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!

Private Moments

YANK!

Charing Cross Theatre, London, Wednesday 16th August, 2017

 

With music by Joseph Zellnik and book and lyrics by David Zellnik, this World War II love story has a timely relevance its creators perhaps did not foresee.  A young man finds a journal in a San Francisco junk shop.  In it he reads the story of journalist Stu (Scott Hunter) who reported for Yank, the army’s in-house magazine during the War – after having met handsome Mitch (Andy Coxon) while undergoing basic training.  The pair strike up a friendship that develops – thanks to long periods without female company – into something more.  Mitch is far from at ease, confused by his love for Stu, and the pair split until events conspire to reunite them and also threaten to finish them off for good.

The pair are so appealing, the playing so tender in contrast with the barrack room banter of the rest of the squad, you can’t help rooting for them.  What these privates do with their privates has to be kept private.  There is also an underlying dread that things will not end happily for these stars-and-stripes-crossed lovers.

Scott Hunter is marvellous as our sensitive and vulnerable narrator, gaining strength in his sense of identity and confidence in his sexuality, while Andy Coxon both looks and sounds bloody gorgeous as hunky heartthrob Mitch (I want one!).

They are supported by a talented and versatile squad, among whom are Kris Marc-Joseph, who adds a touch of humour as Czechowski, Bradley Judge as handsome Italian Rotelli, and Waylon Jacobs impresses as a tough-talking Sarge and as the effeminate, drawling ‘Scarlett’.  Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Lee Dillon-Stuart’s redneck Tennessee is the ugly face (no offence) of homophobia – although, of course, the real baddie is the institutionalised discrimination against gays in the military (and society as a whole).  Sarah-Louise Young appears in all the female roles (there were lesbians in the US army!  Who knew?!) and she gets to knock out some of the show’s finest torch songs.  Chris Kiely is also in great form as photographer Artie, who opens Stu’s eyes (among other things…)

The melodic score is heavily influenced by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with some 1940s touches for added authenticity –  at times the harmonies are very Andrews Sisters.  The lyrics are witty and sophisticated, and the plot engages us emotionally at first and then intellectually.  We must remember those who fought and/or died to preserve our freedom as well as those who paved the way for civil rights.  How depressing then to live in an age when the Bigot-in-Chief at the White House bans trans people from the armed forces!  Homophobic attacks are on the rise.  The fight for equality and against oppressive shitheads continues.

This beautiful, poignant, funny and rousing show touched my heart, drained my tear ducts and made my hands sore from clapping.  A real pleasure to see (thanks to Chris Cuming’s lively choreography) and to hear (take a bow, MD James Cleeve and his unseen band).  Director James Baker balances tension with humour, tenderness with menace, to engage us with this powerful story.  Small in scale yet immense in scope, Yank! is a strong contender for my favourite show of the year.

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Lip service: Andy Coxon and Scott Hunter (Photo: Claire Bilyard)


Absolutely Batty

DRACULA: THE BLOODY TRUTH

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 15th August, 2017

 

Exeter-based troupe, Le Navet Bête (The Stupid Turnip) bring their zany antics to the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre for a couple of sell-out performances of this new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal novel.  In this one, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is our host, declaiming Stoker for misappropriating the truth.  Dracula, Van Helsing asserts, is in fact, fact.  So begins a very silly evening, as Van Helsing and his three associates reconstruct events for our information.

It’s a madcap couple of hours where the theatricality is as heightened as the silliness.  Draining the same comic vein as The Play That Goes Wrong the group’s apparently shambolic efforts at drama are relentlessly funny, as door handles come off, props are destroyed and even the proscenium arch comes tumbling down.  There is physical comedy too as the energetic quartet dart around, sometimes portraying different characters in the same scene, and the script has a witty spirit that gives the actors plenty of scope to be hilarious.  The cast is comprised of Matt Freeman, Nick Blunt, Dan Bianchi and Al Dunn – but with all the dashing around it’s hard to keep track of who is whom.

