The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 27th May 2023
French playwright Florian Zeller’s play comes to the Crescent via this translation by Christopher Hampton. Even though the characters are French in name, and the setting is still Paris, it is played as though English – no Allo Allo accents here! It’s the story of an elderly man, the father of the title, who is succumbing to that cruel disease dementia. We see the strain it places on his relatives, particularly his long-suffering daughter, and on her relationship with Pierre. Crucially though, Zeller shows us the action through the father’s eyes. Andre hardly ever leaves the stage and we share his confusion as characters are portrayed by different actors and gradually the on-set furniture is reduced piece by piece. Later, scene transitions are carried out by faceless beings who claw at Andre behind his back, while harsh lights flare and discordant music blares. It’s all unsettling. As Andre’s condition worsens, the stage becomes increasingly bare. Until (spoiler!) there’s nothing left but his hospital-style bed, and we realise he’s been in a care home all along, his day-to-day experience coloured by his fractured memories, mixing up care home staff with his relatives. It’s a devastating finale, the father regressing to childhood.
Crescent veteran Brian Wilson stars as Andre. He’s been in almost ninety productions and I’ve seen him many times, but he’s never been better than he is in this, bringing out Andre’s bewilderment, vulnerability, volatility and fixations with skill and sensitivity. He is supported by Jenny Thurston as his frustrated daughter, and Eduardo White as the increasingly exasperated Pierre. Katie Siggs makes an impression as the well-meaning but patronising carer Laura, while Charles Michael and Jess Shannon add to Andre’s confusion by cropping up as people he’s supposed to know but doesn’t recognise.
Mark Thompson’s direction delivers the puzzles of the play. Unlike Andre, we have the faculties to work out what’s going on, and the deceptively simple staging is hugely effective. There is humour too, so it’s not all doom and gloom. The depiction of the degenerative disease comes across as authentic, even though some lines of dialogue, perhaps losing something in translation, don’t quite ring true.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Who’s the daddy? Brian Wilson and Charles Michael (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May 2023
Noel Coward’s classic comedy gets a spirited revival in this new production at Stratford’s cosy Attic Theatre. Adam Clarke and Sue Kent’s set design uses the intimacy of the space to put us right in the living room with the characters. Up close and personal with the cast, we feel part of the action.
Novelist Charles and his second wife Ruth are hosting a séance, as research for his next book. Inadvertently, the ritual conjures the spirit of his late first wife, which would put a strain on any relationship!
Director Jonas Cemm has his fine ensemble rattle through Coward’s epigrammatic dialogue at a rate of knots, which heightens the comic atmosphere. John-Robert Partridge is note perfect as the novelist-cum-pompous-arse Charles, while Rosie Coles is elegance personified as the long-suffering Ruth. There is excellent support from Robert Moore as the sceptical Doctor Bradman and Matilda Bott as his excitable wife. Den Woods’s medium Madam Arcarti keeps to the right side of caricature, bringing a touch of plausibility to the part, and Florence Sherratt makes the most of her largely silent role as Edith the accelerated maid. Katherine De Halpert is delectable as the pale and playful, ethereal Elvira.
It’s enormous fun, played with exquisite timing from all concerned. The supernatural facets of the story are bolstered by atmospheric sound and lighting design, by Elliott Wallis and Kat Murray respectively. Production values are high (which is no less than what we’ve come to expect from Tread The Boards Theatre Company), with the period and the other-worldly being evoked so effectively.
The subject matter and the dialogue may seem flippant or frivolous, but Coward has plenty to intimate about human relationships. For some, ‘til death do us part’ doesn’t apply. Perhaps there are some relationships we never get over.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Making a comeback: Katherine De Halpert as Elvira (Pic: Andrew Maguire Photography)
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd May 2023
Neil Gaiman’s gothic fantasy novel is brought to the stage in this hugely impressive adaptation by Joel Horwood. When a man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, he visits the local pond, which he used to call an ocean; here, he encounters a former neighbour and memories of a wonderful if traumatic period in his life are evoked – and re-enacted for our benefit!
