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 Grand night out

DICK WHITTINGTON

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th December, 2019

 

It’s the 125th birthday of this beautiful theatre and what better way to celebrate than to attend the annual pantomime?  Written and directed by Ian Adams, this is an old-school show with plenty of spectacle, traditional fare and topical gags, something to keep everyone entertained.

Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas is the eponymous Dick, and he does a good job as the working-class hero and all-round good guy.  He could do with some more audience interaction – this is left largely to the comic characters, such as Aaron James as Idle Jack (a brilliant impressionist and affable fellow) and Ian Adams’s Sarah the Cook, a saucy music-hall character and a double-entendre machine.  Adams gives a masterclass in pantomime damery.

Jeffery Holland, himself one of the best dames in the business, has the straighter role of Alderman Fitzwarren.  We are in safe hands here.  Holland, at the forefront of time-honoured routines like the mop drill, makes the material work, whether you’ve seen it a hundred times or are coming to it for the first time, as many of the younger members of the audience are.

Su Pollard tries her best as the villainous Queen Rat, stalking around like someone from an office Halloween party.  She is great at her musical numbers but there is a conflict between her persona and her role, as if she wants us to like her and not like to hate her.  I would have cast her as a novice Fairy Bow Bells, seeking to earn her wings (aka yellow coat).

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Su Pollard as Queen Rat

Not that there is any problem with the Fairy Bow Bells we get.  Julie Paton exudes a kind of authoritative benevolence; there is something of Julie Andrews about her – again, we are in very safe hands.  Paton also choreographs and there is a dazzling routine where everyone is seated, a kind of convoluted hand jive that is as charming as it is complex.

Katie Marie-Carter sings sweetly as love interest Alice Fitzwarren but the show is just about stolen by Jordan Ginger as rather posh talking cat Tommy.

The script is peppered with quickfire hit-or-miss gags so you hardly stop laughing.  We don’t get the underwater scene we might expect in this panto and, curiously, with Sarah the Cook on board we don’t get a slapstick cooking scene.  We do get a scary surprise to close the first act and – because it’s gala night tonight, there is an extra-special guest appearance from veteran comic Jimmy Tarbuck himself!  Tarbuck comes on dressed as a sultan, does a few gags and reminiscences a bit, urging us to cherish this grand and beautiful venue.

It occurs to me that this may be the only pantomime based on an historical figure – unless you write in and tell me there was indeed a Mother Goose – but what matters here is the story still works as a piece of family entertainment, and its presented here by highly skilled professionals and with oodles of cheekiness and charm.

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Aaron James, Ian Adams and Jeffery Holland

 


How Does He Smell?

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

The Playhouse, London, Saturday 7th December, 2019

 

Jamie Lloyd’s brand-new staging of Edmond Rostand’s beloved classic is not what you might expect.  Gone are the period costumes, the plumed hats, the swords.  There is not even a nose – we are left to imagine the legendary proboscis.  We are left to imagine most of it.

The stage is just about bare: a white box with the odd plastic chair and raised area.  The cast line up, like performers in a radio play with handheld microphones.  Their attire is contemporary urban.  Somebody beatboxes – oh God, we’re at a rap battle, or a spoken-word ‘slam’ or whatever.  My heart sinks.

It takes me a while to acclimatise to the staging.  Lloyd barely lets his actors address each other directly.  Instead they face out and we are in Peep Show territory, where the audience’s point-of-view is that of the person being spoken to.  It’s effective but it also keeps a distance between the characters.  Any intimacy they might express is put through the prism of our imagination.

Martin Crimp’s new translation serves the original well, in terms of plot, and his verse rattles along with wit and lyricism.  Occasionally, the direction distracts with moments of bravura that take us out of the moment, so we notice how clever it is.  A scene with characters swapping seats has a musical chairs aspect; it works, in terms of the love triangle but keeps us at bay.  What then, with all these alienating moments, are we meant to be considering intellectually?  I think we’re meant to be swept away by the seductive power of the words, and there are moments when we are.

This is very much an ensemble piece but inevitably, James McAvoy in the title role commands our attention.  His Cyrano is a skinhead in a leather jacket, with the strength and aggression of a soldier, the wit and aptitude for writing of a poet, the facility with language necessary to make him the best.  The pangs of unrequited love reveal the man beneath the braggadocio.  McAvoy invests the role with a charismatic intensity.  The iconic scene where Cyrano impersonates Christian to woo Roxane is hilarious, but also layered.  Rostand’s hero is there, coming to the fore, and he still has the power to move us.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxane is intelligent and headstrong, effing and blinding like a soldier in this male-dominated sphere.  Eben Figueiredo’s handsome Christian sounds like a chav.  Figueiredo brings out the character’s inner conflict, making the character more than a pretty face.  There is strong support from Michele Austin as Ragueneau the poetry-loving baker, and Tom Edden’s snooty De Guiche is more than a pompous antagonist.

Somehow, the romance and dramatic irony of Rostand’s tale come through for a moving denouement, not despite of but somehow because of the stylised staging, the non-naturalistic approach successfully engages our emotions.   A woman seated near me is in floods.

By the end, I am sold on it and can even admire the beat-boxing, but I miss the panache, the sword-fighting, and the nose.

 

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Street Pete

PETER PAN Reimagined

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 5th December, 2019

 

Director Liam Steel follows up last year’s whirlwind of a successful Wizard of Oz with this new version of the immortal JM Barrie classic.  Instead of Edwardian London, the action is updated and translocated to present-day Birmingham, a rundown block of flats.  Odd then that Steel should cast his Wendy as a Scottish lass, undermining the show’s much-touted local identity.  Don’t get me wrong: Cora Tsang is fine in the role.  This Wendy is a mardy young teenager, snarky with Jess, the latest in a long line of foster mums, in the show’s downbeat beginning.  All kitchen sink drama.  In fact, scenes that usually transpire in the children’s bedroom all happen in the kitchen, linking Wendy with domesticity, mothering, and care-giving, as though this might be her inescapable fate.

With Hook played by a woman (doubling as the foster mother) themes of motherhood and gender roles are brought to the fore.  The Lost Ones crave the discipline of structure that a mother would bring, while Wendy, rejecting it in her home life, plays along when in Neverland.  Speaking of Neverland, it’s a joyous place, bedecked with graffiti and urban deprivation – Wendy’s fantasy life is as bleak as her reality.  The setting robs Neverland of its storybook exotica and its sense of wonder.  There are some instances of technical creativity, with some rather splendid and scary mermaids and a beautiful bird made out of a detergent box but it’s all a bit too dark, I find.

The cast is great.  Lawrence Walker’s Peter Pan looks a bit grown-up but it’s the playing that gives him his boyish exuberance.  He has more Shadows than Cliff Richard, in a brilliant piece of staging.  Mollie Lambert is thoroughly credible as Wendy’s younger brother Michael.  And there is some great energy from the gang of Lost Ones, and from the Pirates (who look like refugees from a Mad Max film).  Mirabelle Gremaud genuinely bends over backwards to perform as Tink, who has her own fairy language, which is funny, and a strong singing voice, which is lovely, but she looks like a character from a 1970s sci-fi programme.   Charlotte Merriam’s thick Brummie sidekick Smee is a marked contrast to the mighty Nia Gwynne, resplendent as Captain Hook.  Gwynne plays it old-school villain, high camp and delivering her lines with relish – many of which are lifted from Barrie.  Costume designer Laura Jane Stanfield has given her the best outfit, with a gilded hook and even a galleon for a hat.

There is a strange mix of childish innocence and naivety with the harder edge of the music; Peter doesn’t know what a kiss is but he can drop sick rhymes like a pro.  The assertive nature of the rapping and the hip-hop is slickly performed but doesn’t sit well with the kids’ yearning for Happy Families and Cinderella.

The script, by Liam Steel and Georgia Christou, has plenty of fun, and JM Barrie rises to the surface every now and then, and I want to enjoy it more than I do.  I suppose it comes down to Neverland and this end of Birmingham being essentially the same place that stops the show from taking off.

