Tag Archives: Birmingham

Street Life

AVENUE Q

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th February, 2019

 

The brainchild of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (who wrote the book) Avenue Q is one of those shows I never tire of going back to.  It always feels like a treat, and this new tour is no exception.  For those that don’t know, it is modelled on Sesame Street, but here the lessons are most definitely for grown-ups, lessons that contain a few uncomfortable truths we need reminding of every now and then.

Unlike the TV classic, and The Muppet Show, here the puppeteers are clearly visible.  On the one hand, you sort of turn a blind eye to them and focus on the characters they operate; on the other, you pay direct attention to them and you are blown away by the skills on display.  You want multi-tasking, this is the musical theatre equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy while emoting and belting out songs.

The excellent Lawrence Smith is newly graduated Princeton, seeking his purpose in life.  Through Princeton we are introduced to the other inhabitants of this thoroughfare.  He falls for Kate Monster (the astonishing Cecily Redman) and they go out – leading to some harsh life lessons for both of them.  He meets Nicky ( the brilliant Tom Steedon) who is thrown out by room-mate Rod (also Lawrence Smith) who can’t bring himself to come out of the closet, leading to a life lesson for us all about helping others, the homeless in particular.  Steedon also performs as the hilarious Trekkie Monster who has an addiction to the internet – Cookies don’t come into it!  Redman also operates sleazy nightclub singer Lucy The Slut (subtle, isn’t it?) and when Lucy and Kate have to appear together, she has to converse with herself, slipping from one voice to the other with apparent ease.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Among the puppets live human characters.  Oliver Stanley makes a likeable Brian, Nicholas McLean is a mass of energy as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) but it is Saori Oda’s fierce and feisty Christmas Eve whose larger-than-life characterisation almost steals the show.

The songs are great, the book is funny, and in the hands of director Cressida Carre, this production shows that the material has lost none of its edge, none of its relevance, and none of its power to educate and amuse.

I enjoy my trip down Memory Lane but if it’s your first time in this neighbourhood, I envy you the surprises you’re going to have.  You might also learn something about life you don’t know you need to know.

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Christmas Eve (Saori Oda) offers advice to uptight Rod (Lawrence Smith) Photo: Matt Martin

 

 

 

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Bosom Buddies

DI AND VIV AND ROSE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th February, 2019

 

Three very different young women meet at university in the 1980s, share a student house for a couple of years, and then strive to keep in touch as their lives take them in different directions.  That’s the plot of Amelia Bullmore’s play, written and first produced in 2013.   With the action spanning thirty years, there are plenty of costume changes and music cues to convey the passage of time.  Video projections, by Kristan Webb, identify locations, with sketches supposedly taken from art history student Rose’s sketchbook.

As middle-class, promiscuous Rose Katie Merriman is hilarious, adding physical comedy to her characterisation.  Rose having trouble walking and sitting after an evening with the well-endowed Casper is a scream.  Rose might be a bit of a sheltered, spoiled Southerner, but Merriman brings her great warmth.

Tiffany Cawthorne portrays sporty lesbian Di with youthful vigour and bright-eyed enthusiasm – until events bring out darker emotions.  Bullmore’s writing gives us broad humour and delicate, sensitive scenes.  Cawthorne handles everything the script requires of her with skill and conviction.

Completing the trio is Liz Plumpton as oddball Viv, who spends her student days dressed ‘like it’s the War’ and is not shy of deconstructing events with sociological analysis.  Her militant intellectualism is in direct contrast with good-time girl Rose’s outlook; sparks fly between the two of them, which serve to deepen the bond between them.  Plumpton is superb as the slightly dour, dry-witted Viv. It takes a tragic event to bring Viv to the boil in powerful scenes, and it’s all the more moving because of her previous behaviour.

