Tag Archives: Birmingham

Daddy Issues


The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 27th May 2023

French playwright Florian Zeller’s play comes to the Crescent via this translation by Christopher Hampton.  Even though the characters are French in name, and the setting is still Paris, it is played as though English – no Allo Allo accents here!  It’s the story of an elderly man, the father of the title, who is succumbing to that cruel disease dementia.  We see the strain it places on his relatives, particularly his long-suffering daughter, and on her relationship with Pierre.  Crucially though, Zeller shows us the action through the father’s eyes.  Andre hardly ever leaves the stage and we share his confusion as characters are portrayed by different actors and gradually the on-set furniture is reduced piece by piece.  Later, scene transitions are carried out by faceless beings who claw at Andre behind his back, while harsh lights flare and discordant music blares.  It’s all unsettling.  As Andre’s condition worsens, the stage becomes increasingly bare.  Until (spoiler!) there’s nothing left but his hospital-style bed, and we realise he’s been in a care home all along, his day-to-day experience coloured by his fractured memories, mixing up care home staff with his relatives.  It’s a devastating finale, the father regressing to childhood.

Crescent veteran Brian Wilson stars as Andre.  He’s been in almost ninety productions and I’ve seen him many times, but he’s never been better than he is in this, bringing out Andre’s bewilderment, vulnerability, volatility and fixations with skill and sensitivity.  He is supported by Jenny Thurston as his frustrated daughter, and Eduardo White as the increasingly exasperated Pierre.  Katie Siggs makes an impression as the well-meaning but patronising carer Laura, while Charles Michael and Jess Shannon add to Andre’s confusion by cropping up as people he’s supposed to know but doesn’t recognise.

Mark Thompson’s direction delivers the puzzles of the play.  Unlike Andre, we have the faculties to work out what’s going on, and the deceptively simple staging is hugely effective.  There is humour too, so it’s not all doom and gloom.  The depiction of the degenerative disease comes across as authentic, even though some lines of dialogue, perhaps losing something in translation, don’t quite ring true.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Who’s the daddy? Brian Wilson and Charles Michael (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Memory Lane


The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd May 2023

Neil Gaiman’s gothic fantasy novel is brought to the stage in this hugely impressive adaptation by Joel Horwood.  When a man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, he visits the local pond, which he used to call an ocean; here, he encounters a former neighbour and memories of a wonderful if traumatic period in his life are evoked – and re-enacted for our benefit!

Keir Ogilvy makes an appealing lead as the twelve-year-old Boy, matched in child-like energy by Millie Hikasa’s Lettie.  Lettie is a peculiar child with arcane abilities, but this is no surprise given the other members of her household, mother Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock – Finty Williams in casually powerful form.  Thus we get the virgin-mother-crone trinity common to stories about witches…

Laurie Ogden is a well-observed annoying little sister, while Trevor Fox is a shouty Dad, taken in by new lodger, the ubiquitous Ursula, played by EastEnders’ supreme villain Charlie Brooks, here bringing Janine Butcher to the next level.  Brooks is delicious, deranged in her plausibility, popping up all over the set in a sleight of theatrical hand.  Director Katy Rudd keeps the artifice of the production to the fore and the special effects are all the more special and effective because of this approach.  A giant puppet stalks the stage.  Billowing swathes of fabric transform people.  An ensemble clad in black perform scene transitions as well as depicting some of the more exotic creatures, using physical theatre elevated by Samuel Wyer’s costumes.  It all flows slickly and smoothly, and binds us in its spell.  You can’t tear your eyes away.

There are moments of mystery, fantastic events, and more than a hint of horror in this thrilling, captivating story, underscored by Jherek Bischoff’s atmospheric score.  It’s a bit gruesome and a bit disturbing (e.g. the bathroom scenes!) but it’s also funny and touching.  This is storytelling on a grand scale, reminding us of the unreliability of memory.  Are the Boy’s recollections accurate or are they masking something more mundane but just as horrifying?  Are powerful forces at work or are repressed memories colouring his experiences?

