Tag Archives: Birmingham

Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time.  Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation.  The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’.  Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns.  Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it.  In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.

Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock.  His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown.  Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work.  This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.

Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves.  Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better.  And I start to get chills…

Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong.  Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation.  Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers.  Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell.  There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.

Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown.  Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots!  James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself.  The production values of this show are of the highest order.

And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment?  Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again.  The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS).  It all rings ever-so-relevant.  How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising?  Every bloody time, that’s how many.

An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.

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Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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Sex and Violins

THE STRING QUARTET’S GUIDE TO SEX AND ANXIETY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th May, 2018

 

This new piece from director-creator Calixto Bieito is an exploration of mental illness and sexuality, taking its text from a range of writers, most notably Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621.  In fact, the show begins with an extract from that worthy work, delivered by Miltos Yerolemou, one of the four actors who will appear tonight.  While he orates, the other cast members arrange wooden chairs and set up musical stands, moving slowly and in silence.  The Heath Quartet comes on – they play movements from Ligeti’s second string quartet between monologues; the music is disquieting, unsettling, troubling, underscoring the mental anguishes of the four characters.  Lots of pizzicato, lots of squirling high-pitched strings like you get in horror films.

Yerolemou narrates an account of receiving oral sex from an anonymous woman – we assume prostitute.  Later, Mairead McKinley speaks of giving head to her husband; she is anxious about her technique and reveals she ‘practices in secret’.  Whether we are meant to infer some connection between the two is unclear…  It’s graphic stuff but doesn’t shock those of us who’ve enjoyed the occasional Berkoff.

Nick Harris brings a note of humour to proceedings listing all the pharmaceuticals, the therapies (conventional and alternative) and the alcoholic drinks he has tried to assuage his anxiety.  He discloses he has mastered the art of appearing calm, anxious that people will discover his anxiety – and it’s a salient point: it’s not all sobbing and curling up in a foetal position.  We never know what other people are battling with internally.

About half an hour in, we first hear from Cathy Tyson, in what is the strongest section of the piece.  She recounts a kind of modern-day folk tale about the killing of a child in a road traffic accident.  Tyson’s storytelling is compelling and ultimately moving, as it emerges she is the child’s mother from the tale, and the events must have taken place years – decades – ago.

Annemarie Bulla’s set is deceptively simple, giving a concert hall aesthetic of blond floorboards and stacks of chairs.  These stacks advance and retreat, almost imperceptibly, before crashing to the floor.  And that’s when we realise why this production is staged in the Rep’s main house rather than the studio.

Meanwhile, the Heath Quartet switch to Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, and this is where I run into a problem.  The Ligeti worked as incidental music and an underscore.  The Beethoven is too exquisite and the playing of it is divine.  I am transported by the music and neglect to pay attention to what the actors might be up to.

Interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes bleak, and sometimes gripping, this Guide gives us examples of suffering but offers little in the way of guidance.  The Anatomy of Melancholy advises us (Be Not Idle; Be Not Solitary) but Bieito keeps his actors largely separate, with very little in the way of interaction.  That said, the simple action of the application of lipstick suggests that even a trauma that has bedevilled someone for decades, can be overcome.

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The Heath Quartet and, from left to right, Cathy Tyson, Miltos Yerolemou, Mairead McKinley, and Nick Harris (Photo: Robert Day)


Girls Just Wanna Kill Pigs

LORD OF THE FLIES

The Old Rep, Birmingham, Thursday 26th April, 2018

 

It can be difficult, when your class of students is entirely female, to find suitable material for performance.  Director Jade Allen tackles this problem by taking a play she wants to put on and giving the characters a gender swap.  And so William Golding’s all-male story (via Nigel Williams’s adaptation) is given a twist – a plane-load of schoolgirls crashes onto a deserted island – rather than having the actresses play as male (which would have been interesting in itself).

