Category Archives: Launch/Event

A Ripping Time

AN EVENING WITH JACK THE RIPPER

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 17th April, 2019

 

Having enjoyed the superlative Ebenezer’s Christmas Carol at this venue back in December, I am thrilled and honoured to be invited to be part of a select group at this try-out of a new event.  As with the Dickens show, the Tudor setting of this glorious old building lends itself surprisingly well to the nooks and crannies of Victorian Whitechapel – everywhere looks the same in the dark, I suppose! – and there is something undeniably creepy about the museum with the lights out, with the dark shapes of mannequins looming all around…

Based on an idea by Steve Mitchell, researched and devised by Janet Ford, with dramaturgy and script by Paul Norton, the scene is set for our investigation.  Our host is Inspector Aberline (Paul Norton) who gathers us in a briefing room.  We, the guests, are cast as fellow detectives and are equipped with clipboards and pencils with which to record our findings.  Aberline and his able assistant, Detective Swanson (Hannah Joyce) feed us a lot of information, placing the infamous murders within their social context.  It is immediately fascinating.

The briefing is interrupted by blasts from a police whistle, summoning us into the main house.  We troop in by lantern-light and are led up to the first floor, where we find the outline of a woman on the landing.  Aberline introduces us to the first victim, filling us in on her background before describing in forensic detail and with the help of a volunteer, the vicious murder itself.  (You may be called upon to lie on the floor!)  The inspector takes us through to another room – there’s the second victim…

We return to the briefing room to jot down our notes and discuss our thoughts.  Another whistle blast summons us back in for victims three and four…

There’s a break for tea and biscuits and more discussion, before we are taken to the fifth and final crime scene of the evening.  This is the most detailed, most shocking of the lot, with Hannah Joyce representing Mary Kelly on a bed.  Throughout the evening, Joyce has provided voices for the victims, making them people rather than props in a story, but here it really hits home as Mary Kelly addresses us directly.  Yes, the accounts are shocking, the details gruesome and in some cases, sickening, but the presentation is all the more effective because of its restraint.

We reconvene for a final sharing of thoughts and to posit our theories about the various suspects who were in the frame at the time.  It’s a thoroughly engaging experience but, inevitably, there can be no definite conclusion.  There is an enduring power to this real-life mystery; if Jack the Ripper were ever truly unmasked, the legend would lose some of its attraction.

Although proceedings need a tighter ending, this is an enjoyably intriguing evening that induces us to use our grey matter to tease out pieces of the puzzle.  Once again, it is an unadulterated pleasure to listen to the consummate story-telling skills of Paul Norton, and the splendid support he is given by Hannah Joyce and the unseen presence of Antony Hardy.

Out of necessity, numbers are restricted due to the nature of the site, but this is an excellent event for a group seeking something different, something that evokes both an intellectual and an emotional response.  Check out tudorworld.com for booking information.

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Jumprov Jumps Off

JUMPROV Press Launch

The Wellington, Birmingham, Wednesday 19th April, 2017

 

Up on the second floor of this majestic old pub, a select and invited assembly are treated to an hour of hilarity, courtesy of Sunny Dhap and his newly-formed, BAME improvisation troupe, JUMPROV.  The purpose of the evening is to launch the group in advance of their first full show next month, and if what I saw is anything to go by, it promises to be a riot of inventive and witty sketches, seeming pulled out of thin air.

Many of the ‘games’ are familiar to anyone who has ever seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? or has participated in acting classes, but the familiarity with some of the format makes us feel like we know where we are with this unknown quantity.  There’s the Alphabet one, where each line of scene must begin with the subsequent letter, the hands one where actors stand behind others and become their hands – you know the deal.  And they take suggestions from the audience, of course – we are invited to shout out ideas or submit them on slips of paper which are then fed into dialogue as surprises.

Nothing fazes anyone – the team work like a well-oiled machine, sharing the kind of strong rapport necessary to keep the enterprise from falling flat on its face – and they’re all so damned likeable we even enjoy the responses that don’t quite spark (these are few in comparison with the moments that hit the mark).

Dhap is a genial host and a witty participant – there is nothing that is thrown at the others that he won’t do himself.  The others (David Jackson, Adaya Henry, Marius Turner, Chantal Erraoui, Jay Droch, and Jade Samuels) are just as quick-witted and versatile.  Moments that stay with me are a couple on a date on a farm, a game of Blind Date with Theresa May as a contestant, and an extended game in a supermarket where the quick-thinking and skilful characterisations come to the fore.  Of course, if you see the show, you will get something completely different; such is the nature of improvised comedy.  Tonight is a preview of what’s to come and is fast-moving and snappy.  I would like to see one or two extended sketches, where situations and stories are allowed to develop – perhaps in the full show there will be time for this.

