Category Archives: Review

Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

Based on the comic opera Cosi fan tutte by Mozart and Da Ponte, this fresh little farce from the Foppish Theatre Company is vibrant with wit.  The script by Dewi Johnson (who also directs) and Andrew Buzzeo (who also appears as ‘Alistair’) adheres to Da Ponte’s libretto after an establishing scene in which soldier buddies, William and Benjamin, accept a bet from their cynical, worldly chum Alistair, who claims that within a day he can make the soldiers’ girlfriends turn to infidelity…  This scene, performed between the three, on the apron with nothing more than a simple bench, shows how direction can keep things engaging by eliciting energetic performances from the actors.

As Alistair, Andrew Buzzeo is hugely enjoyable, a sardonic manipulator and social commentator.  Equally entertaining are Luke Grant’s Benjamin and Zach Powell’s William, posing and posturing in ridiculous disguises (oh, those moustaches!) and flailing around from the effects of poison; Powell provides a superb study in comic playing when Alistair’s scheming bites William in the backside.

As the unwitting participants, the girls, Zoe Birkbeck is a haughty and bookish Fiona, never less than elegant, while Tessa Bonham Jones’s Charlotte is delightfully dim and frivolous.  As Phoebe, the conniving maid, Georgina Morton gives an arch but down-to-earth performance; her appearance as a notary, with a beard as long as she is tall, is ludicrously funny.

Johnson and Buzzeo’s script crackles with witty lines, and the dialogue has an authentic sound, with only the occasionally anachronistic turn of phrase to remind us that this is a modern-day pastiche and not a long-existing text.  I even recognise some lines as direct translations from Da Ponte’s original; well, if it ain’t broke…

The set, by Ludwig Meslet Poppins, consists of white cloth, creating flats and wings, like the ghost of an 18th century stage.  It’s a blank backdrop against which the colourful characters play out the farce, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Rosemarie Johnson’s costumes are bright, evoking the period setting, and adding to the elegance of the enterprise.

It’s fast-moving and funny, and irresistible in its appeal.  Johnson’s direction is sharp, like a cut diamond  The sexual mores on display may remind us of the distance between the past and our present, but the machinations of the plot, played here to perfection, show that ‘old-fashioned’ conventions can come across as a refreshing and, above all, entertaining alternative to the pervasive naturalism of the modern-day stage and screen.

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Out of the Ashes

LA CENERENTOLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th November, 2018

 

The influence of Mozart, the king of comic opera, is easily apparent in this version of the Cinderella story by Rossini, a worthy successor to the crown.  Rossini’s characters, for all the delight they bring, lack the psychological complexity of Mozart’s but in this colourful, storybook production this matters not one jot.

Director Joan Font keeps the staging simple: a staircase, a huge fireplace that becomes a huge set of palatial doors.  On this grey background, vibrant figures act out the familiar drama (there are a couple of diversions from the norm: the glass slipper is a bracelet, presumably because back in 1817 when the opera premiered, showing bare feet on stage would bring about the apocalypse; the fairy godmother is the Prince’s wise old tutor, disguised as a beggar…)  Joan Guillen’s design dresses the characters in traditional storybook costumes, with exaggerations and some Fauvist colourings: the male chorus all sport blue wigs; the clownish make-up of the comic characters includes painted on blue beards… Font doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to the comedy, and if you spend too long peering up at the surtitles, you might not catch some bit of business that augments the situation, and supports the overall tone of Rossini’s effervescent score.

Tara Erraught is sweetly dowdy – if that’s possible – in the title role, petting her only friends: an infestation of man-sized mice, who serve as stagehands and silent commentators on the proceedings.  Fresh-faced tenor Matteo Macchioni is, well, Charming as the Prince, who for reasons of plot, spends most of the show in disguise as his own manservant, Dandini.  Speaking of whom, Giorgio Caoduro, amid a host of amusing performances, proves the funniest of the lot as the manservant in disguise, camping it up as the Prince.  Fabio Capitanucci all but chews the scenery as bombastic, ostensible villain-of-the-piece, the purple-wigged Don Magnifico.  He and Caoduro excel at the patter, barking out rapid staccato almost to the brink of frenzy.  Rossini, like Mozart before him, makes music sound funny.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Wojtech Gierlach brings gravitas to this bit of froth in the role of the wise and slightly wizardly Alidoro – a figure who owes more than a bit to Sarastro in The Magic Flute,  while Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe have and give and lot of fun as the preening, posturing, bitchy sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, beneath towering pompadours of pink and bright yellow.

