Tag Archives: Andrew Cowie

Stella Performance

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019

 

When she has nowhere else to go, fading Southern belle Blanche Du Bois rocks up at her sister’s seedy place in the ironically named Elysian Fields – her sojourn turns out to be more like a visit to Hades.  From the get-go, playwright Tennessee Williams indicates that all is not how it seems, making us privy to the lies Blanche tells others about how little she drinks.  It then becomes a matter of time for her sordid secrets to come to light, and in true Williams tradition, for the spectre of homosexuality to rear its degenerate head (although it is only ever implied).

As Blanche, Annie Swift captures the airs and graces of the role, keeping the mannerisms and declarations on the right side of camp, lest the character become a laughingstock.  As the fantasies with which Blanche shields herself are stripped away, she becomes increasingly unable to cope with grim reality, resulting in mental decline.  Doing the bulk of the stripping is brutish brother-in-law Stanley (Ollie Jones) a domineering primate, bully and domestic abuser.  Jones is fine in the role; his Stanley has a sharpness rather than a brooding quality.  Beth Gilbert is excellent as the put-upon but feisty Stella, the bridge between her sister and her husband, between Blanche’s former life and this new, unwelcome and unsettling one.

There is strong support from Nicole Poole as Eunice and James Browning as Steve, a couple of neighbours.  Even the most minor roles make an impression:  for example, Destiny Sond as a neighbour, and Patrick Shannon as a young man making charity collections.  Joe Palmer is altogether splendid as Harold Mitchell, the antithesis of Stanley, all politeness and good manners – until he can’t have what he wants.

The production is enhanced considerably by sultry lighting (designed by Patrick McCool and Chris Briggs) casting horizontal shadows across the scene, while vibrant sunsets paint the window.  Andrew Cowie and Ray Duddin’s sound design, so effective at creating atmosphere of the street (we can hear the eponymous transport!), really comes into its own during moments when Blanche is becoming unhinged and we hear what’s going on in her increasingly deluded state.

James David Knapp’s direction creates some lovely moments of tension around the table, and the outbursts of violence are neatly handled.  Everything comes together for a blistering final act, and we are left to consider who has it worse: Blanche being taken away or Stella left behind with a man who doesn’t stop short of sexual violence.  Blanche’s troubles stem from the realisation that her husband was ‘a degenerate’ – everything she has done since his suicide has been leading her to this slippery slope, captivatingly portrayed here by Annie Swift and a powerful ensemble.

 

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Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


All’s Fairy in Love and War

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 9th June, 2019

 

The Crescent’s summer touring production this year is Shakespeare’s enduring romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, and I am lucky enough to catch an indoor performance rather than brave the vagaries of the British summer!

This is an enjoyable, accessible production – Director Georgina Evans opts for modern-dress on a simple set of slender branches and fairy lights; although, I do find the draconian laws of Athens at odds with the familiarity of the attire.  I think more needs to be made of the sheer unreasonableness of the patriarchy here (Marry whom I tell you to or be celibate for the rest of your life) and poor Hermia (Charlotte Thompson) needs to be more terrified/upset/resentful/what-have-you at the onset, so that when Lysander (the excellent Jacob Williams) steps forward with an escape plan, it comes as more of a relief, a desperate measure for desperate times.  Hold up, I did say this is a comedy… In Shakespeare, a comedy is where the problems of the drama are overcome by the characters (as opposed to tragedy, where the characters are overcome by the problems).  After this dark and severe (and potentially tragic) opening, the fun and frolics in the forest should come as sharper contrast.  Evans has an eye for comic business, and it’s the little details, the interplay, the fleeting expressions, that bring the joy to this production.

Ollie Jones is Duke Theseus – he warms into the role as the play goes on, lacking the imperious tones and power of Andrew Cowie’s magnificent fairy king Oberon (special mention to Angela Daniels for his striking costume and headdress).  Aimee Ferguson is a subdued Hippolyta, yet this conquered Amazon is not shy to express her views, through action, while Shady Murphy’s Titania is a dynamic presence.  Les Stringer brings gravitas as the unreasonable Egeus, softening into a kind of Polonius figure when he is finally overruled by the Duke.

Charlotte Thompson has her moments as Hermia – particularly the slanging match with Jessica Shannon’s marvellous Helena.  Jordan Bird is a pleasing Demetrius, vying with Jacob Williams’s Lysander – both do the lovestruck fool bit rather well.  Dayna Bateman is thoroughly charming as the hardworking Puck, whose meddling in mortal affairs does not always go to plan.

The Mechanicals are a likeable bunch, led by ‘Rita’ Quince (Nicole Poole) with Scott Wilson’s Flute blossoming into a sublimely ridiculous Thisbe, towering over a diminutive Pyramus (Crescent stalwart James David Knapp having a crack at Bottom, so to speak).  Knapp’s comic instincts are sound and I’d say he could afford to be even more bullish as Bottom dominates the group’s rehearsals.

While there are some line-readings that don’t quite come across, on the whole everyone handles the language rather well and with conviction, which is no mean feat when there are scenes comprised of rhyming couplets.  Of course, the play-within-a-play provides the most laughs – it’s one of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare, in all theatre, probably, and the company do an excellent, raucous job with it.  There’s a lovely celebratory feel to the closing moments and a rousing song to finish.  Funny and sweet, the show would perhaps benefit from starker contrast between the dark and light to intensify the impact of both.

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Top Bottom: James David Knapp (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

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Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 


Something out of Nothing

NOTHING

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 11th February, 2018

 

Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action.  The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens.  And that is the point.  The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently.  It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times.  I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.

Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero.  He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven.  Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her.  We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities…  The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality.  There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.

There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows.  We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.

Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next).  In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.

An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.

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Made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 28th January, 2017

 

Nick Dear’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel that spawned modern science fiction will be familiar to many from the landmark National Theatre production directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cumberdick Bendibatch.   Here, in the Ron Barber studio, the show is inevitably scaled down but director Jenny Thurston ensures the play loses none of its power.

At the heart of the show is a towering performance from Andrew Cowie as the Creature.  From his ‘birth’, we see his cognitive development – he becomes an inquisitive toddler before our very eyes.  Nick Dear keeps the Creature at the centre of the story and so we empathise with him rather than fear him.  The Creature is the outsider, the ‘different’, hated for his appearance – his only recourse is to take revenge on the society that shuns him, and the creator who abandoned him.

James David Knapp is excellent as Victor Frankenstein, uptight and twitchy – he becomes unravelled as though he is the one held together by stitches.  His scenes with Cowie are electrifying – even if you know the story.  The tension is palpable.

The two main players are supported by a tight ensemble who come and go in all the other roles.  Charlotte Ireland makes an appealing Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée; there is some amusing character work from Tom Silverton and Richard Constable as a pair of Scottish graverobbers; Paul Harris’s kindly blind man, Bethany Wyde’s cheeky Clarice, Charlotte Upton’s sweet William, Rosa Pardo Roques’s earnest Agatha, Sam Wilson’s devoted Felix – all populate the story with the best and worst of humanity.  It is very telling how they are all united, even the decent, hard-working ones, in their rejection of the Other.

Thurston delivers the macabre humour, the shocks and the tension but above all the thought-provoking aspects of Shelley’s novel: the nature of Man, the pursuit of scientific discovery, the genie out of the bottle…

There are puppets, rabbits and dogs and so on (designed and made like children’s toys, by Jenny Thurston and Richard Constable), which observe much of the action, reminders of Nature, but echoing Victor’s unnatural creation.  They are for the most part highly effective, but I think the birds could be handled with a little more finesse.  Faye Rowse’s economical set serves the locations well – a table piled with sacks suggests a snowy mountain range, and illustrative projections remind us we are watching a story from a book.  The costumes, as ever at the Crescent, are superb.  Pat Brown and Vera Dean capture the period and, as the Creature’s intellect develops, the clothes he wears change too, civilising him – on the outside, at least.

Chris Briggs’s lighting creates atmosphere, patches of enlightenment in the murk, and the inclusion of snatches of music by Messiaen underscores the action with discord.  It all adds up to a Gothic setting for Shelley’s fable, framed by the device of a group of nervous lantern-bearers opening the book and, at the end, slamming it shut.  We must be careful where we shine our light, the production says.

All in all, this is unquestionably the most powerful production I have yet to see at the Crescent, superbly presented and performed, thrilling, moving, funny and heart-rending.  Andrew Cowie’s magnificent Creature will haunt me for a long time to come.

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Bedtime Gories

THE PILLOWMAN
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 5th April, 2012


A man sits blindfolded in a police interrogation room as the audience file in. “Take it off; it looks stupid,” snaps the detective who will lead the questioning.

So begins Martin McDonagh’s poisoned chocolate box of a play. The interrogation teases out information and gradually more is revealed to the audience as well as the suspect, the oddly named Katurian Katurian (middle name, Katurian). He is a writer of tales so twisted Roald Dahl might baulk but, even in the totalitarian state in which he resides, that is not a crime, as such. The trouble is someone had been killing small children in ways inspired by Katurian’s stories. Worse than that, his retarded elder brother has confessed, apparently under duress, to carrying out the killings.

The interrogation is broken up with recitals and dramatisations of some of the stories. The Brothers Grimm would have nightmares.

It’s a grim subject, child-killing. But the violence in the stories and the copycat crimes is so bizarre, so removed from real life atrocities, we are able to be sickened, fascinated and amused all at once.

Andrew Cowie is superb as Detective Tupolski, striding around like a skeletal Bill Nighy. He is purportedly the ‘bad cop’ to Brian Wilson’s wonderfully thuggish ‘good cop’ Ariel. They are a formidable double act who play the suspect like a fiddle.

As Katurian Katurian, the excellent Mark Tracey holds the play together, carrying most of the emotional weight as well as narrating most of the stories. He is an appealing figure, the writer oppressed by the state, desperate to see his work survive after his inevitable execution. He has charm, vulnerability and humanity – we want him to be acquitted.

But this is not really a play about tyranny and dictatorships. This has more to do with the culture of blame, so you think, of blaming seemingly inexplicable acts of violence on something the perpetrator saw or read or played. This argument only goes so far: it turns out Katurian’s dimwit brother actually did kill the kids. The play offers up the idea of troubled childhoods making for troubled adults – and indeed Katurian’s and brother Michal’s upbringing was far from idyllc, but, as Tupolski observes, “My father was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Well, yes, I am but that’s a matter of personal choice.”

Jonny Wright’s Michal is an innocent with blood (and green paint) on his hands, following his own twisted logic. It’s a well-observed portrayal and, of course, very funny. Gemma Kenny gives lively support as a “Little Girl”.

The play is in itself a story, one of Katurian’s twisted tales and like the others, is open to interpretation. Liam Tombs’s production is engaging, gripping and very entertaining. I cannot fault it.

It’s the funniest play about child murders you will ever see.