Tag Archives: Birmingham

Something’s Got To Give

THE LATE MARILYN MONROE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2018

 

We’ll never know what happened during the last moments of the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Conspiracy theories abound, each one wackier than the last (the CIA, the Mafia, she was about to tell the world about the existence of aliens…); here, writer-director Darren Haywood, following extensive research, pieces together an impression of what might have been, but his play is more than a dramatic reconstruction.

We spend Marilyn’s final hours with her in her bedroom.  The constantly ringing telephone is a source of annoyance and also comfort as she takes and makes calls, looking forward to plans for the next day, the next week… For a time, we don’t believe this is a woman on the verge of suicide.  But then, as Tania Staite’s impressive portrayal reveals, Monroe is not exactly stable.  Capricious and volatile, she rounds on those closest to her, hurls colourful invective down the phone at Bobby Kennedy, and then switches back to a child-like persona, desperately insecure about her looks, caving under the pressure of having to be Marilyn Monroe.

Tania Staite gets the cadences of Monroe’s voice – it’s an evocation rather than an impersonation, and Staite settles into the role; it’s the first night and I can’t tell whether first-night stumbles are actually part of Monroe’s distracted state!

There is sympathetic support from Ellie Darvill as housekeeper Mrs Murray, a maternal, nurturing presence who is on the receiving end of Monroe’s paranoid flights of fury.  Dru Stephenson is also good as Monroe’s long-suffering friend and publicist, while Martin Rossen’s visiting psychiatrist adopts more of a friendly and paternal bedside manner than a professional detachment.

Haywood’s writing is excellent – his Monroe really comes alive when she’s recounting anecdotes of Hollywood gossip – and, thanks to Staite’s performance, we do care about this vulnerable victim of the celebrity machine.  The whole thing is flooded with doom and dramatic irony.  We know she’s not long for this world and so lines like “I may just go to sleep and never get up” and “You’ve got time ahead of you” have resonance the characters don’t realise.

Marilyn’s early death speaks to our age directly.  Not just because of its fairy-tale-gone-wrong aspects but because her story reveals times have not changed.  The celebrity machine churns on, chewing up and spitting out stars, and our culture is still obsessed with every detail of their private lives.  Also, Monroe discloses (although it’s not secret) that she had to sleep her way through a slew of directors and producers to get her break, and this brings the production bang up-to-date with the spectre of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.  Show business has not changed and, by extension, the world has not changed.  Monroe’s demise remains a powerful indictment of the sleazy patriarchy that both made and broke her.

Absorbing and well-played, the production could benefit from a few cuts – especially in the second act – so that it makes its points more efficiently.

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Looking Back in Anger

BONES

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th January, 2018

 

Mark is a 19-year-old with a temper – to put it mildly – in this production by Gritty Theatre of Jane Upton’s one-hander.  As the story unfolds, we learn of his situation and his past.  He’s unemployed, blowing his money on blow-outs from McDonalds and blow jobs from spotty prostitutes, his only respite from a living hell with his drug-abusing mother and the unfortunate baby sister at whom he directs his anger and frustration.  He plans to kill the child, just to get some peace but, the more we learn about him, the more we realise he won’t go through with it.  Will he?

He relives memories of happier times: a seaside holiday with Mum and Grandad – until the spectre of drug abuse ruins everything.

All in all, it’s a grim tale, ameliorated only by glimpses of humour, but a raw, fearless and intense performance by Dominic Thompson, who not only narrates the story but inhabits it, keeps us entranced.  Director Ian Robert Moule has Thompson utilise pub props and pub furniture to represent what’s going on in the account: and so, a spillage of lager becomes the young Mark’s pissed trousers; his hoodie becomes the prostitute; a toppled stool becomes the incapacitated mother the little boy desperately tries to dress… It’s inventive stuff and highly evocative but, of course, the power of the production comes through Thompson’s volatile presence.  Mark is quick to boil over into fury.  It’s not so much a short fuse as no fuse at all, and while there are quieter moments and even calmer moments, perhaps Mark could do with more time to simmer.  He seems to go instantly to 11, as though a switch is being flicked.  Thompson maintains the energy and intensity of his portrayal and is never short of compelling and credible in what is a bravura performance.

