Category Archives: Theatre Review

Going off the Handel

THE MESSIAH

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018

 

Writer Patrick Barlow is the genius behind the hilarious hit adaptation of The 39 Steps, a show that never fails to tickle the funny bone.   Here, his first play from 1983, gets a wash-and-brush-up in a perky revival – Barlow also directs, bringing in up-to-date topical references.  The nature of his early work as the driving force of the ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is very much in evidence, as a pair of inept but well-meaning actors attempt to stage the biggest of stories: the birth of Jesus, using little more than a chair or two to stand on and the odd bit of costume to run around in.

Hugh Dennis is Maurice Rose – the Barlow figure of the two – whose grandiose ideas outstrip his capabilities.  It’s not much of a stretch for Dennis, a widely recognised face from TV comedy, but this is the kind of thing at which he excels.  The delivery and timing are impeccable.  He is supported by John Marquez as Ronald Bream, an enthusiastic but clueless sidekick, who gets most of the laughs up against Dennis’s straight man.  The pair is augmented by the addition of a special guest, Mrs Leonara Fflyte, a snooty opera singer who punctuates the story with unaccompanied singing.  I would find it funnier if she were a Florence Foster Jenkins figure rather than the pitch-perfect Lesley Garrett – then, later, when the team actually achieves a moment of beauty, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ would come as a powerful surprise… But that’s just me.

Garrett proves herself a good sport, donning robes and headwear and a comedy beard and tearing around the stage as one of the Three Wise Men, pursuing the Star, and, of course, the singing is sublime – quite at odds with the ridiculousness of the action.

Barlow’s script is peppered with malapropisms, anachronisms and word play – it’s the kind of thing Radio Four churns out.  There is even a Morecambe & Wise moment, as Dennis and Marquez back up Garrett, in much the same way that Eric & Ernie would ‘support’ Shirley Bassey.  It’s funny stuff but there is nothing we haven’t seen before and in the genre of theatre-done-badly, the pinnacle has been attained by The Play That Goes Wrong.  This is a smaller-scale affair that lacks big surprises.

For all that, it’s an amusing piece, quintessentially English in its humour, that mocks the storytelling rather than the story (the religious will not be offended).  Your ribs will be tickled but you won’t split your sides.

Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose & John Marquez as Ronald Bream_credit Robert Day (4)

Not the Messiah, they’re two very silly men. Hugh Dennis and John Marquez (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

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Boot Camp

KINKY BOOTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 17th October, 2018

 

Based on the film of the same name, the hit musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by Cyndi Lauper hits the road for its first national tour.  Having enjoyed the movie and being well aware of the show’s West End reputation, I take my seat with eager anticipation.

It’s the story of Charlie, a young man who feels trapped into taking over his father’s shoe factory after the old man pops his clogs.  Times are hard and it seems that lay-offs and a shutdown are inevitable.  Staff are facing the boot.  Unless, a new kind of product can be found…

At first, it seems a bit humdrum and run-of-the-mill.  Like a new pair of shoes, it takes a while to wear in.  By the time queen of the drag queens Lola appears, things lift and stay lifted.  Lola (played exquisitely in this performance by Kayi Ushe) gets all the best tunes and all the best lines.  Ushe is utterly captivating, dignified, strong and vulnerable, and sassy to perfection.

The factory shifts production to the manufacture of boots for drag queens, designed by Lola, and the plot shifts from saving the factory to include the growing friendship between the two leads, Charlie and Lola (most definitely NOT the Cbeebies pair!)

As Charlie, Joel Harper Jackson is not without intensity but tends to get a bit shouty in his big musical moments.  Other than that, though, he and Ushe are a great match, their voices blending beautifully in the searing ballad, Not My Father’s Son.  Among the factory workers, there is strong support from Paula Lane as the smitten Lauren, and Demitri Lampra as Don, the embodiment of outdated toxic attitudes – a crowd favourite here in Wolverhampton.  Adam Price is also a lot of fun as middle-aged George.

The chorus of ‘Angels’ – Lola’s drag queen friends – is stunningly glamorous and camp – and agile too.  Jerry Mitchell’s choreography shows off their assets in the best possible light.  Mitchell also directs, balancing a down-to-earth, East Midlands flavour with showbiz glitz.  There are plenty of laughs here and a lesson in acceptance to boot, a recognition of the humanity behind the falsies or indeed the attitudes the characters present to the world.  You can’t help leaving the theatre feeling six inches taller.

If you’re looking for the best musical set in Northampton, this one’s a shoe-in.  A real feelgood show which, dare I say it, has heeling properties.  And the music has sole… I’ll stop now.

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Bolly Good Show

DISHOOM!

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 16th October, 2018

 

Priding themselves on giving voices to British Asian theatre-makers, Rifco Theatre Company brings this new piece from playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (writer of the excellent Elephant) to Coventry.

Set in 1978, this is the story of Simon, a wheelchair-bound Indian boy, growing up in England.  His mother having died, Simon is brought up by his father and grandmother – the latter expressing her shame at having such a child in the family.  When Baljit comes to stay, ostensibly to ‘help out’, Simon finds an ally in his bid for independence.

It’s a very funny family drama, along the lines of Anita & Me and East is East, dealing with the clashing of cultures: traditional Indian values vs trying to fit in to a British way of life – but also, the rise of the National Front, a stain which spreads and spreads until the characters, chiefly Simon, have to confront it.  With the bookish Baljit at his side, Simon is bolstered by the fantasy world of Bollywood films – the play’s title is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of a bullet being fired.

In his professional debut, Bilal Khan impresses as the beleaguered Simon, while the excellent Gurkiran Kaur’s Baljit is both a figure of fun and a voice of reason.  Omar Ibrahim gives Simon’s Dad sensitivity – Ibrahim later appears as a quack swami figure, claiming to be able to get Simon on his feet and walking for the price of an iron and a toaster, in one of the play’s funniest scenes.  Georgia Burnell is strong as Donna, object of Simon’s affections; Elijah Baker demonstrates his skills at disco-dancing as mixed-race Mark, caught between communities; while James Mace’s rage-filled Keith is the ugly voice of racism, wrongly attributing the loss of a job opportunity to the arrival of That Lot.  The play acknowledges how white people can get caught up in this skewed way of looking at the world – Wouldn’t it be great to be able to state that such thinking has been thoroughly confined to the past?  Of course, the play is commenting on today as much as 1978.

Just like Simon’s household, the play is dominated by the matriarchal Bibi, in a commanding, hilarious performance from Seema Bowri, veering from the tyrannical to the desperate, but all done with love and the desire for the best for the family.

Neil Irish’s ingenious set gives us swift transitions between locations, along with Rory Beaton’s lighting, that accentuates the Bollywood fantasy moments.  Arun Ghosh’s original music heightens mood and flavour – together with extracts from Bollywood films, providing moments of nostalgia for many of the audience members tonight.  Andy Kumar’s choreography is joyous.  Director Pravesh Kumar balances the humour and drama of the domestic scenes, with the stylised action of the fantastical moments, and successfully evokes the menace of the largely off-stage racist rabble.

It all adds up to an enjoyable show with all-too strong parallels to today’s society.  What comes across most strongly is the shared humanity of the characters, in positive and negative lights.  This is thought-provoking entertainment of a very high quality.

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Gurkiran Kaur and Bilal Khan clash with more than the wallpaper (Photo: Richard Lakos)


Out for the Count

DRACULA

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th October, 2018

 

Dracula is one of those characters that has become part of global culture; like Tarzan or Peter Pan, everyone has heard of him, thanks in no small part to the innumerable film versions of the story and its spin-offs.  The original Bram Stoker novel can come as a surprise to first-time readers due to its epistolary nature: the story is told through letters between the characters, so it has multi-first-person viewpoints.  Here Mark Webster’s faithful-ish adaptation makes great use of characters reading what they are writing, or from letters they have received, often as preludes to flashbacks or reconstructions of incidents.

It gets off to a strong start with Adrian Rosu capturing our attention as a Sea Captain making entries in his log.  Rosu’s authentic Romanian accent (he’s from that part of the world) immediately evokes the atmosphere as he recounts incidents in which a mysterious figure on board picks off his men.  Webster begins the play with the arrival of the Count in England – the book’s opening events (Jonathan Harker’s experiences at Castle Dracula) are saved for later in extended flashbacks.  Rosu also appears as Harker, giving his RP accent an airing, and clearly portraying the various stages of Harker’s health, pre- and post-Transylvania.

