Tag Archives: Birmingham

Will they, won’t they?

SUNDOWN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 24th July, 2019

 

Sometimes you go to the theatre and they get everything right.  The artistic choices made serve the material perfectly, and the performance of the piece is just exquisite.    An example of this is this neat little one-act two-hander from the pen (or the keyboard) of Darren Haywood, one of Birmingham’s most consistently excellent playwrights.

Set on a cliff top, the action concerns the meeting of two strangers, each with their own reason to be there.  Their lives have brought them to this point, this place with a view, with a view to tossing themselves off (the cliff).  Lara, a solicitor by trade, is dealing with a crisis in her personal life.  Kris, a betting-shop worker, has drink and gambling issues, and the debts are piling up…   The pair strike up a conversation, and come to an understanding and appreciation of each other.  Haywood spares us scenes of gut-spilling and deep-and-meaningfuls.  Instead, the conversation is interspersed with the characters’ inner monologues, so we are privy to their innermost thoughts, we come to learn their personal histories, while their outward discourse rattles along in fits and starts.  The two share a moment of real connection, and we suspect they may not go through with their separate plans of ending it all after all.  We suspect this may not be the end of them, not the last of their conversations…

As the somewhat stroppy Lara, Emily Summers is superb.  Her annoyance with the interloper Kris is writ large on her features, while her internal turmoil is more subtly portrayed.  The monologue where she reveals the nature and story of her anguish is powerfully played.

As the gauche, wise-cracking Kris, Davey Ezra imbues the character with more than snappy one-liners.  Kris uses humour as a shield, and Ezra lets us see beneath the mask.  His big monologue about an opportunity to steal from his employer is recounted with conviction and truth.

The actors are helped massively by the quality of Haywood’s writing.  Haywood has an ear for naturalistic dialogue and can write in quips and retorts that sound like they arise from the conversation.  He can also shape the action, keeping his cards close to his chest, gradually dealing them out so we get to know the characters and their situations in an organic way.  It works brilliantly.

Also directing this production, Haywood keeps staging to the absolute minimum, so his words, via the actors, are given full sway.  A raised platform serves as the cliff top at Beachy Head.  Seagulls and surf on a loop are all the scenic colour required.  It truly is a case of less being more.  Slight dips in the lighting cover represent the night drawing in – we don’t even need to see the sundown of the title.

Funny, intriguing and touching, Sundown runs for less than an hour but is thoroughly satisfying – perhaps because of its constraints.

I loved it.

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Strangers at sunset: Davey Ezra and Emily Summers

 

 

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French Kissing

AMELIE The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 22nd July, 2019

 

Based on the acclaimed French film of 2001, this new musical (and English) version with its romanticised vision of Paris is in Birmingham this week.  Although the story includes historical details (mainly concerning the Princess of Wales) this Paris is a highly stylised, mythical place, where anything (including singing goldfish and giant fig men) can and does happen.  Our protagonist is Amélie, a young woman whose sheltered upbringing has made it nigh on impossible to form a loving relationship with a bloke.  She devotes her life to helping others anonymously and it all goes rather well until handsome Nino enters the mix…

Madeleine Girling’s elegantly versatile two-tier set is the backdrop for the action: a ticket office serves as a confessional, the pianos become café display cabinets, and so on, with Amélie repeatedly ascending to her flat on the upper level, Mary Poppins-like with the aid of a lampshade.  The stage is populated by the other characters – the cast all double roles and play musical instruments, to the extent that at some points the main action is crowded out by the hustle and bustle of the musicians.  It all sounds great, the playing and the singing are fine, I just wish some of them would clear off every once in a while to give the story more space, and to give certain scenes sharper focus.

In the title role, Audrey Brisson gives a phenomenal performance, augmenting Amélie ’s otherness with her physicality.  Movements and gestures are sharp and precise, her timing is immaculate, and her singing is strong and sweet.  Her native French accent is not as pronounced as the phoney French accents of the  rest of the cast; I would have preferred English accents, like a dubbed version of the film – the musical arrangements and the art deco scenery are more than enough to ground the story in Parisienne colour.

Danny Mac is perfectly dreamy as Nino.  Mac is steadily becoming one of our most dependable musical theatre stars.  His singing has warmth and range, and he makes a charismatic figure, but there are a few moments when the accent intrudes a little.

The main action of the story takes a while to get going: the first act is heavy with back-story and exposition, and so this lightweight story with folk-tale elements suffers from a running time that feels overlong, and while I find the staging inventive and charming on the whole, director Michael Fentiman keeps his stage too busy for me to engage with the action completely.  There is a strong Emma Rice feel to the proceedings with the onstage actor-musicians and the delightful puppetry, yet the show’s most powerful moment takes place in complete silence.

A confection of a show, where the whimsicality of the story is offset by the wistfulness of the score, Amélie the Musical is perhaps not for all tastes.  I find it a little cluttered but its heart is definitely in the right place.

Pamela Raith Photography

Charming: Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac (Pamela Raith Photography)


Dreamy

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd July, 2019

 

The only problem with this show, the first collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is its brevity.  Having start out as a 20-minute piece for a school assembly, the running time has been expanded by the addition of new songs in order to reach a more conventional length for a night out at the theatre.  Some of the additions add little more than repetition.  We get previews of songs before they appear in the storyline.  We get reprises and reprises.  Joseph’s coat begins to feel like a padded jacket.

But beneath the padding, there is the kernel of brilliance.  Rice’s witty lyrics and Lloyd Webber’s score of many colours are at their finest here.  Name another Lloyd Webber show that has such a range of melodies.  Answers on a postcard, please.

The show hinges on its leading man and here, in Jaymi Hensley, it has one of the best I’ve seen.   Hensley’s vocals are richly textured and infused with emotion.  His Close Every Door is breath-taking – it’s the show’s best number and, mercifully, is not reprised to death.  Hensley’s acting matches the quality of his singing.  He is expressive and funny, his reactions fleshing out the part: some Josephs can be arrogant and smug; Hensley combines strength with vulnerability.  He also looks great in the loincloth.

As the narrator, Trina Hill is at her best when belting out, rock-star style.  At times she is swamped by the action and you wonder where her voice is coming from.  Andrew Geater’s Pharaoh replicates Elvis’s intonations – to the point of losing a little clarity.  Even Joseph has to ask him to repeat himself.  Geater pulls it off through energy and commitment.  (At the time of the original production, Elvis was very much still in the building, and the show pastiched popular music genres of the day.  Now its references may be dated, and its satire diminished but it’s still a lot of fun.)

Henry Metcalfe is not only a dignified Jacob and an elegant Potiphar, he also choreographed the production.  With new moves by Gary Lloyd, the dancing is slick, sharp and funny too.  The pas de deux in Those Canaan Days is as impressive as it is anachronistic.  Mrs Potiphar (Amber Kennedy) is a glamorous cougar, stalking her prey.  It’s the anachronisms that make the show endearing and somehow timeless.  The French ballad, the cowboy song, the calypso.  This show is bonkers.  Some might say post-modern.

Among the lyrical and musical wittiness, the power of the story comes through.  The reunion scenes have the power to move – director Bill Kenwright wisely includes moments of silence as events impact on the characters, and Hensley’s Any Dream Will Do, when it is performed in the context of the story, is a tear-jerker.

This production does the material justice, with a superlative ensemble of brothers, wives, and a highly disciplined children’s choir.  But it’s Hensley’s star that shines brightest.

Dreamy.

Jaymi Hensley (Joseph) - Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - UK Tour (096_96A0754) - Pamela Raith Photography

Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)


He Is What He Is

JOHN BARROWMAN: FABULOUS

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 30th June, 2019

 

He arrives on stage to a rousing welcome from the Birmingham audience and the appreciation never dips from that point.  Shimmying around in a blue suit and black shirt, Barrowman exhorts us to ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’.  This is a party as much as a concert.  The premise is a retrospective of his thirty years in The Business – he deals with his stage and screen appearances in a jokingly curt manner, but I am reminded of his early days on Saturday morning television, and a younger, nervous me going to the stage door after a matinee performance of Sunset Boulevard and meeting a younger, just-as-handsome him.  There were about three of us at the stage door on that occasion; nowadays there are mobs.  He signed my programme and I stammered out a couple of compliments.  (I met him again years later, at a pantomime launch, and managed to get my words out that time!)

