Tag Archives: Artshouse

Hugo Faster

LES MISERABLES – School Edition

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th March, 2018

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company’s young division tackle the ‘schools version’ of the renowned Boubil & Schonberg musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel – a story that is grimmer than an omnibus edition of EastEnders.  All the scenes and songs are here but the running time is abridged by about half an hour.  It’s an ambitious project but the stripped-down setting works rather well, giving the space entirely to the youthful performers.  Director Judi Walton is to be commended for the discipline and commitment she has instilled in her multitudinous chorus, who get on and off quickly and efficiently and sing really well – and as though they mean it.

There is much to relish from the principal characters.  I’ll reel off some highlights:  Florence Cain’s expressive Fantine displays emotional depth – her ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a knockout.  Elisea Cooper’s Eponine, feeling the pangs of unrequited love, is also strong.  Marius (a fresh-faced Tristan Barford) is excellent – by the time we get to ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’, he can do no wrong in my eyes. Mollie Dibb’s Cosette hits piercing high notes with apparent ease, while Rachel McDonnell’s Madame Thernadier is a just about perfectly pitched piece of musical theatre character acting.  As her husband, Monsieur Thernadier, John Luke Goodman shows promise but needs to ensure his energy levels are consistent throughout his delivery, rather than throwing away some of the gags.  Nathan Woolley makes a rousing Enjolras, while Samuel Littell’s cocky, Cockney Gavroche could put the Artful Dodger to shame.

Heading the cast as bread thief Jan Valjean, Isaac Aston has some powerful moments, ultimately bringing the house down with ‘Bring Him Home’.

All in all, this production is impressively performed but where I have an issue is the speed of it all.  We rattle through the show at a rate of knots; perhaps musical director Sam Young is worried that the pubs might be shut before it’s finished.  The result is that many moments are robbed of their impact.  There is more to musical theatre than hitting the notes and getting the words out.  The characters need time to emote, to think, to react.  Here, they barely get chance to breathe.  And so, for example, Alexander Fox’s Javert is denied his menace and his anguish as he races through his pieces; the death of Eponine also happens too fast… It’s a pity we skip over the surface of the songs when this talented mob of youngsters clearly has the potential for greater emotional depth.

cosette-colour

 

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Nice Hooters

HOOT OWL – Master of Disguise

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st February, 2018

 

It is not uncommon for successful children’s picture books to make the transition to the stage.  The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt are just two examples.  Now, Proon Productions bring us Sean Taylor’s owl-arious story, to wit Hoot Owl; adapter-performers Ellis Creez and Rebecca Hallworth flesh out the plot (they have to, or the show would be over in ten minutes!) to create an hour of entertainment, framing Taylor’s original account of the protagonist’s quest for food with an over-arcing plot: Hoot Owl must prove his predatory prowess if he is to join the ranks of the Parliament of Owls.

There are several charming songs, penned by Creez and Hallworth and arranged by Mark Rowson, so there are plenty of opportunities for us to sing, clap, and wave our arms along with the cast.  In fact, my only quibble with this thoroughly enjoyable production is that sometimes the backing tracks are a little too high in the mix, drowning out the witty and sophisticated (and funny) lyrics.  The cast are both miked up but they could do with belting a bit more to get the songs across to the greatest effect.

As the eponymous owl, Creez reveals his comedic biases with shameless tributes to the likes of Frankie Howerd, in his audience address – the put-downs of some of the grown-ups are funny without being mean-spirited; there is a Benny Hill-type chase around the auditorium, although with only two in the cast, it is more the spirit of the idea that amuses (There is much for the grown-ups and for the parents of the grown-ups to enjoy here, as Creez’s old-school comic stylings work like a dream).  Creez is also a nifty magician; as mentioned earlier, he just needs a bit more power in his singing voice to attain perfection.

Playing all the other roles, including operating an impressive pair of hooters – I’m referring to the owl puppets, made by Craig Denston – Rebecca Hallworth proves her versatility.  Her Rabbit gets every on their feet and her pigeon-headed Elvis Presley invocation is a showstopper.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Elvis.  With a pigeon’s head.

The script is packed with one-liners and cleverly, the writers sneak in facts about the animal characters Hoot Owl encounters.  There is a bit of a message about self-belief, without getting all moralistic or gooey about it, but above all, the show is a bonkers bit of fun.  Wisely, the original book forms the spine of the story and shapes the action, culminating in Hoot Owl’s final disguise as an Italian waiter, stalking a pizza, the only prey he can manage to catch.  Here, an audience member is called upon to appear as a customer and read lines from a menu, in true Generation Game fashion.

The set by Kevin Hallworth and the animations by Kian Adams are informed by Jean Jullien’s illustrations in the book, although the show has plenty of pantomime elements to it (a couple of child volunteers are enlisted to wave pompoms as Hoot Owl’s hootleaders) and one scene, in which Hoot Owl, disguised as a ewe, attracts the attentions of a randy ram, hearkens back to the earliest days of Comedy.    Hoot Owl – Master of Disguise is not only a celebration of the book but a fresh take on the traditional theatrics that have had us laughing for millennia.

There is something for everyone here.  You’d be a to-wit to miss it.

hoot owl

Hoot Owl (Ellis Creez) petitions Parliament