The material is gritty – as we might expect! – and we do feel for Mark, who has had to deal with matters no child should ever encounter.  The play finishes on a life-changing shock, a culmination of horribleness, that leaves us with a nasty aftertaste.  Upton shows us a dark side of society without offering a way-out, or a suggestion of how things could improve, and so Bones is ultimately bleak.  But the powerful presentation gives us something to admire in this gruelling, gruesome tale.

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Afternoon Delight

AN EVENING OF SEX

A E Harris Building, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd December, 2017

 

A small but discerning audience gathers on a chilly afternoon in a converted factory building in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.  On offer is ‘An Evening of Sex’ but before we can get too excited, the programme notes reveal that the three short plays we are about to see are united by one factor: the characters do not have sex.  Frankly, I’m relieved.

Paperless

First up is a one-hander, so to speak, written and directed by Dominic Thompson and performed by Jack McBride.  Martin wakes up hungover and handcuffed to a toilet.  It’s his first wedding anniversary and he’s missed a lot of voicemail from his Mrs.  He’s due to fly with her to Dublin and time is running out.  McBride holds our attention well – as the bottom falls out of Martin’s world, and the arse hangs out of his trousers.  There is some neat physical comedy here as Martin drops his phone into the bowl and has to fish it out again, using a sock as a glove, and McBride swaps in and out of the character of a cleaning woman with clarity and ease.  This is a natty piece of writing from Thompson, fresh and contemporary.  We never learn why Martin’s so-called mate has done this to him, but that’s a minor point.

Fred and Ginger

Next up: a two-hander that charts the relationship between schoolfriends, Carl and Izzy.  We meet them at rehearsals for their annual school production, in a sort of Neil Simon Same Time, Next Year kind of way.  In four scenes, we see them grow up before our very eyes, from immature kids eating sweets and playing with Matchbox cars, to young adults, catching up with each other, both having their own lives.  Tilly Farell-Whitehouse undergoes quite a transformation in terms of look and attitude as the earnest, sweet-natured Izzy, quoting her mom and gran as the ultimate authorities on just about everything.  Dominic Thompson is equally credible as the wayward Carl, for whom school is not the best place.  Writer Michael Southan leaves it to us to fill in the gaps between the scenes, keeping the exposition of each scene to the minimum, and this works very well.  It’s sweetly played, and nicely paced by director Ian Robert Moule.  One of the mission statements of Gritty Theatre is to put West Midlands voices, West Midlands stories on the stage.  One of the advantages of the local accent is it readily lends bathos to any statement, a gift for any comedy: witness Izzy’s line, “That last chorus of Fame shredded my larynx.”  It would be interesting to see how the accent plays in the metropolis.

Painting a Picture for the World

Third and last, we have another two-hander, written by Dave Pitt.  The setting is the neat but sparse boudoir of one of your higher-class prostitutes.  Kitty (Jessica Melia) admits her latest ‘trick’, Mark (Damien Dickens), a nervous fellow who just wants ‘to talk’.  And so begins an exchange of observations rather than bodily fluids, the upshot of which is that money can’t buy you love.  Well, we could have told him that from the start.  The play does provide something of a window into the world of the working girl but comes across as an interview rather than a conversation.  Melia cuts a sympathetic figure and Dickens gets Mark’s awkwardness across, but we know he’s going to go away unsatisfied.  The tart with a heart pecks him on the cheek ‘for free’ and he shuffles out.  The session peters out and the play ends.  Nicely played but with no real pay-off.

All-in-all, a fresh and delightful afternoon of brand-new writing.  Perhaps Gritty Theatre have played it safe this time around but I look forward to seeing more of their work.

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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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