The WNO male chorus are in splendid voice, whether singing on-stage or off, but it strikes me at curious that, at the ball, the Prince has only three female guests from whom to select his bride.  The orchestra, under the flawless aegis of Tomas Hanus, deliver every note of Rossini’s frantic music to perfection.  Sometimes it’s so fast it’s as though the characters are in a hurry as they try to express the thoughts and emotions that are pouring out of them like champagne from a newly-popped bottle.

A delight from start to finish, this is a breath-taking feast for the ears with plenty of visual humour to keep the funny-bone tickled.  For me, it serves as a curtain-raiser for the impending pantomime season, as yet again WNO provide world-class entertainment with a production that would make the perfect introduction to the genre for anyone.  It would be a cin-der miss it.

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Giorgio Caoduro and Fabio Capitanucci as Dandini and Don Magnifico (Photo: Jane Hobson)


Rock Your Socks Off

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018

 

As ever, I approach this jukebox musical with trepidation.  Will it be the same sort of flimsy plot with old songs shoehorned in just for the sake of it?  Will I sit there for two hours asking myself what’s the point?

All my fears were allayed within minutes.  It turns out Rock of Ages is an absolute beaut of a show, hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  Set in mid-to-late 1980s on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, this is a world of big hair and ripped jeans, where ‘rock’ is a verb and middle fingers are firmly jabbed upwards.  At no point are we invited to take any of it seriously.  The fourth wall is well and truly demolished and the script is peppered with theatrical gags, celebrating the artifice of the enterprise.

Our narrator is Lonny, performed by an irresistibly likeable Lucas Rush, camp, crass and hilarious.  Lonny works as a ‘sound guy’ in the Bourbon Room, a club owned by ageing rocker Dennis (an unrecognisable Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy).  Rush and Kennedy make an excellent pairing: their rendition of I Can’t Fight This Feeling is a comic highlight of a show that has many such moments.

Leading man Drew, a wannabe rocker, is played by Luke Walsh, whose voice is absolutely searing.  The only thing missing is a good head of big hair for him to bang when the need arises.  Leading lady Sherrie, a wannabe actor who has a harder time of it than Drew (but this reflects the sexual politics of the era, I suppose) is played by Danielle Hope, combining strength and vulnerability.  Her voice has Pat Benatar qualities and her rendition of More Than Words gives shivers.

The course of Drew’s love doesn’t run smooth, of course, and he is disheartened when Sherrie, believing Drew isn’t interested, becomes entangled with rock superstar Stacee Jaxx – a toweringly funny portrayal from the mighty Sam Ferriday.  His Jaxx is all ego and charisma; Ferriday is lithe and sinuous and hilarious in his physicality.  His voice is superb.  I find myself falling for this long-haired, white-suited monster.

Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy bring broad comedy as a pair of German property developers, the villains of the piece who make ‘Allo Allo’ seem subtle.  Carthy also proves himself a nifty mover in some surprising dance moments.  Rhiannon Chesterman is consistently bonkers as activist Regina, while the phenomenal Zoe Birkett is a strong contender for the show’s vocal crown as stripclub-owner Justice.

The book, by Chris D’Arienzo, keeps the jokes flowing along with a plethora of 80s soft rock hits, and I am surprised whenever, among the knockabout fun, moments of beauty arise: Every Rose Has Its Thorn stirs the blood.  The music is provided by a brilliant onstage band under the aegis of musical director Barney Ashworth, and there is energetic pastiche choreography by Nick Wilson and Ryan-Lee Seager (who also direct) and of course we are all up on our feet by the end – how could you not be?  How could you not adore this crazy cavalcade?  You must be made of rock.

I leave the theatre exhilarated – and relieved they didn’t kill the mood with the title song!

