Category Archives: Review

Privates’ Lives

PRIVATE PEACEFUL

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 17th May 2022

Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo’s novel is brought to life in this effective adaptation by Simon Reade and Nottingham Playhouse.  It’s the story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, and their nigh-on idyllic childhood in pre-war Devon.  Throughout the course of one night of sentry duty in the trenches, Private Tommo Peaceful narrates his life story up to this moment, the action slickly transitioning into flashbacks with the wave of an army blanket and a lighting change.  The story flows seamlessly and moves on a quite a lick, but there’s still plenty of time for us to engage with the characters and their tribulations.

War takes the brothers to France, where they encounter all the usual tropes of WWI drama: the trenches, the rats, the lice, the unreasonable officers, the futility, the waste of life… Everything except a war poet, in fact.  The scenes here contrast sharply with the comparative rosiness of life at home, delivered with a sense of urgency: Tommo must get his story told before morning comes.  We find out why in a devastating denouement.

As Tommo,  Daniel Rainford is splendid, never leaving the stage.  We see him grow up before our eyes, as he and Charlie fall for the same girl, disrespect the pompous lord of the manor, and generally form the fraternal bond that will see them through to the end.  Tom Kanji makes a strong impression as the older brother, while Liyah Summers is sweet and appealing as their shared love object.  Emma Manton is both tough and sympathetic as the mother, bringing up the boys on her own and striving to keep the roof over their heads.  Robert Evans as the older brother with learning difficulties shows us the prejudices of the age, but surely the hardest working and most versatile member of the cast is John Dougall, appearing in the widest range of roles from the ill-fated father, to the vicar, the great aunt, and various military men.

It’s an engaging story, if a little cliched.  Director Elle While keeps things flowing, with sudden changes of mood and location jarring us out of the present and into the past and back again.  It’s a children’s story so we are spared the worst excesses of conditions, with the horrors of war only hinted at rather than depicted.  What comes through very strongly is the injustice of the treatment of so-called ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors.

Matt Haskins’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound design enhance the storytelling, which is played out on Lucy Sierra’s remarkable set that conveys both homeland and war zone at the same time – thin branches curling in the air are also the barbed wire of the battlefield; mounds of sandbags suggest the rolling landscape…

This is a high-quality production reminding us of the huge waste of the First World War, and sadly, there are parallels with the world today, as Ukrainian men are recruited to defend their country against invaders, and once again thousands of lives are being lost on European soil.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Daniel Rainford in a Peaceful moment (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Hooray! Henry!

HENRY VI: REBELLION

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 7th May 2022

Shakespeare’s history plays – dramatized and fictionalised versions of real events involving real monarchs – inevitably these days draw comparisons with Game of Thrones.  Here there be no dragons, but there’s pretty much everything you’d expect in terms of loyalty and betrayal, honour and dishonour, treachery and rivalry, and power grabs galore.  There’s violence and gore, and even a mystical scene in which a severed head on a pole is consulted about the future.

Mark Quartley is the young king Henry VI, something of a weakling and therefore ripe for plucking from the throne.  There is no shortage of wannabe kings.  Chief among them is a deliciously wicked York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and the dashing Suffolk (Ben Hall).  Quartley is effective as the meek monarch; you will him to stand up for himself and when it finally happens, Quartley shows us the toll it takes out of the frail king.  Alvin-Wilson is hugely enjoyable – all he needs is a moustache to twirl, while Hall’s Suffolk has more range as a character.  When he meets his violent end, it’s hard to watch.  Director Owen Horsley uses suggestion as much as blatant gore, making for some very unpleasant but irresistible moments.

Minnie Gale is tons of fun as Margaret, Henry’s unfaithful queen, a vivacious, unconventional young woman who brings a whole new meaning to getting head from one’s lover…

Lucy Benjamin is powerful as Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester.  Though she be but little, she is fierce.  Oops, sorry, wrong play.  Her fellow EastEnders alumnus, Aaron Sidwell, is a treat as rebel and rabble rouser Jack Cade, with a cocky/Cockney swagger and a twinkle in his eye.  You expect him to call someone ‘Treacle’ at any moment.  Something the play demonstrates all too clearly is how the public can be manipulated by empty promises and stirring rhetoric.  It’s a nice touch to have the mob speak lines in perfect unison, showing how they are of one mind/brain cell.

