Tag Archives: Birmingham

Blooming Great

THE SECRET GARDEN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 5th August, 2017

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s novel first appeared in 1911.  It wasn’t quite that long ago when I read it but various film and stage adaptations of it have kept the story and characters in my mind over the years.  Now comes this new version by Simon Ravenhill and it’s a corker.  With only a cast of four, Ravenhill delivers the whole book and while the action moves swiftly, it never feels rushed.  The pacing is spot on, allowing key moments to develop and play out while keeping the plot ticking along.

Nicolette Morgan is our heroine, the orphan Mary Lennox, returning from India to an England she has never known.  Accustomed to being dressed by her Ayah, Mary is a fish out of kedgeree and, pretty much left to her own devices, continues to feel unloved and unwanted by all and sundry.  Until she begins to make friends, that is.  Morgan is excellent, giving us young Mary’s wilfulness and vulnerability without playing down to the character’s age.

She is supported by three versatile character actors who populate the rest of the story with quick changes and varied characterisations – it’s easy to forget there’s only four of them in it, and such is the transformative nature of the costumes and the actors’ skills, it’s hard to believe that the fearsome housekeeper Mrs Medlock is played by the same actor (Dru Stephenson) as the likeable, green-fingered, Doctor Doolittle-ish young boy, Dickon.  Lorenna White bobs and chatters as chambermaid Martha, and really comes into her own as the tantrum-throwing invalid Colin.  James Nicholas brings stature to the piece in a range of authoritarian roles: the Doctor,  the hunchbacked Mr Craven, a colonel.   This is a top-drawer quartet in a high-quality piece.

Simon Ravenhill also directs, getting his cast to work hard to keep things going, and there are plenty of pleasing touches, simple but so effective: a four-poster bed dominates the set, and a free-standing but movable door helps give the sense of the rambling country manor house to which Mary is consigned.   Puppets are used sparingly for that extra touch of animal magic.  The detailed costumes and the odd piece of furniture convey the period setting but it’s the actors that drive the piece.  Ravenhill’s script uses Burnett’s words but allows the characters to interact rather than resorting to narration.  I will admit to having something of a Pavlovian response to the Indian music used to underscore the scene changes.  By the interval, I was craving a vegetable madras.

A faithful and classy production of a classic story with a child-friendly running time, this is a captivating and well-tended Secret Garden that touches the heart and is yet another example of the excellent work produced at the Blue Orange.  The book’s message remains: what is left neglected will wither and spoil.  And that works for people as much as plants.

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Two Can Play

ROLE PLAY

Blue Orange Theatre, Sunday 23rd July, 2017

 

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, this play provides an hour or so of non-stop laughs.  Matt (Alex Arksen) and Ellie (Lorren Winwood) address us directly, as though we are relationship counsellors or something.  Together they narrate a period during which they tried using role play to spice up their heterosexual lives.  They re-enact half a dozen of their scenarios, ranging from waiter and customer in a coffee shop, to nurse and patient, and schoolboy meeting his fantasy: Britney Spears.  No matter what Matt and Ellie try, the scenarios always unravel before they come to the crunch: Matt is turned off by French student Ellie’s necklace of onions; a Diet Coke moment almost blinds him when the drink erupts in his eyes… The plot may be little more than a succession of scenes, strung together like a French stereotype’s onions, but this barely matters.  The couple learn about each other along the way and give us a good laugh while doing it.

Alex Arksen is an affably blokish Matt, intent on video-gaming rather than investing time in his relationship.  Lorren Winwood proves herself to be an extremely funny woman, hurling herself into a variety of rough-hewn characterisations.  The pair complement each other perfectly and you can’t help liking them as characters and admiring them as performers.  The comic timing is impeccable, the physicality, the reactions – and the dialogue is rich with one-liners and pop culture references.

The writing is sharp and the direction snappy, making for a hilarious contemporary comedy that takes satirical swipes at modern living.  Catch it if you can!