Taresh Solanki is a nervy, passionate Doctor Seward, while Chris Del Manso’s Professor Van Helsing is authoritative and eccentric without going over the top, in a commanding performance.  Nisaro Karim is a tall and burly Arthur – is the character American?  I can’t remember and I can’t tell.  Karim doubles as a tall and burly Count; in these scenes Karim’s stage presence is stronger.  His Dracula towers over proceedings.  You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

The female members of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Nichola Woolley’s perky Lucy really comes to life, ironically, when the character joins the ranks of the undead.  Danica Corns’s Mina has fortitude – this is no shrinking-violet, damsel in distress.  Kaz Luckins is compellingly wild-eyed and intense as a gender-swapped mental patient, the zoophagous Renfield, but it is Carys Jones who makes the strongest impression of all in a range of roles: asylum warder Hennessey, Sister Agatha, Lucy’s mum…

Director Simon Ravenhill’s set is multi-purpose, coming into its own when two or three scenes are staged concurrently, the action cross-cutting between them.  The intimate, even cosy, stage at the Blue Orange, means we can take it all in, without having to move our heads like spectators at a tennis match.  There is a lot going on but it is skilfully presented so that we never lose focus.  The action sequences, the outbursts of violence, are very well staged.

Dean Bowyer’s lighting makes shrewd use of red and green colour washes, and the occasional chilly blue.  Mark Webster’s sound design successfully evokes scenery: crowds etc, while also providing a great deal of the eeriness.  Renfield’s flies, for example, and the otherworldly voices of the vampire women, which are extremely well done.

Inevitably, I suppose, it’s a very wordy piece and it runs a bit long, but the sterling efforts of the strong cast keep us hooked – even if we are familiar with the tale.  There are a few instances when the energy drops a little but, this being the first night of the run, I am sure things will tighten up as the week progresses.

An atmospheric, tonally perfect piece with moments of menace and an unusual twist at the end I didn’t see coming, this production is definitely worth an evening of your time.

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Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula

 


Work of Genius

BREAKING THE CODE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 6th October, 2018

 

Before Alan Turing became a household name some fifty years after his early death, Hugh Whitemore wrote this play which went a long way to establishing the computing pioneer as one of the most important figures of the Second World War.  Turing’s work in cracking the code of the Germans’ Enigma machine played a major part in our defeat of the Nazis – we have a lot to thank him for.

The timeline of the play is not in chronological order.  It is up to the audience to decode the order of events to build up a picture of Turing’s life story.  Director Liz Plumpton keeps the staging simple, allowing clues from the script to inform us which decade we’re in. She is blessed with a superlative cast, who keep us riveted throughout.  The intimacy of the in-the-round setting puts us right in the action as we eavesdrop on Turing and the people in encounters at work and at play.

Making his debut at the Crescent, Jack Hobbis is stunningly good in the lead role.  Hardly ever offstage, he is utterly convincing, inhabiting the character with nuance, animation and total conviction.  This Turing is eminently likeable, for all his eccentricities, quirks and directness.  I suggest the Crescent treat Hobbis the way Turing treated his tea mug: chain him to a radiator so he can never leave the building!  I have seen lesser performances win all sorts of awards.

The mighty Brendan Stanley is thoroughly credible as no-nonsense detective Mick Ross, and Phil Rea is also on excellent form as Turing’s Bletchley Park boss, Dilwyn Knox, a humorous cove, decidedly old-school.  Angela Daniels, as Turing’s mother, adds depth to her characterisation as the action unfolds, while Sanjeev Mistry makes a strong impression as Turing’s fateful bit of rough, Ron Miller.  Amy Thompson combines sweetness with efficiency as female boffin Pat Green, and Tony Daniels has a pleasing cameo as top-secret brass, John Smith.  Young actor Louis Clare appeals as Turing’s schooldays chum, Chris Morcom and later dazzles as Greek trick, Nikos, spouting the language like a native – an impressive feat on its own but Clare imbues Nikos with a remarkable presence as he listens to Turing’s babbling.

Jennet Marshall’s costumes do most of the period work for the production, evoking the era superbly, while Kristan Webb’s lighting design stylishly takes us from place to place and time to time.  The final moment, of Turing with his poisoned apple, will stay with me a long time.

A superlative production that is both humorous and gripping; another jewel in the Crescent’s sparkling crown.  We learn a good deal about the tragic genius, who has become a hero-martyr type, a figurehead for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  I wonder if the Alan Turing Law, passed as recently as 2017, pardoning all those cautioned or convicted of homosexual acts, would bear his name if he hadn’t saved us all from fascism, or whether the long-overdue law would have been passed at all.

breaking the code

Genius! The brilliant Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Singing with The Enemy

WE’LL LIVE AND DIE IN THESE TOWNS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd October, 2018

 

Geoff Thompson’s new musical takes its score from the debut album of Coventry band, The Enemy.  Not being familiar with the group or their work, I am able to take the show at face-value, without the jolts of recognition that usually come with jukebox musicals.  Mamma Mia! this ain’t!   Telling the story of front man Argy’s struggle with a sudden, paralysing attack of stage fright on the day of his big homecoming gig, this turns out to be a thoughtful, poignant piece, as Argy embarks on an odyssey to face people from his past life in obscurity and come to terms with issues that have been plaguing him all along.