It’s a warm-hearted, very funny piece.  Director Kevin Middleton handles the sea changes of the women’s lives, navigating the differences in tone with subtlety and the broader comedic moments with splendid timing.  There are some pacing issues with some of the transitions: scenes divided into snappy sub-scenes need quicker changes; there are too many slow fades to black, when these should be reserved for the changing of the years.  But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent production.  The depth and range of emotion depicted here raises the story beyond the realms of chick-lit.  It’s an examination of the bonds of friendship: the fun to be had, the closeness, the sense of belonging, as well as the bitterness and sense of disappointment when life gets in the way.

Laugh-out-loud funny and ultimately very moving, this is a fine production of a powerful play, and it makes me wish Amelia Bullmore was more prolific!

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Katie Merriman, Tiffany Cawthorne and Liz Plumpton (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Intoxicating

THE TOXIC AVENGER

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 8th February, 2019

 

Based on a schlocky horror film, this satirical musical by Joe Dipietro is given a stripped- down presentation in the Old Joint Stock’s intimate space.  I say ‘intimate’ and I mean ‘in your face’.  We are right there, inches away from the performers, within their grasp, within their eye-line, in their path…

It’s the story of hapless nerd Melvin Ferd the Third who, having been dumped in a barrel of toxic waste, develops superhuman strength along with other, less desirable attributes, like green skin and leaking pustules.  In love with blind librarian Sarah, ‘Toxie’ becomes a force for good, fighting against pollution and corporate negligence, largely in the glamorous if tacky figure of the Mayor of New Jersey, Babs Belgoody.

In the title role, Richard Haines is remarkable, giving a flawlessly sung performance as good as any I’ve heard in the West End.  His rendition of You Tore My Heart Out is stunning.  His acting is top notch too, and he is supported by half a dozen strong co-stars, not least Sarah Haines as his love interest, a blind librarian.  The show gets a lot of mileage out of Sarah’s disability; we know we shouldn’t laugh, but we do, but this is cartoon stuff.  Everything is heightened for comedic melodrama – even the scene changes are hilarious.

Lizzie Robins doubles as the wicked Mayor Babs and Melvin’s Noo Yoik mother, Ma Ferd.  At one point the story calls for both of her characters to sing a duet.  Robins pulls it off with aplomb, keeping each character in a different register.  She almost doesn’t need the half-and-half costume she dons to close the number.

A versatile quartet makes up the rest of the cast, listed simply as Black Dude, White Dude, Black Chick, and White Chick.  They provide all the supporting roles and they each get plenty of opportunity to shine.  Alanna Boden’s Professor, for example, in a duet with the Mayor is a delight; Elle Knowles’s bully, Gavin Whichello’s shirtless cowboy singer – the quartet are the beating heart of the show, the population of the troubled town of Tromaville.  They’re all great but I feel I ought to make special mention of Joash Musundi for his doughnut-eating cop, his doctor, and his wonderful Shoniqua.

This is a production that revels in its limitations.  Director Adam Carver works wonders to keep things hilarious, aided by Sarah Haines’s frenetic choreography.  Every moment I’m torn between laughing out loud and marvelling at the talent on display.  Hugely enjoyable, exhilaratingly delivered, this rude and raunchy show is more tonic than toxic.

What is toxic is the world we live in.  If corporations and politicians aren’t going to address issues of climate change, perhaps we ought to adopt the Toxic Avenger’s approach and start ripping off a few heads!

toxic


A Question of Colour

BLUE/ORANGE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th February, 2019

 

Joe Penhall’s three-hander from 2000 gets a timely revival in this taut new production, directed by Daniel Bailey.  Twenty-eight days after being sectioned by the police, Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is looking forward to going home – if the psychiatrists treating him can agree to it.  Bruce (young, idealistic) is reluctant to give Chris the go-ahead, while Bruce’s mentor, ambitious consultant Robert is all for it.  As Chris is interviewed and assessed, the play brings up the sad fact of greater propensity for mental illness among the black population – well, you try being in a minority, any minority, in an oppressive culture!

Thomas Coombes is largely sympathetic as a twitchy if well-meaning Bruce, trying to do and say the right things, only to find his career jeopardised by ill-advised vocabulary (the ‘n’ word) rather than any misdiagnosis or malpractice.  Penhall is very sharp on language, the words used as labels, as descriptors; it’s not just a minefield for professionals.   Almost twenty years since its first outing, we are perhaps more sensitive about semantics, more aware of the impact of language.  Let’s hope so, anyway.