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Man-Made Monsters – a double bill

FRANKENSTEIN: MAN OR MONSTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

This new piece from Mad Tom Theatre is written and performed by Augustus Stephens.  Using familiar characters from Frankenstein – the book and the old films – Stephens gives us a kind of tour of mental illnesses as he brings to life a range of personalitie:   Victor is a paranoid schizophrenic; Igor has OCD to the point that it makes him dangerous to himself and others; abandonment exacerbates Elizabeth’s eating disorder; the so-called Monster hears voices, hallucinates and is confused why everyone rejects him…

Stephens is an affable stage presence, swiftly swapping characters so they can exchange snappy dialogue.  There’s a laidback, casual feel to the show even though Stephens is working hard to appear effortless.  He invites us to participate in a song about a yodeller and a cuckoo clock and we do, because we will him to succeed.  Yes, there are songs: witty ditties that shed light on a character’s mindset.  Typically, the Monster is the most sympathetic, childlike and confused, wondering what he has done wrong.  “You see a monster where I see me,” he sings plaintively.  Igor, in a solo scene, reveals his inner struggle, his fears of harming someone, and it is heart-rending and a little frightening.

As a whole, the piece highlights how the mentally ill are treated, by the public, by the authorities, as monsters because of a lack of understanding.  Lucy Poulson directs, keeping Stephens on the move and the action clear.  A tilt of the head and a change in vocal register and he is a different character – it’s effective and impressive and a lot of fun.  The writing is delightful with sparks of wit that surprise as much as the poignant moments.

Entertaining and enlightening, this neat little show deserves a longer life and a wider audience.

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Augustus Stephens and Teddy

THE MARRIAGE OF KIM K

Blue Orange Theatre, Friday 21st July, 2017

 

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro collides with ‘reality’ TV star Kim Kardashian in this vibrant new musical theatre experience by Leo Mercer (lyrics) and Stephen Hyde (music).   Hyde also directs and appears as Stephen.  Three couples: the Count and Rosina from the opera, Kim K and her short-term husband Kris, and TV viewers Stephen and Amelia, share the stage and our attention as their marriages come under strain.

Amelia is a lawyer but loves nothing more than watching trash TV.  Her composer husband Stephen seeks solace in Mozart.  Cue arguments and fights over the remote control.  And a lot of La La Land-type self-expression.  Meanwhile, Kim K is exchanging text messages with her next love interest, Kanye.  Beefcake Kris is on his way out.  Count Almaviva and his wife reflect on their courtship and wonder where the spark went and when jealousy and distrust moved in.

It’s all beautifully sung (Yasemine Mireille and James Edge both belt like troupers and add depth to Mr and Mrs K) and for the most part the three styles of music (opera, pop, electro) blend, complement and contrast with each other euphoniously, accompanied by string quartet Echo Chamber.  It makes its points in the first fifteen minutes and with a charming and fitting resolution, when roles are reversed and the couples from the television gather on the sofa to watch the ‘real-life’ Stephen and Amelia negotiate a peace.

A feast for the ears, the singers fill the Blue Orange with their voices; it’s a good listen but perhaps my unfamiliarity with the world of Kim K and her ilk (which I have up to now studiously avoided) is a bar to some of the satire.  The elevation of her glamorous, self-promoting life to high art, I suppose, mirrors the recognition of our own emotions in something as ‘lofty’ as opera.  Emily Burnett’s Countess is sublimely human, with a reworking of Cherubino’s ‘Voi Che Sapete’ that touches the heart.  Nathan Bellis is also in great and funny form as the suspicious, adulterous Count Almaviva.  In the light of the two larger-than-life couples, Stephen and Amelia (Amelia Gabriel) seem small potatoes; while we are amused by the Count and touched by his wife, and tickled by the notion of Kim Kardashian as a role model and diva (in the musical sense), the couple on the sofa seem petty and inconsequential.  It’s almost as though ‘real-life’ doesn’t matter.

Musically dazzling, often amusing, this is a clever piece that works as a showcase for the talented cast rather than a biting insight into popular culture.  But that’s postmodernism for you.

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War Stories

A JOURNEY THROUGH WAR

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th July, 2017

 

In this new piece from On The Floor Theatre, a versatile cast of four lead us through a whistle-stop series of sketches that track the entire span of the First World War – we are now in the third year of the centenary, remember – condensing four years of extreme experience into just 55 minutes of traffic on the stage.  It begins with the prologue from Henry V, Shakespeare’s eloquent plea to have us imagine what he is unable to stage, and it couldn’t be more fitting.   Director Matthew Tweedale intersperses scenes of domestic life with poetry – juxtaposing personal scenes with grander emotions, as expressed by the likes of Wilfred Owen and John McCrae.

