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!

Going off the Handel

THE MESSIAH

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018

 

Writer Patrick Barlow is the genius behind the hilarious hit adaptation of The 39 Steps, a show that never fails to tickle the funny bone.   Here, his first play from 1983, gets a wash-and-brush-up in a perky revival – Barlow also directs, bringing in up-to-date topical references.  The nature of his early work as the driving force of the ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is very much in evidence, as a pair of inept but well-meaning actors attempt to stage the biggest of stories: the birth of Jesus, using little more than a chair or two to stand on and the odd bit of costume to run around in.

Hugh Dennis is Maurice Rose – the Barlow figure of the two – whose grandiose ideas outstrip his capabilities.  It’s not much of a stretch for Dennis, a widely recognised face from TV comedy, but this is the kind of thing at which he excels.  The delivery and timing are impeccable.  He is supported by John Marquez as Ronald Bream, an enthusiastic but clueless sidekick, who gets most of the laughs up against Dennis’s straight man.  The pair is augmented by the addition of a special guest, Mrs Leonara Fflyte, a snooty opera singer who punctuates the story with unaccompanied singing.  I would find it funnier if she were a Florence Foster Jenkins figure rather than the pitch-perfect Lesley Garrett – then, later, when the team actually achieves a moment of beauty, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ would come as a powerful surprise… But that’s just me.

Garrett proves herself a good sport, donning robes and headwear and a comedy beard and tearing around the stage as one of the Three Wise Men, pursuing the Star, and, of course, the singing is sublime – quite at odds with the ridiculousness of the action.

Barlow’s script is peppered with malapropisms, anachronisms and word play – it’s the kind of thing Radio Four churns out.  There is even a Morecambe & Wise moment, as Dennis and Marquez back up Garrett, in much the same way that Eric & Ernie would ‘support’ Shirley Bassey.  It’s funny stuff but there is nothing we haven’t seen before and in the genre of theatre-done-badly, the pinnacle has been attained by The Play That Goes Wrong.  This is a smaller-scale affair that lacks big surprises.

For all that, it’s an amusing piece, quintessentially English in its humour, that mocks the storytelling rather than the story (the religious will not be offended).  Your ribs will be tickled but you won’t split your sides.

Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose & John Marquez as Ronald Bream_credit Robert Day (4)

Not the Messiah, they’re two very silly men. Hugh Dennis and John Marquez (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

Advertisements

Boot Camp

KINKY BOOTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 17th October, 2018

 

Based on the film of the same name, the hit musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by Cyndi Lauper hits the road for its first national tour.  Having enjoyed the movie and being well aware of the show’s West End reputation, I take my seat with eager anticipation.

It’s the story of Charlie, a young man who feels trapped into taking over his father’s shoe factory after the old man pops his clogs.  Times are hard and it seems that lay-offs and a shutdown are inevitable.  Staff are facing the boot.  Unless, a new kind of product can be found…

At first, it seems a bit humdrum and run-of-the-mill.  Like a new pair of shoes, it takes a while to wear in.  By the time queen of the drag queens Lola appears, things lift and stay lifted.  Lola (played exquisitely in this performance by Kayi Ushe) gets all the best tunes and all the best lines.  Ushe is utterly captivating, dignified, strong and vulnerable, and sassy to perfection.

The factory shifts production to the manufacture of boots for drag queens, designed by Lola, and the plot shifts from saving the factory to include the growing friendship between the two leads, Charlie and Lola (most definitely NOT the Cbeebies pair!)

As Charlie, Joel Harper Jackson is not without intensity but tends to get a bit shouty in his big musical moments.  Other than that, though, he and Ushe are a great match, their voices blending beautifully in the searing ballad, Not My Father’s Son.  Among the factory workers, there is strong support from Paula Lane as the smitten Lauren, and Demitri Lampra as Don, the embodiment of outdated toxic attitudes – a crowd favourite here in Wolverhampton.  Adam Price is also a lot of fun as middle-aged George.

The chorus of ‘Angels’ – Lola’s drag queen friends – is stunningly glamorous and camp – and agile too.  Jerry Mitchell’s choreography shows off their assets in the best possible light.  Mitchell also directs, balancing a down-to-earth, East Midlands flavour with showbiz glitz.  There are plenty of laughs here and a lesson in acceptance to boot, a recognition of the humanity behind the falsies or indeed the attitudes the characters present to the world.  You can’t help leaving the theatre feeling six inches taller.

