Tag Archives: Birmingham

Child’s Play

TORCH TOWN

A secret location, Selly Oak, Birmingham, Friday 31st May, 2019

 

As a reviewer I get invited to all kinds of shows but this was my first in someone’s living room.  Tiny Change Theatre Company is currently previewing a new play prior to a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Written by Mark Fenton, who co-directs with Megan Farquhar, Torch Town is the story of two runaway children, holed up in a house, each of them escaping problems at home.  They build a city out of cardboard boxes, and festoon it with fairy lights, a place where they can make the rules as they see fit.

Alice (Lara Sprosen) is bossy, almost a proto-feminist in her assertions that girls are better (they write more neatly), brimming with the earnest absolutes of a childish worldview that sees things as black or white.  Beneath the bossiness lies fear and vulnerability and creativity infused with innocence.  With her is Peter (Tom Garrett), a troubled young lad who can match Alice in terms of imagination and innocence.  Both actors give captivating portrayals in highly detailed performances: Alice daring to say ‘fuck’ for the first time, Peter’s look of surprise when he manages to whistle – we see beyond the grown-up bodies of the actors to the children they are playing, bringing to my mind Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills.  And there’s plenty of playing; the only time I feel this intimate space may be too small is when the kids are galumphing around, battling dragons in space or flying to the moon.

The innocence of the characters gives rise to much of the humour of the piece as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of their friendship.  There is pathos and poignancy, and some powerful moments – Alice’s fears when she’s left alone, and Peter’s startling monologue when memories swamp him and he has a breakdown.  Tom Garrett is superb.  Heart-breaking, in fact.  The pacing of these scenes is handled perfectly, contrasting with the interludes when the children play.

The directors turn the constraints of the production to their advantage, using handheld torches, table lamps and a projector to transform the stripped-bare domestic setting into a performance space that serves the story.

The writing is rich, allowing for intensity and levity from the players – and there’s a coda, set years later, that packs a punch.  An engaging hour of vibrant and refreshing drama, Torch Town shows that Tiny Change Theatre is an excellent young company with great potential.

I loved it.

torch

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Dropping the Soap

SUMMER STREET

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 10th May, 2019

 

Four actors from a defunct Australian soap opera are reunited for a commemorative special in which they are to play all the parts (“Nobody will notice”).  Their week of rehearsals will culminate in a live broadcast.  There is a lot at stake.

That’s the premise of Andrew Norris’s bonzer new musical, which satirises the sunny optimism of the shows that dominated television in the 1990s.  The rehearsal scenes are hilarious, sending up the exposition-heavy dialogue, the public service information, and the outlandish plots.  But Norris intersperses them with glimpses into the actors’ lives.  We see the effects of being killed off and being unable to escape your typecasting.  The show is much more than silly satire; there is substance here in the melodrama of the actors’ real lives.

The songs are stonkers.  Disillusioned Angie, now working at a fish counter, sings the searing ‘Take the Knife’ bringing the show’s first dark moment.  Brock and Marlene belt out a smashing duet, ”Don’t Give Up” – the soap was a musical serial, a genius idea, ripe with comic potential.  There’s a brilliantly catchy parody, “Lucky Plucky Me” that infects my mind for the rest of the evening.  The highlight though is “Chains Around My Heart” in which Bobbi (the amazing Sarah-Louise Young) treats us to a dazzling display of vocal dexterity while parodying pretentious pop videos and earnest oversinging.  The number, quite rightly, brings the house down.

Young is hilarious as budding lesbian-mechanic Bobbi, and she is matched by Myke Cotton’s Brock (with mullet attached to his cap!).   Simon Snashall plays the father figures and the doctor – a deathbed scene is painfully funny – while Julie Clare is practically perfect as veteran soap actress Steph, who plays the soap’s busybody Mrs Mingle, and star-crossed lover Marlene.

Special mention goes to Pogo, the soap’s canine superstar, who makes a vital contribution to the plot!

The laughs keep coming but I get the sense of an underlying affection for the material that inspired the mockery.  There is also commentary here about the changes in televisual fare reflecting a loss of innocence and optimism in society, as the sunshine soaps have been usurped by so-called reality TV.

Thoroughly exhilarating, this show, like the serials it sends up, ought to run and run indefinitely!  With book, music, lyrics and direction all coming from the same man, Andrew Norris is some kind of genius, I reckon.

I loved it.

summer street

Mullet over: Myke Cotton as Brock

 


Splendid!

