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 Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Skills and Thrills

CIRCUS 1903

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 25th October, 2019

 

One hundred and twenty years ago, the first incarnation of the Hippodrome was a circus (Hippo meaning horse, of course, and drome meaning arena or stadium).  Now, the theatre’s birthday celebrations culminate in this postmodern version of the traditional entertainment form.  In fact, I am surprised by how up-to-date it all is, given the retro title which led me to expect something more in the way of a historical reconstruction, perhaps.

What we get is a succession of traditional acts: balancers, tumblers, high-fliers, hosted by a ringmaster (although there is no ring).  He is ‘Willy Whipsnade’, a charming, older gentleman who exudes warmth, bonhomie and an American accent from behind a stunt moustache of epic proportions.  The production leans toward the other side of the Atlantic in its aesthetic, with its razzmatazz and sideshow.

The first half gives us a stylised look ‘behind the scenes’ with some energetic roustabouts wielding sledgehammers to represent the erecting of the big top.  There are acts, going through their routines, including a couple on a seesaw, The Daring Desafios, a balancing act: The Sensational Mikhail Sozonov – and you wonder what a health-and-safety officer would make of it all.  It’s impressive, death-defying stuff and, unlike on the telly, the jeopardy is almost palpable.  A contortionist (‘Serpentina’ aka Senayet Asefa Amare)  bends your mind as her bottom half runs rings around her own head.  It’s compelling and slightly sickening and yet marvellous all at the same time.

Between acts, our host enlists children from the audience to assist with his magic tricks.  The banter here will be familiar to panto-goers, and Whipsnade is adept at it, quick-thinking and witty.  Of course, the kids deliver the goods in terms of cuteness and surprise.

There’s another balancer, this one going for height, The Great Rokardy Rodriguez, and an aerial duo, the Flying Fredonis (Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych), a graceful couple whose act is beautiful despite or because of the inherent danger of it.

The first half climaxes with the arrival of a couple of elephants, mother and baby.  Fear not, animal rights supporters; these are puppets, War Horse style, and they are magnificent.   You have to remember it’s the puppeteers you’re applauding rather than the animals!  In 1903, of course, and for a long time after, real animals would have been drafted in to provide ‘entertainment’.  Things have come a long way since then, thank goodness.

The second half is more of a circus proper.  There’s a juggler (the Great Gaston, aka Francois Borie) and a woman who spins hula-hoops while balancing on a ball (Mademoiselle Natalia Leontieva) and they’re great at what they do, but I’m practically gasping for some clowns.  A bit of slapstick to leaven all the jeopardy.

Then comes ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ in which Willy Whipsnade gets five young kids up and introduces them to his baby racoon – another puppet, on a simpler scale!  Not only is it the funniest part of the evening, it’s one of the funniest  of such routines I’ve ever seen.  Whipsnade (to give him his real name, David Williamson) is brilliant at this, and the Hippodrome should snap him up for panto next year.

The Remarkable Risleys close the show with a display of breath-taking acrobatics, where the one uses the other as a prop, spinning him around in the air with his feet.  All the acts are impressive – they have to be – and I clap my hands off in appreciation of this international cast.  But I still would like a custard pie or a bucket of water to complete this circus that overlooks a bit of slosh.

circus

Queenie and Peanut, stealing the show

 

 

 


Terribly Funny

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: Terrible Tudors

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd October, 2019

 

Based on the popular series of children’s non-fiction books by the extremely popular and prolific Terry Deary, this show by the Birmingham Stage Company is playing in tandem with Awful Egyptians, which I imagine is just as much fun.

A cast of three, led by Doctor Dee (played in this performance by director Neal Foster) take us through the reign of the Tudors, from the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field through to the succession of James I after the demise of Elizabeth.  Along the way, there are interludes examining other aspects of Tudor society, like the cruel punishments meted out to criminals (some hilarious practical effects here) and the disgusting elements of medical practice.

Foster is a delight, whether its in one of his many characters (including Henry VIII) or when he’s addressing the audience with a good old-fashioned ‘Shut your face!’.  He is supported by a more-than-able pair, Dross (Lisa Allen) and Drab (Izaak Cainer) who take on all the other roles, as well as being enjoyable characters in their own right.

The facts come as thick and as fast as the jokes.  The declamatory style of storytelling is leavened by silly voices and camp gestures, and the action is augmented by cartoony sound effects (thanks to Nick Sagar) and animated projections on the screen that forms the backdrop.  The performance style owes much to Monty Python and pantomime, and the script has a touch of the Carry-Ons, without the bawdiness.  There are plenty of mentions of poo and grisly deaths to keep the kids fascinated, while the adults will find much to enjoy in the execution (heh) of the comic business by these three talented players.

The second half has the added ingredient of 3D effects to make you flinch and gasp, as the Spanish Armada is blown to splinters and blood from the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots splatters across the screen.  There are catchy songs, including one to help you remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, and even Will. I. Am. Shakespeare crops up with a version of I Gotta Feeling.  The anachronisms make the history accessible and keep the laughs coming.

And then, as the reign and life of Elizabeth come to an end, she recaps the dynasty, in a powerful moment from Lisa Allen, bringing depth and gravitas to the piece – but don’t worry, there’s another catchy song to round things off.

Thoroughly enjoyable, informative and hilarious, this Horrible History makes for Terrific Theatre.

1 Terrible Tudors by Birmingham Stage Company. Photo by Mark Douet

Terrible Tudors: Lisa Allen and Izaak Cainer are armed and dangerous (Photo: Mark Douet)

 


Chart Show

PRESSURE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th October, 2019

 

David Haig’s play is set the weekend before D-Day – a date enshrined in history, but of course, at the time they didn’t know exactly when the Normandy invasion would take place.  And that’s the crux of the plot.  General Eisenhower is relying on weather forecasts to predict the best conditions for making his move and sending 350,000 men into danger.  One expert is predicting fair weather, another says there’s a storm coming.  But who is right?  And which way will Eisenhower jump?

Martin Tedd’s Dr Stagg is a grumpy Scot, a Victor Meldrew of a man, but he knows what he’s talking about.  His certainty of his own knowledge and experience contrasts with the uncertainty around his wife going into difficult labour with their second child.  But Stagg is under lockdown at Southwick House and is powerless to help.  Tedd is good at Stagg’s short temper but he stumbles sometimes with the specialist language, phrases that should trip off the tongue.  His American counterpart, Colonel Krick is played with assurance by Robert Laird.

Alexandria Carr is marvellous as the only female character in the piece, Lieutenant Summersby – her accent matches her period hairdo, and she performs with efficiency, showing the human behind the British aloofness.

The mighty Colin Simmonds portrays Eisenhower with a blunt kind of charm, exuding power easily and bringing humour to the piece.  As ever, Simmonds inhabits the character with utter credibility and nuance.  It feels like a privilege to see him perform.

There is pleasing support from Griff Llewelyn-Cook as young Andrew, and from Crescent stalwarts Dave Hill and Brian Wilson in some of the smaller roles.

Director Karen Leadbetter keeps us engaged with all the jargon flying around by handling the highs and lows, the changing weather of human interactions, with an ear for when things should be loud and when quiet, and when silence is most powerful.

The simple set, in wartime greens, gives us a sense of time and place, and is enhanced by John Gray’s lighting – especially for off-stage action, like an aeroplane in trouble, for example.  The room is dominated by the charts, huge maps with isobars swirling across them, and you marvel that the technology of the time was adequate for its purpose.

This is a solid production of a play that sheds light on an esoteric yet crucial part of the war effort.  Haig has obviously researched his subject matter extensively and manages to tell the story without being overly didactic or preachy.

pressure

Alexandria Carr and Colin Simmonds feel the pressure (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Fun & Femininity

PRIDE & PREJUDICE* (*SORT OF)

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th October, 2019

 

A sextet of servants narrates and performs Jane Austen’s most celebrated story in Isobel McArthur’s irreverent adaptation.  People expecting historical accuracy and verbatim enactments will be disappointed.  Everyone else will be delighted by this consistently hilarious reimagining of the quintessential romantic novel.  Riddled with anachronisms and with heightened theatricality, the script adheres to the storyline but swaps Austen’s wry observations and commentary with coarse humour and clever silliness.  Oh, and there’s songs in it too, karaoke versions of pop standards that are entirely apt to the scenes in which they feature and are delightful without exception.  Elizabeth singing You’re So Vain after a run-in with Mr Darcy, for example, or the dastardly Wickham’s You’re Just Too Good To Be True, sung to Elizabeth while her sisters are backing dancers… The whole thing is a joy from start to finish.

The entirely female cast play all the parts, often with quick changes, and it’s impossible to pick out a favourite.  There is so much to enjoy in the comedic playing: Christina Gordon’s haughty Lady Catherine, Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s blokey Mr Bingley (doubling as his bitchy sister), Felixe Forde’s pouting, posturing Wickham, Tori Burgess’s put-upon, oddball Mary… Isobel McArthur herself is a hoot as the hypochondriac Mrs Bennett, puffing away on an inhaler, and is suitably repressed and pompous as the infamous ‘mard-arse’ Mr Darcy, while Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth is spirited and hard-drinking…

Director Paul Brotherston gives his versatile cast plenty of comic business and keeps the action fast-paced with some clever and inventive theatrics.  The timing is impeccable and the script is snappy, and while it is true to the plot, it shows that a well-placed swearword can bring the house down.  Somehow, Jane Austen asserts herself and the emotional impact of her love story comes through intact, despite the profanity and the mucking around.

Above all, it’s a right good laugh.  A thoroughly entertaining, camptastic piece, impressively performed by a pack of very funny women, this is the best version of Pride and Prejudice since the story was infested with zombies.

Recommended!