If you’re looking for the best musical set in Northampton, this one’s a shoe-in.  A real feelgood show which, dare I say it, has heeling properties.  And the music has sole… I’ll stop now.

k boots


Bolly Good Show

DISHOOM!

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 16th October, 2018

 

Priding themselves on giving voices to British Asian theatre-makers, Rifco Theatre Company brings this new piece from playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (writer of the excellent Elephant) to Coventry.

Set in 1978, this is the story of Simon, a wheelchair-bound Indian boy, growing up in England.  His mother having died, Simon is brought up by his father and grandmother – the latter expressing her shame at having such a child in the family.  When Baljit comes to stay, ostensibly to ‘help out’, Simon finds an ally in his bid for independence.

It’s a very funny family drama, along the lines of Anita & Me and East is East, dealing with the clashing of cultures: traditional Indian values vs trying to fit in to a British way of life – but also, the rise of the National Front, a stain which spreads and spreads until the characters, chiefly Simon, have to confront it.  With the bookish Baljit at his side, Simon is bolstered by the fantasy world of Bollywood films – the play’s title is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of a bullet being fired.

In his professional debut, Bilal Khan impresses as the beleaguered Simon, while the excellent Gurkiran Kaur’s Baljit is both a figure of fun and a voice of reason.  Omar Ibrahim gives Simon’s Dad sensitivity – Ibrahim later appears as a quack swami figure, claiming to be able to get Simon on his feet and walking for the price of an iron and a toaster, in one of the play’s funniest scenes.  Georgia Burnell is strong as Donna, object of Simon’s affections; Elijah Baker demonstrates his skills at disco-dancing as mixed-race Mark, caught between communities; while James Mace’s rage-filled Keith is the ugly voice of racism, wrongly attributing the loss of a job opportunity to the arrival of That Lot.  The play acknowledges how white people can get caught up in this skewed way of looking at the world – Wouldn’t it be great to be able to state that such thinking has been thoroughly confined to the past?  Of course, the play is commenting on today as much as 1978.

Just like Simon’s household, the play is dominated by the matriarchal Bibi, in a commanding, hilarious performance from Seema Bowri, veering from the tyrannical to the desperate, but all done with love and the desire for the best for the family.

Neil Irish’s ingenious set gives us swift transitions between locations, along with Rory Beaton’s lighting, that accentuates the Bollywood fantasy moments.  Arun Ghosh’s original music heightens mood and flavour – together with extracts from Bollywood films, providing moments of nostalgia for many of the audience members tonight.  Andy Kumar’s choreography is joyous.  Director Pravesh Kumar balances the humour and drama of the domestic scenes, with the stylised action of the fantastical moments, and successfully evokes the menace of the largely off-stage racist rabble.

It all adds up to an enjoyable show with all-too strong parallels to today’s society.  What comes across most strongly is the shared humanity of the characters, in positive and negative lights.  This is thought-provoking entertainment of a very high quality.

DISHOOM-Gurkiran-Kaur-Bilal-Khan-c-Richard-Lakos-The-Other-Richard-700x455

Gurkiran Kaur and Bilal Khan clash with more than the wallpaper (Photo: Richard Lakos)


Nice Time

BARBARA NICE’S RAFFLE

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Saturday 14th October, 2018

 

Appearing as part of the Birmingham Comedy Festival, ‘housewife, mother of five, and avid reader of Take A Break’, Mrs Barbara Nice brings with her a microphone, a manually-operated tombola and a bag-for-life full of prizes.  “We’ll do the raffle in the second half; the first half’s all admin.”

By admin, she means audience participation – two words guaranteed to send a chill down the spine of any British theatregoer.  But on this occasion, we need have no fear.  Such is Mrs Nice’s approach, we join in without worrying about it.  Her questions might call for a show of hands, a grunt, a nudge of our neighbour, and so on, as response.  At any moment, she might drop in the chorus of a popular song and we all engage in some impromptu community singing, whether it’s A Windmill in Old Amsterdam, or the jingles for Cadbury’s chocolate.  En masse, we mime that we are taking part in the Winter Olympics, going for gold in the curling.

It sounds daft.  It is daft.  But we don’t feel daft.  We’re having the time of our lives.

Mrs Nice has a way of bonding us all.  Her daftness democratises us.  Between self-deprecating remarks (the ravages of childbirth on her body, for example) she champions ‘ordinary’ and ‘working class’ people – and it’s about time somebody did, and thanks us repeatedly for coming out to see a live show, for breaking our routines.  We are all in it together – and this time, those words actually mean something.

