Category Archives: Theatre Review

Making Merry

ROBIN HOOD

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Friday 14th December, 2018

 

Panto’s cheekiest duo, Jonathan Wilkes and Christian Patterson, are back – of course, they’re back – with another hilarious madcap extravaganza.  The Robin Hood legend is merely a framework on which to hang the customary pantomime shenanigans, although there is some semblance of a plot with the archery contest for the golden arrow, and King Richard returning from the Crusades.

In the title role, Jonathan Wilkes with his schoolboy impertinence and his pleasant pop-star vocals is an irresistible lead.  The home crowd that turn out in their droves to support him know what to expect, and we lap it up.  Long-time confederate (ten years and counting) Christian Patterson starts off as a cheery, ruddy-cheeked Friar Tuck, getting up to monk-y business.  The funniest moments of the show are whenever these two are on together, and the script contrives to keep them on together for as much as possible.  Tuck, to distract the Sheriff, becomes a pantomime dame and opts to stay in drag for the rest of the show.  Tuck by name…

As the Sheriff of Stokingham, the mighty Kai Owen is enjoyably sneering, spouting insults at the audience, looking like a cross between Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III and Claudia Winkelman.  Finley Guy is an appealing, perky Maid Marian, who can give better than she gets in a sword fight with the baddie.  This is just one of the production’s progressive elements, showing that female characters can be pro-active too.

Another welcome step is the inclusion of an openly gay character in the handsome form of Delme Thomas’s Will Scarlett.  He could not be more camp, but the character is never ridiculed or belittled; he is accepted, included and valued, and that is very pleasing to see.  Thomas commits to his high-camp characterisation and can ad lib with the best of them and sing like a dream.

Peter Bonner’s Little John lives up to his name.  He’s a charming stage presence and a great sport.  There are plenty of jokes at the expense of his diminutive stature, good-natured ribbing this may be but perhaps we will see a move away from this kind of humour too…

Baby steps.

The good fairy role is played by Rebecca Lisewski as the Spirit of Sherwood, combining fairy-tale glamour with a down-to-earth manner.  Her singing voice is the best of the bunch and she gets to really let rip in the finale with a rousing rendition of This Is Me.

As ever, the choreography, by Nikki Wilkes and James Bennett, is superlative, performed by an attractive ensemble that contains some acrobatic men.  The crowd is augmented by kids from the Wilkes Academy of Performing Arts.   The songs are well-known and sing-along-able and some of the jokes are tell-along-able.  Inclusion really is the watchword here!

There’s an impressive 3D sequence (the graphics in these things have definitely improved) along with traditional moments (a song-sheet, kids on stage, a stalking ghost…)  The almost-obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas rapidly descends into chaos, and you might think the whole enterprise is just silly, knockabout fun, and indeed Wilkes and Patterson give the impression that it’s all slapdash.  Well, slick it certainly isn’t – on the surface, at any rate.  Patterson’s direction masks the professionalism beneath the giggles.  There is a gobsmacking Play-That-Goes-Wrong moment, which I won’t give away, but it makes you realise these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

The laughs keep coming in this warm-hearted, who-farted, romp.  It’s like catching up with old friends and having a cracker of a night out.  A feast of fun, I advise you to Tuck in.

merry men

Merry men: Delme Thomas, Christian Patterson, Jonathan Wilkes and Peter Bonner

 

 

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Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

Second panto of the season for me and my second Sleeping Beauty.  This extravaganza in Wolverhampton’s beautiful Grand Theatre hits all the high notes, with their most consistently excellent pantomime production in years.

Debbie McGee kicks things off with a Grand entrance as the Lovely Fairy Crystal.  It’s not long before she’s demonstrating her hoofing skills.  Strictly between us, she’s still a fantastic mover, even if she is prone to a spot of corpsing in her dialogue scenes – actually, this adds to the fun.  As her evil counterpart, the wicked fairy Carabosse, Julie Paton is hugely enjoyable; it’s not until the second act that we get her finest moment, a lyrically-adapted rendition of  I Will Survive.  Paton also choreographs the show, the customary blend of fairy-tale costumes and contemporary dance.

Ian Adams returns to Wolverhampton on double duty, as director and as a deliciously camp dame, Queen Wilhelmina (Call me Willy!)  Adams is clearly in his element here, bringing drag queen elegance.  The innuendo levels sky-rocket whenever he is on.  Also back is Doreen Tipton, as hilariously dreary Nurse Doreen, bringing a very local flavour to proceedings and also some of the rudest remarks.