Thompson’s dialogue has a lyrical quality, which elevates the exchanges, adding to the mystical nature of Argy’s quest for enlightenment.  The show is structured mainly around two-handed scenes, with each person Argy encounters bringing up a different facet of our protagonist’s past.

Quinn Patrick is excellent as Argy’s ailing brother, a lapsed poet, in a bittersweet scene – Patrick later doubles as a comedy vicar for the show’s most spiritual scene.  Julie Mullins (formerly of Neighbours) provides strong support in a couple of roles, making me think how well suited she’d be for the role of Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers… while Steven Serlin makes a strong impression as Argy’s manager and later as former friend, Owl, complete with a creditable Brummie accent.  Mark Turnbull shines as a bearded busker, with the look of the late Chas Hodges and a voice similar to Tom Jones, and Molly-Grace Cutler is suitably bitter and resentful as Argy’s alcoholic sister.  Meg Forgan also steps out of the backing band to portray Megan, thrilled to be namechecked in one of Argy’s songs.

But it is the central performance from Tom Milner as the troubled troubadour that keeps us hooked, in a sensitive, rounded and powerful portrayal, with searing vocals and a charismatic presence.  We sort of know all along Argy’s going to get his act together, but Milner takes us with him on Argy’s journey so that when the gig finally comes it’s a moment of exhilarating release.

It’s all played out on the stylised urban landscape of Patrick Connellan’s concrete block set, backed by projections of local streets and buildings.  Director Hamish Glen balances the humour and the poignancy of each scene; the show is bittersweet but never maudlin.

There are a couple of scenes that could do with trimming in terms of getting their point across but on the whole, this is an intelligent, grown-up piece with a strong, melodic score that proves irresistible by the end.  The onstage band is tight, the cast members uniformly brilliant, making for a thought-provoking and ultimately moving experience.  Argy’s journey seems deeply personal but Thompson’s writing speaks to the artist he believes to reside in each of us.

Electrifying.

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The Enemy within: Argy (Tom Milner) battles his demons (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Nasty and Niece

AWFUL AUNTIE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th September, 2018

 

Birmingham Stage Company is back, following up the success of Gangsta Granny with a second alliterative title from comic actor-turned-children’s-author, David Walliams.  Walliams appears to have appointed himself the successor to Roald Dahl and his work bears many similarities to Dahl’s classic novels for children.  Chiefly, Walliams doesn’t sugar coat any aspect of his stories, populates the tales with grotesques, and places a wise child at the heart of them.  Adaptor-director Neal Foster captures the Walliams spirit superbly well, rendering the action in imaginative, theatrical ways.

This one is a grim (Grimm) melodrama that is positively Victorian in its sensationalism.  The titular aunt – Agatha Saxby – is monstrously cruel to her recently orphaned niece.  The title deeds of rambling manor Saxby Hall are at stake.  Richard James is enormous fun as this squawking villain, stomping around in plus fours and a ginger wig.  His sidekick, Wagner, is an imposing owl – and a beautiful piece of puppetry performed by Roberta Bellekom.

Georgina Leonidas instantly gains our sympathy as plucky, long-suffering heroine, 12-year-old Stella, who finds an ally in the form of friendly ghost, Soot (the likeable Ashley Cousins) a chimney sweep’s boy who came to a sticky end on the job.  The pair uncover the true extent of Auntie’s abominable activities as they clamber up and over Jacqueline Trousdale’s revolving set pieces.  The gothic events are offset by the humorous appearances of dotty retainer, Gibbon, in a hilarious turn by Harry Sutherland.

Jak Poore’s original score adds to the urgency of the action and the melodramatic atmosphere of the whole.  It may lack the warmth of Gangsta Granny, but there is plenty here to enjoy as Stella endures tribulation and trials, and Auntie gets her comeuppance in a satisfactory turn of events.

Darkly delicious with a generous helping of toilet humour and gross-out moments, Awful Auntie is awesome entertainment for the whole family.

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Georgina Leonidas and Ashley Cousins try to twoc their way out of trouble (Photo: Mark Douet)