What makes Jumprov different is also what gives them an edge over other improv groups: their diversity.  They are liberated from the awkwardness of so-called political correctness and are free to represent characters from racial backgrounds, characters that are based on truth and experience rather than stereotype.  In a predominantly white sphere, Jumprov is a fresh approach, able to bring something closer to life in multi-cultural Birmingham and, by extension, the UK as a whole.

Best line of the night comes from Asian actor Jay Droch: “About as welcome as a ham sandwich in a mosque.”  It’s well-timed and, in context, delightful, and we, the audience, feel ‘permitted’ to laugh rather than express discomfort or even outrage, had the line come from a Caucasian mouth.

A wonderful evening in the company of talented entertainers; I look forward to supporting them at future shows.

Jumprov’s first full show will be at The Old Joint Stock Theatre, 4 Temple Row, Birmingham B2 5NY on Thursday 4th May, 2017 at 8pm.  Tickets are £10 plus booking fee and available from jumprov.com – Advisory note: Over 18s only.

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Dick jokes (and sings and dances)

Panto Launch: DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th September, 2016

 

Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for the Hippodrome’s pantomime.  This year it’s Dick Whittington and appearing in the title role is the irrepressible all-rounder John Barrowman, star of stage, screen and page – he’s also an author now, writing in partnership with his sister Carole.   I’ve been a big fan from way back in the days of Going Live!  and I first saw him on stage in Sunset Boulevard – and I’ve been low-level stalking him ever since.

Also appearing are The Krankies, with whom Barrowman has built up a rapport having appeared with them in panto in Glasgow.  Musical theatre star Jodie Prenger will be Fairy Bow Bells.  Perennial favourite Matt Slack returns for the fourth year running to play Idle Jack, and King Rat will be none other than Phil Mitchell himself, EastEnders favourite, Steve McFadden.

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I got to hang out with John Barrowman on a splendidly gaudy throne.  What follows is a transcript cobbled together from our chat and a general Q&A session.

Q. Hello, I’m William. I write a blog called Bum On A Seat.

John Barrowman:  Congratulations!  Put your bum here.

We take the obligatory selfie (“Smile, William!  Smile!”) and I tell him I’m looking forward to him giving his Dick to Birmingham this Christmas.

JB: I’m looking forward to giving it.  All over Birmingham.

Clearly the man is up for tiresome innuendo as much as I am.  And that laugh is infectious.  Barrowman is a bath bomb of a man, filling the place with his personality.

Q. John, you spend a lot of time here and a lot of time in the States. You straddle the Atlantic.

JB. There’s a joke for the panto right there!

Q. Why hasn’t panto taken off in the States? Why hasn’t it exported well?

JB. They don’t understand it. They see the dame and they think it’s a drag queen, which is a whole different type of performance.  They don’t understand the humour, they don’t understand the irony; it’s a British thing.   When I came back to the UK in 1989, I kind of looked at it and I thought, what is going on?  But now I get it.  I totally get it.  I love that we comment on social things, local things and political things.  We make fun of the audience and of ourselves.  People in the UK get pantomime, they get the humour.

Q. And what do you think of the Birmingham audience?

JB. I love being here. I love the people – they’re very welcoming. When I do my concerts, they sell out – I do two nights.  I love shopping in Birmingham.  The German market over Christmas is just amazing.  Birmingham people love the tradition of panto and that’s what brings me back here.  Birmingham has always wanted me back and that’s a thrill for me. Birmingham in winter, it’s really cloudy and dull but the people are friendly and warm and there’s always a smile when you walk down the street.

Q. Will you be attempting a Brummie or Dudley accent this time?

JB. Absolutely not! I’m terrible.  The Cat’s going to be Brummie.  I don’t know who’s playing the Cat yet.  I’ve asked for someone very hunky.

Q. Do you find that people travel to see it, because it’s you?

JB. I have an international audience that comes from as far away as China. France… From Germany, from South America…and the States, and Canada…from all over, and it’s not just two, it’s group-loads come. And they don’t come once, they come every night. And the one thing they have to – I’ve told them – they’ve tended to laugh before the joke, because they wanted the audience members to know they knew what was coming, and I had to tell them, Stop! Because he (Ian Krankie) would come off and he’d go, They’re fucking blowing the jokes again, and he’d say, Can you tell your fucking fans to stop blowing the jokes?  I had to go on Twitter and say stop laughing.  He’s not getting to say the tag lines.

