Tag Archives: Birmingham Rep

Lashing Out

THE WHIP HAND

The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 6th September, 2017

 

Dougie (Jonathan Watson) is gathering family members to celebrate his 50th birthday – he has an agenda, a presentation to make.  The venue is his ex-wife’s house and Dougie is welcomed by her second husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) who is a bit of a liberal and a smoothie with a penchant for artisanal ale.  Running tech support for his uncle is Aaron (Michael Abubakar), Dougie’s mixed-race nephew. Completing the party are the ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and the daughter she shares with Dougie, Molly (Joanne Thomson).    The nature of these relationships emerges along with the purpose of Dougie’s presentation…  He has received an email from an organisation that seeks reparation for the evils of the slave trade – it turns out Dougie is a descendant of a sugar-beet millionaire and slave master.  Prompted by white-man’s guilt and his milestone birthday, Dougie wants to do some good in the world, and has come to ask Arlene to sign over Molly’s college fund.

This production in partnership with Traverse Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland provides a powerful 90 minutes of drama, laced with barbed humour and performed by a strong cast of five who each get their moments to shine, thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s taut and thought-provoking script.   Jonathan Watson is great as the volatile Dougie, contrasting nicely with Richard Conlon’s smooth-talking Lorenzo.  Louise Ludgate impresses as the sarcastic, impassioned Arlene, who has good reason to be cynical and short-tempered where Dougie is concerned, while Joanne Thomson’s Molly goes on a journey of discovery as secrets from the past are wrenched to the fore.  Michael Abubakar’s outbursts as Aaron add intensity to proceedings.

Director Tessa Walker draws us into the play’s discourse first with the amusing naturalism of a comedy of manners, and keeps us hooked with seething animosity, spoken and unsaid.  We suspect from the start the email is some kind of scam but the argument it provokes (that the world we live in is built on the atrocities perpetrated by slavers) is potent – although we don’t agree with Dougie’s means to redress ancient evils.

When the true nature of the scam comes to light, we see that the evils that need redressing aren’t so evil, as Aaron learns the truth about his father’s absence.

Darkly comic and provocative, the piece is in danger of letting its argument overpower our attachment to the characters – it’s one of those where you admire the performers but detest the dramatis personae.  A good advertisement for family gatherings, it is not!  And it shows us that racism, unlike the slave trade, is not a thing of the past.

A slanging match with bite and substance, The Whip Hand stirs up big themes in a domestic setting.  The personal is political and there is nothing more personal nor political than the bitter quarrels of family members.

15. Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

 

 

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Bostin’ Austen

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th November, 2017

 

Not the Donald Trump story but Jane Austen’s finest and funniest novel, brought to the stage in this touring production by Regent’s Park Theatre, in a sparkling adaptation by Simon Reade.

Reade captures the wit of the dialogue and the spirit of each character, and director Deborah Bruce includes moments of broader comedy, as well as linking scenes with stylised sequences that evoke both period, character and storytelling.  Choreography plays a huge part in creating atmosphere and adding to the fun, courtesy of movement director Sian Williams and beautiful, haunting music composed by Lillian Henley.  The characters, dressed by Tom Piper, inhabit the elegant revolving set (designed by Max Jones) – decorative railings and sweeping staircases serve for all locations, aided by Tina Machugh’s expressive lighting.  Production values are high and the excellent cast lives up to them.

Felicity Montagu is in superb form as Mrs Bennet, desperate to marry off her five daughters to whomever crosses their path.  Matthew Kelly is equally delightful as her long-suffering husband and the indulgent father of his brood.  Of the girls, Hollie Edwin certainly looks the part as the pretty one, Jane, and Mari Izzard bounces around as the spirited one, Lydia.  Of course, it is Elizabeth who is our focus, winningly played by Tafline Steen, tempering Elizabeth’s headstrong nature with charm and humour.  Benjamin Dilloway towers over proceedings as a sour-faced but handsome Mr Darcy and it’s not long before we are willing the pair to get together, in this quintessential rom-com.

There is strong support from Steven Meo as the insufferable parson Mr Collins and Daniel Abbott is a suitably dashing and roguish Mr Wickham.  Dona Croll impresses as the haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh, a forerunner of Lady Bracknell, and I also like Kirsty Rider’s snobbish Miss Caroline.

Elizabeth and Darcy may be the stars but it is the double-act of Montagu and Kelly, two seasoned performers with exquisite comic timing, that have the star quality among this comparatively young and inexperienced ensemble.  Mr and Mrs Bennet are a joy to behold.

