Category Archives: Review

Off the Grid

NOUGHTS & CROSSES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 27th March, 2019

 

Malorie Blackman’s seminal YA novel puts a spin on Romeo and Juliet, setting the love story in a parallel world that is rife with segregation and discrimination.  Now it comes to the stage in this pacey new adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz.  Simon Kenny’s set has movable flats that bear the 3×3 grid of the time-honoured game, and incorporates elements of Joshua Drualus Pharo’s lighting design, to create a stylish, non-naturalistic backing for the action.  For all its stylisation, this is a world we recognise all too well…

Society is split into Noughts and Crosses, the former being the underclass, the oppressed white race, with the latter holding all the power, the wealth, and even the orange juice.  Young Callum (from Nought family the Macgregors) and Persephone (Sephy) Hadley grow up together, but theirs is an unconventional friendship, going against cultural prejudices on both sides of the divide.  Sephy’s dad is Home Secretary, striving to placate an increasingly unruly and pro-active population, while of course maintaining the status quo.  The measures he takes are far from enough to appease the militant Noughts, and it’s not long before a terrorist act takes place.

As the central young couple, Heather Agyepong is a spirited and principled Sephy, with an equally appealing Billy Harris as Callum.  They are supported by a strong cast of half a dozen, including Lisa Howard – heartrending as Callum’s mum, Doreene Blackstock as Sephy’s frazzled and alcoholic mum, Daniel Copeland as Callum’s dad, who becomes radicalised by his other son Jude (a strong Jack Condon).  Kimisha Lewis impresses as Sephy’s prejudiced older sister Minerva, while Chris Jack’s Kamal, Sephy’s politician dad, convinces totally.

Director Esther Richardson keeps a naturalistic tone among the spots of narration, and uses expressionistic movements to reveal the characters’ inner lives as well as to stage difficult-to-stage moments (like a bomb going off).  The music and sound design of Arun Ghosh and Xana add to the disquiet and sense of impending doom.  It all adds up to a thoroughly gripping piece of theatre, excellently and compellingly staged.

It’s a provocative piece.  By flipping the races, Malorie Blackman makes us face the dystopian society in which we continue to live.  Even minor details are telling, like when a Nought complains that sticking plasters are not available in their skin tone.

This thought-provoking, tragic drama covers a lot of ground, bringing to the fore issues that have woefully become more urgent in recent times.

Highly recommended.

Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum - Noughts and Crosses - Photo by Robert Day - ASC_3791

Heather Agyepong (Sephy) and Billy Harris (Callum) Photo: Robert Day

 

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Having a Nose Around

EDMOND DE BERGERAC

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2019

 

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest historical romance dramas ever written.  Most people will be familiar with the title character and his big nose and perhaps also with the idea of him providing words of love for another man to woo the woman they both love.  This play by Alexis Michalik (in an ebullient translation by Jeremy Sams) tells the story of that play’s making.  We follow the early career of poet Edmond Rostand, his flops and his writer’s block, until he finds inspiration in the form of Jeanne, who happens to be the girlfriend of Rostand’s mate Leo.  To add to the triangle, Rostand is married…

Michalik builds in elements that directly influence Rostand in the creation of his masterpiece, so the action closely mirrors the great work that is to come.  Which is fun – we’re not here for historical accuracy!

As the writer-under-pressure, the delicately-featured Freddie Fox is excellent.  Caught up in a whirl of romantic intrigue and theatrical creativity, Fox dashes around, getting more and more frazzled and then, when inspiration strikes, he bubbles over with enthusiasm.  Of course, there is more to the writing process than this, but we’re not here for verisimilitude!

Fox is supported by a fine ensemble, with featured roles from Robin Morrissey as fit but dim Leo (the model for Cyrano’s Christian) and Gina Bramhill as Rostand’s muse Jeanne (the model for Cyrano’s Roxanne).   Jodie Lawrence is a lot of fun as a fruity-voiced Sarah Bernhardt, among other roles, while Henry Goodman is magnificent as celebrated actor Coquelin (the first to play the role of Cyrano).  Harry Kershaw is hilarious as Coquelin’s son – it takes skill to act badly! And Chizzy Akudolu swans around like a true diva as Maria, slated to be the first Roxanne.  Delroy Atkinson’s Monsieur Honore is immensely appealing – it is he who is the model for Cyrano – and I enjoy Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor as a pair of unsavoury backers.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is a theatre within the theatre, a stage upon the stage.  This is a theatrical piece about a piece of theatre.  Director Roxana Silbert heightens the farcical aspects of the situation as well as the more dramatic moments, delivering a highly effective piece of storytelling, and that is what we’re here for!  While this is a lot of fun and is excellently presented, it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Rostand’s great work, but then, it doesn’t have to.

We might leave knowing more about Rostand than when we came in, but above all this amusing night at the theatre makes us want to see Cyrano again.

Freddie Fox (Edmond) in Edmond de Bergerac_credit Graeme Braidwood

Fantastic Mr Freddie Fox and Delroy Atkinson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Wise Cracks

VULVARINE: A New Musical 

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 21st March, 2019

 

They’re back!  Fat Rascal Theatre, who gave us Beauty & The Beast – a Musical Parody, the funniest show of last year, bring their new comedy musical to town, and it’s a cracker!

It’s an origin story: we witness the transformation of humble tax-office worker Bryony Buckle into a superhero for our time.  With High Wycombe serving as Metropolis or Gotham City, the fast-paced fun involves an evil plan to rid the town (and then, the world!) of gender equality.  Bryony, like other women, is injected by the local doctor, but on her way home, a well-timed bolt of lightning endows her with supernatural powers: strength, flight, the ability to talk with her cat… Dubbed ‘Vulvarine’ Bryony and her workmate Poppy, uncover the plot of the evil Mansplainer and many comic-book capers ensue.

In the title role, Allie Munro is an absolute hoot as the bespectacled and gauche Bryony learns to have confidence in her newfound abilities.  Katie Wells lends enthusiastic, nerdy support as sidekick Poppy, while Robyn Grant’s mad scientist Mansplainer is a grotesque super-villain, all but chewing the scenery.  Jamie Mawson is great as Lois Lane-figure Orson Bloom, awkwardly trying to establish a relationship with Bryony and distracted by the more assertive Vulvarine; and there is a hilarious turn from Steffan Rizzi as Sonya, wife to the villain.  Where Grant goes gloriously over the top in her gender-swapped role, Rizzi is more subtle in his, creating an amusing portrayal without caricature or parody and yet is still very funny.

Grant also wrote the book, giving it a satirical edge and plenty of good old British smut and double entendres.  The songs, composed by James Ringer-Beck with witty lyrics by Daniel Foxx and Grant, are tuneful, adhering to musical theatre convention with a lightness of touch and some fun choreography by Jed Berry.  This is a show that makes a virtue of its small scale production: the special effects are hilariously low-budget (like the hairdryer that enhances Vulvarine’s flying) and there is a lot of humour to be derived from the knockabout staging and the relentless energy of the five talented performers.

The show makes its points without being preachy.  Feminism can be funny and also self-deprecating, it turns out.  The whole thing is infused with irresistible charm and silliness with an undercurrent of being very clever indeed.  Robyn Grant is some kind of genius, I think, and not the evil kind.

Having a female superhero is no less effective, no less daft, than having male ones.  Given the recent outcry from man-babies over the gender-swapping of Captain Marvel, this show could not be timelier.

Super!

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Allie Munro as Bryony Buckle with Elton the cat (Robyn Grant has a hand in him too!)

 


Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

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Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)

 

 


Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

39 steps

In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Ideas Above Her Station

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 18th March, 2019

 

Paula Hawkins’s smash hit novel comes to the stage in this effective adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel.  Our protagonist is Rachel, a woman whose life has gone off the rails since her divorce from Tom.  She hits the bottle and commutes to London, her journey taking her past her former house.  She makes up lives for the people she sees, especially a young couple she calls Jess and Jason.  Except Jess is really Megan and Megan has gone missing… and Rachel has drink-induced gaps in her memory…

As ramshackle Rachel, Samantha Womack is superb, stumbling through the mystery like a drunken (and much younger) Miss Marple, conducting her own investigation just as the cops are investigating her.  Rachel is on stage throughout, so we only get to find out what she finds out.  Womack manages to arouse our sympathy for this broken woman and she is also rather funny.

Oliver Farnworth is also strong as Megan’s buff and bluff husband Scott, whose fits of rage make him a suspect.  John Dougall is highly enjoyable as Detective Inspector Gaskill, and there is a good supporting cast: namely, Naeem Hayat’s shady therapist Kamal, Adam Jackson-Smith as Rachel’s smarmy ex-husband Tom, and especially Lowenna Melrose as Tom’s second wife, Anna – her exchanges with Womack are bitter fun.  Kirsty Oswald comes and goes as missing Megan; she gets her moment in the spotlight, recounting the harrowing history of her baby in a particularly affecting scene.

Director Anthony Banks keeps the action fluid; the scene transitions run more smoothly than any rail service, with James Cotterill’s pieces of scenery sliding in and out and across, their motion bringing to mind railway carriages – or perhaps I’ve just been commuting too long myself.  Jack Knowles’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s projections suggest the passing trains as well as heightening moments of tension.  Banks brings all of these elements together to give us a taut, twisty thriller that retains the flavour of the book and improves on the film adaptation.

As well as a whodunnit, it’s a play about the abuse of women by men – but don’t let that put you off.  Compelling and intriguing, this touring production is well worth getting on board for.

TGOTT 11 Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack Photo by Manuel Harlan

Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Art Full

FAGIN’S TWIST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

 

Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic.  It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act.  Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition.  The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.

At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last.  It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling.  There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.

Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat.  Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.

There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.

Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now.  Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence.  Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it!  Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!

Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences.  Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.

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The cast of Fagin’s Twist