Richard Cant is in excellent form as Uncle Gloucester, matched by RSC stalwart Paola Dionisotti as Cardinal Winchester, whose death scene is the best of the lot.

The huge cast comes and goes but the action is never less than perfectly focussed.  The simple staging (rostra and a medieval throne) are all that’s needed; the action is augmented by judicious use of projections on the chainmail backdrop: huge faces looming, and there’s a sequence when Cade and his rabble are roaming the streets, represented here by the corridors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Add to this, splendid historical costumes (such a relief they didn’t set the play at the time of the Cod War or on Mars or somewhere) and Paul Englishby’s superlative music, all mournful horns and stirring strings played live, and we’ve got a marvellous three-hours traffic on the stage.

I can’t wait to see the companion play next week!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mark Quartley as Henry VI (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

WARS OF THE ROSES

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th May 2022

The excellent ensemble is back with the companion play, continuing the story of England’s feeblest king.  This time there is even more running around, with the severed heads of various characters tossed around like so many basketballs.  Director Owen Horsley brings out the black humour of the piece at every opportunity to offset the grisly deaths and the heartfelt grief.  Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s York is even more enjoyable, the character being more rounded this time around.  His speech of grief for his murdered son and fury for the bloodthirsty Margaret (Minnie Gale being phenomenal again) is the most powerful moment of the first half.

New characters come to the fore.  Arthur Hughes as York’s son Richard, who becomes the Duke of Gloucester, gives a show-stealing performance and I cannot bloody wait to see him continue the role in Richard III in just a few weeks’ time.  Conor Glean’s Young Clifford, full of righteous vengeance and a Merseyside accent, and Ashley D Gayle as York’s eldest son, Edward, both make strong impressions.  Ben Hall, playing middle son George (later Clarence) also does a heart-wrenching grief-stricken moment.

The live video footage not only allows for two locations to share the stage, but also artfully frames the action: clever use of a child’s crown in the foreground while the child that wore it is being butchered makes the violence cinematic and symbolic.  Indeed, the only piece of furniture in the entire show is the gothic throne, the thing everyone is fighting over, while the ground it stands on is increasing ruined.

Richard Cant appears in an amusing turn as King Lewis (sic) of France, not quite going the full Allo, Allo! but in the vicinity.  Sophia Papadopoulos’s portrayal of the young and valiant Prince Edward is assured, so we’re shocked by his inevitable murder.  Lots of killings in this play, and plenty of exciting swordplay, thanks to fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

It’s a time when first names were in short supply.  Everyone is either a Henry, a Richard, or an Edward, it seems, so it’s something of a relief when they start referring to each other by place names instead.  Who would have guessed that a Duke of York could turn out to be so troublesome?

A thrilling, visceral, funny, and moving production, with Mark Quartley’s conflicted king at its heart.  The three-hour run time flies by.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Ooh, you are lawful…

LEGALLY BLONDE – The Musical

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May 2022

Stratford Musical Theatre Company turn their talented hands to the musical adaptation of the well-known Reese Witherspoon comedy film, in a vibrant production at the Play House, a venue that is more suited to bands and stand-up comedians.  And so the staging tonight is minimal, leaving the floor free for the large chorus to occupy – director Georgie Wood has drilled her cast to maximum efficiency for getting things on and getting things off again, so the piece runs like clockwork.

It’s the story of Elle Woods who, dumped by her egotistic boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hot pink and hot pursuit, as though getting a law degree will win the chump back… Elle is faced with prejudice because of her looks and demeanour but she overcomes obstacles to prove she is top of the class, and hey, you don’t need a man to make you happy… The show’s message seems to be about not judging books by their covers and breaking down stereotypes, which is a pertinent point to make: to be one’s authentic self.  Why then, does writer Heather Hach tarnish the piece with homophobic representations of LGBTQ+ people, who don’t get a chance to demonstrate they are more than the effeminate, posing, skipping fairies we are subjected to here?  Signs, I think, of the material exceeding its show-by date.  I cringe throughout the song Gay Or European which goes against the positive stereotype-busting message of the rest of it.

