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!

Harried Potters & The Tea-Service of Secrets

DIRTY LAUNDRY

Spode Works, Stoke on Trent, Saturday 14th October, 2017

 

Nora Moth tends to her dying father with the aid of neighbour Frances Berry.  The doctor is a constant caller but when pot bank owner Richard Warham and Councillor Blythe start dropping in, Mrs Berry begins to suspect there’s more to things than the paying of respects…

Deborah McAndrew’s latest piece for Claybody Theatre is set in Burslam in the early 1950s. With the dialect, the accents and the jargon of the pottery industry, there is an air of authenticity to the piece.  It could only be more Stokie if they made the costumes out of oatcakes.  It’s a domestic piece – on the surface – as down-to-earth, plain-speaking, hard-working folk tackle a trying time in anyone’s life.  But there is much more to this tight little play than kitchen-sink drama.

Rosie Abraham is a spirited young Nora, tightly wound and prone to sound off, due to the stress of nursing her dying dad, about to succumb to the local ailment of dust in the lungs.  A neat contrast is Angela Bain as the helpful, older neighbour, not shy to voice her opinions and make her observations.  With her humour and moralising, Mrs Berry would not be out of place in the early days of Coronation Street.   Robin Simpson cuts a sympathetic figure as the attentive Doctor Copper; while Philip Wright’s suave owner, the debonair Mr Richard, lends the piece an almost Catherine Cookson air.  Jason Furnival’s campaigning councillor brings the story away from speculation over Nora’s parentage to issues with farther-reaching implications… And here McAndrew pulls no punches.  Cover-ups and conspiracies bubble to the surface and a dark truth comes to light, leaving Nora with a moral morass of a dilemma.

Conrad Nelson’s direction retains the naturalistic tone of scenes about cups of tea and borrowing sugar in later moments when the tension boils over; by this time we are invested in the characters – the womenfolk especially – as the men scramble to cover their tracks and then seek some kind of damage limitation.  It’s electrifying and a thrill to see such an excellent ensemble at work, with scenic dynamics handled so well, so powerfully.

Dawn Allsopp’s design shows us house-proud poverty, cosily lit by John Slevin – but this is not just a nostalgia fest performed at a heritage site.  The domesticity of the set is surrounded by the post-industrial venue – the industrial landscape of the city has changed enormously but the issues aired by the play are still with us today.  We are still beset by vested interests seeking to cover up or outright deny the environmental impact of their businesses.  People are still getting bought off to protect us from the truth.

Site specific though the piece may appear, its appeal and significance extend beyond the Potteries.  Thought-provoking, intriguing and rich with humanity, Dirty Laundry is further proof that Deborah McAndrew is one of our most reliably excellent playwrights.

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Rosie Abraham and Angela Bain (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 

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Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017

 

Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker.  This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume.  It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.

As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one.  Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else.  Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion.  Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.

Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede.  Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna.  I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.

Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging.  Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand.  Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings.  It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.

Above all, the show is a lot of fun.  Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.

The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries.  Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?

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Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)


Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 


Firm Favourite

HAIRSPRAY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 9th October, 2017

 

I don’t know how many times I have seen this show but I am always glad of the chance to see it again.  This latest tour does not disappoint in any department – which is what you hope for, of course – but yet again I am struck by the genius of the material.  Based on a film of the same name by the self-appointed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this is more than the story of a determined, chubby girl to get herself dancing on a TV show; it is a microcosm of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and also, for our times, a fable that reminds us that different can be beautiful.  Yes, it’s a feel-good musical, there’s no getting away from that, but the social commentary packs a punch that goes beyond its historical relevance.  Look at the news and see right-wing morons behaving despicably in the USA today and you’ll see that abhorrent (and stupid) attitudes are still prevalent along with institutionalised racism – TV producer and the show’s villain, Velma would no doubt be a Trump supporter.

Making her professional debut, Rebecca Mendoza is superb as the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, a veritable dynamo full of heart and energy.  Mendoza also brings out Tracy’s inherent sense of humour and her vocal stylings are impeccable.  Similarly, Edward Chitticks makes his Link Larkin more than a shallow Elvis wannabe – although he undoubtedly has all the moves.  Jon Tsouras is both sharp and smooth as TV host Corny Collins.  Brenda Edwards brings the house down as the sassy, brassy Motormouth Maybelle – her anthemic I Know Where I’ve Been gives goosebumps.  Layton Williams makes for a sinuous, sinewy Seaweed – Drew McOnie’s choreography certainly allows him to shine – while Annalise Liard-Bailey’s geeky Penny Pingleton is a pleasure.  Aimee Moore is particularly good as mean girl Amber Von Tussle while Gina Murray is marvellous as her mean-spirited mother.  Monifa James impresses as Little Inez and there is much to enjoy from Graham Macduff and Tracey Penn in a variety of pop-up roles, including the TV sponsor and a crude prison guard.

