Tag Archives: Birmingham

Wonderful, Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Live Radio Play

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 7th December, 2018

 

Frank Capra’s beloved film, starring Jimmy Stewart, is a Christmas favourite in my house.  Here it is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Joe Landry, who re-sets it as a radio drama. We are in the studio of WBFR in Manhattan.  WWII is over and we settle in to watch a cast of five perform the script using only their voices and a few odds and ends for sound effects.

Hosting the show is Anton Tweedale, who also appears as the villain Mr Potter (among other roles).  He points out the APPLAUSE signs, which we must obey – as if we need prompting to show our appreciation of this slick and effective piece.

The actors address the microphones rather than each other, meaning they’re always facing front.  Director Anthony Shrubsall prevents things from becoming static by giving them plenty of business.  You could close your eyes and enjoy the piece as a radio show, but if you did, you’d miss out on the darting around, the creation of the sound effects; the moves are all choreographed to keep the story going.

Charles Lomas is an affable George Bailey, the big-hearted hero, whose life consists of sacrifice after sacrifice to help the people of his small-town home.  Lomas makes the part his own, and brings great passion to the role.  Hannah Fretwell is sweet as Mary, George’s wife, while Marisa Foley excels in a range of female roles, from the local goodtime girl to George’s mother and infant children.  Rowland Stirling is superb as second-class angel Clarence and many other parts, demonstrating versatility and skill as he switches between characters, often conversing with himself.

You might think that with all the mechanics of the production in full sight, we would be kept at a distance from the story.  There is some of that, and you can reflect, Brechtian-style, on the evils of capitalism, as embodied by the sneering Potter.   But the story, even as it is presented here, still packs an emotional wallop.  George Bailey is a kind of anti-Scrooge.  It takes an other-worldly spirit to show him that the world would be worse off without him, rather than better.

Technically perfect, totally charming, and excellently presented by a talented ensemble, this is a wonderful It’s A Wonderful Life.  Even this old grinch was moved to tears – or perhaps it was the complimentary gin and tonic I knocked back in the interval.

Heart-warming stuff indeed.

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Anton Tweedale, Marisa Foley, Charles Lomas, Hannah Fretwell, and Rowland Stirling

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Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

Director James David Knapp brings his own adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic to the stage in this ponderous production.  This is an Alice who wonders about things rather than at them, as she is presented with riddles and cod philosophies from almost all the strange characters she encounters.

Ruth Waterson, making her Crescent debut, gives an assured performance as Alice, playing her as a serious, thoughtful child.  She comes to life when she joins in with the other characters: the caucus race, for example, and the Lobster Quadrille.  If Alice, our guide through this weird land, is so serious, the characters she encounters should be weirder, crazier, but they’re a bit po-faced too.

There is a lot to enjoy from the large cast.  Marcus Clarke’s Dodo shakes his tail-feathers and has a mad spark in his eye; later, his King of Hearts is delightfully dotty – he could do with a crown, though.  Erin Hooton’s twitchy White Rabbit, John Paul Conway’s snooty Knave, Niall Higgins’s Mock Turtle… Standing out is Molly Wood’s Duchess, a bedraggled eccentric, convincingly bonkers.  Jordan Bird’s Mad Hatter makes an arch, camp double act with Carl Foster’s March Hare, along with a fearsome French Dormouse (Ella-Louise McMullan) keeping them in check.  There is a delicious portrayal of the mad Queen of Hearts by Alice Macklin, capricious, volatile, tyrannical, truly psychopathic, and bringing a lot of oomph to the second act.  But I think I enjoy most of all the trio of gorblimey gardeners, played by Amelia Hall, William Stait and Ronnie Kelly.

James David Knapp provides a new twist in the tale.  It’s not easy bringing Carroll’s plotless novel to the stage to make a coherent piece, but Knapp provides a through-line – the material is on his side, with the disclaimer that not everything has to make sense.  He has clearly drilled his ensemble of children very well – every one of them is in step and focussed, which is no mean feat.

