Going off the Rails

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 29th January, 2018

 

Based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this adaptation by Craig Warner plunges us into an amoral world, where man’s actions are not punished by the rule of law – the judicial and law enforcement systems exist but only to the extent that they are bogeymen, incited to shape the course of the action.  One man introduces himself to another as they travel on the same train across 1950s Texas.  A few drinks and a bit of chit-chat give rise to a deadly pact between them.  The extrovert Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) proposes to murder the troublesome wife of Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) in exchange for Ashton’s murder of Bruno’s stingy father… It seems like a joke, a bit of drink-induced fun.  Except Bruno goes through with his part of the bargain and soon expects Haines to do his…

As the loudmouth Bruno, Harper dominates the action, coldly amusing – the life and soul of any party, were he not such a chilling killer.  Harper recites Bruno’s account of the first murder with icy relish.  On the other hand, Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines is a complete contrast.  Initially more reserved than Bruno, we see him shut further in on himself as the consequences of the pact begin to pinch.  Both of these central roles are compellingly portrayed.  Haines struggles to keep his life on the rails while Bruno keeps crashing into it like a runaway train.

There is excellent support from Hannah Tointon as Anne, Guy’s second wife, showing more backbone than we might expect by the play’s denouement.  Also impressive are Helen Anderson as Bruno’s doting mother and brief appearances from Sandy Batchelor as Frank and Owen Findlay as Robert.

The star name for this tour must be John Middleton.  Formerly the mild-mannered vicar Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, Middleton gives a more assertive performance as Arthur Gerrard, the trusty retainer of Bruno’s late father, who smells a rat and winkles out the truth.  Just as the murders occur off-stage, so does the bulk of Gerrard’s investigation, and so it does seem as if he stumbles across the facts with ease – but this is not a whodunit, rather a will-they-get-away-with-it, and the focus is on the aftermath’s effects on the protagonists.

David Woodhead’s set places the scenes in compartments with sliding panels that reveal and conceal parts of the stage accordingly.  This means the actors don’t have much room to manoeuvre, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense that events are closing in on the killers.  Woodhead dresses the cast in sharp suits of the period, complementing the strains of cool jazz that serve as incidental music for scenic transitions.  The production is suffused with an Edward Hopper feel: murky yet dispassionate.  In the confined settings, director Anthony Banks keeps things from becoming too static (although the lengthy opening scene on the train is in peril of becoming just that) by drawing out the intensity of the performances.  Each character is heightened in some way.

Consistently intriguing rather than gripping, the production offers, via Highsmith, a different take on morality.  Whether we want either Bruno or Haines or both of them to get off scot-free is a reflection on us.

4120_94_SOAT_Photos_285x161_01

Chris Harper and Jack Ashton getting acquainted on the train

Advertisements

Love Bites

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th January, 2018

 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King.  The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further.  Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.

Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence.  In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production.  A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.

There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.

Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him.  The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’.  Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow.  Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan.  Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.

But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body.  Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun.  Her violence is as credible as it is merciless.  Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence.  It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience.  It’s also the sweetest horror story going.

A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.

right one

Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Taking a Hedda

HEDDA GABLER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

 

The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep.  It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…

Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans.  Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window.  It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding.  Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations.  We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn.  By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal.  Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light.  Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.

Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role.  Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative.  Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else.  We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is.  What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case.  If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd.  Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning.   Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web.  Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece.  Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope.  Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all…  Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.

It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original.  For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end.  Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.

A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver!  Definitely worth it.  All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.

HEDDA GABLERUK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Keeping a cool Hedda: Lizzy Watts (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)


Looking Back in Anger

BONES

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th January, 2018

 

Mark is a 19-year-old with a temper – to put it mildly – in this production by Gritty Theatre of Jane Upton’s one-hander.  As the story unfolds, we learn of his situation and his past.  He’s unemployed, blowing his money on blow-outs from McDonalds and blow jobs from spotty prostitutes, his only respite from a living hell with his drug-abusing mother and the unfortunate baby sister at whom he directs his anger and frustration.  He plans to kill the child, just to get some peace but, the more we learn about him, the more we realise he won’t go through with it.  Will he?

He relives memories of happier times: a seaside holiday with Mum and Grandad – until the spectre of drug abuse ruins everything.