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Hair today: Lucas Rush as Lonny


Tapping Into Joy

42nd STREET

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, Saturday 10th November, 2018

 

Originally a novel and then a movie to bring light to the darkness of the Great Depression, this triumphant stage adaptation is irresistible fun.  It takes the escapism of the American dream to Broadway, in this showbiz musical about the staging of a Broadway musical.  Talented but gauche chorine, Peggy Sawyer, gets her big break when the star of the show gets a little break – to her ankle – and so a star is born.  Because anyone can make it, if they are talented, work hard, and have a generous helping of luck.  So the American myth goes, anyway.

From the raising of the curtain, revealing a host of dancing feet, the show exhilarates and delights.  The production numbers are on the grand scale – this must be the largest chorus in town – the songs are standards and the script by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is wryly witty.  In short, the show is an unadulterated joy.

As the lucky, plucky chorine, Clare Halse is spectacularly good, tap-dancing like a machine gun and singing like an angel.  She is more than a match for her predecessor, the mighty Bonnie Langford, giving a masterclass in musical theatre as egotistical diva Dorothy Brock.  Langford is star quality personified, and this is a return to her roots after her dowdy and emotional stint in EastEndersEmmerdale’s Tom Lister barks and throws his weight around as producer Julian Marsh; he has a good singing voice on him too.  Yes, the roles are cliched, but these three bring credibility to the scantiness of their characters’ development.

It’s an absolute treat to see romantic lead Ashley Day (for whom I have a pure and boundless love), in his element here as the cheesy, cocky Billy Lawlor, moving with grace, acting with humour and crooning like a dreamboat.

Bruce Montague waddles on and off in a broadly played comic turn as the show’s financer, Abner Dillon.  Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell provide plenty of laughs as the show’s writers and comic duo.

The show would be nothing, though, without the impressive machine that is the chorus, a multitude of individuals who come together and move as one in breath-taking routines.  The timing is flawless, the choreography (by Randy Skinner) is both energising and exhausting to behold.  Tap-dancing always thrills me but this display goes above and beyond!

In these times of the prolonged agonies of the Austerity lie, and the uncertainties of impending Brexit, this production is a real tonic, sheer entertainment to make a song and dance about – if you can afford a ticket, of course!

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The wonderful Ashley Day and some of the boys


Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2018

 

Gregory Doran sets his production of Shakespeare’s Trojan War story in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type world – although we have to wait a considerable while for the action and excitement associated with the genre when we finally get to climactic scenes of armed combat.

Here, leather-and-denim-clad women are as likely to be butch warriors as the men, and so we get Suzanne Bertish’s shock-haired Agamemnon, Amanda Harris’s fiery Aeneas, and the mighty Adjoa Andoh’s wily Ulysses.  There is a humorous tone to the piece that Doran tends to emphasise, as Shakespeare satirises the supposedly heroic figures, but the production’s Achilles heel, if you will, is its lack of emotional attachment.  It looks great and sounds great but it does not grip or move.

Gavin Fowler makes an appealing Troilus, comical in his awkwardness and initially more of a lover than a fighter.  Amber James is fantastic as a stately Cressida, using a cool wit as a shield.  When she blurts out her love for Troilus, she immediately backpedals, unwilling to allow herself to experience or display her true emotions.  Even though the play is named for them, they are merely two characters among a host of many, and their story feels undeveloped.  As the go-between who, um, goes between them, Oliver Ford Davies is tremendously enjoyable as the doddering, overly attentive Pandarus.

Andy Apollo (yes, really) is an Adonis of an Achilles, striding and posing about the place with James Cooney’s sweet and boyish Patroclus at his side.  This pair of lovers is perhaps more tragic than the titular couple; when Patroclus is struck down, it provides a rare moment of empathy from us.

Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus would not be out of place in an Asterix book, while Sheila Reid’s grubby Thersites is like a dystopian Wee Jimmy Krankie (if that’s not a tautology).  Theo Ogundipe is a delight as thick-headed Ajax.

Original music by virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie evokes the clatter and clang of battles we don’t get to see.  There are many things to admire and enjoy but as a whole, these things don’t amount to a hill of beans.  Shakespeare’s genre-defying play is notoriously difficult to pin down.  Doran’s funny, orotund and noisy production lacks depth.  It’s Troy without weight.  By the end of this loud but empty spectacle, I yearn for Tina Turner to come on and belt out We Don’t Need Another Hero.  It would be apt at least.

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Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Hardly Connect

ORANGE POLAR BEAR

The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 6th November, 2018

 

A collaboration between the Rep, Hanyong Theatre and the National Company of Korea, this new piece co-written by Sun-Duck Ko and Evan Placey deals with the isolation teenagers can feel in this modern world.  Teenage angst, as well as awkwardness and insecurity, is nothing new, of course, but this play gives a fresh look: teenage angst is global.  In this supposedly connected world of instant communication and 24-hour rolling news, people can feel cut off and pessimistic about the state of the world.  What the production shows quite clearly is this feeling is universal.  Regardless of culture, time zone or language, teenagers (and others) are going through the same thing.

Presented against a white back wall of doors, we visit the worlds of British teen William (Rasaq Kukoyi) and Korean girl Jiyoung (Minju Kim) – the staging has both locations present in tandem.  William and Jiyoung narrate their experiences in the third person; he in English, she in Korean.  This is an alienation effect, to an extent; we get the idea that they are each alienated from their own experiences, their own emotions.  Kukoyi delivers frustration and vulnerability, while Kim is irresistibly appealing and expressive – you hardly need look at the surtitles.

The protagonists are supported by a versatile quartet, playing multiple roles to populate the story.  Cheongim Kang is excellent as Jiyoung’s classmate Taehee, pressuring Jiyoung to conform to a K-pop standard of conventional ‘beauty’, which results in an obsession on Jiyoung’s part with getting her fringe to lie flat.  Kang is also marvellous as Grandmother, who keeps herself company by having the television on all day.  Ah-ron Hong is physically expressive as a schoolboy, an elderly teacher, and most touchingly as Jiyoung’s emotionally distant father.  Michael Kodwiw makes a strong impression as William’s friend Arthur, while Tahirah Sharif’s Sarah attracts and frustrates William in equal measure in funny scenes of their budding relationship.

Clever use of projections gives us scene changes and details, such as William’s dinner in a microwave.  Multi-purpose cubes serve as furniture and sometimes podiums on which the characters stand, aloof from the action.  The production design reminds me somewhat of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and this is no bad thing.

A charming, amusing piece that reminds us of the common humanity of people around the world.  In this high-tech world that keeps us separated, it takes theatre to provide a connection.

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Ah-ron Hong and Minju Kim make a connection


Grin and Bare It

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 5th November, 2018

 

The stage adaptation of the hugely successful 1997 film has acquired something of a reputation of ‘a girls’ night out’ principally, I suppose, because the subject matter involves men stripping.  It is about that, but it’s also about much more.  Simon Beaufoy’s script tackles (if that’s the right word!) questions of masculinity in a post-employment economy.  The characters here feel redundant in more than the workplace.  With women bringing home the bacon, even learning to pee standing up, the men despair they no longer have a role in society.

Desperation leads Gaz (Hollyoaks dreamboat Gary Lucy) to swap stealing girders from his former employer for creating a troupe of male strippers for a one-off gig that will raise the dosh for his child support arrears… Lucy has the cockiness, to be sure, but the heart of the show is in his best mate Dave – an excellent Kai Owen.  Andrew Dunn is also great as former manager Gerald, lying to his wife about his employment status; Joe Gill is sweetly vulnerable as depressed, repressed Lomper; James Redmond is a real eye-opener as the cocksure Guy; but it is Louis Emerick’s arthritic Horse who proves the most endearing and the funniest.

There is an assured performance from Fraser Kelly as Gaz’s son Nathan, the child parenting the father, and strong support from Liz Carney as Dave’s wife, Jean.  These two help create some of the show’s most touching moments.

Director Rupert Hill keeps things cracking along at a fair lick.  The iconic moments we expect to see are here, notably the dole queue scene with Donna Summer, and the garden gnomes who trash Gerald’s job interview.  The climactic stripping scene does not disappoint.  It’s exhilarating to see the characters come together and pull it off, and it’s a moment of liberation, of asserting their masculinity.  Stripped of everything, the final image of them naked, backlit in silhouette, proclaims We are men, we are here, and we are dazzling.

The show’s social commentary is still pertinent – these days Gaz and the guys would gather at a food bank – the pathos still works, and it’s still very funny when played by an ensemble of this calibre.

More than a girls’ night out, this is a great night out for everybody.

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Letting it all hang out, James Redmond gives the cast an eyeful