Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 8th March, 2017
Familiar from the much-loved film, the musical version, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, comes to Birmingham as part of its first national tour, and the Hippodrome is a good fit for this West End-quality show.
Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, this is the story of a young boy whose interest in ballet is kindled when he wanders into a class in favour of the boxing lessons his dad would prefer he attend. The dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson spots real talent in the boy and arranges an audition with the Royal Ballet school, opening a can of worms that include cultural expectation, gender roles, male sexuality… There is more to the story than a boy’s struggles to achieve his dream. Billy faces prejudices like a wall of riot shields – the police presence and the bellicose spirit of the miners shows us that such attitudes are of the past, but the spectre of Margaret Thatcher is very much still with us as the country continues to be shafted (that’s a mining joke) by the Tories.
Annette McLaughlin is superb as the tough-talking, chain-smoking Mrs Wilkinson, able to face up to the stubborn, prideful figure of Billy’s Dad (a highly credible Martin Walsh) and Billy’s brother Tony (a passionate Scott Garnham). The supporting players are second-to-none and there is much to enjoy in the troupe of girls who are nowhere near Billy’s level of skill and prowess. Daniel Page’s Mr Braithwaite puts in a surprisingly athletic turn in a very funny dance routine, and there is heart-warming character work from Andrea Miller as Billy’s Grandma. Elliot Stiff stops the show with his portrayal of Billy’s best friend Michael – the two of them perform a number with some oversized frocks that brings the house down.
If I had to pick a standout moment, I’d plump for when Billy dances with his older self (Luke Cinque-White), an exhilaratingly beautiful pas de deux.
Inevitably, the night belongs to Billy – on this occasion performed by the remarkable, phenomenal Lewis Smallman (who hails from nearby West Bromwich!). Hardly off-stage, he sings, he dances, he acts and – perhaps most difficult: pulls off a credible North-East accent! It’s a breath-taking display of talent and skill, humour and emotion. Exceptional.
Astounding, life-affirming and joyous, Billy’s story is eclipsed only by the talent on show by the performers. The indomitable human spirit triumphing in the face of adversity and setbacks is a universal theme, but you will rarely see the message so eye-poppingly presented.
Lewis Smallman and Luke Cinque-White
Leave a comment | tags: Andrea Miller, Annette McLaughlin, Billy Elliot, Birmingham Hippodrome, Daniel Page, Elliot Stiff, Elton John, Lee Hall, Lewis Smallman, Luke Cinque-White, Martin Walsh, review, Scott Garnham | posted in Theatre Review
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd July, 2015
Trevor Nunn’s new production of Ben Jonson’s 1606 comedy is contemporary in setting and feel. It is our world of smart phones and tablets, of ECG machines and CCTV. The text too has been tweaked to include present-day references to the Grecian economy, for example, bringing the satire up-to-date. The point is to remind us that human nature has not changed. The flaws and foibles Jonson satirises remain all too current.
Volpone is a con artist, fleecing avaricious types who seek to inherit his fortune. You can almost see the pound signs in their eyes as they flock to what they think is his death bed. In the title role, Henry Goodman is magnificent, smooth and slick; his Volpone has an innate sense of fun. He is a conman we can admire – part of the enduring appeal of stories about confidence tricksters is our enjoyment of the cleverness of the scam, being in on it with the tacit acknowledgment that we, the audience, would never be duped… And, of course, the victims deserve what they get; they are terrible people.
The excellent Matthew Kelly is Corvino, a jealous, abusive tyrant of a husband, who turns out to be willing to whore out his wife if it means he will be named Volpone’s heir. Geoffrey Freshwater is in good form as the doddering Corbaccio, willing to disinherit his own son in order to secure Volpone’s riches. We enjoy seeing these men stitched up, due to Goodman’s splendidly timed asides and hilarious fakery. A baldie wig and no small amount of drooling work wonders. True, Volpone too is motivated by avarice but his victims are taking advantage of what they presume is a feeble invalid at death’s door. Where Volpone oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable is when he attempts to force himself on Corvino’s comely Mrs, Celia (Rhiannon Handy). This is why Volpone has to be punished at the end.
Goodman is a thoroughly charming silver fox and each disguise he assumes is audaciously funny, for example the Italian mountebank who mangles the English language into something that sounds ruder than it is. Volpone is aided and abetted by his able sidekick, Mosca (the elegantly expressive Orion Lee) – a bit like Clouseau’s Cato but without the impromptu karate attacks.
