Tag Archives: Amanda Whittington

A Grand Day Out

LADIES’ DAY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th July, 2018

 

Following an excellent Brassed Off last summer, the Grand has produced its second in-house show, Amanda Whittington’s comedy about four women from a fish-packing factory who have a day at the races to celebrate the retirement of one of their group.  As a Vegan, I have issues with the setting, of course, but they’re not real fish and there is neither hide nor hair of a horse, so I put my sensibilities aside.  The job and the destination are immaterial; they are devices to get characters together – at heart, this is a play about the race that matters: the human race.

Emmerdale’s Deena Payne is a safe pair of hands as Pearl, the retiree, strong and sensible – yet she has a secret, and it’s the nature of plays of this kind that secrets will come to light.  Payne’s Wolverhampton accent is decent and her comic timing impeccable.  Hollyoaks’s Emma Rigby is glamorous good-time girl Shelly, taken in by a sleazy TV presenter – Rigby definitely looks the part, and gives us the fragility behind Shelly’s public façade.  Roisin O’Neill is sweet as the young and innocent Linda – it is Linda’s obsession with Tony Christie that provides the soundtrack for the show and, in a coup, this is the first production of the play that features the man himself, live on stage.  But stealing our hearts and almost the entire show is Cheryl Fergison (formerly ‘Hevver’ off of EastEnders) giving a comedic tour de force as Jan.  Fergison is hilarious throughout and her drunken scene is particularly well-observed.

Playing the male roles is Sean McKenzie.  Slick and slimy as the TV presenter, he acknowledges it’s a bit of a stretch when he later appears as an eight-and-a-half stone jockey – but we willingly suspend our disbelief, as the jockey and Linda bond in one of Whittington’s best-written scenes.

The script is largely very funny, but it is somewhat patchy.  It is the energy and likeability of the quartet of women that keep us engaged.  There are moments that touch on the flip side of horse-racing: we are reminded that horses are shot if they break a leg; Sean McKenzie appears as a gambling addict, his life in tatters…

A lot of fun, a feel-good piece with plenty of laughs and a heart-warming denouement, Ladies’ Day is definitely worth an evening of your time and is a production with a strong local flavour and is a show of which the Grand can be justifiably proud.

Sean McKenzie, Deena Payne, Cheryl Fergison - Ladies Day at Wolverhampton Grand - Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Sean McKenzie, Deena Payne and Cheryl Fergison (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Ballroom Glitz

KISS ME QUICKSTEP

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 10th March, 2016

 

Amanda Whittington’s new play is already proving popular.  People flock to the New Vic because of the subject matter: a ballroom dancing competition.  They come for the dancing but they stay for the humour and warmth of the characters.  The story follows the fortunes of three couples.  Samantha is a jaded champion, disaffected and drunk – much to the chagrin of her snake-hipped partner Lee.  Nancy is a bright-eyed optimist; having met Luka, a Russian dancer online, she has her father fly him over to partner her for the competition.  Meanwhile, married couple, Justin and Jodie Atherton, are facing money troubles and a run of bad luck.  She is neurotic, he has a gammy knee…  Most of the action takes place backstage – the compere (TV’s Alison Hammond) is a disembodied voice, divine intervention interrupting the rows and rehearsals.

In the rehearsal scenes, we glimpse the anatomy of the dances – this is thrilling in itself – but when the dance numbers come they are truly uplifting.  It’s so much more impressive than watching it on the telly!  Beverley Edmunds’s choreography is spot on, and it’s also dramatised to fit the action – There’s a slow-motion sequence that shows in an expressionistic way how Samantha is alienated by the whole shebang.  The cast is augmented by a talented troupe from the local community, adding to the scale of the enterprise.  The Blackpool ballroom is economically evoked by Dawn Allsop’s design and Daniella Beattie’s versatile lighting.

Amy Barnes keeps Samantha together, through her drunken denials to her liberation, bringing warmth to what could be a diva of a role.  Ed White incorporates Lee’s drive and determination, and is a lovely mover.  Hannah Edwards, a New Vic favourite, brings sweetness to Nancy and also the guts to stand up at last to her overbearing, self-appointed coach of a father (Jack Lord, both affable and menacing).  Also returning to the New Vic is Isaac Stanmore (formerly Robin Hood and Dracula here!) as the Russian dancer and rent-a-Gleb Luka, thrilled to be in Blackpool – for more reasons than one, it turns out.  Stanmore is an engaging presence – technically superb in the dancing (they all are, it has to be said) and exuding both strength and vulnerability – We want him to succeed.  Abigail Moore’s Jodie is tightly wound (and very funny) but as soon as the compere calls her to the dance floor she becomes the consummate performer, supported perfectly by Matt Crosby as husband Justin.  Their big dance number brings the house down and this is because we are invested in them as characters.

It’s a conventional play, deftly handled by resident director Theresa Heskins, who puts the humanity of the characters in the spotlight and allows the script’s metaphors and meaning to work on the audience almost subliminally.  Dance = life, and it’s what you bring to the floor that counts.

Kiss-Me-Quickstep-New-Vic-Theatre-C-Andrew-Billington-

Jack Lord, Hannah Edwards and Isaac Stanmore

 

 


Highly Strung

THE THRILL OF LOVE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 22nd February, 2013

Amanda Whittington’s new play concerns the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK.  It is perhaps this status as the last woman to pay the death penalty that adds to Ellis’s notoriety and allure.  Even in the dark days of the 1950s, her sentence was considered an injustice but all the protests and campaigns proved to be in vain.

The play focuses on the last few years of Ellis’s shortened life, her work in a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and her relationship with David Blakely – although in Whittington’s version of events, we do not see the man himself.  He is a shadow, an off-stage presence, haunting Ellis as the detective inspector unravelling her story takes us back in time from the interrogation room to the club.  He, the detective, works as a narrator, linking scenes with information, and painting scenery with poetic details.  This works very well for the most part – we are caught up in a maelstrom, as Ellis was caught up, and there are moments when the action becomes surreal and nightmarish.

Jonathan Fensom’s design sets us in the world of the club.  Thick red carpet covers the stage with a central wooden parquet area – a dance floor.  Small tables with shaded lamps and chairs are moved around to denote different locations.  There is a trolley laden with drink.  A record player emitting scratchy Billie Holiday songs at various intervals.  Above all of this is suspended a huge square canopy of ruched fabric, and a glitterball.  The red dominates, a rich crimson, the colour of blood perhaps, the colour of passion.

A pall of smoke floats across the auditorium.  This is the smoke-filled world of the club back when people were allowed to suck on cigarettes indoors.  But the smoke keeps coming.  It adds a hazy look to every scene, a sort of mists-of-time atmosphere, but I question its omnipresence.  It became something of a distraction in the end and anything that induces an audience to cough more than they might usually, cannot be a good thing.  I would pull the plug on the smoke machine early on, and only give it a blast in the more dreamlike sequences.

Whittington’s dialogue is sharp and snappy.  The characters fire off quips like machine-gun fire and here I have a bit of an issue with the director’s pacing of scenes.  When Ellis is at her most neurotic, there is very little difference to the moments when she’s engaging in banter with her workmates.  Greater contrast between these scenes would make for a more effective whole.  Faye Castelow plays Ellis as a tightly wound spring, a chattering, fragile thing but the speed of delivery of group dialogue makes everyone seem highly strung.  It gets a bit wearing after a while.

Ellis is not a sympathetic creature.  We know all along she’s for the drop – the play is instantly laden with an air of doom.  But I didn’t feel any tugging at my heartstrings or any particular appeal to my sense of moral outrage at this poor woman’s fate.  I found myself thinking of Rihanna and Chris Brown and the lack of understanding about why someone stays in an abusive and violent relationship.

The cast is excellent.  They reproduce the London accents of the day, helping to evoke the sense of period.  The costumes are all in keeping and the music, distorted blasts of Billie Holiday (another doomed woman who went through the mill of love) unify the action and add emotive punch.  I enjoyed Maya Wasowicz as confident and chirpy Vickie Martin, and Katie West as dowdy charwoman Doris living on the edge of all this ‘glamour’.  Hilary Tones’s Sylvia Shaw, nightclub manageress, is worldly-wise and sanguine.  There is a hint of grubbiness beneath the elegance.  Jack Gale’s efficient inspector is the only male voice, a counterpoint to the constant barrage of badinage.

I found the sum of the parts rather wearing.  There are some excellent moments – scenes from the trial are a swirling eddy of questions and statements, and the hanging is simply but superbly evoked by the slamming of the record-player lid, followed by a blackout.  After that, the other characters drift on and off in an unfocussed moment, as fuzzy as the smoke that’s still pouring in.

This was the first night, and though the cast was operating like clockwork, I think director James Dacre needs to slow and stretch some of the scenes, as well as killing the smoke, in order to allow the piece to breathe.

thrill of love poster