A mind-blowing production of a story that resonates like ripples on the surface of the pond.  Magical!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Janine pushes Barry off a cliff — oops, wrong caption. Charlie Brooks looks down on Keir Ogilvy

(Photo: c. Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

Odds and Sods


The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 12th May 2023

This series of eight monologues, presented in two batches of four, is an excellent showcase of the talented actors and directors of the Crescent.  Simply staged (a bar and a couple of pub tables with stools) the monologues come across as one-sided conversations, the sort you  might have with a stranger in a pub.  Part history, part confessional, the pieces are perhaps revelations for straight members of the audience; for the gays, it is a reminder of lived experience and the struggles of those who came before us.

First up in this batch, we meet Jack (I Miss The War by Matthew Baldwin), an old-school homosexual, a former soldier, now a tailor, at the time of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.  Played by Graeme Braidwood, Jack is dapper, well-preserved, and thoroughly acerbic in his observations and recollections, employing polari and innuendo in a manner that would make Kenneth Williams proud.  If you don’t know, polari is the arcane slang used by gays as a means to recognise each other.  For example, ‘the palone with the butch riah’ is a reference to Julie Andrews.  Braidwood coats vulnerability with brassiness, and there’s a darkness behind the bonhomie.

Next, in More Anger by Brian Fillis, we meet Phil (Mark Shaun Walsh) a jobbing actor who is typecast as young men dying of AIDS.  It’s the 1980s and the ‘gay plague’ is rampant, thanks in part to the poor response of the government of the time.  Phil lands a potentially ground-breaking role as a soap opera’s first gay character, who is non-camp and absolutely not ill, but the character turns out to be beiger than a buffet at a heterosexual wedding.  Meanwhile, his lover announces he is HIV positive, a death knell in those frightening times.  The piece concludes with a ferocious tirade.  Mark Shaun Walsh is utterly convincing, drawing us in with his amiability, so when he lets rip, we empathise with his rage (and then it’s revealed that it’s another acting job, with a clever punchline.) 

Walsh directs the third piece: A Grand Day Out by Michael Dennis, in which 17-year old Andrew tells us of a trip to London at the time of the sexual equality bill that oh-so-generously lowered the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18.  This gives rise to scenes of mild protest outside the House of Commons and Andrew is thrilled to take part.  Andrew is an innocent, finding his way in the world and exploring his sexuality.  It’s a winning performance by Francis Quinn, endearing, funny, and touching.  Society may have made some giant strides (and fairy steps) in the right direction, but that doesn’t prevent Andrew from feeling the universal gay fear that his parents will reject him when they find out.

Next comes Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean, with Peter Neenan as Steve, preparing a speech for his wedding to (gasp) another man, thanks to a change in the law in 1994.  As he rehearses, Steve reflects on the way people like him were absent from the stories he heard or read growing up.  As well as fretting about wedding preparations, he has to deal with his own doubts.  Does he really want what the straights have always had?  Isn’t that surrendering part of what it is to be gay?  He is reluctant to hold his beloved’s hand in a supermarket, until he is told that a gay child, happening to see such a public demonstration between two men, might be given hope and comfort.  It’s the most understated of these four pieces, but just as thoughtful.

I’m too young to remember the decriminalisation, but I have vivid memories of the terrifying ad campaigns of Thatcher’s reign and how they affected my own…emergence.  The evening gets me trolling down Memory Lane and looking ahead to how far we still have to go. 


☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Coming of age, Francis Quinn as Andrew in A Grand Day Out (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 13th May 2023

The other set of four monologues kicks off with The Man on the Platform, by Mark Gatiss (who actually compiled this anthology for the BBC).  We meet Perce, a soldier home from the so-called Great War.  He reflects on his relationship with a captain he met in a military hospital tent, and how, when discovered, they were both transferred to other regiments.  More striking is his boyhood memory of seeing Oscar Wilde under arrest at Reading station, being taken away.  A brief moment of eye contact with the disgraced writer stays with young Perce forever, mutual recognition of ‘a certain liquidity in the eyes’.  It’s a sad piece, played to perfection by Tom Lowde, making you want to give Perce a hug or at least buy him a pint.

Next comes The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune.  Bobby is a Burlington Bertie figure, all top hat and tails, swanning around, picking up women in pubs and taking them out the back and fingering them!  Dressed as a man, Bobby feels a freedom to behave in a way that a woman could never countenance.  Sadly, living this lie has its…shortcomings, shall we say? An exploratory female hand reveals Bobby isn’t pleased to see her, it’s a candle!  Katie Goldhawk is utterly charming in her dapper costume, balancing exquisite manners with ribald revelations, conjuring other characters with skilful ease, using her voice alone.  Again, the sadness of the piece is inescapable.

Safest Spot in Town by Keith Jarrett brings us up to the 1940s.  Among the dropping bombs, Fredrick from Jamaica seeks out like-minded men in the public toilets of the West End.  Denied access to an underground venue because of his skin colour, he escapes destruction, a case of being excluded working in his favour!  Khari Moore is instantly delightful as the twinkly-eyed Fredrick.  Our laughter comes thick and fast, perhaps as a release from the melancholy of the previous pieces, but mainly from Moore’s elegantly timed anecdotes and reactions.  Easily the most overtly funny piece of this set, it points up Fredrick’s double whammy of exclusion, as a black man who is gay.  Society has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, hasn’t it?  Has it?

Finally comes Missing Alice by Jon Bradfield.  Fi Cotton plays Alice, a middle-aged married woman who didn’t realise until long past the wedding night that the man she has married is, you know.  At first, she blames herself and starts to cut down on meals in a bid to make herself more attractive.  All her efforts are doomed but over time, she and her husband come to an accommodation.  It turns out there can be love and affection in a sexless marriage.  Fi Cotton is splendid; you can easily see her tackling an Alan Bennett.

Of course, I saw the two sets of monologues in the ‘wrong’ order, in terms of chronology, but I don’t think this has diluted my enjoyment of these well-written pieces, superbly performed and presented in the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio. What comes across is the misery and heartache spread by the criminalisation of homosexuality throughout the ages. We live in more enlightened times. I hope.

A different Q word springs to mind: Quality.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Khari Moore as the debonair Fredrick (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

An Enchanted Evening


Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 30thApril 2023

Tackling this masterwork by the late, great Stephen Sondheim is no easy task.  It requires a large cast of excellent actor-singers to pull off its dissonant melodies and to breathe life into the often complex and witty lyrics.  I’m happy to report that the Crescent rises to the challenge and succeeds.  Impressively.

The story blends elements from familiar fairy and folk tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, primarily.  A baker and his wife who are childless are sent on a scavenger hunt by the witch who lives next door… But as ever, with Sondheim, it’s not the setting that’s the main thing.  It’s the insights into human relationships, the reflections on life, things to which we can all relate.

Phil Rea’s Narrator sets the scene, a largely non-singing role, and a voice of avuncular authority.  As Cinderella, Helena Stanway is one of the strongest singers of the lot, treating us to her beautiful soprano.  Similarly, Hannah Devereux’s Rapunzel is an absolute pleasure to hear, with her bewitching wordless refrain.  Mark Payne is excellent as the nervous Baker, matched by Tiffany Cawthorne as his more assertive Wife.  Luke Plimmer is in fine form as a rather dopey Jack, to the consternation of Steph Urquhart as his longsuffering mother.  Hannah Lyons is an enjoyably impish Red Riding Hood, while Alisdair Hurst’s Wolf is deliciously seductive.  Hurst also appears as Cinderella’s Prince, duetting with Mark Horne as Rapunzel’s Prince in another of the show’s highlights. 

A strong ensemble then, fleshed out by the likes of Jaz Davison, Joanne Brookes and Becky Johnson as Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, but an undoubted standout is Kimberley Maynard’s superb Witch, who is funny and scary and yet also evokes our sympathy.  Maynard commands our attention and we willingly fall under her spell.

As we’ve come to expect from the Crescent, the production values are sky high.  Storybook trees fill the stage, fading into misty perspective on the backdrop and beautifully lit by James Booth’s lighting.  Pat Brown and her team (Vera Dean and Erik Olsen) have gone all out on the fairy-tale costumes.  Set designers Keith Harris and Colin Judges have created an otherworldly space of mystery, enticement and potential danger, while Zena Forrest and Pat Dales cut-out props remind us we’re in a fictional world.

A splendid thirteen-piece band, under the baton of musical director Gary Spruce, brings Sondheim’s sumptuous score to life – I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard music played so beautifully at the Crescent.

By the interval, the characters have achieved their goals and attained their Happy Ever Afters – or have they?  The second act deals with what comes afterwards, when the best one can hope for is happiness devolving into contentment.   Threat comes in the form of the giant’s wife (voiced by Ruby Turner, no less!) and the characters find they have to work together to defeat her.  Perhaps I’m alone in reading in a metaphor for climate change at this point… Sondheim calls upon us to act as a community rather than being absorbed by our own desires. The characters have to learn to live without a narrator, like the rest of us, our endings unknown until they happen.  Once you’ve obtained everything you want, what are you going to do next? Just like the stories on which it is based, the show has life lessons to teach.

A thoroughly captivating and superbly presented production.  Enchanting!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Kimberley Maynard and Hannah Devereux as the Witch and Rapunzel (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Carry On Doesn’t Live Here Anymore


Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd April 2023

Peter Rogers (no D) was the legendary producer of the legendary Carry On films, that staple of late 20th century British popular culture.  We meet him in his office a year after the release of the woeful Carry On Emmanuelle in 1979.  Undaunted by the film’s reception, Rogers is already planning the next in the series.  He can see no difficulty in taking the series through the change of the century, despite oppositional claims that they’re already outdated and no longer have a place in a society that has moved beyond innuendo.

He can’t get his act together.  The action moves on a few years.  AIDS is rampant, and the rise of alternative comedy seems to be another nail in the Carry On coffin.  But Rogers is not alone.  He is visited – often rudely interrupted by – his famous cast.  The gang’s all here: Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Sid James, Barbara Windsor…I think I need to point out this is a one-man show.  The remarkable Darren Haywood portrays Rogers and a host of Carry On stars, dropping into their voices and mannerisms with split-second timing.  Is he haunted?  Possessed?  Suffering some kind of multiple personality disorder?

The stars argue, tell stories, and show us glimpses of their real lives off camera.  It’s a sheer delight to see them brought to life, so economically evoked, so instantly recognisable.  There’s a wealth of nostalgia here but we are also invited to consider the films with a critical eye.  The more dubious aspects of the series are not glossed over (blackface, sexism, and so on) but also the joys are not overlooked.  There’s a magnificent sequence in which Rogers reads a fan letter asking what’s his favourite Carry On joke.  This launches a dazzling display from Haywood, flipping from ‘Infamy, Infamy!’ to ‘Frying tonight!’ via a plethora of famous moments – the flying bra, Ooh Matron – it’s a virtuoso moment and a truly breath-taking feat.

Rogers manages to resurrect the series with Carry On Columbus in 1992, aiming to include the new wave of comedians.  The film flops: they’re comedians rather than comic actors.  Other plans (Carry On DallasCarry On London) fail to bear fruit.  But Rogers is undaunted.  He carries on going to his office at Pinewood Studios.  He never gives up trying.

