbike enters and rides around.  He is followed by a second.  And then a girl goes and stands in there with them.  The heady smell of petrol fills the auditorium – I spend the second half in a kind of awe-inspired daze, so by the time the globe reappears for the big finish, topping the feats of the first act, I am well away.  Perhaps too, the interval wine had something to do with it.

The upshot is a spectacularly entertaining evening.  Creative director Julius Green keeps things seamless, with contrasting acts and moods so nothing feels tired or repetitive.  In these days of commonplace CGI effects in just about everything, it is refreshing and thrilling to see real people perform these skills before your very eyes.  Cirque Berserk is non-stop entertainment, lacking the pretentiousness of other troupes I could mention.  Costumes of a bygone age blend with costumes from faraway places in a thoroughly contemporary setting, showing that the circus is still alive and well.  It’s solid fun for all the family and you can’t help admiring the hell out of everyone involved.

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On target: Odka (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

 

 


Life in a Northern Town

HE’D MURDER ME

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

James Nicholas’s one-act one-hander tells the story of Jack, a young man who grew up in Huddersfield during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders.  Jack, it transpires, is gay, a fact he is compelled to keep secret because his world is steeped in violent homophobia.

Richard Buck is Jack in this challenging piece.  He is an affable narrator, dipping in and out of characters swiftly and with precision, using gesture, voice and stance to depict the host of people that form Jack’s story.  This economic style is so effective; we can picture each person so vividly.  Jack is haunted by the Yorkshire Ripper, who contributed to making his teen years so terrifying, and, as the tale unfolds, we come to understand exactly why.  Buck is superb and doesn’t miss a beat.

Director Ian Craddock keeps Buck moving – the stage is full of him.  Changes of location and mood are subtly signalled through lighting changes but Craddock allows the power of his actor to keep us engaged in this tale of coming-of-age without coming-out.  Nicholas’s beautifully detailed writing builds to a shattering revelation.  The enforced keeping of a secret – homosexuality, I mean – can have devastating effects on the secret-keeper, with long-lasting effects on mental health and wellbeing.  In Jack’s case, it is truly a matter of life and death.

Absorbing, gripping and emotional with a magnetic performance from Richard Buck, this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves a larger audience.

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About last night…

THE MORNING AFTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

This witty three-hander first produced three years ago gets a welcome revival as part of this year’s Birmingham Fest at the Blue Orange.

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, it’s the story of Sam (Jacob Wright) who wakes up hungover to the realisation that he sent a string of regrettable texts to his girlfriend.  Wright is wide-eyed, often horror-struck, a master of the comic reaction; you can see the cogs working in his befuddled brain.  Waking up next to him is Niamh (Gabby Killick) a complete stranger.  Neither she nor Sam has any recollection of the night before.  It falls to Echo, the escort in the bath tub, to fill in the blanks – played with snarky relish by Lisa McKinley.  McKinley is the perfect foil for Killick’s stuck-up drama queen.  Level-headed Echo has all the barbed, deadpan observations, while Niamh excels at melodramatic outbursts and over-reactions.  They are equally strong at opposing ends of the scale.

Caught between this virgin and whore, Sam is both mediator and target of the women’s vitriol, as the power shifts around the trio and allegiances are formed, broken, and re-formed in seconds.

Haywood’s script is quickfire.  Every punchline hits home and is expertly handled by his excellent cast.  He paces the action nicely, wringing the comic potential from every moment.    Haywood keeps events within the realms of plausibility while keeping a steady hand on the helm.  The playwright’s hand and the director’s eye are there, shaping the delivery, skewing the naturalism for the purposes of giving us a laugh.  The humour largely arises from character, and the cultural references they make are drawn mostly from television, with the occasional classical allusion – Echo comes across as well-read, and why shouldn’t she?

The result is an extremely funny sixty minutes. It’s almost a contemporary morality play as Sam’s chickens (the way he has treated his girlfriend) come home to roost.

A delight.

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Sex Toy Story

SEX CELLS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 19th July, 2018

 

You would think a play set in a call centre of a company that sells sex toys, marital aids and other assorted paraphernalia would be fertile ground for laughter.  Sadly, Anna Longoretti’s flaccid script is fatally flawed in the first act; what the four women who take the calls are selling is almost irrelevant.  It may as well be household insurance.  Longoretti doesn’t give us time to enjoy the context and enjoy the characters before she switches gear and the women’s personal lives enter the equation.  I suppose I’m saying we need more foreplay to get us into the mood.

Unfortunately, Olivia Jane Parker directs moments of humour and moments of pathos at the same pitch.  The comedy needs to be played broader in order to contrast with the emotional scenes.  And so, the first act limps along and we learn about the women’s problems: one wants a child at all costs; another is snowed under by the five kids she has; a third has a loveless marriage and an estranged grown-up son; while the fourth is a party girl, flitting between men.  Meanwhile, their ineffectual manager bumbles around.  I can barely raise a smile.

Fortunately, the second act is a good deal tighter and is played with more energy.  Although two of the subplots (overwhelmed mum, party girl) don’t really go anywhere, the play has something to say about motherhood, expectations and disappointments.  Plus, they mess around with the stock: dildos, rubber tits, blow-up dolls and the like, like they should have done from the off.

Lucinda Toomey is the strongest of the bunch as longsuffering Lily, armoured with barbed humour, who awakens from the decades-long depression of her married life and seeks to forge a meaningful bond with her alienated son.  Karen Welsh is suitably histrionic as the highly-strung Sylvie (who is French for some reason) while Stephanie Surrey pulls all the right faces as harassed mum-of-five Janice.  Ally Gibson’s party-hearty Tiffany seems natural – despite the ill-advised rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate on an ever-so-convenient ukulele.  Philip Hickson flounders and fumbles as the weak-as-dishwater boss.  It’s a shame his declaration of affection is not given more welly.  He needs fire and not just cake in his belly.

The set combines the call centre with a ‘break-out’ space, the manager’s office and the warehouse, with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere as though health and safety regulations mean little to this company – I hesitate to call it a ‘firm’.

The second act shows us the potential of the premise and of the cast, but what should be a real buzz from curtain up disappoints like pound-shop batteries or an inflatable companion with a slow puncture.  A let-down.

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