Tag Archives: Barney George

Mist Opportunity


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 15th April, 2015


Oldham Coliseum is touring this adaptation of a Susan Hill novel in a bid to recreate the atmosphere and no doubt the lucrative success of the long-(still!)-running stage version of her earlier novel, The Woman in Black. Like that version, adapter Ian Kershaw uses narration and story-within-a-story to set the scene. Hill’s language, coupled with Barney George’s striking costumes evoke the Victorian period, and that works very well. Unfortunately, the production is dominated by the set. Ostensibly a black box with sections that open and close, changes of location and mood are signalled by visual effects, animated projections by a company called imitating the dog.  The images are attractive in themselves and useful for speedy depiction of a scene but I feel there is just too many of them, distracting from the action and some of the wordier passages of narration. Consequently, I am not caught up in the atmosphere and am feeling the lack of suspense. Director Kevin Shaw relies heavily on sudden loud noises to give us a jolt but on the whole the scenes are too short and bitty to permit any real build-up of tension.

Paul Warriner is our hero, a young man seeking information about his family’s mysterious past. He makes a dashing gentleman – perhaps there is too much dashing around! Jack Lord is the ‘reader’, a narrator who takes over the exposition every now and then. A lovely, rich voice but he tells the tale as if it is his, rather than reading it and being gripped by it for the first time in the book he holds as a prop. Martin Reeve crops up in a range of roles but, with all the comings and goings, I find it difficult to keep track of who is whom – another distraction from the plot. Sarah Eve and Caroline Harding play the female roles but there is not all that much for them to do.

There is a ghost popping on and off – some appearances are more effective than others – but the resolution seems rushed. And so I come away disappointed. Less of a moving storybook approach would give the story a chance. Scenes need time to breathe if they are to give us a scare, but I will say Lorna Munden’s sound design goes a long way to compensate for the show’s shortcomings. An emphasis on sound rather than visuals might have been a better way to go.


Ice Screams All Round


Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 8th January, 2015


In a new departure for the Hippodrome, the Patrick Centre – usually home to dance productions – is being used to stage a play. While the pantomime extravaganza is still having it large in the main house, this is a chance for a more intimate experience and – well, it turns out to be quite an experience.

Unfortunately for reviewers, the play is one of those pieces we daren’t say too much about for fear of spoiling it for those who see it after us. I will give you a taste of the set-up, though.

It’s 1928, and bright young hedonists Tony (Andrew Dowbiggin) and Madeline (Anna Andresen) are on their way to a fancy dress party at a house, a very big house in the country. A fall of snow maroons them in a disused hunting lodge and presently they are joined by other lost partygoers. There is predatory lesbian Jinty (Victoria John) and upper class twit Roger (Christopher Green – who also directs and co-wrote the script). It’s all cut-glass accents and bad behaviour, until mysterious events, um, eventuate… I don’t want to go into it, but this cod potboiler delivers laughs and chills by the bucketful.   Barney George’s set, all antlers, dust covers and icicles, along with lighting by Katy Morison and effects by Oliver Meech, all help the cast create an atmosphere of suspense and dread…

The script by Green and novelist Sarah Waters keeps the surprises coming. I fear I’m spoiling it by saying there are surprises in it. Expect the unexpected, I will say and, to echo a recurring line from the play, “Trust no one.”

Oh, and the fabulous Rula Lenska is in it, bringing a touch of class to the proceedings as Lady Agatha.

It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece of theatrical cleverness. Truly sensational – in the literary sense of the term, The Frozen Scream is something new for the Hippodrome and I hope heralds a renaissance of smaller-scale productions in one of the country’s largest theatres.


Strings Attached


The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd September, 2014

Playwright Matthew Spangler’s excellent adaptation of the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini is an electrifying piece of storytelling. Directed by Giles Croft, this is the story of two Afghan boys, one the servant to the other, who grow up together in Kabul. The actors Ben Turner and Andrei Costin run around like kids, shooting at each other with their fingers in a very Blood Brothers kind of way – except, having had the same wet nurse, these two are more like Breast-milk Brothers until events, personal and political conspire to tear them apart.

