Category Archives: Theatre Review

Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)

Advertisements

Seeing Stars

DARK SUBLIME

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 1st August, 2019

 

Marianne is an actor who appeared in a space opera telly series decades ago.   The show has since developed a cult following, but to her it was just a job.  She is contacted by super-fan Oli who wants to interview her for his podcast, and a kind of friendship is established between the two.  Meanwhile, Marianne’s drink-fuelled jealousy flares up when her BFF Kate announces she has found a new girlfriend, Suzanne.

Michael Dennis’s sparkling new play sheds light on a range of matters of the heart: fandom – the adulation of those we admire (perhaps disproportionately to their merits!); what is fleeting in life, and what lasts longer; but chiefly it deals with the one-sided nature of relationships, the unrequited love that can taint and even jeopardise a friendship.   Along the way, we have a lot of fun with scenes from the cod-science fiction show, reminiscent of Blake’s 7 and other British fantasy television.

Star Trek The Next Generation’s Marina Sirtis stars as Marianne the faded actress, brimming with anecdotes and camp one-liners.  Her portrayal keeps to the right side of satire; Sirtis also gives us the vulnerability beneath the barbs and the heavy drinking, while displaying a skill for comic timing that is perfectly hilarious.

As Oli, Kwaku Mills practically vibrates with nervous excitement, burbling on in the presence of his idol.  He’s sweet and touching, a lonely gay boy who seeks solace in a defunct TV show, which offers a haven from the harshness of his reality.  Jacqueline King also shows a nice line in embittered barbs, as Marianne’s more down-to-earth best friend, Kate, a strong woman at home in her skin.  Sophie Ward is spot on as Kate’s English rose girlfriend Suzanne, while Simon Thorp hams it up delightfully as Vykar, a heroic figure from the TV show, and later as Bob, the lecherous actor who plays him.  I detect more than a hint of the late, great Paul Darrow in his intonations and it’s marvellous.

Completing the ensemble is the voice of Mark Gatiss as Kosley the computer.  There are ray guns and convention-goers in alien cosplay, and the dense, impenetrable dialogue of the genre, declaimed with straight faces.  The nostalgia factor is strong but it’s very much a play of the now, of how subsequent generations experience the world differently, and it’s about loneliness and love.

Director Andrew Keates makes a virtue of the close confines of Studio 2 so we get the intimacy of Marianne’s flat and we get to be part of the action in the sci-fi scenes.  Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design gives Marianne’s flat a retro look, while serving up Servalan bacofoil glamour in the TV show.

For me, the real star is Michael Dennis’s remarkable script, which is relentlessly funny as it navigates the human heart.  Brought to life by a stellar cast, the play speaks to me directly in a number of ways and I emerge feeling seen, satirised and celebrated.

Out of this world!

dark

Never drink with your heroes: Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills


Will they, won’t they?

SUNDOWN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 24th July, 2019

 

Sometimes you go to the theatre and they get everything right.  The artistic choices made serve the material perfectly, and the performance of the piece is just exquisite.    An example of this is this neat little one-act two-hander from the pen (or the keyboard) of Darren Haywood, one of Birmingham’s most consistently excellent playwrights.

Set on a cliff top, the action concerns the meeting of two strangers, each with their own reason to be there.  Their lives have brought them to this point, this place with a view, with a view to tossing themselves off (the cliff).  Lara, a solicitor by trade, is dealing with a crisis in her personal life.  Kris, a betting-shop worker, has drink and gambling issues, and the debts are piling up…   The pair strike up a conversation, and come to an understanding and appreciation of each other.  Haywood spares us scenes of gut-spilling and deep-and-meaningfuls.  Instead, the conversation is interspersed with the characters’ inner monologues, so we are privy to their innermost thoughts, we come to learn their personal histories, while their outward discourse rattles along in fits and starts.  The two share a moment of real connection, and we suspect they may not go through with their separate plans of ending it all after all.  We suspect this may not be the end of them, not the last of their conversations…

As the somewhat stroppy Lara, Emily Summers is superb.  Her annoyance with the interloper Kris is writ large on her features, while her internal turmoil is more subtly portrayed.  The monologue where she reveals the nature and story of her anguish is powerfully played.

