Tag Archives: Birmingham Rep

Street Pete

PETER PAN Reimagined

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 5th December, 2019

 

Director Liam Steel follows up last year’s whirlwind of a successful Wizard of Oz with this new version of the immortal JM Barrie classic.  Instead of Edwardian London, the action is updated and translocated to present-day Birmingham, a rundown block of flats.  Odd then that Steel should cast his Wendy as a Scottish lass, undermining the show’s much-touted local identity.  Don’t get me wrong: Cora Tsang is fine in the role.  This Wendy is a mardy young teenager, snarky with Jess, the latest in a long line of foster mums, in the show’s downbeat beginning.  All kitchen sink drama.  In fact, scenes that usually transpire in the children’s bedroom all happen in the kitchen, linking Wendy with domesticity, mothering, and care-giving, as though this might be her inescapable fate.

With Hook played by a woman (doubling as the foster mother) themes of motherhood and gender roles are brought to the fore.  The Lost Ones crave the discipline of structure that a mother would bring, while Wendy, rejecting it in her home life, plays along when in Neverland.  Speaking of Neverland, it’s a joyous place, bedecked with graffiti and urban deprivation – Wendy’s fantasy life is as bleak as her reality.  The setting robs Neverland of its storybook exotica and its sense of wonder.  There are some instances of technical creativity, with some rather splendid and scary mermaids and a beautiful bird made out of a detergent box but it’s all a bit too dark, I find.

The cast is great.  Lawrence Walker’s Peter Pan looks a bit grown-up but it’s the playing that gives him his boyish exuberance.  He has more Shadows than Cliff Richard, in a brilliant piece of staging.  Mollie Lambert is thoroughly credible as Wendy’s younger brother Michael.  And there is some great energy from the gang of Lost Ones, and from the Pirates (who look like refugees from a Mad Max film).  Mirabelle Gremaud genuinely bends over backwards to perform as Tink, who has her own fairy language, which is funny, and a strong singing voice, which is lovely, but she looks like a character from a 1970s sci-fi programme.   Charlotte Merriam’s thick Brummie sidekick Smee is a marked contrast to the mighty Nia Gwynne, resplendent as Captain Hook.  Gwynne plays it old-school villain, high camp and delivering her lines with relish – many of which are lifted from Barrie.  Costume designer Laura Jane Stanfield has given her the best outfit, with a gilded hook and even a galleon for a hat.

There is a strange mix of childish innocence and naivety with the harder edge of the music; Peter doesn’t know what a kiss is but he can drop sick rhymes like a pro.  The assertive nature of the rapping and the hip-hop is slickly performed but doesn’t sit well with the kids’ yearning for Happy Families and Cinderella.

The script, by Liam Steel and Georgia Christou, has plenty of fun, and JM Barrie rises to the surface every now and then, and I want to enjoy it more than I do.  I suppose it comes down to Neverland and this end of Birmingham being essentially the same place that stops the show from taking off.

PETER PAN,

Off the hook! Nia Gwynne (Photo: Johan Persson)

 


Losing the Light

PRISM

Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Tuesday 8th October, 2019

 

The prism of the title refers, on one level, to a vital component of an old-school movie camera, a piece of glass that splits the light so that colour film photography is possible – something like that, I’m no physicist.  The protagonist of writer-director Terry Johnson’s new play is the celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen…) who certainly knows how it all works, except his prism got broken years ago and the camera that looms in a corner of the set can’t work without it… So, it’s a metaphor for Cardiff’s brain, because Jack has dementia, eating away at his memories, his vocabulary, his ability to recognise faces and places.

Robert Lindsay is magnificent as the cantankerous, irascible Jack, bringing to the fore the humour of the situation – talking to someone with dementia can be very funny; it is also touching, moving and a little scary.  Lindsay dominates proceedings, while his wife, son and brand-new carer bend over backwards to keep him happy.  Son Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is keen for Jack to write his autobiography so that all his expertise and experience is not lost.  Wife Nicola (Tara Fitzgerald) just wants Jack to remember who she is and not conflate her with Katherine Hepburn.  Carer Lucy (Victoria Blunt) has her own reasons for proving she is up to the job.

In the second act, the script swerves and suddenly we are on location with The African Queen.  Tara Fitzgerald does a marvellous Hepburn, while Hembrough’s Bogart is nicely observed.  Later, Victoria Blunt effectively evokes Marilyn Monroe – and it is here we realise, we are looking through the prism of Jack’s dementia, as scenes are repeated with people from his present taking the forms of people from his past.  It’s a powerful way of staging the experience of the dementia sufferer – but also those suffering because of a loved one’s dementia.  Tara Fitzgerald is heart-breaking when Nicola reveals her husband doesn’t know her anymore.

