Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard.  When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different.  “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed.  The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty.  Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.

Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show.  Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power.  In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs.  Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.

It’s a small but hard-working cast.  Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck.  A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield).  Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role.  He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.

It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices.  The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs.  The Cat has ears poking through his hat.  But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies.  It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else.  Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way.  I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style.  I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet.  Or I would have done the puppets differently.  But that’s me.

There is much to admire and enjoy here.  Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.

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James Dangerfield as the Cat (in the hat) and Gregor Duncan as Ugly (Photo: Scott Rylander)

 

 

 

 

 

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Grail Trail

SPAMALOT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd June, 2019

 

Eric Idle’s musical parody of Arthurian legend speaks of a leader who will rise from chaos to unite a divided country… We couldn’t half do with King Arthur today!  I doubt such a leader will spring from the current Tory leadership contest.

This lavish production at the Crescent is directed by Keith Harris, bringing together all the technical elements of the production and marrying them to an outstanding cast, with the result being a hugely impressive, massively enjoyable visit to the theatre.  They really have pulled out all the stops with this one.  Colin Judges’s splendid set of castle walls, towers and trees has just the right amount of storybook illustration to it, while Stewart Snape’s costume designs remain true to the period (when they need to) and introduce glamorously anachronistic specimens (when they don’t): the Camelot presented here has more in common with Las Vegas than Medieval England!  There is also an appearance by a magnificent wooden rabbit.  Of course there is.

Joe Harper heads the cast as King Arthur, imperious, regal and daft in equal measures.  He has a fine singing voice too – in fact, when the knights all sing together, the quality enriches the material.  Idle’s songs are pastiches, sometimes simplistic in structure, but the chorus at the Crescent still delivers the goods.  The musicians, under the baton of Gary Spruce add pizzazz and texture to the score.   Beautiful.

The female lead is Tiffany Cawthorne’s Lady of the Lake, with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks that doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the over-singers and belters of musical theatre and elsewhere.  Cawthorne is also a delightful comic player and doesn’t miss a trick.

Among the knights there is plenty to relish: Mark Horne’s camp Sir Robin, Paul Forrest’s heroic Lancelot (who has a surprise for us later on that is deliciously realised), and Nick Owenford’s Marxist-peasant-turned-loyal-knight Dennis Galahad.  I always have a soft spot for the faithful manservant Patsy, and here Brendan Stanley does not disappoint in a masterclass of a portrayal that demonstrates how supporting roles can make a mark.  Brilliant.

There are so many highlights, so many hilarious throwaway moments, I can’t mention them all, but I have to bring attention to Katie Goldhawk’s defiant posturing as the stubborn Black Knight, Jack Kirby’s Hibernian enchanter, Tim, Luke Plimmer’s Not Dead Fred, and Dave Rodgers as a taunting French soldier.

For me, the funniest scene is between Herbert (Nick Doran) and his father (Toby Davis), with a couple of dim-witted guards and a daring rescue by Lancelot.  Doran plays the gayness of the role without mockery or stereotype and his Herbert is all the more endearing because of it.

You don’t have to be a Monty Python aficionado to be royally entertained.  For those of us that are, it’s fun to identify where Eric Idle nicked the ideas from.  Only the other day I was bemoaning the fad for adapting every bloody film into stage musicals – this is one of the best ones, not least because it makes fun of the theatrical form as much as sending up the content.

Director Keith Harris gets the tone spot on and for almost all of it, the required energy levels are there to carry it off.  This is a real tonic of a production, joyous, silly and glorious – now, if only I could stop whistling THAT SONG from The Life Of Brian…

spamalot

Brendan Stanley and Joe Harper (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Child’s Play

TORCH TOWN

A secret location, Selly Oak, Birmingham, Friday 31st May, 2019

 

As a reviewer I get invited to all kinds of shows but this was my first in someone’s living room.  Tiny Change Theatre Company is currently previewing a new play prior to a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Written by Mark Fenton, who co-directs with Megan Farquhar, Torch Town is the story of two runaway children, holed up in a house, each of them escaping problems at home.  They build a city out of cardboard boxes, and festoon it with fairy lights, a place where they can make the rules as they see fit.

