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.

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

 

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Inexplicable Elephant

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017

 

First version of the classic seasonal tale I’m seeing this year, this version’s staged by Bilston Operatic Company.  Oddly, the programme doesn’t credit any writers or composers, not even Charles Dickens.  A bit of research reveals the score is by the great Alan Menken.  I would never have guessed – it’s hardly his best work.

It’s a rather sanitised, musical version with samey songs and everything happening at the same pace, but the show is not without its merits.  There is a strong central performance from Nicholas Sullivan as the miserly Scrooge; reminiscent at first of the Child Catcher, he becomes more expressive and lively as the story unfolds.  After a seemingly interminable opening number, things ironically come to life with the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Tim Jones in a spirited performance, flying high over a chorus of zombies…)

Lydia Tidmarsh sings well as the Ghost of Christmas Past – she deserves a more supernatural entrance rather than just strolling out from behind Scrooge’s bed.  After the impressive Marley, the arrival of the other three ghosts is underplayed.

Jacob Kohli is in excellent voice as the Ghost of Christmas Present but his song becomes a weird production number in which the Victorian aesthetic is elbowed in favour of sequins, shorter skirts and tap shoes.  It is here we see an inexplicable elephant, also in a skirt.  WHY?  I can’t think for the life of me.  There is a nod to Dickens’s socialist agenda with an appearance by Ignorance and Want – sadly still rife in Tory Britain.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from a blind beggar in a hooded cloak to a kind of exotic, acrobatic performer, all veils and sequins, like a belly dancer getting married.  Again I ask WHY?  Imogen Hall is undoubtedly a lovely mover but this interpretation robs the role of the terror it must strike into Scrooge’s withered heart.

There is clearly no money in the Cratchit household for Tiny Tim to have singing lessons but Harry Lewis performs the role with such gusto, he wins us over.  Confidence is half the battle.

There is some nice character work from Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns as the Fezziwigs and an underused Sarah Houghton as Mrs Mops.

Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort but the crowd scenes lack focus – all the more important when your chorus is so populous.  On the whole though, the germ of Dickens’s perennial morality tale comes through and events reach their sentimental but satisfying conclusion in a production that tries hard, means well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

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Christmas Turkey

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th November, 2017

 

For their Christmas production this year, BMOS have chosen to mount this musical adaptation of a creaky old film, a perennial favourite – in the USA more than here perhaps.  The story of a department store Father Christmas who claims to be the real deal and is put on trial for his sanity.

Things are much worse over there than they are here – in terms of the commercialisation of Christmas, I mean.  Although… there are people here who get all excited about department stores’ Christmas TV ads and practically wet their pants to see a lorry delivering Coca-Cola… so the rot is definitely spreading!

Written by Meredith (Music Man) Willson, the show is a cracker that doesn’t bang.  The original songs are uniformly awful and unmemorable – for which I am grateful – and the book is leaden and cringeworthy.

Jo Smith (Doris, shopworker and single mom) and Matt Collins (Fred,ex-army, wannabe lawyer and child befriender) work hard to bring life to the clunky dialogue but they are acted off the stage by young Willow Heath as Susan.  Heath is spot on in terms of accent and intonation, and we are spared moments of saccharine sentimentality.  Stewart Keller’s Kris Kringle thaws as the action unfolds.  At first he’s a little pompous and you don’t know if he’s going to sell you a bucket of chicken or unleash resurrected dinosaurs.

Director Suzi Budd’s choreography gets interesting during a comic number (‘She Hadda Go Back’) performed by Fred and a bunch of marines.  Unfortunately, the song is totally extraneous in terms of plot development and should be cut – anything to shorten the show’s overly long running time.

John Spencer gives a pleasing turn as shop mogul R H Macy but there is one cast member whose performance is of a highly professional standard, in a detailed but larger-than-life characterisation and with a fully supported singing voice: the incomparable Mark Shaun Walsh as Doris’s uptight assistant Mr Shellhammer.  Walsh is an uplifting presence and a joy to behold.  BMOS are unbelievably lucky to have him in their ranks.  No offence to them, but I hope Walsh finds himself a professional engagement worthy of his talents.

The massive troupe work hard to keep things going are there are pleasing moments and amusing touches but I can’t help feeling they are flogging a dead reindeer with this turkey of a show.  The time, energy and resources of the company would be better focussed elsewhere, on material worthy of their attention.

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Stewart Keller, Jo Smith and Mark Shaun Walsh (Photo: Ariane Photography Studio)


Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 


A ‘Night’ to Remember

TWELFTH NIGHT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017

 

Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’.  Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train.  There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court.  Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting.  Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!

Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them.  Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise.  There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.

Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most.  Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario.  Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.

As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others.  In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out.  His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.

Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him.  He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me.  Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.

There are many high points.  The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.

Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering.  It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off.  Several scenes suffer from this intrusion.  Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I like the style.  Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette.  Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.

Twelfth Night production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_234119 (1)

To the letter: Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Boots and All

HOBSON’S CHOICE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 12th November, 2017

 

Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy first appeared in 1916 when the tide of women’s suffrage was running high.  Set in 1880, it tells of Hobson, a widower and owner of a shoe shop, seeking liberation from the three grown-up daughters who work in his shop without pay, so he can have some peace and quiet.  He sets to marrying off the younger two – the eldest, at the advanced age of 30 is beyond hope, he feels.  This eldest, Maggie, takes matters into her own hands by browbeating the timid on-site shoemaker into marrying her.  She then orchestrates matters so that her sisters are able to wed the men of their choosing, manipulating their father until he is worse off than when he started.

The script still sparkles with sarcastic barbs and acerbic observations and feels fresher than any episode of Open All Hours penned in more recent years.

As blustering, boozing patriarch Hobson, the mighty Colin Simmonds gives a majestic performance in a superb characterisation.  The timing is impeccable; the nuances and the broader moments provide a masterclass in comic acting.  He is matched by two fellow leads: Kimberley Cormack as the level-headed, assertive and somewhat Machiavellian Maggie in a formidable display – you wouldn’t want to cross her; and James David Knapp is endearing and extremely funny as the timid and shy cobbler, Willy Mossop.  You wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, so to speak.

Between them, these three bring the play to remarkable life and they are supported by a strong team of players: Notably, Amy Thompson as Vickey, Emily Jane Carey as Alice, Carl Foster as Fred Beenstock, and Damien Dickens as Albert Prosser.  There are memorable cameo appearances from Jo Thackwray as the haughty Mrs Hepworth and Brian Wilson as Hobson’s drinking buddy, Jim.

Faye Rowse’s set design evokes the period stylishly and effectively, while Angela Daniels’s costumes reveal not only the characters’ status but also the changes in their fortunes as the action unfolds.  Charlotte Robinson’s hazy lighting suggests gas- or candlelight.  Director Les Stringer hits all the comedic hotspots while maintaining the emotional truth of the situations.

Thoroughly engaging and massively entertaining, this is a splendid production of a masterpiece and is a ‘shoe-in’ for one of my favourites of the year.

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The shoe’s on the other foot. Kimberley Cormack, James David Knapp and Colin Simmonds (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Blonde Ambition

LEGALLY BLONDE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Friday 10th November, 2017

 

I have seen this show before, years ago, but if you put a gun to my head I would be able to tell you very little about it.  Now it’s doing the rounds again, I put a gun to my own head and settle into my seat – and it’s like coming to the show completely fresh.

Basically, it’s a fairy tale with protagonist Elle Woods our Disney princess, with her pink wardrobe and her long blonde locks.  She is of the view that ‘love’ (seen here as landing a husband) is the be-all and end-all and, to that end, follows her boyfriend to Harvard Law School, right after he dumps her for not being ‘serious’.  She is willing to change herself to get her man.  She even visits hairdresser Paulette to become a brunette.  So far, so Little Mermaid.

Heather Hach’s book for the show, based on Amanda Brown’s novel and the tepid film, adds a spin to the fairy story, more girl power than out-and-out feminism, as Elle develops and becomes her own woman.   It’s not her ex’s new squeeze Vivienne who is the enemy, Elle learns, but the patriarchy!  Who knew?

In the lead role, Lucie Jones (who did us proud at Eurovision this year) is stonkingly good as the beautiful, not-so-ditzy Elle.  Her performance is central to the energy of the whole and she is very, very funny.   Bill Ward has washed off the mud of farm life in Emmerdale and scrubs up well to become the suave Professor Callahan – in a highly topical turn of events, this powerful man makes a move on his intern.  Things do not end well for him.  Ward is strong, channelling Billy Flynn from Chicago with his own brand of hard-nosed razzle dazzle.

Rita Simons has shaken off the misery of Albert Square and is almost unrecognisable beneath a towering straggly wig as blue-collar hairdresser Paulette, bringing humour and energy to the part.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile before.

Liam Doyle is suitably handsome as the caddish boyfriend Warner Huntington III, contrasting with David Barrett’s sweetly bookish Emmett, and Laura Harrison is in great voice as the glamorous Vivienne.  There is super support from ensemble members: I particularly enjoy Felipe Bejarano’s Nikos and Lucyelle Cliffe in a range of female roles including a Judge and Elle’s mother.  Helen Petrovna’s fitness guru Brooke does wonders with a skipping rope – here the choreography of director Anthony Williams and Dean Street is at its most impressive.

Elle’s sorority sisters serve as a kind of Greek chorus in her mind.  They come and go in a range of outfits and are fit to bursting with energy.  After a while though, I begin to find them a bit too shrill, a bit too bouncy, and I wish I had some Ritalin to throw at the stage. And why is it that whenever live dogs appear on stage, people ooh and ahh as if they’ve never seen such a creature?  A live dog will always upstage the action – tonight ‘Rufus’ – a ‘local star canine’ – almost mounts Rita Simons’s leg in a showstopping, hilarious moment.

And so this time round, I enjoyed it a lot.  The book is good, the lyrics are witty (especially in the rhyming triplets) and the whole thing is engagingly presented.  What keeps the show from being a great musical is, unfortunately, the score.  The songs are instantly forgettable, no matter how well sung.  And there is an entirely unnecessary ‘mega-mix’ at the end to remind me of the score’s shortcomings before I go home.  It really needs a showstopper and a couple of hits that would become standards to cement the show’s place in the musical theatre firmament.  You might say it needs more highlights.

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Blonde ambition: Lucie Jones as Elle Woods