Tag Archives: B2 Studio

A Dog Without Purpose

FAITHFUL RUSLAN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 5th September, 2017

 

If George Orwell had written Lassie Come Home it might have turned out something like this: heavy with political allegory and mired in the harshness of life.  Based on a cult novel by Georgi Vladimov, Faithful Ruslan is the story of a guard dog, made redundant by the closure of his gulag.  This is no cosy, heart-warming Greyfriars Bobby – Ruslan is so conditioned by his training, he can’t forego the old regime and would rather suffer and starve than accept food or a helping hand from a stranger.

Max Keeble features as Ruslan in a remarkable display of physicality.  He comes across as a man-dog, his movements and reactions utterly credible.  Other members of the cast crop up as narrators of Ruslan’s thoughts, their anthropomorphic accounts at odds with the canine qualities of Keeble’s performance.  Ruslan’s thoughts give us a view of the action no dog would ever have, speaking of things dogs can’t conceptualise.  If ever you’ve heard someone banging on about a dog’s birthday, you’ll get the idea.

Helena Kaut-Howson has adapted the novel and directs this production with a sharp eye and vigour, putting her cast through a regimen as they become not just dogs and other humans but swinging doors and props for scenic items.  It’s a relentless barrage of ideas, the vast majority of them extremely effective.  (There’s an ill-advised rap quality to one bit of narration about a tractor but I’ll gloss over that!)

Martin Donaghy is Ruslan’s cruel and treacherous Master, an ostensible villain, but of course, it’s the system that’s to blame, here called The Service.  Paul Brendan brings a down-to-earth touch of humour to proceedings as the Shabby Man, who crosses Ruslan’s path.  Isabelle Joss appears as Stiura, Shabby Man’s lady friend who has nightmares about being gangraped by a long line of prisoners.  You see, it’s not just about man’s slavery and exploitation of animals but the way humans treat each other.  Another standout is Hunter Bishop as an energetic and enthusiastic Instructor for the Service dogs who ends up barking mad himself.

There is much to appreciate in this ensemble piece, where the physicality of the performers is enhanced by lighting effects that bring colour to this grim, grey world. Projections of scene captions add to the epic theatre feel.  For this stage adaptation, the story is set as a play-within-a-play, performed by the inmates of a corrective facility on the eve of the centenary of the Russian revolution… All I can say is, that corrective facility has one hell of a sophisticated drama society.

You come out impressed by the form but depressed by the content.  There is nothing uplifting, no ray of light.  The conclusion seems to be that if you’re drowned as a puppy, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Grim, largely unpleasant but compellingly told – it’s going to take a lot of vodka to get the taste out of my mouth.

Max Keeble in Faithful Ruslan - Credit Robert Day

Doggy style: Max Keeble as Ruslan (Photo: Robert Day)

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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.

 

 


Yes It Most Definitely Is

OH NO IT ISN’T

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 10th December, 2014

 

In the Belgrade’s B2 Studio there’s an alternative to the traditional pantomime playing in the main house. This show is pitched at adult audiences and is a refreshing antidote to the season of good will that has been forced down our throats since October.

It begins backstage during a performance of Jack & The Beanstalk. Both halves of a pantomime cow are desperately looking for a gun needed for the next scene. What the front half doesn’t know is that the rear end is in league with the actress playing the giant; they are assassins hired to bump off the principal boy…

A farce unfolds with real and prop guns, poisoned and unpoisoned apples. When the scene changes to the actual performance the sense of desperation and tension escalates. With more twists than a corkscrew factory, Nick Walker’s plot moves along at breakneck speed – it has to, to fit into an hour’s running time. It’s also a very funny script with a rich vein of corny humour you expect from seasonal entertainment.

The cast of four work their tights off to keep it going. As an audience though, we need warming up a bit. It takes us a while to get with it. Emily May Smith is the diminutive, shock-haired giant and hired killer, wide-eyed and energetic. Robert Kidd is hilarious as the rear end of the pantomime cow and a comedy vicar in a performance that would not be amiss in Royston Vasey. Tom Shepherd’s front half of the cow is the more down-to-earth of the quartet but has a nice line in physical comedy. However it is Jack him-herself who takes the crown. The mighty Katy Stephens is superb as the overbearing actress that people want dead. Not above poking fun at herself and her RSC experiences, she commands the stage, desperate to keep the increasingly shambolic panto going and outwit her would-be killers at every turn. It’s a powerhouse performance of comedic skill and Stephens is more than ably supported by the other three.

The action becomes increasingly manic culminating in one final twist like a punchline to the hilarious hour.

Oh No It Isn’t – once you warm to it – has much to enjoy. It’s well worth dropping into the theatre for an hour to get yourself in a good mood before the rest of your night out.

Silly Cow.  Katy Stephens pulls the udder one.

Silly Cow. Katy Stephens pulls the udder one.


Spanish Gold

In the Belgrade’s B2 studio, there’s a little drama festival going on, a brief season of three Spanish plays written by contemporaries of Shakespeare who are, unaccountably, little known by the general population of Britain.

