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!

Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

Romeo and Juliet production photos_ 2018._2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC_248980

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 

Advertisements

Rough Magic

THE TEMPEST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

 

It’s not the first time The Tempest has been set in outer space.  The film, Forbidden Planet, translated the action – and the text – to a sci-fi setting; then a stage show, one of the first jukebox musicals, Return To The Forbidden Planet used Shakespearean lines in tandem with 1960s songs.  Now, Oddsocks Productions return to the play with sci-fi in mind, along with their trademark silliness and pop music… and it all makes for an evening of bonkers entertainment.

The Shakespeare is peppered with sci-fi references, with Star Trek featuring heavily, and Star Wars a close second.  Prospero is a kind of Old Ben Kenobi figure, with daughter Miranda’s hair curled in Princess Leia-like buns.  An engineer called Scottie even puts in an appearance.  The stroke of genius is having Trinculo, usually a jester, portrayed as a droid – Top marks to Gavin Harrison for his Anthony Daniels/C3PO impersonation!  Harrison also appears as the villainous Antonio, a baddie in search of a panto; although the cuts to the script mean he doesn’t get up to much, Harrison poses and postures beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to boo him.

Another stalwart returning for more madness is Dominic Gee Burch.  His Caliban, a mutant fish-man, as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon got too close to a nuclear reactor, is a gift for a gifted physical comedian.  New to the company, Amy Roberts makes a snooty ‘Alonza’, while her drunken ‘Stephanie’ is straight out of Starfleet Academy – the Geordie Shore campus.  Making her Oddsocks debut as a feisty, petulant Miranda, Alice Merivale is wildly enjoyable.  Her scenes with Ferdinand are especially good – mainly because it’s a moment when Shakespeare is allowed to come to the fore.  As Ferdinand and also an alien Ariel, Matt Penson speaks the verse beautifully, while maintaining the sense of anarchic fun that characterises an Oddsocks performance.

Director/genius Andy Barrow plays Prospero, like a bald Gandalf wafting his magic staff about, and he’s as gloriously silly as you’d expect, yet when it comes to the big speeches, Prospero’s famous lines (We are such stuff as dreams are made on…) he plays it straight, as though establishing his credentials.  Not that he needs to, of course, but he wisely reins in the slapstick and the silliness and the mucking around and lets the power of Shakespeare’s words work its magic.  Speaking of magic, the special effects are all gloriously low-tech, with some simple conjuring tricks adding to the atmosphere.

There are a couple of misfires but overall, it’s more hit than miss, and you’re never waiting long for the next thing to laugh at.  I feel more could be made of the Caliban and Trinculo under a blanket scene, for example, but then there are moments of sheer brilliance: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Ridley Scott’s Alien has a lot to answer for.

If you haven’t seen The Tempest before, you might not find this version all that enlightening.  If you haven’t (and if you have!) seen Oddsocks before, you’re in for a wild ride and a rocking good time.

prospero-and-miranda-meteor-shower

Brave new worlds! Prospero (Andy Barrow) and Miranda (Alice Merivale)


Blissful

HAY FEVER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th June, 2018

 

Noel Coward’s 1924 play is perhaps best described as a ‘comedy of bad manners’.  Set in the country retreat of the Bliss family, it depicts what transpires one weekend when each member of the family decides to invite a guest to stay.  In terms of plot, that’s about it – the play lacks the depth and development of Coward’s later works, but the beastly behaviour of the Blisses provides such fun, we don’t seem to care about the script’s narrative shortcomings.

Ruling the roost as former actress Judith Bliss is Lesley Wilcox, serving up the ham in hefty slabs – but all without breaking character.  Judith has quit the stage but has never stopped acting; she spends her days in the throes of melodramatic hyperbole.  Wilcox is a monstrous joy to behold.

Following in their mother’s footsteps are waspish daughter Sorel (Zoe Mortimer in fine form) and dapper son Simon, played by Josh Whitehouse-Gardner, who is perfectly cast.  Of all the company, it is he who gives the best clipped, Cowardian delivery.  As the father, David Bliss, Roger Harding warms into the role and is soon hurling himself into histrionics along with the rest of his brood.

The hapless guests include Vivien Tomlinson, good fun as a kind of prototype ‘cougar’ figure, Myra Arundel; Paul Tomlinson as Richard, delivering a nice line in awkwardness; Thomas Hodge flounders around agreeably as nice-but-dim Sandy; while India Willes’s Jackie is a study in social anxiety and shyness.

Judith’s thunder is almost stolen by her maid of all work, Clara, played by Shirley Allwork, in a hilarious piece of character work in perfect contrast with all the posh nobs she has to serve.

Director Colin Lewis Edwards gets the pacing of the rows and arguments spot on, and the funniest scene comes when our hosts attempt to entertain their motley guests with an abortive parlour game.

