Category Archives: Review

Knocking it out of the Park

CHRISTOPHER PARK in recital

Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 19th June, 2017

 

The longest piece on the programme opens the show, Variations & Fugue on a theme by Handel by Brahms.  It’s the ideal piece to commence the evening and establishes Christopher Park’s virtuoso status from the off.  At times florid, light, jaunty and sombre, the piece is a little like switching through television channels, and Park handles the sometimes abrupt changes of mood and tempo with ease.  Every gear change Brahms throws at us is skilfully handled – we are in safe hands, but are his hands safe?  When it’s over, Park announces he has to leave the stage to fetch a plaster.  He has cut his finger, and I’m not surprised.  Such robust, intense playing could result in a keyboard like a butcher’s shambles.

He returns for a couple of Chopin pieces, the Nocturne Op 9 No 3 and his own transcription of the Larghetto Op 2 from Piano Concerto no 2.  This is how I like my Chopin, moody, stirring and romantic, melancholy as a rainy day.  This is the highlight of the evening for me.

After the interval comes Olga Neuwirth’s 2016 piece, Trurl – Tichy – Tinkle (you what, mate?).  It begins percussively and its seemingly random nature reminds me of when people see modern art and say their two-year-old could draw better.  I think that’s the point.  Neuwirth captures the primitivism of someone idling at the piano, a child before the rigours of classicism are introduced.  But that’s not all.  This piece gives us atmosphere, sometimes eerie, sometimes playful, it’s like a soundtrack to a cartoon we can’t see.  You won’t be whistling this one on the way home but it certainly demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and, yet again, the mastery of Christopher Park.

We finish with Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Petrouchka.  Some assertive, heavy-handed yet melodic pieces as though Park is fighting off the Russian army.  It’s stirring, vigorous stuff and seems conventional coming after the Neuwirth.  It culminates in a bashing crescendo and, I don’t know about Park, but I am spent.

Park returns for an encore, a comparatively frothy bit of Beethoven.

There might be blood on the piano but there is also the risk that my hands will be reduced to bloody stumps from all the applause.

christopher park


Come Die With Me

DINNER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 17th June, 2017

 

One of the many commendable things about the Bear Pit Theatre Company is they are not shy of staging productions of works that provide challenges for cast and audience members alike.  Ostensibly, Moira Buffini’s 2002 play takes us to somewhere similar to Ayckbourn country, with its premise of a middle-class dinner party attended by monstrous people.  Buffini is less subtle than Ayckbourn; here the savagery is not beneath the surface, the savagery is the surface.  Also, while Ayckbourn’s middle-class monsters are often likable or at least amusing, Buffini doesn’t bother trying to endear us to any of hers.  They’re a pretty rotten bunch and that’s all there is to it.  That’s not to say they’re not fun, and the roles are gifts for the actors.

Our hostess is Paige (an enjoyably arch Charlotte Froud).  She has hired a man off the internet to act as waiter for the evening.  The dinner party is in honour of the success of her husband’s book, success that Paige begrudges.  The book, Beyond Belief, sounds like a dreadful tome bursting with self-help psycho-babble.  Husband Lars (a strong and convincing Tony Homer) behaves like a spoiled brat and moody teen from the off.  He is also pompous and condescending in his bitterness, most of which he directs at his wife.

The sparks fly between Froud and Homer as this embattled couple, although we never really get to the bottom of why they are at loggerheads.  Could it be Lars’s reacquaintance with old flame from college, hippie throwback Wynne (Penelope Sandle-Keynes in a hilarious, detailed characterisation)?  There are cheap laughs at Wynne’s vegetarianism but otherwise Buffini serves up a buffet of barbs that are generally as sharp as poisoned darts.

Abi Deehan is laugh-out-loud funny as the blunt and outspoken Sian while Ben Coventry warms into his role as her husband Hal, providing some of the funniest moments of the night.

The dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of young Mike, a stranger whose van has broken down in the fog.  Nathan Brown is instantly appealing as the cocky interloper who is not all that he claims – it’s a fine contrast with Richard Ball’s stony-faced menace of a Waiter.

Arguments boil over and fizzle out.  Rows build to crescendos and are followed by immediate silence.  This is always effective but it happens at least once too often as director Steve Farr helps his cast ride out the sometimes patchy quality of the script.  Farr injects some lovely touches of comic business and keeps the action far from static – always a danger when the set is dominated by table and chairs.

What’s it all in aid of?  There’s a lot of grandstanding, point-scoring and cod philosophical discourse.  The nature of life is bandied around between the courses of Paige’s ridiculously pretentious and ultimately inedible menu.  It turns out there is nothing like death to make you appreciate life.  The Waiter has other services to offer and the middle-class ritual of the dinner party becomes a darker and more arcane, more primal affair.

With Buffini serving up seafood and the C-word in generous measure,  this is perhaps not to everyone’s taste but there is a great deal to delight in the comic playing of this committed and capable cast.

Dinner-Web-Home


Back out in the Outback

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

 

Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.  It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.

Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel.  Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout.  Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus.  Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover.  They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on.  There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story.  And quite right, too!

Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company.  The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!

Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say?  But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun.  What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon.   The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.

Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch.  As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs.  You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock!  Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.

There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out.  A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact.  On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.

priscilla


Apollo Mission Accomplished

APOLLO ET HYACINTHUS

Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017

 

A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness.  Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious.  The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.

Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb.  The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators.  Appl storms it, in fact.  He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions.  The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.

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Apple of my ear: Benjamin Appl

I need an interval drink after that!

Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening.  The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo.  Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth.  Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.

Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore.  Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery.  It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us.  The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God.  The man could dramatize anything.

Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand.  Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity.  Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving.  Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo.  When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.

It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state.  They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.

Le The a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti, Salon des Quatre-Glaces, Palais du Temple with child Mozart at harpsichord...


Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Terrible with Names

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2017

 

Adapted from the hit French play by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere, this is a scathing comedy based on a staple of middle-class theatre: the dinner party.  Husband and wife Peter and Elizabeth are expecting Elizabeth’s brother, Vincent and his pregnant partner Anna to share a Moroccan buffet.  Completing the party is Elizabeth’s best friend, Carl, a camp trombonist.  With Vincent as a narrator, supplying both prologue and epilogue, our views of the others are very much coloured by his acidic disdain, and the scene is set for a banterful evening during which characters say the kinds of things that only close friends and siblings can say to each other behind closed doors.  We very much enjoy the barbs and pot shots, as well as the savaging of middle-class pretensions (double-barrelled surnames as a sop to equality, ridiculous forenames – Peter and Elizabeth’s offspring are saddled with ‘Gooseberry’ and ‘Apollinaire’!)

It all kicks off when Vincent (Nigel Harmon) announces his unborn son will be named Adolf.  Cue an explosive discourse about morality and freedom of expression.  Here the play touches on many of the same points as comedian Richard Herring’s show ‘Hitler Moustache’ – but this argument is only for starters.  Other revelations are to come that rock the quintet to the core.

Harmon is in excellent form as the roguish Vincent, sadistically winding people up.  Jamie Glover’s Peter, adopting the moral high ground, gets a lot of stick, as does Carl (Raymond Coulthard).  Olivia Poulet is classy as the pregnant Anna, while Sarah Hadland out-middle classes the lot with her menu and preoccupations.  Hadland delivers the show-stopping speech of the night, when Elizabeth finally blows her top, in a masterly display of temper-loss.

Each member of this tight ensemble gets their moments to shine, but it is the embittered scenes of Vincent and Peter at loggerheads that carry the biggest frissons.  Director and adaptor Jeremy Sams handles the crescendos of the arguments and the conversational pace of the discussions so that it feels we are eavesdropping on the neighbours.  We enjoy being mocked, we trendy lefties, and pride ourselves on being big enough to take it – and I’ve just made myself sick!  These people are like us, the audience, the play admonishes, and we must not let our middle-class sensibilities get in the way of what is truly important: those close relationships that are both fragile and resilient at the same time.

In the same vein as Yasmin Reza’s God of Carnage, this play delivers an endless stream of laughter through a prism of sharp social satire, expertly performed by a top-notch cast of comedic actors.

nigel-harman-as-vincent-with-jamie-glover_peter-raymond-coulthard_carl

Jamie Glover, Raymond Coulthard and Nigel Harman (Photo: Robert Day)


Perfect Fit

CINDERELLA

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Wednesday 28th December, 2016

 

Seemingly a permanent fixture for the Regent’s annual pantomime, the dream team double act of local hero Jonathan Wilkes and Welsh actor Christian Patterson are back with one of their best efforts in years.  Appearing as one of the ugly sisters, Patterson has also written the script – a faithful, fast-moving and above all funny version that allows traditional routines, topical references and a rate of one-liners per minute that no other show this year can match.

cinderella_stoke

Wilkes, on his home turf, can do no wrong, but he does not rest on his laurels, working tirelessly (This year my name is Buttons) to ensure everyone has a great time.  His first entrance, purportedly in a cage borne by a gorilla, shows a level of self-awareness and mockery that endears him from the off: “I call him Robbie; he carries me everywhere.”  Wilkes has a cheeky stage persona, excellent comic timing and also a good, old-fashioned pop singer’s voice that is a treat to hear.

In the title role is newcomer Finley Guy, a young performer who exudes star quality.  Her Cinders is easily a match for the more seasoned professionals and she is more than able to carry scenes on her own.  Her singing voice is strong and pleasant, making her one of the best I’ve seen in the role.  Similarly, Owen Broughton’s Prince Charming makes a striking impression.  Ian Stroughair’s Dandini is a wildly camp, flamboyant gay man but it is pleasing that his sexuality is not the butt (ha!) of any jokes – he is included and accepted, and that is refreshing.  Michael Geary is fun as a wild-haired Baron Hardup who finally asserts himself, and Hannah Potts brings rhymes and giggles as a bubbly Fairy Cupcake – the transformation of Cinders from rags to ballgown is truly breath-taking and magical, right before our very eyes.

Simon Nehan pairs up with Patterson as the other sister, a villainous pair who also provide much of the laughter.  The comic timing is impeccable – we love to hate them.  Routines like Busy Bee and The 12 Days of Christmas are always hilarious when tackled by such skilled performers – youngsters in the audience who may not have seen them before are just as tickled as those of us who know what’s coming.

The dancers, choreographed by Nikki Wilkes, are excellent; elegantly acrobatic, the boys especially impress.  Clearly, along with Guy and Broughton, students at the Wilkes Academy are of the highest calibre.

A glittering glut of gags and wonder, this Cinderella satisfies on every count.  Wilkes and Patterson have triumphed again!

cinderella

Rising star: Finley Guy as Cinderella