Leading the cast as the titular blonde Elle Woods, Vanessa Gravestock delivers an engaging, impressive performance, balancing the dumb-blonde looks with Elle’s innate intelligence.  She’s an appealing presence with the star quality required by the role.

Other highlights (because she’s blonde!) include Christopher Dobson as the tough-talking Professor, effortlessly exuding his dominance and high status;  Casey McKernan amuses as Elle’s cocksure ex Warner; Ian Meikle endears himself as mild-mannered love interest Emmett; Katie Merrygold is stonkingly good as Elle’s new BFF, Paulette Buonufonte; and Oliver Payne makes a scene-stealing appearance as delivery man Kyle.

It doesn’t matter what the cast does though, because any time a dog is brought on, it immediately upstages everyone else!  And I can’t help wondering if the situation is stressful for the animals.

The chorus is great, filling the space with energy and performing Julie Bedlow-Howard’s lively choreography.  In particular, a cheerleading number is splendid.

The singing too is all the more impressive when you realise the singers can’t see musical director James Suckling and the band, who are walled up behind the backdrop!

Unfortunately, there are missed lighting and sound cues, and this is not opening night where you can excuse a few hitches.  Microphone coverage is patchy.  It feels like the show could have done with at least one more technical rehearsal to make these elements of the production as sharp as the rest of it.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In the pink! Vanessa Gravestock front and centre as Elle Woods (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)

The Case of the Missing Mrs

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th April 2022

First Atlantis, then Dallas, and now Birmingham!  Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy stars in this (to me) obscure comedy-thriller from 1965, which has been dug up by Bill Kenwright Productions.  Duffy plays Daniel Corban, a honeymooner whose wife has been missing for three days from the remote chalet they have borrowed from Daniel’s boss.  The local police are on the case but then a woman turns up.  Is she really the missing Mrs or, as Daniel insists, is she an imposter out to get him and, consequently, his life insurance?

On the surface, it’s standard genre fare, but its elevated by a dry and witty script by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert.  With more twists and turns than a corkscrew, the plot keeps you guessing in this hugely enjoyable, somewhat cosy murder-mystery.

Duffy is in fine form as the neurotic Corban, tightly wound and sarcastic, and of course, it’s a treat to see him live, for reals, and not just in Pam Ewing’s dream.  No shower scene tonight, alas, but Duffy has a laidback confidence, which makes Corban’s increasingly desperate state all the more of a contrast.

As the is-she-or-isn’t-she wife Elizabeth, the alluring Linda Purl is great fun, and she is aided and abetted by Ben Nealon’s not-to-be-trusted clergyman.  Gray O’Brien is excellent as the wise-cracking, jaded police inspector, and there is strong character support from the wonderfully named Hugh Futcher as Sidney from the sandwich shop.  Paul Lavers makes his mark as Corban’s brash boss, with Chloe Zeitounian makes a fleeting impression in her brief appearance as the bit-on-the-side, ‘Mrs Parker’.

The mystery is intriguing enough to keep us hooked, while the rich vein of humour keeps us amused as the story unfolds and surprises.  Bob Tomson’s direction paces the action well to create such an entertaining evening, we’re willing to overlook the occasional stretches of credibility.  A well-made production, nicely played by all concerned.  (There was an issue of patchy microphone coverage at the performance I saw.  I prescribe a thorough soundcheck before the curtain goes up again.)

All in all, it’s good fun.  Catch it while you can.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Gray O’Brien, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Purl (Photo: Jack Merriman)

Star Man

JARMAN

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Saturday 9th April 2022

Mark Farrelly is the write and star of this one-man piece about the life of filmmaker and gay rights activist, Derek Jarman.  From the off, we are immersed in the lyrical script as Derek describes the plants and flowers in his now-famous garden.  The descriptions are interrupted by short, sharp flashbacks from his childhood (You’ll go blind… etc) startling us out of the flowery idyll of his cottage.

Farrelly takes us through his subject’s life story sure enough but it quickly emerges that this show is about more than one man’s life.  It’s about all our lives, or rather our attitude to it.  Farrelly confronts us, albeit playfully, to confront what it is we’re doing with our allotted time.

