Conservation Piece

RUNNING WILD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th June, 2017

 

Michael Morpurgo’s animal stories (think War Horse, think Butterfly Lion) have become prime fodder for theatre aimed at children, but don’t let that mislead you.  The stories tackle grown-up issues and major themes, and this touring production of Running Wild is an excellent case in point.

Nine-year-old Lily’s dad is killed in the Iraq war.  She travels with her mother to Indonesia, where mum is drowned by a tsunami but Lily is saved by the actions of her elephant friend Oona.  Together, girl and elephant live in the rain forest until their Jungle Book lives are interrupted by orangutan poachers.  As if themes of loss and grief aren’t enough, the story packs in themes of conservation, animal protection and consumerism, as Lily goes through an eye-opening, eye-watering journey, a learning experience which is enough to radicalise anyone to vote for the Green Party and join every wildlife charity going.

In this performance, Annika Whiston makes an assured Lily, who finds her place in this cruel world of natural disaster and mankind’s folly.  She is supported by an ensemble that includes Kazeem Tosin Amore as her dear old dad, Balvinder Sopal as mum, and RSC veteran Liz Crowther as Lily’s determined grandmother.  There is likable support from Stephen Hoo in a range of roles and Corinna Powlesland as Dr Geraldine.  Jack Sandle’s Australian baddie, Mr Anthony, exudes the evils of callous capitalism.

But the show belongs to the breath-taking puppets of Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié.  It takes four skilful puppeteers to animate Oona and how quickly one forgets they are there in plain sight.  Oona is life-sized and appears to be breathing, thinking and, yes, farting.  Others too knock your eyes out: a beautiful tiger, a shoal of fish, a vicious crocodile lurking in the undergrowth.  I have seen Olié’s work before – the man is a god, giving life to inanimate forms.  Give him every award going.

Paul Wills’s set is a jungle of junk, comprised of broken bits of furniture, recycling wood to make the trees.  Cleverly, it also suggests we are making a rubbish tip of our world.  Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks pull no punches in telling this hard-hitting story, and carry it off with theatrical sophistication and flair: the tsunami scene is stylishly presented, for example, and the murder of a group of orangutans is brutal and upsetting.  Walt Disney kept the shooting of Bambi’s mother off-screen; here, adaptor Samuel Adamson puts it centre stage and the impact is devastating.

No cute and cuddly kiddies’ tale, Running Wild is an action-packed, eventful story that engages its target audience thoroughly.  The emotional impact is undeniable but I wonder how many members of the school parties that fill the auditorium will go home and demand a boycott of products that contain palm oil.  Perhaps it falls to the grown-ups that accompany them to take this necessary step.

Curiously, the story doesn’t make a connection between the cruel treatment and exploitation of animals in the wild with the fate of those who live on Lily’s grandmother’s farm.  That apart, this is quite the Greenest show I’ve seen and I can’t applaud it enough.

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Oona and Nana – Liz Crowther (Photo: Dan Tsantilis)

 

 


Finger-Clickin’ Good

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 6th June, 2017

 

Charles Addams’s characters first appeared in single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker – delicious gems offering snapshots of a dark psyche at work.  When the 1960s TV series appeared, it gave Addams’s family voices and movement, stories that flipped the conventional like a negative photograph.  The show also rendered the characters likeable and appealed to queer sensibilities at a time when there was no other mainstream representation.  We wallow in the Addamses’ morbidity – it is the ‘normal’ that is held up to be ‘other’.

This new musical (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) gives the characters songs, many of them good ones, while providing plenty of laughs in the expected vein.

Cameron Blakely is the excitable head of the household, Gomez Addams, an energetic father figure with a Hispanic flavour.  Last seen drowned in a pool in EastEnders, Samantha Womack kills it as his wife Morticia – her deadpan delivery is impeccably timed.  She is impressively dour and supremely elegant; her song ‘Death is Just Around the Corner’ is a definite highlight.

Wednesday Addams is presented as older here than she usually is, losing her little girl creepiness – this is so that she is interested in boys and thereby giving the show its plot.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is undeniably strong in the role but I would have scored Wednesday’s numbers a little less conventionally to make her sound more like a Lene Lovich or Kate Bush type.   It is the lyrics alone that subvert from the norm.  This Wednesday is a musical theatre student who couldn’t decide for Halloween between Wednesday Addams and Katniss Everdene.

Conversely, Grant McIntyre’s Puggsley, the creepy little brother with a penchant for explosives, actually sounds weird when he’s singing his solo.

Valda Aviks is good fun as the vulgar Grandma, while TV’s Les Dennis is in excellent form as Uncle Fester.  Dickon Gough’s cadaverous butler Lurch almost steals the show with his comic timing.

The ‘normals’ who come to dinner are Dale Rapley as boorish father Mal, Oliver Ormson as Wednesday’s main squeeze, Lucas, and Charlotte Page as mum Alice – the most developed of the three – in a belter of a performance.

Diego Pitarch’s set is beautifully derelict and gothic, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting paints the set in spots and shadows, maintaining an overall darkness with characters in pools of light, just like Addams’s original cartoons.  A baroque chorus of Addams ancestors haunts the stage for added spookiness.

Director Matthew White keeps the thin plot moving along; there is an emphasis on snappy one-liners rather than character development, but everything about this production is exquisite.  We enjoy the time we spend with these people in a show that amuses and delights at every turn.

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Creepy and kooky, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack (Photo: Matt Martin)

 

 

 


Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

Anna

Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)

 


Party Piece

GREASE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 29th May, 2017

 

When it was first staged in the 1970s, the show was a nostalgic look-back at supposedly simpler times.  The film version, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as positively geriatric teenagers, became a phenomenal global hit, still highly popular, and giving the stage show a new lease of life that shows no signs of failing.  Inevitably, with the film so fixed in the popular consciousness, there are audience expectations that director David Gilmore must meet.  We know how Grease should be done.  Or we think we do.  Some of the songs don’t appear at the same points in the story as they do in the screenplay.  Other numbers, only background music in the film, are given centre stage here.  Conversely, what appears in the film but not in the show, has been interpolated here: chiefly, the opening number by songwriter supremo, Barry Gibb.

Plotwise, it couldn’t be simpler.  Boy meets girl but they’re in different groups at high school, where peer pressure is irresistible… Who will change to overcome the cultural divide?

Frankly, the T-Birds, all leather jackets and DA haircuts, come across as a bunch of twats.  Danny (Tom Parker) feels obliged to deny his feelings for Sandy (Danielle Hope) in order to keep in with his laddish mates.  For her part, Sandy is too straitlaced to be fully integrated into the girls’ gang, the Pink Ladies.  Parker, former member of boyband The Wanted, sings competently; his real strength is in the physical comedy of his portrayal.  Hope is suitably prim as Sandy, her singing voice rich and with a more mature sound than her girlfriends.

Louisa Lytton is a brassy Rizzo.  She gets the ‘dramatic’ moments when a pregnancy scare allows her to belt out There Are Worse Things I Could Do.  Like Danny, she is hampered by her public image.  Revealing her true self would be a sign of weakness.  And so, the show is about the pressures on teens to conform – with whatever group they wish to be part of.   Also, Frenchy (a vivacious Rhiannon Chesterman) feels she can’t tell her friends she has flunked out of beauty school, while her would-be suitor Doody (Ryan Heenan) is physically incapable of stringing the words together to ask her to the dance.

Heenan stands out among the T-Birds as the likeable, little one.  He gets a couple of solo moments, showcasing his talents.

Greased Lightning is a big production number with Tom Senior’s Kenickie cranked up to 11.  It’s loud and brash, laddism writ large.  It’s like being beaten up by a song.

Treat of the night comes from a cameo appearance by ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond himself as a somewhat superannuated Teen Angel.  Pure showbiz royalty, Osmond knows when to milk it, knows when to be cheesy – how dairy!  His song brings the house down and such is his charisma and the fact that IT’S JIMMY OSMOND, we hardly notice the showgirls swanning around in true Las Vegas style.

The energetic ensemble generates a lot of heat.  Arlene Phillips’s choreography is flashy and fun, adding to the infectious quality of the show.  People are here to have a good time.  This audience doesn’t need warming up.  It’s a party of a show, a guaranteed good time and a chance to escape from whatever it is you might want to escape from.  Cosy and safe, Grease is a reliable crowd-pleaser – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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You’re the one from The Wanted, oo-oo ooh. Tom Parker and Danielle Hope

 


Let’s Twist Again

OLIVER!

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017

 

There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.

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Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Voices and Choices

MY COUNTRY

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 25th May, 2017

 

This touring show from the National Theatre is described as a work in progress – largely because, I suspect, Brexit has yet to happen and the debate still rages on – this absorbing piece of verbatim theatre, using the words of ordinary people from across the nation (as well as the drivel of politicians) to chart the country’s mood, before, during and after the referendum that split the UK in two.

In a clever framing device,  writer Carol Ann Duffy has Britannia herself (Penny Layden) welcome representative from the regions to a meeting, a chance to listen.  The regional reps are clearly distinguishable by their accents and attitudes. For example, Cymru (the marvellous Christian Patterson) enters voice first, as befits a Welshman; Laura Elphinstone’s North East rep is a hoot, deadpan and down-to-earth, plain-speaking and unpretentious.  Cavan Clarke’s Northern Ireland breaks out into a spot of Riverdance in one of the show’s livelier moments, while Stuart McQuarrie’s Caledonia proudly recites Robert Burns, supplying the whisky and the pragmatism.