Keir Ogilvy makes an appealing lead as the twelve-year-old Boy, matched in child-like energy by Millie Hikasa’s Lettie. Lettie is a peculiar child with arcane abilities, but this is no surprise given the other members of her household, mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock – Finty Williams in casually powerful form. Thus we get the virgin-mother-crone trinity common to stories about witches…
Laurie Ogden is a well-observed annoying little sister, while Trevor Fox is a shouty Dad, taken in by new lodger, the ubiquitous Ursula, played by EastEnders’ supreme villain Charlie Brooks, here bringing Janine Butcher to the next level. Brooks is delicious, deranged in her plausibility, popping up all over the set in a sleight of theatrical hand. Director Katy Rudd keeps the artifice of the production to the fore and the special effects are all the more special and effective because of this approach. A giant puppet stalks the stage. Billowing swathes of fabric transform people. An ensemble clad in black perform scene transitions as well as depicting some of the more exotic creatures, using physical theatre elevated by Samuel Wyer’s costumes. It all flows slickly and smoothly, and binds us in its spell. You can’t tear your eyes away.
There are moments of mystery, fantastic events, and more than a hint of horror in this thrilling, captivating story, underscored by Jherek Bischoff’s atmospheric score. It’s a bit gruesome and a bit disturbing (e.g. the bathroom scenes!) but it’s also funny and touching. This is storytelling on a grand scale, reminding us of the unreliability of memory. Are the Boy’s recollections accurate or are they masking something more mundane but just as horrifying? Are powerful forces at work or are repressed memories colouring his experiences?
A mind-blowing production of a story that resonates like ripples on the surface of the pond. Magical!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Janine pushes Barry off a cliff — oops, wrong caption. Charlie Brooks looks down on Keir Ogilvy
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th May 2023
Based on the cult 1989 film starring Christian Slater and Wynona Rider, this high school musical is named after the mean girls who rule the school. Three girls named Heather, far from the nicest kids in town, form an unholy trio into which loner Veronica is inducted after she does them a favour. Veronica’s life is never the same again, but it’s not entirely due to the Heathers. Enter new kid on the block, J.D. with his long black coat and air of mystery, and Veronica’s head is turned. Suddenly, one of the Heathers is dead and everyone believes it’s a suicide… As the body count grows and Veronica learns more about the charismatic J.D. she also finds that life isn’t a popularity contest where the losers are eliminated…
Jenna Innes commands the stage as Veronica, impressing with the vocal talent and bringing a wry humour to the role, while still allowing Verity Thompson’s delightfully monstrous Heather Chandler to shine. Jacob Fowler brings the darkness as the too-cool-for-school J.D. and you can see why Veronica falls for him. Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson are hilarious as the knuckleheaded ‘jocks’ Kurt and Ram, and there is a showstopping number from their fathers, played by Conor McFarlane and Jay Bryce. At this performance Heather Duke and Heather McNamara are played by Summer Priest and Eliza Bowden respectively but such is the tightness of the direction (by Andy Fickman) and the choreography (by Gary Lloyd) there is never the sense of them not playing the roles all the time! Katie Paine’s hippie teacher, Ms Fleming could be a bit more ‘out there’, I think, and the risqué, panto-style interaction with a man on the front row seems out of place in a scene when she’s supposedly addressing an audience of high-school kids.
The book, music and lyrics are by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, remaining true to the plot and spirit of Daniel Waters’s film. All the best lines from the screenplay are here along with witty lyrics and a highly serviceable score. There may not be any breakout songs that have become standards, but the tunes are strong and most importantly, add to character, plot and emotion.
Yes, it’s based on a film, like so many new musicals these days, but at least it’s not cobbled together from the back catalogue of hasbeen singers.
