Category Archives: Review

Class Struggle

EDUCATING RITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019

 

Almost forty years after its first production, Willy Russell’s acerbic two-hander is doing the rounds again, and it’s a pleasure to reconnect with the story of hairdresser Rita as she pursues her academic aspirations in order to better herself and improve her lot.  The tutor assigned to her by the Open University is jaded lecturer and functioning alcoholic Frank, who overcomes his reluctance and forms a bond with his persistent and unconventional new student.

We laugh at Rita’s gaffes, as we meet her through Frank’s eyes – the play credits us with a modicum of literary knowledge – and we see, also through Frank’s eyes, how education changes the bright but awkward young woman into a confident, knowledgeable scholar.  Frank thinks he has created a monster, Frankenstein-style – but what Rita has done is break the mould of her working-class upbringing.  By aspiring to something other than material gain and a ‘good night out’ down the pub, Rita has changed her life.  She now has something she never had before: choices.

As Frank, Stephen Tompkinson does a flawless job, dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  Jessica Johnson’s Rita has impeccable comic timing, although her accent can wander around the Mersey estuary (and sometimes across the Irish Sea).  There is nothing to say that Rita has to be from Russell’s hometown of Liverpool; she could spring from any working-class community.

The star of the show is Willy Russell, and it’s great to be reminded of the richness of his writing. There is much more to the play than the snappy jokes and the developing relationship and mutual respect between tutor and student.  There is social commentary about the rigidity of the class system and the perceived need to maintain the boundaries that define who people are.  Rita battles against the prevailing working-class attitude that art, books, the opera and so on are ‘not for us’, but once the genie is out of the bottle, she is unable to go back to pub singalongs and settling down with her lot.

Director Max Roberts navigates Rita’s mercurial mood changes: one minute she’s mouthing off, making wise cracks, and the next she’s revealing some home truth; Roberts keeps his cast of two busy.  Both characters are somewhat histrionic in their own way so there is no danger of things becoming static.  Patrick Connellan’s set, with books everywhere, encapsulates dishevelled academia (representing Frank himself) with Rita as an agent of change, for herself and for her unwilling tutor.  Neither of their lives will be quite the same again.

There are plenty of laughs, and even a couple of touching moments.  The message is not heavy-handed, but I wonder how relevant it is today.  And then I think of the obstacles placed in the path of working-class people that hinder their access to higher education, some of which come from the working-class mindset itself, and I think, yes, the play still has currency.

A modern classic, finely presented, this play will make you laugh and make you think.

Jessica-Johnson-and-Stephen-Tompkinson-in-EDUCATING-RITA

Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson

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Table Talk

THIS HAPPY BREED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th July, 2019

 

Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time.  We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time.  In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.

At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life.  Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly.  Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint.  The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).

As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi.  Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter.  Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part.  Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.

It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.

Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production.  The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move.  It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change.  Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.

The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at.  Progress isn’t always a good thing.

A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.

happy breed

Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood


Dreamy

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd July, 2019

 

The only problem with this show, the first collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is its brevity.  Having start out as a 20-minute piece for a school assembly, the running time has been expanded by the addition of new songs in order to reach a more conventional length for a night out at the theatre.  Some of the additions add little more than repetition.  We get previews of songs before they appear in the storyline.  We get reprises and reprises.  Joseph’s coat begins to feel like a padded jacket.

But beneath the padding, there is the kernel of brilliance.  Rice’s witty lyrics and Lloyd Webber’s score of many colours are at their finest here.  Name another Lloyd Webber show that has such a range of melodies.  Answers on a postcard, please.

The show hinges on its leading man and here, in Jaymi Hensley, it has one of the best I’ve seen.   Hensley’s vocals are richly textured and infused with emotion.  His Close Every Door is breath-taking – it’s the show’s best number and, mercifully, is not reprised to death.  Hensley’s acting matches the quality of his singing.  He is expressive and funny, his reactions fleshing out the part: some Josephs can be arrogant and smug; Hensley combines strength with vulnerability.  He also looks great in the loincloth.