John Nicholson’s direction maintains a frenetic pace, making judicious use of tech to enhance the relentless parade of gags.  “I hate theatre,” is Van Helsing’s constant refrain as his show collapses around him.  His production is cursed, it would appear, but we are blessed to witness this virtuoso display of slapstick and high camp.

Phil Eddolls’s design evokes the Victorian period, and is gloriously ‘inept’ – in one scene, characters are required to enter and exit via a door in the ‘fireplace’.  We have no hope of suspending our disbelief for a second.

It takes great skill to be as ‘bad’ as this and the vigour and charm of the cast keeps the joke from wearing thin.  The surprises keep coming in this breathless romp through the story.  It’s an unadulterated pleasure to wallow in silliness for a couple of hours in these troubling times.  If the show has a message, perhaps it’s that theatre should be entertaining and life should be enjoyed – because there are bad things out there and always will be.  This is fun you can sink your teeth into.

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Photo: Matt Austin

 


Blooming Great

THE SECRET GARDEN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s novel first appeared in 1911.  It wasn’t quite that long ago when I read it but various film and stage adaptations of it have kept the story and characters in my mind over the years.  Now comes this new version by Simon Ravenhill and it’s a corker.  With only a cast of four, Ravenhill delivers the whole book and while the action moves swiftly, it never feels rushed.  The pacing is spot on, allowing key moments to develop and play out while keeping the plot ticking along.

Nicolette Morgan is our heroine, the orphan Mary Lennox, returning from India to an England she has never known.  Accustomed to being dressed by her Ayah, Mary is a fish out of kedgeree and, pretty much left to her own devices, continues to feel unloved and unwanted by all and sundry.  Until she begins to make friends, that is.  Morgan is excellent, giving us young Mary’s wilfulness and vulnerability without playing down to the character’s age.

She is supported by three versatile character actors who populate the rest of the story with quick changes and varied characterisations – it’s easy to forget there’s only four of them in it, and such is the transformative nature of the costumes and the actors’ skills, it’s hard to believe that the fearsome housekeeper Mrs Medlock is played by the same actor (Dru Stephenson) as the likeable, green-fingered, Doctor Doolittle-ish young boy, Dickon.  Lorenna White bobs and chatters as chambermaid Martha, and really comes into her own as the tantrum-throwing invalid Colin.  James Nicholas brings stature to the piece in a range of authoritarian roles: the Doctor,  the hunchbacked Mr Craven, a colonel.   This is a top-drawer quartet in a high-quality piece.

Simon Ravenhill also directs, getting his cast to work hard to keep things going, and there are plenty of pleasing touches, simple but so effective: a four-poster bed dominates the set, and a free-standing but movable door helps give the sense of the rambling country manor house to which Mary is consigned.   Puppets are used sparingly for that extra touch of animal magic.  The detailed costumes and the odd piece of furniture convey the period setting but it’s the actors that drive the piece.  Ravenhill’s script uses Burnett’s words but allows the characters to interact rather than resorting to narration.  I will admit to having something of a Pavlovian response to the Indian music used to underscore the scene changes.  By the interval, I was craving a vegetable madras.

A faithful and classy production of a classic story with a child-friendly running time, this is a captivating and well-tended Secret Garden that touches the heart and is yet another example of the excellent work produced at the Blue Orange.  The book’s message remains: what is left neglected will wither and spoil.  And that works for people as much as plants.

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Here Comes A Chopper

MISS SAIGON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st August, 2017

 

Schonberg & Boubil’s ‘other’ musical comes to Brum for a lengthy stay – I can’t see its popularity diminishing over the summer.  Not having seen it for 13 years or so, I am reminded of the show’s emotionally charged excellence; it’s almost like coming to it fresh.  Of course, if you know Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (and who doesn’t?), you’ll know where the plot is heading but tragedy expected is no less affecting than tragedy unforeseen.  Perhaps it is more so.

Sooha Kim is our ill-fated heroine, a massive voice in a tiny frame, singing with such range and power.  Kim (the character) retains her loyalty, innocence and naivety to the last, while Kim (the performer) repeatedly knocks our socks off as fast as we can put them back on.  A truly stunning appearance of undeniable star quality.