It’s a small matinee audience.  Farrelly is sure to address us all as individuals, darting around, making eye contact here, asking a rhetorical question there.  Throughout the show, there’s a frisson of excitement and/or terror about being called upon to participate.  Farrelly is gentle with his volunteers and/or victims so there is no need to feel uneasy.  In fact, the message of the piece is to be unafraid to participate.  In our own lives!

We hear about sexual encounters, both real and fantasy.  We hear about Jarman’s repressive upbringing, his first jobs out of art college, before he launches into the film career that will make his name.

It’s all done in spartan fashion.  A single chair, a sheet, a roll of paper, and a multi-coloured flashlight are all Farrelly uses – as well as his considerable talent and presence as a performer.  He rides, not just a roller-coaster, but an entire theme park of emotions, sometimes snapping in and out of extremes at the flick of a lighting change.  What emerges is a portrait of the artist as a force to be reckoned with.  To see this vibrant, exuberant, rebellious figure reduced to a stooped and trembling shadow of himself, thanks to AIDS, is heart-breaking, and painfully portrayed.

Director Sarah-Louise Young keeps the contrasting moods and moments sharp, and Farrelly is friendly and fun, intense and, yes, a little intimidating. Confronted by his own mortality, Jarman confronts us with ours.

We come away with admiration for both Jarman and the actor who has channelled him so vividly.  At the end, Jarman admonishes us to ‘be astonishing’.

And that’s exactly what Mark Farrelly has been.

Fabulous, thought-provoking stuff.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆☆

Blue; Mark Farrelly IS Derek Jarman

Fete Accompli

CONFUSIONS

The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 5th May 2022

This collection of five short pieces by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn was first produced in 1974 – a fact which informs Jacquie Campbell’s costume choices for tonight’s show, subtly suggesting the period, when the piece is suited to anywhen. 

We begin with four park benches on which random individuals are taking their ease — or trying to.  What develops is a string of monologues as each individual seeks to escape the stranger who insists on talking to them.  It’s funny, with each stranger having their own individual voice, but it underlines the main theme of the piece (indeed of all five pieces): desperation born of loneliness.  Ayckbourn can write a funny line sure enough, but he is also an acute observer of the human condition.

Of the strangers, a couple of standouts are Kevin Hand’s Arthur and Margot McCleary’s Doreen.  Director David Mears avoids things becoming static by keeping people moving from bench to bench (this also helps with the in-the-round staging).  It’s like musical chairs without the music.  The cast perform with a sort of heightened naturalism.  Every character however bizarre or mundane their situation – rings true.

Next up is Lucy, a woman left too much alone with her children.  She has lost the ability to converse with adults, so when the couple next door pop round to check up on her, hilarity ensues.  Zoe Mortimer is great as the steely-eyed, assertive mother, and she is matched by Charlotte Froud’s timid Rosemary, with Barry Purchase-Rathbone providing contrast as Rosemary’s bluff husband Terry – until he is put in his place!  It’s very funny to see the adults revert to childhood, but the piece touches on darkness based on psychological truth.

The director himself appears in the next one, as Harry, Lucy’s absentee husband, a boorish, sleazy sales rep who thinks he’s God’s gift, trying to cop off with Jemima Davis’s longsuffering Paula.  Mears gives a cringeworthy performance as the desperate lothario — one of Ayckbourn’s finest middle-class monsters — and we can only sympathise with Paula as she fails to get away.  Rescue arrives in the form of her best friend Bernice, in a coolly forthright portrayal by Kristiyana Petkova.

Next we’re in a restaurant where two separate couples have issues to discuss.  We eavesdrop on their conversations as the waiter goes from table to table, valiantly trying to do his job.  As the waiter, Elliot Gear is a delight, reacting, interjecting, and keeping busy, all with a strained professional demeanour.  A star turn.