An emblematic, narrative style works on our imaginations, our intellects and our heartstrings – and yet there is plenty of humour to it as well.  The swiftly changing scenes, depicted by a change of top by the cast members, economically takes us from the home front to the trenches and back again.  There seems to be an emphasis on the experiences of those left behind – the women – and just about everything is covered from recruitment drives to conscription, white feathers, the horrors of the trenches, the letters home, the notices of death, Votes for Women, and those men who came back forever changed or damaged.  We don’t get long to dwell – each sketch could easily yield a longer drama of its own – but this is like an introduction to the War, or revision notes for those who have heard it all before.

Victoria Piper and Grace Bussey play the wives and mothers left at home, from wide-eyed patriotism to fervent campaigning and stoical grief.  Jason Homewood and Andy Evans are the fathers, husbands, sons, boyfriends who sign up and learn the truth the hard way.  This skillful quartet populates the stage with humanity, however stylised; we recognise at once who each person is, where they are and what they are going through. A particularly effective scene has Homewood suffering from PTSD; another has Piper losing most of her sons… It’s all familiar ground but is here delivered so stylistically and effectively, the piece is alive with freshness and the power to cut right to the heart of each set-up.  There is no time to dwell or reflect – we can do that when the show’s over.  It’s all wrapped up with ‘In Flanders Fields’ by which point we have all been through the wringer or in the wars ourselves.

The commitment of the cast, the inventiveness of the direction and the exuberance of the performance make this a striking piece that delivers familiar words and familiar situations in a refreshing theatrical package.  A hundred years ago the war was still raging – this play is a timely reminder of all sorts of things, not least of the dangers of public opinion that is so strongly influenced by the press.  Some lessons we have yet to learn!

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Austen Powers

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

The Crescent Theatre, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

 

Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel whizzes along at quite a lick, condensing the action without cutting any of the important bits.  What couldn’t be clearer is the chauvinism of the age and the restrictions placed on women: they can’t inherit, they can’t go anywhere alone with a man – both of which are important plot points.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are dispossessed after her husband’s death and find themselves in reduced circumstances, swapping the family’s grand home for a little cottage near Exeter.  Suitors come calling, scandals come to light… On the surface, it’s a frothy rom-com but beneath it’s a biting social satire.  The wry wit of Jane Austen powers the exchanges and fuels the dramatic irony of the situations.

Karen Kelly makes a warm-hearted matriarch as Mrs Dashwood – her announcement of her husband’s death is strongly handled.  Naomi Jacobs is suitably restrained and fretful as the serious Elinor; Elinor is the ‘Sense’ of the title, ruled by her head; Marianne the ‘Sensibility’, ruled by her heart and her impulses.  Both are played well but I would like more contrast  between them.  Stephanie Cole’s Marianne who could do with being giddier or at least smiling more, especially from the off.  When reading poetry, she should really go for it.  Charlotte Upton, in a convincing portrayal as little sister Margaret, seems to embody both aspects of heart and head, in her childlike thirst for knowledge and honest reactions to events.

Thomas Leonard looks the part as the dapper Edward Ferrars, but could do with being a little bit more cut-glass in his delivery of Austen’s erudite dialogue.  Jacob Williams makes a pleasant Mr Willoughby, while James Lewis amuses as the sarcastic Mr Palmer.  Jordan Bird offers strong support as faithful servant Thomas but Adam Ragg’s Colonel Brandon is a particularly fine characterisation: the stiff-upper lip, the British reserve, the gentlemanly qualities.  Decency oozes out of him.

The evening belongs to Laura Poyner, superb in both her roles.  Provincial Mrs Jennings’s vulgarity and lust for life is in stark opposition to her snobbish Mrs Dashwood – her Fanny is a joy to behold.  The stage comes alive whenever Poyner is on and most of the cast is able to match her energy and commitment.

James David Knapp’s direction keeps the action clear in this stylish and slick production that should do well on its tour of other venues.  His original music is bittersweet and evocative.  Above all, the play serves as a showcase for the excellent costume team at the Crescent, with flawless and impressive work from Vera Dean, Pat Brown and Olivia Barnes.  Keith Harris’s simple yet elegant set: three period doorways among a landscape of books proves a versatile backdrop.