This is a biographical piece about a particular man and his rarefied career, but it deals with the disease in a universal way.  There is a fascinating, nostalgic appeal about the golden age of cinema; I was dismayed to hear talk during the interval that there are people among us who have not seen any of Cardiff’s work!  It would be a great shame if such wonderful movies were to disappear from our collective memory.

Funny, fascinating and filmic, this is a hugely enjoyable, edifying piece, with an endearing central performance from Robert Lindsay and stellar support from a talented trio.  The production is superbly realised with cinematic elements in Tim Shortall’s design and Ben Ormerod’s lighting.  Above all, it shows Terry Johnson back at the top of his game.

Loved it!

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in Prism_photo credit Manuel Harlan (1)

I am a camera! Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Having a Nose Around

EDMOND DE BERGERAC

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2019

 

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest historical romance dramas ever written.  Most people will be familiar with the title character and his big nose and perhaps also with the idea of him providing words of love for another man to woo the woman they both love.  This play by Alexis Michalik (in an ebullient translation by Jeremy Sams) tells the story of that play’s making.  We follow the early career of poet Edmond Rostand, his flops and his writer’s block, until he finds inspiration in the form of Jeanne, who happens to be the girlfriend of Rostand’s mate Leo.  To add to the triangle, Rostand is married…

Michalik builds in elements that directly influence Rostand in the creation of his masterpiece, so the action closely mirrors the great work that is to come.  Which is fun – we’re not here for historical accuracy!

As the writer-under-pressure, the delicately-featured Freddie Fox is excellent.  Caught up in a whirl of romantic intrigue and theatrical creativity, Fox dashes around, getting more and more frazzled and then, when inspiration strikes, he bubbles over with enthusiasm.  Of course, there is more to the writing process than this, but we’re not here for verisimilitude!

Fox is supported by a fine ensemble, with featured roles from Robin Morrissey as fit but dim Leo (the model for Cyrano’s Christian) and Gina Bramhill as Rostand’s muse Jeanne (the model for Cyrano’s Roxanne).   Jodie Lawrence is a lot of fun as a fruity-voiced Sarah Bernhardt, among other roles, while Henry Goodman is magnificent as celebrated actor Coquelin (the first to play the role of Cyrano).  Harry Kershaw is hilarious as Coquelin’s son – it takes skill to act badly! And Chizzy Akudolu swans around like a true diva as Maria, slated to be the first Roxanne.  Delroy Atkinson’s Monsieur Honore is immensely appealing – it is he who is the model for Cyrano – and I enjoy Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor as a pair of unsavoury backers.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is a theatre within the theatre, a stage upon the stage.  This is a theatrical piece about a piece of theatre.  Director Roxana Silbert heightens the farcical aspects of the situation as well as the more dramatic moments, delivering a highly effective piece of storytelling, and that is what we’re here for!  While this is a lot of fun and is excellently presented, it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Rostand’s great work, but then, it doesn’t have to.

We might leave knowing more about Rostand than when we came in, but above all this amusing night at the theatre makes us want to see Cyrano again.

Freddie Fox (Edmond) in Edmond de Bergerac_credit Graeme Braidwood

Fantastic Mr Freddie Fox and Delroy Atkinson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


The Cat’s Meow

THE CAT IN THE HAT

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th February, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s bestselling children’s book is brought to vibrant life in this new touring production from Leicester’s Curve theatre.  The story of two children, Sally and Boy (Conrad in the book) who, bored on a rainy day, get a visit from a fantastical cat and his troublesome brace of Things, is faithfully re-enacted using many of Seuss’s rhymes.

It begins with a prologue, a warm-up in which the children introduce themselves to us before bringing out the super-soaker water guns.  They get us on our feet and singing along, to get us in receptive mood before the main action begins.  Which it does – opening the story with a dumb-show sequence, brimming with physical comedy, as the children try to occupy themselves and annoy each other.  We meet their pet goldfish, here portrayed as an operatic diva in a bubble.  And then, at last, the Cat himself arrives…

As Sally and her brother, Melissa Lowe and Sam Angell are full of childlike energy, only outdone in this respect by Thing 1 (Celia Francis) and Thing 2 (Robert Penny) two wild-haired acrobats who hurl themselves around the set, with skill and exuberance.  As the Fish, Charley Magalit is glamorous to look at and beautiful to hear.  But it is Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the eponymous Cat who captivates and amazes the most.  He is urbane and smooth in his delivery, with slinky moves and a jazzy voice, all of which he demonstrates while balancing on a ball, holding an increasing variety of objects.  It’s an astonishing feat.

