The Daddy of Them All

THE LIFE I LEAD

The Studio, Birmingham REP, Monday 11th March, 2019

 

For many of us, the actor David Tomlinson is firmly rooted in childhood memories of beloved films.  Most famous as the cold and stuffy Mr Banks in Mary Poppins and as the eccentric would-be magician in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Tomlinson represented a certain type of Englishness: gentlemanly, well-spoken, emotionally stifled but ultimately lovable.  This new comedy written by James Kettle invokes the spirit of the man, recounting anecdotes of his professional and personal life.

Miles Jupp IS David Tomlinson in this one-man vehicle for his talents.  At certain times, Matthew England’s lighting strikes Jupp just the right way and Tomlinson’s features seems to emerge, (even after he has peeled off the false moustache) and Jupp’s performance gets the intonation and attitude spot on, you’d think he was being possessed by the late actor himself.

In an endearing, charming manner, with a turn of phrase of which P G  Wodehouse would be proud, Tomlinson tells us stories that amuse, surprise, shock and touch us, as the case may be.  We learn of his dealings with Walt Disney, the tragedy that befell his first wife and her children, his opinion of Julie Andrews, and, chiefly, we hear stories of his father, the irascible, intractable C. S. T. whom Jupp inhabits in caricature.  It turns out Tomlinson père carried a dark secret, a reason for his lifelong detachment from his son.  Later, when he has sons of his own, Tomlinson finds himself distanced from his third boy, who is misdiagnosed as deaf but is later found to be autistic.

Fatherhood forms the backbone of this life story: Tomlinson’s father, his own experiences as a father, and that quintessential father-figure, Mr Banks.  It makes you think of your own father, whatever he was like, and it’s something of a relief to learn that Tomlinson was exactly what you’d hope, with no skeletons in his past, no wrong-doing or shenanigans are brought to light to tarnish the image of this lovely man.

Directors Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell keep Jupp on the move, using lighting and sound to signify changes in time and place.  Played out on a gorgeous stage set by Lee Newby, a kind of drawing-room in the sky, this production features a captivating performance from Jupp, and is exactly how it appears: heavenly.

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Miles Jupp as David Tomlinson (Photo: Piers Foley)

 

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Yes, Queen!

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 8th March, 2019

 

Loosely inspired by English history, this story of one of the favourites of Queen Elizabeth begins with an overture that includes a sinewy rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’, quite anachronistically, before building up to a frenetic series of crashing chords; conductor Carlo Rizzo throws himself around energetically.  It’s an exhilarating opening.

Elizabeth loves Roberto, but Roberto loves Sara, wife to his best mate, the Duke of Nottingham.  Roberto stands accused of treason but Elizabeth offers him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  He can go free if he names her rival for his affections.  Roberto would rather die than put Sara in the frame.  There’s some business with love tokens (a ring from Elizabeth, a scarf from Sara) and the Duke of Nottingham rumbles what’s going on…

Director Alessandro Talevi eschews the grandeur of the Elizabethan court and sets this love quadrangle in a dark world of shadows and screens.  Elizabeth keeps a spider in a tank – perhaps this signifies her treatment of Roberto, keeping him as an exotic pet but one that can bite… Later, it emerges that it is she who is the spider, as she careers around in a chariot like a giant robotic arachnid.  Talevi brings surprises to the melodrama.  The bald queen stalking around on mechanical legs while her favourite languishes in prison, caught in scarlet strands – his entanglement in the web of Elizabeth’s emotions.

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Elisabetta (Joyce El-Khoury) Photo: Bill Cooper

Joyce El-Khoury is magnificent as the tyrannical queen, giving us the regal power of the monarch and the volatile emotions of the woman.  She commands the attention whenever she is on – not just because she is a splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise monochromatic setting.  Also strong is Justina Gringyte as the noble, distressed Sara, fighting her feelings for Barry Banks’s robust Roberto.  Roland Wood’s passionate Duke, pleading for the life of his friend is lovely stuff.

The marvellous WNO chorus have their moment in the spotlight with a solemn, hymn-like piece, while the orchestra play Donizetti’s stirring score with verve and beauty.  Madeleine Boyd’s design work owes more to the 19th than the 16th century, with a touch of Vivienne Westwood and Jules Verne thrown in.  It’s all very stylish, a world with its own rules rather than any attempt at historical reconstruction.

This is a striking, powerful production with a tour de force performance by El-Khoury at its heart.

Majestic.

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Roberto Devereux (Barry Banks) gets caught up in red tape (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 


Bells and Whistle

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019

 

I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago.  Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings.  The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.

In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess.  From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun.  The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince.  Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.

Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno.  In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.

Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night.  Her second, most famous aria brings the house down.  Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite.  While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them.  Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.

Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina.  Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.

This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction.  What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.

Inevitably, the star is Mozart.  His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love.  The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


Dance in the Dark

UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th March, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera’s Spring season at the Hippodrome kicks off with this Verdi gem in which the maestro blends aspects of opera buffo with melodrama.   It’s an opera with a split personality, with moods changing seamlessly.  Raimund Bauer’s set, of huge, substantial flats with lots of small windows and red curtains tower over the action and are rotated into various positions to suggest the different locations.  They are impressive things to be sure but their imposing scale and the general blackness of the background do not serve the comical, more playful moments of the score.

Political intrigue, dire prophecies from a fortune-teller, a love triangle, betrayal – it’s all here, as Riccardo (Gwyn Hughes Jones) struggles with his love for his bff’s wife Amelia (Mary Elizabeth Williams) while she struggles with her love for him.  The bff, Renato (Roland Wood) finds out (of course he does!) and falls in league with a bunch of conspirators who are plotting Riccardo’s assassination.

As Riccardo, Jones is a mass of energy, which he channels into his powerful tenor.  No weedy hero he, Jones is a delight to hear, bringing power and playfulness to the role.  As Amelia, Williams is sublime, heart-breaking and nuanced in her delivery – most of the melodrama comes her way – and she is perfect.  Wood’s baritone is earnest and passionate; Renato feels things as deeply as he sings them!

As ever, the WNO chorus are excellent value, cavorting around in top hats, doing a conga, before turning up at the ball like skeletal extras from the movie Coco.

Sara Fulgoni is a lot of fun as the imperious fortune-teller, Ulrica, as is Harriet Eyley’s Oscar, a perky manservant bringing comic relief and a breath-taking mullet.

While the setting may be too dark for us to catch all the comic business going on, the big moments are superbly staged, with some striking, symbolic rather than literal, imagery.  Director David Pountney gives us masks and mystery, with a touch of the Gothic.

It’s a banquet for the ears.  The singing is thoroughly top notch and the WNO, under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, delivers Verdi’s sumptuous music exquisitely.  On the whole, the production leans toward the darkness rather than striking a balance with the light, yet for all that it is hugely enjoyable.  I had a ball!

Bill Cooper

When your love-life ‘stalls’ – Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 


TB or not TB

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st March, 2019

 

Martin McDonagh is one of the finest stage- and screenwriters currently working.  This production of his play from 1996 clearly demonstrates his use of Irish settings, idioms and characters, mining the same comedic vein as Father Ted and Stones in His Pockets.   On the craggy island of the title, news comes of a Hollywood film crew on a neighbouring island, seeking locals to appear on celluloid.  It’s big news for a community used to hearing word of geese and cats and sheep with no ears.  ‘Cripple Billy’ is especially keen, forging a letter from the doctor in order to cajole a boatman to take him across the sea…

As the action unfolds against the backdrop of a gorgeous set by Chris Jackson and Martin Tottle, we meet a host of colourful characters.  Seemingly hostile to each other, if the insults they hurl at each other and their coarse language is anything to go by, the community has been keeping a secret from Billy his entire life.  It seems the worse they say to each other, the more they care.

We meet Eileen (Niki Baldwin) and Kate Osbourne (Viv Tomlinson), Billy’s adoptive aunties, who run a ramshackle shop that appears to stock little else but tins of peas.  Baldwin and Tomlinson are a fine double act, gossiping about local affairs, but also as characters in their own right, each handling stress in their own way: the one stuffing herself with sweets, the other talking to stones.  Paul Tomlinson’s Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal is a superb piece of character acting among an excellent cast.  Sophie Mobberley’s Slippy Helen is fierce and feisty, oozing violence and sociopathy, while Thomas Hodge as Helen’s brother Bartley is convincingly simple, his one-track mind fixated on telescopes.  Graham Buckingham Underhill makes a strong impression as boatman Babbybobby Bennett.  Dorothy Barlow gives an hilarious turn as Mammy O’Dougal, and there is credible support from David Derrington as Doctor McSharry.

The accents ring true, never veering into ‘Oirish’ parody, diddle-de-dee, and director Vanessa Comer gets the overall tone and pacing just right.  It’s a genuine pleasure to see this consistently funny piece presented so excellently.  It’s a play about community and fake news, gossip, rumour and the truth.  While we enjoy the shenanigans of the community, our sympathies hinge on the central performance by Nathan Brown as Billy.  Today we would never address a person with disabilities so bluntly, and it’s not just a matter of political correctness making us mealy-mouthed.  McDonagh shows us that the disabled have hopes and dreams of their own and a desire to be loved just like anyone else, and they make mistakes just like everyone else.  Brown arouses our compassion for Billy’s predicament rather than his condition.  The truth emerges about Billy’s past and his current tuberculosis diagnosis, packing a poignant punch.  It’s superbly done.

Thoroughly entertaining, this black comedy is a joy from start to finish.  As one of the characters observes, we know we shouldn’t be laughing, but we do.  It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Bear Pit – and that’s saying something!

Bear Pit Theatre. THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN.Director: Vanessa Comer

Who is taking whom for a ride? Babbybobby Bennett (Graham Buckingham Underhill) and Cripple Billy Claven (Nathan Brown) Photo: Patrick Baldwin

 


Inflated Opinion

ME AND MY DOLL

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 28th February, 2019

 

This two-hander, written and directed by Lucy Bird, gets off to a bit of a Shirley Valentine start with twenty-something Kate speaking to herself and to the blow-up doll given to her by her ‘friends’ because of her apparent inability to land herself a real boyfriend.  The doll is a punchbag at first and then a sounding board as Kate vents her frustrations and then tries out a more ‘feminine’ and nurturing manner, as prescribed by the company she works for.  Kate finds she is rubbish at conforming to gender expectations, and why should she have to change at all, just to get along in a man’s world?

Miraculously, the doll comes to life, in an endearingly funny performance by Thomas Bulpett.  He unearths Kate’s secret stash of rom-com DVDs and learns all about life and love from them.  There’s a lot of fun to be had spotting all the references, but Kate, unlike the heroines of these movies, can tell the difference between reality and fiction.  In a reversal of Pygmalion, the Doll tries to teach manners and acceptable behaviour to the human, so Kate can go out with a ‘real man’ (whatever that is).  As their relationship develops in complexity, we wonder who needs whom, who is playing with whom, and can we ever tell if what someone says they feel about us is real.  Is the Doll genuine in his affections or does he, like everyone, have his own agenda?  Will he get what he wants or will the situation blow up (heh) in his face?

Rachel Baker is funny, volatile and tender as the feisty Kate, while Thomas Bulpett is simply excellent in this latter-day Toy Story.   Lucy Bird’s script is fresh, witty and rich, touching and clever, and as director, she ensures the actors explore the physicality of their roles to the full: the Doll’s movements, Kate’s terrible dancing…

Thoroughly enjoyable and engaging, this is a rom-com for our times.  Foul-mouthed and funny, this production by Birmingham’s own Paperback Theatre Company is a vibrant new work that is definitely not a let-down!

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Hello, Dolly! Rebecca Baker and companion

 


As You Lump It

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

 

The plot of this rom-com from Shakespeare is bunched up at either end of the play.  A lot happens in the opening scenes – even a wrestling match – but when characters become exiled from the dukedom, the story line goes for a meander through the Forest of Arden, branching out into subplots about various pairs of lovers, until our protagonist Rosalind, seems to realise we’ve reached Act V and decides to pull all the threads together for a resolution.

The opening scenes are fine, with Anthony Byrne’s menacing, paranoid Duke Frederick ruling the roost.  David Ajao is an embittered and angry Orlando, disenfranchised by his weaselly brother Oliver (an excellent Leo Wan) but Orlando softens when the surprise of his victory (sorry if that’s a spoiler) against the Duke’s in-house wrestler Charles, is topped by his surprise falling in love with Rosalind at first sight.  Graeme Brookes’s Charles is more of a besuited bouncer – Frederick runs his realm like some kind of underworld boss, and Emily Johnstone is also good fun as Le Beau, tottering across the grass in her high heels and Krystle Carrington hairdo.

Lucy Phelps is a hugely appealing Rosalind, but I find Sophie Khan Levy even more so as her good-time gal cousin, Celia.  And so, I am liking this As You Like It

Then we get to the forest.

In a startling moment, director Kimberley Sykes flips the production on its head – much as the characters’ lives are turned upside down – and, taking the words of Jaques as a game plan, shows us that all the world is indeed a stage.  Sykes’s Arden is a bare stage with costume rails wheeled on, where lighting cues can be summoned by characters at the click of a finger.  It’s a bold move, and a valid one, except I am no longer with the characters on their journey.  I am, like Celia, Aliena-ted, and kept at a distance.  It’s a case of the concept working against the content.  With new characters coming and going as the subplot rattles along, I lack the attachment and investment one feels in say, a Much Ado, or a Twelfth Night.  Shakespeare gives us love in many facets in these scenes, but I find myself not caring.

Sandy Grierson is striking as Touchstone the fool, like a glam-rock Max Wall with a touch of Billy Connolly, but his love scenes are too aggressive.  He practically bullies lonely goatherd Audrey into a relationship (via the medium of British Sign Language, which adds another layer of humour to the scene).  Gender-swapped Jaques (Sophie Stanton) wanders about aimlessly, and I like the fluidity of Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy – very funny) who has set her sights on Rosalind as a boy, while being pursued by bright-eyed Silvia (Amelia Donkor) her earnest same-sex suitor…

At the moment when Rosalind effects a resolution, the scene is dominated by the arrival of a massive puppet, altogether too distracting I find.  In her epilogue, Rosalind invites us to ‘like as much of this play as please you’.  Unfortunately, the parts I do like are overshadowed by those I don’t.

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Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind before they are ‘turfed out’ (Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC)