Tag Archives: Anna Westlake

Bloody Funny

MACBETH

mac, Birmingham, Sunday 17th July, 2016

 

This latest version of the Scottish play by Oddsocks (their third, I believe) has a steampunk aesthetic, making for their best-looking production to date.  The costumes (by Vanessa Anderson and the company) are exquisite: platform boots, long coats and goggles are the order of the day, on a set of riveted steel, cogs, gears and tubes.  It’s a dystopian world of leadership challenges, and therefore ripe for topical comedy along with the trademark Oddsocks silliness and delivery of Shakespeare’s text without too many alterations.

Director Andy Barrow is a northern Macbeth, sounding like Ned Stark – the accent leads to new gags at Shakespeare’s expense.  Barrow is a generous performer and allows the rest of his cast of six to shine in their own way.  Rebecca Little’s Lady Macbeth is powerful and funny, a tiny tyrant with a nice line in vocals and melodramatic posturing – her sleepwalking scene is an utter joy: she plays it relatively straight against the backdrop of general silliness and the interpolation of a Tears For Fears classic number.  Gavin Harrison gives us a toffee-nosed King Duncan and a bungling murderer, while Ben Locke’s Macduff is a cocky, heroic Scot.  Anna Westlake’s Fleance is a bit of a scene-stealer, an emo kid with a dark side, and Oddsocks stalwart Joseph Maudsley gives us the daftest Banquo’s ghost I’ve seen.

The witches are gothic automatons, glitchy and eerie but it’s the scene in which they show Macbeth the apparitions that is when the steampunk theme comes to fruition, with puppet babies suspended in a vacuum tube.  This is Oddsocks creativity and inventiveness at its best.

As tragedies go, this one is relentlessly laugh-out-loud funny.  No detail is overlooked to wring as many laughs out of the audience as possible.  Visual gags supplement the verbal.  Slapstick and silliness underscore some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.  The violence is cartoony rather than horrific.  The whole thing is absolutely daft but in the cleverest way.  It’s knockabout stuff but it ticks along like clockwork.

Yet again, Andy Barrow delivers a marvel, an evening’s entertainment using an ancient text, even older theatrical traditions and conventions, and yet the result is something that feels absolutely fresh and new.

Oddsocks have been touring such high quality shows for 27 years.  If this latest gem is anything to go by, these punks are showing no signs of running out of steam.

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Riveting: Ben Locke and Andy Barrow cross swords as Macduff and Macbeth.

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Much Fun About Everything

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st June, 2016

 

The remarkable Oddsocks Productions brings its summer outdoors show indoors, to the Belgrade’s B2 space – a wise move given the vagaries of the weather, although I have fond memories of a rain-lashed production of The Tempest at the mac many years ago, my first encounter with this hilarious company and the geniuses Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie.  I’ve been a devotee ever since and I’m delighted to have the chance to see this production again.  Last year, it toured with Twelfth Night; this year its stablemate is a steampunk version of Macbeth (Watch this space for a review next month!)

Director and adaptor Andy Barrow reprises his Leonato, a proud father and dad-dancer.  It’s difficult to talk about the show without spoiling the surprises but I will say he is correct in his assertion that he has all the best moves.  The performance shows off Barrow’s skills at physical comedy; the production as a whole shows off his theatrical chutzpah and nous.  Riding tandem with Shakespeare, the hallmarks of an Oddsocks show: slapstick, silly wigs, cartoonish props, musicianship, clowning skills, somehow get the story told while preserving the integrity of the script.  It’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity – we’re laughing along throughout but you know it’s working, you know Barrow has us in the palm of his hands in the church scene, when the feelings between Beatrice and Benedick are at last given voice.  You can hear a pin drop; Barrow lets Shakespeare take the driving seat for this perfectly poignant moment.  We are touched, we are thrilled, and all this time we thought we’d been sitting back and having a laugh.  Wonderful.

Of course, kudos is due to Rebecca Little and Joseph Maudsley, the Beatrice and Benedick who pull off this electricity.  Little is not short on presence; her Beatrice is a mass of scornful energy.  Maudsley’s Benedick is endlessly appealing.  The playing is broad, as befits an outdoor show, but Maudsley imbues his performance with truth and credibility, even during the knockabout stuff.