When the Things get out of control, Sally and the Boy despair at the mess being made and try to contain the tearaway creatures.  The Cat wheels in a weird contraption to tidy up before he takes his leave.  But what does it all mean?  The Cat is a trickster, an agent of chaos, and his antics are at first attractive to the children.  The Fish is the unheeded voice of reason, the conscience.  The wanton behaviour of the Things teaches the children there are boundaries, and the Cat takes responsibility by cleaning up the mess.  So, it’s a moral lesson after all: it’s OK to be a bit Dionysian, just don’t go the full Bacchae.

Suba Das directs this colourful, anarchic spectacle with gusto, showing a great eye for comic business and an understanding of what makes children laugh.  Isla Shaw’s remarkable set (part illustration, part practical) is put to extensive use to support the storytelling and the physicality of the shenanigans.  The costumes are delightful, capturing the spirit of Seuss’s original drawings, yet adapting them for human-shaped performers.  The Things are spot on, and I love the Cat’s furry tuxedo, complete with tail and his signature red-and-white striped stovepipe hat.

There is much to marvel at here in this show bursting with theatricality and brio.  It’s a thrilling live experience for the little ones, something they’ll never get from a screen or an app.  More senior members of the audience will be nostalgic for when they read the book, and will derive pleasure from seeing the much-loved classic staged so inventively.

cat in hat

Purrfect: Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the Cat in the Hat on two chairs (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Friends of Dorothy

THE WIZARD OF OZ

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 29th November, 2018

 

Frank Baum’s classic tale comes to Birmingham in this vibrant new production from director Liam Steel. Updating the framing story of Dorothy and her aunt and uncle eking out a living on a farm to the 1950s, the early scenes of this production look like a John Steinbeck and sound like a Tennessee Williams – especially when Miss Gulch appears, drawling like a Southern belle, lording it over the po’ folk. The opening scenes serve to set up what is to come, when our plucky heroine finds herself transported to a magical land, just as elements from our everyday lives filter into our dreams.  It’s downbeat, dramatic stuff, until Dorothy (a superlative Chisara Agor) sits on her bed and sings Over The Rainbow, her face sweetly optimistic, her voice rich and soulful.  This is the first ‘wow’ moment of the evening.  There are more to come.

The tornado that drops the house on the Wicked Witch of the East, is stylistically presented, with swirling stagehands dismantling the farmhouse shack the Gale family calls home.  The frame of the house remains present throughout, a centrepiece of the set, just as home is ever at the forefront of Dorothy’s thoughts, which is where we are, in effect, in Dorothy’s noggin all along.  Sorry, if that’s a spoiler.

Chisara Agor as Dorothy_Wizard of Oz_c Graeme Braidwood

Gale force! Chisara Agor as Dorothy (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Chisara Agor is matched by an excellent ensemble, ranging from Dillon Scott-Lewis’s pop-and-locking, robotic Tin Man to Kelly Agbowu’s cowardly Lion, who brings the house down with her singing voice rather than her roar.  Shanay Holmes’s good witch Glinda channels the likes of Mariah and Whitney for her big numbers – the singing in this production is top notch, inducing shivers down your spine.   Jos Vantyler’s Wicked Witch of the West, with cheekbones for days and the kinkiest boots is a bitter and twisted delight, but I fell in love with Scarecrow, played by an apparently boneless Ed Wade, who brings an astonishing physicality to the role.

Jos Vantyler as Wicked Witch_c Graeme Braidwood

Wicked! Jos Vantyler (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

The great and powerful Lorna Laidlaw doubles as the charlatan Professor Marvel, gesticulating grandly over a crystal ball, and as the eponymous Wizard, playing both with humour and warmth.

The production elements are as impressive as the cast.  Liam Steel’s Oz seems to be heavily influenced by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with its diva-esque apple trees and flamboyant carnivorous plants, courtesy of some brilliant design work from Angela Davies and costumes by Samuel Wyer.  The drag queen aesthetic is strong in this one.  The Emerald City is a stylish, avant garde place, like the swishiest nightclub in the gay village.  The familiar and well-worn songs are given new, contemporary arrangements by musical director George Dyer, refreshing them like a new coat of paint, but retaining, thank goodness, the catchy tunes and witty lyrics of Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg.

With charming, sometimes scary, puppetry, and plenty of inventive scenic ideas, this production pulls off the magic trick of meeting audience expectations of the famous story while providing enough that is fresh and new and surprising to renew our acquaintance with Baum’s timeless brilliance.  The REP has gone that extra mile along the yellow brick road to produce this magical spectacle.  A wonderfully inclusive show for all the family, it will make you laugh and it will melt your heart like water on a wicked witch.

Spell-binding.