An enjoyable comedy of manners that brings a classic book to life in an accessible and entertaining way.

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Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. Stephanie Cole, Naomi Jacobs, Karen Kelly, and Charlotte Upton. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Valentine’s Day

SHIRLEY VALENTINE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7th March, 2017

 

This revival of Willy Russell’s play from 1986 reminds the film version’s legions of fans that the piece started life as an extended monologue, a one-woman show.  The one woman this time, following in the footsteps of the likes of Noreen Kershaw and Pauline Collins, is musical theatre star Jodie Prenger, and I am interested to see how she will fare without recourse to her impressive singing voice.

As forlorn housewife Shirley, Prenger more than acquits herself, pulling off a comic turn that is as endearing as it is funny.  I could be churlish and nit-pick her adopted accent, which tends to roam around Merseyside at times, but on the whole, she captures the cadence of Russell’s Liverpudlian phrases – what matters is she can time a punchline, and the script is riddled with those.  As she recounts her story, Shirley presents other characters: her mardy husband, her son and daughter, her neighbour, and so on.  Prenger effectively sketches these personalities for us through voice and attitude, and tells her anecdotes with verve and energy.  Alone throughout, Prenger fills the stage with her presence and it is enjoyable to behold.

Director Gwen Walford takes a straightforward approach, having Prenger animated and larger-than-life for the funny bits, and keeping her still for the poignant moments.  Simple but strong.

Amy Yardley’s set gives us the sunshine yellow of Shirley’s kitchen – a gilded cage – and also an effective representation of a secluded Grecian beach – it is here that James Whiteside’s gorgeous lighting beats down like the relentless sun.

Jodie Prenger’s comic energy and commitment to the role keep us on board with Shirley – her journey is as much a mental one as a physical change of location – and it’s delightful to be reminded of the quality of Willy Russell’s writing.

Russell’s script stands the test of time.  There is an element of nostalgia in its references to the F-Plan diet and the Milk Tray man but the jokes hold up, as does the play’s central message: Life is to be lived.  In this sense, Shirley is more than a downtrodden housewife reclaiming her identity and asserting her independence; she is an Everyman, speaking to us all.

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Murder with Class

A JUDGMENT IN STONE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 20th February, 2017

 

Formerly the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company hopes to emulate its earlier success by expanding the range of writers it draws upon, and so we have this adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, delivered in the company’s solid and classy style.

I don’t know if it exists in the book, never having read it, but this version, by Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard, uses the device of alternating scenes of the police investigation with flashbacks leading up to the brutal murder of the Coverdale family.  Past and present collide and keep us hooked on the developing mystery.

Sophie Ward is excellent as the dowdy housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, hiding what to her is a terrible secret.  As the detectives, Vetch and Challoner, Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon exude an air of easy professionalism.  Mark Wynter amuses as the smug patriarch George Coverdale, while Rosie Thomson as his wife is the life and soul of the household.  Joshua Price mills around as the bookish, oddball son, and Jennifer Sims brings emotional depth to her role of Melinda, the daughter home from university.  We know the family is doomed – it’s a matter of when and by whom that keeps us intrigued.  They’re all so terribly middle-class, calling each other ‘darling’ all the time, that we perhaps don’t much care about them as individuals.  Rather our sympathy lies elsewhere – but that would be telling.

The usually glamorous Shirley Anne Field dresses down as cleaner Mrs Baalham, and Deborah Grant muttons up as outlandish postmistress and religious crank, Joan Smith.  Revelation of the night (apart from the whodunit) is former Blue singer Antony Costa delivering a nice line in character acting as the reformed criminal and gardener, Rodger Meadows.

Julie Godfrey’s set epitomises the country house mystery, but it also communicates a message about the permanence of the class system – this is a story with class, in more ways than one.  Director Roy Marsden keeps the action flowing seamlessly between the two timelines, using Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design to mark when we are, as well as to highlight certain dramatic moments.

It all makes up for a solid and reliable piece of entertainment, excellently presented.  We may guess who is responsible, but when the murder scene finally arrives it is no less shocking.  Pace and tone are handled expertly to deliver the goods.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is dead; long live the Classic Thriller Theatre Company!

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Sophie Ward (Photo: Mark Yeoman)