David Shields’s design economically conjures an American high school and it’s beautifully and atmospherically lit by Ben Cracknell. The rousing music is played live by a tight band led by Will Joy, and there are plenty of opportunities for cast members to belt with their moment in the spotlight. Kingsley Morton, as Veronica’s much-bullied friend Martha, brings the house down – it feels odd applauding her suicide attempt but that’s the kind of show this is. It makes us revel in the dark side of life. A wicked black comedy that turns out to be life-affirming, Heathers brings the laughter and the darkness, making for an excellent night at the theatre, serving as a reminder that even those who seem to have things together ‘have static’ in their lives. Which seems apposite, considering this is Mental Health Awareness Week.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jenna Innes and Jacob Fowler (Photo: Pamela Raith)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 12th May 2023
This series of eight monologues, presented in two batches of four, is an excellent showcase of the talented actors and directors of the Crescent. Simply staged (a bar and a couple of pub tables with stools) the monologues come across as one-sided conversations, the sort you might have with a stranger in a pub. Part history, part confessional, the pieces are perhaps revelations for straight members of the audience; for the gays, it is a reminder of lived experience and the struggles of those who came before us.
First up in this batch, we meet Jack (I Miss The War by Matthew Baldwin), an old-school homosexual, a former soldier, now a tailor, at the time of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Played by Graeme Braidwood, Jack is dapper, well-preserved, and thoroughly acerbic in his observations and recollections, employing polari and innuendo in a manner that would make Kenneth Williams proud. If you don’t know, polari is the arcane slang used by gays as a means to recognise each other. For example, ‘the palone with the butch riah’ is a reference to Julie Andrews. Braidwood coats vulnerability with brassiness, and there’s a darkness behind the bonhomie.
Next, in More Anger by Brian Fillis, we meet Phil (Mark Shaun Walsh) a jobbing actor who is typecast as young men dying of AIDS. It’s the 1980s and the ‘gay plague’ is rampant, thanks in part to the poor response of the government of the time. Phil lands a potentially ground-breaking role as a soap opera’s first gay character, who is non-camp and absolutely not ill, but the character turns out to be beiger than a buffet at a heterosexual wedding. Meanwhile, his lover announces he is HIV positive, a death knell in those frightening times. The piece concludes with a ferocious tirade. Mark Shaun Walsh is utterly convincing, drawing us in with his amiability, so when he lets rip, we empathise with his rage (and then it’s revealed that it’s another acting job, with a clever punchline.)
Walsh directs the third piece: A Grand Day Out by Michael Dennis, in which 17-year old Andrew tells us of a trip to London at the time of the sexual equality bill that oh-so-generously lowered the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18. This gives rise to scenes of mild protest outside the House of Commons and Andrew is thrilled to take part. Andrew is an innocent, finding his way in the world and exploring his sexuality. It’s a winning performance by Francis Quinn, endearing, funny, and touching. Society may have made some giant strides (and fairy steps) in the right direction, but that doesn’t prevent Andrew from feeling the universal gay fear that his parents will reject him when they find out.
Next comes Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean, with Peter Neenan as Steve, preparing a speech for his wedding to (gasp) another man, thanks to a change in the law in 1994. As he rehearses, Steve reflects on the way people like him were absent from the stories he heard or read growing up. As well as fretting about wedding preparations, he has to deal with his own doubts. Does he really want what the straights have always had? Isn’t that surrendering part of what it is to be gay? He is reluctant to hold his beloved’s hand in a supermarket, until he is told that a gay child, happening to see such a public demonstration between two men, might be given hope and comfort. It’s the most understated of these four pieces, but just as thoughtful.
I’m too young to remember the decriminalisation, but I have vivid memories of the terrifying ad campaigns of Thatcher’s reign and how they affected my own…emergence. The evening gets me trolling down Memory Lane and looking ahead to how far we still have to go.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Coming of age, Francis Quinn as Andrew in A Grand Day Out (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
QUEERS (Set A)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 13th May 2023
The other set of four monologues kicks off with The Man on the Platform, by Mark Gatiss (who actually compiled this anthology for the BBC). We meet Perce, a soldier home from the so-called Great War. He reflects on his relationship with a captain he met in a military hospital tent, and how, when discovered, they were both transferred to other regiments. More striking is his boyhood memory of seeing Oscar Wilde under arrest at Reading station, being taken away. A brief moment of eye contact with the disgraced writer stays with young Perce forever, mutual recognition of ‘a certain liquidity in the eyes’. It’s a sad piece, played to perfection by Tom Lowde, making you want to give Perce a hug or at least buy him a pint.