As the gauche, wise-cracking Kris, Davey Ezra imbues the character with more than snappy one-liners.  Kris uses humour as a shield, and Ezra lets us see beneath the mask.  His big monologue about an opportunity to steal from his employer is recounted with conviction and truth.

The actors are helped massively by the quality of Haywood’s writing.  Haywood has an ear for naturalistic dialogue and can write in quips and retorts that sound like they arise from the conversation.  He can also shape the action, keeping his cards close to his chest, gradually dealing them out so we get to know the characters and their situations in an organic way.  It works brilliantly.

Also directing this production, Haywood keeps staging to the absolute minimum, so his words, via the actors, are given full sway.  A raised platform serves as the cliff top at Beachy Head.  Seagulls and surf on a loop are all the scenic colour required.  It truly is a case of less being more.  Slight dips in the lighting cover represent the night drawing in – we don’t even need to see the sundown of the title.

Funny, intriguing and touching, Sundown runs for less than an hour but is thoroughly satisfying – perhaps because of its constraints.

I loved it.

IMG_1878

Strangers at sunset: Davey Ezra and Emily Summers

 

 


Long Haired Love-In

HAIR

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd July, 2019

 

I saw this 50th anniversary production of the notorious musical when it was on at The Vaults in London and so I am delighted to be able to catch it again as the show does the rounds up and down the country.  The main difference is the touring show is an altogether less immersive affair, with only the punters in the front stalls drawing the actors’ attention, whether they want to or not!

It starts with the voice of Trump, the Draft Dodger-in-Chief himself, thereby linking the events of the story with the present day.  Very loosely, the show relates the story of friends Berger and Claude, offering insights into the counter-culture hippy life of the late 1960s.  In 1967, the show was deemed shocking, with joints smoked on stage, nudity, bad fucking language, and all the rest of it.  Society and the media have caught up with Hair since then but it is not entirely relegated to the realms of the period piece.  Sad but true, the social issues and concerns of half a century ago are still with us, flaring up like a persistent strain of herpes: racism, homophobia, nuclear arms, war…

Jonathan O’Boyle’s lively production loses something in immersiveness on tour, but none of the energy and vigour.  Galt Macdermot’s score with lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, has given us some standards (Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine) but the show is jam-packed with strong melodies and eloquent words.

Jake Quickenden is quick to charm us with his playful, cocky Berger, and is the first to engage audience members in proceedings.  Quickenden Is an assured presence with a good voice and he brings out the humour of the role.  Going Down is superbly done.  Paul Wilkins’s Claude, torn between dropping out and doing his duty, is an appealing figure.  His rendition of I Got Life bursts with exuberance and is a definite highlight of the evening.  Daisy Wood-Davies is a fine Sheila, and there’s a hilarious turn from Tom Bales as Margaret Mead.  Marcus Collins has his moments to shine as Hud while Bradley Judge’s Woof is fun, getting up to all sorts with a poster of Mick Jagger.

The entire company is in great voice, executing William Whelton’s choreography with infectious energy.  Many striking images arise, particularly during Claude’s second-act hallucination sequence, in which sacred cows from American history are lampooned.  The chorus march toward us and are shot in the head, one by one.  A blue sheet covers the fallen… O’Boyle and Whelton ensure it’s not just dancing around here, augmenting the storytelling of Ragni and Rado’s sometimes scant book.  The music is performed live by the onstage band, directed by Gareth Bretherton, creating a rich, and sometimes loud, palette of sound.

Fun, pertinent and sometimes beautiful, Hair still has something to say about the world we live in and the way we live in it.  I adored it all over again.

tn-500_paulwilkins(claude)-hairthemusical-uktour-photosbyjohanpersson(03082)

Paul Wilkins (Photo: Johan Persson)


French Kissing

AMELIE The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 22nd July, 2019

 

Based on the acclaimed French film of 2001, this new musical (and English) version with its romanticised vision of Paris is in Birmingham this week.  Although the story includes historical details (mainly concerning the Princess of Wales) this Paris is a highly stylised, mythical place, where anything (including singing goldfish and giant fig men) can and does happen.  Our protagonist is Amélie, a young woman whose sheltered upbringing has made it nigh on impossible to form a loving relationship with a bloke.  She devotes her life to helping others anonymously and it all goes rather well until handsome Nino enters the mix…

Madeleine Girling’s elegantly versatile two-tier set is the backdrop for the action: a ticket office serves as a confessional, the pianos become café display cabinets, and so on, with Amélie repeatedly ascending to her flat on the upper level, Mary Poppins-like with the aid of a lampshade.  The stage is populated by the other characters – the cast all double roles and play musical instruments, to the extent that at some points the main action is crowded out by the hustle and bustle of the musicians.  It all sounds great, the playing and the singing are fine, I just wish some of them would clear off every once in a while to give the story more space, and to give certain scenes sharper focus.

In the title role, Audrey Brisson gives a phenomenal performance, augmenting Amélie ’s otherness with her physicality.  Movements and gestures are sharp and precise, her timing is immaculate, and her singing is strong and sweet.  Her native French accent is not as pronounced as the phoney French accents of the  rest of the cast; I would have preferred English accents, like a dubbed version of the film – the musical arrangements and the art deco scenery are more than enough to ground the story in Parisienne colour.

Danny Mac is perfectly dreamy as Nino.  Mac is steadily becoming one of our most dependable musical theatre stars.  His singing has warmth and range, and he makes a charismatic figure, but there are a few moments when the accent intrudes a little.

The main action of the story takes a while to get going: the first act is heavy with back-story and exposition, and so this lightweight story with folk-tale elements suffers from a running time that feels overlong, and while I find the staging inventive and charming on the whole, director Michael Fentiman keeps his stage too busy for me to engage with the action completely.  There is a strong Emma Rice feel to the proceedings with the onstage actor-musicians and the delightful puppetry, yet the show’s most powerful moment takes place in complete silence.

A confection of a show, where the whimsicality of the story is offset by the wistfulness of the score, Amélie the Musical is perhaps not for all tastes.  I find it a little cluttered but its heart is definitely in the right place.

Pamela Raith Photography

Charming: Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac (Pamela Raith Photography)


Glowing Colours

THE COLOR PURPLE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th July, 2019

 

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of 1982 was brought to the silver screen three years later by Steven Spielberg.  Now it arrives on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage in a brand new production of the Tony award-winning musical, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  It’s a landmark production: the first co-production between the Hippodrome and Leicester’s Curve theatre and, for the first time out, it sets the bar impossibly high.

The ticket gives a heads-up that the show ‘contains themes of Rape, Abuse, Incest, Overt Racism and Sexism’ and you wonder how depressed you’re going to be by the curtain call.  It is surprising how many laughs there are in it!  Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the story tells of the terrible tribulations of Celie (T’Shan Williams) whose wicked stepfather impregnates her twice and takes her newborns away.  Celie is palmed off to abusive widower ‘Mister’ (Ako Mitchell) to serve as wife, mother to his kids, and general dogsbody – little better than a slave, in effect.  Adding to the pain is forced separation from beloved sister Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) and that’s just the start of Celie’s troubles…

The entire cast excels.  The score is gospel- soul- and jazz-infused, punctuated by some show-stopping numbers.  T’Shan Williams is astonishing, bringing the house down with her solos, without being overly melodramatic in her dramatic scenes.  Her Celie has dignity to make the size of her heart and the indomitability of her spirit.  There are some crowd-pleasing moments of defiance that elicit electrified responses from the audience.  Danielle Fiamanya is warm and passionate as Nettie, and there’s a performance that threatens to steal the show from Karen Mavundukure as the ferocious but hilarious Sofia.  Joanna Francis brings glamour and a touch of the Blues as itinerant singer Shug Avery, and there is humour courtesy of Simon-Anthony Roden’s henpecked Harpo, the perfect contrast to the domineering, bullying male figures of Mister and Pa.  Perola Congo adds to the fun as would-be singer Squeak.