As the narrator, Trina Hill is at her best when belting out, rock-star style.  At times she is swamped by the action and you wonder where her voice is coming from.  Andrew Geater’s Pharaoh replicates Elvis’s intonations – to the point of losing a little clarity.  Even Joseph has to ask him to repeat himself.  Geater pulls it off through energy and commitment.  (At the time of the original production, Elvis was very much still in the building, and the show pastiched popular music genres of the day.  Now its references may be dated, and its satire diminished but it’s still a lot of fun.)

Henry Metcalfe is not only a dignified Jacob and an elegant Potiphar, he also choreographed the production.  With new moves by Gary Lloyd, the dancing is slick, sharp and funny too.  The pas de deux in Those Canaan Days is as impressive as it is anachronistic.  Mrs Potiphar (Amber Kennedy) is a glamorous cougar, stalking her prey.  It’s the anachronisms that make the show endearing and somehow timeless.  The French ballad, the cowboy song, the calypso.  This show is bonkers.  Some might say post-modern.

Among the lyrical and musical wittiness, the power of the story comes through.  The reunion scenes have the power to move – director Bill Kenwright wisely includes moments of silence as events impact on the characters, and Hensley’s Any Dream Will Do, when it is performed in the context of the story, is a tear-jerker.

This production does the material justice, with a superlative ensemble of brothers, wives, and a highly disciplined children’s choir.  But it’s Hensley’s star that shines brightest.

Dreamy.

Jaymi Hensley (Joseph) - Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - UK Tour (096_96A0754) - Pamela Raith Photography

Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)


A Load of Ballads

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 2nd July, 2019

 

First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 as a piece of pub theatre, David Grieg’s engaging play gets a production on a grander scale at the New Vic.  It begins as a meeting of academics at a conference about folk ballads and, as everyone speaks in rhyming couplets, there is a heightened sense to the narrative.  We meet our heroine, the bookish, strait-laced Prudencia (Suni La) fighting her corner against pretentious naysayers and revisionists.  We meet Colin (Matthew McVarish) blokey and annoying.  We meet a host of characters as the ensemble of four populate the increasingly rowdy and drunken conference.  It’s funny stuff and the humour is engendered and enhanced by the writing.  The rhymes are sophisticated and witty; director Anna Marsland is at pains to retain the patterns of naturalistic speech without glossing over the rhymes.  Grieg makes great use of enjambment and assonance and other things I barely remember from A Level English Lit.

Prudencia sets out in the snow to find a B&B… An encounter with a character from her beloved ballads changes things forever.  ‘Nick’ (David Fairs) is all the more sinister because of his normalcy.  He is in fact the Devil, come to take Prudencia to Hell.

It’s a play of two halves.  After the verse of the first half, the second is mainly in prose.  It gets a bit meta as Prudencia tries to use verse to assert power and make her escape.

Suni La makes Prudencia an appealing figure, who loosens up as the action unfolds.   For her, Hell is a transformative experience.  David Fairs is superb as the satanic Nick, funny, charming and formidable – scary at times.  Matthew McVarish is great fun as the drunken Colin, the unwitting hero, and there is sterling support from Eleanor House as a moustachioed professor and Alice Blundell as a plaintive Woman.   All the cast play musical instruments and sing, keeping the pub flavour of the entertainment going.

E. M. Parry’s design has books suspended like bunting – the books are integral to the storytelling, with illuminated pop-up versions displaying locations. Marsland uses books as stepping-stones to help Prudencia along her journey, which is symbolic as well as visually satisfying. Daniella Beattie’s lighting and charming projections enhance the storytelling nature of the piece.  All levels of the auditorium are put to use, so while we don’t get the intimacy of a pub theatre, we are surrounded by the action as well as being part of it.

Irresistibly engaging, beautifully presented, and ultimately life-affirming, this unusual yet accessible play is a delight from start to finish.  And who doesn’t enjoy a bit of Kylie? (And no, it’s not Better The Devil You Know)

Fiendishly good.

