Breaking the Ice

TITANIC – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 4th June, 2018

 

This story about belief in the infallibility of technology is delayed by a technical hitch, sort of foreshadowing what is to befall the ill-fated ‘unsinkable’ ship – although there can’t be a soul in the house who doesn’t know the story; it is a disaster branded in the public imagination and therefore, any retelling is flooded with dramatic irony.  The audience knows what’s coming but the crew and passengers do not, and so it is the job of the script to try to engage us with the lives of individuals before the main event disrupts everything.  And here – and only here – is where this musical adaptation is scuppered.  It’s a safe bet that the women (and children) are likely to survive; their husbands, beaux, fathers etc, not so much.  There are too many characters and too little time for us to be manipulated into caring about any of them very much, given that we know they have a date with an iceberg, and there is very little opportunity for characters to develop and endear them to us.  Lines like “I believe this will be my final voyage” clang like dropped anchors.

But it’s very well presented.  David Woodhead’s riveted steel proscenium frames a simple set with an upper and lower deck and a movable set of stairs, while his fabulous Edwardian costumes evoke the sense of period.  Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are Sondheimesque in tone and effect (I mean that as a compliment, of course), giving the cast, individuals and chorus alike, plenty of opportunity to belt their hearts out.  Director Thom Southerland tackles the wrecking of the ship with simple, stylised staging, enough to tease the imagination – we don’t even see the lifeboats, let alone the iceberg, but where the show has greatest impact is where the survivors stand before a role call of all those who perished, the lettering too small to be read, because those lost souls are, after all, unknowable.

Among the large cast several stand-out performances arise: Simon Green’s arrogant, hubristic J Bruce Ismay; Greg Costiglioni’s passionate Mr Andrews; Claire Machin’s social-climbing Alice; Lewis Cornay’s appealing Bell Boy and bandleader; and the mighty Niall Sheehy as Fred the boilerman.  Sheehy is set up as the hero of the piece and sings like one – but of course, poor Fred is no superman, and his sacrifice is almost understated.

Others have their moments: Judith Street and Dudley Rogers as the elderly Mr and Mrs Straus have a touching scene, deciding to face their fates together; Captain Smith (Philip Rham), Mr Ismay and Mr Andrews have a great scene in which they lash out, each blaming the others for the shipwreck.  A trio of girls, introduced as the Three Kates, show promise but only one (Victoria Serra) gets any real stage time – and makes the most of it.

By the end, I’m wondering if musical theatre was the way to go.  Perhaps a docu-drama style would have been more appropriate in bringing home the scale of the enterprise and the enormity of its loss.  And should a disaster – any disaster – be the basis of a piece of entertainment?  As it is, this Titanic is great on the ears, but leaves the heartstrings of this reviewer unplucked.

Photo-by-Scott-Rylander-001

Niall Sheehy’s Fred before it all goes belly-up (Photo: Scott Rylander)

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Sweet and Sour

MOUNTAINS: The Dreams of Lily Kwok

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 31st May, 2018

 

When Helen leaves her native Manchester to work as a lawyer in Hong Kong, she feels out of place, a fraud, an English girl in a Chinese body.  She encounters the spirit of her grandmother, but as she was when she was younger.  Grandmother Lily is entreated to tell her life story and to pull no punches, with Helen taking on the role of Lily while Lily narrates.  Storylines from the past and the present entwine, with Helen and Lily often at odds.  Put this way, it may seem confusing but in practice, it isn’t.  Director Jennifer Tang maintains clear focus throughout so we’re never wondering who is whom and when is when.

Siu-See Hung is delightful as Helen, with her plain-speaking Mancunian humorously undercutting some of the more melodramatic aspects of Lily’s story.  Tina Chiang makes a formidable Lily, but there is warmth behind the austere looks and the anger.  Matthew Leonheart gives a powerful performance as the dashing Kwok Chan brought low by his addictions, while Ruth Gibson’s Mrs Woodman develops from colonial racism to genuine warmth for her hard-put-upon maid, Lily.  Rina Takasaki brings glossy glamour as cabaret singer Gong, and Minhee Yeo gives a sensitive portrayal of Mrs Lee, a woman desperate for a child.  Completing the cast, Andy Kettu has contrasting roles as Helen’s hopeless date and a terrifying Japanese soldier.

In-Sook Chappell’s adaptation of Helen Tse’s novel, Sweet Mandarin, depicts the rich tapestry of Lily’s life, the highs and the many lows, the rough with the smooth, the sweet with the sour.  It’s an epic saga, covering decades of Chinese history, including some harrowing war-time scenes.  Tang includes many effective ideas to get the story across, like a silk jacket becoming a puppet to represent Lily on her 12th birthday.  With Ruth Chan’s original, ethereal compositions, the show has a traditional feel while being bang up-to-date and fresh, as Helen learns of her heritage and finds her place in the modern world.

Funny, touching, endearing and heartrending, there’s a lot packed into the running time and it’s all performed with style and skill by a captivating ensemble.  I savoured every flavourful moment.

Mountains new leader

Tina Chiang and Siu-See Hung

 


Heart to Heart

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 30th May, 2018

 

In the 1950s, Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, contacts a bookshop at the eponymous address, in search of an out of print book.  So begins a correspondence that lasts a couple of decades.  The ever-demanding customer and the stuffy but efficient bookseller establish a friendship over the years, and there is always the promise that one day they might meet in person.

Cambridge Arts Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse bring us this new adaptation by James Roose-Evans, in which all the dialogue is taken from the letters.  The passage of time is signalled by the other members of the bookshop staff, coming and going and playing incidental music and traditional songs – This is a nice touch, rather than having Rebecca Applin’s original and wistful compositions on tape.  By keeping the bookshop staff busy, director Richard Beecham goes a long way to prevent this wordy show from becoming too static in presentation.

Hollywood and Broadway deity, Stefanie Powers doffs her usual glamour for the comfortable slacks and woolly pullies of the pernickety writer.  Hanff’s humour is delivered with a wry twinkle and Powers brings warmth even to the most demanding of her book orders.  She looks and sounds great, even in this dishevelled state.  Of course, these days, Hanff would trawl the internet for her books and that would be the end of it, but we can appreciate, in our ‘enlightened’ times of social media, the friendships one can strike up with people across the world that you may never meet.  Powers commands the portion of the stage that represents Hanff’s apartment – Norman Coates’s detailed, cluttered set evokes the frozen-in-time aspects of all good bookshops.

Clive Francis also excels as bookseller Frank Doel, gradually thawing and loosening up.  Even the act of listening to Powers narrate Hanff’s latest missive is imbued with emotion.  Of course, being British, Doel is never going to be effusive, but the chipping away at his reserve is sweetly handled, and there is a real sense of affection between the two.  Other members of staff chip in with their own letters to Hanff – details of social history are alluded to and the play delivers a strong impression of the way people come and go through life as well as the changing face of life in post-war Britain.

Charming and amusing, this gentle piece turns poignant as it reaches the end, with a final scene that is irresistibly moving.  It’s about closeness across distance, and it’s also about anticipation and disappointment, and friendship and loss, and I loved every minute.

A classy production that deserves a larger audience.

stefanie powers pic by Richard Hubert Smith

The Powers that be. Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

 


Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time.  Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation.  The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’.  Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns.  Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it.  In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.

Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock.  His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown.  Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work.  This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.

Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves.  Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better.  And I start to get chills…

Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong.  Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation.  Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers.  Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell.  There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.

Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown.  Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots!  James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself.  The production values of this show are of the highest order.

And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment?  Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again.  The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS).  It all rings ever-so-relevant.  How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising?  Every bloody time, that’s how many.

An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.

urinetown

Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Pros and Cons

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 24th May, 2018

 

This production comes to Birmingham from Nottingham Playhouse, working with Ramps On The Moon – casting deaf and disabled actors and tailoring the performance for hearing impaired audiences.  Rather than having an interpreter at the side of the stage, signing for everyone, the signing occurs as part of the action: convicts, eavesdropping on the dialogue, sign it to each other… Also, screens display surtitles, scrolling the script as it occurs.  So well is the signing incorporated, it becomes part of the choreography of the piece.

The play, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, tells of a colony of convicts, transported to Australia to serve their sentences in exile.  The militia that guard them are brutal and cruel but the leader, Governor Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis) is of the view that criminals can and should be reformed.  He consents to the rehearsal and staging of a play, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, much to the consternation of his men.  As if the situation was not already a powder keg, waiting for a match.  Charged with directing the production is Second Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) who finds his patience tested and his emotions engaged.  Also among the redcoats (although this is no holiday camp!) is Colin Connor as the aggressively alliterative Major Ross, Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as the expressively inarticulate Captain Campbell, and Dave Fishley as Captain Collins.  Excellent among this strong team is Garry Robson’s Harry Brewer, whose relationship with one of the convict women goes beyond the usual exploitation. The men argue the nature of their work, some favouring punishment over rehabilitation – a question that rages still today.

The prostitutes and convicts we meet are a lively bunch, to say the least.  Caroline Parker is a hoot as the coarse Meg Long; Sapphire Joy is appealing as Mary Brenham; and Gbemisola Ikulemo is superb as the formidable Liz Morden.  Tom Dawse makes a likeable Wisehammer, and Will Lewis an amusing Arscott – there are plenty of laughs in the rehearsal scenes, as Lt Clark struggles with melodramatic posturing, reluctant servants, and Liz Morden’s fierce and rapid delivery.  Fifi Garfield’s Dabby Bryant and Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling Smith are wonderfully expressive in their silence, their expressions and attitudes unmistakable.  Gradually, the civilising power of the theatre takes hold, but can the cast members escape the rope of hangman ‘Ketch’ Freeman (a sympathetic Fergus Rattigan) long enough to perform the play?

Fiona Buffini directs Timberlake Wertenbaker’s funny and incisive piece with verve.  The worst excesses of the guards are kept offstage (this is a comedy, after all – as Clark keeps telling his ragtag company) and production values are high.  Neil Murray’s evocative set is bathed in Mark Jonathan’s luscious lighting – added to which, it’s a warm night in the Rep’s auditorium, giving us a real feel for the place!  If the play is about the humanity of those regarded as ‘lower’ and ‘lesser’ by society, the production is a prod, for those who need it, that deaf and disabled performers and technical crew and what they bring to the table is also of value.

There is a haunting, dignified appearance by Milton Lopes as an Aboriginal Australian; the effect of colonisation of his land is devastating.  Britain’s disregard for other cultures is nothing new, of course.

An engaging, entertaining evening and a relevant revival.

Nottingham Playhouse

Dabby (Fifi Garfield) and Liz (Gbemisola Ikumela) discuss the finer points of Farquhar’s elegant comedy

 


Canvas Opinions

ART

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018

 

When Serge splashes out 200 grand on a white painting, it becomes a bone of contention and causes a rift between him and his two best friends, Marc and Yvan.  Or rather, it brings to the surface, resentments and feelings hitherto buried, and the 25-year friendship is in danger of exploding.  This welcome revival of Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic production reminds us of how funny Yazmina Reza’s script is, through the prism of Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation.  And so, these three middle-aged Frenchmen and their triangular association becomes a searing statement about the nature of friendship, more than a commentary on contemporary art.

Nigel Havers has never been better, in my view, than he is here as the urbane but uptight Serge.  He is matched by a magnificent Denis Lawson as the scathing, cynical Marc, and an absolutely brilliant Stephen Tompkinson as the emotional, put-upon Yvan.  Tompkinson gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations that is as hilarious as it is long.  In fact, the comic timing of all three is impeccable and it is a joy to see these old hands, excelling at their craft.

Mark Thompson’s sparse but stately set serves as the friends’ apartments, suggesting also a gallery space with its bare walls and low furniture, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with its shadows of a Venetian blind, suggests the supposed surface of Serge’s precious painting.  Snappy asides from the characters are demarcated by sharp lighting changes, accompanied by the jazz-informed tones of Gary Yershon’s ultra-cool music.

It’s a breath-taking hour and a half, of bitter backbiting and savage rejoinders.  An act of selflessness on the part of Serge salvages the trio – they will live to squabble another day – and furthermore, Marc is brought to his own understanding of what the painting signifies.

Like an actor on a stage, the painter covering a canvas is transient.  Serge’s white canvas reminds us we are all figures moving through a space, and then we are gone.  It’s a real punch in the gut from a show that has already made our sides ache with laughter.

Superb.

ART 2

Picture this: Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson (Photo: Matt Crockett)


Whisky Business

WHISKY GALORE

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018

 

Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.

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Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)