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!

Sweet Nothing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

New Vic Theatre, Thursday 14th February, 2019

 

This co-production between the New Vic and Northern Broadsides sets Shakespeare’s quintessential rom-com in post-war Britain, in the North Country.  The war is just over and the country’s in a partying mood.  And so Don Pedro and his entourage arrive at Leonato’s house, dressed in the uniforms of the period, while the womenfolk are dressed as land girls.  The actor-musicians get us ‘in the mood’ with some Andrews Sisters harmonies and jazzy arrangements, courtesy of Rebekah Hughes.

Matt Rixon cuts an imposing yet avuncular figure as the fun-loving Pedro.  In contrast is his brother, disgruntled and creepy Don John (Richard J Fletcher).  Boyish Claudio (Linford Johnson) has set his sights on Leonato’s daughter Hero (Sarah Kameela Impey) but it is another couple, here played a little bit older, who steal our attention.  Robin Simpson’s fast-talking Benedick is perfectly matched by Isobel Middleton’s classy, sassy Beatrice.

The plot comes to a head in a powerful church scene and what has been a delightful comedy up to now becomes searing drama.  Director Conrad Nelson manages the change of tone expertly – so even if you know what’s coming, we share the shock of the characters.  Claudio’s rejection of the supposedly unfaithful Hero, Leonato’s bitter shame at the public scandal, Hero’s stunned silence and heartfelt pleas of innocence… It’s cracking, eye-watering stuff and having proved themselves deft with witty comedy, the cast come into there own with the more emotional stuff.  Special mention here to Simeon Truby for his devastated Leonato.  And there’s more to comeL  Beatrice and Benedick, alone together for the first time since they have been tricked into believing they are in love with each other, swap declarations and promises.  Suddenly, it’s life and death stuff.  It’s dizzying writing from old Shakespeare, and it’s played to the hilt.

The problems of the witty elite are solved by the hapless intervention of an underclass, the local Watch, whose bumbling makes Dad’s Army look like a crack unit.  Their leader Dogberry (David Nellist) mangles the language with malapropisms, while Anthony Hunt’s spiv of a Borachio makes a convincing transition from bragging to repenting.

Choreography by Beverly Norris-Edmunds keeps the party atmosphere going, with energetic period moves, and there is some lovely a capella singing at key points.  Sigh No More, Ladies works excellently as a bit of barbershop quartet.

This is a wonderful feelgood production that also puts us through an emotional wringer.  Performed by a superlative company, directed in a manner that maximises the comic and the dramatic elements, and serving as a testament to Shakespeare’s genius, this is a Much Ado to savour.

I loved it.

©NOBBY CLARK+44(0)7941-515770
+44(0)20-7274-2105
nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Isobel Middleton as Beatrice (Photo: Nobby Clark)

 

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Lest We Forget…

VISITORS

The Bear Pit, Wednesday 13th February, 2019

 

Barney Norris’s four-hander is ostensibly about dementia’s relentless campaign to rob us of our loved ones.  Farmer’s wife Edie drifts into memories, spending most of her time in Memory Lane, while her husband Arthur does his best to keep going and support her.  The couple take in young Kate, on some kind of house-share programme, to help around the place, while their middle-aged son Stephen faces marital difficulties of his own.  The play depicts Edie’s decline pretty accurately, but it’s also about communication problems between parents and children, drawing parallels between Edie’s disease and Stephen’s unease.

In the central role of Edie, Judith Grundy gives a powerful performance.  It tugs at the heartstrings to see her floundering in fear and bewilderment.  In an otherwise naturalistic piece, Edie’s reminiscences are curiously lyrical and feel over-written, but Grundy takes us with her every step of the way.

Kevin Hand depicts Arthur’s abiding affection for Edie with humour and a twinkle in his eye.  It’s an unsentimental piece and Hand is pitch perfect.  Barry Purchase-Rathbone delivers Stephen’s awkward joke-telling and selfishness, while Zoe Mortimer’s Kate is intelligent and assertive, although it does feel that Kate is largely included so Edie can have someone to forget.

Inevitably, perhaps, it’s a rather sedentary piece.  Getting out of chairs is problematic so there is a lot of sitting around and talking.  Director Tony Homer makes sure the conversations are animated, and the close confines of the Bear Pit space allow for detailed and expressive performances from this strong quartet.

Ultimately, for me, it’s a case of not liking the play but admiring the production.  For all its moments of humour, it’s a bit of a downer.  Those familiar with the ravages of dementia on loved ones will recognise Edie’s symptoms.  Others will be made more aware of how the disease throws lives into disarray.  Raising awareness is a good thing but more should be said – shouted! – about the devastating cuts to vital support services and the deliberate underfunding of the NHS by this cruel and vicious government.  With an ever-aging population, more and more people are going to need help; most won’t have a farm like Arthur and Edie they can sell to fund their care.

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Judith Grundy, Kevin Hand and a standard lamp (Photo: Sam Allard)

 

 


Street Life

AVENUE Q

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th February, 2019

 

The brainchild of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (who wrote the book) Avenue Q is one of those shows I never tire of going back to.  It always feels like a treat, and this new tour is no exception.  For those that don’t know, it is modelled on Sesame Street, but here the lessons are most definitely for grown-ups, lessons that contain a few uncomfortable truths we need reminding of every now and then.

Unlike the TV classic, and The Muppet Show, here the puppeteers are clearly visible.  On the one hand, you sort of turn a blind eye to them and focus on the characters they operate; on the other, you pay direct attention to them and you are blown away by the skills on display.  You want multi-tasking, this is the musical theatre equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy while emoting and belting out songs.

The excellent Lawrence Smith is newly graduated Princeton, seeking his purpose in life.  Through Princeton we are introduced to the other inhabitants of this thoroughfare.  He falls for Kate Monster (the astonishing Cecily Redman) and they go out – leading to some harsh life lessons for both of them.  He meets Nicky ( the brilliant Tom Steedon) who is thrown out by room-mate Rod (also Lawrence Smith) who can’t bring himself to come out of the closet, leading to a life lesson for us all about helping others, the homeless in particular.  Steedon also performs as the hilarious Trekkie Monster who has an addiction to the internet – Cookies don’t come into it!  Redman also operates sleazy nightclub singer Lucy The Slut (subtle, isn’t it?) and when Lucy and Kate have to appear together, she has to converse with herself, slipping from one voice to the other with apparent ease.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Among the puppets live human characters.  Oliver Stanley makes a likeable Brian, Nicholas McLean is a mass of energy as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) but it is Saori Oda’s fierce and feisty Christmas Eve whose larger-than-life characterisation almost steals the show.

The songs are great, the book is funny, and in the hands of director Cressida Carre, this production shows that the material has lost none of its edge, none of its relevance, and none of its power to educate and amuse.

I enjoy my trip down Memory Lane but if it’s your first time in this neighbourhood, I envy you the surprises you’re going to have.  You might also learn something about life you don’t know you need to know.

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Christmas Eve (Saori Oda) offers advice to uptight Rod (Lawrence Smith) Photo: Matt Martin

 

 

 


Chilling at Home

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

 

When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past.  Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…

And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller.  Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect.  But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use.  FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.

Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability.  Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction.  Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication.   She also has some great reactive moments.

There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras.  Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.

Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.

Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.

 

cold hill

Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…

 


Bosom Buddies

DI AND VIV AND ROSE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th February, 2019

 

Three very different young women meet at university in the 1980s, share a student house for a couple of years, and then strive to keep in touch as their lives take them in different directions.  That’s the plot of Amelia Bullmore’s play, written and first produced in 2013.   With the action spanning thirty years, there are plenty of costume changes and music cues to convey the passage of time.  Video projections, by Kristan Webb, identify locations, with sketches supposedly taken from art history student Rose’s sketchbook.

As middle-class, promiscuous Rose Katie Merriman is hilarious, adding physical comedy to her characterisation.  Rose having trouble walking and sitting after an evening with the well-endowed Casper is a scream.  Rose might be a bit of a sheltered, spoiled Southerner, but Merriman brings her great warmth.

Tiffany Cawthorne portrays sporty lesbian Di with youthful vigour and bright-eyed enthusiasm – until events bring out darker emotions.  Bullmore’s writing gives us broad humour and delicate, sensitive scenes.  Cawthorne handles everything the script requires of her with skill and conviction.

Completing the trio is Liz Plumpton as oddball Viv, who spends her student days dressed ‘like it’s the War’ and is not shy of deconstructing events with sociological analysis.  Her militant intellectualism is in direct contrast with good-time girl Rose’s outlook; sparks fly between the two of them, which serve to deepen the bond between them.  Plumpton is superb as the slightly dour, dry-witted Viv. It takes a tragic event to bring Viv to the boil in powerful scenes, and it’s all the more moving because of her previous behaviour.

It’s a warm-hearted, very funny piece.  Director Kevin Middleton handles the sea changes of the women’s lives, navigating the differences in tone with subtlety and the broader comedic moments with splendid timing.  There are some pacing issues with some of the transitions: scenes divided into snappy sub-scenes need quicker changes; there are too many slow fades to black, when these should be reserved for the changing of the years.  But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent production.  The depth and range of emotion depicted here raises the story beyond the realms of chick-lit.  It’s an examination of the bonds of friendship: the fun to be had, the closeness, the sense of belonging, as well as the bitterness and sense of disappointment when life gets in the way.

Laugh-out-loud funny and ultimately very moving, this is a fine production of a powerful play, and it makes me wish Amelia Bullmore was more prolific!

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Katie Merriman, Tiffany Cawthorne and Liz Plumpton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Intoxicating

THE TOXIC AVENGER

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 8th February, 2019

 

Based on a schlocky horror film, this satirical musical by Joe Dipietro is given a stripped- down presentation in the Old Joint Stock’s intimate space.  I say ‘intimate’ and I mean ‘in your face’.  We are right there, inches away from the performers, within their grasp, within their eye-line, in their path…

It’s the story of hapless nerd Melvin Ferd the Third who, having been dumped in a barrel of toxic waste, develops superhuman strength along with other, less desirable attributes, like green skin and leaking pustules.  In love with blind librarian Sarah, ‘Toxie’ becomes a force for good, fighting against pollution and corporate negligence, largely in the glamorous if tacky figure of the Mayor of New Jersey, Babs Belgoody.

In the title role, Richard Haines is remarkable, giving a flawlessly sung performance as good as any I’ve heard in the West End.  His rendition of You Tore My Heart Out is stunning.  His acting is top notch too, and he is supported by half a dozen strong co-stars, not least Sarah Haines as his love interest, a blind librarian.  The show gets a lot of mileage out of Sarah’s disability; we know we shouldn’t laugh, but we do, but this is cartoon stuff.  Everything is heightened for comedic melodrama – even the scene changes are hilarious.

Lizzie Robins doubles as the wicked Mayor Babs and Melvin’s Noo Yoik mother, Ma Ferd.  At one point the story calls for both of her characters to sing a duet.  Robins pulls it off with aplomb, keeping each character in a different register.  She almost doesn’t need the half-and-half costume she dons to close the number.

A versatile quartet makes up the rest of the cast, listed simply as Black Dude, White Dude, Black Chick, and White Chick.  They provide all the supporting roles and they each get plenty of opportunity to shine.  Alanna Boden’s Professor, for example, in a duet with the Mayor is a delight; Elle Knowles’s bully, Gavin Whichello’s shirtless cowboy singer – the quartet are the beating heart of the show, the population of the troubled town of Tromaville.  They’re all great but I feel I ought to make special mention of Joash Musundi for his doughnut-eating cop, his doctor, and his wonderful Shoniqua.

This is a production that revels in its limitations.  Director Adam Carver works wonders to keep things hilarious, aided by Sarah Haines’s frenetic choreography.  Every moment I’m torn between laughing out loud and marvelling at the talent on display.  Hugely enjoyable, exhilaratingly delivered, this rude and raunchy show is more tonic than toxic.

What is toxic is the world we live in.  If corporations and politicians aren’t going to address issues of climate change, perhaps we ought to adopt the Toxic Avenger’s approach and start ripping off a few heads!

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A Question of Colour

BLUE/ORANGE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th February, 2019

 

Joe Penhall’s three-hander from 2000 gets a timely revival in this taut new production, directed by Daniel Bailey.  Twenty-eight days after being sectioned by the police, Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is looking forward to going home – if the psychiatrists treating him can agree to it.  Bruce (young, idealistic) is reluctant to give Chris the go-ahead, while Bruce’s mentor, ambitious consultant Robert is all for it.  As Chris is interviewed and assessed, the play brings up the sad fact of greater propensity for mental illness among the black population – well, you try being in a minority, any minority, in an oppressive culture!

Thomas Coombes is largely sympathetic as a twitchy if well-meaning Bruce, trying to do and say the right things, only to find his career jeopardised by ill-advised vocabulary (the ‘n’ word) rather than any misdiagnosis or malpractice.  Penhall is very sharp on language, the words used as labels, as descriptors; it’s not just a minefield for professionals.   Almost twenty years since its first outing, we are perhaps more sensitive about semantics, more aware of the impact of language.  Let’s hope so, anyway.

Richard Lintern is excellent as the suave, glib Doctor Robert Smith, looking for the cure.  (I don’t mean to make him sound like the front man of a goth band).   His casual manner conceals the professionally self-serving hard-man he really is.  But it is Ivan Oyik in his professional debut who proves the most compelling of this talented trio.  Oyik’s Christopher is sometimes manic, sometimes lucid, sometimes paranoid, sometimes affronted (rightly so, on occasion!) and is never anything less than magnetic.

Much of the play’s humour derives from Christopher’s responses and reactions, and also much of the tension.  As the action unfolds, there is shift after shift in the power structure, with accusations and questions flying around.

Amelia Hankin’s design takes its cue from the title, for its colour scheme, with institutional armchairs and a water cooler set on a diamond dais beneath a suspended framework.  It’s a simple, stylish setting, the impact of which is heightened by Azusa Ono’s lighting design.  Daniel Bailey’s direction keeps the sometimes-wordy scenes dynamic and captivating, so we are able to follow the argument and the discussions with ease.

I’m not sure that Penhall offers answers, but surely the point of this piece is to raise the question.  Thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable fare, this is a riveting performance of what has become a modern classic, and is still utterly relevant today.  We’re all supposed to be talking about mental health, but as well as talk, the resources need to be there to support and alleviate mental illness.

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Richard Lintern, Ivan Oyik and Thomas Coombes chair a meeting (Photo: Myah Jeffers)