Special mention must go to Bel Derrington and Graham Robson for their elegantly detailed and substantial set, contained within the confines of the Bear Pit’s intimate performance space.

Coward is a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde and a forerunner of Edward Albee, and this high quality, classy production delivers the goods.  What does the play have to say to us today, 90-odd years since it first appeared?  Perhaps it’s that the ‘elite’ are still riding roughshod over the rest of us, callous and careless in their conceited conduct.  Or perhaps it’s just that impoliteness and rudeness remain terribly funny – as long as someone else is on the receiving end.

SamAllard_TBP_HayFever_Dress_140618_-061

Lesley Wilcox as Judith Bliss (Photo: Sam Allard)

 


Joy Ride

SUMMER HOLIDAY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 13th June, 2018

 

The 1963 Cliff Richard film about a bunch of lads who travel across Europe in a London double-decker bus is now a vehicle, haha, for Ray Quinn and a ball of energy shaped liked the rest of the cast.  The minimal set, apart from the bus of course, gives them plenty of space to dance in – and boy, do they dance!  Quinn is an incredible mover – they all are – and director Racky Plews’s quirky 1960s choreography pulls no punches.  The staging of the musical numbers is a spectacular display of talent and skill.  It’s breath-taking and fun – fun being the watchword of this effortlessly likeable show.

There are plenty of iconic songs (the title song, Do You Wanna Dance?, The Young Ones, and so on) and some nondescript ones, but these are salvaged and redeemed by the energetic staging.  The script by Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan is charmingly funny, cheeky rather than smutty; it’s all light-hearted stuff, and I forgive the odd anachronisms (like ‘anger management’) because I’m having too good a time to care.

Like I said, as Don, the Cliff role, Quinn is incredible.  Even his speaking voice is mannered to suit the period and he seems to chuck himself around with ease.  He is supported by his mates: Rory Maguire is funny as Cyril; Billy Roberts is funny as Steve, in a low-brow kind of way; and Joe Goldie is funny – no, make that hilarious – as Edwin, especially when he’s attempting to mime.  They meet a trio of girls in France, on their way to stardom in Athens, and guess what, they’re all funny too, even if there’s not much to differentiate their characters other than hair colour.  The girls’ numbers are real treats.  I like Alice Baker’s Alma, Laura Marie Benson’s Angie, and particularly enjoy Gabby Antrobus’s Mimsie.

Adding drama to the bus ride is the marvellous Sophie Matthew as Barbara, starlet on the run, bringing Shakespearean transvestite intrigue when she stows away on the bus disguised as a boy (she’s in disguise, not the bus).  As well as being glamorous and elegant, Matthew is also funny – there’s a great scene when Quinn is towelling off after a shower and asks the ‘boy’ to assist.  Quinn is in impressive shape, by the way, and his cheeky smile is never far away.

Villain of the piece is Barbara’s pushy showbiz mother Stella, played to the hilt by Taryn Sudding.  The Muttley to her Dick Dastardly is none other than veteran entertainer Bobby Crush, having and being great fun under a dreadful toupee.  Crush proves himself a fine comic actor as the long-suffering Jerry; the delivery of his lines and the timing of his reactions is spot on.

This is relentless entertainment, harking back to a more innocent time and kept fresh and alive by an indefatigable company.  I leave the theatre with a big grin plastered over my face – and there’s not many bus journeys that have that effect.

summer hol

 


Music à la King

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th June, 2018

 

This biographical musical, telling of the rise to prominence of songwriter Carole King, feels different from other shows of its type.  Yes, it’s a rags-to-riches tale but the young King seems to have had a smooth ride to the top, from 1950s Brooklyn to 1970s Los Angeles.  Pressure from her mother to give up ‘sawng-wriding’ and become a teacher is easily overcome.  Resistance within the industry is deftly swept aside.  She sells her first hit, meets a handsome chap, forms a writing partnership with him, becomes his wife, mother to his daughters… It’s almost the interval when the first cloud appears, and dramatic tension at last enters the piece.  The second act is rife with marital stress, but King comes through, using the break-up of her marriage to lyricist Gerry Goffin as the basis for material for her phenomenal album, Tapestry.

As King, Bronté Barbé‏ is magnificent, delivering the self-deprecating Jewish humour along with the goods when it comes to singing à la King, that distinctive reedy voice combining vulnerability with power.  At this performance, Grant McConvey steps up as the charming but troubled Gerry Goffin and there is some excellent character work from Carol Royle as Carole’s mum.  Amy Ellen Richardson is also fabulous as Cynthia Weil, Carole’s best friend and songwriting rival, while Matthew Gonsalves’s Barry Mann is humorously hypochondriac and wildly talented.