Bethan-Wyn Davies is an appealing Princess Beauty, looking like she’s dropped out of a Disney movie, and singing like a pop princess.  Her love interest is Prince Harry, played by the delightful Oliver Ormson, handsome, funny and with the voice of an angel, he is the perfect panto prince.

BEAUTY 12 TT 07.JPG

Oliver Ormson and Bethan-Wyn Davies as Harry and Meghan – sorry, Beauty (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

The big draw for me though is the casting of Sooty.  As himself.  There is so much love for the little golden bear with black ears, and I’m pleased to see it’s not just me.  The older members of the audience revel in the nostalgia while the younger ones are delighted by his mischievous antics perhaps for the first time.  Of course, you can’t have Sooty without Sweep, who treats us to a rendition of Nessun Dorma like no other.  It’s a surreal moment.  Part of you knows it’s a hand in a glove squeezing a squeaker, but another part of you overrules it and you find yourself urging him on.  Go on, Sweep, give it some welly!

Accompanying the puppets is Richard Cadell.  More than Sooty’s handler, he is a splendid comic performer in his own right and also a fine stage magician.  The show has some amazing set pieces, magic tricks on the small and the large scale.  Cadell is irrepressibly funny, a true showman.

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Richard Cadell as Muddles and Sooty as himself (Photo; Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

With musical director Kelvin Towse in charge of a tight ensemble, a troupe of talented dancers (who are perhaps a little underused) and a smattering of ‘babes’ from the Classic Academy of Dance, this is a high-quality show that really does have something for everyone.  Production values are impressive (apart from a naff helicopter) and while the kids revel in the slapstick, the grown-ups are tickled by the risqué jokes.  There are traditional routines, spectacular effects, and above all a whole lot of fun.

Magic.


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

It’s become quite a tradition at the Belgrade that while the panto is on in the main house, the B2 studio hosts an alternative, something for the grown-ups.  This year, writer Nick Walker chooses the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War and of the start of the women’s suffrage movement as the basis for this pun-riddled romp.

As ever, the script is jam-packed with groanworthy gags, delivered with the rapidity and subtlety of a machine gun, as it tells the story of four men enlisted to go to the Front to rescue a troupe of actresses.  The cast is entirely female – the reason for which becomes apparent by the end.

Laura Tipper sings sweetly as Bell, and harumphs horribly as Sidebottom, complete with period moustache.  Aimee Powell is dashing as Ashwell, dapper in black tie and tails.  Kimisha Lewis shows her versatility as Flowers, a German, and a balletic Red Baron.  Miriam Grace Edwards is magical as stage magician Mickey… The ladies have several roles each and are well-matched for talent and likeability.

Walker’s clever script has a repeating plot device, taking us back time and again to a music hall, interspersed with scenes of action and espionage reminiscent of a John Buchan.  Director Katy Stephens, a veteran of several of these shows, paces the delivery to perfection.  There is a silent-movie type sequence involving a bomb in a French restaurant that is superb, and a break from the otherwise relentless barrage of bad jokes.  (“Is it snails?” “No, this is a fast food restaurant.”)

It’s not all daftness and running around.  Walker, recognising the solemnity of the occasion, provides a sucker punch ending.  We’ve all seen how Blackadder turned out; here the impact is equally if not more powerful as it is revealed that the characters are all based on real women, and there really was a mission to rescue the actresses.  The final moments commemorate the contributions of women to the war effort and the sacrifices they made, something that many of the events we have seen over the past four years have overlooked.

Delightfully corny, rib-ticklingly daft, and ultimately sobering, this is a solid hour of entertainment with a powerful message.

OTT


Wonderful, Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 7th December, 2018

 

Frank Capra’s beloved film, starring Jimmy Stewart, is a Christmas favourite in my house.  Here it is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Joe Landry, who re-sets it as a radio drama. We are in the studio of WBFR in Manhattan.  WWII is over and we settle in to watch a cast of five perform the script using only their voices and a few odds and ends for sound effects.

Hosting the show is Anton Tweedale, who also appears as the villain Mr Potter (among other roles).  He points out the APPLAUSE signs, which we must obey – as if we need prompting to show our appreciation of this slick and effective piece.

The actors address the microphones rather than each other, meaning they’re always facing front.  Director Anthony Shrubsall prevents things from becoming static by giving them plenty of business.  You could close your eyes and enjoy the piece as a radio show, but if you did, you’d miss out on the darting around, the creation of the sound effects; the moves are all choreographed to keep the story going.

Charles Lomas is an affable George Bailey, the big-hearted hero, whose life consists of sacrifice after sacrifice to help the people of his small-town home.  Lomas makes the part his own, and brings great passion to the role.  Hannah Fretwell is sweet as Mary, George’s wife, while Marisa Foley excels in a range of female roles, from the local goodtime girl to George’s mother and infant children.  Rowland Stirling is superb as second-class angel Clarence and many other parts, demonstrating versatility and skill as he switches between characters, often conversing with himself.

You might think that with all the mechanics of the production in full sight, we would be kept at a distance from the story.  There is some of that, and you can reflect, Brechtian-style, on the evils of capitalism, as embodied by the sneering Potter.   But the story, even as it is presented here, still packs an emotional wallop.  George Bailey is a kind of anti-Scrooge.  It takes an other-worldly spirit to show him that the world would be worse off without him, rather than better.

Technically perfect, totally charming, and excellently presented by a talented ensemble, this is a wonderful It’s A Wonderful Life.  Even this old grinch was moved to tears – or perhaps it was the complimentary gin and tonic I knocked back in the interval.

Heart-warming stuff indeed.

wonderful life old joint

Anton Tweedale, Marisa Foley, Charles Lomas, Hannah Fretwell, and Rowland Stirling


Oh Brother

TRUE WEST

Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018

 

I can’t be the first to not the similarities between the work of American playwright Sam Shepard and our own Harold Pinter.  This revival of Shepard’s 1980 piece is a case in point.  There is a sense of menace coursing through the comedy, the huge chunks of characters’ lives that are unexplained, the sudden outbreaks of violence…

Matthew Dunster’s production comes with stellar casting, with King of the North Kit Harington as screenwriter Austin, and Johnny Flynn as his lowlife brother Lee.  Austin is bookish and settled into a conventional lifestyle (wife, kids…) but his work has brought him to the seclusion of his mother’s house.  His writing is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, unseen for five years and fresh (if that’s the word) from a three-month stint in the desert.  Lee is a burglar, a wastrel with anger management issues – Flynn is powerful in the frequent outbursts, and also swaggering and overbearing in this domineering role.  But Harington is not overshadowed and when, through reasons of plot, the roles are reversed, his Austin comes out of his neurotic shell, rolls around drunk, and acquires an impressive collection of toasters from homes around the neighbourhood.

Donald Sage Mackay appears as Saul, Austin’s producer, an equable counterpoint to the volatility of the brothers’ relationship, while Madeleine Potter’s absentee mother makes a brief but telling appearance in the final scene.  She seems spaced-out, an ineffectual presence – the fate of women in the American mythos.  There is a sense of disconnect here, with what is unsaid looming large – Pinter again!

Jon Bausor’s set with its exaggerated perspective shows a world askew, the angles adding to the claustrophobia.  Director Matthew Dunster brings out the humour of Shepard’s script, balanced with the savagery of the brothers.  They are koi carp trapped in the same tank.  It is with a growing sense of irony that we realise what they do not: they are the idiots chasing each other around in Lee’s terrible idea for a screenplay.  Like Tom and Jerry (the domestic violence has a cartoonish feel) they can’t leave each other alone.

That they are screenwriters is hugely pertinent.  They are both seeking to perpetuate the myths that permeate American culture: Austin’s love story, Lee’s action-packed dumb chase movie.  But when it comes down to it, we find the prescribed modes of masculine behaviour make it impossible for the brothers to function in the real world.

The show is a hot property with hot actors and heated dialogue, with searingly hilarious moments, but when it’s all said and done, and the crickets have finally shut the hell up, the lack of resolution leaves us hanging.  And this is exactly why the star of the show is Sam Shepard’s script, reminding us that life, unlike stories, is unresolved and unexplained.  Meaning is not always apparent.  Perhaps we are all in the desert, chasing each other around.

brenner

The truth ain’t out there, bro. Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 

 

 


Ebenezer Good

EBENEZER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th December, 2018

 

The most famous ghost story of all time comes to the most haunted house in the country in this enchanting, one-man version of Charles Dickens’s perennial favourite.  It’s a promenade piece and an intimate one, with a cap on audience members to a dozen per performance; we are led through the building by our host and narrator, Ebenezer Crouch, who blends friendliness with otherworldliness.

