Tag Archives: Ben Cracknell

Finger-Clickin’ Good

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 6th June, 2017

 

Charles Addams’s characters first appeared in single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker – delicious gems offering snapshots of a dark psyche at work.  When the 1960s TV series appeared, it gave Addams’s family voices and movement, stories that flipped the conventional like a negative photograph.  The show also rendered the characters likeable and appealed to queer sensibilities at a time when there was no other mainstream representation.  We wallow in the Addamses’ morbidity – it is the ‘normal’ that is held up to be ‘other’.

This new musical (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) gives the characters songs, many of them good ones, while providing plenty of laughs in the expected vein.

Cameron Blakely is the excitable head of the household, Gomez Addams, an energetic father figure with a Hispanic flavour.  Last seen drowned in a pool in EastEnders, Samantha Womack kills it as his wife Morticia – her deadpan delivery is impeccably timed.  She is impressively dour and supremely elegant; her song ‘Death is Just Around the Corner’ is a definite highlight.

Wednesday Addams is presented as older here than she usually is, losing her little girl creepiness – this is so that she is interested in boys and thereby giving the show its plot.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is undeniably strong in the role but I would have scored Wednesday’s numbers a little less conventionally to make her sound more like a Lene Lovich or Kate Bush type.   It is the lyrics alone that subvert from the norm.  This Wednesday is a musical theatre student who couldn’t decide for Halloween between Wednesday Addams and Katniss Everdene.

Conversely, Grant McIntyre’s Puggsley, the creepy little brother with a penchant for explosives, actually sounds weird when he’s singing his solo.

Valda Aviks is good fun as the vulgar Grandma, while TV’s Les Dennis is in excellent form as Uncle Fester.  Dickon Gough’s cadaverous butler Lurch almost steals the show with his comic timing.

The ‘normals’ who come to dinner are Dale Rapley as boorish father Mal, Oliver Ormson as Wednesday’s main squeeze, Lucas, and Charlotte Page as mum Alice – the most developed of the three – in a belter of a performance.

Diego Pitarch’s set is beautifully derelict and gothic, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting paints the set in spots and shadows, maintaining an overall darkness with characters in pools of light, just like Addams’s original cartoons.  A baroque chorus of Addams ancestors haunts the stage for added spookiness.

Director Matthew White keeps the thin plot moving along; there is an emphasis on snappy one-liners rather than character development, but everything about this production is exquisite.  We enjoy the time we spend with these people in a show that amuses and delights at every turn.

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Creepy and kooky, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack (Photo: Matt Martin)

 

 

 

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017

 

Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.

The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core.  Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there.  The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation.  What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing.  Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams.  The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society.  And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.

Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom.  Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed.  Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.

Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare.  The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….

Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire.  The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce.  Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment.  That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.

A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.

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Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


What a Dick!

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2016

 

The Hippodrome’s pantomime is invariably the biggest and boldest and this year marks the triumphant return of John Barrowman to the theatre after an absence of eight years.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  Barrowman is the consummate entertainer, singing, dancing, joking, working the crowd, all with his trademark boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Star quality is written all over him – and with such a big star, the production values rise to meet him.  From start to finish, the extravagant staging, with many a Wow moment, impresses your socks off, including the now-obligatory 3D sequence.

It begins with EastEnders’ Steve McFadden as King Rat – we quickly learn even he is not the biggest rat in London.  McFadden clearly enjoys himself playing the villain and he handles King Rat’s doggerel verse with aplomb.  He also shows himself to be a good sport, as straight man to Idle Jack’s mockery.  Idle Jack is played by Hippodrome panto favourite Matt Slack (he’s already booked to play Buttons next year!) and the warm welcome he receives when he first appears almost takes the roof off.   Slack is a talented clown and mimic, relentlessly funny and highly skilled.

Andrew Ryan returns to play the dame, Sarah the Cook, delivering the goods – I feel he could be given more – a slapstick or ‘slosh’ scene, which is the only sixpence missing from this Christmas pudding.

Much laughter is to be had because of veteran double-act the Krankies, whose humour and routines slot right into the panto format.  The act still works and their adlibs are sharp and hilarious.  It’s only disturbing if you think about it…

Jodie Prenger makes a sprightly Fairy Bow Bells – her voice blending sweetly with Barrowman’s for a duet.  Danielle Hope is a charming Alice and Kage Douglas’s good-looking Sultan is a pleasant surprise.  Taofique Folarin’s Brummie Cat is also a treat – again, I would like to see him being given more to do.

The cast is supported by a tireless company of dancers (choreographed by Alan Harding) and a hard-working band under the baton of Robert Willis.  Ben Cracknell’s lighting enhances the special effects (courtesy of The Twins FX) while remaining in keeping with traditional panto conventions.

There’s more of an adult tinge to the humour than other shows in the region, making this a panto that caters to all tastes.  All in all, this Dick is a breath-taking spectacle to make you laugh-out-loud and ooh and aah.  Once again, the Hippodrome pulls out all the stops and provides a highlight of the season.