Turner narrates as Amir and is never short of captivating. Amir makes mistakes and has to live with the consequences of those mistakes; Turner is so engaging, Amir’s motivation is always understandable. His guilt-ridden rejection of his friend is perfectly human.

Amir’s dad Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh) is a domineering figure – this is a father/son tale as much as one of friendship and betrayal. Doorgasingh brings out the different facets of this character – there is nobility, vulnerability and love in this man. The rest of the ensemble is also very strong. Nicholas Karimi’s sociopath Assef grows from scary bully to scary warlord. Antony Bunsee brings dignity as General Taheri – it all plays out on an evocative set by Barney George, where the backdrop suggests both fence posts and skyscrapers. Charles Balfour’s lighting signifies changes of time, place and mood, with projections by William Simpson suggesting Afghani and/or Muslim designs, as well as kites and sky.  A musician (Hanif Khan) remains onstage throughout, providing a percussive soundtrack to the action and the emotional life of the tale.

Giles Croft choreographs his cast, blending naturalistic and non-naturalistic techniques to the service of the story. But it is the intensity and appeal of the narrator that keep us engaged throughout, thanks to the powerful and magnetic Ben Turner. This is narrative theatre at its finest, absorbing, affecting and thoroughly entertaining.

Ben Turner and Andrei Costin.  Photo: Andrew Day.

Ben Turner and Andrei Costin. Photo: Andrew Day.

A Bird in the Hand


Derby Theatre, Tuesday 17th September, 2013

Sarah Brigham directs her first production for the phoenix-like Derby Theatre, choosing for her debut Lawrence Till’s adaptation of Barry Hines’s famous novel, A Kestrel For A Knave.  If this show is an indication of the quality of work we can expect, I may as well set up residence in the auditorium.

Simple staging creates the world of Billy Casper.  Bits of rooms, shops and his school fly in and out, while a tight ensemble formed from professional actors and kids recruited from the community, perform the characters who taunt, bully and torment poor Billy at every turn.  Barney George’s design evokes the period – who could forget the geometric patterns of a 1960s school curtain? – with hints at pitheads and poverty.  Projections show us the countryside that abuts the town – at one point, giant stalks of wheat dwarf the characters, symbolically reminding us of the power and supremacy of nature.  Ivan Stott’s music supports the moods and the action with a cinematic quality.

Billy hasn’t much going for him.  He escapes into dramatic reconstructions of Desperate Dan comics.  He nicks from the shopkeeper who employs him as a paperboy.  He is bullied relentlessly by older brother Jud (a brutish Jimmy Fairhurst), blunted by the hardship of his working life down t’pit.  Mother (Samantha Seagar) is ineffectual – Nowadays you’d hope social services would swoop down on them like a – well, like a hawk.

At school he faces aggression from John Holt-Roberts as MacDowall, and disdain from Thomas Pickles as Tibbut.  Pickles gives us an electrifying monologue about wellies and tadpoles, enchanting us as much as his classmates.  It is remarkable how well the cast gels together – apart from the most obvious differences in height and age, they operate as a convincing entity, populated by individual characterisations.

Paul Clarkson’s headmaster Gryce is a delicious tyrant, exposing the brutality of the education system, and the lack of provision for boys like Casper, serving as a warning that a return to so-called ‘traditional values’ is not going to work.  I also loved Andrew Westfield as the pompous PE teacher, another representative of an institution that cannot support Casper’s needs.

The show belongs to Sam Jackson.  His portrayal of Billy is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  With his youthful energy and almost elfin, Peter Pan-like features, he utterly convinces as a 15 year old urchin.  He brings a physicality to the role, not just in his comic-book dramatisations but also in Billy’s moments of stillness.  Billy’s enthusiasm for and expert knowledge of training the kestrel he rescued surprises teacher Mr Farthing (a sympathetic John Elkington).  No one is a write-off, the play says.  Even someone like Billy Casper has potential for beauty, creativity and can make a contribution. There is hope for us all and it is a tragedy if that potential is not nurtured and encouraged to flourish.

Very cleverly, the production works on an allegorical level.  Sarah Brigham has selected this particular play to tell us that there is hope for theatre in Derby, despite its chequered past.  If Kes is anything to go by, Derby Theatre will soar very high indeed.


John Elkington and Sam Jackson (Photo: Robert Day)