Delivered with a lightness of touch, this is an utterly charming evening at the theatre, a refreshing retelling of the classic tale.  Austen seems as fresh and funny as she ever was and her wry observations of human nature, albeit in a rarefied and bygone milieu, still delight and ring true.

matthew-kelly-felicity-montagu-as-mr-mrs-bennet_-photo-johan-persson

Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly stealing the show (Photo: Johan Persson)


Re: Possessed

THE EXORCIST

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th October, 2016

 

William Peter Blatty’s novel became one of the most famous and celebrated horror films of the 1970s.  Now, John Pielmeier adapts the book for the stage, giving rise to questions like ‘How are they going to do that?’.  Fans of the film need not worry: all the iconic moments are here.  Director Sean Mathias uses every trick in the book of theatrical tricks to present what we expect to see: rocking beds, projectile vomit – this production really makes heads turn!  And it’s a real showcase for the technical team.  The illusions are designed by Ben Hart and supported by atmospheric, cinematic lighting by Tim Mitchell, who makes use of darkness and chiaroscuro to both hide and reveal what’s going on.  Adam Cork’s sound design surrounds us with eerie noises and disembodied voices.  Anna Fleischle’s set is versatile and evocative – Nick Gingell’s stage management team pull off wonders, changing scenes in pitch blackness so the action can flow from seamlessly from place to place.

Out front a strong cast delivers an engaging script, laced with humour to relieve the tension.  Jenny Seagrove is excellent as Chris, movie star and mum, unravelling as her daughter’s plight worsens.  Clare Louise Connolly is Regan, the child in question, and gives an astonishing performance as the ten-year-old falling prey to evil.  Although she spends much of the show in bed, she must be exhausted by the end!  Adam Garcia’s troubled Father Karras, trying to work through his grief over his late mother, finds redemption – the keynote of the production is that the cast play with earnest.  The material is bunkum – gloriously so – but the actors help us suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride with them.  Peter Bowles is fantastic as the titular exorcist, the ailing Father Merrin, managing to be imperious and vulnerable at the same time.  There is sterling support from Joseph Wilkins’s Father Joe, Mitchell Mullen’s Doctor Klein, and Todd Boyce’s Doctor Strong, a succession of ‘experts’ trying to diagnose what’s wrong with the little girl. Tristram Wymark is good fun as the camp and avuncular film director, Burke, and is party to one of the great shocks of the evening.  There are plenty of moments of grand guignol, to be sure, but what keeps us hooked is the unsettling atmosphere.  Anything might happen and right before our very eyes.  But among all the thrills and frissons, I can’t help thinking the devil doesn’t half sound like Sir Ian McKellan.

A gripping funfair ride of a show – perhaps it’s more frightening if you’re a believer – the production plays the horror movie tropes to great effect.  Wonderful entertainment for a chilly autumn night.

adam-garcia-as-father-damien-karras-clare-louise-connolly-as-regan-and-peter-bowles-as-father-merrin-in-the-exorcist

Bringing them to their knees: Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly and Peter Bowles (Photo: Robert Day)


Grandad, Grandad, you’re lovely…

ABUELO

The Door, Birmingham REP, Friday 15th January, 2015

 

This new one-woman piece from writer-performer Amahra Spence draws parallels between the experiences of a young black woman in the West Midlands with those of her grandfather who arrived from Jamaica, alone at the age of 16. Spence drops in and out of characters with economy and ease – Grandad is larger-than-life but she never overeggs her portrayal or descends into caricature or stereotype. That said, he does come across as your everyday elderly West Indian bloke! It’s affectionately done, and Spence saves the hardship and the gruelling episodes for the young woman, when the humour is replaced with some vivid, gutsy writing and some harrowing moments of storytelling.

Spence animates her words with gesture and tone of voice – she is clearly in command of the material and the medium. She keeps us hooked, despite sometimes the patois being a bit dense (“It’s all right, I don’t understand what that one’s about” she confesses) and some of the anecdotes having more impact than others. What comes across is a sense of family, and closeness. Collecting Grandad’s stories reveals more about the collector than the storyteller.

Director Daniel Bailey prevents the pared-down staging from becoming static and Spence’s scene and mood changes are supported by some sharp lighting from Ben Pacey and an eclectic soundtrack from Enrico Aurigemma.

It feels like a very personal event. There is honesty and authenticity running through the entire piece. It’s touching, stark, funny and uplifting – an excellent debut from a fresh and frank new playwright.  There is a genuine thrill of delight at the end when she invites the old man himself to join her on stage for a bow. She has evoked him so vividly we feel that we know and love him too.

Amahra Spence in Abuelo_c Graeme Braidwood

Amahra Spence (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

 

 


“This great stage of fools”

MY PERFECT MIND

The DOOR, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 4th November, 2014 

In real life, actor Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke while rehearsing to play King Lear in New Zealand.  Not the most humorous subject for a play, you might think, but this new production from Told By An Idiot is gloriously funny and not shy of revelling in silliness.

A two-hander it features Petherbridge himself as himself and Paul Hunter as everyone else, making use of unconvincing wigs and even worse accents.  Utilising some traditional mechanics of stagecraft (a thunder sheet, a wind drum, a trap door) the play evokes not only scenes from Lear but Petherbridge’s theatrical and personal memories,  There are some cheerfully unsubtle plugs for his autobiography (available in the foyer!) and some frame-breaking asides that enhance the artificiality and theatricality of the piece.  Events are not played out chronologically but a picture builds of the actor’s life and experiences.  Petherbridge is both vulnerable and commanding while Hunter has never been better – he is a mass of comic energy from his Cherman achsunt to his wicked personation of Laurence Olivier.