Lorna Laidlaw as The Wizard of Oz and Ed Wade as Scarecrow_c Graeme Braidwood

Wizard! Lorna Laidlaw as Oz and Ed Wade as the Scarecrow (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Hardly Connect

ORANGE POLAR BEAR

The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 6th November, 2018

 

A collaboration between the Rep, Hanyong Theatre and the National Company of Korea, this new piece co-written by Sun-Duck Ko and Evan Placey deals with the isolation teenagers can feel in this modern world.  Teenage angst, as well as awkwardness and insecurity, is nothing new, of course, but this play gives a fresh look: teenage angst is global.  In this supposedly connected world of instant communication and 24-hour rolling news, people can feel cut off and pessimistic about the state of the world.  What the production shows quite clearly is this feeling is universal.  Regardless of culture, time zone or language, teenagers (and others) are going through the same thing.

Presented against a white back wall of doors, we visit the worlds of British teen William (Rasaq Kukoyi) and Korean girl Jiyoung (Minju Kim) – the staging has both locations present in tandem.  William and Jiyoung narrate their experiences in the third person; he in English, she in Korean.  This is an alienation effect, to an extent; we get the idea that they are each alienated from their own experiences, their own emotions.  Kukoyi delivers frustration and vulnerability, while Kim is irresistibly appealing and expressive – you hardly need look at the surtitles.

The protagonists are supported by a versatile quartet, playing multiple roles to populate the story.  Cheongim Kang is excellent as Jiyoung’s classmate Taehee, pressuring Jiyoung to conform to a K-pop standard of conventional ‘beauty’, which results in an obsession on Jiyoung’s part with getting her fringe to lie flat.  Kang is also marvellous as Grandmother, who keeps herself company by having the television on all day.  Ah-ron Hong is physically expressive as a schoolboy, an elderly teacher, and most touchingly as Jiyoung’s emotionally distant father.  Michael Kodwiw makes a strong impression as William’s friend Arthur, while Tahirah Sharif’s Sarah attracts and frustrates William in equal measure in funny scenes of their budding relationship.

Clever use of projections gives us scene changes and details, such as William’s dinner in a microwave.  Multi-purpose cubes serve as furniture and sometimes podiums on which the characters stand, aloof from the action.  The production design reminds me somewhat of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and this is no bad thing.

A charming, amusing piece that reminds us of the common humanity of people around the world.  In this high-tech world that keeps us separated, it takes theatre to provide a connection.

WAVE8733 copy

Ah-ron Hong and Minju Kim make a connection


See The Elephant

ELEPHANT

The Door, the REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th February, 2018

 

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s brand-new play is a gripping domestic drama, concerning a British-Asian family and a dark secret.  Daughter Amy (Raagni Sharma) is looking forward to a going-away party to give her a good send off for a new job in New York.  Arriving in the family home for the party is Amy’s estranged Auntie, Vira (Sukh Ojla).  Blunt, outspoken and unconventional, Vira sets the cat among the proverbials and what has been buried or glossed over for years comes rushing to the surface.  It seems that dad Barry (Ezra Faroque Khan) is not the hard-working, reliable pilau of the community everyone believes him to be.  Vira knows different.  Her sister, Deesh (Yasmin Wilde) won’t face the truth and risk losing her standing in the community along with the cushy life she has been able to give Amy and Amy’s oddball brother Bill (Farshad Rokey).

The volatile family dynamics are at first humorous, as they chuck barbed remarks around like confetti, but as their attention turns to darker topics, the barbs wound, and old scars are torn open, in the kind of way families tear chunks out of the ones they love.  It’s compelling stuff.  Bhatti’s script is richly written, with plenty of funny one-liners (“It doesn’t matter if he’s gay – there’s one on EastEnders”) with Wilde delivering the bitterest throwaway gags with perfect comic timing.  Each member of the family gets at least one outburst: Rokey’s Bill comes to startling life when he loses his cool; Sharma’s Amy shows she is more than the self-absorbed teenager she at first appears; and Khan’s Barry, who has gone through the motions of atonement, fleshes out the character so we at least see where he is coming from – even though nothing he can say can justify his actions.  As Vira, Ojla is also the title character – ‘Elephant’ is her nickname.  She also embodies That Which Must Not Be Spoken Of, but she is determined that everyone acknowledges and deals with the elephant she brings to the room.  This elephant cannot and will not forget.  It is a brash but dignified portrayal of anguish and long-suffering.

Director Lucy Morrison has the action play out on a bare stage with very little in the way of props.  This means it falls to the actors to create a credible atmosphere of family life.  Above their heads hangs a stylised roof, symbolising the home and also what has been hanging over them all these years.

Entertaining, compelling and powerful, this is an Elephant I’ll never forget.

Yasmin Wilde as Deesh_credit Ellie Kurttz

Yasmin Wilde as Deesh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)