Both actors reappear in other roles.  Little’s Dogberry is a neighbourhood watch busybody with a penchant for torture; Maudsley gives us a perfectly observed drunkard in his Borachio, working the audience and larger-than-life but still utterly credible.

Similarly, Ben Locke’s dashing Claudio brings out the soldier and the lover among all the silliness.  Anna Westlake’s Hero is charming, in contrast to her Verges of the watch.  All the actors play instruments too – you have to be versatile in an Oddsocks show.  Gavin Harrison’s Don John, villain of the piece, is perfect pantomime; his rendition of Radiohead’s Creep is just sublime.  But that’s the thing about Andy Barrow: all the ideas, from song choices to silly wigs, are all a propos and in context.  The ideas support and serve Shakespeare, all to give us one of the most entertaining evenings you can spend at a play.

Sheer brilliance.

 

 


In the same boat

THREE MEN IN A BOAT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 15th October, 2014

 

The Original Theatre Company – who brought us the superlative Birdsong – return with their rip-roaring adaptation of Jerome K Jerome’s classic comic novel, a book which is one of the forerunners of modern British humour. Craig Gilbert’s script uses great swathes of Jerome, interspersed with quick-fire contemporary jokes and visual gags. The result is a delightful concoction for which the phrase laugh-a-minute is inadequate, and I am delighted to be able to see it again.

Three men walk into a pub. Two are there to support the third, who is to give a talk detailing their recent boating trip up the River Thames. The talk is abandoned in favour of a more physical re-enactment and so, using what there is at hand in the back room of the Elusive Pelican, the trio embark on a lively, inventive and witty piece of narrative theatre.

Alastair Whatley is J, the would-be lecturer, urbane and, I suspect, louche, while his companions (Paul Westwood as George and Tom Hackney as Harris) hurl themselves around the stage. Between them the three men populate the tale with a multitude of characters. At the piano is Nelly (Anna Westlake) who provides a silent-movie type soundtrack for the action sequences and accompaniment whenever they burst into music-hall songs (the one about cucumbers is a particular favourite).  In short, they are a skilled and talented quartet whose comic timing is nothing short of perfect.

Victoria Spearling’s artfully cluttered and cosy pub set makes a remarkable substitute for the banks of the Thames and Alan Valentine’s lighting is literally ‘spot-on’. Craig Gilbert directs his own script and doesn’t miss a trick. The performance is so detailed and fast-paced, you hardly dare blink in case you miss something. Thankfully, there are moments of quiet and the tone becomes bittersweet, rather than an unrelenting barrage of madcap silliness.

It’s a play about what three men did on their holidays, but there are undercurrents of other things: friendship, for one, and a relaxed way of looking at life that is rather appealing.   The evening is a holiday for the audience.

Do yourself a favour and get on board. Three Men in a Boat plays at the Belgrade until Saturday. Tickets are available from the box office on 024 7655 3055

Put this in your pipe. Paul Westwood, Tom Hackney and Alastair Whatley

Put this in your pipe. Paul Westwood, Tom Hackney and Alastair Whatley

 


Homeward Bound

Mike Kenny’s new version of The Odyssey condenses 20 years of travel and adventure into two hours of stage time.  The first act, which deals with Odysseus’s journey, certainly benefits from a fast pace, giving us the key episodes of the epic voyage in brief scenes.  A chorus of gods is our narrators while the man himself lies spark out centre stage.  As the action gets under way, Odysseus becomes his own storyteller, narrating a story within a story – but don’t worry: it’s all very accessible and easy to follow.

It’s action-packed and fast-moving with some stirring acapella  singing from soloists and the entire company.  Composer and sound designer Ivan Stott should be commended for his excellent contributions.  He also appears as a range of characters, including Eumaeus the swineherd.

Director Sarah Brigham hardly lets the cast keep still for a second; the action is fluid and the staging is rich with invention and ideas, making the most of the present-day army aesthetic.  But for me, the tone is slightly off.  Some of the narration and heightened dialogue is a little too earnest and po-faced.  The piece could do with lightening up – that is not to say it is humourless because it has its funny moments; I just think the bias is the wrong way round.  They need to have more fun with it so that moments of anguish and suffering are all the more striking by contrast.