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th May, 2019

 

Khaled Hosseini’s novel comes to the stage in this engrossing adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma.  Set in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, this is the story of two women who are married to the same man.  Sharing hardship and mistreatment, the two women form a bond that lasts for years, leading to one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s a gripping tale, superbly told.  Sarma’s script brings out humour and warmth in horrendous circumstances as bombs drop on Kabul and the Taliban takes control.

The production hinges on the central performances of the two women.  Sujaya Dasgupta is instantly appealing as young Laila, driven by tragedy to marry the man who rescues her from the rubble of her family home.  Laila is primarily a victim of circumstance and oppression, but she has an indomitable spirit.  Dasgupta brings her to life without sentimentality; we are with her all the way.  Also great is Amina Zia as the initially resentful Mariam, regarding Laila as a threat but warming to her as events unfold.

Pal Aron is perfectly villainous as the tyrannical Rasheed, while Waleed Akhtar cuts a sympathetic figure as Tariq, Laila’s young love.  We meet Tariq in flashbacks, with Akhtar and Dasgupta displaying youthful vigour and innocence.  There is solid support from Shala Byx as Aziza and Munir Khairdin in a range of roles.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set is a rocky landscape, serving as all the story’s locations – the characters are forever stuck between rocks and hard places!

This is a fitting swan song for the REP’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, before she leaves Birmingham for pastures new.  Thoroughly involving, this is an excellent piece of storytelling, casting light onto a part of the world we don’t hear much about.  The play emphasises the humanity of the characters – of all the characters, even the loathsome Rasheed! – and we see just how ordinary and relatable they are, even in the face of extreme events.  The story could be played out in other countries (Syria, for example) to remind us that behind the statistics and the headlines, these are real people’s lives and experiences.

A wonderful piece of theatre, powerful, pertinent and captivating.  Splendid, in fact.

splendid

Sujaya Dasgupta as Laila and Amina Zia as Mariam (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Camptastic!

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 3rd May, 2019

 

Charles Ludlam’s camp classic is more well-known in the USA than on this side of the pond.  A two-hander that parodies Victorian melodrama, Gothic romances, and creaky old horror films, this is a chance for a pair of actors to showcase their versatility and, equally importantly, their quick-change skills.  Lady Enid, second wife to Lord Edgar, pries into the history of the family estate of Mandacrest.  She unearths a tale of vampires, werewolves and Egyptology, while beyond the French windows, a wolf preys on lambs, spreading terror…

Stuart Horobin is great as stuffy Lord Edgar, more tweed than man, clinging to the memories of his late first wife.  Horobin throws himself into his roles with gusto: Edgar conjuring a long-dead Egyptian queen, for example; or as dour housekeeper Jane, serving up huge dollops of exposition.

He is joined by Darren Haywood, his match in wide-eyed histrionics.  Haywood is a hoot as stable man Nicodemus, stumping around on a ‘wooden’ leg, and he’s magnificent as the lip-quivering Lady Enid.  His appearance as the reincarnated mummy is a highlight – in fact, whenever he’s on stage, which is most of the time, he delivers, in a consistently funny performance that is a real treat to behold.

Both actors handle the florid verbiage Ludlam liberally doles out with conviction.  The dialogue paraphrases the likes of Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe and is riddled with daftness and peppered with some choice double entendres – I could always do with more of these.  Ludlam’s script comes across as somewhat patchy but director Simon Ravenhill keeps the laughs coming with some delicious bits of comic business.  Nicodemus screwing his wooden leg back on, for example, or the hilariously pedestrian werewolf transformation scene.

In the end, it’s the playing not the material that proves the more entertaining.  Not so much Hammer, as Sledgehammer Horror, this is a case of the high quality of the production compensating for any weakness in the script, making for a hugely entertaining evening that deserves to be seen by greater numbers.

irma vep

Darren Haywood in a publicity shot

 

 

 


Soaping Up

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BOBBY (OFF EASTENDERS)

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 10th April, 2019

 

The titular Bobby is a young lad from the fictional London borough of Walford, famed for committing the murder of his elder sister and for braining his mum with a hockey stick before being caught bang to rights and carted off to a detention centre.  This play by George Attwell-Gerhards looks at the psychological effects of such storylines on the child actors who enact them.

Here, Annie (Laura Adebisi) is a twelve-year-old who, being no longer cute enough for yogurt adverts, lands a job in what seems to be a particularly sordid soap opera.  She puts a hockey stick to good use against her mother before getting locked in her father’s basement and fall victim to his sexual predations.  The action jumps from Annie’s audition, to shooting scenes from the soap, to her deteriorating home life… with Attwell-Gerhards’s script charting the blurring of lines between fiction and reality, the pressures of sudden fame on someone so young, the treatment of young stars by the media – there’s a lot packed into this hour-long piece and director Lucy Bird keeps things taut, as her cast of three flick between characters, like switching channels by remote control.

Tom Bulpett is Annie’s dad, thrust into a PR role for which he is unprepared and unsuited.  He is also a casting director, and Annie’s soap co-star.  Cara Mahooney is Annie’s mum, and a friendly make-up artist who takes Annie under her wing, and a TV director, feeling the pressure.  Both actors are top-notch and there is never any confusion about who they are at any particular moment, their characterisations are well-differentiated and clear.  The characters represent a range of abusive and exploitative experiences Annie faces – the play certainly exposes a kind of child abuse that is rarely considered: the effect on the young psyche of playing out extreme and disturbing situations.  We have all heard stories of grown-up child stars struggling to cope with life in the real world, and such stories invariably tell of crime and drugs and mental illness.

As the central figure, Laura Adebisi is credibly child-like, enthusiastic and eager to please.  Adebisi combines vulnerability with stroppiness, as Annie lashes out at her real dad, while chumming up with her onscreen, abusive dad.  We see her psychological decline in tandem with her onscreen character’s deprivations, culminating in a scene with an iron that must be a homage to Little Mo and Trevor, that iconic moment of a woman standing up to her abuser.

This is powerful stuff.  Darkly comic to begin with, satirising the industry, it develops into a gripping psychological drama.  The transitions are slick and effective, and there is dissonant sound underlining Annie’s distress.  I would suggest the TV screen that comes on at the end is too small to have the necessary impact, but the intimacy of the Old Joint Stock puts us right in the action, making us as viewers complicit in the exploitation of a child.

There are a couple of instances when they ask, “Annie, are you OK?” – and I can’t decide if this is unintentionally awkward or intentionally clever…

This is the second show from Birmingham’s Paperback Theatre that I have seen in a couple of months.  They’re two for two in terms of excellence, in my view.

bobby

Tom Bulpett and Laura Adebisi

 

 


Cobblers

TIMPSON The Musical

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 4th April, 2019

 

This isn’t the first musical to mine Romeo & Juliet for material, but it’s certainly the funniest.  The setting, such as it is, is Victorian London.  Two rival businesses both alike in indignity, one mending shoes, the other making keys, give rise to a pair of young lovers.  You know the rest – or you might think you do.  The plot takes a few swerves along the way to its resolution: the union of the two families and the formation of the High Street business we all know, the shop where you can get your shoes mended and your keys cut.  Yes, this is the world of the Montashoes and the Keypulets.

Writer-director-performer Sam Cochrane, the driving force behind the project, comes and goes as a range of characters, from a talking portrait to a winsome maid.  He is aided and abetted by versatile maniac Alex Prescot, who seems indefatigably energetic in his quickly-changing portrayals, in an irresistible performance.  I fell for him at once.

James Stirling is bluffly bombastic as Master Keypulet, the Machiavellian patriarch, contrasting with Susan Harrison’s diminutive dipsomaniac Lady Montashoe.  Madeleine Gray is hilariously histrionic as Monty, the Romeo figure, while Sabrina Messer’s Keeleigh (the Juliet) is simply sublime.  Messer can belt out heartfelt numbers and then within the space of a semiquaver, drop into a deadpan aside, forever undermining any emotive content the show might have.  She is delightful, to put it mildly.

It’s a good job there is no scenery to speak of, because this lot would be chewing it.  The acting style is over-the-top-and-a-half, the jokes come thick and fast.  Even the songs are laced with daftness with the onstage trio of musicians (Sophie Walker, Dan Hester and MD Lewis Bell) joining in proceedings.  Those songs, with lyrics by Sam Cochrane and Chris Baker, and music by Tom Slade and Theo Caplan, cover a range of styles and are all fabulously entertaining.  They are performed with gusto by the cast – even the choreography, by Ellie Fitz-Gerald is bloody silly. And they all keep instep!

This tale of cobbler meets key-maker is cutting edge (heh) and performed with sole (heh heh) and is a shoe-in to get tongues wagging.  This show has the power to heel… I’ll stop now.

timpson

Alex Prescot and Madeleine Gray

 


Nazi Piece of Work

COLLABORATION

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019

 

Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance.  Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist.  All goes well.  The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.

The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.

Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast.  Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war).  Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault.   At other times, the action is a little stiff.  When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging.  I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.

There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph.  As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.

Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception.  Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.

The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold.  It never ends well.

A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.

collaboration

Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)