The raffle fills the second half, a surprisingly thrilling ritual in which we are deeply invested – we’ve been issued a free ticket on admission to the show.  Mrs Nice parades half a dozen prizes that arouse our acquisitiveness instantly.  I have my heart set on a tin of marrowfat peas, and am gutted when someone else claims the bottle of Dettol…  Each winner comes down, Price is Right style, while music blares, and dances with our hostess.  There is no embarrassment here, and we’re all celebrating the good fortune of the chosen ones.  I come away empty-handed, alas, but my heart is full of joy.

This is what John McGrath, long ago, would call ‘A Good Night Out’, hearkening back to working-men’s clubs and variety shows.  It’s character comedy – Mrs Nice is the creation of actor Janice Connolly – a worthy successor to the likes of Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton.

The evening is rounded off with the entire audience coming onto the stage for a frankly terrifying game of What’s The Time Mister Wolf?  It’s a delicious moment and Mrs Nice has proved her point: it is better to get out and get involved with people.  This hilarious show does more for the audience’s mental health and well-being than any worthy self-help book.

Furthermore, it reminds us of the fun and power of a live show, something we can lose sight of as we crook our necks over our phones, barely interacting with the world around us.

A wonderful, wonderful night.

raffle


Out for the Count

DRACULA

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th October, 2018

 

Dracula is one of those characters that has become part of global culture; like Tarzan or Peter Pan, everyone has heard of him, thanks in no small part to the innumerable film versions of the story and its spin-offs.  The original Bram Stoker novel can come as a surprise to first-time readers due to its epistolary nature: the story is told through letters between the characters, so it has multi-first-person viewpoints.  Here Mark Webster’s faithful-ish adaptation makes great use of characters reading what they are writing, or from letters they have received, often as preludes to flashbacks or reconstructions of incidents.

It gets off to a strong start with Adrian Rosu capturing our attention as a Sea Captain making entries in his log.  Rosu’s authentic Romanian accent (he’s from that part of the world) immediately evokes the atmosphere as he recounts incidents in which a mysterious figure on board picks off his men.  Webster begins the play with the arrival of the Count in England – the book’s opening events (Jonathan Harker’s experiences at Castle Dracula) are saved for later in extended flashbacks.  Rosu also appears as Harker, giving his RP accent an airing, and clearly portraying the various stages of Harker’s health, pre- and post-Transylvania.

Taresh Solanki is a nervy, passionate Doctor Seward, while Chris Del Manso’s Professor Van Helsing is authoritative and eccentric without going over the top, in a commanding performance.  Nisaro Karim is a tall and burly Arthur – is the character American?  I can’t remember and I can’t tell.  Karim doubles as a tall and burly Count; in these scenes Karim’s stage presence is stronger.  His Dracula towers over proceedings.  You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

The female members of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Nichola Woolley’s perky Lucy really comes to life, ironically, when the character joins the ranks of the undead.  Danica Corns’s Mina has fortitude – this is no shrinking-violet, damsel in distress.  Kaz Luckins is compellingly wild-eyed and intense as a gender-swapped mental patient, the zoophagous Renfield, but it is Carys Jones who makes the strongest impression of all in a range of roles: asylum warder Hennessey, Sister Agatha, Lucy’s mum…

Director Simon Ravenhill’s set is multi-purpose, coming into its own when two or three scenes are staged concurrently, the action cross-cutting between them.  The intimate, even cosy, stage at the Blue Orange, means we can take it all in, without having to move our heads like spectators at a tennis match.  There is a lot going on but it is skilfully presented so that we never lose focus.  The action sequences, the outbursts of violence, are very well staged.

Dean Bowyer’s lighting makes shrewd use of red and green colour washes, and the occasional chilly blue.  Mark Webster’s sound design successfully evokes scenery: crowds etc, while also providing a great deal of the eeriness.  Renfield’s flies, for example, and the otherworldly voices of the vampire women, which are extremely well done.

Inevitably, I suppose, it’s a very wordy piece and it runs a bit long, but the sterling efforts of the strong cast keep us hooked – even if we are familiar with the tale.  There are a few instances when the energy drops a little but, this being the first night of the run, I am sure things will tighten up as the week progresses.

An atmospheric, tonally perfect piece with moments of menace and an unusual twist at the end I didn’t see coming, this production is definitely worth an evening of your time.

dracula

Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula

 


Work of Genius

BREAKING THE CODE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 6th October, 2018

 

Before Alan Turing became a household name some fifty years after his early death, Hugh Whitemore wrote this play which went a long way to establishing the computing pioneer as one of the most important figures of the Second World War.  Turing’s work in cracking the code of the Germans’ Enigma machine played a major part in our defeat of the Nazis – we have a lot to thank him for.

