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!

Thrilled to Pieces

REVENGE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 13th February, 2020

 

Robin Hawdon’s thriller from the early 1990s gets a new lease of life in this touring production from the newly-formed Crime and Comedy Theatre Company.  Smarmy MP Bill Crayshaw unwisely admits an unknown woman into his swanky London flat, only for her to reveal she is a journalist keen to expose both his dodgy business practices and his involvement in the death of his party agent just the day before.   To coerce him to answer, she threatens his collection of valuable knickknacks, even smashing a couple of them to pieces, and pretty soon he’s singing like a canary – but, it soon transpires, it’s to his own tune rather than hers.

After a slow start with lashings of exposition, the first act builds to a violent end with gunshots and one of this cat-and-mouse pair on the floor…

Nigel Fairs is effortlessly arrogant as the duplicitous MP (is there another kind?) while Kate Ashmead exhibits sadistic pleasure as ‘Mary’ toying and flirting with her quarry.

As with plays of this type, there is more to it, with twists and turns, shifts of power and reversals of fortune – necessitating further passages of wordy exposition, yet director Louis Jameson (formerly Leela off of Doctor Who, no less!) wisely never lets proceedings become static.  She also handles the big moments effectively, giving us a solid little thriller.  It’s not in the same league as Dial M For Murder or Gaslight, but it’s a taut and engaging couple of hours, well played and well presented, delivering everything you expect from this kind of thing. And of course, we know better to believe a single word that comes from the mouth of a Tory MP, and there is a certain pleasure to be had watching Crayshaw squirm and try to plot his way out of trouble.

Ground-breaking it ain’t, but intriguing it certainly is.

Kate Ashmead and Nigel Fairs in Revenge directed by Louise Jameson credit David Fawbert Photography

Kate Ashmead and Nigel Fairs (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain.  The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong.  Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her.  The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway.  As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head.  And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.

The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey.  The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange.  One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.

What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.

Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah.  Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.

As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall.  Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.

The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed.  The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect.  Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling.  It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.

Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told.  Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on.  There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live.  The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.

An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie - photo credit Robert Day

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)


History Worth Repeating

THE HISTORY BOYS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, 12th February, 2020

 

Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre continues its recently established policy of producing at least one in-house show per year with this thoroughly excellent staging of Alan Bennett’s modern classic.

Charting the progress of a group of lads as they prepare for Oxbridge applications, this is a hilarious comedy with a serious backbone, as it questions the very nature and purpose of education.  Veteran English master, Hector (a splendid Ian Redford) believes that education should prepare us for what life throws at us, that it should round us out as human beings; fresh out of the box teacher Irwin (a pitch perfect Lee Comley) is of the widely held belief that education is preparation for exams, and he is full of pro-tips to make the boys’ essays stand out from the crowd.  Redmond’s florid outbursts contrast nicely with Comley’s more repressed approach.  Both are superb and infuse their respective roles with subtlety and therefore credibility.

Jeffrey Holland plays against type as the unlikeable Headmaster, all league tables and quantifiable results, in a hugely enjoyable turn, demonstrating once again he can tackle weightier roles and still be very funny.  Victoria Carling mediates as the pragmatic Mrs Lintott, in a wryly humorous portrayal.

And then there are the boys.  Frazer Hadfield’s Scripps is a wizard on the piano.  I enjoy Crowther (Adonis Jenieco) and Timms (Dominic Treacy) in their re-enactment of an old Bette Davis film.  Joe Wiltshire Smith is delightfully blunt as the taciturn Rudge, and there is strong support from Arun Bassi’s Akhtar and James Scofield as Lockwood.  Standouts are Jordan Scowen as the roguishly charming, cock-of-the-walk Dakin, and Thomas Grant, stealing the show as the sensitive, lovelorn Posner while treating us to some wonderful renditions of standards like Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered and the works of Gracie Fields and Edith Piaf.  This is lovely stuff.

Director Jack Ryder gets the tone absolutely right.  The comic timing is impeccable (the French lesson set in a brothel is a hoot) but Ryder pays equal attention to the quietly dramatic moments of Bennett’s superlative script.  Scene transitions are covered by huge video projections, affording us glimpses of life around the school, while 1980s pop hits blare out, to remind us that this is a period piece – although given the state of education today and the obsession with testing and data-compiling, there is much that is relevant still.

With this production the Grand builds on and surpasses previous successes – how they’ll top this one next year remains to be seen.  A key part is the selection of the play.  Here, they get everything right and it’s a real pleasure to see work of such a high quality being produced at my local!

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Ian Redford and Thomas Grant (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

 

 


Bourne Again

THE RED SHOES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 11th February, 2020

 

Celebrated choreographer Matthew Bourne adapts the legendary Powell-Pressburger film of 1948 for his own purposes, crafting the narrative into a spectacular evening of dance and emotion.

