Twisted but not Bitter

THE TWISTED TALE OF HANSEL AND GRETEL

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th April, 2018

 

In the first of a planned series of collaborations, Birmingham Hippodrome, Open Theatre Company and Metro-Boulot-Dodo stage this new production to bring learning disabled performers to the fore, during the creative process and the performance.  This is perhaps the biggest ‘twist’ on offer, although the show has a few pleasant surprises in its retelling of the Brothers Grimm story.

At the helm is our Storyteller (Nicky Priest) bombastic, condescending and all the funnier because of it.  He bows to the will of the cast when they demand the story needs ‘jazzing up’ and we watch in delight as things slip out of his control and he descends into neurosis.  Priest is superb, the lynchpin of the performance, holding things together.  He is assisted by Mockingbird (Charles Craggs) whose musical accompaniment and sound effects underscore the action.  Mockingbird is a subversive presence, undermining the Storyteller, but he is a vital cog in the show’s machinery, providing vocalisations that allow the actors to focus on choreographed movements.

Director Esther Simpson enables the cast to play to their strengths.  Her script gives most of the dialogue to the Storyteller and Mockingbird so that lines spoken by other characters comes across as punchlines and make us laugh.  It’s a very physical performance style, as cartoon-like, the characters enact the events of the old tale.  They’re all rather adept at this but Jake Jervis, appearing as the evil Stepmother and later as the Witch, is delightfully funny.  Luke Greenwood is charming as the Dad and a Chef (yes, there’s a Chef in it), while Kimisha Lewis makes for a feisty Gretel, fighting against the stereotypical behaviour the story expects of her.  Rishard Beckett is an expressive, energetic Hansel, but it is Vicki Taylor’s deadpan Duck who steals the show (yes, there’s a duck in it) – a running joke, or rather, a waddling one – holding up placards as speech balloons with immaculate timing.

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Bake-off! Jake Jarvis as the Witch (Photo: Kate Green)

Kate Unwin’s costumes are like children’s drawings of the characters.  Her set of building blocks that are stacked up and reconfigured to represent the family home and the gingerbread house, add to the storybook-nursery feel, but setting them up and taking them down takes a lot of time and interrupts the otherwise fast-paced action.

On the whole, this is an amusing and charming way to spend an hour or so.  The back-and-forth between the Storyteller and the Mockingbird (excellently delivered though it is) could do with trimming to keep the pace punchy but, as the production embarks on a tour, I’m sure things will tighten up as they go.

Fun for all the family, this is an age-old story of child poverty, neglect and abuse – but don’t let that put you off!

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By the book: Luke Greenwood, Kimisha Lewis, Rishard Bennett, Jake Jarvis and Nicky Priest (Photo: Kate Green)

 

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The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

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Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 


Extra Special

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st April, 2018

 

Marie Jones’s comedy has, rightly, become a modern-day classic.  It tells the story of the intrusion of a Hollywood film company into a rural Irish community.  The filming brings employment prospects, however temporary, and many of the locals take advantage of the opportunity to become extras.  We meet Charlie and Jake, two such extras, and through their eyes encounter a host of other characters: other extras, members of the film crew, even a Hollywood star.  Jones populates her story with some deftly drawn personalities, but it falls to the cast of two, yes, just two, to bring them all to life.

For this production, we are in the safe hands of two of the Crescent’s most reliable and talented actors.  James David Knapp is Charlie, a downtrodden fellow trying to outrun his depression and lack of prospects by palming off a screenplay he has written to anyone who will take it.  Knapp is infinitely watchable and the split-second changes between characters hold no fear for him.  His Charlie is affable, but his Caroline, the Hollywood diva, is a wonder to behold.  Similarly, his British director, Clem, is also brilliantly portrayed.

John O’Neill is Jake, newly returned from the States and trying to restart his life – a kind of everyman figure.  O’Neill is good in this part, to be sure, but he really takes off when he becomes production assistant Aisling, castigating the extras through her pink loudhailer.  Also, as old-timer and movie veteran Mickey, he brings physicality to the part.  In fact, both actors’ use of body language and mannerisms is spot on.  The truth of the characters shines through in every detail.

The play demands a lot from its actors and these two deliver the goods without question.  There is a sharpness and a precision to the delivery and the quick changes that adds to the humour of the situation.  Director Andrew Brooks ensures the pace is maintained and the changes are smooth, to the extent that we can almost see the characters all at once.  It’s hysterically funny but there is more to the play than laugh-out-loud comedy.  Brooks delivers the pathos well too – when tragedy threatens to disrupt the filming, the resentment and indignation of the locals comes to the fore.  A gasp went up from the woman beside me when the significance of the title became clear, in the show’s most poignant scene.

Knapp and O’Neill handle all the requirements of the script with aplomb.  They also ride the waves of laughter they generate and handle impromptu audience input with style and with ease.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of a marvellous piece.  I haven’t laughed so much on a Sunday afternoon for a long time!

Now, what would be really interesting would be a production performed by female actors…

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Extra! Extra! James David Knapp and John O’Neill (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Crooning Glory

CROONERS

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 29th March, 2018

 

As the curtain opens, a David Attenborough-type voiceover introduces us to that rare and endangered species, the crooner, inviting us to observe them in their natural habitat, namely being on stage with a band.  The three specimens presented to us look curiously British, in an old school type of way: bowler hats, tweed jackets and so on.  They each sport an elaborate and not-to-mention false moustache.  A dapper trio, indeed.  We meet Charlie (Roman Marek, who has also written and directed the show), Rupert (Phil Barley) who has something of Lord Lucan to him, and Winston (Jim Whitley) who proves to be the most proficient dancer of the troupe.

The premise is the crooners need to find mates in order to perpetuate their vanishing species and this is the trigger for banter-aplenty with the audience.  It’s good-natured ribbing and the humorous exchanges between the musical numbers are saucy rather than vulgar.  The trio exudes oodles of charm and generates an abundance of fun.  Their urbane cheekiness is irresistible.

The set list is rich with standards.  Come Fly With Me, Fly Me To The Moon, On The Street Where You Live – it’s all solid Rat Pack fare, and the three voices blend marvellously.  They each get solo spots: Charlie’s Frank Sinatra is particularly good but I loved Rupert’s tipsy Dean Martin.  Winston’s Sammy Davis Jr gives us a show-stopping Mr Bojangles.

Some of the jokes are even older than the songs but Roman Marek’s Benny Hill naughty-boyishness pulls them off, and he is an accomplished physical comedian.  There are many moments of undiluted delight.  The second half opens with the men in their underwear.  They perform a reverse strip-tease, getting dressed to music, donning the familiar black-tie attire of this kind of affair.

The band is magnificent and tireless: The Mini Big Band, a ten-piece combo of hot brass, cool sax, rocking drums and moody piano, under the musical direction of Chris and Jon Hibbard.  They underscore, accompany and participate in the action, but above all, sound fantastic.

Oh yes, there’s also tap-dancing, the kind of choreography old Brucie was doing right up until the end.

Utterly enjoyable, entertaining and hilarious, Crooners is a joy from start to finish.

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Pip pip! Phil Barley, Roman Marek and Jim Whitley

 

 


The Bees’ Knees

HONEY

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd March, 2018

 

When you behold a patchwork quilt, you see it at first as a whole.  Then you might move on to look closely at individual patches, and then how they relate to their neighbours.  Such is the fabric of Tiffany Hosking’s sweet and rich new play, named for the produce of Anwen’s bees, but quite easily the play could be renamed or subtitled, How To Make A Welsh Quilt.