Inevitably perhaps, the showstoppers are Tracy’s parents, Wilbur and Edna – fellow Dudley boy Norman Pace and Matt Rixon.  Veteran star Pace shows no signs of waning and Rixon is pitch perfect in a role that is much more than a pantomime dame.  Edna’s journey from the ironing board to national television is truly life-affirming, and Rixon makes the most of the humour and the underlying pathos of the part.

The main players are supported by an indefatigable chorus of singing, dancing marvels and a tireless band under the baton of musical director Ben Atkinson.  Paul Kerryson’s direction keeps the fun factor high – you can’t help having a great time.

Marc Shaiman’s score has no filler and the lyrics, co-written with Scott Whittman, remain witty and sophisticated.  Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book retains enough of the Pope of Trash’s acerbic spirit to keep the whole from becoming saccharine sweet.

Everyone is on their feet for the irresistible finale, blown away and exhilarated by the energy and talent exuding from the stage.   Hairspray retains its hold on me and while I’m uplifted by this fine production, I am saddened to realise that in these backward-facing times we need to heed its message just as much as we ever did.

Hairspray

Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad


Dodgy Lodger

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Blue Orange Theatre, Thursday 5th October, 2017

 

Joe Orton’s version of the ‘well-made play’ still has the power to amuse fifty or so years since its original production.  Society has moved on and we are all accustomed to seeing and hearing more overtly shocking things on television any night of the week, so for us it may be difficult to imagine the impact of Orton’s work.  His characters speak with vernacular erudition, almost epigrammatically, revealing their own desires – in true comic tradition (from the ancients, in fact) characters are driven by their vices.  In this case, it seems to be lust, on the part of Kath and her brother Eddie, inspired by the arrival into their lives of the enigmatic Mr Sloane.

Director Ian Craddock goes for period piece (of course, the play was contemporary with the time of its production) but ups the shock factor by introducing a spot of nudity, creating a frisson early on in proceedings.  Outbursts of anger and violence are handled well – I am struck by the similarities between Orton and early Pinter.  This is comedy with menaces.

As sentimental, possessive and damaged Kath, Elaine Ward is top notch, in a layered characterisation that goes deeper than the grotesque.  We glimpse the heartbreak that has affected her entire personality, although we have to piece together the details of her back story from contradictory accounts, some of them out of Kath’s own mouth.  Ivor Williams blunders about as the elderly and infirm Kemp, Kath’s father – we feel sympathy for the old man while we laugh at his callous mistreatment from all and sundry.  William Hayes as brother Eddie encapsulates the menace and intensity the part requires, richly laced with sarcasm – although he does appear to be the only Brummie in this London-set family.

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William Hayes (Eddie) and Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane)

For me, the night belongs to Sloane himself – which is only fitting given the way he turns the heads of Kath and Eddie.  As the handsome, amoral opportunist, Jake Hodgkinson is spot on and irresistible.  You can see why the others find him so attractive from the off – before his trousers come off, I mean!   Hodgkinson combines the looks (the dyed blond hair suits!) with a wily charm and a bad boy attitude.  The violence is entirely credible, as are the flashes of vulnerability when events threaten to overpower him.

It’s a very funny play with Orton satirising the hypocrisy of those who take advantage of others under the guise of charitable acts.  Many of the lines, spouted in an Alf Garnett manner, could come directly from the streets of today, where UKIP and Brexit views have become more prevalent – but no less abhorrent.

An excellent production that showcases a masterpiece and allows each member of the cast to demonstrate their skills.  Inevitably, I feel the loss of Orton all over again.  What wonders he may have gone on to write are forever denied us, and that’s a terrible pity.

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Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane) and Elaine Ward (Kath)

 

 


Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th October, 2017

 

Angus Jackson’s new production opens with a riot – carried out by a colour-coordinated mob; they must have all read the memo – firmly establishing the contemporary setting (if the pre-show forklift truck stashing bags of corn out of public reach isn’t enough of a pointer!).  Divisions in society are clearly marked through clothing.  The plebs are all hoodies and tracky bottoms, the ruling elite all dinner jackets and dickie bows.  It is a polarised society of the chavs and the chav-nots.  Somewhere between the two are the Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird) who seem uncomfortable in their position and in their clothing – power-dressed to impress – Martina Laird especially, tottering in her high heels as the Tribunes seek to establish their power.