All in all, it’s a grim tale, ameliorated only by glimpses of humour, but a raw, fearless and intense performance by Dominic Thompson, who not only narrates the story but inhabits it, keeps us entranced.  Director Ian Robert Moule has Thompson utilise pub props and pub furniture to represent what’s going on in the account: and so, a spillage of lager becomes the young Mark’s pissed trousers; his hoodie becomes the prostitute; a toppled stool becomes the incapacitated mother the little boy desperately tries to dress… It’s inventive stuff and highly evocative but, of course, the power of the production comes through Thompson’s volatile presence.  Mark is quick to boil over into fury.  It’s not so much a short fuse as no fuse at all, and while there are quieter moments and even calmer moments, perhaps Mark could do with more time to simmer.  He seems to go instantly to 11, as though a switch is being flicked.  Thompson maintains the energy and intensity of his portrayal and is never short of compelling and credible in what is a bravura performance.

The material is gritty – as we might expect! – and we do feel for Mark, who has had to deal with matters no child should ever encounter.  The play finishes on a life-changing shock, a culmination of horribleness, that leaves us with a nasty aftertaste.  Upton shows us a dark side of society without offering a way-out, or a suggestion of how things could improve, and so Bones is ultimately bleak.  But the powerful presentation gives us something to admire in this gruelling, gruesome tale.

Bones


The Wizard of Oddsocks

THE WIZARD OF OZ

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 14th January, 2018

 

In the summer, they do Shakespeare; in the winter, the funniest theatre company in the land turn their attention to classic stories.  This year, the inimitable Oddsocks Productions take us to the land of Oz in this new adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel by writer/director/genius Andy Barrow.  His cast of five actors, supplemented by puppets, do the lot.  An original twist has Dorothy’s Toto narrating the action but on the whole, the show sticks to the familiar plot, albeit streamlined and seen through the prism of Oddsocks’s trademark style.  It is not a spoof – the source material is never mocked but the pantomime styling of the presentation makes for a fresh interpretation of the time-honoured tale.

Making her Oddsocks debut as our heroine is Freya Sharp; her Dorothy is perky and fun without being saccharine or overly earnest (looking at you, Judy G!).  The rest of the cast are familiar faces:  Andrew McGillan, among other roles, appears as the tallest munchkin and an impressively physical scarecrow, for which he must have had several major bones removed.  If not, I want the number of his chiropractor.  Joseph Maudsley returns, mainly as the Tin Woodman – he gets to utter the most blatant innuendos with a look of utter innocence (The show has plenty of laughs for the grown-ups but is never smutty).  Also back is the hilarious Gavin Harrison, with ten roles to play, including a pantomime villain of a Wicked Witch of the West and the Great and Terrible Wizard himself.  Finally, the funniest woman in Britain (and probably Europe) Elli Mackenzie excels as a ‘gender fluid’ Cowardly Lion.

The cast perform with seemingly indefatigable gusto and charm, while Andy Barrow’s script keeps them busy and keeps us laughing.  Practical effects are brought into play to depict such moments as things blown away by the cyclone, the Lion swimming, the Scarecrow dropped from the sky… These throwaway moments are delightful in their invention and execution, while big moments: the melting of the Wicked Witch (spoiler, sorry) and the big reveal of the Wizard (a magnificent giant puppet head) to be none other than the great and terrible humbug currently in residence in the White House, reveal the genius of Andy Barrow, the Wizard of Oddsocks.  Yes, we’ve had a lot of laughs; yes, the story and meaning of Baum’s original remain intact, but also we get topical references and political satire added into the mix.

Along with some familiar numbers, there are original songs by Felix M-B, all of them pretty good.  The closing number in particular has me humming all the way home.

Above all, the show is fun, fun, fun.  Silly, irreverent and clever, Oddsocks are in magnificent form and this is a wonderful Wizard of Oz.

off-to-the-emerald-city-lo

Friends of Dorothy: Freya Sharp, Joseph Maudsley, Elli Mackenzie and Andrew McGillan


Sold!

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Playhouse Theatre, London, Saturday 13th January, 2018

 

David Mamet’s classic play gets an invigorating new lease of life in this snappy revival at the Playhouse.  It’s a top-drawer production that allows the quality of the writing to shine.  Mamet’s naturalistic dialogue, with its interruptions and stichomythia, is peppered with the argot of the characters’ occupation: they are real-estate salesmen, and the script relies on our intelligence and ability to put two and two together to garner what the terms mean.

