Tag Archives: Birmingham

Chart Show

PRESSURE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th October, 2019

 

David Haig’s play is set the weekend before D-Day – a date enshrined in history, but of course, at the time they didn’t know exactly when the Normandy invasion would take place.  And that’s the crux of the plot.  General Eisenhower is relying on weather forecasts to predict the best conditions for making his move and sending 350,000 men into danger.  One expert is predicting fair weather, another says there’s a storm coming.  But who is right?  And which way will Eisenhower jump?

Martin Tedd’s Dr Stagg is a grumpy Scot, a Victor Meldrew of a man, but he knows what he’s talking about.  His certainty of his own knowledge and experience contrasts with the uncertainty around his wife going into difficult labour with their second child.  But Stagg is under lockdown at Southwick House and is powerless to help.  Tedd is good at Stagg’s short temper but he stumbles sometimes with the specialist language, phrases that should trip off the tongue.  His American counterpart, Colonel Krick is played with assurance by Robert Laird.

Alexandria Carr is marvellous as the only female character in the piece, Lieutenant Summersby – her accent matches her period hairdo, and she performs with efficiency, showing the human behind the British aloofness.

The mighty Colin Simmonds portrays Eisenhower with a blunt kind of charm, exuding power easily and bringing humour to the piece.  As ever, Simmonds inhabits the character with utter credibility and nuance.  It feels like a privilege to see him perform.

There is pleasing support from Griff Llewelyn-Cook as young Andrew, and from Crescent stalwarts Dave Hill and Brian Wilson in some of the smaller roles.

Director Karen Leadbetter keeps us engaged with all the jargon flying around by handling the highs and lows, the changing weather of human interactions, with an ear for when things should be loud and when quiet, and when silence is most powerful.

The simple set, in wartime greens, gives us a sense of time and place, and is enhanced by John Gray’s lighting – especially for off-stage action, like an aeroplane in trouble, for example.  The room is dominated by the charts, huge maps with isobars swirling across them, and you marvel that the technology of the time was adequate for its purpose.

This is a solid production of a play that sheds light on an esoteric yet crucial part of the war effort.  Haig has obviously researched his subject matter extensively and manages to tell the story without being overly didactic or preachy.

pressure

Alexandria Carr and Colin Simmonds feel the pressure (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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Dark Deeds Come To Light

GASLIGHT

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 30th September, 2019

 

This new production of Patrick Hamilton’s classic thriller impresses from the start with an imposing set designed by William Dudley.  The perspective is so forced the ceiling looms large over proceedings and the sense of claustrophobia is almost palpable.  The box set is augmented by judicious use of gauzes so we can see who is eavesdropping outside the room or going up and down the staircases, and there are video projections, also by Dudley, that give us a view into the uppermost room and, more importantly, the mindset of our heroine, Bella.

Written in 1939, the play has given its name to a form of systematic psychological abuse, and Hamilton gives us a textbook example here as Jack Manningham uses every trick in the book to send his wife around the twist.  From the off, Bella (Charlotte Emmerson) is tightly wound and Jack plays her like a fiddle.  James Wiley is perfectly villainous as the domineering, manipulative husband, while Emmerson, increasingly unhinged, quickly gains our sympathy and keeps it.

There is strong supporting character work from Mary Chater as Elizabeth, and Georgia Clarke-Day as Nancy, two maids of the household, contrasting nicely with each other; but the piece centres around a star turn from the mighty Martin Shaw as Rough, a detective with an Oirish accent.  Shaw’s Rough is humorous and yet authoritative, a charmer who takes control – a Professional, if you will!

Mic Pool’s sound design adds eeriness and the all-important lighting, by Chris Davey, creates a suitably murky atmosphere for the dastardly goings-on.  Director Lucy Bailey wrings suspense out of moments of silence, and the action builds to a rather lurid climax in which we see the villain’s ultimate fate.

Even if you’ve seen the play the before, this high-quality production shows there is still plenty of mileage in the material.  Gripping, amusing and thrilling, Gaslight deserves a glowing review!

