Category Archives: Review

Double Double

WISE CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019

 

On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.

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Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

 

 

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Nazi Piece of Work

COLLABORATION

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019

 

Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance.  Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist.  All goes well.  The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.

The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.

Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast.  Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war).  Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault.   At other times, the action is a little stiff.  When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging.  I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.

There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph.  As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.

Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception.  Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.

The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold.  It never ends well.

A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.

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Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


War Wounds

GLORY DAZED

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th March, 2019

 

It’s closing time in a backstreet pub in Doncaster, and mild-mannered barman Simon and his staff are tidying up.  The peace is shattered by pounding at the door.  It’s Simon’s best mate, former squaddie Ray, ex-husband of Simon’s lady friend Carla, demanding to be let in for a lock-in.  Against their better judgment, they let him in, and what should be an after-hours drinking session turns into more of a hostage situation.

Ray is a bully and boor, a walking war zone with an extremely short fuse and a nasty sense of humour.  We laugh, uncomfortably – in case he turns on us, it feels like!  The humour is very dark and comes a distant second to the tension in this intimate, intimidating piece.  Director Tracey Street makes us feel as though we are in the pub with them, pitching the sudden changes of mood perfectly to keep us on edge.  It’s a gruelling experience and an irresistible one.

Dominic Thompson is in great form as barman Simon, nervous and timid upon Ray’s arrival, before dredging up some inner strength along with some unsavoury details about Ray’s wartime experiences in Afghanistan.  Karendip Phull is suitably dim as teenage barmaid Leanne in a well-observed portrayal, and Sophie Handy is heartbreaking as the ex-wife, embittered and standing her ground while still having feelings for her troubled ex.  She storms it, in fact.

Inevitably, perhaps, the show belongs to Ray.  In a towering performance, Paul Findlay brings this psychotic, damaged individual to scary life, dominating the scene, oozing menace and lashing out.  And yet, such is the power of Cat Jones’s writing, Tracey Street’s direction and Findlay’s rounded performance, we actually feel for the man, as we learn about his harrowing past.  The play highlights the damage, the PTSD, inflicted on soldiers.  As Carla wryly observes, if he’d come back with his legs off, everyone could see it.  Mental trauma is invisible.

Tautly presented, this discomfiting piece packs quite a wallop.  A superlative cast and a director who can orchestrate mood swings like a symphony deliver this sordid and powerful story in a production it is difficult to fault.  I emerge feeling punch-drunk and exhausted from the tension – just like a proper night out!

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Sophie Handy, Paul Findlay and Dominic Thompson


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

 


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)