Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre

Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.

It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day.  It’s character building, you see.  Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him.  But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.

James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids.  It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better.  Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.

Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace.  Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear.  There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation).  Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda.   Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that.  Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.

Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards.  Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.

The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.

HOLES. Leona Allen, James Backway and Rhona Coker. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain.  The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong.  Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her.  The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway.  As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head.  And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.

The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey.  The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange.  One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.

What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.

Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah.  Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.

As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall.  Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.

The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed.  The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect.  Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling.  It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.

Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told.  Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on.  There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live.  The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.

An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie - photo credit Robert Day

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)


Chilling at Home

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

 

When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past.  Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…

And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller.  Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect.  But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use.  FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.

Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability.  Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction.  Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication.   She also has some great reactive moments.

There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras.  Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.

Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.

Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.

 

cold hill

Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…

 


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

It’s become quite a tradition at the Belgrade that while the panto is on in the main house, the B2 studio hosts an alternative, something for the grown-ups.  This year, writer Nick Walker chooses the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War and of the start of the women’s suffrage movement as the basis for this pun-riddled romp.

As ever, the script is jam-packed with groanworthy gags, delivered with the rapidity and subtlety of a machine gun, as it tells the story of four men enlisted to go to the Front to rescue a troupe of actresses.  The cast is entirely female – the reason for which becomes apparent by the end.

Laura Tipper sings sweetly as Bell, and harumphs horribly as Sidebottom, complete with period moustache.  Aimee Powell is dashing as Ashwell, dapper in black tie and tails.  Kimisha Lewis shows her versatility as Flowers, a German, and a balletic Red Baron.  Miriam Grace Edwards is magical as stage magician Mickey… The ladies have several roles each and are well-matched for talent and likeability.

Walker’s clever script has a repeating plot device, taking us back time and again to a music hall, interspersed with scenes of action and espionage reminiscent of a John Buchan.  Director Katy Stephens, a veteran of several of these shows, paces the delivery to perfection.  There is a silent-movie type sequence involving a bomb in a French restaurant that is superb, and a break from the otherwise relentless barrage of bad jokes.  (“Is it snails?” “No, this is a fast food restaurant.”)

It’s not all daftness and running around.  Walker, recognising the solemnity of the occasion, provides a sucker punch ending.  We’ve all seen how Blackadder turned out; here the impact is equally if not more powerful as it is revealed that the characters are all based on real women, and there really was a mission to rescue the actresses.  The final moments commemorate the contributions of women to the war effort and the sacrifices they made, something that many of the events we have seen over the past four years have overlooked.

Delightfully corny, rib-ticklingly daft, and ultimately sobering, this is a solid hour of entertainment with a powerful message.

OTT


Flash back

FLASHDANCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th September, 2018

 

I have vague memories of the film from 1983, with its story of a lady welder who dances in a nightclub and dreams of attending a posh dance academy.  The theme song, of course (and the video that went with it) are burned into the popular consciousness.  Here, original screenplay writer Tom Hedley adapts the piece for the stage, with the addition of original songs by Robert Cary and Robbie Roth.  Also included are key songs from the film (I Love Rock and Roll, Maniac, Gloria…) which, if I’m honest, knock the new material into a cocked hat.

Strictly’s Joanne Clifton leads the energetic company as Alex, dancing up a storm and taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase her other talents, acting and singing – the latter being rather good indeed.  Love interest comes in the form of a1’s Ben Adams as the boss’s pretty-boy son, Nick.  While Clifton’s vocals lean more toward musical theatre, Adams’s sweet and strong pop stylings work well in their duets.

Among the hard-working cast, stand-outs include Sia Dauda as Kiki, with big hair and a voice to match (it’s a shame she’s not put to use more) and Carol Ball as Alex’s mentor and benefactor, Hannah.  Matt Concannon makes an impression as the ostensible villain of the piece, sleazy club proprietor, CC, while Hollie-Ann Lowe has her moments as feisty-but-tragic Gloria.

