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Rome About

VICE VERSA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017

 

Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.

Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world.  In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites.  First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping.  Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance.  He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.

Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave.  This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth.  Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.

Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and  Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.

Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night.  Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!

There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style.  Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).

Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms.  Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit.  It’s not the plots we come for but the playing.  And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.

Vice Versa

Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)

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Toad Hally Awesome

TOAD OF TOAD HALL

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd December, 2016

 

A.A. Milne’s stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved novel is a classic in its own right, and its brought to charming life here by director Nicky Cox and a talented cast.  The playful staging (umbrellas for wagon wheels, stepladders for trees) sits well in the studio space, while the energised performances of the actors makes the action irresistible.

Natalie Danks-Smith is a likeable Mole, a blinking innocent who finds there’s a world of adventure beyond her front door.  Dominic Skinner’s affable, dapper Ratty represents what is decent in all of us.  Badger (Shirley Allwork) is the voice of experience and authority – the characters each represent an aspect of human nature, it seems.  Toad himself is an irrepressible hedonist, selfishly sweeping everyone else along with his whims and fads, embroiling them in the problems he creates.  Toad is also a supreme manipulator, caring only for his own interests – he is the attractive but negative side of us, all ego and no conscience.  He thinks the law of the land does not apply to him – much like certain members of the ruling class today!

As Toad, David Mears is magnificent.  Repellent and attractive at once, his antics are enjoyable if reprehensible, and Mears’s performance is a masterclass in comic acting.  No detail is overlooked.  Every twitch of an eyelid, every roll of the eyes is calculated to perfection.  Toad almost swamps the stage with his personality but Allwork’s Badger provides a well-tuned counterpoint, and an equally rounded if contrasting characterisation.  It is a treat to see these two working together.

Tony Homer’s Chief Weasel is an imposing figure, dressed like a sinister doorman – he and the Wild Wooders are clearly of a lower class to the protagonists and therefore undesirables.  This is class war of a kind the Tories still propagate to this day: the lower classes are scavengers, liars and criminals – the very transgressions of which they themselves are all too guilty!  But, leaving Marx behind for a bit, Homer is rather scary at first before mellowing into a figure of fun, in the court scene and so on.  The overthrow of the weaselly squatters puts them back in their place in the societal pecking order, revolution has been averted and the status quo is restored and celebrated, while Toad gets away with escaping from prison…

There is sterling support from Charlotte Froud as a sardonic horse, Philip Hickson as a blustering judge, David Southeard as an affronted policeman, but all players work with commitment and focus, be they providing the walls of a secret tunnel or nattering away as members of the jury.  Pamela Hickson gives a delightful cameo as an exuberant washerwoman.

Songs are performed a capella – the ‘Down With Toad’ by Chief Weasel and his confederates is especially effective.  It all adds up to an enjoyable evening (my political reservations aside!) excellently presented and reinforcing the Bear Pit’s reputation for the high quality of its productions.

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Hats off to the Grand!

PRESS LAUNCH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th September, 2016

 

Since it first opened its doors in 1894, the Grand Theatre has been the best reason to visit Wolverhampton.  Now, 122 years later, the theatre is entering the next phase of its evolution with a massive and thorough refurbishment of the bars and front of house areas.   The transformation is remarkable.

There is a new bar in the foyer, a long curving counter with mood under-lighting.  This bar will be open from 11am Monday to Saturday, rather than only during show times.   The former stalls bar is now the Encore Lounge – the most drastic refit of the lot, including a new performance space – as I nose around, a jazz trio tinkles away, their music broadcast through the building by the newly installed sound system.   Here, more space is given over to seating.  Booths have been installed and – a lovely touch – bowler and top hats form the lampshades over the tables.

The Dress Circle also has a new bar, Arthur’s of the Grand – so named because of sponsorship from cutlery manufacturers Arthur Price.  New booths give the loggia a more intimate feel.  It all looks rather splendid, I have to say.  The décor is classy and elegant without being imposing.

Further up, on the Grand Circle level, the ‘bar that time forgot’ has not escaped the designers’ attention.  It too is now invitingly swish.  There is also The Spotlight Lounge, a function room and boardroom available for hire.

Bars and hospitality are important, to be sure, but the main business of the theatre remains unchanged.  The plush auditorium has not been neglected.  All 1200 seats have been replaced with new, ‘soft-closing’ seats for noise reduction and, I can testify,  they are very comfortable, soft with firm back support and improved leg room, it seems.

I decide I might move in, Phantom of the Opera style.  Just don’t tell the management.  The casual opulence of the refit has rejuvenated this beautiful old building, giving it a lift and making it the place to be.  I’m already looking forward to a return visit.  You can check out details of the Grand’s new season here, and then go and check out the splendid upgrade for yourself.

grand-hat

This photo in no way does justice to the Grand’s lovely refurb – I was too preoccupied with sampling the hospitality to take pictures!


What you talking about, Willis?

AN AUDIENCE WITH WINCEY WILLIS

Courtyard Theatre, Hereford, Thursday 22nd May, 2014

 

Mention the name Wincey Willis and people’s eyes flicker with recognition. Remind them – if they need it – that she was the ‘weather girl’ on TV-AM in the 1980s and their faces will break into a smile. They might recall she did other things too. Channel 4’s Treasure Hunt, for example. Or they might have seen her in pantomime…

Off our screens for too long, Wincey takes us through her life story, revealing that the period of fame she enjoyed is not the only talk-worthy feather in her cap.

The evening is relaxed. Wincey is clearly at ease as producer Matthew Jones asks questions and prompts anecdotes, in a casual, we’re-all-friends-here, manner.   When there is a problem with her mic crackling, Wincey is unfazed. Years of live TV broadcasts have honed presenting skills that are still very much in evidence.

We hear about her early life, her strict adoptive mother, the trouble she got into at school. Wincey tells us funny stories in an offhand way, with the kind of deadpan Northern camp that would make her ideal for Alan Bennett.

But it’s not all jolly japes and comic cuts.   Wincey is open and frank about her adoptive mother’s coldness and, startlingly, about a plan to overdose with pills rather than continue to live with unrelenting, chronic and undiagnosed pain. (It turned out to be a severe caffeine allergy.)

Stories are illustrated by projections of photographs from Wincey’s personal collection, adding impact to her recollections.   There are some touching moments of how she used professional fame to call in favours and make some dying kids happy and, from her personal life, the decline into dementia of a beloved aunt.

There are also examples of her poetry, including a recording from BBC Radio 4 of a powerful piece she wrote about learning the name of her birth mother.

It’s not so much a confessional as a “this was me then and this is me now” kind of thing. Wincey doesn’t dish the dirt on other celebs (although I’m sure she could) – this is a much classier affair.   You cannot fail to enjoy her company.

She tells exciting tales of turtle egg conservation which involve being shot at – Wincey gave up telly to pursue her lifelong passion for wildlife protection and travelled the world in far from glamorous conditions. She had the time of her life.

What made Wincey popular on the small screen is what continues to make her so likeable today: she is down-to-earth, honest and funny, with a generosity of spirit that draws you in and makes you feel at home.

A thoroughly charming and engaging couple of hours – including a surprise a capella rendition of Summertime and a generous helping of laughter, An Audience With Wincey Willis demonstrates audiences still have a great deal to enjoy from this popular figure of yesteryear.

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