James Nicholas’s wonderful and well-researched script delivers laughs and poignancy: the fates of Hawtrey and Williams in particular are movingly depicted.  Simon Ravenhill’s direction makes it seem as though Haywood is not alone on stage, but it’s Haywood’s masterly performance that pulls it off – ooer!

You don’t get many of these to the pound.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Carry on, genius! Darren Haywood as Peter Rogers and the Carry On gang

Practice Makes Imperfect


Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd April 2023

The simple set-up for this one-act comedy is the theatre we’re sitting in.  We are to witness the final rehearsal of a one-man show.  Trouble is, the actor and the director disagree about whether this is the dress rehearsal or the tech run.  And that’s not the only bone of contention between them.  The actor is underprepared, more preoccupied with a missing bar of chocolate and a banana gone AWOL than learning his lines.  The director is abrupt and pompous, unable to get the best from his performer.  Completing the trio is tech guy Ben, highly strung and under stress to meet the director’s demands. 

The play within this play is about going up gay in Huddersfield during the terrifying reign of the Yorkshire Ripper.  It all seems a bit familiar, and then I realise it’s a rehash of a piece from five years ago (He’d Murder Me), and I’m not experiencing déjà vu. Here, it’s presented for laughs, providing a rich vein of dark humour.

Playing the actor is Richard Buck, who is always worth watching.   Writer James Nicholas portrays Izzy Hands, the petulant director, waspish and not above picking pockets for bars of chocolate.  Ben Mills-Wood is the put-upon techie, stressed and sarcastic.  The energy between the three keeps the fur flying, but if I have one note to give it’s that it’s all a bit, well, one note.  There needs to be more variety in tone.  For example, Ben doesn’t need to rush all of his lines to show how stressed he is.

There are plenty of laughs, and the absurdity of their endeavour is evident.  Why are they getting so worked up about a piece they all think is a load of rubbish?  Much fun is had with inappropriate sound cues and the business of creating theatre, but for me the show lacks an overall sense of spontaneity.  The mishaps, the arguments and outbursts all feel a little too staged and practised.  Perhaps things will loosen up as the run continues.

If someone spends the best part of an hour telling you what they’re doing is crap, you begin to see their point.  Far better if Izzy is deluded in his pretensions, believing he’s creating great art, when we can clearly see it isn’t.  Then the joke would be on him.  

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half

James Nicholas, Richard Buck, and Ben Mills-Wood prepare to do battle

Doggy Style


The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April 2023

A R Gurney’s comedy from 1995 gets a spirited revival at the Crescent.  Telling the story of New York empty nesters, Greg and Kate who find their lives overturned by the arrival of Sylvia, a dog Greg brings home from the park.  An instant bond forms between Greg and the dog, fast becoming an obsession, but Kate is less than welcoming and plots to oust Sylvia from their lives.

What lifts the play from the humdrum is the fact that Sylvia is portrayed by an actor, enabling the dog to crack jokes, swear like a navvy and be generally charming. Here, Beth Gilbert rises to and surpasses the challenge, managing to be cute and disgusting, as dogs invariably are. Yes, Sylvia is anthropomorphised but there are also well-observed instances of canine behaviour to remind us that Sylvia is not some lesser class of human – although her obvious humanity provokes thoughts about how some castes/classes/races treat other human beings. Gilbert sustains incredible energy throughout the performance, commanding the stage just as Sylvia dominates the couple’s lives.

Vincent Fox’s Greg is a middle-aged man whose life is given purpose by Sylvia, at the expense of his working life and his marriage.  His obsession borders on the unhealthy and so of course Liz Plumpton’s Kate has no choice but to intervene.  Kate is the less likeable of the pair – she’s returning to her career now the kids have gone, and so is also perhaps neglectful of her marriage, providing a hole for Sylvia to fill.  The roles don’t seem like a stretch for either Fox or Plumpton – the accents sound natural and effortless – but they both imbue the roles with enough nuance to muddy the polarised waters that separate the couple.