The cast is great, the staging of the musical numbers with choreography by Matt Cole is fine, but it’s the dramatic scenes that require attention.  In some places, the pace of the dialogue needs to be snappier and, on the whole, scenes lack dynamics; director Hannah Chissick ought to apply a musical ear to the spoken words so that moments of drama can build and flow and reach a crescendo.

Apart from all that, the material is not to my taste.  A more interesting story might be of a classical ballerina trying to make it as a welder.  In the world of this piece, Alex is a skilled welder and nobody bats an eye (and why should they?) but the only other options for women seem to be working in clubs, performing suggestive routines, and parading around for the male gaze.  No wonder Alex wants to escape these dated sexual politics.

Despite Clifton’s sterling, tireless efforts, I’m not engaged by Alex’s tribulations.  I applaud the performance but I don’t enjoy the piece.  Oh well.

And I’m still wondering what became of her co-workers, like Rhodri Watkins’s Andy, facing redundancy and hardship.  The story seems to forget about them…

Flashdance, the musical. Kings Theatre, Glasgow. 5th August 2017

Joanne Clifton cools off after another blisteringly hot routine


Madskillz

CIRQUE BERSERK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 26th July, 2018

 

Circus has changed – evolved – since its inception by Philip Astley 250 years ago.  Exotic animals have come and gone (thank goodness) and what we have today relies solely on the skills of human performers.  Gone too is Astley’s innovative ring in this ‘made for theatre’ show.  And with no ring, there is no ringmaster; the acts follow each other unannounced, giving the show an organic feel.

The Timbuktu Tumblers from Africa get things off to a flying start.  Dressed as walk-ons from Hamilton they hurl themselves through a skipping rope then pile onto each other in a range of configurations.  In the second half, they set fire to a limbo stick, setting the bar high – or rather, lowering it at increments.  They’re an engaging bunch and I look forward to seeing them later in the year at the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime.

Luciana Gabriel and Carina treat us to a display of bolas spinning, to dazzling and percussive effect.  I can only think of the bruises they must have incurred during training!

Our clowns for the evening are a double-act from Brazil, the Mustache Brothers – imagine if Charlie Cairoli had sired the Super Mario Brothers and you get some idea.  Their make-up is subtle if their expressions are not. Their dumb-show antics are charming and, yes, funny, involving a ladder, a bucket of smoke, and a table.  The universal language of slapstick speaks to us all.

Other acts that impress are aerialists Rosey and Jackie, Odka, a contortionist who arrives on stage in a jar, unfolds herself and performs archery with her feet.  The Tropicana Troupe from Cuba use a platform, a seesaw and a crash mat to gobsmack us all, their deadpan expressions making them all the more camp.  Toni the Czech knife thrower is the most traditional act of the night; the brave woman who stands unflinchingly before him amazes me the most.  I also enjoy Laci Fossett and his aerial pole work, Germaine Delbosq who juggles on her back, using her feet to manipulate a cube, a cylinder and a ring while her hands deal with balls, Zula with his tower of chairs…  I would have liked more to be made of the flame-throwing robot.

The big finale for both halves concerns the ‘Globe of Death’ a spherical cage into which a man on a motorbike enters and rides around.  He is followed by a second.  And then a girl goes and stands in there with them.  The heady smell of petrol fills the auditorium – I spend the second half in a kind of awe-inspired daze, so by the time the globe reappears for the big finish, topping the feats of the first act, I am well away.  Perhaps too, the interval wine had something to do with it.

The upshot is a spectacularly entertaining evening.  Creative director Julius Green keeps things seamless, with contrasting acts and moods so nothing feels tired or repetitive.  In these days of commonplace CGI effects in just about everything, it is refreshing and thrilling to see real people perform these skills before your very eyes.  Cirque Berserk is non-stop entertainment, lacking the pretentiousness of other troupes I could mention.  Costumes of a bygone age blend with costumes from faraway places in a thoroughly contemporary setting, showing that the circus is still alive and well.  It’s solid fun for all the family and you can’t help admiring the hell out of everyone involved.