It works.  Mostly.  Some of the time I can’t escape the idea that this is St Trinian’s doing Castaway but there are some excellently-realised moments that deliver the power of the original tale.  It begins with a stylised movement sequence as the girls are jolted through air turbulence before the crash itself – and then the screaming starts!  This should be used sparingly, I think, otherwise proceedings take on the air of a Justin Bieber concert.

Emily Taylor warms into her role as elected leader ‘Raffy’, while her rival Jack (Hennesha George) has her moments too – some of them snide, some of them menacing.  Anyone who has taught secondary school will tell you, you are never more than a couple of steps away from savagery – and there is plenty of schoolgirl bitching and bullying to go around here.

Emma Hackett and Emma Howes make strong impressions as twins Erin and Sam, although their completion of each other’s sentences could do with speeding up.  Megan Davies adds a touch of humour as Marie, goofing around, while Sophie Keeble’s Rowena is a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  Amani Khan makes a convincing enough oddball as Simone, while Beth Townsend’s Piggy, the voice of civilisation, has impassioned moments – Piggy’s fate is cleverly staged.  In fact, it is during the stylised moments that this production really hits the heights.  Although the dance at the feast is not primal enough, being too controlled, too choreographed, it leads to one of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on stage, as the girls turn on ‘the beast’ in a frenzy of which the Bacchae would be proud.

Even though the action is somewhat cramped and the energy levels sag a couple of times, this makes for an interesting experiment and while it didn’t get me thinking about the thin veneer of civilisation (you know, the one that cracks as soon as you see something you disagree with on the internet) but of notions of casting in the theatre, and how relevant is a character’s gender to a piece?

Hmm…

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Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

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Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Copping It Sweet

POLICE COPS IN SPACE

Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 6th April, 2018

 

Wondering whether the show will live up to the promise of its title, I settle into my seat.  It’s a packed house – word has got around that the Pretend Men (Nathan Parkinson, Zachary Hunt and Tom Roe) are in town with their award-winning brand of theatre.

A sequel to Police Cops, which I regret not seeing, this is a fast-paced frolic, telling the story of Sammy Johnson (Parkinson) who, following the murder of his Police Cop father, seeks to become the best damned Police Cop in Space ever.  Sammy teams up with Ranger, an alien pilot (Hunt), and they go after the killer, megalomaniac robot Tanner (Roe).  Along the way, we meet a host of unsavoury characters, all portrayed with infallible gusto by this energetic trio of performers.  The action is choreographed to maximise the silliness.  Characterisations are broader than the Milky Way and the script is riddled with nonsense and word-play.  If the Pretend Men were ever tamed, they could be churning out comedy programmes for Radio 4.

I enjoy the wild inventiveness of it all.  It’s not so much low-tech as no-tech – although judicious use is made of glow-sticks from time to time.  Very much a physical show, the movement of the actors is at the forefront of the performance, the daftness augmented by some silly props, among them a rat sellotaped to a remote-control car… The show is packed with moments of genius – a motorbike conjured out of next-to-nothing, for example, a balletic sequence between Parkinson and Roe, depicting the love story between Roe’s Terminator-like character and Sammy, his target… Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl crops up later, and it’s never been put to better use.

It’s an hour of non-stop delight and a great workout for your laughing gear.  Sometimes a show comes along that represents everything I love about the theatre.  If Police Cops in Space has something other to say, perhaps its holding up models of masculinity for our examination and ridicule.  Perhaps it’s just celebrating the daftness of genre fiction as a version of the human condition.  I don’t care; all I know is I had a great night.

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Extra Special

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st April, 2018

 

Marie Jones’s comedy has, rightly, become a modern-day classic.  It tells the story of the intrusion of a Hollywood film company into a rural Irish community.  The filming brings employment prospects, however temporary, and many of the locals take advantage of the opportunity to become extras.  We meet Charlie and Jake, two such extras, and through their eyes encounter a host of other characters: other extras, members of the film crew, even a Hollywood star.  Jones populates her story with some deftly drawn personalities, but it falls to the cast of two, yes, just two, to bring them all to life.

