Tag Archives: Birmingham

Phantom Menace

GHOST STORIES

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020

 

Scary shows are rarely done live, and even more rarely, done successfully.  You think of The Woman in Black which continues to put the willies up audiences in the West End decades after it opened – and that’s about it.  Until the advent of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which went on to have a decent run and is now embarking on its first national tour.  Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, this is an anthology of tales, curated by Professor Goodman (an excellent Joshua Higgott), who in a kind of lecture or TED talk, seeks to debunk the supernatural.  Because there’s a rational explanation for everything.  Isn’t there?

I am under strict instruction not to reveal any of the show’s secrets so I will skate over the subject matter by saying only this.  Each story is completely different and is narrated by a different character, ranging from Paul Hawkyard’s down-to-earth Tony Matthews, to Gus Gordon’s more agitated Simon Rifkind, and to Richard Sutton’s boorish, braggart, Mike Priddle.

What I will tell you is you are in for ninety minutes of suspense, shocks and scares.  I saw the original production at the Lyric; there are more laughs than I remember, some of them the nervous kind, but the script is richly laced with humour, calculated to relieve the tension.  It’s beautifully written; the stories unfold in such a way that they play on your imagination, and the staging of each one is exquisite.  Everyday activities take on an aspect of suspense.  The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary…

Technically the show is a marvel of darkness (James Farncombe’s lighting design excels in what it doesn’t reveal as much as what it illuminates) with an unsettling sound design by Nick Manning.  There are jump-scares, sudden loud noises, eerie silences… every trope you might expect, and an almost relentless sense of dread.  You spend a lot of the time dreading what might happen and when things happen, wondering how they do it.  Everything is achieved with impeccable timing and it works brilliantly.

Even on second viewing, the show loses none of its power to grip, to thrill and to entertain.  It’s a funfair ride, a visceral and intellectual experience, addressing dark aspects of the human psyche.  It’s a pleasure to be manipulated in this way. The show is a testament to the power and unique properties of live theatre.  You won’t get frissons like this by watching the movie version on your phone.

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Phat Lot of Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS – The Musical

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s Christmas classic is given the Broadway treatment in this vibrant musical version by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) with music by Mel Marvin.  As the years pass, I feel a growing affinity with the Grinch, a hermit-like, curmudgeonly Scrooge of a creature who begrudges the simple townsfolk their seasonal cheer.  He is the Anti-Santa, entering people’s homes and taking stuff away – although even I stop short of burglary.

John Lee Beatty’s set design draws heavily on the Seuss illustrations, with their off-kilter, pen-and-ink style.  Robert Morgan’s costumes follow suit, padded to alter the shape of the actors, especially those playing the Whos, the peculiar race of Christmas worshippers.  Add to the mix Ben Cracknell’s luscious lighting design, and you have a weird and wonderful world straight out of a storybook.  Production values certainly are high – just look at the size of the chorus!

Steve Fortune is Old Max, formerly the Grinch’s dog.  He is our narrator, our link to the past.  Fortune has a strong and pleasant baritone, which he gets to demonstrate in his rendition of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch – a song from an animated TV version of years ago.  The song is more well-known in the States than over here, so later, an audience singalong doesn’t really come off.

Playing Young Max is Matt Terry, last seen as a lion in Madagascar.  Terry seems to be carving out a career playing animals in musicals, and why not?  He is excellent at it, and this show gives him chance to show off his movement skills, even with his padded costume, and his vocal talents.

Holly Dale Spencer shines as Mama Who, with a fine singing voice, and a quirky way of moving.  There is a touch of mania in her eyes that is just delicious.  Together with Alan Pearson as Papa Who, and Karen Ascoe’s Grandma (in a towering pink wig like a dollop of ice cream) and David Bardsley (a sprightly Grandpa), there is a lovely quartet as the adults prepare the house on Christmas Eve.  The score is rich, and very Broadway, with catchy tunes and Sondheimesque phrasing.

Tiny Isla Gie almost steals the show as cute-as-a-button Cindy Lou Who, who interrupts the Grinch’s housebreaking.  She holds her own in a hugely impressive performance, like Shirley Temple with an edge.  Matt August’s direction allows a satirical touch so that things never get too saccharine or cloying.  The show delivers its message that Christmas is not about consumerism and brand names but those with whom you share it.

Now to the Grinch himself.  Edward Baker-Duly is just magnificent.  He makes the role his own with some cartoony reactions and some masterful showmanship.  One of a Kind is an old-fashioned showstopper.  This is a villain to be cherished and enjoyed – and I enjoy his throwaway topical references.

This crazy, stylish, funny and tuneful show has heart and is a welcome alternative to all the versions of A Christmas Carol that are out there.  It will get you in the feels; it even melted this cold-hearted Grinch of a reviewer.

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Fine and Dandy

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th November, 2019

 

Years ago, back when the Odeon on Birmingham’s New Street was a music venue, I saw Adam and the Ants play, with a huge pirate ship filling the stage.  Adam Ant was up and down that rigging like nobody’s business.  It is a fond memory of one of the first gigs I ever attended.  Now, many years later, he is back, sans Ants, with a concert version of his solo album from 1982, Friend or Foe – the one with hits like Goody Two Shoes and Desperate But Not Serious, both of which prove to be highlights of tonight’s set.   The exuberant brass section that colours the album is here replaced by guitars (along with the signature pair of drummers) giving the set a heavier, raunchier overall sound.

The theme from old TV series The Saint plays the band onstage, setting the tone nicely (and dating most of the audience!) and the set opens with the album’s title track.  Ant looks fabulous, of course, belying his age and he’s in excellent voice.  This is quickly followed by Something Girls, which includes some of the best whistling since One Man and His DogPlace in the Country is faster, reinvigorated; we are rattling through the album at quite a lick.  Hello, I Love You (a cover of The Doors) is just about perfect, followed by the autobiographical Goody Two Shoes, which is joyous – anything that follows this banger is bound to sound weak by comparison, so Crackpot History and the Right to Lie seems like the wrong kind of gear change.

The album concludes with the instrumental, Man Called Marco which affords Ant the chance to step and trip around with those snake hips of his – he is wearing the skinniest fit trousers and tight boots that give his legs a spindly, insect-like aspect.  Perhaps he is turning into an ant after all.

“Here are some more songs you might enjoy,” he says, ushering us into Greatest Hits territory, kicking off with Dog Eat Dog – which is like Ennio Morricone doing metal.   Antmusic provides the best moments of the night; it’s just fantastic, and I enjoy the opportunity to revisit older tracks from his early punk days, such as Zerox and Car TroublePrince Charming is an anthem and a call to arms, with its war cry introduction and its mantra, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” – words to live by, indeed!   Puss In Boots is great fun, and Kings of the Wild Frontier is stunning, with its darker edge, but it is Stand And Deliver, closing the set, that proves the most exhilarating.  “The way you look,” Ant sings, “you’ll qualify for next year’s old-age pension.”  Well, the lyrics might be catching up with him, but you’d never guess to see and hear him play.  The outfits are less flamboyant but he still cuts a dashing figure.  The man who brought theatricality and fun to post-punk music is still going strong.

The encore is comprised of three ancient tracks, Press Darlings, Red Scabs, and You’re So Physical and while it’s a rare opportunity to hear them with this richer, fuller sound, I kind of hanker for something poppier, like Apollo 9 for example, so we can have a good old singalong before we go.

A wonderful evening that reminded me why I loved him so much in the first place.  Antastic!

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Adam Ant (Photo: Barry Brecheisen)


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.

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

 


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)