There is an emphasis on fun.  Barrowman swaps dick jokes with the on-stage sign language interpreter.  He shows us photographs and video clips of his family and his pets.  And he sparkles and shines every minute.  There’s a bit of Q&A about his time in the celebrity jungle, and there’s more upbeat numbers so we can clap along.  It’s a bit wedding singer at times, but Barrowman can pull off the cheese by dint of energy alone, and the support of his excellent band.

What works best though are ballads like Barry Manilow’s I Made It Through The Rain and the Perry Como classic, And I Love You So – the latter being perfect, beautiful in fact.  Songs like these and show tunes are better platforms for Barrowman’s vocal stylings.  He performs a doctored version of The Wizard and I (from Wicked) and I prickle with shivery nostalgia.  His Doctor Who character, Captain Jack Harkness, was a ground-breaking representation of non-heterosexuality in prime time TV and gave the openly gay actor’s career a jump start.

Barrowman gets us all to wave our hands in the air while he records a clip for Instagram with a rainbow flag in the foreground.  It’s World Pride Day, after all, and we gays (especially those of us who are no longer twinks, twonks or twunks) should be proud of the positivity Barrowman represents.

In the second half, he brings his octogenarian parents on stage.  No ‘slosh’ from them this time, but Barrowman père can out-sauce his cheeky son any day of the week, while Barrowman mère surprises us all into a standing ovation for a well-sung, beautiful song.  She may be visibly frail but there’s clearly nothing wrong with Marion’s vocal pipes.  And we see where he gets it from: the humour from his dad, the singing from his mum.  There is also an appearance from Barrowman’s handsome husband Scott – clearly not at home on the stage, Scott acquits himself with a decent and enjoyable rendition of Quando Quando Quando.

I can do without the In Memoriam section for audience members’ dead dogs; I’d much rather he invited us just to think about loved ones we have lost while he sings Goodbye My Friend – but that’s just my taste, I suppose.  He makes up for it with a gobsmacking performance of the empowering anthem, I Am What I Am.  ‘Fabulous’ has never been more applicable.

The show overruns – we won’t let him go – and it finishes with a soaring version of Loch Lomond.  You can’t accuse John Barrowman of not giving value for money – although at fifteen quid a pop, the souvenir programmes are a bit steep!

Uplifting, funny and inspirational, Barrowman is one of our finest entertainers, with talent as big as his onstage personality.  I can easily imagine being back in another thirty years for more.

To revert to an earlier catchphrase: Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!

fabulous

 

 

 


Child’s Play

TORCH TOWN

A secret location, Selly Oak, Birmingham, Friday 31st May, 2019

 

As a reviewer I get invited to all kinds of shows but this was my first in someone’s living room.  Tiny Change Theatre Company is currently previewing a new play prior to a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Written by Mark Fenton, who co-directs with Megan Farquhar, Torch Town is the story of two runaway children, holed up in a house, each of them escaping problems at home.  They build a city out of cardboard boxes, and festoon it with fairy lights, a place where they can make the rules as they see fit.

Alice (Lara Sprosen) is bossy, almost a proto-feminist in her assertions that girls are better (they write more neatly), brimming with the earnest absolutes of a childish worldview that sees things as black or white.  Beneath the bossiness lies fear and vulnerability and creativity infused with innocence.  With her is Peter (Tom Garrett), a troubled young lad who can match Alice in terms of imagination and innocence.  Both actors give captivating portrayals in highly detailed performances: Alice daring to say ‘fuck’ for the first time, Peter’s look of surprise when he manages to whistle – we see beyond the grown-up bodies of the actors to the children they are playing, bringing to my mind Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.  And there’s plenty of playing; the only time I feel this intimate space may be too small is when the kids are galumphing around, battling dragons in space or flying to the moon.

The innocence of the characters gives rise to much of the humour of the piece as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of their friendship.  There is pathos and poignancy, and some powerful moments – Alice’s fears when she’s left alone, and Peter’s startling monologue when memories swamp him and he has a breakdown.  Tom Garrett is superb.  Heart-breaking, in fact.  The pacing of these scenes is handled perfectly, contrasting with the interludes when the children play.

The directors turn the constraints of the production to their advantage, using handheld torches, table lamps and a projector to transform the stripped-bare domestic setting into a performance space that serves the story.

The writing is rich, allowing for intensity and levity from the players – and there’s a coda, set years later, that packs a punch.  An engaging hour of vibrant and refreshing drama, Torch Town shows that Tiny Change Theatre is an excellent young company with great potential.