Next comes The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune. Bobby is a Burlington Bertie figure, all top hat and tails, swanning around, picking up women in pubs and taking them out the back and fingering them! Dressed as a man, Bobby feels a freedom to behave in a way that a woman could never countenance. Sadly, living this lie has its…shortcomings, shall we say? An exploratory female hand reveals Bobby isn’t pleased to see her, it’s a candle! Katie Goldhawk is utterly charming in her dapper costume, balancing exquisite manners with ribald revelations, conjuring other characters with skilful ease, using her voice alone. Again, the sadness of the piece is inescapable.
Safest Spot in Town by Keith Jarrett brings us up to the 1940s. Among the dropping bombs, Fredrick from Jamaica seeks out like-minded men in the public toilets of the West End. Denied access to an underground venue because of his skin colour, he escapes destruction, a case of being excluded working in his favour! Khari Moore is instantly delightful as the twinkly-eyed Fredrick. Our laughter comes thick and fast, perhaps as a release from the melancholy of the previous pieces, but mainly from Moore’s elegantly timed anecdotes and reactions. Easily the most overtly funny piece of this set, it points up Fredrick’s double whammy of exclusion, as a black man who is gay. Society has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, hasn’t it? Has it?
Finally comes Missing Alice by Jon Bradfield. Fi Cotton plays Alice, a middle-aged married woman who didn’t realise until long past the wedding night that the man she has married is, you know. At first, she blames herself and starts to cut down on meals in a bid to make herself more attractive. All her efforts are doomed but over time, she and her husband come to an accommodation. It turns out there can be love and affection in a sexless marriage. Fi Cotton is splendid; you can easily see her tackling an Alan Bennett.
Of course, I saw the two sets of monologues in the ‘wrong’ order, in terms of chronology, but I don’t think this has diluted my enjoyment of these well-written pieces, superbly performed and presented in the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio. What comes across is the misery and heartache spread by the criminalisation of homosexuality throughout the ages. We live in more enlightened times. I hope.
A different Q word springs to mind: Quality.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Khari Moore as the debonair Fredrick (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th May 2023
Greg Doran bows out of his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC with this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Set vaguely during the era of the Romans invading Britain, this play sees Shakespeare rounding up all his favourite tropes and packaging them in a dark and funny fairy tale. These days we call them ‘Easter eggs’ and there is a lot of fun to spot what comes from which previous work: the girl dressed as a boy, the death potion, the faithful servant in exile, the wicked queen… But the play is more than a hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.
Leading the excellent cast is Peter De Jersey as the titular king. Cymbeline is hotheaded, railing against circumstances – De Jersey makes a strong impression even though the title role is not the lead role; I can easily picture him playing Lear. The lead is his daughter Imogen, supposedly his last surviving child. Theirs is a fiery relationship. Imogen combines the temper of Hermia with the big heart and wit of Viola. Amber James is pitch perfect in the part. Ed Sayer, as her banished husband Posthumus, is valiant and heroic, but prone to the machinations of Jamie Wilkes’s scheming braggart, Iachimo. Wilkes is a cocksure delight and later, when it all goes belly-up, his crisis of conscience and remorse come across as heartfelt.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s evil Queen is hilarious, melodramatically stalking around, manipulating everyone while letting us see her true face. Equally funny is Conor Glean as her petulant, vainglorious son Cloten, in a superbly cartoonish portrayal.