Alice (Lara Sprosen) is bossy, almost a proto-feminist in her assertions that girls are better (they write more neatly), brimming with the earnest absolutes of a childish worldview that sees things as black or white.  Beneath the bossiness lies fear and vulnerability and creativity infused with innocence.  With her is Peter (Tom Garrett), a troubled young lad who can match Alice in terms of imagination and innocence.  Both actors give captivating portrayals in highly detailed performances: Alice daring to say ‘fuck’ for the first time, Peter’s look of surprise when he manages to whistle – we see beyond the grown-up bodies of the actors to the children they are playing, bringing to my mind Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.  And there’s plenty of playing; the only time I feel this intimate space may be too small is when the kids are galumphing around, battling dragons in space or flying to the moon.

The innocence of the characters gives rise to much of the humour of the piece as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of their friendship.  There is pathos and poignancy, and some powerful moments – Alice’s fears when she’s left alone, and Peter’s startling monologue when memories swamp him and he has a breakdown.  Tom Garrett is superb.  Heart-breaking, in fact.  The pacing of these scenes is handled perfectly, contrasting with the interludes when the children play.

The directors turn the constraints of the production to their advantage, using handheld torches, table lamps and a projector to transform the stripped-bare domestic setting into a performance space that serves the story.

The writing is rich, allowing for intensity and levity from the players – and there’s a coda, set years later, that packs a punch.  An engaging hour of vibrant and refreshing drama, Torch Town shows that Tiny Change Theatre is an excellent young company with great potential.

I loved it.

torch


Plucking at Heartstrings

CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 29th May, 2019

 

Rona Munro’s masterly adaptation of the Louis de Bernieres bestseller reimagines the novel as an exuberantly theatrical piece.  Directed by Melly Still, this production uses a child-like approach: the weapons are all mimed, exploded soldiers perform pratfalls onto their backpacks – but this war game is deadly.  There are consequences beyond the bang-bang-you’re-dead action.  Still uses heavily stylised, emblematic elements to create some striking imagery: the dead caught in a web of death is particularly horrific.  Augmented by Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Nicholls’s sound, the storytelling is impeccable.  This is grown-up theatre at its finest and the scenes of violence are all the more powerful rendered in this way.

Alex Mugnaioni is the titular officer, a remote figure at first before he comes to occupy a room in the house of Dr Iannis (an avuncular joseph Long) and insinuate himself into the affections of the doctor’s resourceful daughter Pelagia (Madison Clare).   The couple’s relationship is tainted by the encroaching events of the war in Greece; their love story is searing and romantic, and we see the life-changing disruption caused not only by conflict but also by the passage of time.  Mugnaioni and Clare are sweet and touching in their portrayal of these star-cross’d lovers.  Corelli’s mandolin playing is a reminder of the beauty humans can create, a counterpoint to the man-made horrors of war.  He plays wonderfully but will Corelli be able to pluck up the courage to do what is necessary?

The presentation may be stylised but human nature is revealed through raw emotion and truthful playing.  Eve Polycarpou performs some heart-rending vocalisations as the grief-stricken Drosoula; Ryan Donaldson’s imposing presence is offset by his character’s tender nature – we feel it when Carlos falls for Francesco (Fred Fergus) and are heartbroken by Carlos’s noble act of sacrifice.  Ashley Gayle is a passionate Mandras, while Stewart Scudamore brings a touch of humour as Velisaros, the local strongman.

Truly fascinating are the performances of Luisa Guerreiro as a goat and Elizabeth Mary Williams as Psipsina, a pine marten.  In fact, I often found myself focussing on their behaviours while the human characters were speaking!

Mayou Trikerioti’s set, almost spartan you might say, with a stepladder used as a door and two huge copper squares suspended at the back, somehow evokes Cephalonia.  There is something about the metal that suggests the history of the island – the squares serve as screens for video effects too.  There is original music by Harry Blake that enhances the local colour and stirs the emotions.

Rona Munro selects from de Berniere’s rich writing so that snippets and descriptive phrases work on our imaginations – adaptation is more than just retelling the plot.  While I wasn’t reduced to floods of tears as I was when I read the novel, this is a superbly effective production, both shocking and moving, and above all thoroughly absorbing.

marc brenner

Fret not, Captain Corelli’s here! Alex Mugnaioni (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 


Naked Ambition

CALENDAR GIRLS – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 28th May, 2019

 

First came the calendar, then the film, then the play, and now this musical version.  Original writer Tim Firth has teamed up with Gary ‘Take That’ Barlow to rehash the true story of a group of women whose charity calendar turned heads and raked in the dosh thirty years ago.

If this piece is anything to go by, the Yorkshire village of Knapley is inhabited by a homogenous bunch of deadpan Northern charmers, the women are almost uniformly blonde and the cuddly men are interchangeable.  It’s a bit Stepford Wives, but funny.  There are so many characters it takes a while to get a handle on who they all are.

When Annie’s husband’s cancer treatment fails to save him from the disease, her mates at the local Women’s Institute rally in support.  Best mate Chris (Rebecca Storm) comes up with the idea of a nude calendar – in the best possible taste, of course – and some of the women require more persuasion than others.  It’s a long time coming but the best scene of the night is the taking of the photographs, posed with some carefully placed props: plates of cakes, balls of knitting, all the accoutrements of the WI.  While other scenes are mildly amusing, the photo-shoot is the highlight and brings the house down.  It’s a moment of rejoicing, as the women celebrate body positivity and have a reet good laugh while they do it.  It’s like The Full Monty without the social commentary or the economic imperative.

Sarah Jane Buckley heads the ensemble as the eventually-widowed Annie, a more staid counterpart to her best mate Ruth.  Single parent Sue Devaney has the best singing voice but the Christmas Carol medley she has to belt out is a let-down: it’s just unfunny.  Lesley Joseph is in her element as retired schoolteacher Jessie, supposedly respectable but game for a laugh when the crunch comes.  Lisa Maxwell is suitably cocksure as the surgically enhanced Celia, and Danny Howker has some very funny moments as inexperienced teenager Danny – it’s a strong cast without exception but all the while I’m thinking they would be better served in the straight play version.

Barlow’s songs are serviceable but hardly memorable.  Rather than adding depth to the piece, what they bring is length.  Firth’s script aspires to but doesn’t quite reach the genius of the late, lamented Victoria Wood, using the bathos of domestic details to bring out the emotions of particular moments.  Contemplating her husband’s death, Annie wonders who’ll take her to Tesco and argue about margarines with her.

The heart-warming story survives this treatment, and is still a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but (producers, take note) not every bloody film needs to be turned into a musical.

Calender Girls Tour

The Cast

 


Two Piece

DUET FOR ONE

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 17th May, 2019

 

Brand-new company, Aspect Theatre is doing the rounds with their production of Tom Kempinski’s acclaimed piece about a concert violinist who consults a psychiatrist when she is stricken with multiple sclerosis and is forced to change her life in all manner of ways.  What could be timelier in Mental Health Awareness Week?  The play consists of six scenes, each a different session.  He, Dr Feldmann, is constant and unchanging; she, Stephanie Abrahams, runs the gamut from bitterness, anger, sarcasm, resentment…

It’s a showcase for both actors.  As Stephanie, Katherine Parker-Jones gives us the arrogance and the sneering sarcasm, and yet somehow manages to evince our sympathies for this rarefied creature, when the defensive facades fall away, and we are allowed to see the human being brought low by this debilitating disease.  Parker-Jones delivers lengthy monologues with truth and conviction, and while we laugh at her barbed remarks, we are ultimately moved by her predicament.  Martin Bourne gives his Feldmann a gentle cadence rather than a strong Cherman accent, and the portrayal is all the better for it.  He has to do a lot of listening-acting, maintaining professional detachment – when he finally flips his lid and puts Stephanie in her place, it may be a shock tactic on the psychiatrist’s behalf, but it’s an electrifying moment, to be sure.