NewVicTheatre_TheStrangeUndoingOfPrudenciaHart_9-1170x780

Suni La as Prudencia Hart (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 


Cliff Tops

CLIFF RICHARD: Diamond Encore 2019

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Monday 1st July, 2019

 

Sir Cliff reprises his show from last year, commemorating sixty years in The Business, in this open-air concert set among the beautiful buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, where the burger bars and portaloos look woefully out of place, yet the rainbow flag seems apt, bringing a splash of colour to the grey edifices.

The set is comprised of hit songs from each of Richard’s six decades, with a change of jacket for each era, each one snazzier than the last.  Move It, the first rock and roll record by a British artist retains a raw power – and Richard is still in great voice and is still able to move it.  It’s as if the years drop away when he’s on stage.  From where I’m sitting, he’s a tiny figure on the distant stage but he can’t half shift himself.  Huge video screens flanking the stage afford close-ups and, when the stage lighting hits him in a certain way, he’s still the handsome heartthrob of yesteryear with cheekbones that go on for days.

In the 60s section, it’s Summer Holiday that really gets everyone singing along, as well as Living Doll – a song changed forever by his Comic Relief collaboration with The Young Ones.  And, of course, the song that gave the comedians their name, is still splendid.

When it comes to the 70s, there’s Devil Woman which is perfectly rendered here, but as a cover, Sir Cliff doesn’t opt for any glam, disco or punk hit from the decade.  Instead, he gives us a haunting rendition of the Art Garfunkel number from Watership Down, composer Mike Batt’s wistful contemplation of death, Bright Eyes.   The songs are linked by funny stories: Cliff is both falsely immodest and self-deprecating.  He takes a swig from a plastic bottle, grimaces and complains to someone in the wings, “This is water!”

Miss You Nights is just beautiful and Wired For Sound goes down excellently well but it’s a shame his hundredth single (“I release one a year”) is a bit of a dud.  Renowned for his religious bent, Richard keeps the sermonising to a bare minimum with From A Distance – tonight is more about the party.  New song Rise Up obliquely refers to surviving the recent hard times he was unnecessarily subjected to by an ill-advised broadcast of a police raid on his home.  Again, Sir Cliff keeps things light: we are here to enjoy ourselves, and the die-hard, dyed-hair fans are out in force.

The evening comes to an end with his biggest hit, We Don’t Talk Anymore.  A phenomenon in British pop culture, Sir Cliff shows no signs of retiring, even with his 80th birthday looming this October and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him play live after being a presence in my life since my childhood.  As showbiz veterans go, he tops the lot.

cliff

 

 


He Is What He Is

JOHN BARROWMAN: FABULOUS

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 30th June, 2019

 

He arrives on stage to a rousing welcome from the Birmingham audience and the appreciation never dips from that point.  Shimmying around in a blue suit and black shirt, Barrowman exhorts us to ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’.  This is a party as much as a concert.  The premise is a retrospective of his thirty years in The Business – he deals with his stage and screen appearances in a jokingly curt manner, but I am reminded of his early days on Saturday morning television, and a younger, nervous me going to the stage door after a matinee performance of Sunset Boulevard and meeting a younger, just-as-handsome him.  There were about three of us at the stage door on that occasion; nowadays there are mobs.  He signed my programme and I stammered out a couple of compliments.  (I met him again years later, at a pantomime launch, and managed to get my words out that time!)

There is an emphasis on fun.  Barrowman swaps dick jokes with the on-stage sign language interpreter.  He shows us photographs and video clips of his family and his pets.  And he sparkles and shines every minute.  There’s a bit of Q&A about his time in the celebrity jungle, and there’s more upbeat numbers so we can clap along.  It’s a bit wedding singer at times, but Barrowman can pull off the cheese by dint of energy alone, and the support of his excellent band.