The mighty Christian Patterson exudes honour and decency as the big-hearted Belarius, while Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas are also excellent as his adopted sons. There is a lovely moment when they mourn the supposedly dead Fidele (Imogen cross-dressed) and they sing a haunting lament, Fear No More The Heat of the Sun. That the moment comes hot on the heels of a laughter-inducing shock with the introduction of a severed head to proceedings, shows how well Doran handles the mood swings of this split personality of a show.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple set, a circle suspended over a horizon, serves as night, day, England, Rome, Wales, without gimmickery, allowing the actors room to play. Beautifully lit by Matt Daw and just as beautifully underscored by Paul Englishby’s folk-informed score, this is a production that has fun and therefore is fun, with a cast unencumbered by enforced stylisation that doesn’t serve the text. It could be seen as Greg Doran revisiting all his best bits and making them fresh and new. Because the play is not overly familiar, like some of the works, audiences don’t bring expectations; we’re not waiting for famous speeches (there are none!) so we can just take it in and enjoy it at face value. The final scene of protracted revelations and resolutions is hilarious and yet moving. Magical.
It’s great to see the RSC returning to form, and we shall miss Greg Doran for his mastery in bringing the bard to entertaining life.
Welsh National Opera is back in town with a brand new production of one of Mozart’s greatest works. The text, translated into English by Daisy Evans (who also directs) gives the Emanuel Schikaneder libretto a complete overhaul, removing the more direct Masonic aspects and the more problematic elements of the story to give us a fresh interpretation that works – for the most part. Gone are the prayers to Isis and Osiris, replacing them with Sun and Sky. This is a world where two realms exist, Night and Day, and never the twain shall meet. Trouble is, the ruler of the Day realm, Sarastro, has abducted his daughter from the realm of the Night. Naturally, the Queen of the Night is peeved. She recruits valiant Prince Tamino to go and rescue the princess. Evans establishes a new twist: Tamino and Pamina were childhood friends, rather than having him fall in love at first sight when he sees her portrait, which undermines his wonderful aria a bit, I find. Other changes include redeploying the lecherous Monostatos as a teacher and diminishing his villainy: his worst crime is being boring!
The staging involves illuminated orbs and glowsticks to suggest a video game environment, along with multi-level pieces of set to place us in a platform game. The eponymous flute is wielded like a sword or lightsabre. Even the giant snake at the beginning is reduced to a nightmare (Tamino wrestling with a snake in bed is a bit Freudian!) Once I cotton on to this theme, I see that the ideas don’t go far enough. More could be made of the video game idea: ‘life’ monitors could show us Tamino and Pamina’s ups and downs. Graphics could be projected as Tamino completes each trial and levels up… It could have been a lot more fun.
Thando Mjandana makes a bold and passionate Tamino, with an urgency to his singing. Julia Sitkovetsky hits all the high notes as a stand-out Queen of the Night, although she could do with a tall crown or headdress to denote her status – on her first entrance she blends in with the Three Ladies (Nazan Fikret, Kezia Bienek, and Claire Barnett-Jones, who are all excellent and funny). Neal Davies does his best with the sometimes laboured comedy of birdcatcher Papageno – his duet with Jenny Stafford’s Papagena is a charming delight, as it should be. Jonathan Lemalu brings gravitas to Sarastro (even in that wig!) although I find of all the main singers, he is the quietest. April Koyejo-Audiger is perfect as warrior princess Pamina, delivering a heart-breaking aria when she believes Tamino is blanking her.
The day/night theme emphasises a binary world. It takes the younger generation to demonstrate that there are other ways to live: dawn and twilight for example, where the binary elements blend…a message I endorse.
As always, the WNO Chorus is sublime, doing justice to Mozart’s beautiful hymns at the Day palace, and the orchestra under the more-than-capable baton of Frederick Brown serve up the sumptuous score, reminding us why this work endures over the centuries.
A patchy production then, but ultimately enjoyable and a feast for the ears. The same attention needs to be given to the cast’s delivery of dialogue and recitative to match the energy given to the splendid singing.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Serving queen: Julia Sitkovetsky ruling the night. Photo: Craig Fuller
Tackling this masterwork by the late, great Stephen Sondheim is no easy task. It requires a large cast of excellent actor-singers to pull off its dissonant melodies and to breathe life into the often complex and witty lyrics. I’m happy to report that the Crescent rises to the challenge and succeeds. Impressively.