Finally, we move to the tea tent at a dreadful village fete.  Trouble with the p.a. system leads to an inadvertent broadcast that destroys a relationship.  With hilarious consequences.  David Mears appears again as Gosforth, the busybody organising the event, showing his versatility with another of Ayckbourn’s monsters.  Lily Skinner’s Milly is tightly wound, becoming increasingly frantic as the situation deteriorates.  Jane Grafton brings a strong whiff of Christine Hamilton to her portrayal of Councillor Emily Pearce, making her eventual humiliation all the more delicious.  Justin Osborne is a hoot as the emotionally immature boy scout leader whose life comes crashing down, and David Gresham adds value as a stock character comedy vicar.  Events descend into organised chaos, with the cast working superbly to convey the urgent desperation and the slapstick of the moment.  I would prefer a bigger bang with the electrics go awry, but that’s just me.

All in all, a splendid evening of entertainment and almost non-stop laughter.  Mears gets the tone just right and his talented cast (wish I had room to mention them all) deliver the goods in this showcase of their abilities.  If the Bear Pit is to stage any more Ayckbourn, I would like to see them tackle one of his later, more experimental shows.  Shows like Confusions are bread-and-butter to them.  I want cake!

☆☆☆☆☆

More tea, Vicar? David Gresham. David Mears, Lily Skinner, Justin Osborne. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Go with the Flo

COMING TO ENGLAND

The Rep, Birmingham, Monday 4th April 2022

Much-loved TV presenter and now baroness Floella Benjamin wrote a book about her early life, telling how she and her family came to this country and what happened when they got here.  That book has now been dramatized by prolific children’s playwright David Wood in this musical retelling, taking us back to Trinidad where it all began.  There’s an idyllic tone to these early scenes, in a poor-but-happy kind of way, as Floella and her siblings learn British history at school and sing songs of the empire.  They consider themselves British.  They have a rude awakening coming…

Leading the ensemble cast is Paula Kay as Floella, our narrator, in a captivating performance.  Kay carries the show with an irrepressible portrayal of the presenter as a young girl, and she is ably supported by Yazmin Belo as big sister Sandra, Tarik Frimpong, Jay Marsh, and Dale Mathurin as brothers Roy, Ellington, and Lester.   Kojo Kamara’s Dardie, Floella’s father, plays a lovely saxophone (Mr Benjamin harboured ambitions to be a musician); and Bree Smith exudes warm-heartedness and wisdom as Marmie, the mother – the show is very much a tribute to Floella’s mum, and all those brave women like her.

Upon arrival, the family finds the streets of London are paved with bigots, but despite the harsh reception, they put down roots and begin to make something of themselves.  There is a strong message running throughout: keep smiling, winners smile.

The show touches on Benjamin’s experiences but strangely absent is a scene tackling how she got into television.  The second act opens with an a capella rendition of the theme to Play School and Paula Kay cajoles us into participating in If You’re Happy and You Know It.  And we do, because it’s fun.  But the show keeps something of this patronising tone to the end, exhorting us to shout out and clap, as if we are still young viewers.

Many of the songs you will have heard before.  Island in the Sun, Brown Girl in the Ring… the reggae/calypso flavours of the music provide an irresistible carnival atmosphere, matched by the colourful costumes and giant butterfly props.  Kay treats us to a beautiful rendition of Smile.  Throughout, the ensemble singing is lovely, and there is energetic choreography by director Omar F Okai.

It all breezes along pleasantly, with only passing clouds to mar the experience: the ugly face of racial hatred and prejudice rears up now and then, but Floella learns to smile through it and is indeed an excellent role model.

This colourful, exuberant production is more than the biography of a remarkable public figure.  It is also a lesson in social history, with a message of hope and empowerment for the future.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Paula Kay IS Floella Benjamin. Photo: Geraint Lewis

A Bridgerton Too Far?

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd April 2022

Michael Barry sets his Much Ado in the Regency period, like the popular series on Netflix.  For the most part, it’s an excellent fit, with the exterior manners and elegance a suitable setting for Shakespeare’s wittiest rom-com. This is Bridgerton in looks and feel, but with an infinitely better script! Barry’s set design has two plastered columns framing the upstage area, the bases of which have cracked to reveal the brickwork beneath, representing the truth beneath the surface.  It’s a clever detail.