The timeline of the play is not in chronological order.  It is up to the audience to decode the order of events to build up a picture of Turing’s life story.  Director Liz Plumpton keeps the staging simple, allowing clues from the script to inform us which decade we’re in. She is blessed with a superlative cast, who keep us riveted throughout.  The intimacy of the in-the-round setting puts us right in the action as we eavesdrop on Turing and the people in encounters at work and at play.

Making his debut at the Crescent, Jack Hobbis is stunningly good in the lead role.  Hardly ever offstage, he is utterly convincing, inhabiting the character with nuance, animation and total conviction.  This Turing is eminently likeable, for all his eccentricities, quirks and directness.  I suggest the Crescent treat Hobbis the way Turing treated his tea mug: chain him to a radiator so he can never leave the building!  I have seen lesser performances win all sorts of awards.

The mighty Brendan Stanley is thoroughly credible as no-nonsense detective Mick Ross, and Phil Rea is also on excellent form as Turing’s Bletchley Park boss, Dilwyn Knox, a humorous cove, decidedly old-school.  Angela Daniels, as Turing’s mother, adds depth to her characterisation as the action unfolds, while Sanjeev Mistry makes a strong impression as Turing’s fateful bit of rough, Ron Miller.  Amy Thompson combines sweetness with efficiency as female boffin Pat Green, and Tony Daniels has a pleasing cameo as top-secret brass, John Smith.  Young actor Louis Clare appeals as Turing’s schooldays chum, Chris Morcom and later dazzles as Greek trick, Nikos, spouting the language like a native – an impressive feat on its own but Clare imbues Nikos with a remarkable presence as he listens to Turing’s babbling.

Jennet Marshall’s costumes do most of the period work for the production, evoking the era superbly, while Kristan Webb’s lighting design stylishly takes us from place to place and time to time.  The final moment, of Turing with his poisoned apple, will stay with me a long time.

A superlative production that is both humorous and gripping; another jewel in the Crescent’s sparkling crown.  We learn a good deal about the tragic genius, who has become a hero-martyr type, a figurehead for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  I wonder if the Alan Turing Law, passed as recently as 2017, pardoning all those cautioned or convicted of homosexual acts, would bear his name if he hadn’t saved us all from fascism, or whether the long-overdue law would have been passed at all.

breaking the code

Genius! The brilliant Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Just Four Fun

THE IMPROLECTUALS

Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 4th October, 2018

 

Any improv show is reliant on good suggestions from the audience.  Tonight, our quartet of performers is faced with plenty of beans and chips related ideas – and they make a meal of it.  Yes, I’m at another improv gig and this time it’s The Improlectuals.  Hosting duties are shared by Richard Baldwin and Robert Lane, as they introduce the games, field audience suggestions, and stage-manage the action.

Baldwin is a good-allrounder, reaching particular heights of hilarity in a game which involves him divining from our reaction the action we have chosen for him to perform.  His contortions eventually lead him to peeling potatoes in a supermarket trolley, and we couldn’t be happier.

Lane, another good-allrounder, distinguishes himself with his guitar playing, accompanying impromptu musical numbers, sometimes supporting, sometimes steering the spontaneous songsters.

Also performing this time are Matthew Dibbens and Nathan Blyth, a versatile pair.  In fact, all four actors prove their talent, versatility and quick-wittedness but Blyth does all that while being rather good-looking, which is hardly fair.

Some of the games are familiar to those of us who recall TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? and others bring back memories of my drama teaching days.  Some have better legs than others, some take off straight away, and some meander a bit, but on the whole, the hit rate is pretty high.  We do a great deal of laughing out loud.  A game in which the actors switch accents at the honk of a horn is an absolute hoot.  A Chinese-whispers type game, done with action rather than words, works a treat, but for me the best games involve the creation of songs on the spot.

The magic of improv brings its own brand of tension, but when it clicks, as it does countless times tonight, it is truly marvellous to behold.

I would perhaps alter the running order a little, so the show has a stronger opening game, saving the Two-Headed Emails for later on, when we have warmed to the performers – which doesn’t take long at all!

A very funny and entertaining evening with no shortage of creative energy.  The Improlectuals deserve larger audiences than the select group that mustered to see them tonight.

improlectuals bubble