The costume department has excelled itself.  The designs of Dyjak Malgorzata combine what we expect of the characters with some innovative ideas, with the assistance of Vera Dean and Pat Brown to craft these wonderful creations.

The show works best during its absurd moments, rather than when Alice is being exhorted from all corners to ‘grow up’ – when she is clearly the most mature character on stage.   The production values, the talent, the ideas are all there.  All it needs, overall, is to lighten up, to – as Alice’s draconian mother is reminded to do – let its hair down.

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Off her head: Alice Macklin as the Queen of Hearts (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Disney Heights

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – A Musical Parody

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th November, 2018

 

Taking its cue (and just about everything else) from Disney’s animated feature, right from the whistling Mickey Mouse and the fairy-tale castle at the beginning, this parody from Fat Rascal is a scream from start to finish.  Shadow puppets enact the backstory: but this is no direct re-enactment.  The spirit of the age – gender-swapping – casts its spell over the production, to hilarious effect.  And so Belle becomes Beau, a handsome if bookish young man who lives with dotty artist Maureen (Lesbian ceramics, anyone?).  The Beast, an enchanted princess, is covered in fur (“As is her right”)… This daft romp through the classic has a political edge, holding up the traditional roles reserved for males and females in these stories to ridicule.

As Beau, Jamie Mawson is superbly melodramatic, to cartoon-character proportions.  Robyn Grant’s Northern Beast (imagine Victoria Wood dressed as the Gruffalo) is sweet and bumptious.  Katie Wells’s villainous Chevonne, an entitled man-eater straight out of a Jilly Cooper, has the most outrageous lines, delivered with relish, while Allie Munro rushes around alternating between sidekick La Fou Fou and dotty Maureen.  Playing the Enchanter and Mr Spout, the bewitched teapot, along with a host of other characters is Aaron Dart; in fact, the entire cast darts about in this fast-moving feast of fun.

The songs, with music by James Ringer-Beck and lyrics by Robyn Grant and Daniel Elliot, sound rather familiar indeed, with just enough differences to make them ‘new’.  The lyrics follow the patterns of the Ashman-Menken originals.  If you know the score, there is much to delight in from how near the mark they come.  If you don’t, if you’ve never seen the film, it doesn’t matter; you’ll still have a lot of fun.

The script combines wit and daftness with social satire, with pantomime’s acuity for a topical reference, poking fun at middle-class, first-world preoccupations.  The fast pace sweeps us along through low-tech representations of key scenes.  Beau’s trusty steed is a stationery bike, fondly named ‘Bicyclette’ and the enchanted servants are merely the objects (a teapot, a clock) held up by actors in masks.  But the low-tech approach is a big part of the show’s charm and a main source of its humour.  The show takes parody to dizzying (Disneying!) heights.

Despite all the gender-swaps, the rushing around, the swearing, the innuendos, despite everything, the storytelling retains some power, and there is a moment within all the laughter where we are touched by the relationship between the two leads.  And here, brilliantly, the show makes its main point: a happy ending doesn’t have to be traditional marriage.  We don’t have to follow the paths laid down by these tales or be restricted by cultural norms.  And yes, feminism can have a sense of humour!

Relentlessly funny, delivered with charm and boundless energy, this is a beauty of a show and one of the most hilarious things I have ever had the pleasure to see.  I adored it.

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Beau jest: Jamie Mawson

 

 

 

 


Talent Management

FAME

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 19th November, 2018

 

It strikes me as odd that in a musical, where everyone sings and dances at the drop of a hat with impressive proficiency, the characters should see the need to go to a performing arts college.  But, putting this reservation aside, I settle in for an entertaining evening.

David De Silva’s stage show is inspired by Alan Parker’s hard-hitting film and the somewhat sentimental TV series that followed, and so the characters here are versions of the originals, adhering to types and situations familiar from the previous incarnations.

