Magic Moments

WINNIE AND WILBUR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017

 

The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.

Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson).  She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example.  The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect.  A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight.  Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.

Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.

Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal.  Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner.  Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.

She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble.  Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy.  Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home.  Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma.  The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes.  The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.

I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.

Sophie Russell (Winnie), Ben Thompson (Wilbur) and Ed Thorpe

Sophie Russell and Ben Thompson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


The Play Works

THE MACHINE STOPS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th April, 2017

 

This production from Pilot Theatre comes to the end of its tour at the Belgrade’s B2 studio.  Given its themes, you would think the original short story on which the play is based was written five minutes ago.  The story is astonishingly prescient and no less pertinent having first seen the light of day in 1909.  That’s 1909 not 2009.

We are in a post-apocalyptic future.  Humanity lives underground, each individual in their own room or cell in which they find all their needs fulfilled by the ‘Machine’ that sustains them.  All communication is done via personal screens – in this way, people have contacts the whole world over but they never meet.  Sound familiar?  Kuno (Rohan Nedd) has other ideas.  He believes that humanity has lost something of itself because we no longer interact in person.  He’s not wrong.  He tries to persuade his mother – the woman who gave birth to him, to be more precise – that there is more to life, that the surface isn’t as barren and toxic as the Machine leads everyone to believe.

The woman – Vashti, played by an excellent Ricky Butt – clings to her blinkered views and complete and blind faith in the Machine as a force for good.  She even begins praying to it – in a stark reminder that the divine is manmade.  It is only when it’s too late and the Machine breaks down that Vashti realises what has been lost.

It’s an enthralling piece, rich with ideas both in form and content.  Maria Gray and Adam Slynn are almost ever-present as parts of the Machine, writhing and contorting in grey bodystockings, in a mesmerising display of acrobatics and physicality.  Rhys Jarman’s set consists of a framework that serves as a kind of jungle gym for the Machine parts as well as delineating the limits of the cells.  Tom Smith’s lighting makes superb use of darkness for chilling effect, and Juliet Forster’s direction keeps the action taut, the ideas provocative.  In fact, only the electronic music seems somewhat dated in its presentation of ‘futuristic’ sounds.

Pilot_Theatre-The_Machine_Stops-Feb_2017-Photo by Ben_Bentley- Adam Slynn and Maria Gray 93

Adam Slynn and Maria Gray (Photo: Ben Bentley)

Rohan Nedd portrays Kuno’s rebellious drive and evangelism with verve but it is Ricky Bull’s Vashti who has the stronger impact, like a Brexiteer clinging to the wreckage of civilisation and proclaiming all is well.

Neil Duffield’s adaptation reveals the relevance of the original story – unless we regain our relationship with nature, we are doomed.  In these days of unfettered capitalism and climate change denial, the message is urgent and compelling.

And the writer of the original tale, way back in 1909?  None other than E. M. Forster!  He of Room With A View fame and the source of many other Merchant-Ivory films.  This seems as astounding to me as the story itself.  Good on you, E. M!

Pilot_Theatre-The_Machine_Stops-Feb_2017- photo by Ben_Bentley-9 Ricky Butt

Ricky Butt (Photo: Ben Bentley)


Men of Letters

NOT ABOUT HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd April, 2017

 

It seems there were a lot of poets sent to fight the Bosch in the First World War.  We seem to hear a lot about them in any case.  Stephen Macdonald’s play deals with the friendship struck up between two of them, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland, where they are convalescing with nervous disorders.  Sassoon narrates the story from fifteen years after the end of the war and Macdonald wisely uses verbatim lines taken from the correspondence between the two friends so what we get is a dramatic reconstruction of scenes – Owen’s poetry is called into service to give us glimpses of life in the trenches and, especially in the second act, the men exchange anecdotes of the horrors they have witnessed.  But this is not a war story; it’s more of a repressed love story, a bromance we’d call it these days, as the men dance around their feelings for each other while braving the worst of circumstances.

George Bandy is a somewhat deadpan Wilfred Owen; without overdoing the stammer, he gets over the poet’s nervousness and awkward shyness – and there are also moments when his passionate outcries blaze as strongly as any words the poet penned.  As Siegfried Sassoon, Andrew Smith gives a masterly performance, perfectly at home in his character’s skin and affectations.  Sassoon is a likeable if slightly pompous fellow and his knack for understatement is especially poignant.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Moonga keeps this wordy, rather slow-moving tale engaging with changes of pace.  The set by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris provides a stark backdrop of silhouetted barricades against a changing sky, along with real world touches to ground the characters at their desks.  Mike Duxbury’s lighting and Roger Cunningham’s sound design enhance the nightmares of the men, with flashes and sounds of the war that haunts them both.  But it is the presence of the two actors that hooks us in – Smith’s effortless Sassoon will stay with me for a long time.

A timely production that reminds us that in Owen we lost a formidable talent, and far too many lives in a senseless and misguided conflict.

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Leaving Sassoon? Andrew Smith and George Bandy


Stockinged Feat

BLUE STOCKINGS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th March, 2017

 

Originally produced at the Globe in 2013, Jessica Swale’s drama charts an academic year in the life of a group of female students at Cambridge’s Girton college.  It’s 1896 and the ladies are there on sufferance, rather than suffrage – their studies will get them nowhere and they are struggling to be awarded the right to graduate.  The fight mirrors the wider campaign for the Vote, and, if the male characters of this piece are anything to go by, they are not a good advertisement for the gender.  The sexism is overt, laid on with a trowel, neatly dividing the cast into heroines and villains.  Where the line is blurred is when female characters such as Miss Welsh decries her Suffragette sisters, and lecturer Mr Banks sides with the ladies.

Colette Nooney is striking as Miss Welsh, imperious and determined, while Jacob Williams’s Banks is a perfect piece of characterisation, from the look to the smallest mannerisms.  They look the part because yet again Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on.

The Crescent’s Youth Theatre has amassed a strong ensemble, led by Jessica Shannon as Tess, in a remarkably nuanced performance that endears the character to us from the off.  She is supported by Neve Ricketts’s well-travelled Carolyn, Jessica Williams’s forthright Celia, and Charlotte Upton’s Maeve – who has a powerful moment when fetched home by her yokel brother Billy (Tate Wellings).  Holly Mourbey is effective as Miss Blake and there is humour from Laila Abbuq as Minnie the maid.  Jessica Potter makes an impression as strict chaperone Miss Bott.

Of the men, a right bunch of pompous prigs, Julian Southall stands out as Edwards – especially when drunk – and Laurenc Kurbiba makes a suave, caddish Ralph.  Villain of the piece is Charlie McCullum-Cartwright as Lloyd – one can easily imagine the Bullingdon Club adopting him as a mascot.  Jack Purcell-Burrows shines as the decent, gentlemanly Will, but on the whole, we wince, cringe and flinch at the abhorrent attitudes on display.  A dying breed?  I would like to think so.

James David Knapp directs with an assured hand, providing crescendos of high drama among the rituals and routines of college life.  The humour is well-timed and, for the most part, the cast handle the heightened language and stuffy accents with aplomb.  Keith Harris’s attractive set of Gothic arches divided by bookshelves serves to represent both the interior and exterior of the college, while Chris Briggs’s lighting adds to the sense of location and the atmosphere.

A challenging play well-presented, this production of Blue Stockings has legs.

blue-stockings


You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017

 

Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.

The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core.  Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there.  The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation.  What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing.  Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams.  The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society.  And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.

Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom.  Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed.  Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.

Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare.  The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….

Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire.  The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce.  Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment.  That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.

A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.

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Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


Figures of Speech

SPEECH & DEBATE

Trafalgar Studios, London, Saturday 11th March, 2017

 

Stephen Karam’s snappy script is brought to life in this new production by a trio of energised performers.  Set in an American high school, it covers the experiences of three loners who come together to form a debate club when it emerges that they each have a reason to bring about the downfall of the drama teacher…

Solomon is a neurotic mass, an uptight reporter for the school newspaper.  He wants to write an expose to bring the hypocrisy of the mayor (and the drama teacher) into the spotlight.  Dinata is a lonely girl, a wannabe actor who uses theatrics to get by, podcasting and blogging away, always with her eye out for the chance to perform.  Howie is the new kid at school – it is his online chat with the drama teacher that opens the show and gets the ball rolling.