This is the story of Victoria Page, aspiring dancer, who gets her big break when the prima ballerina breaks her foot – it’s all a bit 42nd Street in this respect, especially with all the on-stage/off-stage drama.  Victoria becomes an overnight sensation but finds her affections torn between Julian the composer and Boris, the impresario.  It is this love triangle that forms the focus of the tale, with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale taking a back seat.

I’m no dance expert but I recognise quality when I see it (and when someone hits the floor with a full shablam!).  What I can tell you this is a production of unadulterated beauty, brimming with romanticism and passion.  The dancing is flawless and enchanting; as we have come to expect from Matthew Bourne, the storytelling is clear and engaging, with well-defined characters/types and touches of humour.  The plot unfolds in episodic scenes, taking in a range of exotic locations: Paris, Monte Carlo, and, um, Covent Garden, with the set dominated by a false proscenium arch with majestic curtains, dividing the off-stage and the on-, swirling and twirling as part of the choreography, as part of the troupe!

At this performance, Victoria is played by Ashley Shaw, technically tight and powerfully expressive.  She is supported by Reece Causton’s suave but haughty Boris and Dominic North’s energised and passionate Julian.  The rest of the company is equally impressive but in a show in which no one speaks, it is difficult to identify characters; I can’t tell my Nadias from my Svetlanas.  Take it as read that everyone is at the top of their game.  Special mention goes to the two blokes who perform a sand dance in the style of music hall act Wilson and Keppel (what, no Betty?).

One of the biggest stars of the night is the score by film composer Bernard Herrmann (who later went on to score films like Psycho).  Herrmann’s music is stirring, sweeping and rich, with psychological undercurrents and disturbances.  It’s highly emotive and Bourne makes the most of it to support the action.

Totally accessible, Bourne’s blend of contemporary dance, classical ballet and period choreography, delivers an evening of enchantment that is performed with breath-taking skill by a talented company.  This is world-class stuff, powerful, entertaining and admirable.  By the time I finish clapping, my hands are as red as the shoes.

THE RED SHOES

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues. Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page (Photo: Johan Persson)


Happy Slappers

BAND OF GOLD

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2020

 

Kay Mellor’s hit series (which I must confess to never having watched) comes to the stage in this new adaptation.  Retaining its 1990s setting, the story puts sex workers at the forefront of the action, making them the protagonists rather than incidental characters.  We meet Carol (tart with a heart) on the game to provide for her daughter, who was sired by her copper of an ex-boyfriend; there’s Anita (hooker with a cooker) who rents out the flat her fancy man keeps her in for working girls to use); and then there’s Rose (slut with guts) who rules The Lane…

The plot kicks off when newly-separated Gina (Sacha Parkinson) finds selling cosmetics door-to-door is not bringing in enough dosh to pay off the evil loan shark (a menacing Joe Mallalieu) who keeps turning up.  So, with little in the way of soul-searching or agonising, she decides to go on the game – it’s preferable to getting back with her aggressive and abusive husband (a convincingly volatile Kieron Richardson – Ste off of Hollyoaks).  At first, things go well for Gina…

A murder mystery emerges, and with all the male characters being disagreeable, to put it mildly, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Enter Carol’s ex, Inspector Newall (Shayne Ward) back from exile in Wolverhampton, of all places.  Ward is underused – it’s the girls who get to the bottom of things, so to speak.  The show has quite a large cast but there’s not enough time to give them more than fleeting appearances.

As tough-talking Rose, Gaynor Faye (off of Emmerdale) is good value and she is matched by Emma Osman’s plain-speaking Carol and, at this performance, Virginia Byron’s increasingly desperate Anita.  There is strong support from Olwen May as Gina’s mother Joyce, along with Mark Sheals as George, and Andrew Dunn (you know, him from Dinnerladies) as Councillor Barraclough.

The play touches on subjects like women’s empowerment versus their exploitation, the corruption of businesses and local government, the dangers of working the streets… but there is not enough time to examine any of these things in depth.  The shortness of the scenes underlines the show’s origins as television drama.   Mellor packs a lot in at the expense of resonance.  Nevertheless, the show is instantly engaging and there is a rich vein of bluff Northern humour running through it along with some cracking lines (“He’s got a face like a fart in a trance”).  It may be a bit drama-by-numbers, but it’s effortlessly watchable, entertaining fare, although the significance of the title continues to elude me.

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Kieron Richardson and Gaynor Faye (Photo: Ant Robling)

 


Out of the Question

ASKING FOR IT

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 3rd February, 2020

 

Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre is hosting the UK premiere of this Irish production, based on a novel by Louise O’Neill.  At first, Meadhbh McHugh’s adaptation plays like Derry Girls meets Skins, with the school uniforms of the characters emphasising their youth and immaturity.  Like most young people, they’re looking forward to a party where drink and drugs and members of the opposite sex will be freely available.  They’re not an especially appealing bunch, with the lads bringing obnoxious to new levels – is their conduct exaggerated to make a point?  Probably, but not by much, I’d wager.