Richard Lintern is excellent as the suave, glib Doctor Robert Smith, looking for the cure.  (I don’t mean to make him sound like the front man of a goth band).   His casual manner conceals the professionally self-serving hard-man he really is.  But it is Ivan Oyik in his professional debut who proves the most compelling of this talented trio.  Oyik’s Christopher is sometimes manic, sometimes lucid, sometimes paranoid, sometimes affronted (rightly so, on occasion!) and is never anything less than magnetic.

Much of the play’s humour derives from Christopher’s responses and reactions, and also much of the tension.  As the action unfolds, there is shift after shift in the power structure, with accusations and questions flying around.

Amelia Hankin’s design takes its cue from the title, for its colour scheme, with institutional armchairs and a water cooler set on a diamond dais beneath a suspended framework.  It’s a simple, stylish setting, the impact of which is heightened by Azusa Ono’s lighting design.  Daniel Bailey’s direction keeps the sometimes-wordy scenes dynamic and captivating, so we are able to follow the argument and the discussions with ease.

I’m not sure that Penhall offers answers, but surely the point of this piece is to raise the question.  Thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable fare, this is a riveting performance of what has become a modern classic, and is still utterly relevant today.  We’re all supposed to be talking about mental health, but as well as talk, the resources need to be there to support and alleviate mental illness.

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Richard Lintern, Ivan Oyik and Thomas Coombes chair a meeting (Photo: Myah Jeffers)

 


A Tern for the Better

THE SEAGULL

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 2nd February, 2019

 

Chekhov done right is hugely demanding of any company attempting to stage one of his plays.  But if the company does get it right, the play becomes less demanding on the audience and, in fact, becomes a pleasure.  Here, director Andrew Brooks gets it right, eliciting nuanced and rounded performances from his cast, in this enjoyable adaptation by Christopher Hampton.

Jacob Williams shines as neurotic young writer Konstantin Gavrilovich Triplev – (the main problem I have with Chekhov is the names.  Sometimes characters use the full name, a diminutive version, or a different name altogether, so it can take a while to sort out in your mind who they’re talking about!)  Williams seems effortlessly naturalistic, balancing Kostia’s jaded outlook and insecurities with passion for the theatre.  Konstantin’s descent into mental illness is expertly portrayed.

As his mother, Irina So-and-so and Such-and-such, Karen Leadbetter gives us the ego of the famous actress, her insensitivity and selfishness – all at Konstantin’s expense – in a measured performance that never goes over the top.  John O’Neill is more down-to-earth as her lover, celebrated writer Trigorin; he really comes into his own when Trigorin describes the writer’s lot.

The object of Konstantin’s affections, the tragic Nina is played by Hannah Birkin, who is marvellous in the part.  She even performs the pretentious twaddle of Konstantin’s play with conviction.  This is a story of unrequited love – most of the characters are afflicted by it, setting off a chain reaction of events.

Dave Hill is endearing as ailing Uncle Pyotr, while the mighty Colin Simmonds perfectly inhabits his role as the family doctor.  Amy Thompson is the picture of misery as the lovelorn Masha, and Papa Anoh Yentumi gives an assured performance as pipe-smoking Shamrayev.

The costumes by Pat Brown clearly depict the class structure of 1895 Russia, and the beautiful set by Keith Harris and Megan Kirwin, with its tree trunks and elegant furnishings, basks in the atmospheric lighting of Kristan Webb’s design.  This is a classy production of a classic play, which brings out most of the humour inherent in the text with credible characterisations that keep on the right side of melodrama.

Eminently watchable and entertaining, this is one Chekhov you really ought to check out.