Ruling the roost as the strict-but-caring Miss Sherman, the mighty Mica Paris is in great form.  Her old-school rhythm and blues number in the second act brings the house down, a searing bit of soul-searching triggered by a run-in with illiterate, arrogant bad boy Tyrone (an intense Jamal Crawford).

Stephanie Rojas is appealing as fame-hungry Carmen whose road to the top is diverted by drug abuse; Simon Anthony gives a sensitive portrayal as her musician friend, Schlomo.  Hayley Johnson adds a touch of humour as Mabel (it’s not just fame she’s hungry for!); while Hollyoaks’s Jorgie Porter convinces as graceful dancer Iris.  Molly McGuire’s Serena is one of the more rounded characters.  She gets to sing one of the score’s stronger tunes about her unrequited love for Keith Jack’s Nick.  Jack is excellent and, unlike most of the others, doesn’t just belt out his numbers, but shows us how vocal dynamics can add character to and enhance the meaning of a song.

The trouble is there are just too many characters, too many subplots.  We only glimpse them throughout the course of their four-year studies.  Albey Brookes’s extrovert, very funny Joe has potential for a proper storyline, but he’s elbowed aside in favour of Serena and Nick’s story.  His resolution is tagged on in a throwaway line about working in a comedy club.  Similarly, Carmen’s descent into drug addiction is handled glibly.  There is simply not time enough in Jose Fernandez’s book to get beneath the surface of their experiences, and this is a shame given the calibre of this talented and energetic cast.  The score, with lyrics by Jacques Levy and music by Steve Margoshes, is also patchy, reaffirming my belief that the show shouldn’t be a musical at all but a play with music that allows us to see the progress the students make in their chosen field of acting, music or dance.

For all that, it’s still an enjoyable watch and it’s easy to be entertained by the performers.  It’s just that I would prefer something with a little more substance regarding the pursuit of fame and the effect of that on young lives.  In this celebrity-obsessed age where anyone can achieve notoriety without a shred of talent, the show could have had a stronger impact.

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Class acts: the students of FAME

 


Rock Your Socks Off

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018

 

As ever, I approach this jukebox musical with trepidation.  Will it be the same sort of flimsy plot with old songs shoehorned in just for the sake of it?  Will I sit there for two hours asking myself what’s the point?

All my fears were allayed within minutes.  It turns out Rock of Ages is an absolute beaut of a show, hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  Set in mid-to-late 1980s on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, this is a world of big hair and ripped jeans, where ‘rock’ is a verb and middle fingers are firmly jabbed upwards.  At no point are we invited to take any of it seriously.  The fourth wall is well and truly demolished and the script is peppered with theatrical gags, celebrating the artifice of the enterprise.

Our narrator is Lonny, performed by an irresistibly likeable Lucas Rush, camp, crass and hilarious.  Lonny works as a ‘sound guy’ in the Bourbon Room, a club owned by ageing rocker Dennis (an unrecognisable Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy).  Rush and Kennedy make an excellent pairing: their rendition of I Can’t Fight This Feeling is a comic highlight of a show that has many such moments.

Leading man Drew, a wannabe rocker, is played by Luke Walsh, whose voice is absolutely searing.  The only thing missing is a good head of big hair for him to bang when the need arises.  Leading lady Sherrie, a wannabe actor who has a harder time of it than Drew (but this reflects the sexual politics of the era, I suppose) is played by Danielle Hope, combining strength and vulnerability.  Her voice has Pat Benatar qualities and her rendition of More Than Words gives shivers.

The course of Drew’s love doesn’t run smooth, of course, and he is disheartened when Sherrie, believing Drew isn’t interested, becomes entangled with rock superstar Stacee Jaxx – a toweringly funny portrayal from the mighty Sam Ferriday.  His Jaxx is all ego and charisma; Ferriday is lithe and sinuous and hilarious in his physicality.  His voice is superb.  I find myself falling for this long-haired, white-suited monster.

Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy bring broad comedy as a pair of German property developers, the villains of the piece who make ‘Allo Allo’ seem subtle.  Carthy also proves himself a nifty mover in some surprising dance moments.  Rhiannon Chesterman is consistently bonkers as activist Regina, while the phenomenal Zoe Birkett is a strong contender for the show’s vocal crown as stripclub-owner Justice.

The book, by Chris D’Arienzo, keeps the jokes flowing along with a plethora of 80s soft rock hits, and I am surprised whenever, among the knockabout fun, moments of beauty arise: Every Rose Has Its Thorn stirs the blood.  The music is provided by a brilliant onstage band under the aegis of musical director Barney Ashworth, and there is energetic pastiche choreography by Nick Wilson and Ryan-Lee Seager (who also direct) and of course we are all up on our feet by the end – how could you not be?  How could you not adore this crazy cavalcade?  You must be made of rock.

I leave the theatre exhilarated – and relieved they didn’t kill the mood with the title song!

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Hair today: Lucas Rush as Lonny


Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

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Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 


Out for the Count

DRACULA

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th October, 2018

 

Dracula is one of those characters that has become part of global culture; like Tarzan or Peter Pan, everyone has heard of him, thanks in no small part to the innumerable film versions of the story and its spin-offs.  The original Bram Stoker novel can come as a surprise to first-time readers due to its epistolary nature: the story is told through letters between the characters, so it has multi-first-person viewpoints.  Here Mark Webster’s faithful-ish adaptation makes great use of characters reading what they are writing, or from letters they have received, often as preludes to flashbacks or reconstructions of incidents.

It gets off to a strong start with Adrian Rosu capturing our attention as a Sea Captain making entries in his log.  Rosu’s authentic Romanian accent (he’s from that part of the world) immediately evokes the atmosphere as he recounts incidents in which a mysterious figure on board picks off his men.  Webster begins the play with the arrival of the Count in England – the book’s opening events (Jonathan Harker’s experiences at Castle Dracula) are saved for later in extended flashbacks.  Rosu also appears as Harker, giving his RP accent an airing, and clearly portraying the various stages of Harker’s health, pre- and post-Transylvania.

Taresh Solanki is a nervy, passionate Doctor Seward, while Chris Del Manso’s Professor Van Helsing is authoritative and eccentric without going over the top, in a commanding performance.  Nisaro Karim is a tall and burly Arthur – is the character American?  I can’t remember and I can’t tell.  Karim doubles as a tall and burly Count; in these scenes Karim’s stage presence is stronger.  His Dracula towers over proceedings.  You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

The female members of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Nichola Woolley’s perky Lucy really comes to life, ironically, when the character joins the ranks of the undead.  Danica Corns’s Mina has fortitude – this is no shrinking-violet, damsel in distress.  Kaz Luckins is compellingly wild-eyed and intense as a gender-swapped mental patient, the zoophagous Renfield, but it is Carys Jones who makes the strongest impression of all in a range of roles: asylum warder Hennessey, Sister Agatha, Lucy’s mum…

Director Simon Ravenhill’s set is multi-purpose, coming into its own when two or three scenes are staged concurrently, the action cross-cutting between them.  The intimate, even cosy, stage at the Blue Orange, means we can take it all in, without having to move our heads like spectators at a tennis match.  There is a lot going on but it is skilfully presented so that we never lose focus.  The action sequences, the outbursts of violence, are very well staged.

Dean Bowyer’s lighting makes shrewd use of red and green colour washes, and the occasional chilly blue.  Mark Webster’s sound design successfully evokes scenery: crowds etc, while also providing a great deal of the eeriness.  Renfield’s flies, for example, and the otherworldly voices of the vampire women, which are extremely well done.

Inevitably, I suppose, it’s a very wordy piece and it runs a bit long, but the sterling efforts of the strong cast keep us hooked – even if we are familiar with the tale.  There are a few instances when the energy drops a little but, this being the first night of the run, I am sure things will tighten up as the week progresses.

An atmospheric, tonally perfect piece with moments of menace and an unusual twist at the end I didn’t see coming, this production is definitely worth an evening of your time.

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Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula