Category Archives: Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Rising star: Finley Guy as Cinderella

 

 


Broad Strokes

THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016

 

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods.  Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage.  In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey.  While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey.  The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings.  With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.

A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent.  Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity.  He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.

Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.

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Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out.  His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones).  Their Bootle is tough.  Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable.  The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer.   The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely.  Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process.  Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west.   They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.

Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!

The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here.  As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature.   It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together.  Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last.  What are we to do with it?  As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.

We must be strong.

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Tom Georgeson and TJ Jones (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


What a Dick!

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2016

 

The Hippodrome’s pantomime is invariably the biggest and boldest and this year marks the triumphant return of John Barrowman to the theatre after an absence of eight years.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  Barrowman is the consummate entertainer, singing, dancing, joking, working the crowd, all with his trademark boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Star quality is written all over him – and with such a big star, the production values rise to meet him.  From start to finish, the extravagant staging, with many a Wow moment, impresses your socks off, including the now-obligatory 3D sequence.

It begins with EastEnders’ Steve McFadden as King Rat – we quickly learn even he is not the biggest rat in London.  McFadden clearly enjoys himself playing the villain and he handles King Rat’s doggerel verse with aplomb.  He also shows himself to be a good sport, as straight man to Idle Jack’s mockery.  Idle Jack is played by Hippodrome panto favourite Matt Slack (he’s already booked to play Buttons next year!) and the warm welcome he receives when he first appears almost takes the roof off.   Slack is a talented clown and mimic, relentlessly funny and highly skilled.

Andrew Ryan returns to play the dame, Sarah the Cook, delivering the goods – I feel he could be given more – a slapstick or ‘slosh’ scene, which is the only sixpence missing from this Christmas pudding.

Much laughter is to be had because of veteran double-act the Krankies, whose humour and routines slot right into the panto format.  The act still works and their adlibs are sharp and hilarious.  It’s only disturbing if you think about it…

Jodie Prenger makes a sprightly Fairy Bow Bells – her voice blending sweetly with Barrowman’s for a duet.  Danielle Hope is a charming Alice and Kage Douglas’s good-looking Sultan is a pleasant surprise.  Taofique Folarin’s Brummie Cat is also a treat – again, I would like to see him being given more to do.

The cast is supported by a tireless company of dancers (choreographed by Alan Harding) and a hard-working band under the baton of Robert Willis.  Ben Cracknell’s lighting enhances the special effects (courtesy of The Twins FX) while remaining in keeping with traditional panto conventions.

There’s more of an adult tinge to the humour than other shows in the region, making this a panto that caters to all tastes.  All in all, this Dick is a breath-taking spectacle to make you laugh-out-loud and ooh and aah.  Once again, the Hippodrome pulls out all the stops and provides a highlight of the season.

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Christmas Carroll

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 6th December, 2016

 

Lewis Carroll’s classic dose of nonsense, word play and silliness poses at least one problem for those who wish to adapt it for the stage.  Chiefly, it offers very little in the way of plot or character development.  It is basically one strange thing after another until (spoiler!) Alice wakes up.  It’s a dream and dreams, by and large, don’t have narrative structure or make much sense.  Writer Mike Kenny addresses this problem by framing the visit to Wonderland in a present-day setting.  Alice is a young teen facing an ‘important’ exam.  The pressure placed on children to pass tests at various (too many) stages in their education is something to which we can all relate.  No wonder she is having troubling dreams!

Abby Wain is a marvellous Alice, our guide through all the strangeness.  Relatable, expressive and self-reliant, Alice is our touchstone for what is ‘normal’ in the weird world that surrounds her.  Along the way, she meets outlandish characters who are reminiscent of people from her real life.  Among them is Jack Quarton’s twitchy white rabbit, John Holt Roberts and Paula James as Tweedles Dee and Dum, and Joanna Brown’s imperious and tyrannical Queen of Hearts, whose remarkable costume would not be out of place on a fashion show catwalk!  Neil Irish’s costumes bring colour and style to the blackboard set.  Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter is a dapper figure, sporting a kilt and playing the bagpipes – they’re a versatile bunch, these actor musicians – and he’s in great voice too.  Ivan Stott’s original songs are all catchy and fun in a range of upbeat styles.  A highlight for me is the Duchess’s Act One closing number, given plenty of welly by Elizabeth Eves, a perfectly pitched piece of character acting.  It’s also fun to see Tweedledee and Tweedledum rocking out with electric guitars and Mohawks.

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Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter enjoys tart an’ tea.

There is much to enjoy here.  Mike Kenny intersperses lines and rhymes from Lewis Carroll with poetry of his own, giving us the key scenes we expect to see: the tea party, the caucus race, the trial, the croquet match, and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat (both played by a lively Keshini Misha).  Director Sarah Brigham makes inventive use of the theatre’s revolve and there is canny staging of Alice’s changes of size, and her fall down the rabbit hole is daringly presented with breath-taking circus skills.

I do think greater contrast could be made between Alice’s real life and the surreal land of her dreams.  Her real life is stylised, as befits a musical, but it’s essentially the same space and means of presentation as the supposed weirdness of Wonderland.  I would have gone the Wizard of Oz route if I was in charge.  But I’m not.

By the end, we feel like we’ve been treated to spectacle and entertained by an energised bunch of talented performers.  Alice comes to a kind of self-awareness and is able to put the Big Scary Exam into perspective – a valuable message, delivered in an irresistibly enjoyable way.

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Alice (Abby Wain) in a key scene. KEY SCENE!!… Suit yourselves.

 


Sing Like An Egyptian

AIDA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 21st November, 2016

 

Producer and director Ellen Kent is renowned for the lavish spectacle of her productions, yet this new staging of Verdi’s grandest opera seems somewhat scaled down.  A versatile, almost Romanesque set serves as the backdrop for each scene, and from the overture, the presence of stone walls is prominent, foreshadowing the tragic fate of the lovers.  (Spoiler: they get walled into a tomb, buried alive!)

As the prisoner/slave Aida, Olga Perrier sparkles.  Many of this production’s highlights are her solo arias, just Perrier in a spotlight, emoting her head off.  Similarly, Liza Kadelnik shines as the scheming Princess Amneris, suitably evil and cruel, although in her scenes with Perrier, the acting seems more mannered and more like melodramatic, silent-movie posturing.  In fact, the whole production style seems like a throwback – the show feels more like a reconstruction than a new staging.

There is strong, authoritative singing from baritones Vadym Chernihovskyi as High Priest Ramfis, and Oleksandr Forkushak as the Egyptian King.  Iurie Gisca makes a powerful impression as Amonasro, Aida’s cross and vengeful dad, but for me,  the standout performance comes from handsome teno Giorgi Meladze as the heroic Radames.  Meladze’s singing is robust and stirring – and he has a nice pair of legs!

The cast is augmented by extras from Theatre Workshop Birmingham and elsewhere, and while the choral singing is rather good, the acting leaves something to be desired.  Some of them look fed up or at a loss.  Standard bearers trudge across the stage as if they’re on their way to the job centre rather than taking part in a triumphal parade.  I applaud the involvement of local groups and appreciate the pressures but there is a sense that this bunch are under-rehearsed.

That being said, this is still an evening of superb singing.  The leads are all magnificent and Verdi’s score, under the baton of Vasyl Vasylenko, is unassailable, rousing and glorious.

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Fascinating Aida: Liza Kadelnik and Olga Perrier