Category Archives: Review

Poldarker

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 14th July, 2018

 

This revival of Martin McDonagh’s 1993 play is a showcase for the Oscar-winning writer’s talent and also for leading man Aidan Turner – Ross Poldark himself.  Fans of Poldark flocking to the Noel Coward theatre to be in the presence of the handsome hunk will find very different fare on offer.  The setting is a rustic dwelling (hardly Nampara) in the Irish countryside – instead of Cornish vistas, there is a stylised representation of greenery, a tree that seems almost topographical, painted on a curtain.  Rivalries, betrayals, violence… All of these are heightened for comic effect, and this is a very funny play indeed.  Less Poldark and more Quentin Tarantino does Father Ted or Sam Peckinpah tackling Mrs Brown’s Boys.  The humour is blacker than a pint of Guinness.

The killing of a cat is the trigger for the action.  The puss in question belongs to wild-eyed Padraic (Turner) a freedom-fighter and vigilante, who interrupts his torture of a hapless drug pusher (Brian Martin) to receive news of ‘Wee Thomas’s’ welfare – and it is in these moments we see the character in all his madness, from his matter-of-fact sadism to the sentimental depth of his attachment to his only friend.  Turner is screamingly funny, and while his bloodied white singlet shows off his well-turned arms and shoulders, the character is much to monstrous to be attractive and swoon-worthy.  Turner has a credible intensity to his fanaticism; volatile and yet pragmatic, his Padraic is as scary as he is funny.

The rest of the cast are equally good.  McDonagh doles out the funny lines even-handedly, and each character is touched with a particular madness of his or her own.  Padraic’s dad, Donny (Denis Conway) to whom the care of the cat is entrusted while Padraic is off trying to bomb chip shops, has his otherwise better judgment skewed by drink; young Davey (Chris Walley) a mulleted Motorhead fan who rides a pink bicycle, is the scapegoat for the cat’s demise, gifted with his own brand of logic, founded in idiocy.  The imposing and sinister Christy (Will Irvine) out for vengeance for the eye he lost to Padraic’s crossbow, accompanied by henchmen Joey and Brendan (Julian Moore-Clark and Daryl McCormack) have some darkly funny exchanges – it is Irvine who exudes the most menace, despite our gleeful horror at Padraic’s excesses.  Charlie Murphy’s boyish, cow-blinding Mairead shows how deep the madness infects the population, where adherence to a cause overrides sanity.  She and Padraic seem to share a moral code, centred on a mutual love of cats, and so it is not surprising when they form an alliance.

Christopher Oram’s cosy cottage set throws the decidedly un-cosy conduct of the characters into stark relief.  The gore and violence of the faction are at odds with the chintzy diddly-diddly-dee of Oirish country life.   Director Michael Grandage balances tension with the comedy, ensuring his cast deliver McDonagh’s relentless punchlines with exquisite timing, wringing the laughter from the audience, along with the shocks and the schlock as the action escalates.

Post-peace process, the play is perhaps now a warning of what Ireland could become again, when the lunacy of Brexit kicks in.  More generally, it’s a stark demonstration of the kind of things people will kill and be killed for, with the unlucky black cat as a metaphor for what drives the murderous pursuits of the misguided.  Violence is an answer, the play says, but it’s the wrong answer.

An exhilarating production of one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time.  Hail, McDonagh!  Hail, Turner!  Hail bullets… well, perhaps not that last one.

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Gun show: Aidan Turner as Padraic (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

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Dreamboats and Chainmail Coats

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

The Arts Theatre, London, Thursday 12th July, 2018

 

The jukebox musical is a long-established genre and a lucrative one (when it comes to the likes of Mamma Mia!) taking the back catalogue of an artiste or a period or a genre and shoehorning songs into a paper-thin plot.  Here, show creator Jennifer Marsden goes a step farther by shoehorning quotations from classical literature into the dialogue.  And so we get swathes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, along with Tennyson, Blake, Burns… The programme has three pages listing literary references… The overall effect, apart from showing how adept Marsden is at cutting-and-pasting, is perhaps not the desired one, as ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ give way to song lyrics in which characters refer to each other as ‘Baby’.  That clunking sound may not be the scenery being manoeuvred into position but the gear change in your mind as we lurch from period to period.