“Marley was dead to begin with,” Crouch begins at the entrance to the museum, a kind of cold opener, before the more mundane advisories about the uneven floors and low ceilings within.  He shepherds us into the ticket office/gift shop, which serves as Scrooge’s office, where the story begins and ends.  Illuminated only by the dim light of the lantern he carries, Crouch is at once an engaging narrator, embodying Dickens’s characters and switching between them in the span of a breath.  Each one, the major players and the walk-ons, appears fully formed, vocally and physically.  We cannot help but be captivated from the get-go.

Crouch beckons us through the various sections of the Tudor barn, a surprisingly fitting backdrop to the Victorian tale, and never mind the anachronisms.  Cast into shadow, the mannequins and furnishings of the exhibits add to the overall spookiness of the event.

We traipse after Crouch from room to room, and these moments are the only instances when the pacing can flag, as we reassemble in each shady spot.  There is enough atmosphere in the building after dark to keep us in the mood.

Crouch is a consummate storyteller and actor, summoning out of Dickens’s prose a range of atmospheric scenes, running the gamut of human emotion.  Now matter how familiar you might be with the story and its countless incarnations, Crouch’s retelling renders it fresh, proving you don’t need special effects.  You don’t even need music or a change of costume, when all you’ve got it is the words of Dickens (a man who knew how to read aloud) and the spellbinding talents of a skilful storyteller.

Devised and performed by Paul Norton, this is a Christmas cracker.  Bone-chilling and heart-warming, this version reaffirms what Dickens knew: that Christmas is a time to remember the common humanity we share.  Sadly, in Tory Britain, the message is ever more pertinent.

This is the must-see show of the season, but you’ll have to be quick to grab your tickets.  The run is strictly limited and audience capacity is, by necessity, restricted.  Call Tudor World on 01789 298070 and give yourself a Christmas present.

Ebenezer Christmas Carol Portrait No Tex

 


Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

Director James David Knapp brings his own adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic to the stage in this ponderous production.  This is an Alice who wonders about things rather than at them, as she is presented with riddles and cod philosophies from almost all the strange characters she encounters.

Ruth Waterson, making her Crescent debut, gives an assured performance as Alice, playing her as a serious, thoughtful child.  She comes to life when she joins in with the other characters: the caucus race, for example, and the Lobster Quadrille.  If Alice, our guide through this weird land, is so serious, the characters she encounters should be weirder, crazier, but they’re a bit po-faced too.

There is a lot to enjoy from the large cast.  Marcus Clarke’s Dodo shakes his tail-feathers and has a mad spark in his eye; later, his King of Hearts is delightfully dotty – he could do with a crown, though.  Erin Hooton’s twitchy White Rabbit, John Paul Conway’s snooty Knave, Niall Higgins’s Mock Turtle… Standing out is Molly Wood’s Duchess, a bedraggled eccentric, convincingly bonkers.  Jordan Bird’s Mad Hatter makes an arch, camp double act with Carl Foster’s March Hare, along with a fearsome French Dormouse (Ella-Louise McMullan) keeping them in check.  There is a delicious portrayal of the mad Queen of Hearts by Alice Macklin, capricious, volatile, tyrannical, truly psychopathic, and bringing a lot of oomph to the second act.  But I think I enjoy most of all the trio of gorblimey gardeners, played by Amelia Hall, William Stait and Ronnie Kelly.

James David Knapp provides a new twist in the tale.  It’s not easy bringing Carroll’s plotless novel to the stage to make a coherent piece, but Knapp provides a through-line – the material is on his side, with the disclaimer that not everything has to make sense.  He has clearly drilled his ensemble of children very well – every one of them is in step and focussed, which is no mean feat.

The costume department has excelled itself.  The designs of Dyjak Malgorzata combine what we expect of the characters with some innovative ideas, with the assistance of Vera Dean and Pat Brown to craft these wonderful creations.

The show works best during its absurd moments, rather than when Alice is being exhorted from all corners to ‘grow up’ – when she is clearly the most mature character on stage.   The production values, the talent, the ideas are all there.  All it needs, overall, is to lighten up, to – as Alice’s draconian mother is reminded to do – let its hair down.

queen of hearts

Off her head: Alice Macklin as the Queen of Hearts (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)