Man-Made Monsters – a double bill

FRANKENSTEIN: MAN OR MONSTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

This new piece from Mad Tom Theatre is written and performed by Augustus Stephens.  Using familiar characters from Frankenstein – the book and the old films – Stephens gives us a kind of tour of mental illnesses as he brings to life a range of personalitie:   Victor is a paranoid schizophrenic; Igor has OCD to the point that it makes him dangerous to himself and others; abandonment exacerbates Elizabeth’s eating disorder; the so-called Monster hears voices, hallucinates and is confused why everyone rejects him…

Stephens is an affable stage presence, swiftly swapping characters so they can exchange snappy dialogue.  There’s a laidback, casual feel to the show even though Stephens is working hard to appear effortless.  He invites us to participate in a song about a yodeller and a cuckoo clock and we do, because we will him to succeed.  Yes, there are songs: witty ditties that shed light on a character’s mindset.  Typically, the Monster is the most sympathetic, childlike and confused, wondering what he has done wrong.  “You see a monster where I see me,” he sings plaintively.  Igor, in a solo scene, reveals his inner struggle, his fears of harming someone, and it is heart-rending and a little frightening.

As a whole, the piece highlights how the mentally ill are treated, by the public, by the authorities, as monsters because of a lack of understanding.  Lucy Poulson directs, keeping Stephens on the move and the action clear.  A tilt of the head and a change in vocal register and he is a different character – it’s effective and impressive and a lot of fun.  The writing is delightful with sparks of wit that surprise as much as the poignant moments.

Entertaining and enlightening, this neat little show deserves a longer life and a wider audience.

frankenstein

Augustus Stephens and Teddy

THE MARRIAGE OF KIM K

Blue Orange Theatre, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro collides with ‘reality’ TV star Kim Kardashian in this vibrant new musical theatre experience by Leo Mercer (lyrics) and Stephen Hyde (music).   Hyde also directs and appears as Stephen.  Three couples: the Count and Rosina from the opera, Kim K and her short-term husband Kris, and TV viewers Stephen and Amelia, share the stage and our attention as their marriages come under strain.

Amelia is a lawyer but loves nothing more than watching trash TV.  Her composer husband Stephen seeks solace in Mozart.  Cue arguments and fights over the remote control.  And a lot of La La Land-type self-expression.  Meanwhile, Kim K is exchanging text messages with her next love interest, Kanye.  Beefcake Kris is on his way out.  Count Almaviva and his wife reflect on their courtship and wonder where the spark went and when jealousy and distrust moved in.

It’s all beautifully sung (Yasemine Mireille and James Edge both belt like troupers and add depth to Mr and Mrs K) and for the most part the three styles of music (opera, pop, electro) blend, complement and contrast with each other euphoniously, accompanied by string quartet Echo Chamber.  It makes its points in the first fifteen minutes and with a charming and fitting resolution, when roles are reversed and the couples from the television gather on the sofa to watch the ‘real-life’ Stephen and Amelia negotiate a peace.

A feast for the ears, the singers fill the Blue Orange with their voices; it’s a good listen but perhaps my unfamiliarity with the world of Kim K and her ilk (which I have up to now studiously avoided) is a bar to some of the satire.  The elevation of her glamorous, self-promoting life to high art, I suppose, mirrors the recognition of our own emotions in something as ‘lofty’ as opera.  Emily Burnett’s Countess is sublimely human, with a reworking of Cherubino’s ‘Voi Che Sapete’ that touches the heart.  Nathan Bellis is also in great and funny form as the suspicious, adulterous Count Almaviva.  In the light of the two larger-than-life couples, Stephen and Amelia (Amelia Gabriel) seem small potatoes; while we are amused by the Count and touched by his wife, and tickled by the notion of Kim Kardashian as a role model and diva (in the musical sense), the couple on the sofa seem petty and inconsequential.  It’s almost as though ‘real-life’ doesn’t matter.

Musically dazzling, often amusing, this is a clever piece that works as a showcase for the talented cast rather than a biting insight into popular culture.  But that’s postmodernism for you.

marriage_of_kim_k_gmfringe_2


Hands Off!

TITUS ANDRONICUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 20th July, 2017

 

Shakespeare’s bloodiest play (and a big box office hit during his life) is given a contemporary setting in Blanche McIntyre’s darkly enjoyable production.  Hoodie-wearing plebs pose for selfies in front of pageantry.  A Deliveroo driver turns out to be a hapless messenger, murdered for his bad luck.  It’s all recognisable if at times the relevance comes in the form of cheap laughs.

David Troughton is utterly compelling as the warlike general Titus, whatever the outlandish demands of the script.  Madness and grief are closely entwined as events unfold, with his lust for revenge tipping him over the edge.  Nia Gwynne’s formidable Tamora embodies icy determination and fiery emotion in her slight form, while Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart earn their crust (ha!) as her flaky sons Chiron and Demetrius.

Stefan Adegbola is just about perfect as the villainous Aaron, brimming with spite until the last, while Tom McCall’s Lucius is as upright and righteously vengeful as you would hope – in a play teeming with baddies, Lucius is at best the anti-hero.  I also enjoy Martin Hutson’s Saturninus, a hollow politician who could have come directly from Westminster or the US Senate.   There is strong support from an excellent cast, definitely not least of whom is Patrick Drury as Titus’s brother, Marcus (not Ronicus as I at first assumed… Never mind).  Drury is upright and decent – it takes a lot to break him, but he shares the play’s most tender scene when Marcus stumbles across his niece, the ‘mangled Lavinia’ following the traumatic attack by Tamora’s sons.  As Lavinia, Hannah Morrish is truly heart-rending – mostly through stillness to accompany her enforced silence.  Meanwhile, young Will Parsons makes a strong impression as Young Lucius – and he makes you wonder, along with Aaron’s bastard offspring – into what kind of world children are being born.  Young Lucius stands observing, like young Barron Trump – How on Earth is he going to turn out being set such an example?

The action performs a dizzying tightrope act between horror and humour – the violence is graphic, the humour blacker than dark matter.  For the most part, McIntyre steers with an assured hand – it’s the abrupt gear changes of the play that give rise to wobbles.  The bloodbath at the denouement is fast-paced and breath-taking, and all the more shocking because of it.

Entertaining, harrowing and a stark reminder of the barbarism that passes for civilised society, this is a Titus that will stick in the memory longer than a certain meat pie sticks in Tamora’s craw.

RSC Titus Andronicus

Off-hand remarks: David Troughton as Titus Andronicus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 


War Stories

A JOURNEY THROUGH WAR

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th July, 2017

 

In this new piece from On The Floor Theatre, a versatile cast of four lead us through a whistle-stop series of sketches that track the entire span of the First World War – we are now in the third year of the centenary, remember – condensing four years of extreme experience into just 55 minutes of traffic on the stage.  It begins with the prologue from Henry V, Shakespeare’s eloquent plea to have us imagine what he is unable to stage, and it couldn’t be more fitting.   Director Matthew Tweedale intersperses scenes of domestic life with poetry – juxtaposing personal scenes with grander emotions, as expressed by the likes of Wilfred Owen and John McCrae.

An emblematic, narrative style works on our imaginations, our intellects and our heartstrings – and yet there is plenty of humour to it as well.  The swiftly changing scenes, depicted by a change of top by the cast members, economically takes us from the home front to the trenches and back again.  There seems to be an emphasis on the experiences of those left behind – the women – and just about everything is covered from recruitment drives to conscription, white feathers, the horrors of the trenches, the letters home, the notices of death, Votes for Women, and those men who came back forever changed or damaged.  We don’t get long to dwell – each sketch could easily yield a longer drama of its own – but this is like an introduction to the War, or revision notes for those who have heard it all before.

Victoria Piper and Grace Bussey play the wives and mothers left at home, from wide-eyed patriotism to fervent campaigning and stoical grief.  Jason Homewood and Andy Evans are the fathers, husbands, sons, boyfriends who sign up and learn the truth the hard way.  This skillful quartet populates the stage with humanity, however stylised; we recognise at once who each person is, where they are and what they are going through. A particularly effective scene has Homewood suffering from PTSD; another has Piper losing most of her sons… It’s all familiar ground but is here delivered so stylistically and effectively, the piece is alive with freshness and the power to cut right to the heart of each set-up.  There is no time to dwell or reflect – we can do that when the show’s over.  It’s all wrapped up with ‘In Flanders Fields’ by which point we have all been through the wringer or in the wars ourselves.

The commitment of the cast, the inventiveness of the direction and the exuberance of the performance make this a striking piece that delivers familiar words and familiar situations in a refreshing theatrical package.  A hundred years ago the war was still raging – this play is a timely reminder of all sorts of things, not least of the dangers of public opinion that is so strongly influenced by the press.  Some lessons we have yet to learn!

war orange

 

 


Comedy/Tragedy Tonight!

ROMEO & JULIET/TWELFTH NIGHT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, 2017

 

The Watermill Theatre’s tour of a Shakespeare double bill arrives in Wolverhampton and gets off to a stirring start with a contemporary setting for Romeo & Juliet.  Aimed at a YA audience, it appears, this is Verona Hollyoaks-style, where a chorus of hoodie-sporting youths narrate and provide some of the show’s most effective non-naturalistic sequences.  A young cast overall, they are headed by Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva as the star-cross’d lovers.  What really comes across is the youth of the characters, their exuberance, gaucheness and headlong surrender to violent emotions.  This makes the balcony scene awkwardly funny but nonetheless sincere in its outbursts and declarations of love.

Victoria Blunt makes a bold, tomboyish Benvolio while Offue Okegbe is an endearing Mercutio – although I think he could ditch the wetsuit and flippers and still be funny.  Peter Dukes is a beefy Tybalt and Rebecca Lee a sympathetic Friar Laurence but it is Lauryn Redding as the Nurse (and also as the Prince who uses a rubber ball as a gavel to punctuate his pronouncements) who shows us how it’s done.  Among a strong ensemble, she stands out in terms of conviction and delivery.  I also admire Capulet (Jamie Satterthwaite) and his cheesy dad speech.

Director Paul Hart interlaces scenes with up-to-date musical numbers performed live by the cast.  This is at its most effective as a soundtrack underscoring key moments, e.g. a Movement sequence at R and J’s wedding brings the first half to a close with a preview of what is to come.  The style is very much influenced by Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh – and this is in no way a bad thing, making the action accessible and the emotions plain.  On the whole, the cast handle the verse expertly – apart from the off moments when they’re rushing it.  A sophisticated and engaging production, brimming with youthful energy.

watermill romeo

Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva on the balcony

Back again the following evening for the bittersweet rom-com, Twelfth Night.  This Illyria has a 1920s vibes to it and the music is vibrant and jazzy – some of the songs used are anachronistic but this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Effective use of Tears For Fears’ Mad World, for example, and again I am struck by the musical and vocal abilities of the cast.  Rebecca Lee is the cross-dressing Viola – this is a world in which genders are bent and no one bats an eye: Sir Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding being marvellous again) is such a figure, referred to as a ‘she’ but dressed like a man (with conduct to match) and the honorific ‘Sir’.  No wonder Viola is able to get away with it.  Jamie Satterthwaite is a suitably self-indulgent Orsino, while Aruhan Galieva’s regal Olivia soon shows us the love-struck young lady behind the veil.   Offue Okegbe’ s easy-going Feste and Mike Slader’s prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek add to the pervading comic mood; Victoria Blunt’s cunning Maria and Emma McDonald’s earnest Antonia keep the plot moving with conviction.  There is always a melancholic air to this play, as though people are trying to distract themselves with practical jokes, music, and the folly of love (and, of course, drink!).  Paul Hart’s direction keeps the party atmosphere going without neglecting the undercurrent – people are hurt by these ‘distractions’, none less than Peter Dukes’s show-stealing Malvolio who transforms from a stuffy butler type to a kind of ‘sweet transvestite’ in yellow stockings and feather boa, to a broken, humiliated man, bent on revenge.  It’s a delight of a show, like bitter chocolate, reminding us that Shakespeare can still push our buttons to make us laugh and to make us empathise with our fellow humans.  The downbeat happy ending is here enlivened by a jazzed-up rendition of Hey-ho, the Wind and the Rain.   In fact, Ned Rudkins-Stow’s arrangement of the play’s songs are all well done, from O, Mistress Mine to Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave.  Shakespeare wasn’t half bad as a lyricist either, it turns out!

A thoroughly enjoyable pairing – you should catch at least one if you can.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander-029

Rebecca Lee and Offue Okegbe (Photos: Scott Rylander)

 


Euro-visions

BE FESTIVAL

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th July, 2017

 

The second night of the REP’s annual festival of European theatre and the enthusiasm for this rich array of work from across the continent shows no sign of waning.  Tonight is a sell-out, in fact.  In your face, Brexiteers!!

First up is THE SENSEMAKER – an absurdist piece from Swiss company, Woman’s Move.  A young woman, smartly dressed, enters.  It’s a job interview situation, perhaps.  A disembodied, automated voice instructs her to wait; we recognise its speech patterns  from so-called ‘customer service’.  An electronic version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy play on a loop.  The young woman waits and reacts… At last, it’s her turn and she launches into a dazzling display, lip-synching a range of voices in a range of languages, including a clip of Ewan McGregor having a rant in Trainspotting.   She accompanies the words with a tight and repetitive sequence of gestures.  It’s quite hypnotic to behold.  This young woman is an expressive and skilful comedian.  She is put on hold again, then required to clap Yes or No answers to a series of increasingly bizarre and intrusive questions.  Ultimately, inevitably, it all goes wrong, as these interactions often do.  Accessible, relatable, charming and funny, this piece highlights the frustrations of our interactions with technology and the unsatisfactory nature of the dehumanised versions of themselves organisations present to the world.  I loved it.

Next is PORTRAITS AND SHORT STORIES from Panama Pictures from the Netherlands.  A rope, a pole, a trampoline and a couple of ramps form the set for this movement-led piece.  An old man is joined by five younger ones (all beards and man-buns) to populate this playground-like arena and, through dance-movement-acrobatics, interact.  The brochure tells me it’s about family relationships but it strikes me more as a kind of wildlife footage.  We could be watching a pack of graceful primates – the pecking order is there, the shifting dynamics, the bullying, the teaching… They are feral acrobats in their native habitat.  Undoubtedly highly skills and impressive these guys may be, I think a few changes of pace would make the piece more effective overall.  As it is, it didn’t grip me.

Third comes EVERYTHING IS OK a one-man show of ‘cultural and sensory overload’ performed by Marco D’Agostin from Italy.  It begins with an impressive display combining rap, song lyrics, film quotes… For about ten minutes, D’Agostin stands there, delivering this barrage of familiar and unfamiliar lines.  This rapid-fire, polyglottic sequence is like flicking through TV channels.  D’Agostin then changes his approach, devoting the rest of the show to dance, rushing around the space without flagging.  We can spot ‘quotations’ of familiar moves and gestures: a rock star, a disco-dancer, and so on.  At last, he becomes exhausted and collapses.  Basically, he’s making the same point twice.  The dance section goes on for too long, I feel; perhaps he could break it up by combining movement with his astounding verbal outbursts rather than keeping sound and visuals apart – if we are to be truly overloaded.

Finally, the evening is brought to a close by MY COUNTRY IS WHAT THE SEA DOESN’T WANT by Casa Da Esquina from Portugal.  Using verbatim statements from interviews with immigrants and drawing on his own experiences in London, writer-director Ricardo Correia hosts this somewhat disjointed piece but he’s such an affable chap we don’t mind the gear changes.  The show is in turns amusing, enlightening and revealing.  Correia conducts an audience survey to find out where we’re all from, then selects a couple of volunteers to join him on stage for a glass of wine and a chat.  It’s so low-key, it shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully.  We need more of this: a positive (but not white-washed) slant on migration, before we plunge headlong into the black hole of Brexit and isolationism.

A satisfying and rewarding evening – I wish I could attend the rest of the week – but I wish the organisers would drop the silly system of having to change our cash for play money before we can get a drink.  I know we Brits are supposed to enjoy queuing but once to change cash and again to order a drink is a bit much.

Wednesday-Combo


Curiosity kills the Dog

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 4th July, 2017

 

It’s my third time seeing this marvellous production and I can reveal the piece loses none of its power to charm or to move even if you know what’s coming.  The death of a neighbour’s dog sets 15-year-old Christopher on a quest to find out whodunit.  He’s a ‘special’ boy, with Asperger’s, and we view events and the world at large, through his eyes.  To this end, the set is a box, a blackboard box with a grid that lights up like the chalk lines Christopher draws on the floor.  The walls are also versatile, containing doors, drawers and cupboards for handy prop-grabbing.  Cast members become pieces of furniture and white blocks do the rest.  It’s a mish-mash of physical and narrative theatre and it works like a dream.  Simon Stephens’s masterly adaptation does full justice to Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel.

Scott Reid is marvellous as the intrepid Christopher, whose literal take on things provides humour for us and confusion for him.  It’s not just the characterisation, which convinces utterly, but it’s also the movement skills that impress.  He’s the focal point of the production but around him the rest of the cast is equally good.

Lucianne McEvoy is Christopher’s mentor and our narrator, Siobhan, providing clarity to the action, reading from Christopher’s account while scenes are flashily reconstructed.  David Michaels is Ed, Christopher’s long-suffering Dad – love pours out of him in various forms: anger and frustration being chief among them!  Mum Judy (Emma Beattie) takes a pragmatic approach – emotions run high and have to be contained for Christopher’s peace of mind.  Beattie and Michaels both bring emotional depth that Christopher cannot – and we glimpse what it must be like to care for someone like Christopher as well as gaining awareness and understanding of the way he is.

Marianne Elliott’s flashy and clever production is rooted in humanity – we see how Christopher is treated by figures in authority and unsuspecting members of the public – and while there is humour in these exchanges it is never at Christopher’s expense.  And we begin to think Christopher has a point, that people should say what they mean instead of dressing their words in euphemism and metaphor.   Elliott’s use of non-naturalistic techniques serves to emphasise Christopher’s humanness.   Beneath the unconventional methods of address, there is someone here with whom we can empathise.  The show, therefore, is a metaphor for the character!

Endlessly inventive, superbly executed, funny, gripping and touching, this is a play to savour and a production to enjoy.  Christopher’s journey (the mystery is solved by the interval) is more than his wish to solve the crime, and we root for him as he tries to understand life and pass his A-Level in Maths.  It’s a crowd-pleaser, accessible and enlightening, showing that just as there are other ways of perceiving the world, there are other forms of theatre.

How gratifying to see the Hippodrome packed out for something other than a musical!

Scott Reid (Christopher Boone) and ensemble, NT Curious Incident Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg-min

Scott Reid and ensemble (Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg-min)

 


If you’ve got it, flautist

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Stafford Castle, Stafford, Sunday 2nd July, 2017

 

Heritage Opera’s production comes to Stafford Castle for one night only – the grounds are set up for the annual Shakespeare production; this year it’s The Tempest and so there is rather a nautical theme to the design.  Add to this, the reduced size of the orchestra (only seven of them!) and there is a rehearsal feel to this scaled-down sound.  Not that players and singers don’t give their all – and the sound quality is excellent, even with the constant drone of the nearby M6 forever in our ears.

The Tempest set is not a bad fit, given that high priest Sarastro is much like Prospero; the Queen of the Night, Sycorax; and Monostatos is very Caliban-like in this production!  The Three Boys are here replaced by three Spirits – in excellent, imaginative mermaid garb.

Tenor Nicholas Sales is a robust Tamino, the heroic prince and is well-matched with Aimee-Louise Toshney’s princess-in-distress Pamina.  Sarah Helsby Hughes is a strident Queen with a fabulous crown of feathers (I’d been wondering what she does with her daily delivery of birds) while Philip Barton’s Sarastro looks like Matt Berry playing Willy Wonka – but sounds divine.  It’s all about the bass.  The Three Ladies are equally delightful (Heather Heighway, Serenna Wagner, Helen-Anne Gregory) – amazons in straw hats, bringing humour to the action and beauty to the harmonies.  Roger Hanke’s wicked Monostatos is also good fun, a cross between Kermit the Frog and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But it is Francis Church’s birdman, Papageno that wins our hearts.  Church makes the best of the sometimes clunky ‘banter’ and his rich baritone is warm and pleasing.

Mozart crammed the show with catchy melodies and beautiful harmonies, with plenty of chances to showcase the main characters.  The Queen hits her top F, Sarastro his bottom one.  Everything that happens in between is aural perfection.  Except when they’re not singing.  The libretto between the musical numbers is hampered by a duff plot (it starts so promisingly with the death of a serpent, and a quest to rescue an abducted princess) riddled with po-faced quasi-masonic blether.  Thank goodness for Francis Church – and for Eleanor Strutt as his intended, Papagena.  Their eventual duet is a joy.

There are moments when the production could do with a bigger sound – the keyboard can’t make up for the absence of brass at key moments – but there are some lovely ideas that add wit to proceedings, like Papageno pushing a pram with an egg in it, and the animals gathering to hear the magical flute are fun if few and far between.

An enjoyable evening of fresh air and Mozart sounding as fresh as ever.  I look forward to more Heritage Opera productions in the future.

heritage

Publicity material for Heritage Opera’s The Magic Flute