Tag Archives: Birmingham Rep

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)

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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.

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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)


Sorry State

(sorry)

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th November, 2017

 

Millennials are terrible, aren’t they?  Spoiled, impatient, thinking they’re special…  This new piece from writer Susie Sillett shows us three sides of the coin (if that’s possible!) in this monologue sequence engagingly performed by Phoebe Frances Brown.

The first section concerns employment or should I say ‘employment’ as our protagonist details her exploitation in unpaid internships, illegally long shifts – it’s no wonder she and her peers are still living with their parents.  The character both recognises and accepts her lot as though this is the way it is and shall be forevermore – and she makes it clear she’s not complaining.  She daren’t!  Not while she wants to continue on the way up.

The middle section is a cringe-making dinner date with an old friend who is getting married.  This one quickly flips into something painful to hear, and painful to experience, as our protagonist recounts the agonies of online friendships, and how deeply that ‘unfollowing’ or ‘unfriending’ can hurt.  The modern world forges new kinds of relationships and associations through social media – new behaviours and mores have to be negotiated.  But it all does nothing to assuage her loneliness.  It’s an incisive swipe at society, when all these new connections serve to keep us isolated and alone.

The third part finds our protagonist keeping watch beside her dying granny’s hospital bed.  This is the most emotionally affecting section and is more widely reflective of the nature of life.  The writing opens up beyond the personal as our protagonist considers her place in the world, being born at this time, the environment she is inheriting and the problems her generation have to sort out.  Stark comments like ‘no matter what I do, it’s never enough to compensate the damage I do by being alive’.  She can’t make sense of being alive and her reactions and attitude are thoroughly credible.  Forged by what previous generations have done, she is trapped in a world she didn’t make.  And she is sorry for existing.

The show has a strong green message: the seas are full of plastic, of the detritus of our consumerist society.  Our protagonist is most strident in her horror and revulsion, her anger and frustration with what has been done to the world.

An electrifying performance from Phoebe Frances Brown; director Jennifer Davis prevents things from becoming static in the simple, circular space, giving us rises and falls, changes in pace and mood to bring out all the colours of the writing.  Sorcha Corcoran’s set – a chair in a circle, ringed by mounds of paper – becomes more relevant as the show goes on, reminiscent of arctic landscapes…  Alex Boucher’s lighting and Iain Armstrong’s sound design support the performer and help the audience imagine the various settings of the stories.

It all adds up to a taut production, a snapshot of life for young adults, with laughs aplenty and pain in abundance – and isn’t it a particularly British thing for those feeling the most awkward, those in the most pain, those who are pointing out what is wrong, to be the ones to say sorry?

thumbnail_(sorry). Photo Hannah Kelly (1)

Sophie Frances Brown considers the pitfalls of buying a can of chick peas (Photo: Hannah Kelly)


Mum’s the word

BABY DADDY

The Door, Birmingham REP, Thursday 2nd November, 2017

 

Single mothers get a bad press.  Stigmatised by society they are seen as scroungers, promiscuous and slatternly – when really it’s the men that should get the brunt of our disapproval.  At least the mothers stayed to bring up the babies, while the fathers disappear.

In this autobiographical piece, writer-performer Elinor Coleman not only states the case for a new appreciation of single mums (“doing remarkable things in difficult circumstances”) she also entertains us with a window into her world.  Pregnant at 20, Ellie goes it alone.  Yes, she has a strong support network of family and friends but it’s still a lonely life.  And everyday business brings with it the sting of public condemnation.  An encounter on a bus is typical of the judgmental looks and remarks she faces all the time.

Also, Ellie feels there is a gap in her family unit.  She seeks a man to join her and her daughter – and after a few false starts – finds one.  Has Ellie found her happy ending halfway through the show’s running time?  It certainly seems that way…

But no.  Life isn’t as neat as all that.  The relationship ends and Ellie decides to abort her second child.  Stark scenes ensue as yet again Ellie lays herself open to criticism.

Coleman is a likeable presence, honest and funny.  There is a lot of wisdom in her words.  This extended monologue with original songs is bright and breezy with a dark undertone.  What comes across is a slice of contemporary real-life experience, an underdog in our society demonstrating her worth and prompting us to re-evaluate any misguided preconceptions or prejudices we may harbour about young single mums.

The show is underscored by live music from Ricardo Rocha, and Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design provides a range of settings for the story and expressionistic effects for the changing tone.

All in all, this is an amusing, affecting piece, vibrantly performed and with something to say.

baby-daddy-29


Knowing

I KNEW YOU

The Door, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 3rd October, 2017

 

This new piece from Birmingham writer Steven Camden aka Polarbear runs for less than an hour but it’s fifty minutes of cracking theatre.  Three characters perform monologues, setting the scene, gradually revealing their history: Patrick walked out on Angela and their 8 year old son twenty years ago.  A chance sighting by one of Angela’s friends reveals that not only is Patrick back in town but he’s dying from cancer.  Angela is thrown into turmoil: should she even tell son Nathan, now 28 and a stay-at-home dad?  Is there room for Patrick in the lives he left behind?

Lorna Laidlaw (the formidable Mrs Tembe in TV’s Doctors) exudes warmth and humour as Angela.  The delivery is impeccable, the timing, the characterisations – it’s a masterclass in monologue performance and, beyond the performance, we feel for Angela and her predicament.  As son Nathan, Brenton Hamilton too demonstrates an aptitude for storytelling and comic timing.  Roderick Smith’s Patrick doesn’t yield many laughs – he’s the selfish one of the trio, but he speaks Polarbear’s lines with pathos, evincing our empathy.

When at last the characters interact, director Daniel Bailey cranks up the tension by drawing out moments of silence after all the wordiness.  Emotions burst out, voices rise and fall – Bailey does the exquisite script justice in his handling of the dynamics.

And that writing!  When she hears her ex is back, Angela describes her reaction: “I can feel my blood.  My head is full of photographs and arguments.”  Bloody wonderful.    The genius is in the detail.  Throwaway details of modern life, ironic observations of human nature, all wrapped up in this neat little package.

The piece lacks nothing, delivers everything, but I can’t help wanting more or to see it all again.

Funny, touching, insightful and fabulous.

Lorna Laidlaw (Angela) Brenton Hamilton (Nathan)_I Knew You_c Graeme Braidwood

Lorna Laidlaw and Brenton Hamilton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


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)