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!

Beans Talk

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 25th November, 2022

The first pantomime of the season and it’s a favourite fixture of mine, the Belgrade’s annual extravaganza featuring the perennial pairing of Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth.  Returning for the umpteenth year, writer/director and dame extraordinaire, Lauchlan delivers the goods once again with a blend of traditional and innovative elements.  He is also generous enough not to hog all the best/worst jokes to himself.

Appearing as Dame Trott in a range of garish and hilarious outfits, Lauchlan embodies the panto spirit, with good-natured fun and broad comedy.  Forming a perfect foil is Craig Hollingsworth’s Simple Simon, a somewhat manic man-child.  Hollingsworth delivers a masterclass in how to handle and involve the audience, and it’s an absolute joy to see these two working together again.

Morna Macpherson is a thigh-slappingly heroic Jack.  It strikes me that pantomime, with its dames and principal boys, has been years ahead in terms of using pronouns according to how people present themselves to the world.  The kids in the audience take the characters at face value, which is how it should be.  Macpherson’s macho posturing is in keeping with the genre, rather than being a parody.  Rochelle Hollis plays the object of Jack’s affection, the Princess Poppy, doing a good job with a thankless part.

Emma Mulkern’s Fairy Fennel is good value, while Andy Hockley’s Fleshcreep is delightfully wicked, in a Dickensian manner.  Hockley is clearly having a lot of fun, donning a range of disguises that we see through right away.  David Gilbrook’s attention-deficient King adds to the fairy tale setting.

There is much of what we expect: a slapstick scene involving lemon meringues and oversized syringes, a bit of music hall patter, and plenty of audience participation.  Always one to include new ideas with the old, Lauchlan’s beanstalk is the most innovatively staged I’ve ever seen.  The giant also impresses and is worth waiting for, but it’s Daisy the Cow who upstages everyone (played by dancers Lewis James and Hudson Tong).  I also love the troupe of cockroaches that infests the giant’s castle; they have some nifty choreography courtesy of Jenny Phillips.

The laughs keep coming and the plot chugs on despite all the shenanigans.  The first half does run rather long, proving a strain on young bladders, and having to sing a verse about a chip shop every time Simple Simon walks on gets a bit wearing very soon. But these shortcomings don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Bright and colourful with almost everything covered in glitter, this is a hugely enjoyable, highly silly production with enough to keep everyone entertained.

Colour me cheered up, good and proper.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Don’t have a cow! Craig Hollingsworth, Daisy, and Iain Lauchlan (Photo: Nicola Young)


Ghost on the Coast

DARKER SHORES

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 23rd November, 2022

This slice of Victorian gothic begins with grief-stricken natural historian Professor Stokes (Maxwell Caulfield) narrating a spooky experience he has had to spiritualist Tom Beauregard (Michael Praed).  And so we are transported to the site of this happening, a creepy old house by the sea, where we encounter housekeeper Mrs Hinchcliffe (Juliet Mills) and housemaid Florence (Chipo Kureya.  And it’s not long before objects start moving seemingly of their own accord, to the accompaniment of plenty of bumps in the night.

Writer Michael Punter weaves an intriguing mystery; his dialogue is beautifully evocative and period and sensation.  There is wry humour running through the piece, offsetting the moments of tension and surprise, which are superbly handled by director Charlotte Peters.

Maxwell Caulfield is in good form as the opinionated professor, and there is some superb character work from Juliet Mills, as a chummy version of Mrs Danvers.  Chipo Kureya is their equal as the ‘sensitive’ housemaid, upping the supernatural ante.  But it is Michael Praed who storms the piece as the American spiritualist, on the wrong side of the Civil War, looking and sounding every inch the debonair Southern gentleman.  Young Kureya excluded, the other three must have hideous, decaying portraits stashed in their attics: how they resist the ravages of old age is perhaps the most mysterious supernatural element to the show!

Without giving too much away, there is also a splendidly eerie appearance by Will Beynon…

Dominic Bilkey’s sound design goes a long way to engendering atmosphere, while Nick Richings’s lighting plays on Philip Witcomb’s beautifully detailed set to create moments of terror and otherworldly occurrences.

It’s a well-made, good-looking production, with an interesting story and well-executed special effects.  If I were in charge, however, I would tidy up some of the plot points so that all the information is revealed before the climactic action.  This would mean there’d be no need for the coda scene, happening twelve months later, where two of the characters tie up the loose ends for the audience’s benefit.

Marvellously atmospheric and beautifully played, this is a spookily entertaining night out.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Stop! Nobody ordered a table dance! Juliet Mills, Michael Praed, Maxwell Caulfield and Chipo Kureya sharing a moment (Photo: Jack Merriman)


Vloggy Horror Show

THE ORPHANAGE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022

Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married.  To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks.  Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…

So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats.  The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.

Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares.  Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely.  Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.

The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action.  Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling.  Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.

The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time.  It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


What’s it all about, Malfi?

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 12th November, 2022

John Webster’s revenge tragedy, first produced in 1614, comes to the Ron Barber studio in this elegant, abbreviated version, directed by Andrew Cowie.  A cast of nine hurtle through the action and, for the most part, handle the text well – especially when the characters are being angry or insane or both.

In the title role, Grace Cheatle is an appealing duchess, marrying her alluring femininity with a kind of playful innocence.  She also marries her steward, in secret and against the wishes of her control freak brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Andrew Elkington) and the Cardinal (Tom Lowde).  These are the villains of the piece but their dirty work is carried out by the formidable Robert Laird as ex-con and henchman for hire, Daniel de Bosola, who spies on the duchess and gets most of Webster’s best lines.  “We are merely the star’s tennis balls, struck and banded Which way please them.”– A nice philosophy but it’s the duchess’s brothers who strike and band him around!

Elkington and Lowde each shine, especially in scenes of distress, and yet again the costume team at the Crescent come up trumps, realising the designs of Stewart and Rose Snape.  Duke Ferdinand’s madness is more alarming than anything feigned by Hamlet.

Jason Adam makes an impression as Antonio the steward, and there is superb support from Fi Cotton as the loyal waiting woman, Cariola – grieving and getting strangled in heart-wrenching moments.  Charlotte Thompson is assured and somewhat coquettish as the Cardinal’s fiery mistress, while Jess Shannon works wonders with the non-descript ‘nice’ role of Delia, Antonio’s friend – and survivor of the climactic massacre.

Andrew Cowie’s direction keeps the action moving at quite a lick and there are some splendid scenes in lantern light. The scene where the duchess is visited by a group of lunatics seems underdone, though.  As the action reaches its denouement, he brings out the dark humour of the piece but, curiously, for a revenge tragedy, the stage is surprisingly blood free.  Apart from a nosebleed on a handkerchief and a wax dummy painted with it, this is a remarkably sterile bloodbath.  One of the delights of revenge tragedy is the copious bloodletting at the end.  We have enjoyed seeing the mighty and powerful behaving extremely badly; similarly, their comeuppance must be extreme, washing their sins away with their own blood.

As ever, production values are high – but perhaps the budget doesn’t run to the laundry bill or contain enough for buckets of stage blood to be added to the props list!  The chequerboard floor of Keith Harris and Michael Barry’s set suggests chess, symbolising the plots and stratagems of just about all the characters, the black and white squares the evil or good of their natures.

Stylish, elegant and gripping if a bit anaemic.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fi Cotton and Grace Cheatle (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Words Not Deeds

SHE’S ROYAL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 1st November, 2022

This new play by Tonia Daley Campbell reveals the story of two women of colour, both princesses in their own right, who became goddaughters to Queen Victoria.  As girls, they were spared the fate of their enslaved compatriots because of their royal heritage.  In doing this, Victoria considered herself progressive.

The story is framed around a group of girls stumbling into a dusty room and discovering portraits of the two women.  The women then come forward to introduce themselves.  The time has come for their stories to be heard, having been excised from Victoria’s private journals.

Karina Holness shines as Sara Forbes Bonetta, proving herself a captivating storyteller.  She is matched by Amrika Rani as Maharajah’s daughter turned suffragette, Sophia Duleep Singh.  Appearing as an imperious and regal Queen Victoria, Skye Witney is perfectly authoritative while showing a human side to the woman who was the figurehead of the empire.

The lively bunch of girls are joined by a chorus of community performers.  With the exception of Queen Victoria, no one leaves the stage.  Modern commentary on historical events and attitudes provides a rich source of humour, and often what we hear is emotive and provocative.  Director Lorna Laidlaw keeps everyone busy, so that scenes don’t become too static, but herein lies the problem of the piece.

There is a tendency to tell rather than to show.  Events and incidents are delivered in reportage, as the leading players narrate their own lives rather than acting them out.  The result is a wordy and informative evening that raises many important points, where didacticism replaces dramatic action.

There is a lot of ground covered.  It’s not just the two women featured who have been erased from history.  Rather than having Black History Month once a year, the entire education system needs a reboot.  Above all, the play celebrates the contributions of black women, and it’s only right that these inspirational figures are acknowledged. 

To repeat a quotation used in the play from Emmeline Pankhurst, “Deeds not words will change history.”  Deeds, combined with words, make for a more effective drama!

☆ ☆ ☆


Dancing in the Dark

STRICTLY BALLROOM

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 31st October 2022

Back in 1992, Baz Luhrmann’s directorial debut took cinemas across the world by storm.  So popular was the film that the BBC nicked half of its title for their reboot of popular ballroom show, Come Dancing (rendering the adverb meaningless, in the process!).   Now, the musical stage adaptation is doing the rounds, directed by Strictly’s chief grouse, Craig Revel Horwood.  As you might expect, the choreography (by Horwood and Jason Gilkison) is impeccable.  The problem I have, unfortunately, is that too often the downstage area is in darkness, and characters who should be the focus of particular moments, disappear into shadow.  I can’t work out if this is down to strange choices by lighting designer Richard G Jones, or whether it’s because the follow-spot operators fell asleep on the job.

The two leads are played by Strictly royalty, Kevin Clifton as Scott Hastings and Maisie Smith as Fran.  Clifton is a wonderful mover and, as a singer, well, he’s a wonderful mover.  Belting out non-descript ballads is not his forte, I’m afraid.  Smith is a revelation, with a fine singing voice with an impressive range.  Fran is the ugly duckling, Cinderella and Eliza Doolittle rolled into one, as she learns to dance to a standard fit for a tournament in just three weeks.

The score is a mix of original songs (which aren’t up to much) and jukebox classics of the era, and so standards like Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time are shoehorned in, with the hope that at least some of the lyrics will be pertinent to the situation.

The Australian accents add to the campness of the whole, contrasting with the elegance of the formal dance clothes and coiffured hair. Nikki Belsher is a prime example, as Clifford’s selfish mother, Shirley. Gary Davis cuts an overbearing, almost Trumpian figure, as the corrupt president of the dance federation, Barry Fife.

When Scott goes to meet Fran’s folks, he encounters Rico, who puts him in his place, choreographically speaking.  Jose Agudo steals the show with a flaming flamenco that brings the house down, which brings the first act to a rousing finale.  The show never recovers, never retains these dizzying heights again.  Not even in the climactic dance tournament.  Agudo is magnetic, drawing the eye, embodying elegance and masculinity in the stamp of a foot, the sweep of an arm.  Tens across the board!

On the whole, I think the show would work better as a play, with the songs reserved for the dance sequences.  The quirky comedy of the original film is swamped here by the soul-searching ballads.

Kudos to the talented performers, who give their all, and to the excellent six-piece band under the baton of Dustin Conrad, but the material needs to be handled differently if the story is to delight and to move me as the film did thirty years ago.

☆ ☆ ☆

Kevin Clifton and Maisie Smith (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Squirrel Away!

IVY TILLER: VICAR’S DAUGHTER, SQUIRREL KILLER

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th October, 2022

Long ago, white Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the natives with diseases.  Centuries later, the grey squirrels returned the favour by coming to the UK and doing the same to our native reds.  There is a movement now to ‘control’ the grey population, a kind of ethnic cleansing for squirrels.

This new comedy by Bea Roberts, currently playing in the RSC’s underused Other Place studio theatre, seems as though it was tailor-made for comedian Daisy May Cooper, with a very strong feel of the BBC sitcom This Country about it. Cooper does not appear, but her spirit is evoked by the superb Jenny Rainsford in the title role.

Ivy is something of an eco-warrior, hunting and killing the invasive grey squirrels in order that the native reds may flourish.  This activity gives Ivy a sense of purpose and self-importance, because in no other arena is she afforded these feelings: her teacher training is down the drain, her father is cold and distant, treating her like a skivvy… And so squirrel-hunting has replaced caring for her late mother, and here is something she can control, a ‘disease’ she can eradicate.  Fresh out of jail, cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan) comes to visit.  Ivy picks up where they left off, wallowing in childhood nostalgia.

This is not really a play about conservation.  It’s more to do with grief – or to be precise, not grieving.  Ivy is unable to move on from the loss of her mother, so when even the squirrel-killing dries up and her team is disbanded, she has nowhere to turn.  She tries to cling to her eco-warrior role and keep it going, but it is slipping from her grasp.

This very funny piece turns out to have been a tragedy, after all.

Rainsford and McMullan make a fine double act, and they are supported by a fine quartet.  I really enjoy Alex Bhat as Reece, Ivy’s comrade-in-arms who is in love with her; Tim Treloar as local landowner Tig and other roles; Anna Andresen as a beleaguered headteacher; and Jade Ogugua as a primary school teacher – her clashes with Rainsford are excellently played.

Caitlin McLeod’s direction hones the comedic playing to the hilt, wisely allowing dumbshow sequences to cover transitions, to give us physical comedy to complement Roberts’s dazzling script.

One of the aspects I most admire about this production is it credits the audience with the intelligence to piece together characters’ histories, to divine why they are the way they are.  We meet Ivy and her milieu as observers – the distance helps us to laugh – but it is our recognition of the characters’ humanity that fills in the blanks.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

On manoeuvres: Adam Bhat and Jenny Rainsford. Photo by The Other Richard (c) RSC

Mental Dental

DEMON DENTIST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 26th October, 2022

Hot on the heels of Gangsta Granny, Awful Auntie, and Billionaire Boy, comes this latest stage adaptation of a David Walliams novel.  Demon Dentist is in similar vein, with all the Roald Dahl-esque features we have come to expect, but with this story there is an extra frisson of horror.  Of course, bung ‘dentist’ into the title, and you’ve got a head start when it comes to frightening people!

The story begins with the Tooth Fairy leaving horrible things under kids’ pillows.  Instead of shiny coins, they find dogs’ tails, dead mice, squashed toads.  Then a new dentist comes to town, offering ‘special’ toothpaste and sugar-free sweets… and the mystery deepens.  It falls to 12 year-old, dentist-phobic Alfie and his friend-who-is-a-girl Gabz to investigate.

Leading this excellent ensemble is Sam Varley, who is instantly appealing as big-hearted, bad-toothed Alfie; I’m convinced he is genuinely a schoolboy claiming to be a much older actor rather than the other way around! And when he sings, it’s spine-tinglingly good.  Alfie is a carer for his dad (James Mitchell) who is debilitated by a case of black lung from his time as a coal miner.  Their relationship is the emotional heart of the play, and the two of them tug at your heartstrings.

Georgia Grant-Anderson is great fun as Gabz, while Misha Malcolm’s social worker Winnie navigates the fine line between broad comedy and touching drama.  Extra comedy is added by Zain Abrahams as newsagent Raj (a recurring character in these stories) and Ben Eagle as PC Plank.  There is also strong support from Aaron Patel and Mia Overfield in a range of smaller roles.

Emily Harrigan really gets her teeth into the role of Miss Root the evil dentist , like Cruella de Vil taking on NHS patients.  A proper, scary villain, Harrigan belts out songs one minute, makes malicious threats the next, all the while looking fabulous.  Here the humour is at its darkest and most delicious.

Neal Foster’s direction keeps things moving.  There’s a lot of fast-moving action, plenty of fart jokes, and some effective moments of suspense and surprise, but it’s the emotional beats that kick you in the teeth.  This play really does have something for everyone.  Listening to the children in the audience alternate between screams of laughter and screams of, well, screams, adds to the gruesome, silly fun.  It’s a perfect family treat for Halloween and the Birmingham Stage Company have yet another hit on their hands.

You won’t be needing nitrous oxide for this show to make you laugh.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Sam Varney (under the cat), Emily Harrigan, Georgia Grant-Anderson, and Misha Malcolm


Dark Clouds on the Horizon

FALSE ACCOUNTS

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 19th October, 2022

You may be aware (you should be!) that since the turn of the century, hundreds of sub-postmasters up and down the country have been wrongly convicted of theft or false accounting by the Post Office.  Many have lost their livelihoods, some were imprisoned.  Some committed suicide.  The root cause was Horizon, the computer system imposed on all branches, a system that was acclaimed as ‘infallible’.  Just like the Titanic was unsinkable, it turns out.

This drama-documentary by The Outcasts Creative is dedicated to all those impacted by those real-life events. Characters of the sub-postmasters are condensed into five individuals, representing the range of experience suffered by the many. Events are linked by narration, and there are scenes that are more like sketches. Pigs’ noses and devil horns give the show an agit-prop feel, and there are some great ideas: Paula Vennells’s Darth Vader vibe, with the sub-postmasters as hooded rebels against her evil empire. There are moments when the satire is sharp, but these never undermine the emotional testimony of the monologues.

Some standouts for me include Graham MacDonnell as a jaded IT worker and later as a game-show host, and Cathy Odusanya, whose emotive account is heartbreakingly real. There is some wonderfully atmospheric music underscoring the action, courtesy of composer Ice Dob.

The cast of 13 are always on the move so its difficult to attribute roles to the correct performer on the cast list, but they make a vibrant ensemble.

Tonally, it’s patchy.  The nature of the beast, I suppose, but directors Lance S A Nielsen (who also wrote it) and Dickon Tolson need to ensure energy levels are consistent across the board to keep us hooked.  Also, it runs a bit long and could do with some judicious trimming: the future-in-Heaven scene is not funny enough to warrant keeping in its present form – members of the audience were ducking out, fearful of missing trains and buses.  When it’s working as it should, the show contains some extremely powerful moments, amplified by the intimacy of the Old Joint Stock stage.

The story continues in the real world, as the fight for compensation goes on.  It’s a story that needs to be told.  People need to stop putting faith in the wrong sorts to run powerful institutions – and ought such institutions have such power without being brought to account?

Thought-provoking and moving, the show just needs a little tightening to get the bugs out.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!


Man-made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2022

Back in 1818, young Mary Shelley invented the science fiction genre with her gothic novel that deals with those little things like creation, life and death.  By creating life and thereby usurping God, Victor Frankenstein then shirks his responsibilities as a creator.  His creation, unguided, has to find his own way in the world.  Thus, the Creature represents the human condition, floundering while God insists on being an absentee father.

This new adaptation by Catherine Prout hits all the right plot points, even with a scaled-down cast of characters.  The rather verbose dialogue is true to the style of the Shelley original and does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to conveying a sense of the period.

Dan Grooms is an impassioned if youthful Victor, adept at showing signs of high distress both physically and emotionally.  I wonder if his pre-recorded narration would be better done live as he potters around in his laboratory.

He is more than matched by his Creature, in a towering performance from Alastair Oakley, who is imposing and innocent, ferocious and frightening, while also being pitiful.  It’s a remarkable portrayal.

This central pair is supported by a versatile ensemble.  The mighty Robert Moore is charming as Victor’s BFF Henry, and brings a touch of humour as farmer Felix; Matilda Bott is devastating as the wrongly-accused Justine; Phil Leach brings gravitas as Victor’s dad, and warmth as blind De Lacey; Joshua Chandos impresses as Captain Waldman to whom Victor unfolds his tale; while Lily Bennett does a bang-up job of making too-good-to-be-true Elizabeth sympathetic rather than soppy.

Adrian Daniel’s set has something of a steampunk aesthetic, all ropes and chains, dials and switches.  Lit by Kat Murray, it becomes a versatile and atmospheric setting for the play’s many locations.

As ever, director John-Robert Partridge makes the most of the Attic’s intimate space.  Characters roam around in blackout, menacing the front row.  Sudden screams and loud noises keep us on edge, as the gruesome tale weaves its fascinating spell.  Even the scene changes are eerily done.  It all flows smoothly and creepily – apart from some teething troubles with a recalcitrant table top that threaten to hold up the action!  With today’s matinee being only the second performance of the run, I’m sure these minor problems will soon be ironed out.

Production values are high – special shout out to Sue Kent’s make-up work on the Creature – proving that with the right treatment, the familiar fable still has the power to intrigue, provoke and shock.

Like Victor’s Creature, this spellbinding show is extremely well put together.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Dan Grooms as Victor Frankenstein (Photo: Charlie Budd)