Annette McLaughlin is funny as the grotesque Lady Politic Would-Be, here portrayed as a self-obsessed reality TV diva, complete with cameraman in tow. The ever-appealing Colin Ryan makes Peregrine a likeable American backpacker, and Andy Apollo makes Bonario a dashing heroic figure. The peculiar trio of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite (Jon Key, Julian Hoult, and Ankur Bahl, respectively) add a bizarre touch of colour to proceedings. Every home should have such a trio.
The action shifts along at quite a lick – you barely notice the running time – and the show belongs to Henry Goodman, in the most entertaining performance of the RSC’s current season. Jonson turns moralist at the end as the judges mete out punishments left, right and centre. We are admonished to look to our own conduct. It is one thing to enjoy the vices of others, vicariously at the theatre, but quite another to indulge in those vices in our real lives.
Orion Lee helping Henry Goodman look his worst. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
1 Comment | tags: Andy Apollo, Ankur Bahl, Annette McLaughlin, Ben Jonson, Colin Ryan, Geoffrey Freshwater, Henry Goodman, Jon Key, Julian Hoult, Matthew Kelly, Orion Lee, review, Rhiannon Handy, RSC, The Swan Theatre, Trevor Nunn, Volpone | posted in Theatre Review
THE JEW OF MALTA
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th April, 2015
Christopher Marlowe’s play, which has a Jew as the villain, is not staged anywhere near as often as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – perhaps we find Shylock more palatable to our modern sensibilities. While we can understand the motivation of Marlowe’s Barabas, his path of vengeance and destruction renders him inhuman – psychopathic, even.
Forced to surrender his fortune in order to pay the state’s protection money to the Turks, Barabas soon bounces back, and sends his spirited daughter Abigail undercover as a nun into the nunnery his house has been turned into, to dig up his secret stash of gems and gold. With these he is able to rebuild his fortune – but that is not enough. He embarks on a plan of revenge on all those who have wronged him. The son of the governor is set up in a duel with a rival that ends fatally. A priest is framed for the murder of a friar. The nuns are wiped out by poisoned porridge…
It’s melodramatic stuff but Justin Audibert directs with a sense of humour and the result is a very black comedy indeed. As the titular Jew, Jasper Britton portrays a delicious kind of evil in a compelling performance. He is aided and abetted by his henchman, Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu, who uses physicality to add humour to his characterisation). Catrin Stewart is powerful as Barabas’s loud and strident daughter and there is excellent support from Matthew Needham as pimp to Beth Cordingly’s jaded hooker, Bellamira. Marcus Griffiths cuts a dash as the imperious Turk, Calymath, while Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly vie amusingly with each other for Barabas’s soul and gold coins as two supposedly holy men. Particularly striking is Annette McLaughlin as Katherine, grieving for her murdered son.
Oliver Fenwick’s sunny lighting gives us the brightness and warmth of the Maltese climate, bouncing off Lily Arnold’s paving stone set. Jonathan Girling’s music, performed live, is both evocative and beautiful, and the fight sequences by Kevin McCurdy have the front rows flinching in their seats.
Marlowe gives his villain all the best lines – Barabas is able to be scathing about religion and people who profess to be Christians but behave contrary to their faith (reminding me of our current and hopefully outgoing government!). “Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion,” says Barabas. He is not wrong.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which Barabas’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. Moving along at a cracking pace, with plenty of laughs and shocks along the way, the show is as entertaining as you could wish.
To hear the word ‘Jew’ as an insult and disparaging term, makes us wince. We like to feel we are more inclusive and that there is less anti-Semitism around – but then I recall that only the other day the Tories had to sack one of their own for saying she would never support ‘the Jew Ed Miliband’ and I despair.
Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)
1 Comment | tags: Annette McLaughlin, Beth Cordingly, Catrin Stewart, Christopher Marlowe, Geoffrey Freshwater, Jasper Britton, Jonathan Girling, Justin Audibert, Kevin McCurdy, Lanre Malaolu, Lily Arnold, Marcus Griffiths, Matthew Kelly, Matthew Needham, Oliver Fenwick, review, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, The Jew of Malta, The Swan Theatre | posted in Theatre Review