For this production, we are in the safe hands of two of the Crescent’s most reliable and talented actors.  James David Knapp is Charlie, a downtrodden fellow trying to outrun his depression and lack of prospects by palming off a screenplay he has written to anyone who will take it.  Knapp is infinitely watchable and the split-second changes between characters hold no fear for him.  His Charlie is affable, but his Caroline, the Hollywood diva, is a wonder to behold.  Similarly, his British director, Clem, is also brilliantly portrayed.

John O’Neill is Jake, newly returned from the States and trying to restart his life – a kind of everyman figure.  O’Neill is good in this part, to be sure, but he really takes off when he becomes production assistant Aisling, castigating the extras through her pink loudhailer.  Also, as old-timer and movie veteran Mickey, he brings physicality to the part.  In fact, both actors’ use of body language and mannerisms is spot on.  The truth of the characters shines through in every detail.

The play demands a lot from its actors and these two deliver the goods without question.  There is a sharpness and a precision to the delivery and the quick changes that adds to the humour of the situation.  Director Andrew Brooks ensures the pace is maintained and the changes are smooth, to the extent that we can almost see the characters all at once.  It’s hysterically funny but there is more to the play than laugh-out-loud comedy.  Brooks delivers the pathos well too – when tragedy threatens to disrupt the filming, the resentment and indignation of the locals comes to the fore.  A gasp went up from the woman beside me when the significance of the title became clear, in the show’s most poignant scene.

Knapp and O’Neill handle all the requirements of the script with aplomb.  They also ride the waves of laughter they generate and handle impromptu audience input with style and with ease.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of a marvellous piece.  I haven’t laughed so much on a Sunday afternoon for a long time!

Now, what would be really interesting would be a production performed by female actors…

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Extra! Extra! James David Knapp and John O’Neill (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Drama Therapy

HAMLET

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd February, 2018

 

Director Oliver Hume’s production strips Shakespeare’s four-hours-plus great work right down to two fifty-minute chunks.  With much of the text excised, what we are left with comes across as Hamlet’s Greatest Hits.  All the main plot points are intact along with the majority of the iconic speeches and for the most part, the cast of five handle the blank verse excellently, so it sounds and feels like Shakespeare with modern voices.

Hume sets his version in a doctor’s office, complete with portable screens (the arras!) and a full skeleton (doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and poor Yorick).  With Ashleigh Aston leading the cast as Hamlet, a psychiatric patient, the rest are dressed as doctors, nurses, orderlies and what-have-you, and double, sometimes treble, as other roles.  The action of the tragedy unfolds, leading to its fatal resolution, and while I enjoy particular scenes very much (Ophelia’s mad scene, To Be or Not To Be, the ‘fencing’ contest, Hamlet visiting his mother’s chamber) and I can’t help wondering where it’s going.  At some points, the setting is little more than a backdrop; at others, it works very well… and I question if this is all in Hamlet’s mind, why are we getting scenes in which he doesn’t appear?

Ashleigh Aston makes for a superb Hamlet, with a sensitive, impassioned portrayal, convincingly unhinged when the need arises.  She is supported by a strong quartet, among whom Bryony Tebbutt’s Gertrude stands out, Hayley Grainger’s Ophelia, and Alex Nikitas’s imperious Claudius.  Edward Loboda makes an impression as Polonius and a hot-blooded Laertes.

Three cast members share the role of Horatio, donning a brown hat so we know it’s him and it is this device that is the key to the entire concept.  Hume pulls his ideas together right at the end when, (SPOILER!!) after all the deaths, the medical staff resurrect themselves and wake their patient, handing her the brown hat.  It has all been a dramatic reconstruction to help Horatio get through the trauma of what he experienced at Elsinore…

Bravo!  Suddenly it all becomes clear and it’s a real ‘Ahh!’ moment.

Truncated it may be, but definitely not lacking in drama and some superb handling of Shakespeare, breathing fresh life into the well-worn lines and coming at the play from a new angle.  This play’s the thing!

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