4. (L-R) Felixe Forde and Meghan Tyler. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Felixe Forde and Meghan Tyler as Wickham and Elizabeth (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic)


Losing the Light

PRISM

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Tuesday 8th October, 2019

 

The prism of the title refers, on one level, to a vital component of an old-school movie camera, a piece of glass that splits the light so that colour film photography is possible – something like that, I’m no physicist.  The protagonist of writer-director Terry Johnson’s new play is the celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen…) who certainly knows how it all works, except his prism got broken years ago and the camera that looms in a corner of the set can’t work without it… So, it’s a metaphor for Cardiff’s brain, because Jack has dementia, eating away at his memories, his vocabulary, his ability to recognise faces and places.

Robert Lindsay is magnificent as the cantankerous, irascible Jack, bringing to the fore the humour of the situation – talking to someone with dementia can be very funny; it is also touching, moving and a little scary.  Lindsay dominates proceedings, while his wife, son and brand-new carer bend over backwards to keep him happy.  Son Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is keen for Jack to write his autobiography so that all his expertise and experience is not lost.  Wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald) just wants Jack to remember who she is and not conflate her with Katherine Hepburn.  Carer Lucy (Victoria Blunt) has her own reasons for proving she is up to the job.

In the second act, the script swerves and suddenly we are on location with The African Queen.  Tara Fitzgerald does a marvellous Hepburn, while Hembrough’s Bogart is nicely observed.  Later, Victoria Blunt effectively evokes Marilyn Monroe – and it is here we realise, we are looking through the prism of Jack’s dementia, as scenes are repeated with people from his present taking the forms of people from his past.  It’s a powerful way of staging the experience of the dementia sufferer – but also those suffering because of a loved one’s dementia.  Tara Fitzgerald is heart-breaking when Nicola reveals her husband doesn’t know her anymore.

This is a biographical piece about a particular man and his rarefied career, but it deals with the disease in a universal way.  There is a fascinating, nostalgic appeal about the golden age of cinema; I was dismayed to hear talk during the interval that there are people among us who have not seen any of Cardiff’s work!  It would be a great shame if such wonderful movies were to disappear from our collective memory.

Funny, fascinating and filmic, this is a hugely enjoyable, edifying piece, with an endearing central performance from Robert Lindsay and stellar support from a talented trio.  The production is superbly realised with cinematic elements in Tim Shortall’s design and Ben Ormerod’s lighting.  Above all, it shows Terry Johnson back at the top of his game.

Loved it!

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in Prism_photo credit Manuel Harlan (1)

I am a camera! Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Rice and Cheese

THE ENTERTAINER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 7th October, 2019

 

Archie Rice, washed-up, old-school, tax-dodging comic treats his audiences with scorn, but they’re not lapping it up anymore.  Meanwhile, at home, there’s a son away in a war, and Archie’s second wife is feeling the strain.  Daughter Jean is reaching her limits – she’s not going to put up with the old ways for much longer, while grandpa Billy Rice rants about immigrants and gives rise to friction… Archie’s home life is no picnic either.

Director Sean O’Connor brings John Osborne’s play forward in time from the Suez Crisis to the time of the Falklands Conflict.  But for all the pop music of the era and the references to Shake & Vac and Rising Damp, this is very much a play for today.  The bigoted, anti-immigrant attitudes expressed by old Billy, laughable in an Alf Garnett kind of way, have resurfaced in today’s Britain – and so Billy (played with conviction and credibility by Pip Donaghy) isn’t funny but alarming.  He’s a Sun reader, so what can you expect?  Headlines from that ‘newspaper’ are projected across the scene, and the anti-Argentine rhetoric of then is strikingly similar to today’s bile levelled against the EU, with whom we are not even at war.

Diana Vickers is a steadying presence as young Jean, whose boyfriend troubles bring her back to the family flat.  Jean becomes the ‘angry young woman’ of the piece, letting rip in a tirade that is a long time coming, while Alice Osmanski witters and frets effectively as Archie’s second wife Phoebe.  Christopher Bonwell has some strong moments as young Frank but of course the show belongs to the star.

Shane Richie is on excellent form as Archie Rice, from his off-colour, sexist jokes, to his Max Wall-esque clowning, and his cheesy cabaret singing.  Richie not only performs Archie’s act, he acts his decline – Don’t go expecting an evening of comedy!  This is heavy duty stuff, about the dynamics of this dysfunctional family at a time of political and economic uncertainty; it’s about personal failure, and also the human condition.  “I’m dead behind the eyes,” Richie claims acidly, before accusing all of us of being in the same state.  It’s a bitter moment in a bitter play.

The drama takes place on a conventional box set, but it’s kept back, behind a false proscenium arch, physically keeping the characters at a distance from us, the edges and tops of the flats clearly in view.  We are not part of the scene, not part of the family, but held at bay so we can examine them from afar.  Osborne’s scathing writing holds these people up, not for our admiration or sympathy, but for our ridicule and disparagement.  Characters step forward, speaking their opinions in broad asides, again reminding us of the artifice of the production.

It’s a challenging piece but as a statement on the country before its post-Brexit decline, it couldn’t be more on the money.  Fortunately for us, Shane Richie is more of an entertainer than poor Archie Rice could ever hope to be, giving a masterful performance with genuine star quality.

shane

Joker! Shane Richie as Archie Rice