I loved it.

torch


Dropping the Soap

SUMMER STREET

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 10th May, 2019

 

Four actors from a defunct Australian soap opera are reunited for a commemorative special in which they are to play all the parts (“Nobody will notice”).  Their week of rehearsals will culminate in a live broadcast.  There is a lot at stake.

That’s the premise of Andrew Norris’s bonzer new musical, which satirises the sunny optimism of the shows that dominated television in the 1990s.  The rehearsal scenes are hilarious, sending up the exposition-heavy dialogue, the public service information, and the outlandish plots.  But Norris intersperses them with glimpses into the actors’ lives.  We see the effects of being killed off and being unable to escape your typecasting.  The show is much more than silly satire; there is substance here in the melodrama of the actors’ real lives.

The songs are stonkers.  Disillusioned Angie, now working at a fish counter, sings the searing ‘Take the Knife’ bringing the show’s first dark moment.  Brock and Marlene belt out a smashing duet, ”Don’t Give Up” – the soap was a musical serial, a genius idea, ripe with comic potential.  There’s a brilliantly catchy parody, “Lucky Plucky Me” that infects my mind for the rest of the evening.  The highlight though is “Chains Around My Heart” in which Bobbi (the amazing Sarah-Louise Young) treats us to a dazzling display of vocal dexterity while parodying pretentious pop videos and earnest oversinging.  The number, quite rightly, brings the house down.

Young is hilarious as budding lesbian-mechanic Bobbi, and she is matched by Myke Cotton’s Brock (with mullet attached to his cap!).   Simon Snashall plays the father figures and the doctor – a deathbed scene is painfully funny – while Julie Clare is practically perfect as veteran soap actress Steph, who plays the soap’s busybody Mrs Mingle, and star-crossed lover Marlene.

Special mention goes to Pogo, the soap’s canine superstar, who makes a vital contribution to the plot!

The laughs keep coming but I get the sense of an underlying affection for the material that inspired the mockery.  There is also commentary here about the changes in televisual fare reflecting a loss of innocence and optimism in society, as the sunshine soaps have been usurped by so-called reality TV.

Thoroughly exhilarating, this show, like the serials it sends up, ought to run and run indefinitely!  With book, music, lyrics and direction all coming from the same man, Andrew Norris is some kind of genius, I reckon.

I loved it.

summer street

Mullet over: Myke Cotton as Brock

 


Splendid!

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th May, 2019

 

Khaled Hosseini’s novel comes to the stage in this engrossing adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma.  Set in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, this is the story of two women who are married to the same man.  Sharing hardship and mistreatment, the two women form a bond that lasts for years, leading to one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s a gripping tale, superbly told.  Sarma’s script brings out humour and warmth in horrendous circumstances as bombs drop on Kabul and the Taliban takes control.

The production hinges on the central performances of the two women.  Sujaya Dasgupta is instantly appealing as young Laila, driven by tragedy to marry the man who rescues her from the rubble of her family home.  Laila is primarily a victim of circumstance and oppression, but she has an indomitable spirit.  Dasgupta brings her to life without sentimentality; we are with her all the way.  Also great is Amina Zia as the initially resentful Mariam, regarding Laila as a threat but warming to her as events unfold.

Pal Aron is perfectly villainous as the tyrannical Rasheed, while Waleed Akhtar cuts a sympathetic figure as Tariq, Laila’s young love.  We meet Tariq in flashbacks, with Akhtar and Dasgupta displaying youthful vigour and innocence.  There is solid support from Shala Byx as Aziza and Munir Khairdin in a range of roles.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set is a rocky landscape, serving as all the story’s locations – the characters are forever stuck between rocks and hard places!

This is a fitting swan song for the REP’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, before she leaves Birmingham for pastures new.  Thoroughly involving, this is an excellent piece of storytelling, casting light onto a part of the world we don’t hear much about.  The play emphasises the humanity of the characters – of all the characters, even the loathsome Rasheed! – and we see just how ordinary and relatable they are, even in the face of extreme events.  The story could be played out in other countries (Syria, for example) to remind us that behind the statistics and the headlines, these are real people’s lives and experiences.

A wonderful piece of theatre, powerful, pertinent and captivating.  Splendid, in fact.

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Sujaya Dasgupta as Laila and Amina Zia as Mariam (Photo: Pamela Raith)