Stanley Townsend almost steals the show as down-on-his-luck Shelly Levine, getting a new injection of enthusiasm when he makes a big sale.  Townsend’s reliving of the scene in which his clients sign the contract is a scream.  Townsend is a superlative performer and utterly, utterly credible.  In fact, credibility is the watchword of Sam Yates’s production; his direction paces the scenes perfectly, with outbursts, crescendos and moments of stillness.

Kris Marshall is suitably wound-up as office manager John Williamson and there are big laughs from Robert Glenister’s outbursts of profanity as the volatile Dave Moss.  Don Warrington is superb as the inarticulate, unassertive George, while Daniel Ryan elicits our sympathy as a customer trying to revoke a deal.

But the show belongs to Hollywood star Christian Slater in the powerhouse role of hard-selling Ricky Roma.  Slater’s fast-talking but at ease, inhabiting the role exquisitely; Roma is the big fish in this particular pond.  Both the humour and intensity of his performance are accentuated by his trademark circumflex eyebrows and smart-alec smirk.  Expertly supported by a flawless ensemble, Slater’s charismatic presence is magnetic.  Mamet allows us to see the character for what he is, exposing the tricks of the trade, or else Slater would have signing our lives away to all sorts of things.

Chiara Stephenson’s detailed set (a Chinese restaurant, then the guys’ office) grounds the action in its reality.  The play gives us a window into a high-pressure world and, by extension, shows us the dark underbelly of capitalistic pursuits, which tend to lead to corruption and crime.  Also, the play reveals how men are, what they talk about, how they express themselves.  Yes, the play is dated, a period piece, with its references to typewriters and so on, but the racism, the sexism and the way men feel they have to lock horns with each other and compete, are still very much with us.

The brief running time keeps things punchy, condensing the brilliance of the script and the brilliance of the performances into a perfect, highly entertaining piece that still has a lot to say and that remains very funny indeed.  Definitely not past its sell-by.

Glengarry-Glen-Ross-Playhouse-298-700x455

Top dog: Christian Slater as Ricky Ross (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Hair Bare Bunch

HAIR

The Vaults, London, Thursday 11th January, 2018

 

I am lucky to catch this 50th anniversary production just before it reaches the end of its run and I can only kick myself for not going sooner and allowing time for return visits.  Ground-breaking back in 1967, in terms of sound and format, the show comes across as fresh as a daisy you might wear in your hair.  Members of the ‘Tribe’ make observations of society: civil rights, pollution, war, while the ongoing plot involves handsome Mancunian-wannabe Claude (Robert Metson in fine voice) wondering whether to burn his call-up papers and stay with his hippy friends, chiefly Berger – the excellent, nay perfect, Andy Coxon.  Berger, king of the tribe, is a charismatic figure, sexy, funny – Every time I see Coxon perform I fall in love with him all over again, and that’s before he gets his bum out.

Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne gets things off to a searing start with her powerful vocals in ‘The Age of Aquarius’; she also plays a mean saxophone later on.  Liam Ross-Mills’s Woof gets carried away with a Mick Jagger poster; Patrick George’s Margaret Mead has fun recruiting an audience member to be her ‘Hubert’ – in fact, everyone gets their moment to stand out: Laura Johnson’s Sheila, Jammy Kasongo’s Hud, Jessie May as barefoot and pregnant Jeanie… The strength of the solo singing is matched by the beauty of the ensemble’s harmonies.  Galt McDermot’s rock-informed score is rich with variety and contrast, while the lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (and William Shakespeare) range from witty to hard-hitting.  The show is one big highlight.

The cast is not the only thing stripped bare.  The staging is kept minimal, keeping the performers to the fore.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle makes simple but sophisticated use of parachute silk and the occasional prop, keeping us in the Tribe’s trippy world.  An extended tripping sequence is chock-full of striking imagery.  Obviously, the lighting (by Ben M Rogers) helps tremendously with creating atmosphere and a sense of place, but I want to make special mention of the sound design by Calum Robinson and Max Perryment:  aurally, the show is magnificent. Solo voices, ensemble singing, the band and sound effects are all blended to the utmost clarity.  It is a real feast for the ears.

The band, under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton, is kept behind a fence in an upstage area, but the sound fills the Vaults.  The choreography from William Walton avoids 1960s clichés and exudes an invigorating energy.  The music, the performers, the message, are all irresistible.  The show’s social conscience has resonances with today’s messed-up world just as much as in the 60s.  But beyond all that, it’s an exuberant celebration of life.

Let the sunshine in!  Peace, love and understanding, man.  Etc.

HAir

What a whopper: Andy Coxon’s Berger leads a love-in