Leading man Chris (Ashley Gilmour) is buff in all the right places and while his voice blends perfectly in duet with Kim, it could do with a bit more muscle for his solos.  Gerald Santos’s Thuy is a striking villain but of the men, it is Red Concepcion as the opportunistic pimp, The Engineer, who truly stands out.  Morally repugnant, we take to him because of his overt humanity – plus he adds a touch of humour to the heart-rending drama.

There are also strong appearances from Marsha Songcome as Gigi, and Zoe Doano as Chris’s wife Ellen.  Ryan O’Gorman’s John, along with a male chorus, sings beautifully about Bui Doi – the kids left behind in Viet Nam by the American soldiers who fathered them – even if it does come across like a charity appeal.

This is musical theatre on the grandest scale.  A company of 69 performers flood the stage while a 15-piece orchestra delivers Schonberg’s sumptuous score under the capable baton of James McKeon.  Scene transitions are almost imperceptible as scenery floats away into darkness, while Bruno Poet’s lighting adds to the sultry atmosphere – it’s a warm night in the Hippodrome auditorium, which enhances the Far East feel.  Technically, the production is excellent: the long-awaited appearance of the helicopter is a thrilling reminder of the power of practical effects.

A powerfully dramatic story set among global events, Kim’s tale is perhaps a metaphor for the treatment of developing countries by Western foreign policy.  We take what we want and leave them to struggle, often worse off than before our intervention.  Otherwise, it’s a stirring personal tale that stirs the emotions to an operatic extent in which men are users and abusers and women are objects to be possessed or discarded.  Kim’s inability to realise this, her stubborn clinging to her idealised vision of Chris, is her fatal flaw.

This is a chance to be blown away by spectacle as much as to be touched by the drama.  Lacking the sweep of Les Mis, Miss Saigon concentrates its emotions into a smaller cast of main players but is equally as moving.  A theatrical event that should not be missed.

MISS SAIGON. Ashley Gilmour 'Chris' and Sooha Kim 'Kim'. Photo by Johan Persson (1)

East meets West: Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

 


Ecce Homo

ABOUT A GOTH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 27th July, 2017

 

Gritty Theatre bring their production of Tom Wells’s 2009 piece to Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre en route to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  A one-hander performed by newcomer Clement Charles, this is the story of Nick, a 17-year-old Goth, who is gay and who volunteers at a local old people’s home.  Dressed like a kind of vampire undertaker, a cross between Marilyn Manson and Noel Fielding, Nick is instantly appealing – it’s his camp bitchiness (or bitchy campness) that gets us laughing along with him from the off.  His performance is a one-hander in a different sense when he confides that he has to abandon a masturbation session because of his fear of staining his black duvet cover.  Nick narrates key scenes from his life, including his visits to old man Rod at the home.  He (Nick) is bright and witty, scathing and sensitive – exactly the kind of character I would have found alluring when I was that age, all those centuries ago.

Director Ian Moule doesn’t let Nick keep still for a minute, eliciting an energetic and engaging performance from the likeable and talented Charles.  During his anecdotes, Nick gradually strips away his gothic accoutrements, sloughing them off one at a time – and it’s all in keeping with the action: his socks become galloping hooves in one of his mum and dad’s historical reenactments, for example – the piecemeal degothification adds to Charles’s electrifying portrayal, as Nick eventually goes the full monty – in the best possible taste!   No detail is overlooked, from the black toenail polish to the seemingly throwaway characterisations of the others who populate Nick’s life.  Wells’s witty script is given insightful treatment – a balloon is put to symbolic use and the baring of Nick’s body, along with his story and his soul, elevates this coming-out story to something more universal: it’s about becoming aware of one’s own identity, of discovering who you are beneath the labels we and others place on ourselves.  At the end, Nick stands before us, without a stitch or a smear of makeup.  He doesn’t need to say, “Here I am”.

Clement Charles is thoroughly captivating, his delivery immaculate and exceedingly funny.  He’s also a great little mover if his cavorting to the Sugababes and Britney is anything to go by.  It’s an assured performance that rings true.

This is a satisfying and entertaining hour or so, that stirs memories of one’s own troubled teenage years (is there another kind?) reminding us that Goths, teenagers and even the elderly are humans too.

Fabulous.

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The Brice is Right

FUNNY GIRL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 24th July, 2017

 

Barbra Streisand indelibly stamped herself on this role fifty years ago so it’s a tough job for anyone to follow in her Oscar-winning footsteps.  Natasha J Barnes steps up to the plate to give us her version of Jewish entertainer, Fanny Brice – and she knocks it out of the park.  Barnes’s Fanny is magnificent, sucking us into her world, with an energised, extrovert performance – Brice as a performer was larger-than-life and hardly ever ‘off’.  Her humour is a defence mechanism and a shield for situations when she feels uncertain or nervous, cracking jokes and pulling faces to mask her fears or her heartbreak.  Barnes can also sing, with subtlety and with full belt.  Her ‘People’ is almost understated in its tenderness and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ brings the house down.  Rising through the ranks of showbiz, Brice’s instincts are to undermine the sexist tosh that is ‘His Love Makes You Beautiful’ – mainly because of her looks, which she is told repeatedly, ain’t pretty.  I take issue with this and this alone: Barnes is rather pretty indeed, lacking the distinctive features of La Streisand or La Brice.

Darius Campbell is a towering romantic lead as inveterate gambler Nick Arnstein, with his basso profundo delivery and inexhaustible supply of smarm and charm.  Nigel Barber is the long-suffering impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and Nova Skipp makes an endearing impression as Fanny’s mum.  Joshua Lay is excellent as Fanny’s friend and fellow hoofer, Eddie, while Martin Callaghan is good fun as Mr Keeney, the man who (reluctantly) gives Fanny her first break.  The entire company is on great form as an amusing bunch of characters supporting the powerful and, yes, funny central performance from Barnes. Lynne Page’s quirky period choreography also brings the Ziegfeld glamour to the production.  Michael Pavelka’s elegantly sparse set: a proscenium arch askew, mirrored wings, serves as every location for this stripped-down staging.  Harvey Fierstein may have reworked Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show but the show remains an undeniably old-school, old fashioned musical. It’s A Star is Born with a lot of heart and a lot of fun.

There are many, many peaks; the only troughs are shallow ones, whenever Fanny isn’t on stage and a couple of the numbers feel like fillers, however superbly presented.   Barnes is irresistible, almost an attention vortex, giving us the vulnerability and pain of Fanny behind the gurning and the glitz.  If you’re only going to give one standing ovation this year, this is the one who deserves it.

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The greatest star… Natasha J Barnes gives us her breathtaking Fanny

 


Two Can Play

ROLE PLAY

Blue Orange Theatre, Sunday 23rd July, 2017

 

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, this play provides an hour or so of non-stop laughs.  Matt (Alex Arksen) and Ellie (Lorren Winwood) address us directly, as though we are relationship counsellors or something.  Together they narrate a period during which they tried using role play to spice up their heterosexual lives.  They re-enact half a dozen of their scenarios, ranging from waiter and customer in a coffee shop, to nurse and patient, and schoolboy meeting his fantasy: Britney Spears.  No matter what Matt and Ellie try, the scenarios always unravel before they come to the crunch: Matt is turned off by French student Ellie’s necklace of onions; a Diet Coke moment almost blinds him when the drink erupts in his eyes… The plot may be little more than a succession of scenes, strung together like a French stereotype’s onions, but this barely matters.  The couple learn about each other along the way and give us a good laugh while doing it.

Alex Arksen is an affably blokish Matt, intent on video-gaming rather than investing time in his relationship.  Lorren Winwood proves herself to be an extremely funny woman, hurling herself into a variety of rough-hewn characterisations.  The pair complement each other perfectly and you can’t help liking them as characters and admiring them as performers.  The comic timing is impeccable, the physicality, the reactions – and the dialogue is rich with one-liners and pop culture references.

The writing is sharp and the direction snappy, making for a hilarious contemporary comedy that takes satirical swipes at modern living.  Catch it if you can!

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