Cirque-Berserk-Zippos-Peacock-33

On target: Odka (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

 

 


Run, Florist, Run!

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 26th October, 2016

 

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic musical crops up like a hardy perennial and it’s always worth a revisit.  Ashman’s lyrics are clever and witty, while Menken’s score is bursting with energetic, catchy tunes.  It’s a combination that proves irresistible and this touring production from Sell A Door Theatre Company serves the material superbly.

Sam Lupton gives a star turn as nerdy flower shop assistant Seymour whose botanical tinkering leads to a Faustian pact with a mean, green mother from outer space.  Lupton is in excellent voice and makes us care about his Seymour.  Stephanie Clift is sweet as bubbly shop girl Audrey, a damsel in distress who can also belt out a number.  Her ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ is a highlight, as is her duet with Lupton, ‘Suddenly, Seymour’.  Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello shows TV talent show star Rhydian can also act – he seems to be having a lot of fun and, of course, he gets to show off his impressive vocal stylings.  He gives a highly charged performance – he’s a gas! Paul Kissaun entertains as the kvetching shop owner Mr Mushnik – there’s more than a hint of Reb Tevye here! – while Neil Nicholas gives carnivorous plant Audrey II a deliciously dark chocolate soulful sound.  The plant is a sinister, looming presence, a reckoning that has to be faced.

Sasha Latoya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare form a formidable trio, acting as a kind of Greek chorus to the action and keeping the 60s soul groove going.  Musical director Dustin Conrad and the band are the heart driving the show, pumping energy from start to finish.

Director Tara Louis Wilkinson gives us fun with moments of comic horror – the gore is hinted at rather than depicted.  David Shields’s design adds to the heightened, cartoony feel of the piece but I find some of the lighting cues need to be tighter – this was the show’s first night in this venue so I’ll let them off!

The show has currency in today’s world of fears of genetically modified plants that could devastate life as we know it.  Above all, though, this is enormous fun delivered by a company that is a cut (or should that be ‘cutting’?) above the rest.

Blooming great.

shop

Sam Lupton and Stephanie Clift decide to seymour of each other (Photo: Matt Martin)


Mr Sands is in the building

A CELEBRATION OF HAROLD PINTER

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd September, 2011

 

I must have been a particularly naughty boy throughout 2008 because the Christmas of that year rewarded me with the loss of two of my idols. Not only did the marvellous, beautiful and hilarious Eartha Kitt shuffle off this mortal coil (and I hope she knew she is still unsurpassed as CatWoman) but the news came of the passing of one of the finest dramatists this country has produced.

 

This show, a one-man show, was billed as a “celebration”.  When that one man is Julian Sands, who is looking and sounding great, you know you’re in safe hands.  Not so much a celebration but a kind of chummy memorial, the evening passed very pleasantly, with Sands reciting a selection of Pinter’s poetry and contextualising them with anecdotes from his own encounters with the man along with biographical details.  It was like an episode of This Is Your Life, without the surprised guest of honour, or the embarrassingly pointless recollections of talentless relatives.

 

Pinter’s poems reveal his political stance, his intelligence and his savage humour but also, most surprisingly and most poignantly, his love for the woman he married, Antonia Fraser.  Often abstract, sometimes challenging, at times startling and/or funny, but also moving and beautiful, the poems , as spoken by Sands, reveal a lesser known side to Pinter’s writing (at least lesser known to this seat-warmer) and served to sketch out a portrait of the writer as a man.

 

Directed by John Malkovich and simply presented, just Sands on stage, with a table for his glass of water, and a book in his hand (merely as a prop, he hardly glanced at it all night) the show was absorbing and rewarding for the attentive listener.   Sands exuded stage presence and didn’t fluff a word, his deep and slightly husky voice ringing out.  But of course and as it should be,  all the admiration goes to Harold Pinter.  This tribute revealed aspects of the man we perhaps did not know about and also reminded us what a great writer we have lost.

 

I’ve made special efforts to be good since then, Santa (or at least have got better at covering my tracks) so please don’t take any more of the greats.