Bossy Anwen (Vey Straker) focusses on making the quilt, piecing together hexagons (like a honeycomb!) while her husband is away.  She hopes he is doing his job (defusing bombs!) rather than shacking up with another woman.  Her 22-year-old son Caron (Callan Durrant) is autistic.  He watches Happy Feet on repeat and expresses himself through idiosyncratic choreography (by Lizie Gireudeaux); meanwhile Anwen’s tattoo artist sister Celandine (Jemma Lewis) strives to help out, longing to be loved and for a child of her own.  Also in the picture is their half-sister Armes (Jenni Lea Jones) whom Anwen shuns.  Everyone is superb but Lea Jones really plucks at the heartstrings, and Lewis’s sardonic humour has us in stitches, so to speak.  Durrant is a lovely mover, compelling in his silence, but Straker’s Anwen is the heart of the piece.

It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully played by all and the writing is gorgeous.  Hosking also directs, stitching together a range of styles to make a cohesive whole.  For the most part, it’s naturalistic albeit in a stylised setting: three stacks of boxes represent the beehives but these come apart and are reconfigured to suggest furniture and fixtures of different locations: a post office counter, for example, or tables in the pub… Characters address other characters that we don’t see or hear, in one-sided conversations.  Most revealing, the characters will visit the bees to tell them their news and innermost thoughts (it’s a Thing, apparently), in monologues addressed to the audience.  The action in non-linear but we piece together the timeline, the cause and effect of actions and events.  Gentle drama laced with gentle humour becomes something quietly profound and ultimately touching.  Caron discloses to the bees, in the only instance of him saying anything, that the very chemicals responsible for the decline of their kind may be responsible for the surge in autism – the play’s political point, there, but generally it’s about family and community and connections.  It has much to do with tradition but also feels completely fresh and of the now.  I adored it and audiences should swarm to see it.

The play begins and ends with the same scene: Anwen proudly displaying the completed quilt to the bees, wrapping the story in a neat package and making the show as warming as any such blanket.

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The King is not Dead

THIS IS ELVIS

New Alexandra Theatre, Monday 19th March, 2018

 

This new musical is not the usual fare, in that we don’t get the rags-to-riches rise of the protagonist.  When the show begins, Elvis Presley is already the biggest star in the world but, after a decade of making questionable movies, he’s planning a comeback concert on live television.  Nerves are running high, the King’s self-esteem is at a low point and the time he is spending at work is putting a strain on his marriage to Priscilla.  Around him, his entourage of ‘friends’ discuss his plans and problems, like sycophants at a royal court.  Among them are Presley’s best friends, Joe Exposition (sorry, Esposito) played tonight by Ben Stratton, and Charlie Hodge (Mark Pearce).  The dialogue, by Philip Norman, is clunky, heavily laden with factoids, telling us things rather than showing us; it’s a relief when these ‘dramatic’ interludes give way to the songs.  We are not allowed to meet the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, nor Mrs Presley herself – Both of these interesting characters are restricted to telephone calls, and we don’t even get to hear their side.  The show misses out on a couple of humdinger scenes by keeping these sources of conflict off-stage.

The second half is given over to a recreation of a Las Vegas show.  Seeing it in context – we’ve glimpsed the King’s drug abuse, his self-doubt, his loneliness – makes what follows all the more remarkable.  As the man himself is the phenomenal Steve Michaels, who has Presley down pat: the voice, the mannerisms, the moves, in an uncanny performance that brings Elvis into the building.  So many highlights, including Suspicious Minds, It’s Now or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight?…

The entourage from the first half form the backing band, a taut combo, augmented by a trio of backing vocalists, Sweet Inspirations (Chevone Stewart, Katrina May, and Misha Malcolm).  Together they are terrific, creating an authentic sound.  But it is frontman Michaels who grabs us by the pelvis and, channelling the King, gets our blood pumping and our hands clapping.  And so what starts out as a ropey dramatic reconstruction culminates in an hour-long tribute act that is irresistible and exhilarating.  The King is not dead; he has been reincarnated.

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This is Steve Michaels (Photo: Pamela Raith)

 


Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

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Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)