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Dave Hill and Jacob Williams (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


If I Had a Hammer

MISTRESS TO THE MIDNIGHT

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 1st February, 2019

 

Do you remember the classic British horror film made by Anvil Studios, Mistress of the Midnight?  No, of course you don’t because the film never existed and neither did the studios.  This hilarious production begins with the premise that the fictitious film has been found and, for the first time in sixty years, is going to be shown to a discerning public, namely the members of the ‘Sinema Society’.

This funny introduction sets the tone – this is the clever, silly kind of humour that reminds me of the heydays of Radio 4 comedy shows – and with only three performers, fast-moving action and even faster quick changes are the order of the day.

The ‘film’ begins with a cod-Victorian English voiceover, as our protagonist Ned Hellion, a kind of Jonathan Harker figure, writes home to his fiancée.  He has been summoned abroad to a weird Germanic country to conduct some legal business on behalf of the mysterious Madame Zozanov.  He encounters a host of colourful characters, and the tropes and atmosphere of the genre are laid on with a trowel – or should that be a Hammer?

It’s an absolute scream!  This kind of thing is right up my dark alley.  A gag-packed script delivered by a talented trio whose heightened performances sell even the lamest of jokes and make meals of the more melodramatic moments.  And, surprisingly, it’s a bit creepy too. Despite the silly wigs, the funny voices, the ridiculous vocabulary of the locals, and the far-fetched nature of the subject matter, there is the odd moment when the pace slows and the eeriness seeps through.

But not for long!  For most of the sixty minutes duration, you will be laughing out loud, relishing the daftness and loving the performers.  Written and performed by Jacob Lovick, Jack Robertson and Chazz Redhead, this glorious piece took me back to my childhood when stopping up late to watch a Hammer double-bill was a delicious treat.

Fabulous!

mistress midnight


Grounds for Fun

HOPPERS

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 29th January, 2019

 

This latest production from Gritty Theatre is the brand-new piece from Michael Southan, and it’s quite a departure from his earlier play, Fred & Ginger but no less enjoyable.  It’s a kind of play-within-a-play, with three cast members walking on, carrying cardboard boxes to add to those already on stage.  They announce they’re going to do a spot of pub theatre and tell us a story called Hoppers and it’s football-related – Hoppers are ‘groundhoppers’, fans who try to attend matches at a number of stadiums throughout the season.  That’s what I gather, anyway; I could be mistaken.

And so, there’s plenty of fourth-wall breaking as the three narrate, often speaking in verse like a scaled-down Greek chorus, using their physicality and versatility to set the scene.  They recruit a plant (well, a woman) from the audience to be the protagonist.  This is Sal (played by Michelle Jennings) a foul-mouthed barmaid whose father has just died, thus triggering a quest.  The retrieval of a missing away kit drives the plot, as Sal goes from pillar to post, and club to club, meeting oddball characters and meeting their demands so she can track down the precious relic and complete her late father’s collection.  Jennings does a good line in exasperation as the beleaguered barmaid; Sally learns there was more to her dad than she ever knew.

Appearing as her father, as well as a host of other characters including boring Tony off the radio, is the rather protean Conor Nolan, whom I cannot fault.  Equally committed are Amy Anderson and Danny Milwain (who seems to be constantly snacking on something, whatever role he’s playing, including at one point an entire cucumber.  You don’t see that every day.)  Director Dominic Thompson gives them plenty of business which they pull off with precision and skill.  The presentation is sharp, slick and sassy, reminding me of early work by Godber with the added four-letter words of Berkoff, and while there is some lovely writing here, the form tends to overshadow the content at times.

There is much to enjoy here: a slow-motion skittles event, for example, and some perfectly timed reactions.  The local accents (instant comedy!) and local references strike home, even if in my ignorance I don’t appreciate the whole non-league football theme.

As items are unpacked from the ever-present boxes, Sal learns and we learn that there is more to our parents than their role as our parents – they are people too, with ambitions, interests and histories we would do well to learn about while there’s time.

Funny, with its heart and its theatricality on the sleeves of its football strip, Hoppers is both simple and sophisticated, almost mythic in its storytelling, and entertainingly enacted by an energetic ensemble.

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Chorus to this history: Conor Nolan, Amy Anderson, and Danny Milwain