The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis gives us his Benedick, complete with mutton-chops and poufy hair.  He is Mr Darcy, an upright romantic hero with a quick wit and a big heart.  Hobbis does an admirable job and you can’t help falling for him.  Naomi Jacobs’s Beatrice has the acid tongue and merry wit down pat, but she’s a little too loud for the studio setting, delivering all her lines at full volume – sometimes going up to 11.  A bit more variance and she’d be perfect.

Andrew Elkington makes for a posing, preening Claudio, all righteous indignation in the pivotal church scene, and thoroughly detestable afterwards, until his redemption, of course; a pretty face masking his petulance and objectionable self-righteousness.  Spot on!  Also great is Papa Yentumi as Don Pedro, the fun-loving prince, at ease with his high status and game for a laugh.  As his bastard brother, Tom Lowde gives us a volatile Don John, but he needs not to race through some of his lines so we can enjoy his evil nature all the more. 

Man of the match for my money is Mark Payne as Leonato, effortlessly convincing throughout, and electrifyingly emotional in that church scene.

Suzie King’s Hero contrasts sweetly with the acerbic Beatrice, and there is solid support from Skye Witney as Antonia, Jessica Terry as Margaret, Colette Nooney as Ursula, and James Browning as the villainous Borachio.

I’m afraid though the Dogberry scenes don’t quite come off.  Ben Pugh could make more of the constable’s bombast, building him up more so he can deflate further.   There are more laughs to be gained here. The Watch scenes seem clumsily staged.  Perhaps there were council tax cutbacks in Messina at the time, but surely they could stretch to at least a third Watchman.

There is lovely music, all piano and strings, by Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon, but there at times when it is intrusive, detracting from the action rather than supporting it.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the phenomenal Costume Department at the Crescent goes all out to create beautiful and accurate clothes to suit the world of the production.  Designer Jennet Marshall has excelled herself here, and credit is due to her team: Carolyn Bourne, Anne Hignell, Stewart Snape, Rose Snape, and Pat Brown, for the stunning array of uniforms, posh frocks and tailored coats on display.

A great-looking production that hits most of its marks, featuring some excellent performances by its leads.

☆ ☆ ☆ ½

Andrew Elkington and Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Bloody Great

MACBETH

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th March 2022

This production by Tread The Boards takes a traditional approach, with splendid medieval costumes conveying the historical period, although with the Northern English accents, it’s less Glamis Castle and more Winterfell.  But at least there’s consistency, creating the world-of-the-play most effectively.  The action plays out against a huge map of Scotland, which has been torn —  symbolising the political climate of the story.

Judicious use of sound design (courtesy of the brilliant Elliott Wallis) makes the intimate Attic Theatre space feel larger.  The sounds of hurly-burly surround us.  Cast members running around and fighting put us right in the action.  Enter Three Witches… This ragtag trio engender an otherworldliness, even though they could pass for mortal women – their eye-of-newt scene later on is horrible, as they place the disgusting ingredients in their cauldron.  The Witches also double as other characters: servants, messengers, giving them a direct hand in the unfolding doom of their victim.  Witch 2 (Sally Hyde Lomax) doubles as the Porter, bringing much-needed comic relief to the tense scenes surrounding the murder of Duncan.  Witch 3 (Clara Lane) makes a sympathetic Lady Macduff, while Sarah Feltham’s Witch 1, the twitchy one, offers support in a string of minor roles.  The impression is given that the Witches are more directly involved in Macbeth’s downfall than we might have thought.

Speak of the devil.  Daniel Wilby’s Macbeth is a credible warrior (some Macbeths I’ve seen aren’t!) and his conversion to the dark side, while a little speedy, is also believable.  Wilby is at his strongest in the scenes where Macbeth unravels – the banqueting scene is especially powerful – and his portrayal of a man under immense stress, with violent outbursts, is captivating.

He is more than matched by Alexandra Whitworth, who is quite simply the best Lady Macbeth I have seen.  The steely-eyed wickedness, the growing sense of isolation, the mental breakdown… all played to perfection.  Whitworth brings out the character’s humanity.  She is so much more than a wicked woman who can’t cope with the consequences of her actions.