PETER PAN,

Off the hook! Nia Gwynne (Photo: Johan Persson)

 


Phat Lot of Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS – The Musical

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s Christmas classic is given the Broadway treatment in this vibrant musical version by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) with music by Mel Marvin.  As the years pass, I feel a growing affinity with the Grinch, a hermit-like, curmudgeonly Scrooge of a creature who begrudges the simple townsfolk their seasonal cheer.  He is the Anti-Santa, entering people’s homes and taking stuff away – although even I stop short of burglary.

John Lee Beatty’s set design draws heavily on the Seuss illustrations, with their off-kilter, pen-and-ink style.  Robert Morgan’s costumes follow suit, padded to alter the shape of the actors, especially those playing the Whos, the peculiar race of Christmas worshippers.  Add to the mix Ben Cracknell’s luscious lighting design, and you have a weird and wonderful world straight out of a storybook.  Production values certainly are high – just look at the size of the chorus!

Steve Fortune is Old Max, formerly the Grinch’s dog.  He is our narrator, our link to the past.  Fortune has a strong and pleasant baritone, which he gets to demonstrate in his rendition of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch – a song from an animated TV version of years ago.  The song is more well-known in the States than over here, so later, an audience singalong doesn’t really come off.

Playing Young Max is Matt Terry, last seen as a lion in Madagascar.  Terry seems to be carving out a career playing animals in musicals, and why not?  He is excellent at it, and this show gives him chance to show off his movement skills, even with his padded costume, and his vocal talents.

Holly Dale Spencer shines as Mama Who, with a fine singing voice, and a quirky way of moving.  There is a touch of mania in her eyes that is just delicious.  Together with Alan Pearson as Papa Who, and Karen Ascoe’s Grandma (in a towering pink wig like a dollop of ice cream) and David Bardsley (a sprightly Grandpa), there is a lovely quartet as the adults prepare the house on Christmas Eve.  The score is rich, and very Broadway, with catchy tunes and Sondheimesque phrasing.

Tiny Isla Gie almost steals the show as cute-as-a-button Cindy Lou Who, who interrupts the Grinch’s housebreaking.  She holds her own in a hugely impressive performance, like Shirley Temple with an edge.  Matt August’s direction allows a satirical touch so that things never get too saccharine or cloying.  The show delivers its message that Christmas is not about consumerism and brand names but those with whom you share it.

Now to the Grinch himself.  Edward Baker-Duly is just magnificent.  He makes the role his own with some cartoony reactions and some masterful showmanship.  One of a Kind is an old-fashioned showstopper.  This is a villain to be cherished and enjoyed – and I enjoy his throwaway topical references.

This crazy, stylish, funny and tuneful show has heart and is a welcome alternative to all the versions of A Christmas Carol that are out there.  It will get you in the feels; it even melted this cold-hearted Grinch of a reviewer.

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The Cat’s Pyjamas

PUSS IN BOOTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 29th November, 2019

 

This is the first pantomime of the season for me and it’s a cracker.  Belgrade stalwarts Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth return for the umpteenth year on the trot for the rarely staged story of a crafty cat who helps his master to social climb his way to the palace, defeating a terrible ogre along the way.  The pair work superbly as a double act, with Lauchlan as the dame, Matilda Pudding, and Hollingsworth as her son, Simon.   They are also superb on their own, with Hollingsworth in particular working the audience.  His persona is cheeky and easily annoyed; the comic timing is impeccable.  Lauchlan gives a masterclass in panto-damery, with a succession of ridiculous outfits, charming humour and an irrepressible sense of fun.  Lauchlan also writes and directs, and is clearly some kind of genius.

Iain Lauchlan (Matilda Pudding) and Craig Hollingsworth (Simon Pudding) - credit Robert Day

The Puddings: Matilda (Iain Lauchlan) and Simon (Craig Hollingsworth) Photo: Robert Day

The rest of the cast, for the most part, rise to the standard of the star pair, given the stock limitations of their roles.  Aimee Bevan warms into her duties as our narrator Fairy Flutterby; David Gilbrook is suitably doddery as good King Colin; and Miriam Grace Edwards makes a gutsy Princess Sophia.  As the villain, evil jester Victor Grabitt, Peter Watts is enormous fun, sinister, snide and camp in the melodramatic sense, he is a joy to watch.

The chorus is fleshed out with a troupe of local children, who tackle Jenny Phillips’s choreography with panache.  Among the grown-up dancers, Dylan Jones distinguishes himself with some spectacular urban moves, as well as an engaging sense of humour.  Daniel Teague appears as the Ogre, in a delightfully scary moment – this show has plenty to engage the children and get them shouting and pointing at the stage.

In the title role, Joanna Thorne is dashingly heroic with a lively touch of comedy.  The role is a blend of principal boy and a skin part, but it also lets girls in the audience that females can be proactive.  Thorne has a strong singing voice – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more of it.

Lauchlan’s script successfully combines traditional routines with bang up-to-date new elements: we are invited to submit ogre-faced selfies to an Instagram account during the interval; Simon Pudding first appears via face-time… Lauchlan thereby upholds the audience expectations of the form, while keeping the form fresh and current, and of course there is plenty of saucy humour to keep the adults laughing.

Non-stop fun from start to finish, this is a refreshing change from the ‘big’ pantos that always do the rounds (the Aladdins, the Cinderellas, the Dicks) and a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit.  As ever, it’s great to see such a diverse audience at the Belgrade, demonstrating that pantomime truly is for everyone and that theatre can bring us together.

Joanna Thorne (Puss in Boots) and Peter Watts (Victor Grabbit) 2 - credit Robert Day

Joanna Thorne as Puss in Boots and Peter Watts as Grabitt (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 


Fine and Dandy

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th November, 2019

 

Years ago, back when the Odeon on Birmingham’s New Street was a music venue, I saw Adam and the Ants play, with a huge pirate ship filling the stage.  Adam Ant was up and down that rigging like nobody’s business.  It is a fond memory of one of the first gigs I ever attended.  Now, many years later, he is back, sans Ants, with a concert version of his solo album from 1982, Friend or Foe – the one with hits like Goody Two Shoes and Desperate But Not Serious, both of which prove to be highlights of tonight’s set.   The exuberant brass section that colours the album is here replaced by guitars (along with the signature pair of drummers) giving the set a heavier, raunchier overall sound.

The theme from old TV series The Saint plays the band onstage, setting the tone nicely (and dating most of the audience!) and the set opens with the album’s title track.  Ant looks fabulous, of course, belying his age and he’s in excellent voice.  This is quickly followed by Something Girls, which includes some of the best whistling since One Man and His DogPlace in the Country is faster, reinvigorated; we are rattling through the album at quite a lick.  Hello, I Love You (a cover of The Doors) is just about perfect, followed by the autobiographical Goody Two Shoes, which is joyous – anything that follows this banger is bound to sound weak by comparison, so Crackpot History and the Right to Lie seems like the wrong kind of gear change.

The album concludes with the instrumental, Man Called Marco which affords Ant the chance to step and trip around with those snake hips of his – he is wearing the skinniest fit trousers and tight boots that give his legs a spindly, insect-like aspect.  Perhaps he is turning into an ant after all.

“Here are some more songs you might enjoy,” he says, ushering us into Greatest Hits territory, kicking off with Dog Eat Dog – which is like Ennio Morricone doing metal.   Antmusic provides the best moments of the night; it’s just fantastic, and I enjoy the opportunity to revisit older tracks from his early punk days, such as Zerox and Car TroublePrince Charming is an anthem and a call to arms, with its war cry introduction and its mantra, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” – words to live by, indeed!   Puss In Boots is great fun, and Kings of the Wild Frontier is stunning, with its darker edge, but it is Stand And Deliver, closing the set, that proves the most exhilarating.  “The way you look,” Ant sings, “you’ll qualify for next year’s old-age pension.”  Well, the lyrics might be catching up with him, but you’d never guess to see and hear him play.  The outfits are less flamboyant but he still cuts a dashing figure.  The man who brought theatricality and fun to post-punk music is still going strong.

The encore is comprised of three ancient tracks, Press Darlings, Red Scabs, and You’re So Physical and while it’s a rare opportunity to hear them with this richer, fuller sound, I kind of hanker for something poppier, like Apollo 9 for example, so we can have a good old singalong before we go.

A wonderful evening that reminded me why I loved him so much in the first place.  Antastic!

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Adam Ant (Photo: Barry Brecheisen)


Blue Blood Brothers

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2019

 

The New Vic’s Christmas show is always a special treat but this year they have outdone themselves with this stylish and inventive staging of the Mark Twain classic tale.  This adaptation by director Theresa Heskins puts us at the heart of a Tudor theatre, with the New Vic’s auditorium decked out to look a bit like The Globe.  A troupe of players comes on, singing the prologue to Henry V – so the artifice and theatricality of the piece are to the forefront of the storytelling.  Later, when the players appear as characters themselves, there’s another layer.  There’s a lot to unpick here between the story and the telling.

As Tom Canty, the titular pauper, Nichole Bird is as chirpy a Cockney as you could ever hope to meet, wide-eyed with wonder; the deprivation and hardships of his upbringing have not hardened his heart.  Danielle Bird’s lookalike prince Edward is suitably toffish, with more than a hint of our own Prince Charles to her intonations.  Again, we see that despite his rarefied and privileged upbringing, the boy has a good heart and can exercise compassion.  When they swap clothes so each can sample life on the other side of the palace gates, they find that it’s not all cakes and ale, or street entertainment.  Both Birds are excellent – you couldn’t pick between them – providing the energy at the heart of the story.

Tom Richardson is a kindly, ebullient Henry VIII, and Jasmin Hinds gives us a fun young Princess Elizabeth, but my favourite of the royals presented here has to be Gareth Cassidy’s pious and pompous Mary Tudor, gliding around in the dress he jumps in and out of, forecasting direness and doom.  Cassidy is comedy gold whatever he does.  He pairs up with Richardson as a couple of Beefeaters, who are equally funny apart as they are together.

Kieran Buckeridge possesses, I hope he won’t mind me saying, the most Tudor face of the company, as he charms with a range of roles including the Player Manager and the Chamberlain.  Matthew Ganley’s Fool transforms into the aggressive, abusive Pa Canty, while Sufia Manya’s Ma Canty adds emotional depth.

Everyone in the company performs with such detail, I’m sure you can’t possibly see everything they do with all the running around in this action-packed show.  The point is, wherever you’re seated, whichever way you’re looking, there’s something delightful going on.  The cast also bring on instruments to play, and these are integrated into the action, even the fights!

And such music!  Genius composer James Atherton pulls yet another marvellous score from his bag, with string instruments, reeds, drums and a trumpet providing the period flavour.  It’s never twee and there is often a melancholic undertone.  It’s sublime – culminating in a stirring rendition of Pastime With Good Company, Henry VIII’s biggest hit.   The show also features a surreal version of Greensleeves, with sentient topiary creating a moving maze.

It’s a lavish production – lavish in ideas and atmosphere.  Lis Evans’s costumes are gorgeous, creating most of the historical feel.  Laura Willstead’s set design of parquetry and Tudor roses unifies stage and audience with its wraparound frieze of tiny Tudor London.

Theresa Heskins’s script is faithful to the Twain but with the added fun of being peppered with Shakespearean references, some of them more obvious than others.  There are also nods to other poets – and the dialogue, mannered to sound Tudor-ish, never sounds false or forced.

As expected, we get plenty of distance combat, giving the violence a cartoon feel.  There’s the letter-chucking that works so well – you know when you’re watching a Heskins show!  But there are plenty of surprises too.  Heskins is a director who knows what works and when to use it.  As a result, you are thoroughly spellbound throughout by this funny, engaging, thought-provoking, educational and heart-warming story.

Definitely not a horrible history, this show is fit for a prince – or a pauper like me.

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Nichole and Danielle Bird as the pauper and the prince (Photo: Phil Radcliffe/Stoke Sentinel)