It’s almost non-stop larks but there is also a thread of mortality running through it.  Like Shakespeare’s great work, the play is about frailty and the deterioration of the mind but, unlike the eponymous king, Petherbridge is a survivor.  He has recovered not only to tell his story but to crawl around under the stage and generally chuck himself around a bit.  This autobiography speaks to us all: a stroke need not be the end of one’s personality, identity or indeed one’s active life.  Director Kathryn Hunter handles the energy and the abrupt changes of time and location with the skill of a plate-spinner.

Gloriously silly, often touching but never less than intelligent, My Perfect Mind is one of those rare and remarkable pieces of theatre you never want to end.

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge engage in some admirable fooling

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge engage in some admirable fooling


A Shout in the Dark

BECKETT TRILOGY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th September, 2014

As we are let into the Studio space at the REP, we are warned that we will spend an hour in pitch darkness. There will be no interval…

These three monologues written by Waiting For Godot playwright Samuel Beckett are presented back-to-back, with brief intervals of blackout and unsettling sounds. As a whole, the experience works very well – as the sum of its parts. The effect is cumulative.

Not I

A disembodied mouth is all we can see. Think opening titles to the Rocky Horror Picture Show but very far away. Think ‘howling screamer’ from Harry Potter. It’s a stream of consciousness piece as the thoughts and fears of a woman pour out of this mouth. Fast-talking, the voice has dynamics, punctuating certain recurring words with a shout. It’s dizzying stuff. We listen for meaning, trying to grasp this woman’s situation as thoughts and phrases collide. She is clearly agitated, upset and afraid but what hope do we have of understanding the mind of another?

Foot Falls

A ghostly woman in long dress paces in an oblong of light. Her pale face and white clothing give her an eerie appearance. There is something of the grave about her. As she paces she interacts with the mother she cares for/used to care for – again the exact nature of the situation is unclear. The repetitions obfuscate rather than clarify. But this is a woman, trapped, in a rut and in despair. Haunted and haunting.

Rockaby

A woman in black (not that woman in black but not dissimilar) sits in a rocking chair. All we can see: her white hands on the arms of the chair and her sidelit face as it comes in and out of the light – just as the meaning in and out of our grasp. The voice is soft, the repetitions almost rhythmical; it is strangely soothing – in a disturbing kind of way – but here is another woman caught in a situation about which she obsesses. A rocking chair gives you something to do but gets you nowhere.

Directed by Walter Asmus, solo performer Lisa Dwan is astonishing in the three very different pieces. What is Beckett saying though? For me, the evening is about the isolation of human existence, how we are all caught up in our own ruts and obsessions, our own circular thinking. We are alone in the dark with our thoughts on a loop.

Bleak but compelling.

mouth


Let’s Go Round Again

CIRCLES

The Door, Birmingham REP, Thursday 15th May 2014

The Number 11 is a bus that takes a circular route around outer Birmingham and is the setting for Rachel De-Lahey’s new piece – well, the people who use the bus or live on the route, which forms a metaphor for their lives and perhaps all our lives.

The play kicks off with an explosive monologue as loud-mouthed Malachi brags into his phone in a bid to impress a girl sitting a few seats away.  It’s a barrage of street talk and energy but Malachi’s swagger bubble is bursyt when during the ‘call’ his phone rings.  It’s his mum, assigning domestic chores.  It’s a hilarious reversal, played to the hilt by the likeable Toyin Kinch.  As the story progresses and his friendship with Demi (a striking Danusia Samal) develops, we see Malachi has a certain charm and sweet nature underneath the street talk and the posturing.

Scenes on the bus are interwoven with scenes in the home of elderly Phyllis (Janice McKenzie) who is a martyr to her dodgy hip and bad back.  Phyllis’s world view is limited, shaped by her experience and disability but it doesn’t stop her giving daughter Angela (Sarah Manners) a hard time when she returns to Phyllis for refuge from the violent partner who decorated her face with bruises.  The relationship between mother and daughter is far from easy, providing a neat contrast to the humorous scenes on board the 11.  Tensions simmer and boil over in some powerfully emotional moments between the two women.  Director Tessa Walker handles the changes of mood and pace effectively as De-Lahey’s script reveals what exactly is at stake.

It’s about patterns of behaviour, thinking in circles, living in a rut.  Repeating mistakes and passing those mistakes onto the next generation.  Will Demi be able to break the cycle?  Are all men bastards?

Circles is an engaging and entertaining 65 minutes with some blistering performances from this excellent cast.  While it has very much a local flavour (the Brummie accent lends itself easily to comedy), the subject matter could play anywhere: abusive relationships, domestic violence and victimhood (which is a word I have just coined!)

Catch it if you can.

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Toyin Kinch (Malachi) and Danusia Samal (Demi). Photo: Graeme Braidwood