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Nice bit of Rough: Martin Shaw

 


Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


Dog Muck

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 2nd September, 2019

 

The publicity material for this two-hander of an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes classic says the show stars “No one famous” but a little detective work on my part leads me to suspect that the performers are called Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille, who share the narration as Holmes and Watson (here, Doctor Jane) as well as playing all the parts in the play.

It’s fast-paced and funny – there is much to be enjoyed in the slipshod way the pair tear around, donning hats and wigs and so on to populate the story.  It’s deceptively slapdash, with lines fluffed and forgotten, crucial props going astray and plenty of onstage bickering.  Every now and then they come together (to use one of their own innuendos) with instances of slick comic timing.  You want innuendo?  They will give you one.  The script (by Thomas Moore) is riddled with double (and single) entendres.  Each characterisation is more grotesque than the last, with Holmes giving us his bent-backed Barrymore and his louche Laura Lyons, and Watson her bizarre Doctor Mortimer and knee-slapping Sir Henry.

Oliver Hayes has a cheeky twinkle in his eye, like a young Michael Palin, while Bibi Lucille is as funny as she is versatile.  The whole thing is camp, cheeky and daft, yet the plot adheres to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, hitting all the main points of action and including all the major characters – we, the audience, are recruited to portray the titular Hound, howling on demand.

Hilarious, energetic, silly, saucy and smart, this show provides a good workout for your laughing muscles, even though some of the gags are a bit laboured and repetitive, which somehow adds to the fun.  The muckiness is in the great British comedic tradition, and these two are such a hugely likeable pair, they can pull it off with ease.

Brilliant!

Hound of the Baskervilles ©The Other Richard

What a pair! Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille (Photo: The Other Richard)


Brolly Good Show

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd August, 2019

 

Once a year, the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham city centre becomes a nurturing ground for young talent with its Stage Experience scheme.  This year the production is the stage musical version of the sublime Hollywood movie musical – it’s a big ask and, as ever, the young performers do more than acquit themselves.  It’s staggering to think how much they achieve in so brief a rehearsal period; it’s thanks to director-choreographer Pollyann Tanner who waves a theatrical wand (or cracks a theatrical whip!) to marshal her company of one hundred and one performers into shape.  Every single one of them performs with commitment, energy and discipline.  Unfortunately, there is no space to list them all here.

Leading the cast is Ben Tanner as silent-movie star Don Lockwood, who shows very quickly he can croon and hoof impressively, bringing warmth to the role.  As his best buddy Cosmo, Sam Rogers has a kind of manic humour that hits more than it misses, while Isabella Kibble is spot on as love interest Kathy Selden, even though it takes me a while to get used to Kathy as a blonde.  When these three get together to perform Good Morning, all the elements align to make this number the highlight of the show for me – it’s just about perfect.

Jessica Walton shines as the villainous Lina Lamont, complete with tortuous accent and monstrous ego, and there is fine support from Thom Lambert as Roscoe Dexter and Jarrad Heath as studio boss R. F. Simpson – although he could do with greying up a little to distinguish him from the other young males.

As we have come to expect, the production/chorus numbers, though densely populated, are beautifully sung.  Special mention goes to Jack Smyth for his assured vocals in Beautiful Girl.  While there is much to marvel at in the organisation and execution of a production of this scale (the costume demands alone are mind-boggling), the show is also a lot of fun and enjoyable in itself.  The specially filmed clips of the silent movies are hilarious, and the title song, with its obligatory rainfall, makes quite a splash.

On the whole, the accents are fine and the pacing works very well.  There are occasions when the dialogue could be crisper, but it would be churlish of me to hold this against them.  Yet again Stage Experience has produced dazzling results, has given a multitude of young people invaluable experience onstage and off, and above all, has given the audience an evening of quality entertainment.

Singin' in the Rain

Gene puddle: Ben Tanner as Don Lockwood (Photo: Sam Bagnall)

 

 

 

 


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

 

 


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)