Category Archives: Theatre Review

Beanz Meanz Lolz

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th December, 2017

 

Apart from a couple of changes, the main cast from last year’s rollicking Aladdin returns to Wolverhampton for this generous bean feast of fun, and they seem to work more as a team this time.  Lisa Riley is in the good fairy role, as Mother Nature, glamorous yet down-to-earth – in fact, despite the lofty heights of the beanstalk, this is a very down-to-earth show!  Ian Adams is Dame Trot in an array of gorgeously over-the-top outfits.  Adams is an excellent dame, whose mannerisms never descend into caricature or lampoon.  He is supported by Adam C Booth as Simple Simon, an energised funny man who can work the audience seemingly effortlessly.  Local star Doreen Tipton is also back to augment the comic capers, bringing local jokes for local people – the Black Country dialect is instantly funny, and Doreen’s deadpan presence is a hoot.

Graham Cole is enjoying himself as the giant’s henchman, Fleshcreep – he even has a go at singing to open the second act.  Bless.

But leading man and star of the show is Gareth Gates, looking rugged and sounding smooth.  His pop star vocals are as sweet as ever, and he treats us to a rendition of Unchained Melody that gives me shivers.  He looks great in panto costume and handles the action well, leaving the broad comedy to the others.  His voice blends well with Sarah Vaughan’s Jill, and a traditional routine on a wall with interference from Simple Simon offers one of this funny shows funniest moments.  There is a chaotic version of The 12 Days of Christmas, complete with water pistols, and a delightful moment with youngsters brought up from the audience.

Everything you expect to see is here, well presented and pleasingly performed, from the troupe of dancers and the chorus of kids, to the corny jokes and some hilarious bawdy humour.  When the giant finally puts in an appearance, it is an impressive piece of large-scale puppetry, and there is the added bonus of a cameo from Julie Paton, singing gorgeously as his golden harp.  Paton also choreographs and so is responsible for a lot of the show’s pizzazz.

Production values are high and the fun levels higher.  This is a solid and reliable pantomime that delivers on all fronts.  Hugely enjoyable and full of good cheer, this production demonstrates why I think pantomime is the best thing about the festive season.

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack in Jack And The Beanstalk - Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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The Original Walk-in Wardrobe

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th December, 2017

 

Mention C S Lewis’s classic book for children and people get a bit misty-eyed with nostalgia, and indeed, the idea of finding a mythical land at the back of your closet has entered the popular imagination.  It’s only when you (and by you I mean me) return to the material that you realise the idea of it is better than the actual experience.  Glyn Robbins’s stage adaptation is faithful to the novel, and that’s probably where it falls short.  It couldn’t half do with a few laughs in it.  Lewis’s dialogue is earnest, sometimes ponderous – they all need to lighten up a bit.  I have several problems with Narnia, but I’ll try to focus on the production playing out before me.

As ever with the Crescent, production values are high.  The costumes in particular (designed by Jennet Marshall) are impressive, sticking to a WWII aesthetic, even in the land beyond the wardrobe.  There is no attempt to animalise the actors playing roles such as Beaver (here presented as a regular Tommy) and his Mrs (all overall and headscarf, like a stereotypical housewife), so when we come to Aslan, he’s very much a high priest sporting a lion’s head hat, his leopard acolytes in ceremonial robes with Cleopatra beads in their hair.  Ruth Collins’s set is basically a stone wall with a central flight of stairs, but there is scenery within this scenery, opening out to show us Mr Tumnus’s cottage, for example.  It falls to the lighting to denote changes of location, time and season – some excellent design here by Kenny Holmes, providing some dramatic visuals;  for example, the sacrifice scene is superbly presented, and the direction matches the visuals, as raggedy creatures in black dance around while the White Witch stands supreme isolated in a white spot against a red wash.

Speaking of the White Witch, Nikky Brady is marvellous in the role.  Imperious, coolly cruel, she stalks around with a regal, if evil, presence.  I do wonder how this witch, who struggles to recognise a human boy when she sees one, knows all about Turkish delight.  Andrew Lowrie is similarly imperious as the pompous Aslan (who strikes me as a neglectful ruler, deserting Narnia for generations and thereby enabling the White Witch to hold sway) and could do with a bit more warmth in his welcome of the Pevensey children.  He shows moments of humour but is perhaps too aloof overall.

Of the po-faced Pevensey children, Lucy (Charlotte Upton) is earnest and passionate; Edmund (Jason Timmington) is mischievous, sulky and lively; but Peter and Susan, the elder ones, played by Sam Wilson and Molly Wood respectively, come across as bossy and bullying prefects.  It’s only when they become involved in the action that I warm to these two killjoys. In fact, Peter becomes quite the dashing hero, while Edmund has all the sass knocked out of him.

Jacob Williams makes for a sympathetic, nervy Mr Tumnus, but most impressive about the casting this time is the chorus of ‘snow spirits’, figures in white who observe the action, creeping around the stage, adding to the atmosphere and creating some rather eerie moments.  Director Alan K Marshall maintains an artistic integrity in his production, even if I’m not particularly enamoured of the material.

Looking at the children in the audience, wrapped up in the story, you can see that C S Lewis’s magic works best on them.  And I can imagine them in years to come, taking their own families to see a production of the story, because they will have a fond memory of it that doesn’t necessarily go deeper than fascination with the idea of it.

This is a high-quality production of a story that’s not my favourite, but it’s commendable in every aspect.  One final point: the children, during wartime, are sent away from home as evacuees to live many miles away with complete strangers, but before curtain up, we the audience are admonished not to take photographs because there will be children appearing on stage.  An indicator of how times have changed!

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Those crazy Pevensey kids: Sam Wilson, Charlotte Upton, Molly Wood and Jason Timmington (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

 


All Puns Blazing

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY SISTERS

B2, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 8th December, 2017

 

One Christmas tradition that doesn’t get me bah-humbugging all the way home, is the Belgrade Theatre’s annual alternative production to the (excellent) pantomime in the main house.  The B2 studio becomes home to a show for the grown-ups, in a genre- as well as gender-bending cavalcade of bad jokes.  This year, riffing on Cinderella, writer-director Nick Walker gives us a Western with a cast of four women, playing cowboys.  There is a plot, a chase to beat the bad guy to some buried treasure, and along the way we encounter a range of tropes (the saloon, the train, the Native American guide) as well as a host of larger-than-life characters performed by this versatile and industrious quartet.

Doc (the mighty Katy Stephens) is our protagonist and narrator.  Such is her wry charm, we let her get away with the worst puns imaginable without rising up and lynching her.  She is supported by the Magnificent Three: Miriam Edwards, Laura Tipper and Aimee Powell, in this relentless barrage of fun.  Some of the jokes are as old as the hills and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but there is plenty of invention in the pun-fire, lots of new material to make groan-ups of us all.

Walker evidently spends the rest of the year writing jokes for Christmas crackers, and is possessed of a particular kind of genius.  For example, the treasure could be silver, could be gold – it could be either ore.

I can hear you groaning from here.  This type of thing is perhaps an acquired taste.  It is certainly right up my alley.

Performing with indefatigable brio, the cast pull out all the stops to keep the laughs coming, and the knowing looks add to the fun.  We are not expected to take a second of it seriously – but the cast certainly do, playing with commitment and skill – the comic timing is superb; and the production values are certainly no joke.  The Belgrade’s in-house production services dress the show in quality costumes.  I love the tumbleweeds that punctuate the script’s worst excesses and the horses are hot to trot.  A simple but effective set with a sunset backcloth serves for all locations, allowing the performers to do most of the work, while the sound effects (Rob Clews) and the lighting (Chris Munn) evoke the genre while augmenting the humour.

It’s an hour of fantastic fun and it makes me think we don’t see many Westerns on the stage.  Yes, there are musicals and opera set in the Wild West but no ‘straight’ plays?  It’s a gap in the market perhaps I can head off at the pass…

The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Ugly-Sisters-Credit-Robert-Day

The Magnificent Four: Laura Tipper, Aimee Powell, Katy Stephens and Miriam Edwards (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Spot On

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017

 

Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year.  Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution.  Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint.  Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.

Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own.  Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness.  Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world.  Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations.  Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.

Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention.  Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her.  Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!

Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood.  Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat.  But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side.  The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.

Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings.   A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.

James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.

All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years.  It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Afternoon Delight

AN EVENING OF SEX

A E Harris Building, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd December, 2017

 

A small but discerning audience gathers on a chilly afternoon in a converted factory building in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.  On offer is ‘An Evening of Sex’ but before we can get too excited, the programme notes reveal that the three short plays we are about to see are united by one factor: the characters do not have sex.  Frankly, I’m relieved.

Paperless

First up is a one-hander, so to speak, written and directed by Dominic Thompson and performed by Jack McBride.  Martin wakes up hungover and handcuffed to a toilet.  It’s his first wedding anniversary and he’s missed a lot of voicemail from his Mrs.  He’s due to fly with her to Dublin and time is running out.  McBride holds our attention well – as the bottom falls out of Martin’s world, and the arse hangs out of his trousers.  There is some neat physical comedy here as Martin drops his phone into the bowl and has to fish it out again, using a sock as a glove, and McBride swaps in and out of the character of a cleaning woman with clarity and ease.  This is a natty piece of writing from Thompson, fresh and contemporary.  We never learn why Martin’s so-called mate has done this to him, but that’s a minor point.

Fred and Ginger

Next up: a two-hander that charts the relationship between schoolfriends, Carl and Izzy.  We meet them at rehearsals for their annual school production, in a sort of Neil Simon Same Time, Next Year kind of way.  In four scenes, we see them grow up before our very eyes, from immature kids eating sweets and playing with Matchbox cars, to young adults, catching up with each other, both having their own lives.  Tilly Farell-Whitehouse undergoes quite a transformation in terms of look and attitude as the earnest, sweet-natured Izzy, quoting her mom and gran as the ultimate authorities on just about everything.  Dominic Thompson is equally credible as the wayward Carl, for whom school is not the best place.  Writer Michael Southan leaves it to us to fill in the gaps between the scenes, keeping the exposition of each scene to the minimum, and this works very well.  It’s sweetly played, and nicely paced by director Ian Robert Moule.  One of the mission statements of Gritty Theatre is to put West Midlands voices, West Midlands stories on the stage.  One of the advantages of the local accent is it readily lends bathos to any statement, a gift for any comedy: witness Izzy’s line, “That last chorus of Fame shredded my larynx.”  It would be interesting to see how the accent plays in the metropolis.

Painting a Picture for the World

Third and last, we have another two-hander, written by Dave Pitt.  The setting is the neat but sparse boudoir of one of your higher-class prostitutes.  Kitty (Jessica Melia) admits her latest ‘trick’, Mark (Damien Dickens), a nervous fellow who just wants ‘to talk’.  And so begins an exchange of observations rather than bodily fluids, the upshot of which is that money can’t buy you love.  Well, we could have told him that from the start.  The play does provide something of a window into the world of the working girl but comes across as an interview rather than a conversation.  Melia cuts a sympathetic figure and Dickens gets Mark’s awkwardness across, but we know he’s going to go away unsatisfied.  The tart with a heart pecks him on the cheek ‘for free’ and he shuffles out.  The session peters out and the play ends.  Nicely played but with no real pay-off.

All-in-all, a fresh and delightful afternoon of brand-new writing.  Perhaps Gritty Theatre have played it safe this time around but I look forward to seeing more of their work.

gritty_theatre

 


Magic and Mess make for success

CINDERELLA

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 1st December, 2017

 

Writer, director and jovial genius Iain Lauchlan is back at the Belgrade for another triumphant year with a winning pantomime that blends traditional with new elements.

Oddly, it gets off to something of an underwhelming start, with Fairy Godmother (Maggie Robson) springing on and giving us some sub-Disney waffle about dreams.  What, no rhyming couplets?  She introduces us to our heroine straight away – a winsome Alice Rose Fletcher, looking every inch the part and with a sweet singing voice.  This is a Cinderella we can take to right away, but her song is somewhat wistful and reflective, and not really an opening number.  Energy levels crank up when the chorus of villagers pour on – and we’re off at last!

The ugly sisters, Dyspepsia (Lauchlan in his element, it appears) and Listeria ( an equally excellent Greg Powrie) are a superb double act.  Ostensibly the villains, they are too enjoyable to be bad.  The crux of villainy in this version is found in Cinderella’s stepmother (Maggie Robson, doubling, and having more to get her teeth into), a delightful snarling diva.

Adding to the fun – shovelling it on – is Craig Hollingsworth as Buttons.  A natural crowd-pleaser, Hollingsworth is a cheeky chappie, a quick wit with impeccable timing.  His scenes with the sisters are the comic highlights of the show.  An extended slosh scene involving waxing strips and fake tanning equipment is relentlessly funny in an old-school way.  Slapstick still works.

An iconic scene we don’t get is Buttons trying to cheer up Cinderella when she can’t go to the ball.  Cut because of running times, I suspect, but Hollingsworth gives us hints of the pathos that is an essential part of the Buttons character.

In this performance, a charming Vicky Field plays Prince Charming – Lauchlan gives us two principal boys to balance the two dames – and Letitia Hector gives us an elegant and full-throated Dandini.  In panto, no one bats an eyelid about cross-dressing and gender and blind casting.  Everyone is accepted.  Any joshing is good-natured.

From the chorus there is strong support from Lashane Williams and Vicki Stevenson in several featured moments, but undoubtedly this is the Ugly Sisters & Buttons show, and we don’t mind that at all.

There are moments of wonder – the transformation scene is straightforward in its execution but still works its magic on the children – plenty of audience participation, with some individuals being ‘volunteered’ to prove themselves good sports – and the time-honoured story still comes through.  There is something about Cinderella that strikes a chord with everyone: the worthy underdog whisked away from servitude; but it’s more than a lottery win.  Cinderella’s generosity of spirit is what sees her through.

One final point: I look around the stalls and from what I can see, the people of Coventry have turned out from all corners.  It’s quite simply the most diverse audience I’ve seen at a pantomime.  And everyone’s enjoying this peculiarly British tradition and having a great night at the theatre, and I think this is the kind of Britain I want to live in.  Inclusive, good-natured and friendly.  Well done, the Belgrade!

Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth in Cinderella - Credit Robert Day (2)

Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth messing about (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Pleasure Voyage

TREASURE ISLAND

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 25th November, 2017

 

With this new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure, Theresa Heskins plots a course for another big Christmas hit.  Setting her version firmly in the North West, there is a host of Merseyside accents here – a change from the now-cliched West Country aarrs we immediately associate with the genre!  Our hero is plucky Gem Hawkins (a plucky Nisa Cole) who has to disguise herself as a cabin boy, having stowed away on board a ship bound for the titular island.  Cole is a ball of energy, likeable and expressive, and our guide through this dangerous, exciting world.

Another change is that Doctor Livesey is also female (Ellen Chivers) but if the TARDIS can have one, why not the Hispaniola?

Into the sleepy coastal pub where Jem works with her mother (a forceful Jessica Dyas) comes a stranger – in the book he’s Billy Bones, here he’s Captain Flint (Richard Costello), bringing with him intrigue, mystery and action but also electric guitars! Suddenly, James Atherton’s score is alive with heavy rock!  It’s a surprise and a welcome one.  Atherton can write in any style, it seems, and this deliberate period-smashing inclusion heightens the energy levels and the theatricality of the storytelling.  Heskins directs with customary wit and invention (Flint polishing off plate after plate of eggs and bacon is a delight!) and everything is in service of the narrative.  However, it does feel at times that the narrative loses momentum and needs crank-starting every now and then as the next iconic moment appears on the horizon.

The production is rich with gems: Andy Burse’s Squire Trelawney is a hugely enjoyable, upper-class buffoon; Lauryn Redding’s Darby McGraw is in great voice and is the most menacing of the pirates (female pirates are well-documented); William Pennington is a sweetly mad Ben Gunn – and he plays a mean xylophone; and Gareth Cassidy’s Red Dog is amusing in his intensity and attempts at subterfuge.

Tom Peters’s Long John Silver lacks the impact or charisma of Costello’s Flint, and it takes quite a while for the character to come alive.  His first scene requires him to sit, static, an approach which provides contrast to all the action we’ve seen so far, but denies him a big introduction.  We need to engage with him in order to be taken in.  Stevenson makes him a morally ambiguous figure and his relationship with Jim/Gem is key.

Certain moments are perfect.  A dance of tropical birds, fleshed out by members of the Young Company and accompanied by Atherton’s rousingly tropical score, is a delight for eye and ear.  The scene with Gem and agile baddie Israel Hands (Leon Scott) in the ship’s rigging is the best scene of the piece: tense and expertly executed.  The pirates’ song that opens the second act.  James Atherton’s score as a whole.  The New Vic’s production team: Lis Evans’s costumes, Daniella Beattie’s lighting, Alex Day’s sound… as ever, production values are high, from the big ideas (the wooden frame that lowers to represent the ship) to the smallest detail (the puppet parrot is elegantly performed (by Jessica Dyas).

There is a wealth of good ideas here, enough to get us through the patchy (eye-patchy?) bits when the dramatic thrust of the plot is becalmed.

Funny, thrilling and inventive, this is one worth setting sail for.

The-cast-of-Treasure-Island-at-the-New-VicJPG

The show is rigged! Nisa Cole leads a cast of pirates