The cast is also divided into those who can handle the wordy verse and those in whose gobs it falls flat and lifeless.  Veteran actor Paul Jesson shows us how it’s done as the elder patrician Menenius – the rhythms of the verse come across as natural and, above all, the meaning is always intelligible.  As Volumnia, the protagonist’s mum, Haydn Gwynne (at first dressed more for a Noel Coward) brings elegance and intensity – and also humour.  The same can be said for the ever-excellent James Corrigan’s Aufidius, who has a kind of Joker/Batman thing going on with Coriolanus.  They hate each other with such passion they can’t leave each other alone.

In the title role and making his RSC debut is Sope Dirisu.  He certainly looks the part and is especially striking when drenched in the blood of the vanquished.  Vocally, he doesn’t quite get it across – until, that is, Coriolanus is banished from Rome (because of Reasons, albeit petty ones) and here Dirisu rises to the demands of the scene, demonstrating why he got the part in the first place.  Also enjoyable is his reduction to petulant teen when his mum orders him about.

Coriolanus

Right to bare arms! Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Charles Aitken comes a close second to Corrigan in my view as the consul Cominius, proving he can deliver the verse in a range of contexts, whether in a declamatory style in public oration, or in more personal, off-duty moments.  The excellent Hannah Morrish is criminally underused as Coriolanus’s Mrs, forever pushed aside by his devotion to his mother.

It is also a production of two halves.  The first is hard going but after the interval, everything seems to click into place and the play flies along to its violent conclusion.  There’s plenty of blood in evidence but only one on-stage death – guess whose! – graphically and symbolically involving a chain.  The hand-to-hand skirmishes (kudos to fight director Terry King) are far more effective than the running around, slapping swords together.  There are no guns, it appears, and precious little technology (apart from the forklift!)

Of course, we look for parallels in our society: the risk of giving the public what they want, regardless of the consequences; the ruling class so arrogant and assured of their position and so out of touch with the populace; mistrust of those who claim to be carrying out the will of the people; and the people denying they ever wanted what they voted for…  There is a neat line that could be about self-appointed political commentators on Twitter: “They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know what goes on in the Capitol”.   LOL.

On the whole, I think the second half saves the show and because of it, we forgive the hard slog of the first.  Coriolanus as a character is hard to empathise with, mainly because he rarely tells us what’s going on in his head.  This is a production that tries hard to get us to understand him but I think the modern dress set against the rather alien power systems are a mismatch that keeps us from fully appreciating this brand of political manoeuvring.  Paradoxically, ancient Romans dressed as ancient Romans and doing what ancient Romans do may have been more accessible!

Coriolanus

Is that a dagger in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? James Corrigan as Aufidius (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Knowing

I KNEW YOU

The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 3rd October, 2017

 

This new piece from Birmingham writer Steven Camden aka Polarbear runs for less than an hour but it’s fifty minutes of cracking theatre.  Three characters perform monologues, setting the scene, gradually revealing their history: Patrick walked out on Angela and their 8 year old son twenty years ago.  A chance sighting by one of Angela’s friends reveals that not only is Patrick back in town but he’s dying from cancer.  Angela is thrown into turmoil: should she even tell son Nathan, now 28 and a stay-at-home dad?  Is there room for Patrick in the lives he left behind?

Lorna Laidlaw (the formidable Mrs Tembe in TV’s Doctors) exudes warmth and humour as Angela.  The delivery is impeccable, the timing, the characterisations – it’s a masterclass in monologue performance and, beyond the performance, we feel for Angela and her predicament.  As son Nathan, Brenton Hamilton too demonstrates an aptitude for storytelling and comic timing.  Roderick Smith’s Patrick doesn’t yield many laughs – he’s the selfish one of the trio, but he speaks Polarbear’s lines with pathos, evincing our empathy.

When at last the characters interact, director Daniel Bailey cranks up the tension by drawing out moments of silence after all the wordiness.  Emotions burst out, voices rise and fall – Bailey does the exquisite script justice in his handling of the dynamics.

And that writing!  When she hears her ex is back, Angela describes her reaction: “I can feel my blood.  My head is full of photographs and arguments.”  Bloody wonderful.    The genius is in the detail.  Throwaway details of modern life, ironic observations of human nature, all wrapped up in this neat little package.

The piece lacks nothing, delivers everything, but I can’t help wanting more or to see it all again.

Funny, touching, insightful and fabulous.

Lorna Laidlaw (Angela) Brenton Hamilton (Nathan)_I Knew You_c Graeme Braidwood

Lorna Laidlaw and Brenton Hamilton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)