Delroy Brown is perfectly monstrous as the tyrannical stepfather, while Ako Mitchell’s Mister goes through a transformation that demonstrates that old attitudes and behaviours are not written in stone.  There is hope and the possibility of redemption.

Alex Lowde’s walled set with its pair of doll’s-house openings allows a swift and slick change of locations, with superbly realised costumes assisting the passage of the years.  Director Tinuke Craig leavens the dark themes of Walker’s tale with humour, exuberance and vitality, making us care about these characters from the off.  The emotional resolution jerks tears from every eye in the house.   One of the most heart-warming and uplifting theatrical experiences I have had the pleasure to experience.  By the time I leave the building, my hands are the colour red.   Magnificent!

The Color Purple_Karen Mavundukure (Sofia)_Photography by Manuel Harlan

A rare moment of quiet for Karen Mavundukure as Sofia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 

 


Flooded with Meaning

ROSMERSHOLM

Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Saturday 13th July, 2019

 

Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play is flooded with pertinence.  Never mind nineteenth century Norway, many of the lines come across as direct commentary on the state of our nation today, eliciting wry laughter from the audience.  Ibsen-Macmillan make satirical quips, mainly through the mouthpiece of Kroll, a conservative, while sending up that character too.  The public, we are told, vote for feelings not for facts – which accounts for the current mess we’re mired in.

As with all Ibsen, it’s the characters’ personal problems that bring about their downfall.  Dark events in their past always surface and take their toll.  In this one, it’s a year since the suicide (by drowning) of John Rosmer’s wife.  Rae Smith’s elegant, stately set bears the marks of flood damage caused by her body clogging the watermill, the stains as much as a spectre as the memory of the act itself.  Proceedings are beautifully lit by Neil Austin, with daylight starkly streaming through the windows, and lamplight dimly glowing on the murky ancestral portraits that glare down on events.

Tom Burke strikes a plaintive note as widower John Rosmer.  Having lost his faith, he is torn between opposing factions in the upcoming general election, both of which see his pastorhood (if that’s a word) as a vindication of their stance… Burke shows strength in his grief, even if his Hamlet-like indecisiveness causes him to waiver and dither.  Rosmer is clearly in the thrall of his late wife’s best mate and erstwhile nurse, Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young woman, clawing her way up from nothing and asserting both her independence and her will.  As Rebecca, Hayley Atwell is a Marvel (pun intended).  The former Agent Carter from the Captain America films gives a sparky performance – we like her immediately, and when the Truth comes to light, and she makes impassioned defences of her questionable actions, we admire her, even if we don’t agree with her.  It’s easy to see how Rosmer is enchanted.

Giles Terera is nothing short of superb as sardonic Governor Kroll.  Assured to the point of smarminess, he makes witty observations that mask his ruthlessness and objectionable politics.  There is sterling support from Lucy Briers as housekeeper Mrs Helseth, and Peter Wight puts in a memorable turn as bedraggled radical Ulrik Brendel, more like a homeless Michael Foot than a Jeremy Corbyn.  Finally, Jake Fairdbrother’s tabloid newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard makes a brief but effective appearance.  The play has no love for newspaper owners nor those who believe what they read in the papers – again, the prescience of the piece is uncanny.  Or perhaps it’s just dismaying to note that society has not moved on in a century, people have not improved – and it’s the same the whole world over.

A stunning production with more laughs than you might expect, culminating in personal tragedy, the net having tightened around the characters until they feel they have no other option.  The final moment is brilliantly realised.  Perhaps director Ian Rickson is also addressing global issues here.  Unless we radically change our ways, we will very soon find ourselves in deep water.

Hayley-Atwell-and-Tom-Burke-in-Rosmersholm1-700x455

Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke (Photo: Johan Persson)