Category Archives: Theatre Review

Windsor Takes All

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 17th August, 2018

 

Fiona Laird’s joyous staging of Shakespeare’s farcical comedy turns out to be the funniest RSC production of the Bard in a long while.  Blending the Tudor with contemporary Essex (familiar from so-called reality television), the design manages to be both traditional and fresh (the skeletal Tudor buildings are everything!), yielding delightful costume choices, designed from scratch by Lez Brotherston.  Check out Mistress Ford’s high collar and skinny-fit trousers in the illustration below.  This aesthetic enables David Troughton’s Sir John Falstaff to sport a John Bull waistcoat over a pair of baggy slops – with an ever-present, priapic codpiece.  Later, his anyone-for-tennis garb highlights how old-fashioned his brand of lechery is; he is an interloper in this glamorous suburbia, and the women, complete with TOWIE accents and dress sense, are empowered totally.  The play is an antidote to the problematic sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew.

Troughton’s Falstaff is everything you could want in the Fat Knight, brought low by his appetites – which is a staple of comedy: to mock Man for his baser desires.  Ruling the roost, running rings around Falstaff and tying him in Windsor knots are Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.  Their machinations belie the Essex stereotype of the dim-witted glamourpuss unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Their attire may be in dubious taste but their characters and antics are to be admired. Cordingly and Lacey are clearly having a great time – and this enjoyment transfers to the audience.

Indeed, the watchword of the production is Fun.  We know the plot is convoluted nonsense but we are able to take such delight in this retelling, thanks in no small part to the comedic skills of a talented ensemble.  Jonathan Cullen’s French doctor Caius would put Inspecteur Clouseau to shame with his mangling of the English language and his histrionic carryings-on; Vince Leigh’s Ford dons a ridiculous nose-and-glasses disguise, along with a compare-the-meerkat accent.  Subtle, it ain’t, but it works magnificently.  David Acton is also a hoot as Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, while Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly and Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter (all big hair and leopard print) are hilarious creations.  Tom Padley is spot on as thick-as-a-brick Slender, more than a little reminiscent of ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex in his delivery; Karen Fishwick’s Ann Page is all duck-face pouts into her smartphone and teenage surliness. Tim Samuels is nasally officious as Shallow, the Justice of the Peace, while Josh Finan makes an impression as Falstaff’s rugby-shirted follower, Nym.

The playing is as broad as the accents and Laird imbues the show with a knockabout style that suits the age-old comedic conventions of the piece, mixed with some present-day references to keep things fresh.  The traditional laundry basket is supplanted by a big pink wheelie bin, and it works brilliantly.  Surely, even the most stuck-in-the-mud purist would chuckle.  Similarly, an action sequence in which Falstaff, disguised as the Fat Witch of Brentwood, is roundly chased off the premises, is a moment of chaotic, cartoonish bliss.  His parting shot, a quote from Dick Emery, reminds us how out-of-synch he is with this world.

I would like more to be made of the spooking of Falstaff in the final act; the scene seems to be over too quickly but, for the rest of it, the pacing is impeccable, and Laird’s attention to detailed comic business is superb.  She has also graced the production with an original score of her own composition, blending period flavours with contemporary beats and sit-com stylings.  It is delicious.

A wildly entertaining romp, triumphantly hilarious, this is a Merry Wives to savour.

The Merry Wives of Windsor production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_258364

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in Lex Brotherston’s fabulous costumes (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Party Animals

MADAGASCAR

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 2nd August, 2018

 

Following a slew of sequels and spin-offs, Dreamworks’s animated movie from 2005 gets a new lease of life in this stage musical, with a brand-new score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan.

On the whole, it’s a jaunty score.  When it moves away from hip-hop (for, you know, ‘relevance’) it’s actually rather good: a sequence when the escaped zoo animals are shot with tranquilliser darts takes on a Beatles-esque feel, and the choral singing of the ensemble is lovely.

The X Factor’s Matt Terry takes pride of place as Alex the pampered lion.  As well as a strong and pleasant voice, Terry has all the moves, feline grace and innate power – even though the animals are deeply anthropomorphised and cartoonified.   Matching Terry for presence and vocals yet exceeding him in dance moves, is Antoine Murray-Straughan, thoroughly excellent as Alex’s best mate, Marty, who happens to be a zebra, a fact that doesn’t give rise to conflict until the animals are out in ‘the wild’ and Alex’s belly starts to rumble…

Also in the gang are Timmika Ramsay, as Gloria the sassy hippopotamus (Ramsay delivers great attitude and her singing voice is a dream), and Jamie Lee-Morgan as hypochondriac giraffe, Melman, whose costume combines with the puppetry used to stage the sneaky penguins and the aristocratic chimp.  Lee-Morgan’s Melman is hilariously brought to life; you forget it’s a fake head on a stick!

Almost stealing the show is Jo Parsons as lemur King Julien, performing on his knees – which is somehow instantly funny.  Parsons gets to deliver the film’s stand-out moment, an obligatory rendition of I Like To Move It that brings the house down.  Fabian Aloise’s choreography is bang up-to-date with dabs and ‘flossing’ aplenty.

This brash and colourful show is great family fun.  There are plenty of funny lines for the grown-ups, and ostensibly the ‘message’ is about putting aside one’s baser instincts for the sake of friendship.  So, perhaps it’s about remaining in the EU…  More likely, it’s a metaphor for the plundering of Africa by the West, if you want to get geopolitical about things.

The Lion King it certainly isn’t, but there is enough charm and humour to keep us engaged and give us a good time.  Yet another high-quality production from Selladoor.

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Mane event: Matt Terry as Alex

 


Life in a Northern Town

HE’D MURDER ME

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

James Nicholas’s one-act one-hander tells the story of Jack, a young man who grew up in Huddersfield during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders.  Jack, it transpires, is gay, a fact he is compelled to keep secret because his world is steeped in violent homophobia.

Richard Buck is Jack in this challenging piece.  He is an affable narrator, dipping in and out of characters swiftly and with precision, using gesture, voice and stance to depict the host of people that form Jack’s story.  This economic style is so effective; we can picture each person so vividly.  Jack is haunted by the Yorkshire Ripper, who contributed to making his teen years so terrifying, and, as the tale unfolds, we come to understand exactly why.  Buck is superb and doesn’t miss a beat.

Director Ian Craddock keeps Buck moving – the stage is full of him.  Changes of location and mood are subtly signalled through lighting changes but Craddock allows the power of his actor to keep us engaged in this tale of coming-of-age without coming-out.  Nicholas’s beautifully detailed writing builds to a shattering revelation.  The enforced keeping of a secret – homosexuality, I mean – can have devastating effects on the secret-keeper, with long-lasting effects on mental health and wellbeing.  In Jack’s case, it is truly a matter of life and death.

Absorbing, gripping and emotional with a magnetic performance from Richard Buck, this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves a larger audience.

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About last night…

THE MORNING AFTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

This witty three-hander first produced three years ago gets a welcome revival as part of this year’s Birmingham Fest at the Blue Orange.

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, it’s the story of Sam (Jacob Wright) who wakes up hungover to the realisation that he sent a string of regrettable texts to his girlfriend.  Wright is wide-eyed, often horror-struck, a master of the comic reaction; you can see the cogs working in his befuddled brain.  Waking up next to him is Niamh (Gabby Killick) a complete stranger.  Neither she nor Sam has any recollection of the night before.  It falls to Echo, the escort in the bath tub, to fill in the blanks – played with snarky relish by Lisa McKinley.  McKinley is the perfect foil for Killick’s stuck-up drama queen.  Level-headed Echo has all the barbed, deadpan observations, while Niamh excels at melodramatic outbursts and over-reactions.  They are equally strong at opposing ends of the scale.

Caught between this virgin and whore, Sam is both mediator and target of the women’s vitriol, as the power shifts around the trio and allegiances are formed, broken, and re-formed in seconds.

Haywood’s script is quickfire.  Every punchline hits home and is expertly handled by his excellent cast.  He paces the action nicely, wringing the comic potential from every moment.    Haywood keeps events within the realms of plausibility while keeping a steady hand on the helm.  The playwright’s hand and the director’s eye are there, shaping the delivery, skewing the naturalism for the purposes of giving us a laugh.  The humour largely arises from character, and the cultural references they make are drawn mostly from television, with the occasional classical allusion – Echo comes across as well-read, and why shouldn’t she?

The result is an extremely funny sixty minutes. It’s almost a contemporary morality play as Sam’s chickens (the way he has treated his girlfriend) come home to roost.

A delight.

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Sex Toy Story

SEX CELLS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 19th July, 2018

 

You would think a play set in a call centre of a company that sells sex toys, marital aids and other assorted paraphernalia would be fertile ground for laughter.  Sadly, Anna Longoretti’s flaccid script is fatally flawed in the first act; what the four women who take the calls are selling is almost irrelevant.  It may as well be household insurance.  Longoretti doesn’t give us time to enjoy the context and enjoy the characters before she switches gear and the women’s personal lives enter the equation.  I suppose I’m saying we need more foreplay to get us into the mood.

Unfortunately, Olivia Jane Parker directs moments of humour and moments of pathos at the same pitch.  The comedy needs to be played broader in order to contrast with the emotional scenes.  And so, the first act limps along and we learn about the women’s problems: one wants a child at all costs; another is snowed under by the five kids she has; a third has a loveless marriage and an estranged grown-up son; while the fourth is a party girl, flitting between men.  Meanwhile, their ineffectual manager bumbles around.  I can barely raise a smile.

Fortunately, the second act is a good deal tighter and is played with more energy.  Although two of the subplots (overwhelmed mum, party girl) don’t really go anywhere, the play has something to say about motherhood, expectations and disappointments.  Plus, they mess around with the stock: dildos, rubber tits, blow-up dolls and the like, like they should have done from the off.

Lucinda Toomey is the strongest of the bunch as longsuffering Lily, armoured with barbed humour, who awakens from the decades-long depression of her married life and seeks to forge a meaningful bond with her alienated son.  Karen Welsh is suitably histrionic as the highly-strung Sylvie (who is French for some reason) while Stephanie Surrey pulls all the right faces as harassed mum-of-five Janice.  Ally Gibson’s party-hearty Tiffany seems natural – despite the ill-advised rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate on an ever-so-convenient ukulele.  Philip Hickson flounders and fumbles as the weak-as-dishwater boss.  It’s a shame his declaration of affection is not given more welly.  He needs fire and not just cake in his belly.

The set combines the call centre with a ‘break-out’ space, the manager’s office and the warehouse, with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere as though health and safety regulations mean little to this company – I hesitate to call it a ‘firm’.

The second act shows us the potential of the premise and of the cast, but what should be a real buzz from curtain up disappoints like pound-shop batteries or an inflatable companion with a slow puncture.  A let-down.

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Oh What a Lovely Show!

MISS LITTLEWOOD

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.

Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche.  Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene.  The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography.  There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling.  Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life.  The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.

She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage).  Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years.  This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed.  Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.

There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production.  Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another.  Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.

Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller.  Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.

Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did.  Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag.  The show is relentlessly charming.  Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline.  The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.

For me, the star is the show’s creator.  Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish.  The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim.  It’s magnificent.

An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.

Miss Littlewood production photographs_ 2018 _2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis_253490

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


A Grand Day Out

LADIES’ DAY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th July, 2018

 

Following an excellent Brassed Off last summer, the Grand has produced its second in-house show, Amanda Whittington’s comedy about four women from a fish-packing factory who have a day at the races to celebrate the retirement of one of their group.  As a Vegan, I have issues with the setting, of course, but they’re not real fish and there is neither hide nor hair of a horse, so I put my sensibilities aside.  The job and the destination are immaterial; they are devices to get characters together – at heart, this is a play about the race that matters: the human race.

Emmerdale’s Deena Payne is a safe pair of hands as Pearl, the retiree, strong and sensible – yet she has a secret, and it’s the nature of plays of this kind that secrets will come to light.  Payne’s Wolverhampton accent is decent and her comic timing impeccable.  Hollyoaks’s Emma Rigby is glamorous good-time girl Shelly, taken in by a sleazy TV presenter – Rigby definitely looks the part, and gives us the fragility behind Shelly’s public façade.  Roisin O’Neill is sweet as the young and innocent Linda – it is Linda’s obsession with Tony Christie that provides the soundtrack for the show and, in a coup, this is the first production of the play that features the man himself, live on stage.  But stealing our hearts and almost the entire show is Cheryl Fergison (formerly ‘Hevver’ off of EastEnders) giving a comedic tour de force as Jan.  Fergison is hilarious throughout and her drunken scene is particularly well-observed.

Playing the male roles is Sean McKenzie.  Slick and slimy as the TV presenter, he acknowledges it’s a bit of a stretch when he later appears as an eight-and-a-half stone jockey – but we willingly suspend our disbelief, as the jockey and Linda bond in one of Whittington’s best-written scenes.

The script is largely very funny, but it is somewhat patchy.  It is the energy and likeability of the quartet of women that keep us engaged.  There are moments that touch on the flip side of horse-racing: we are reminded that horses are shot if they break a leg; Sean McKenzie appears as a gambling addict, his life in tatters…

A lot of fun, a feel-good piece with plenty of laughs and a heart-warming denouement, Ladies’ Day is definitely worth an evening of your time and is a production with a strong local flavour and is a show of which the Grand can be justifiably proud.

Sean McKenzie, Deena Payne, Cheryl Fergison - Ladies Day at Wolverhampton Grand - Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Sean McKenzie, Deena Payne and Cheryl Fergison (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)