Douglas Booth is in excellent form as Howie, portraying the boy’s fragility rather than his campness.  His barbed lines are exquisitely timed, and there is an appealing vulnerability to his presence.  Patsy Ferran has never been better as Dinata, the driving force behind the debate club, the funniest of the three.  Wise-cracking and sardonic, she is not as hep and cool as she pretends.  Her songs are sweetly funny – and the musical numbers are definite highlights, allowing Ferran to shine.  Booth also proves himself as a physical comedian, while Tony Revolori’s understated moves have their own hilariousness.  Revolori is superb as the tightly wound, crusading Solomon, who has to come to terms with his own contradictions.

The trio is strongly supported by Charlotte Lucas who appears in grown-up roles as a teacher and a reporter, but for the most part it is the dynamics between the three loners that holds our attention.  Director Tom Attenborough keeps the action sharp and the dialogue going off like firecrackers.  Economic use of projections show us the online chats that, along with references to Mike Pence, make the script bang up-to-date.  The play is not finally about the issues up for debate; it’s the time-honoured theme of teenage awkwardness, of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin.  And it’s an absolute delight.  A well-observed, snappily presented comedy that reminds us how modern technology can serve to keep us isolated or get us into trouble.

P.S.  If Douglas Booth feels like sending me pics, I would not mind one bit.

douglas booth abe lincoln

Was Honest Abe gay? One of the topics up for debate! Douglas Booth as Howie (Photo: Simon Annand)

 


Midsummer Murder

SNOW IN MIDSUMMER

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 9th March, 2017

 

Based on a thirteenth century Chinese drama, this new production brings the story of The Injustice to Dou E that Moved Heaven and Earth (no, me neither) bang up to date with a fresh and lively script by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.  Set in contemporary China with its curious blend of progressive and traditional elements, where a burgeoning capitalist economy vies with pre-Cultural Revolution superstition, the story is a visceral revenge tragedy with supernatural elements that feels at home at the RSC.

Sweet and charming Dou Yi (Katie Leung) returns from the grave as a vengeful spirit seeking justice.  It emerges that she was framed for murder and executed by firing squad, her body harvested for organs for transplant operations.  Dou Yi seeks retribution and to be laid to rest. Stalking around in a white, long-sleeved gown, Leung cuts a spooky dash, familiar to us from Asian horror films.  As the mystery unfolds, we are gripped by the action, not least because of the ghost’s relationship with young Fei-Fei (a remarkable Sophie Wong) in some chilling scenes.

At the centre of the plot is handsome Colin Ryan as Handsome Zhang, a young entrepreneur, and his handsome boyfriend, handsome Rocket (Andrew Leung).  This is the face of a new China but the machinations of the story are rooted in tradition and cultural convention.  Andrew Leung is an appealing figure – the recipient of a heart transplant from guess who – but it is Ryan who knocks our socks off, as his life unravels and he takes drastic, final action.

Also excellent is Sarah Lam as Handsome’s former wet nurse, beginning as an amusing character part to a heart-rending (I use the word carefully) participant in the unfolding tragedy.  Wendy Kweh cuts an elegant figure as businesswoman Tianyun – there is a message here that the cost of a growing economy is paid by the environment – and much of the humour of the piece stems from the likes of Jonathan Raggett as a sexually frustrated Officer.

Director Justin Audibert blends the contemporary with the traditional in a melting pot of styles, juxtaposing naturalistic playing with more melodramatic posturing.  Anna Watson’s lighting uses modern strip-lighting to great effect.  A couple of supernatural escorts in animal masks who take the dead to the afterlife epitomise this fusion of the old and the new.  Atmospheric music by Ruth Chan is performed live by a tight ensemble – pulsating modern rhythms, traditional Chinese instruments, underscore the action and help to create both the world on the stage and the moods of the scenes.

Engaging from the off, gripping and powerful, this is splendid entertainment and a refreshing glimpse at China’s changing culture.   Dou Yi’s story tells us the truth will out, consequences must be answered and this is a compelling metaphor for our treatment of the planet.  Mother Nature’s vengeance will be no less savage and complete.   Even the show’s title is an indictment of climate change!

Snow in Midsummer production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_212790

Heart on her sleeve: Katie Leung as Dou Yi (Photo: Ikin Yum)