Honestly, this is a truly excellent cast.  Phil Leach’s King Duncan exudes kindness without losing any of his regal status; Ben Armitage’s Malcolm is superb – like Macduff, we take him at his word.  Armitage gives the boy king assuredness; he is definitely this Duncan’s son.  Pete Meredith’s Banquo goes from brave and noble best mate to terrifying apparition.  A versatile actor, Meredith later appears as the doctor – the contrast couldn’t be greater.  John-Robert Partridge’s forthright Macduff is thoroughly righteous and decent.  Partridge’s rich speaking voice is a pleasure to hear, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

There is strong support from the likes of Tom Lane’s Lennox, Edward Manning’s Ross, and Patrick Large as Seyton.  Everyone handles the language with clarity and understanding.  John-Robert Partridge’s direction gets everything right, the supernatural bits are unnerving, the action scenes are exciting – the climactic swordfight between Macs Duff and Beth is thrilling – making the confines of the performance space seem large enough to contain this story of a nation in upheaval, while yet intimate enough to chart the decline of our tragic hero.  Partridge doesn’t clutter the stage (there’s no room) but lets Shakespeare’s text do the donkey work, ensuring that this superlative cast deliver the time-worn words with truth, ease and freshness.

Bloody marvellous.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mr and Mrs: Daniel Wilby and Alexandra Whitworth as the Macbeths (Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)

Cherry On Top

CHERRY JEZEBEL

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, Saturday 26th March 2022

Jonathan Larkin’s new play snaps, crackles and pops with Scouse humour, in the best show set in the toilets of a Liverpool nightclub since Willy Russell’s Stags & Hens.  We meet drag queen Cherry Brandy (Mickey Jones) as she receives an award for being an icon on Merseyside.  This matinee audience takes a bit of warming up but Jones soon wins us over.  Cherry is joined by her bezzie mate, Helen Handjob (Mariah Louca), and their acerbic sniping is overheard by curly-haired twink Pearl Reckless (Stefan Race) and so queers across the generations meet and bicker, and it’s glorious, the one-liners zinging and stinging, and the vocabulary enough to make the editor of Viz magazine blush.

But the darkness of reality soon impinges, as young Pearl returns bearing injuries from a homophobic attack.  As Heidi observes, “it’s their world, we’re just unwelcome guests in it”.   Humour is both a weapon and a shield but there can’t be a queer person in existence who hasn’t suffered to some extent abuse at the hands of straight people, and we carry with us everywhere the fear that we could be set upon at any given moment.  Will the rowdy group of lads on the train turn their attention to us?  Will we get yelled at by a passing motorist?  And even if the attack doesn’t come on this occasion, the fear remains.  We got lucky. This time.  And all the rainbow flags in the world and corporate sponsorship of Pride won’t take the fear away.

The second act takes place in Cherry’s home and we enter farcical sitcom territory.  Cherry has brought home some trade, in the lovely shape of Mo, played by George Jones (nice arse!).  While Mo sleeps it off face down on the sofa, Pearl arrives, direct from a second homophobic assault.  At first, Cherry is as scathing as ever but gradually the pair come to an understanding, while Cherry’s lifelong friendship with Helen runs aground.  Mo meanwhile wakes up and panics that his straight friends, his girlfriend and his family will find out about his secret proclivities.  Cherry, of course, puts him in his place.

Mickey Jones does a bang-up job as the bitter drag queen with an acidic tongue.  Mariah Louca makes an excellent fist of Helen Handjob, coming across as more grounded than Cherry.  Stefan Race is an absolute gem as Pearl, brazen yet vulnerable, and there is excellent support from George Jones’s Mo and other roles.

Stefan Race and George Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)

James Baker’s direction navigates the mood swings and sharp about-faces of the script with aplomb, getting the laughs in all the right places while allowing the dramatic tension to emerge and to breathe.

The play covers a lot of ground in its long, dark night of the arsehole, and while it is indelibly Liverpool-based, threaded with local references and the natural wit of the natives, the issues easily translate to anywhere and everywhere.  Ultimately it’s uplifting and a bracing reminder that we need to ditch the in-fighting and stick together in the face of rising opposition from dickheads within the straight community.

Fabulous!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cherry meets banana. Mickey Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)