What this means is Name That Tune collides with Place That Quotation, keeping us at a distance from the characters and the unfolding drama.  Moments of emotional impact are therefore diluted by our, what Brecht would call, alienation from what’s unfolding.  Any engagement we have is with the performers, all of them working hard to keep this balloon in the air, and all of them wildly impressive.

Everything is played straight.  To spoof it up would give us another Spamalot.  To give us another Camelot, the show would need an original score.  No, Knights of the Rose is definitely its own thing.

Leading the cast as Prince Gawain is former-Hollyoaks star Andy Moss, who proved his mettle as a vocalist in a recent nationwide tour of Ghost.  Moss here proves himself more than capable of delivering rousing speeches to his troops – next stop, The RSC? – and he does his best with a character that has no flaws or self-doubt, or anything to get his teeth into.  He gets a couple of Bon Jovi numbers to belt out, so all is well.

Oliver Savile is floppy-haired Sir Hugo, the romantic lead, singing pop, rock (and later, classical) with a clear, sweet voice.  His rival Sir Palamon (in this performance, played by Ian Gareth Jones) brings musical theatre intonations to the rock songs, along with a meatier stage presence.  Matt Thorpe’s Sir Horatio does extremely well with his songs in a high register, while Ruben Van Leer’s humble John perhaps has the purest, most searing voice of all.

Van Leer sort of narrates, linking scenes together with recitations of verse.  He speaks with feeling and clarity but there are perhaps too many of these, keeping John out of the action, commenting on it (sometimes tangentially) rather than taking part, and slowing things down for the rest of us.

Katie Birtill’s Princess Hannah and Rebekah Lowings’s Lady Isabel, supported by handmaid Emily (Blue Woodward) provide a couple of the show’s highlights, absolutely killing Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero and Total Eclipse of the Heart.  The vocals are superb, and the staging by director Racky Plews gives us 1980s rock video.  Plews blends modern choreography with period moves, and so we get Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale meets Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale.

Bringing gravitas to the piece are Adam Pearce as Aethelstan and Rebecca Bainbridge as Matilda, King and Queen, two more mature players in this young cast.

There are moments of brilliance.  A stylised battle, complete with horses’ heads and animated rain, is evocative and effective.  A medieval chant, from Adam Pearce’s King Aethelstan, reverberates with drama as well as his beautiful bass baritone…

The creative choices are audacious, at turns bemusing and gobsmacking, but it’s the performers that give us the enjoyment, that sell us this hodgepodge and we like it.

How to fix it?  Me, I’d start lighter, to give more time for us to get attached to the characters and accustomed to the style before the action proper kicks in.  The transitions from poetry to rock song should be smoother, rather than speedbumps in the way of our engagement.  And give us a song we can sing along with for a more rousing finale.

Somewhere within in all this is the potential for a great show.  As it is, it’s a lot of fun – as a rock concert cum poetry recital delivered in fancy dress.

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Gawain down in a blaze of glory… Andy Moss (Photo: Mark Dawson)


Oatcakes and Circuses

ASTLEY’S ASTOUNDING ADVENTURES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th July, 2018

 

When pressed to come up with names from the history of circus, you might recall worthies such as Billy Smart or Mary Chipperfield.  You probably won’t even know of the father of it all, the inventor of the modern circus, one Philip Astley, an innovative impresario and equestrian performer.  Now, this brand-new production staged in his home town brings this unsung hero firmly into the limelight.  We learn that he was a military man who fought in the Seven Years War – the redcoat of his uniform inspires the traditional attire of the ringmaster – and his riding school, based on marshland in Lambeth, like him, was snubbed by the nobility whose patronage he craved.  Dubbed ‘the major with the funny voice’ Astley doesn’t fit in, he’s a solecism made flesh, until inspiration strikes, and he draws together pre-existing elements (horse-riding tricks, clowns, musicians) and invents the standard for the circus ring (still in use today…)

Frazer Flintham’s snappy script leavens the historical detail with sharply comedic, sometimes saucy, dialogue, delivered with verve by a superlative ensemble.  Irrepressible clown Michael Hugo narrates – when he’s not engaged in hilarious business – and the entire enterprise crackles with fun.

Nicholas Richardson plays Astley as a swaggering, handsome figure.  Beneath the posturing is a man driven by his heart, and his heart is in the right place.  He’s also very, very funny.  He is matched by Danielle Bird as love interest Patty Jones, a spirited, driven young woman who becomes Astley’s rock and life-partner.  Their romance is decidedly unsentimental but is encapsulated in an aerial acrobatic sequence high above the stage and without a safety net, providing one of the truly jaw-dropping moments of the night.

An accident befell the mighty Andrew Pollard, causing him to break his foot the day before the dress rehearsal last week.  A swift piece of re-blocking has him sitting among the audience with his injured extremity raised, as per doctor’s orders, but this is not enough to dampen his performance.  He gives us a range of comic characters via a variety of hats and wigs – his George III is a scream, reminding us of the present Duke of Edinburgh.  Pollard’s marginalisation is only physical; his contribution remains at the heart of this production and it befits his high-status roles (the King, Colonel West) to have them apart from the main action.

Jason Eddy declaims and postures as Astley’s treacherous rival, Charles Hughes, while Nickolia King-N’Da impresses as Astley’s talented but rebellious son, John, who doesn’t wish to be saddled with horse-riding tricks for the rest of his days.  Luke Murphy does a star turn as Billy the Little Military Horse, in a hilarious scene of audience involvement.  Gareth Cassidy is also great fun as Astley’s BFF Alfie, while Oliver Mawdsley lends splendid support as Bert.  The cast is augmented by a quartet of circus performers who tumble and juggle and brandish fire around, bringing the thrills of the circus to this already-entertaining show.

Director Theresa Heskins brings her hallmarks to bear (non-contact combat, letters thrown across the stage…) and they work like a dream.  There is also a wealth of inventiveness that heighten the theatricality of the piece and add to the humour: walking across the marshland, for example; judicious use of ladies’ fans…)  How do you stage trick-riding when you have no horses?  Cleverly, is the answer.

There is also much that is deeply traditional, from the clowning to the carnival barking, but it is married with amusing anachronisms and contemporary references, making this just as much a play of the now as it is of the then.  Co-director Vicki Amedume ensures the action looks and feels like it belongs in a circus.

James Atherton’s original music is suitably circussy and melodramatic, providing the perfect accompaniment to the daring of the acts and the perfect underscore to the twists of Astley’s fortune.   The New Vic Workshop has outdone itself with the props: bicycles converted into fairground horses are wonderful to behold, and Lis Evans’s costumes keep the 18th century to the fore.

I come away having laughed a lot and having been charmed by the story, thrilled by the acts, and above all with a sense of injustice.  Surely Astley, the progenitor of an entire form of popular entertainment, deserves a more permanent monument than this excellent but ephemeral entertainment?

Meanwhile, this is the New Vic doing what it does best, and I cannot recommend this wonderful show highly enough.

Astounding!

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Linked in: Jason Eddy and Nicholas Richardson (Photo: Clara Lou Photography)


Stable Relationship

EQUUS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 30th June, 2018

 

The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production.  Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.

The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night.  Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny.  Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on.  Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.

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Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)

Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others.  Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life.  An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…

Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child.  Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.

Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses.  As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness.  John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks.  The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.

The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship.  The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself.  Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes.  John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.

This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.

In a word: blinding.

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Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

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Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 


Rough Magic

THE TEMPEST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

 

It’s not the first time The Tempest has been set in outer space.  The film, Forbidden Planet, translated the action – and the text – to a sci-fi setting; then a stage show, one of the first jukebox musicals, Return To The Forbidden Planet used Shakespearean lines in tandem with 1960s songs.  Now, Oddsocks Productions return to the play with sci-fi in mind, along with their trademark silliness and pop music… and it all makes for an evening of bonkers entertainment.

The Shakespeare is peppered with sci-fi references, with Star Trek featuring heavily, and Star Wars a close second.  Prospero is a kind of Old Ben Kenobi figure, with daughter Miranda’s hair curled in Princess Leia-like buns.  An engineer called Scottie even puts in an appearance.  The stroke of genius is having Trinculo, usually a jester, portrayed as a droid – Top marks to Gavin Harrison for his Anthony Daniels/C3PO impersonation!  Harrison also appears as the villainous Antonio, a baddie in search of a panto; although the cuts to the script mean he doesn’t get up to much, Harrison poses and postures beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to boo him.

Another stalwart returning for more madness is Dominic Gee Burch.  His Caliban, a mutant fish-man, as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon got too close to a nuclear reactor, is a gift for a gifted physical comedian.  New to the company, Amy Roberts makes a snooty ‘Alonza’, while her drunken ‘Stephanie’ is straight out of Starfleet Academy – the Geordie Shore campus.  Making her Oddsocks debut as a feisty, petulant Miranda, Alice Merivale is wildly enjoyable.  Her scenes with Ferdinand are especially good – mainly because it’s a moment when Shakespeare is allowed to come to the fore.  As Ferdinand and also an alien Ariel, Matt Penson speaks the verse beautifully, while maintaining the sense of anarchic fun that characterises an Oddsocks performance.

Director/genius Andy Barrow plays Prospero, like a bald Gandalf wafting his magic staff about, and he’s as gloriously silly as you’d expect, yet when it comes to the big speeches, Prospero’s famous lines (We are such stuff as dreams are made on…) he plays it straight, as though establishing his credentials.  Not that he needs to, of course, but he wisely reins in the slapstick and the silliness and the mucking around and lets the power of Shakespeare’s words work its magic.  Speaking of magic, the special effects are all gloriously low-tech, with some simple conjuring tricks adding to the atmosphere.

There are a couple of misfires but overall, it’s more hit than miss, and you’re never waiting long for the next thing to laugh at.  I feel more could be made of the Caliban and Trinculo under a blanket scene, for example, but then there are moments of sheer brilliance: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Ridley Scott’s Alien has a lot to answer for.

If you haven’t seen The Tempest before, you might not find this version all that enlightening.  If you haven’t (and if you have!) seen Oddsocks before, you’re in for a wild ride and a rocking good time.

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Brave new worlds! Prospero (Andy Barrow) and Miranda (Alice Merivale)


Blissful

HAY FEVER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th June, 2018

 

Noel Coward’s 1924 play is perhaps best described as a ‘comedy of bad manners’.  Set in the country retreat of the Bliss family, it depicts what transpires one weekend when each member of the family decides to invite a guest to stay.  In terms of plot, that’s about it – the play lacks the depth and development of Coward’s later works, but the beastly behaviour of the Blisses provides such fun, we don’t seem to care about the script’s narrative shortcomings.

Ruling the roost as former actress Judith Bliss is Lesley Wilcox, serving up the ham in hefty slabs – but all without breaking character.  Judith has quit the stage but has never stopped acting; she spends her days in the throes of melodramatic hyperbole.  Wilcox is a monstrous joy to behold.

Following in their mother’s footsteps are waspish daughter Sorel (Zoe Mortimer in fine form) and dapper son Simon, played by Josh Whitehouse-Gardner, who is perfectly cast.  Of all the company, it is he who gives the best clipped, Cowardian delivery.  As the father, David Bliss, Roger Harding warms into the role and is soon hurling himself into histrionics along with the rest of his brood.

The hapless guests include Vivien Tomlinson, good fun as a kind of prototype ‘cougar’ figure, Myra Arundel; Paul Tomlinson as Richard, delivering a nice line in awkwardness; Thomas Hodge flounders around agreeably as nice-but-dim Sandy; while India Willes’s Jackie is a study in social anxiety and shyness.

Judith’s thunder is almost stolen by her maid of all work, Clara, played by Shirley Allwork, in a hilarious piece of character work in perfect contrast with all the posh nobs she has to serve.

Director Colin Lewis Edwards gets the pacing of the rows and arguments spot on, and the funniest scene comes when our hosts attempt to entertain their motley guests with an abortive parlour game.

Special mention must go to Bel Derrington and Graham Robson for their elegantly detailed and substantial set, contained within the confines of the Bear Pit’s intimate performance space.

Coward is a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde and a forerunner of Edward Albee, and this high quality, classy production delivers the goods.  What does the play have to say to us today, 90-odd years since it first appeared?  Perhaps it’s that the ‘elite’ are still riding roughshod over the rest of us, callous and careless in their conceited conduct.  Or perhaps it’s just that impoliteness and rudeness remain terribly funny – as long as someone else is on the receiving end.

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Lesley Wilcox as Judith Bliss (Photo: Sam Allard)