What works best though are ballads like Barry Manilow’s I Made It Through The Rain and the Perry Como classic, And I Love You So – the latter being perfect, beautiful in fact.  Songs like these and show tunes are better platforms for Barrowman’s vocal stylings.  He performs a doctored version of The Wizard and I (from Wicked) and I prickle with shivery nostalgia.  His Doctor Who character, Captain Jack Harkness, was a ground-breaking representation of non-heterosexuality in prime time TV and gave the openly gay actor’s career a jump start.

Barrowman gets us all to wave our hands in the air while he records a clip for Instagram with a rainbow flag in the foreground.  It’s World Pride Day, after all, and we gays (especially those of us who are no longer twinks, twonks or twunks) should be proud of the positivity Barrowman represents.

In the second half, he brings his octogenarian parents on stage.  No ‘slosh’ from them this time, but Barrowman père can out-sauce his cheeky son any day of the week, while Barrowman mère surprises us all into a standing ovation for a well-sung, beautiful song.  She may be visibly frail but there’s clearly nothing wrong with Marion’s vocal pipes.  And we see where he gets it from: the humour from his dad, the singing from his mum.  There is also an appearance from Barrowman’s handsome husband Scott – clearly not at home on the stage, Scott acquits himself with a decent and enjoyable rendition of Quando Quando Quando.

I can do without the In Memoriam section for audience members’ dead dogs; I’d much rather he invited us just to think about loved ones we have lost while he sings Goodbye My Friend – but that’s just my taste, I suppose.  He makes up for it with a gobsmacking performance of the empowering anthem, I Am What I Am.  ‘Fabulous’ has never been more applicable.

The show overruns – we won’t let him go – and it finishes with a soaring version of Loch Lomond.  You can’t accuse John Barrowman of not giving value for money – although at fifteen quid a pop, the souvenir programmes are a bit steep!

Uplifting, funny and inspirational, Barrowman is one of our finest entertainers, with talent as big as his onstage personality.  I can easily imagine being back in another thirty years for more.

To revert to an earlier catchphrase: Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!

fabulous

 

 

 


Wolf at the Door

CROOKED DANCES

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th June, 2019

 

This captivating new work from playwright Robin French tells the story of ambitious journalist Katy and cocky photographer Nick as they travel across France to interview a reclusive concert pianist in her country retreat.  It starts as a comedy, sparkling with social commentary and feels very ‘now’.  Director Elizabeth Freestone has the actors facing front as the characters ride on the Eurostar, affording us a kind of split screen view – a simple idea that effectively exposes character.  This is a production brimming with ideas, some more simple than others, but most of them are brilliantly effective.

At the retreat, a cottage in the woods, things are not what they seem.  The pianist is cagey, abrupt and mercurial.  French draws us into the mystery, offering metaphysical speculations before bringing us to the edge of our seats with shocks and surprises.  Freestone handles these gear changes splendidly, marrying the naturalism of her actors with video effects and the otherworldly music of Erik Satie.

Jeany Spark is spot on as the driven journalist, snooping around in drawers and handbags at every opportunity.  We both like and dislike her at the same time; above all, we understand her.  Olly Mott is a real treat as laddish photographer Nick, complete with that modern London accent that has cropped up in recent years.  It’s a very funny performance but played with utter credibility.

Ben Onwukwe charms as long-suffering manager Denis, a faithful retainer and exasperated host.  But the show belongs to Ruth Lass and her portrayal of the enigmatic pianist Silvia de Zingaro.  Forthright and formidable, she weaves a spell, playing Satie live on the set’s grand piano and recounting the composer’s strange personal history.  Suddenly we are in horror movie territory, isolated in the woods, with wolves on the prowl… Here French leads us up the garden path somewhat: Satie dabbled in the occult and so does Silvia.  Something happens and this snappy comedy flips into a provocative chiller.  Our intellectual response to the material becomes a more emotional, visceral one.

An engaging, entertaining and exciting new work expertly executed.  I was enthralled.

285364_Crooked Dances production photos 2019_2019

Ruth Lass (Photo: Ellie Kurtz (c) RSC)