The peril of this piece is that with one character confined to a wheelchair and the other taking notes behind his clipboard, proceedings can become too static.  Director Marc W Dugmore avoids this problem in the close confines of the Attic Theatre, where it feels like we are in the consulting room alongside the characters.  The intimacy means Dugmore can bring out the contrasts between the characters and between the sessions with subtlety and with broader moves, as the piece’s mood swings between comedy and tragedy.  I’m not a fan, though, of the slow fade to spotlight whenever Stephanie launches into her longer speeches; I want to see Feldmann’s impassive expression and perhaps some betrayal of a reaction.

A straightforward, high quality production of a powerful piece.  I’m looking forward to Aspect Theatre’s next show already.

Duet For One-056

Martin Bourne and Katherine Parker-Jones (Photo: David Jones)


Picture Imperfect

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 11th May, 2019

 

Tilted Wig Productions bring this new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel to the stage, courtesy of Sean Aydon, who also directs.  It’s a stylish affair, with a set by Sarah Beaton that suggests Victorian grandeur left to rot.  Beauty in decay is an emblem throughout this tale of handsome young Dorian who, wishing to retain the beauty captured in his portrait, makes a wish… As time goes by, it is the painting that shows signs of age, cruelty and dissipation, while the subject himself is unchanged.  Dorian takes to covering his painting, only to display ‘poor traits’ in his conduct.

Gavin Fowler begins as a sweet, appealing Dorian, subtly hardening his characterisation as his hedonistic pursuits increase his sociopathy. Dorian models himself on his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, played by Jonathan Wrather (evil Pierce off of Emmerdale).  Wrather is marvellous in the role, lazily debonair and louche, the aphorisms dripping from his lips.  Aydon’s script fizzes with Wildean wit, and Wrather has the perfect delivery.  In contrast is Daniel Goode as Basil the artist.  Here Aydon brings Wilde’s homoerotic undertones closer to the surface, although nothing is explicit.

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Rather good! Jonathan Wrather as Lord Henry

Kate Dobson is a lively Sybil Vane, the actress who captures Dorian’s fancy, and she shares a funny scene with Samuel Townsend’s Romeo, where Sybil misses her cues.  I adored Phoebe Pryce’s pragmatic Lady Victoria Wotton, inured to her wayward husband’s shenanigans.  Adele James makes a strong impression as Ellen Campbell, ensnared in Dorian’s web.

Beneath the humour and the urbane epigrams, there is an undercurrent of dread and foreboding, accentuated by Jon McLeod’s music and sound design.  The peeling walls and general dinginess aid the idea that beauty is transient and decay is inevitable.  As they seek pleasure in whatever form, the characters are overshadowed by impending mortality.  For a story that concerns the passage of time, this production is curiously timeless in his setting: there are nods to the story’s Victorian origins, in the costumes, but then there are also dresses and slacks that are out of period, and Basil’s plastic bottles of white spirit, let alone the polythene sheet Dorian makes use of, American Psycho style.  Some of these anachronisms jar, others seem to fit, but nothing dilutes the overall tone of the production.

Dorian’s decadence is stylised, with choreography by Jo Meredith and a few masks and electropop beats.  It’s all rather classy so when a murder happens, it’s all the more visceral.

All in all, it’s a gripping version, although I did find it slows a little as it heads towards the climax.  A little more intensity in those final encounters would not go amiss.  I love the way the dreaded painting was handled.  Like Wilde, Aydon leaves it to our imaginations, and imagined horrors and imagined depravities are invariably more effective than depicted ones.

Dorian

Look at his face; it’s a picture! Gavin Fowler as Dorian Gray