The story blends elements from familiar fairy and folk tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, primarily. A baker and his wife who are childless are sent on a scavenger hunt by the witch who lives next door… But as ever, with Sondheim, it’s not the setting that’s the main thing. It’s the insights into human relationships, the reflections on life, things to which we can all relate.
Phil Rea’s Narrator sets the scene, a largely non-singing role, and a voice of avuncular authority. As Cinderella, Helena Stanway is one of the strongest singers of the lot, treating us to her beautiful soprano. Similarly, Hannah Devereux’s Rapunzel is an absolute pleasure to hear, with her bewitching wordless refrain. Mark Payne is excellent as the nervous Baker, matched by Tiffany Cawthorne as his more assertive Wife. Luke Plimmer is in fine form as a rather dopey Jack, to the consternation of Steph Urquhart as his longsuffering mother. Hannah Lyons is an enjoyably impish Red Riding Hood, while Alisdair Hurst’s Wolf is deliciously seductive. Hurst also appears as Cinderella’s Prince, duetting with Mark Horne as Rapunzel’s Prince in another of the show’s highlights.
A strong ensemble then, fleshed out by the likes of Jaz Davison, Joanne Brookes and Becky Johnson as Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, but an undoubted standout is Kimberley Maynard’s superb Witch, who is funny and scary and yet also evokes our sympathy. Maynard commands our attention and we willingly fall under her spell.
As we’ve come to expect from the Crescent, the production values are sky high. Storybook trees fill the stage, fading into misty perspective on the backdrop and beautifully lit by James Booth’s lighting. Pat Brown and her team (Vera Dean and Erik Olsen) have gone all out on the fairy-tale costumes. Set designers Keith Harris and Colin Judges have created an otherworldly space of mystery, enticement and potential danger, while Zena Forrest and Pat Dales cut-out props remind us we’re in a fictional world.
A splendid thirteen-piece band, under the baton of musical director Gary Spruce, brings Sondheim’s sumptuous score to life – I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard music played so beautifully at the Crescent.
By the interval, the characters have achieved their goals and attained their Happy Ever Afters – or have they? The second act deals with what comes afterwards, when the best one can hope for is happiness devolving into contentment. Threat comes in the form of the giant’s wife (voiced by Ruby Turner, no less!) and the characters find they have to work together to defeat her. Perhaps I’m alone in reading in a metaphor for climate change at this point… Sondheim calls upon us to act as a community rather than being absorbed by our own desires. The characters have to learn to live without a narrator, like the rest of us, our endings unknown until they happen. Once you’ve obtained everything you want, what are you going to do next? Just like the stories on which it is based, the show has life lessons to teach.
A thoroughly captivating and superbly presented production. Enchanting!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Kimberley Maynard and Hannah Devereux as the Witch and Rapunzel (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th April 2023
Married couple Johnny and Judy live their lives as though it’s the 1950s. They’ve done the house up in period style, all the furniture is authentic, and of course, so are their clothes. A bit like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in reverse, Judy has given up her career in finance to become a housewife, while Johnny goes off to work with a hat on and a spring in his step. It all seems to be going well until financial pressures come to bear on this idyll.
Laura Wade’s script is sharp, full of funny retorts, but there is also social commentary: how far we’ve come since those days, and more tellingly, how far we still have to go. Friend and neighbour Marcus is on gardening leave, while allegations of sexual misconduct at work are being investigated. Touching a secretary’s bum is ‘a joke’ he claims. You know, banter.
Jessica Ransom rules the roost and the stage as domestic goddess Judy, putting on a bright smile when the going gets tough, and treating us to some superbly timed pained expressions. Judy’s world has shrunk to the house but what, her mother cries, about her potential?