Emma (Lauren Coe) is our protagonist.  Having previously counselled a friend who was assaulted to say nothing, she finds herself in the same boat when the party takes a dark turn.  An ill-advised sexual encounter degenerates into a gang-rape and photos of the event are plastered all over social media.  Somehow, Emma is to blame.  For the event, for pressing charges, for causing upset to the boys’ poor mothers… Emma becomes increasingly isolated and withdrawn, her entire life a nightmare.

Lauren Coe is superb as the victim, bringing depth to her silences and pain to the voiceovers that work as asides.  As her parents, Dawn Bradfield and Simon O’Gorman give powerful performances, demonstrating clearly the attitudes Emma is up against.  It takes brother Bryan (Liam Heslin) a more-enlightened soul having been away to college, to stand up for his sister and lay the blame where it belongs, squarely at the boys’ feet.  Bryan is fighting a losing battle.

Paul O’Mahony’s changeable set design serves as a range of locations.  Under Sinead McKenna’s lighting and accompanied by Philip Stewart’s sound design, the staging is a nightmarish setting, an assault on our senses.  Loud, discordant music and loud, unsettling sounds contribute to the visceral experience, putting us in Emma’s mindspace.  For the second half, the set closes in, claustrophobically, for a more conventional kitchen-sink scene as the family lash out and thrash out, forcing Emma to make a decision.

Director Annabelle Comyn keeps us gripped throughout the play’s bum-numbing running time, eliciting powerful performances from her young ensemble, and enhancing the experience with stage technology.  Jack Phelan’s video raindrops fall like tears.  A tight spotlight pinpoints Emma and isolates her in darkness.  There is a lot of dark beauty to this production.

Rather than focussing on rape culture, I find the story is more about blame culture – victim-blaming and shaming, that is.  The real culprits are plain for all to see, and we see how they are dealt with.  The play is a clarion call to change all of this.

It’s a stark production that is to be experienced and admired rather than enjoyed.  Never less than engaging, it gets its message across and provokes discussion all the way home.

Lauren Coe as Emma in Asking For It_credit Patrick Redmond (5)

Lauren Coe as Emma (Photo: Patrick Redmond)

 

 


Puppet Masters

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 12th January, 2020

 

For their tour this winter, the remarkable Oddsocks turn to Carlo Collodi’s classic for children about a sentient puppet who longs to be a real grown-up.  Written and directed by Andy Barrow, this adaptation is fairly faithful to the source material while remaining an undeniably Oddsocks production.  Puppets are a key ingredient of every Oddsocks show.  With this story, they take centre stage.  As ever, there is the comical inventiveness, the slapstick, the wit and overt theatricality – something for everyone.  Adults will revel in the meticulously ramshackle production values and the arch humour, while children become so engaged with the story-telling they shout out, almost involuntarily, advice to the protagonist.  I have seen many, many Oddsocks shows, and they’ve all been fun, but this is the one that has proved most absorbing for youngsters.  Perhaps they identify with Pinocchio’s struggle to become a moral being and a productive member of society.

In the title role, Freya Sharp gives a far from wooden performance.  Her Pinocchio is a naughty boy, bursting with energy and cheeky charm.  Sharp brings clownish physicality to the role, especially early on when Pinocchio is finding his feet.

Andy Barrow appears as Pinocchio’s maker, Geoff Petto (the ‘off’ has dropped off), looking like Einstein’s grandfather but able to match Sharp in terms of physicality.  With only four in his cast, Barrow has to appear in many other roles, including the con-artist Fox and a big-bellied impresario, gloriously named Andrew Floyd Mackintosh.

Jeannie Dickinson is excellent as the Fairy, the con-artist Cat, and I love her Harlequin’s rendition of Puppet On A String.  Danny Hetherington is equally great, appearing as the Cricket, the Policeman, and naughty boy Lampwick – among other roles.  The episodic nature of the plot demands quick changes and versatility from everyone involved.

There are many scene changes, with a set that opens up, revolves and transforms before our very eyes and while we wait – but these transitions are part of the deal, part of the fun.  We may have seen the old two-lengths-of-blue-fabric-form-a-seascape shtick before, but I guarantee you won’t have seen a giant white shark like this one this side of Steven Spielberg!  There are some hilariously gruesome (yet still suitable for kids) special effects, like when Pinocchio falls asleep too close to the fire; and the nose-growing effect made my ribs ache.

Vanessa Anderson’s costumes are another hugely enjoyable part of proceedings, instantly conveying character and encapsulating the Oddsocks spirit of silliness.

Barrow keeps the bonkers nature of Collodi’s story, while tempering the darker aspects and the moralising.  The result is a highly satisfying piece for all the family.  This is theatre at its most fun, in terms of form and content, which is what Oddsocks is all about.

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Toy story: Andy Barrow and Freya Sharp