Tag Archives: Allison McKenzie

Broad Strokes

THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016

 

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods.  Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage.  In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey.  While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey.  The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings.  With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.

A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent.  Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity.  He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.

Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.

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Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out.  His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones).  Their Bootle is tough.  Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable.  The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer.   The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely.  Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process.  Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west.   They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.

Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!

The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here.  As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature.   It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together.  Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last.  What are we to do with it?  As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.

We must be strong.

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Tom Georgeson and TJ Jones (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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Narnia Business

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th November, 2015

 

The REP’s Christmas offering this year pulls out all the stops in terms of production values in order to bring C S Lewis’s classic novel to the stage in this adaptation by Adrian Mitchell. It looks and sounds great. Jamie Vartan’s set has layers that strip away: the real world of the Pevensie siblings is rather two-dimensional but once they step through the eponymous wardrobe, they find themselves in the 3D land of Narnia. The snow-laden landscape looks beautiful under Colin Grenfell’s lights, and with original music by Shaun Davey played live under the baton of MD Neil MacDonald, there is much to appreciate. Narnia’s weird inhabitants (some of them are animals, some are anthropomorphic animals, and some are mythical creatures) are brought to life by some expressive and delightful puppets and some inventive costume designs, inspired no doubt by The Lion King. The transitions between the two worlds, where time moves differently, are stylishly done.

And so technically and artistically, the show is very strong.

The casting too is great. Allison McKenzie doubles as the stern housekeeper and the White Witch, self-appointed Queen of Narnia. She struts around melodramatically and the most incredible vocal sounds come out of her in moments of duress. She’s an enjoyable baddie, a despotic diva. Thomas Aldridge and Sophia Nomvete bring humour (and tons of exposition) as Mr and Mrs Beaver, while Jo Servi is a likeable Mr Tumnus the faun.

The four children are led by handsome Michael Lanni as eldest brother Peter, striving to be grown-up but still childlike at times. Leonie Elliott is solid as sensible Susan, James Thackeray is a suitably surly and self-serving Edmund, and Emilie Fleming brings out the naivety and innocence of youngest sister Lucy. It’s never easy to have adults playing children alongside other adults, but these four pull it off rather credibly.

My problem is with the material. C S Lewis’s heavy-handed allegory has never sat well with me, and Aslan the lion (an impressive, beautifully articulated, three-man puppet that reminds me of War Horse) is unbearably pompous.

Narnia is full of contradictions. They have tea and toast but don’t know what a wardrobe or a spare room are. How they source their Turkish delight is another mystery. But these are quibbles compared to the main plot itself. The children are helped by the Beavers, a funny, friendly couple who turn out to be religious nutters. How quickly the kids are indoctrinated into their cult of Aslan! And then Father Christmas himself rocks up and arms them with weapons for their holy war against the oppressor, the White Witch. The sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan – the most blatant part of the allegory – should be the most powerful part of the story, but by then I’m past caring. It’s all too po-faced and self-important to engage me. Ah, says the Witch, there’s some deep magic rules that mean I can do this. Oh, says Aslan, what she doesn’t know is there’s some deeper magic rules which mean I can do this. Oh, give over, I think, giving up trying to suspend my disbelief.

The play needs to be a little less earnest and to lighten up a lot. It’s all a bit worthy for my tastes to be involving – A pity because the talent on stage and the creativity behind the scenes demonstrate that excellence is well within reach.

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Closet cases: White Witch Allison McKenzie confronts Aslan with a plot twist. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)