A LADY OF LITTLE SENSE – Tuesday 1st April, 2014

David Johnston’s translation of Lope de Vega’s La Dama Boba (1613) is sharp and funny, the language updated without being slangy, delivered in an almost throwaway naturalistic style. There is also a lot of rhyming verse, in soliloquies for example – a challenge for any translator. The sparkling script is brought to life by a company of energetic actors, directed to frenetic activity by Laurence Boswell.

The plot has similarities to The Taming of the Shrew: a wealthy man seeks to marry off his daughters, bestowing the larger dowry on the beautiful but dim-witted Finea. This sum attracts suitors who are quickly distracted by her sister Nise’s intelligence.

As the seemingly untameable Finea, Frances McNamee hurls herself around the stage with abandon but the extremes that she goes to somehow endear us to the character, and so when romantic intrigues beset her, we feel for her. It is a remarkable performance, the beating heart of this madcap comedy.

McNamee is supported by an ensemble who populate the stage with a wealth of funny characters (the cheeky servant – a splendid Hedydd Dylan; the dancing teacher – the marvellous Jim Bywater…) Nick Barber is flamboyant and given to grand stylised gestures as mercenary suitor Laurencio, whose plotting drives the storyline; he is nicely contrasted by Simon Scardifield’s sensitive Liseo. Scardifield is a fine physical comedian although he does need to watch he doesn’t drop his voice too much in certain speeches. In the B2 studio, he can just about get away with it – although I was only five rows from the stage.

A delightful couple of hours which includes a spot of flamenco dancing, A Lady of Little Sense runs like a well-oiled contraption thanks to the energy of the talented, hard-working cast. It’s a life-affirming comedy that proves there is still mileage in the old conventions and devices of yesteryear.

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Funny girl: Frances McNamee as Finea

PUNISHMENT WITHOUT REVENGE – Wednesday 2nd April, 2014

Don’t you just hate that awkward moment when you fall in love with the woman you rescue from a road traffic accident and she turns out to be your dad’s new fiancée?

So begins Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, a tale of forbidden love, honour and betrayal. Son and stepmother do what they can but ultimately they are powerless to resist. They succumb to their passion, are discovered and dealt with. It’s a revenge tragedy that doesn’t end well for anyone. De Vega’s characters are rounded out from their stock types and our modern-day sensibilities don’t condemn the illicit lovers as much as his contemporaries would have.

Nick Barber and Frances McNamee (who has rocketed towards the top of the list of my favourite actors) are remarkably good as the transgressing lovers. Barber’s Federico is a sensitive soul, mooning about like Hamlet, suffering the pangs of what he initially thinks is unrequited love. McNamee commands respect as Duchess Cassandra, tortured and vulnerable. The scenes between these two are electric.

They are supported by this excellent ensemble. William Hoyland is powerful as the wronged husband and father, and Katie Lightfoot, forever in white frocks, adds depth to her role as Aurora, trying her own hand at romantic intrigue.

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Woman in white, Aurora (Katie Lightfoot) and faithless Federico (Nick Barber)

DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES – Wednesday 3rd April, 2014

Tirso de Molina’s comedy is an amusing confection, a kind of ‘revenge comedy’: wronged woman Juana pursues the man who hurt her and thwarts his plans to wrong another woman by adopting the pseudonym he is operating under, along with a bright green outfit, breeches and all, that makes Juana appear dashingly irresistible to women. Complications build on complications – de Molina pushes the farcical aspects of the situation as far as they can go and we delight in the artifice and contrivance of it all. It’s a bit of silly fun but I feel the cast work harder to keep this particular balloon in the air. The script doesn’t have the drive of a Lope de Vega and also his wisdom (I’ve seen two of his plays; I’m an expert!) – the stakes aren’t as high as in the other plays in this trio.

As the cross-dressing Juana, Hedydd Dylan has fun, adopting a macho swagger and deepening her voice while conveying Juana’s discomfort at the same time. She would be an excellent Viola or Rosalind. Jim Bywater amuses as the man servant she employs, put upon and world-weary, and Doug Rao is sufficiently dashing and dastardly as the gallant on the make. Chris Andrew Mellon is hilarious as the rather camp Quintana, rushing through his comic asides, and Simon Scardifield gets some good laughs as a rather petulant and posturing Don Juan.  Katie Lightfoot gets a chance to lighten up, playing a younger version of the girl-in-the-white-dress character with relish.

Director Mehmet Ergen gives the production some stylish flourishes and it’s a bright and colourful affair, but I’m glad I saw it third and last. It’s a sweet dessert after the more nutritious and satisfying earlier courses.

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It’s not easy being green. Hedydd Dylan and Jim Bywater

Mark Bailey’s set of black squares edged with gold proves versatile across all three plays and his work on costume merits commendation. Each play has its own aesthetic within the all-purpose setting, matching the overall tone of the piece. I especially liked the black, gold and white palette of Punishment Without Revenge.

You won’t go wrong if you only see one of the three, but I’d urge you to go to two or all three, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better quality productions of these pieces. I can’t believe the RSC don’t stage more of these but until they do, I am grateful to Laurence Boswell and the Belgrade for rekindling my interest in the golden age of Spanish drama.