The hits keep coming – it’s a real nostalgia fest of songs that were old when I was a nipper, but somehow they have entered my consciousness.  Up On The Roof, Some Kind of Wonderful, Will You Love Me Tomorrow… These are performed by members of the ensemble as ‘The Drifters’ and ‘The Shirelles’, recreating the authentic sound of those iconic acts, complete with doo-wop choreography, but it’s Little Eva (Esme Laudat) and The Locomotion that really raises the roof.  The remarkable breadth of King’s influence on popular music emerges, all the more astonishing for the era when ‘women didn’t write music’.

Beautiful is a fantastic piece of entertainment, slick and classy, heart-warming – and funny, due to a wryly witty book by Douglas McGrath.  You don’t have to be a Carole King aficionado to enjoy it, but by the end, you will be.

Beautiful.

BEAUTIFUL.-Bronte-Barbe-Carole-King.-Photo-by-Craig-Sugden-2

Bronté Barbé as Carole King (Photo: Craig Sugden)

 

 


A Nudge To Arms

TRYING IT ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Friday 8th June, 2018

 

At the grand age of 70, playwright David Edgar turns performer for the first time in this self-penned piece that blends autobiographical material and interviews with fellow activists, people who were active (for want of a better word) in the student movement of 1968 and beyond.  A survey of the political landscape of the past fifty years, a potted life story, and history lesson, the play’s didactic elements are leavened by humour and theatrical devices: Edgar converses with himself at age 20 via a voice from an antiquated cassette player; ‘stage manager’ Danielle Phillips upbraids him for his shortcomings, his dated language, his previous dismissal of feminism… It’s a searing attack that Edgar takes on the chin – the left has always been prone to bickering and in-fighting.  Indeed, the Labour party today is chronically divided, even if it has veered away from socialistic ideals and is squabbling over centrist pursuits.

It is a cliché that people become more right-wing as age withers them.  It is shocking to realise that the hard-won changes in legislation regarding race, gender, and gay rights were fought for by the same generation that largely voted for Brexit.  What happened to them?  Surely it is more than the ageing process?  Edgar attempts to enlighten us on this point and it’s a s sobering as it is entertaining.  He’s an engaging presence, seemingly effortless in his fascinating discourse.  The altercation with Phillips creates tension – this is no cosy lecture – and we are made to think for ourselves and our own position, as the world turns backwards and the progress we have made is threatened with erasure.

There is a lot to take in and ruminate over here.  It’s amusing, insightful and dismaying all at once, although there is a sense that Edgar is preaching to a choir of liberals, people who willingly and regularly attend the theatre and regard it as an arena for social commentary and change.  Perhaps we will be shaken from our comfortable complacency, our classical music and our Waitrose cuisine, and take up the cause to continue the fight before the political gains we have made are lost.  This is in addition to the long way we have still to go.

edgar

 

 

 

 


Fun with Heartbreak

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Jephson Gardens, Leamington, Thursday 7th June, 2018

 

This version from the aptly named (for this play) Heartbreak Productions sets Shakespeare’s supreme rom-com at a village garden fete as the Great War draws to a close – also apt in this centenary year of the end of that conflict.  A quintet of villagers is staging the play to raise money for the Red Cross and the action begins with a scene of them bickering as they set things up.  So, as well as playing two or three (or even four) of the Shakespearean roles, there is this additional layer.  For the most part, this framing device works very well, but when the action is interrupted for the first time for a protracted argument between the girl playing Hero and the girl playing Beatrice, which includes audience participation, the flow of the main event is stalled.  Other instances later on, when they are changing the simple scenery, work better as interjections, reminding us of the conceit.

Director Paul Chesterton keeps things moving apace, adding plenty of physical comedy to this wordy, witty piece; his cast have a snappy delivery, differentiating the characters with a range of accents, rendering this version of Messina a microcosm of Britain!  Shaun Miller’s affable, Scots Benedick is a strong foil for Bryony Tebbutt’s fiery, trouser-sporting Beatrice, which is contrasted nicely with one of her other roles as the pompous, malapropism-dropping Dogberry.  Faye Lord is an appealing Hero to George Naylor’s remarkable Claudio – Naylor brings out the fun and humour of Claudio, (before events take their dramatic turn, that is, changing the prevailing mood from fun to heartbreak) and during the wedding scene, which is handled magnificently by all, plays the angry bridegroom with power and conviction.  Man of the match though is Ashleigh Aston playing Leonato, Don John (here Countess Joan) and Don Pedro.  She also manages a turn as a hilarious watchman.

The adaptation, with a few cuts here and a few re-attributed lines there, keeps all the action and intrigue intact, placing an emphasis on rumour and misinformation.  There’s only a couple of instances when it feels like they’re spreading themselves thin – needs must, I suppose.

Above all, the wit, charm and intensity of the Shakespeare comes through, despite the odd splash of drizzle and the noise of the church bells and the ducks flying overhead.  It’s an entertaining and pleasant way to pass a summer’s evening, with an engaging cast and one of the bard’s most delightful works.