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Badinage and Bandages

THE MUMMY
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 25th March, 2014

Director Joe Harmston has put together a company of actors, many of whom are familiar from his productions of Agatha Christie plays, and brings out a different side to them in this delightfully silly show, loosely based on an old Bram Stoker story, The Jewel Of The Seven Stars. From the start, you know you’re in for a treat as Jason Durr narrates the back story, accompanied by some hilariously low-tech projections and shadow play. Jack Milner’s script reminds me of the golden age of radio comedy with its wordplay and double talk, complemented by much on-stage comic business of Harmston’s devising. The laughs keep coming.

It’s not perfect: the quick fire gags are hit-and-miss and the pacing flags a little in the first act. The audience participation that greets us when we’ve come back from the bar for the second act is needed earlier on – especially since the curtain up was delayed by quarter of an hour due to a technical hitch; we needed warming-up by then. The second act tears along relentlessly and consistently daft.

On the whole, it’s a laugh-out-loud romp, played to the hilt by a very funny ensemble. Denis Lill is spkendidly crazed as the Egyptologist on a mission – as well as a couple of other roles – Jason Durr, the heroic lawyer with his eye on Lill’s daughter (there is a dancing scene that ensures I will never regard Durr in the same light) and David Partridge is very funny as bonkers explorer Corbeck. Andrew Bone makes the most of his role as Inspector Doolan.

There is much fun to be had with doubling of roles and dummies but for me the revelation of the night is the beautiful Susie Amy, vamping it up and camping it up as the Professor’s daughter and the reincarnated Egyptian princess. I hope she does more comedy in the future. Dean Rehman’s immortal high priest Sosra is a deliciously evil (and hilarious) creation – I shan’t forget the eye-pulling scene in a hurry.

It’s a great-looking show too. Sean Cavanagh’s set design is almost like a toy theatre; scenes are wheeled on and off on trucks by stagehands dressed as workmen, keeping things moving and allowing for some very funny exits and entrances. Ben Cracknell’s lighting casts a nostalgic glow over the proceedings, the soft haze of an old film.

The Mummy is an old-fashioned slice of British silliness, clever and stupid at the same time, a celebration of artifice and theatricality while sending up its own form.

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Three Sisters

THE MEMORY OF WATER

New Vic Theatre, Friday 7th March, 2014

 

The New Vic’s revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is a beautifully presented, tightly acted production.  The sharpness of the writing has the characters throwing wit and sarcasm at each other – sometimes the barbed comments hit home and open cans of worms.

Three sisters of different ages and temperaments gather at their recently deceased mother’s house for the funeral.  Mum herself is still knocking around, appearing to middle daughter Mary in fantasy/dream/memory sequences full of recriminations and accusations.  Having a ghost in a play is as old as drama itself, of course, but the focus here is not on the apparition but the lingering pain of memory and things unspoken or old ground trodden over repeatedly.  As dead woman Vi, Lynn Farleigh cuts an elegant figure and is far from the aloof and distant figure Mary remembers.  The play has a theme of the unreliability of memory running through it like words through a stick of seaside rock – Mary is even a doctor with a patient suffering from trauma-induced amnesia, to strengthen this motif.  Each daughter remembers a different childhood, although none of them is accurate.  They trigger memories in each other but they are unsure who had the starring role in each misremembered incident.

It’s a very funny play.  As eldest and most bitter sister Teresa, Mary-Jo Randle is a mixture of strength and fragility, both of which are exacerbated by her intake of whisky. She is hilarious and compelling.  Caroline Langrishe is Mary, who speaks ‘properly’ as befits her profession, combining an authoritative tone with vulnerability.  She snipes defensively – her affair with married man Mike (Paul Opacic) comes under more strain with the impending funeral.  Langrishe, especially in her scenes with mother’s ghost, is excellent – but then, this is an excellent cast. Director Nikolai Foster gets multi-faceted performances from them and handles their contrasts and contradictions expertly.

Amanda Ryan is a treat as uninhibited youngest sister Catherine, prone to too much retail therapy, pot-smoking and continental boyfriends.  She brings her sisters down to her level and they become like three children bickering, or having a laugh dressing up in their mother’s frocks.  The men (Mary’s boyfriend and Teresa’s husband) are secondary figures but each has his moment.  Steven Pinder is first-rate as long-suffering Frank, bemused most of the time, until he reaches the end of his tether, and Paul Opacic does well to convince as attractive but unlikable two-timing Mike.

It all takes place on an attractive set by designer takis, atmospherically lit by Ben Cracknell, surrounded by snow and frost.  The coldness of the outside world is kept at bay by the warmth of family ties and the heat of family conflict.

Entertaining and emotive, The Memory of Water shows yet again the high quality of the work being produced at the New Vic.  Well worth the journey every time.

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