Category Archives: Review

Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK.  I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers.  In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape!  They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!

Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment.  There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home.  John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing.  He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper.  Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin.  Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him.  Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.

They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script.  A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death.  And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.

It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented.  Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.

There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues.  The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.

heroes

Dave Hill, Brian Wilson and John Whittell (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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Hired and Fired-Up

THE HIRED MAN

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 4th May, 2018

 

If Thomas Hardy upped sticks and moved north to Cumbria (or Cumberland, as it was known then) the chances are he would have come up with something very like Melvyn Bragg’s family saga about farm-workers and miners near Cockermouth.  There is plenty of Hardyesque bonhomie among the lower orders, strife from the owners, plus most crucially, a love triangle.

Ian Page is John, the eponymous hired man, newlywed to Emily (Jenne Rhys-Williams).  Page has a striking tenor voice and comes into his own later in the story with a plaintive song about his son.  Rhys-Williams, as female lead, bears the emotional brunt of the story, singing the gamut of feelings in a moving portrayal.  The couple is supported by lively turns from Anya McCutcheon as daughter May, and Will Page as stubborn son Harry.

Thom Stafford (no relation) is eminently likeable as John’s hedonistic brother Isaac, contrasting nicely with Gavin Whichello’s Seth, the other, more principled brother, trying to stir up interest in a miners’ union.

The rest of the ensemble get their moments too.  There is pleasing character work from Julian Bissell as the landowner and other roles; Ralph Toppin-Mackenzie as a vicar; Iona Cameron’s Sally gets a lovely duet with Emily about prospective lovers…

Mark Shaun Walsh is magnificent as the handsome, caddish Jackson Pennington, brimming with emotional intensity and vocal power.  His scenes with Rhys-Williams are electrifying, his characterisation so engaging, we care about the character’s fate, despite his transgressions.

Director Kirsteen Stafford (no relation either) works her ensemble of 12 hard and to great effect.  Group scenes are handled well and there are moments of brilliance: a slow-motion fight between John and Jackson while Emily emotes through song is particularly well realised (with fight direction by Thom Stafford).

Howard Goodall’s rich, stirring and moving score is performed by just two musicians.  Musical director Chris Davis and Maddy Evans sound like more than two, delivering all the colours of the music, achieving great variety in tone within a unifying piano-and-violin based sound.  The ensemble singing is beautiful where it needs to be, and rousing and atmospheric as the story demands.  Chris Lamb’s emblematic set evokes farm fences, pubs, the trenches… in an economic but versatile design.

It’s an involving, melodramatic piece with some good tunes, excellently presented, managing to be both intimate and epic in scale.  We get the sense of family and marital strife (universals) against the backdrop of a changing world – oh yes, the First World War rears its ugly and unnecessary head too, changing lives and circumstances forever.  It’s very moving too – expect to come away with wet cheeks!

Great stuff!

hired man


Pinkie Blinder

BRIGHTON ROCK

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th April, 2018

 

This new production from Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal rocks into town with an irresistible swagger.  Composer Hannah Peel’s score is designed to quicken the heartbeat, the drum-heavy arrangements tribal and exciting like jungle drums.  Our jungle is the criminal underworld of 1950s Brighton, where rival gangs of protectionists rule the streets.

Leading one such gang is Pinkie – a perky performance by Jacob James Beswick.  His Pinkie is cocksure, tough and volatile, who sees his youth (aged 17) as no handicap.  In fact, his lack of years is a plus: he can’t be hanged for his crimes.  He also has a cavalier attitude to eternal damnation – planning to play the Catholic get-out-of-Hell-free card by repenting in the last minute of his life.  Superstition is a recurring theme, be it church-going or dabbling with a Ouija board.

Brighton Rock 2018 Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie..

Pinkie promise: Jacob James Beswick (Photo: Karl Andrew Photography)

Sarah Middleton is the perfect contrast to Pinkie in every way as Rose, the girl whose affections Pinkie waylays in order to stop her from going to the cops with what she knows.  Rose is blinded, not by the vitriol Pinkie waves in her face, but by his attentions, proving herself fiercely loyal albeit misguided.  A tight ensemble plays the supporting roles, notable among them is the versatile Angela Bain, as Spicer, a priest, and others.  Jennifer Jackson, appearing as the ultra-cool rival boss Colleoni, is responsible for the stylised movements – the violence is savagely choreographed – and Jackson performs a sinuous bit of expressive jazz dancing to accompany the turmoil of the lead characters.

Dominating the action is Ida, seeking justice for a murdered beau.  Gloria Onitiri is thoroughly magnificent.  Funny, determined, passionate and with a dirty laugh, she also treats us to her rich singing voice in a couple of cool torch songs.

The show is ineffably cool in the way that bad boys are cool.  But we are definitely on Ida’s side, as the moral compass of the story.

Director Esther Richardson keeps things slick and sharp as a razor, employing the ensemble as stagehands to keep the action continuous and the transitions seamless.  Bryony Lavery’s splendid adaptation of the Graham Greene novel delivers the feel of the era, the argot of the underworld, while Sara Perks’s all-purpose set evokes Brighton Pier chief among the other locations.  There is a Kneehigh feel to proceedings with the stylisation, the onstage musicians and so on – and there’s nothing wrong in that.  Quite the contrary!

Gripping, entertaining and inventively presented, this is one stick of rock that has QUALITY running all the way through it.

Brighton Rock 2018 Gloria Onitiri as Ida

The mighty Gloria Onitiri as Ida (Photo: Karl Andre Photography)

 


The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

Macbeth production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Richard Davenport _c_ RSC_245921

Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 


Crooning Glory

CROONERS

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 29th March, 2018

 

As the curtain opens, a David Attenborough-type voiceover introduces us to that rare and endangered species, the crooner, inviting us to observe them in their natural habitat, namely being on stage with a band.  The three specimens presented to us look curiously British, in an old school type of way: bowler hats, tweed jackets and so on.  They each sport an elaborate and not-to-mention false moustache.  A dapper trio, indeed.  We meet Charlie (Roman Marek, who has also written and directed the show), Rupert (Phil Barley) who has something of Lord Lucan to him, and Winston (Jim Whitley) who proves to be the most proficient dancer of the troupe.

The premise is the crooners need to find mates in order to perpetuate their vanishing species and this is the trigger for banter-aplenty with the audience.  It’s good-natured ribbing and the humorous exchanges between the musical numbers are saucy rather than vulgar.  The trio exudes oodles of charm and generates an abundance of fun.  Their urbane cheekiness is irresistible.

The set list is rich with standards.  Come Fly With Me, Fly Me To The Moon, On The Street Where You Live – it’s all solid Rat Pack fare, and the three voices blend marvellously.  They each get solo spots: Charlie’s Frank Sinatra is particularly good but I loved Rupert’s tipsy Dean Martin.  Winston’s Sammy Davis Jr gives us a show-stopping Mr Bojangles.

Some of the jokes are even older than the songs but Roman Marek’s Benny Hill naughty-boyishness pulls them off, and he is an accomplished physical comedian.  There are many moments of undiluted delight.  The second half opens with the men in their underwear.  They perform a reverse strip-tease, getting dressed to music, donning the familiar black-tie attire of this kind of affair.

The band is magnificent and tireless: The Mini Big Band, a ten-piece combo of hot brass, cool sax, rocking drums and moody piano, under the musical direction of Chris and Jon Hibbard.  They underscore, accompany and participate in the action, but above all, sound fantastic.

Oh yes, there’s also tap-dancing, the kind of choreography old Brucie was doing right up until the end.

Utterly enjoyable, entertaining and hilarious, Crooners is a joy from start to finish.

Crooners-@-Cast-6844

Pip pip! Phil Barley, Roman Marek and Jim Whitley

 

 


The Bees’ Knees

HONEY

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd March, 2018

 

When you behold a patchwork quilt, you see it at first as a whole.  Then you might move on to look closely at individual patches, and then how they relate to their neighbours.  Such is the fabric of Tiffany Hosking’s sweet and rich new play, named for the produce of Anwen’s bees, but quite easily the play could be renamed or subtitled, How To Make A Welsh Quilt.

Bossy Anwen (Vey Straker) focusses on making the quilt, piecing together hexagons (like a honeycomb!) while her husband is away.  She hopes he is doing his job (defusing bombs!) rather than shacking up with another woman.  Her 22-year-old son Caron (Callan Durrant) is autistic.  He watches Happy Feet on repeat and expresses himself through idiosyncratic choreography (by Lizie Gireudeaux); meanwhile Anwen’s tattoo artist sister Celandine (Jemma Lewis) strives to help out, longing to be loved and for a child of her own.  Also in the picture is their half-sister Armes (Jenni Lea Jones) whom Anwen shuns.  Everyone is superb but Lea Jones really plucks at the heartstrings, and Lewis’s sardonic humour has us in stitches, so to speak.  Durrant is a lovely mover, compelling in his silence, but Straker’s Anwen is the heart of the piece.

It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully played by all and the writing is gorgeous.  Hosking also directs, stitching together a range of styles to make a cohesive whole.  For the most part, it’s naturalistic albeit in a stylised setting: three stacks of boxes represent the beehives but these come apart and are reconfigured to suggest furniture and fixtures of different locations: a post office counter, for example, or tables in the pub… Characters address other characters that we don’t see or hear, in one-sided conversations.  Most revealing, the characters will visit the bees to tell them their news and innermost thoughts (it’s a Thing, apparently), in monologues addressed to the audience.  The action in non-linear but we piece together the timeline, the cause and effect of actions and events.  Gentle drama laced with gentle humour becomes something quietly profound and ultimately touching.  Caron discloses to the bees, in the only instance of him saying anything, that the very chemicals responsible for the decline of their kind may be responsible for the surge in autism – the play’s political point, there, but generally it’s about family and community and connections.  It has much to do with tradition but also feels completely fresh and of the now.  I adored it and audiences should swarm to see it.

The play begins and ends with the same scene: Anwen proudly displaying the completed quilt to the bees, wrapping the story in a neat package and making the show as warming as any such blanket.

honey


Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

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Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)