Britannia oversees as, in the voices of their ‘constituents’, the reps air the views of the people, complete with hesitations, repetitions and deviations, for spot-on authenticity.  The opinions are often humorous, telling, and eye-opening.  It’s like an extended episode of Creature Comforts with flesh-and-blood actors standing in for the plasticene animals.

For what is essentially a piece in which seven actors sit behind desks, it comes across as anything but static.  Director Rufus Norris breaks up the recitations with action and humour – although most of the best lines come from the vox pops.  The reps may be stereotypes but the many and varied statements we hear mark us as a nation of individuals, albeit with some shared characteristics.  It’s almost as if the UK is a microcosm of the EU.  Fancy that!

Britannia chips in statements from MPs.  Her Boris Johnson is almost as vile as the real thing, as he tries to make bizarre and ludicrous analogies instead of facing issues head on.  Layden positively drips evil as Nigel Farage, spewing his ‘voice of reason’ bile.  Yuck.  Although it’s not quite a year since the vote, the show brings it all flooding back, including the frustration and disbelief I felt at the mismanagement of the entire campaign by both sides.

More than that, the show is a celebration of British identity in all its manifestations, reminding us we have always been a diverse agglomeration of regional differences.

The show ends with Britannia saying she still loves us all and what we need more than ever is leadership.

Let’s hope we get it, eh, Brit?

My Country

Making a song and dance about Brexit, the cast of My Country.


Camp in the Woods

INTO THE WOODS

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May, 2017

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company presents an ambitious production of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated and bitter fairy tale drama – a challenge for performers, whatever their provenance – and here their valiant efforts result in success.

The mash-up of elements familiar from fairy tales is a difficult sing; Sondheim doesn’t make it easy on his singers, but the cast for the most part handle the dissonance and unusual phrasings very well.  Rebecca Walton’s Cinderella is a prime example of the quality of this ensemble, mastering the music as well as delivering a neat characterisation.  Similarly, Pollyanna Noonan’s Little Red Riding Hood is an assured and feisty performance.  She sports a red (what else!) hoody – the whole piece has a charity-shop aesthetic: the setting is contemporary, a refugee camp and the residents are sharing stories, the same stories familiar to us.  A gentle reminder from director Richard Sandle-Keynes that refugees are people just like us.  The action is brought right up to us – it’s like we’re all huddled around a camp fire.  When, in the second act, the characters are cast adrift from their happy-ever-afters and wander in the forest, facing devastation and loss at the hands (well, the feet) of a vengeful giant at large, they are refugees too.  It’s an interesting approach and works well, offering moments of cleverness, for example the climbing of Rapunzel’s hair and the shadows playing on polythene fences amusingly depict dancers at the Prince’s ball and the violent fate of the Big Bad Wolf.

Speaking of whom, Bardia Ghezelbash makes a sinister Wolf, but he needs to take care that his volume doesn’t drop so much it detracts from his characterisation.  Indeed, there are moments throughout the show, where mic cues are not picked up and lines of dialogue and lyric are lost.  David Bolter’s Prince Charming comes alive when he’s singing, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Daniel Denton-Harris in a fun and detailed performance) is a definite highlight.   Karen Welsh’s Witch is suitably eccentric and twisted in one of the show’s camper characterisations, and Christopher Dobson’s Baker comes into his own when singing the more mournful moments in the score.

Under the baton of Sam Young, a tight orchestra plays almost throughout the piece, delivering Sondheim’s jaunty, romantic and idiosyncratic music with verve and atmosphere.  If only those damned mics were cued properly!

Patchy bits aside, this is an impressive production: the ensemble singing together sounds especially great.  The star turn comes from Jessica Friend as the Baker’s Wife, an assured, captivating presence with many colours – Friend delights whenever she’s on.

The piece has a timely pertinence: the vengeful giant represents evil in the land, and the play questions our responses to terror.  Do we kill the giant or show forgiveness?

It also points out that happy-ever-afters don’t exist and getting what you want isn’t the end of your problems.  You’re not out of the woods and perhaps you never will be.  We may be grown-ups but that doesn’t stop us from wishing that things were other than they are.

An engaging and entertaining evening, slickly presented and courageous enough to go beyond a cosy and conventional setting.   And I can’t stop thinking of the old joke: Did you find the refugees’ camp?  Some of them, yes.

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The Baker’s Wife (Jessica Friend) discovering it’s not all bad in the woods…