Christopher Price is a darkly funny Cyclops, stalking around on stilts, half-man, half-Dalek.  Wole Sawyerr is a weary Odysseus, conveying most of the hero’s exhaustion through body language, summoning up yet another idea to save their skins and finding the energy to command his crew.  He seems to come alive in the second act when the plot slows down to focus on events upon his much-delayed return to his home on Ithaca.  Here is human drama – as opposed to the derring-do with gods and monsters in the first act – and the cast is able to invest more emotion in the playing of these scenes.

Emma Beattie is a hard-nosed Penelope, standing her ground against an infestation of suitors and guarding her emotions until she is finally sure her long-lost husband has returned.  Similarly effective is Rich Dolphin as Odysseus’s troubled teenage son Telemachus, convincing us with his entire demeanour that he is younger than he really is, without descending into caricature.  Adam Horvath gets the arrogance and cruelty of would-be husband Antinous just right, and I also enjoyed Ella Vale’s haughty Circe as well as Anna Westlake’s loyal servant Eurekleia.

The fights (directed by Ian Stapleton) and other acts of violence are handled extremely well – I just wish the production didn’t take itself quite so seriously in the first half.  There is more than enough energy and creativity at work here to allow for a lighter touch that would sharpen the contrast with the heavier moments.

Technically and theatrically impressive, this Odyssey is enjoyable but doesn’t really hit home until its hero does.

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Promotional image for the production


A Funny State of A Fez

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Derby Theatre, Monday 22nd July, 2013

 For their summer tour, Oddsocks Productions have applied their distinctive style to one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, a play that is already very funny before you Oddsocks it up.  Director/adaptor Andy Barrow leads a team of five new faces and it soon becomes apparent that he picks his cast members well.  This crazy, talented bunch are more than up to the challenges presented in an Oddsocks performance – not least of which is playing musical instruments.

With only six actors (an increase on the usual five) certain things have to be excised from the script.  Old Egeon is nowhere to be seen – he is the father of one set of twins and his arrest and threatened execution adds tension to the play.  But this is Oddsocks.  They even did Hamlet as a comedy.  With the jeopardy removed, this production keeps things light, focussing on the farcical elements of the plot and emphasising the slapstick and physical comedy.  You don’t miss Egeon at all.

Also omitted is Adriana’s sister Luciana, a rival for the affections of the twin of Adriana’s husband (it’s complicated).  Instead of missing her out completely, a woman on the front row is addressed and questioned – for an Oddsocks production, the show is comparatively light on audience participation.

But never mind what we don’t get.  What we do get is an evening of superlative comedy.  The setting is vaguely Turkish; the cart and costumes are looking good, giving the production a unified feel.  There are enough fezzes knocking around for a Sons of the Desert convention. Andy Barrow plays both Dromios, differentiating them by accent, displaying a physical agility that belies his middle-age; as Dromios’ masters Antipholus, Gavin Harrison is a real find; a splendid character actor in the Oddsocks tradition – reactions and expressions are heightened but thought processes are written all over his face.  Anna Westlake’s Adriana is commanding and shrewish but spirited and likeable all the same.  Dominic Gee-Burch and Marlon Soloman add to the cavalcade of silly characterisations, clearly enjoying themselves and proving themselves as versatile comic players.  Also impressive, in this impressive group, Miranda Heath is superb as the Abbess, a Courtesan and an Officer of the law.  Some of the changes are very quick.  At other times, the cast vamp on their instruments through a selection of familiar numbers: Ghost Town by the Specials and Madness’s House of Fun are particular favourites.

The show gives us a chorus of nuns who re-enact the shipwreck that split the two sets of twins when they were infants, before bursting into a surprise Diana Ross number.  Sister Act was never this silly.  But as well as these flashes of madness (and Madness) Shakespeare’s play is still very much in evidence.  The dialogue about Nell, a spherical kitchen maid, is delivered intact and remains one of the funniest bits of patter – Shakespeare invents Abbott and Costello’s entire act.

All the way through, with two actors playing both pairs of twins, I was thinking, how will they do the final reunion?  Brilliantly, is how they do it.  I did not see it coming, even though there are hints throughout the performance.  It all comes together for an hilarious denouement, proving my assertion that Andy Barrow is an unalloyed genius.  His approach to Shakespeare is both irreverent and respectful.  He understands the theatrical engine of the play and the theatrical traditions that underpin it, and yet somehow manages to give us a production that is distinctively his own.

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Cheek to cheek: Dromio (Andy Barrow) and the Courtesan (Miranda Heath)