Neil McDermott gives an energised performance as husband Johnny. He and Ransom have a heightened style when they’re together, living their Fifties fantasy. In contrast, his boss, Alex, who in true sitcom tradition comes around for cocktails, is very much a woman of today – Shanez Pattni wearing trousers and low-key glamour.
Filling out the cast are Cassie Bradley as Fran and, at this performance, Steve Blacker-Barrowman as Marcus, fellow Fifties fans but nowhere near as obsessive. The pair also serve as scene-changers, jiving and bopping through transitions, in a way that’s fun at first, but wears a bit thin as the show goes on.
Diane Keen is marvellous as Sylvia, Judy’s plain-speaking mother. In a blistering monologue, she punctures her daughter’s fantasy lifestyle with a scathing reminder of what the Fifties were really like, a far cry from the Ideal Home scenario Judy and Johnny have created. “You’re living in a cartoon!” she says savagely, unable to understand why anyone would want to go back to a time of scarcity (post-war rationing was still on the go) and rampant discrimination.
The play is very much about exposing nostalgia for a past that never was as a seductive lie, as well as throwing up questions about gender roles and societal expectations. Director Tamara Harvey balances the heightened nature of the comic moments with the more painful moments when reality creeps in. Anna Fleischle’s sumptuous set and costumes (Judy’s dresses in particular) are bright and stylish, capturing both the nostalgic and the aspirational.
It’s a funny and provocative piece, played by a sharp and charming ensemble, and while the resolution is as pat as anything you’d find in a 50s sitcom, it reminds us that what keeps a relationship on track is communication and compromise.
Now, where are my slippers? Hello?
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jessica Ransom and Diane Keen (Photo: Jack Merriman)
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd April 2023
Peter Rogers (no D) was the legendary producer of the legendary Carry On films, that staple of late 20th century British popular culture. We meet him in his office a year after the release of the woeful Carry On Emmanuelle in 1979. Undaunted by the film’s reception, Rogers is already planning the next in the series. He can see no difficulty in taking the series through the change of the century, despite oppositional claims that they’re already outdated and no longer have a place in a society that has moved beyond innuendo.
He can’t get his act together. The action moves on a few years. AIDS is rampant, and the rise of alternative comedy seems to be another nail in the Carry On coffin. But Rogers is not alone. He is visited – often rudely interrupted by – his famous cast. The gang’s all here: Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Sid James, Barbara Windsor…I think I need to point out this is a one-man show. The remarkable Darren Haywood portrays Rogers and a host of Carry On stars, dropping into their voices and mannerisms with split-second timing. Is he haunted? Possessed? Suffering some kind of multiple personality disorder?
The stars argue, tell stories, and show us glimpses of their real lives off camera. It’s a sheer delight to see them brought to life, so economically evoked, so instantly recognisable. There’s a wealth of nostalgia here but we are also invited to consider the films with a critical eye. The more dubious aspects of the series are not glossed over (blackface, sexism, and so on) but also the joys are not overlooked. There’s a magnificent sequence in which Rogers reads a fan letter asking what’s his favourite Carry On joke. This launches a dazzling display from Haywood, flipping from ‘Infamy, Infamy!’ to ‘Frying tonight!’ via a plethora of famous moments – the flying bra, Ooh Matron – it’s a virtuoso moment and a truly breath-taking feat.
Rogers manages to resurrect the series with Carry On Columbus in 1992, aiming to include the new wave of comedians. The film flops: they’re comedians rather than comic actors. Other plans (Carry On Dallas, Carry On London) fail to bear fruit. But Rogers is undaunted. He carries on going to his office at Pinewood Studios. He never gives up trying.
James Nicholas’s wonderful and well-researched script delivers laughs and poignancy: the fates of Hawtrey and Williams in particular are movingly depicted. Simon Ravenhill’s direction makes it seem as though Haywood is not alone on stage, but it’s Haywood’s masterly performance that pulls it off – ooer!
You don’t get many of these to the pound.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Carry on, genius! Darren Haywood as Peter Rogers and the Carry On gang