Tag Archives: Birmingham

Party Animals

MADAGASCAR

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 2nd August, 2018

 

Following a slew of sequels and spin-offs, Dreamworks’s animated movie from 2005 gets a new lease of life in this stage musical, with a brand-new score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan.

On the whole, it’s a jaunty score.  When it moves away from hip-hop (for, you know, ‘relevance’) it’s actually rather good: a sequence when the escaped zoo animals are shot with tranquilliser darts takes on a Beatles-esque feel, and the choral singing of the ensemble is lovely.

The X Factor’s Matt Terry takes pride of place as Alex the pampered lion.  As well as a strong and pleasant voice, Terry has all the moves, feline grace and innate power – even though the animals are deeply anthropomorphised and cartoonified.   Matching Terry for presence and vocals yet exceeding him in dance moves, is Antoine Murray-Straughan, thoroughly excellent as Alex’s best mate, Marty, who happens to be a zebra, a fact that doesn’t give rise to conflict until the animals are out in ‘the wild’ and Alex’s belly starts to rumble…

Also in the gang are Timmika Ramsay, as Gloria the sassy hippopotamus (Ramsay delivers great attitude and her singing voice is a dream), and Jamie Lee-Morgan as hypochondriac giraffe, Melman, whose costume combines with the puppetry used to stage the sneaky penguins and the aristocratic chimp.  Lee-Morgan’s Melman is hilariously brought to life; you forget it’s a fake head on a stick!

Almost stealing the show is Jo Parsons as lemur King Julien, performing on his knees – which is somehow instantly funny.  Parsons gets to deliver the film’s stand-out moment, an obligatory rendition of I Like To Move It that brings the house down.  Fabian Aloise’s choreography is bang up-to-date with dabs and ‘flossing’ aplenty.

This brash and colourful show is great family fun.  There are plenty of funny lines for the grown-ups, and ostensibly the ‘message’ is about putting aside one’s baser instincts for the sake of friendship.  So, perhaps it’s about remaining in the EU…  More likely, it’s a metaphor for the plundering of Africa by the West, if you want to get geopolitical about things.

The Lion King it certainly isn’t, but there is enough charm and humour to keep us engaged and give us a good time.  Yet another high-quality production from Selladoor.

madagascar

Mane event: Matt Terry as Alex

 

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Leaps of Faith

BOX OF FROGS

Glee Club, Birmingham, Sunday 29th July, 2018

 

Those who remember ground-breaking TV series, Whose Line Is It Anyway? will know what to expect at an evening like this: a succession of games and set-ups that allow the actors to flex their improvisational skills.  And so, the format is pretty familiar, but it is the content that remains unexpected.  Our host is the amiable Jon Trevor, who sketches in the ‘rules’ for each sketch before selecting which improvisers will play. With plenty of input from the audience (occupations, objects, delusions…) the team members are firing on all cylinders to keep the laughs coming.  The hit rate is pretty high and there’s a certain tension in the air, that things won’t work – and, on the rare occasions when they don’t quite come off, are usually as funny as the moments that do, thanks to the wit and easy-going nature of the troupe and especially the host.

It is one thing to have us shouting out suggestions or have us write them down on little postcards prior to the performance, but whenever audience members are ‘volunteered’ to appear, this is where things don’t work so well.  A sound effects game falls a little flat; as does a stunt involving audience members manipulating actors as giant puppets – proving that improv takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice to be able to maximise each moment.  Participants need trust in each other and faith in their skills.  Wisely, our host blows the whistle on these scenes pretty sharpish.

For the most part, though, the laughs keep coming thick and fast.  What the group does best are the musical games.  There is something extra magical about pulling tunes and lyrics out of the ether.  A scene involving Jen as a barmaid, dispensing advice along with the drinks, is a scream, as three other improvisers approach with problems gleaned from the audience.  Likewise, an improvised opera in gobbledegook and simultaneously translated, miraculously appears from nowhere.  A blues number is a scream. Best of all is the ‘charity single’ that closes the show – on this occasion it’s an appeal for Viagra for lovelorn lepidopterists, demonstrating how in tune with each other each frog in the box truly is.  It features a rap sequence by team member Rich that is dazzling in its wit and relevance.

Karen, Grant, Lee, Nick, Jen, Suzy, Rich and Jon,  I salute you all – and a very special mention to keyboard wizard Geddes.  The brilliant and bouncy Box of Frogs is definitely a group to see at least once before you croak.

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Gleeful: another Box of Frogs show gets under way

 

 

 


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.

urinetown

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

 


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.

thumbnail_The company_The String Quartets Guide_copyright Robert Day

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…

boa lord

 


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.

police cops in space