Q. What’s it like working with The Krankies?

JB. They’re a national treasure. I’ve worked with them for five – six years.  The reason it does work is there’s no egos.  We’re there to have fun.  We’re like a family.  We have our arguments but we fix it and move on.  The chemistry – I can’t explain it – but when you see it, you’ll wet yourself.  Part of the show is what happens in the wings.  If those two go off script, I’ll chuck one on stage.  If things go wrong, we tend to keep it in – the audience think it’s happening for the first time, but if it works, we keep it in, and that’s how it develops.

He is keen to speak out against those who might deride panto.  With the Krankies at hand, his accent reverts to his native Scottish.

JB. Listen, anybody who takes the mickey out of people who do pantomime, they need to have their arses kicked, because this is the hardest – one of the hardest things in theatre and in the entertainment business to do because you’re doing two shows a day, consistently, you have to maintain that over the course – even if you’re sick. Energy levels have to be up; you cannot waver.  And, you know, people – some people come in and they do it for the first time, they get a shock.

I refrain from making a remark about the stamina of his Dick.  Just about.

Q. What can we expect from this Dick Whittington?

JB. The end of Act One – just a tease: I’ll be upside down… (suggestive grin)

Director Michael Harrison adds: King Rat will have the biggest rat.  The end of Act One will not be the usual Dick Whittington dream.  3D is back: there’s an underwater sequence.  The special effects have become as much a part of the show as anything else.

Rehearsals begin at the end of November.  A rough draft will be given to everyone for them to bring ideas, for routines, for songs.  It all sounds like a lot of fun and almost makes me wish I was on the other side of the curtain with them.  I can’t wait to see it but for today I’m glad of the chance to meet a real favourite.

Dick Whittington runs from Monday 19th December until Sunday 29th January.  Tickets are available now on 0844 338 5000 or from birminghamhippodrome.com

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Together at last: Barrowman meets Shakespeare

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Hairspray – Launch

HAIRSPRAY – Launch

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th October, 2015

 

Hairspray first saw the light of day – or the darkness of auditorium – in 1988 as a film by legendary director and Pope of Trash John Waters. It remains his only PG-rated material to date and launched Ricki Lake to stardom as overweight teen and wannabe TV star, Tracey Turnblad. Waters cast friend and long-time collaborator Divine as Tracey’s mother Edna and so, when the film was adapted as a musical for the Broadway stage, a theatrical tradition was established: Edna is now a plum role for men, with such luminaries as Michael Ball and John Travolta picking up her iron. In the current touring production, which arrives in Birmingham in time for Christmas, the role is played by Benidorm favourite Tony Maudsley who confesses he is getting used to the heels and the spanx. Teamed up with Blue Peter favourite Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the physical difference between the two maximises the comic effect. They treat us to a rendition of their duet You’re Timeless To Me, which is as charming as it is funny – although references to Geritol and Ripple may be lost on the casual audience member.

The event is hosted by Brookside favourite (I know, I keep saying favourite) Claire Sweeney who shows herself to be a natural at this kind of thing, with an easy-going, down-to-earth manner. Sadly, we don’t get to hear her sing on this occasion but she is keen to point out that the show is more than the pink and fluffy bit of fun its own publicity material might lead us to believe. The show is about tolerance, of accepting your own individuality, says Sweeney. With its backdrop of racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore, the show has an undercurrent of something more serious going on and, producer Matthew Gale points out, this production emphasises some of those darker aspects that previous versions may have glossed over.

We are treated to Without Love, reminding me of how vibrant Mark Shaiman’s score is and how funny the lyrics are (Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The highlight of the afternoon though is Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle belting out I Know Where I’ve Been, sending shivers down your spine. Even take out of context, this is a soulful crowd-pleaser, delivered flawlessly by one of the most powerful vocalists in the business.

My appetite is well and truly whetted for a return visit to the New Alexandra Theatre in December.

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Hairspray runs from Monday 14th December 2015 until Saturday 2nd January 2016.

Highly recommended.


A Bar is Born

PIANO BAR LAUNCH

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st September, 2015

 

It’s not all reviews in this game, you know. Sometimes you get invited to other events in theatres – the pull of the complimentary drinks always proves irresistible, I find!

Never mind New Street Station! What’s put the New in the New Alexandra Theatre? The extra word was added to the name when there was a change of management a couple of years ago and the theatre became part of the ATG group of theatres. The new bosses have spent big money on bringing the building up-to-date and the purpose of this evening was to show off what has been achieved so far and to trail what is to come, with the event centred around the impressive new piano bar. Formerly “Gershwin’s” and another nameless bar/foyer area, the space has been unified into a coherent whole and very classy it is too. The floor is dark wood, the walls dark grey, set off by mirrors in gilt frames, with upholstered seats in a range of colours. If you know what it looked like before, it’s like someone’s been in from Changing Rooms, only this time the transformation is stunning in all the right ways. It’s upmarket but inclusive, stately but welcoming. It’s a very pleasant place to be. The crowning glory, of course, is the baby grand piano, which gets its ivory tickled before shows and during intervals. We have been upgraded!

General Manager, Andrew Lister welcomes us all. There is more to come, he says. The stalls and dress circle have all been refurbished with new carpet and seating – which uses something called ProBax technology, a sort of memory foam I suppose for added comfort and, more importantly, improved leg-room! The upper circle is to follow suit in the near future. There’s the Ambassadors’ Lounge, a 30-capacity bar tucked under the dress circle, for an exclusive hospitality passage: it’s like something out of the Orient Express (without the murders). Very swish.

We are treated to a performance of Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat by Gavin Spokes, who sings Nicely Nicely very nicely. The theatre has pulled off something of a coup: Guys And Dolls is coming to Birmingham prior to its West End run.  Programme Director Stuart Griffiths is keen to bring more drama in. The New Alex is better suited to some touring productions than other venues (likewise, some productions are better suited elsewhere) but, he says, there are enough people to keep Birmingham’s range of theatre going. “We’re not in competition,” he states, “but we complement each other.”

For me, the most striking moment of the tour of the building, is the chance to stand on the stage where a range of performers have stood over the past century. Mae West has performed here. Morecambe and Wise… Ant and Dec…

It’s a treat to see this historical auditorium from another perspective and appreciate the surprising intimacy of the place. What’s also great is to know the old place is in safe hands and unequivocally a major player in Birmingham’s cultural scene.

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Chuckles, Cotton and Pan

PETER PAN Panto Launch

The Molineux Centre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 3rd September, 2015

 

The Grand Theatre’s pantomime this year will be Peter Pan, starring the indefatigable Chuckle Brothers as a pair of hapless pirates, Paul and Barry Smee, and EastEnders’ John Altman as Captain Hook. First though, I meet newcomer Ross Carpenter who will be flying high in the title role.

Only 22 years old – but he doesn’t look it – Carpenter is a personable young man whose boyish good looks make him great casting. “All my family and friends call me Peter Pan,” he says, “because I’m like that anyway.” He says you have to be Peter Pan in real life to make Peter Pan believable; the role is “a heightened version of myself.”

No stranger to the wires, Carpenter first played the role last year in Northampton and admits the flying is daunting at first but it’s the best part! Now, I may be a boy who never grew up, but I’ll leave all the aerobatics to him.

Ross Carpenter IS Peter Pan

Ross Carpenter IS Peter Pan

Next up, I encounter TV’s Nasty Nick Cotton, John Altman who is of course much nicer in real life. (That’s what acting means, William). I ask how he’s going to approach Hook and he tells me he won’t necessarily be Cockney – although there will of course be Nick Cotton references. Pirates of the Caribbean-y, he says, a roguish pirate. He is keen to point out that he doesn’t regard himself as typecast in the role of villain, and when you look at his CV you see there is more to him than Soap’s nastiest baddie. I ask about musical theatre roles and he reveals he’d like to try something like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Walking around with Nick Cotton’s face is all right, he says. “I was worried when I first took it on but it’s OK.” He avoids pubs at closing time when people might get a bit lairy, so it does affect decisions about where to go and when, but on the whole, it’s good.

I ask about Shakespeare. “Yes, good question.” He’d love to do it but never has. He feels ready for it now. “When you study Shakespeare as a child you don’t appreciate it, you don’t understand most of it: the love story say of Romeo and Juliet, and the rival factions. You don’t realise that’s something that goes on all the time, all over the world.”

I say I can easily see him as a Richard III.

“Thank you. Or Shylock maybe. That’s something I’d like to try.”

There is something about Altman, beyond his warmth – a hint of wickedness, perhaps. “I’ll be striking fear into the hearts of the Wolverhampton peasants,” he says. And you believe it.

Slinging his Hook: John Altman talks to Jason Forrest.

Slinging his Hook: John Altman talks to Jason Forrest.

Paul and Barry Chuckle greet me with a twinkle in their eye. “It’s great to be back,” says Paul (not the small one, the other one), “We love Wolverhampton.”

Astonishingly, it will be their 49th year in panto. Add to that one they made for the telly, and Peter Pan will be their 50th. I ask what’s the secret of their longevity. “We won’t go!” laughs Paul.

Brother Barry adds, “The comedy we do is for everybody, across the board. That’s probably why we’re still going.”

Paul: We never do stuff for kids. Or for mums and dads. What we do is for everybody. If it’s not funny, we won’t do it.

As influences they cite their own dad, who was a gang show performer, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, and Abbott and Costello.

I ask them to describe pantomime to someone who has never heard of it, a Martian perhaps, or an American.

“Fun,” says Paul. “In our pantos that’s all we aim at: comedy. It’s a fairy story –

“With laughs and a few songs thrown in,” Barry finishes the thought for him. Audiences can expect a lot of laughs, pies in faces, and nothing but fun.

Producer Michael Harrison says he sees pantomime as a distinct art form, like opera and ballet. “There are some people who can do it, and some that can’t.” Judging by the line-up I’ve met so far, I’d say this particular panto is in very safe hands.

Peter Pan runs at the Grand Theatre from December 12th until January 24th. I can’t wait!

To Smee, to you: Barry and Paul Chuckle.

To Smee, to you: Barry and Paul Chuckle.


Charlie F – coming soon to UK theatres

Press Launch: THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F.

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 21st November, 2013

 

Touring the country early next year is this play that started life as a ‘recovery project’ for injured soldiers, initially intended for only two performances back in 2011.  After the success of those performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, a small-scale tour happened in 2012 including a sell-out stint in Edinburgh, but now it’s back reaching more venues and wider audiences.

Executive producer Alice Driver explains the genesis of the piece and tells how quickly luminaries like Trevor Nunn and Ray Winstone gave their support.  The piece began with wounded military personnel flown back from Afghanistan to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.   The MoD, Driver says, traditionally use things like sport to  restore confidence, self-esteem and sense of purpose in the survivors of terrible injuries, but she saw an opportunity to use theatre for that same end and to give these men and women a voice.  She approached the Royal British Legion for funding and eventually, the MoD warmed to the idea.

Rehearsals began in Brixton  in November 2011 – already the BBC was interested and sent along a documentary filmmaker to record what became an edition of BBC One’s Imagine strand.

Actor Cassidy Little, who lost a leg that year in Afghanistan, followed up a suggestion that he take part because of his background in stand-up comedy and performing arts.  At first it worked like therapy but, he says, the play has a wider range than the particular group of people it depicts or who worked on it.  It has, he says, the ability to change everyone.  An affable presence, chatterbox Little has a rich Canadian accent (exotic in Wolverhampton on a grey Thursday afternoon).  Describing himself as an ‘arrogant shit’ Little is immediately likeable and his passion for his work is evident without him having to tell us he’s passionate.

Darren Swift – “Swifty” – is also from a performing background.  “If you need someone with a big nose and no legs, I’m your man,” he laughs.  Having worked at the National Theatre and in countless film and TV projects, Swifty represents part of the professional section of the cast.  The rest is made of non-professionals, the military personnel whose stories make the fabric of the play.  Judging by the testimonials of audiences shown to us in a video clip, there is no shortage of quality.

Little says he feared the production being regarded as a ‘freak show’ with the only applause the patronising kind.  He says the reaction has been anything but, with everyone on their feet and in tears by the end.  Even his own father, which, Little confides, caused him to have a sob in his dressing room too.

They are keen to point out the play is not political.  It’s not about the rights and wrongs of war, says Swifty.  We were there, adds Little, and this happened to us and this is where we are now and what we went through.

They play down the therapeutic nature of the enterprise – especially during the rehearsals and the devising process – but any actor will tell you of the healing powers of Doctor Theatre, even if you’ve only got a bit of a cold!

THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F comes to the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton in March 2014.  My interest is well and truly piqued and I can’t wait to see it.  You can find booking information here

For more information and to check out the rest of the tour, click this.

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