Jan Davison’s direction keeps things tearing along, like Sylvia straining on her leash.  The scene where Sylvia spots a cat under a car is superbly handled, wringing every bit of humour from the encounter.  The play could easily come across as a prolonged comedy sketch and outstay its welcome, but Davison keeps us hooked in and, push coming to shove, we are invested enough to care about who will prevail: dog or wife?

There is good support from Charlotte Gillet, playing three roles: Tom, a dog owner Greg befriends in the park, Phyllis, Kate’s stuck-up friend, and Leslie, a gender-ambivalent counsellor the couple consult for help.

Apart from a tendency to have his characters referring to each other by name every other line, Gurney’s writing is sharp, orchestrating some very funny situations, and of course manipulating us to feel for Sylvia as the inevitable denouement looms, keeping on the right side of mawkishness.  This is the kind of thing Ayckbourn does so well over on this side of the pond, although I suspect his Nick and Kate would be more ridiculous. I wonder if the play would be more interesting if Greg and Kate couldn’t understand Sylvia, and only the audience is privy to her thoughts and wisecracks….

An amusing evening at the Crescent, another simple yet sophisticated production.  Sylvia will go after your funny bone and touch your heart.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Bad dog! Beth Gilbert as Sylvia and Liz Plumpton as Kate (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Hair Dos and Home Truths


Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st March 2023

Best known for the stellar film version starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field et al, Robert Harling’s story started out as this stage play thirty years ago. Set in a Louisiana hair salon between 1983 and 1985, it’s a golden opportunity for half a dozen actors of the female persuasion to strut their stuff, as the characters prepare for big moments in their lives.  The salon acts as a meeting place, somewhere to confide, to share, to have a right old laugh, with all the important action occurring off-stage. 

As hairstylist Truvy, a big-haired Lucy Speed channels Dolly Parton and gets to deliver most of the script’s best zingers.  She draws us in immediately with her irresistible down-home charm.  New recruit Annelle (Elizabeth Ayodele) sweetly evades questions about her home-life, engendering a little mystery (which is overshadowed by her later conversion to Christian Evangelism). 

Among the customers are Diana Vickers as bride-to-be with health issues, Shelby; Laura Main as mother-of-the-bride M’Lynn; Caroline Harker as rich woman Clairee; and, in this performance, Claire Carpenter as the forthright Ouiser.  It’s a fine ensemble.  Harker seems to warm into her role as the evening goes on and can really deliver a punchline, but it’s Main who delivers the show’s most powerfully emotional moment in an outpouring of the frustration that comes along with grief.  Across the board, the accents are pretty good, pretty authentic.  Occasionally, lines are indistinct, slurred a little too quickly, but the one-liners and acerbic observations mostly come across with expert timing.

Our role as audience is to eavesdrop on the comings and goings, picking up exposition to fill the gaps in between the scenes, as we are drawn into these women’s world.  Laura Hopkin’s set boxes the characters in the salon, framing the scene with light.  This lends an air of intimacy to proceedings but unfortunately also serves as a distancing effect, keeping us out.

It’s an old-fashioned piece, showing its age, and I wonder if the universality of its message (women supporting each other in a man’s world) would translate away from the Deep South setting.  Give them all Dudley accents, for example, and the drama would have the same impact.  Bring it up-to-date to reinforce the need for sisterhood in today’s society, and the piece might turn its girl power into feminism.

It’s a cosy night at the theatre, a solid production that amuses and has moments of emotional truth, but it’s not really my cup of bourbon.

☆ ☆ ☆

Elizabeth Ayodele, Laura Main, Lucy Speed and Diana Vickers (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

Get Thee to This Nunnery!


Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th March 2023

Following on from last year’s hilarious outing, this sequel moves the action to a creepy convent.  Drag queens and nun jokes are a marriage made in Heaven.  The plot involves a priest being sent from Rome to investigate the disappearance of another priest who was last heard of at the Convent of St Babs.  There is talk of the convent housing the holiest of holies, a relic of great power and value…

As the investigating priest Father Alfie Romeo, the mighty Louis Cypher more than passes in manly garb.  Cypher’s Romeo is a fully rounded character, venal and prone to foibles.  The priest is an excellent foil for Victoria Scone’s pitch perfect Mother Superior.  Scone rules the roost and commands the stage in a flawless performance of exquisite comic timing.

Birmingham’s own tower of talent, Kitty Scott Claws appears as Sis Titis, the crudest in the convent, with some killer filthy lines.  Cheryl Hole is great fun as Sister Mary Berry, especially when proceedings take a spooky turn, but my heart belongs solely to global mega-superstar Jujubee, playing the role of Sister Maria Julie Andrews, complete with tits on her fingers.  It’s such a thrill to see Jujubee from a distance of only a few feet, with a fine English accent and all the glamour and comic genius we have come to expect from her many Drag Race triumphs.

Completing the cast is drag king Corrina Buchan as a cardinal, and a few other surprise roles.  The script, by Robert Evans, overflows with innuendo and crass remarks.  Director Jesse Jones doesn’t ease up on the comedy for a second, with well-choreographed and creative physical business keeping the action rattling along like a runaway train.  There are cheesy special effects and plenty of silliness, and yet, somehow, the show manages to pull off moment of suspense and shock, with a few jump scares in the mix, as the plot descends deeper into horror film territory, played out in front of Peter McKintosh’s gloriously gothic set.

Nothing is sacred.  The satire takes broad swipes at the Catholic church, and everyone else too, with scathing topical references bejewelling the filth.  And funny!  The laughs never stop coming.  There is plenty here for Drag Race aficionados but you don’t have to be in on all the in-jokes to derive a lot of amusement from this knockabout show.  This is an all-out assault on the funny bone, a show that delights with its outrageous humour, its cartoonish characters and revels in its campness and theatricality.

Drop dead funny.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Giving it some stick: Jujubee, Cheryl Hole, Louis Cypher, Victoria Scone, and Kitty Scott-Claws (Photos:Matt Crockett)

Siam what I am


Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st March 2023

There is no king on the poster, only the I, selling the show on its female lead, Call The Midwife’s Helen George.  Unfortunately, for this press night performance, Ms George is indisposed (perhaps a midwife crisis) and so there are more than a few disgruntled childbirth fans in the auditorium tonight.  To my mind, the show is the star.  A Rodgers & Hammerstein classic?  It hardly matters who is in it.

Taking the role of Anna Leonowens tonight is Maria Coyne, and she is fabulous.  We are not being short-changed in any way.   She may not portray a midwife but she certainly delivers.

The plot centres around the widowed Anna arriving in Bangkok with her young son.  She has found employment at the palace, as a Julie Andrews figure to the King’s many, many children.  There follows a clash of cultures and a growing respect and indeed friendship between the schoolmistress and the monarch.  As I’ve said, Maria Coyne is splendid in the part, forthright in her opinions and wryly amused by the King’s mangling of the English language.  Her voice suits this old-school kind of musical extremely well.

Old-school?  I mean, classic.  Director Bartlett Sher doesn’t tamper with the material, emphasising what makes the show an all-time great, while playing down stereotypical representations.  There’s enough to give us a taste of Siam in the gorgeous set by Michael Yeargan and the graceful choreography by Christopher Gattelli, combining traditional Siamese and balletic movements.

Darren Lee rules as the King of Siam, bombastic at first and overbearing, but with insecurities and vulnerabilities, and especially, a playfulness in his dealings with the unruly teacher.  He and Coyne are a dream pairing.  The mutual affection and frustration between the characters sparkles.  Lee definitely deserves to be on the poster.

At this performance, the role of Tuptim is played by Amelia Kinu Muus, who is a strong and emotive soprano.  Her duets with Dean John Wilson are definite highlights, as they power through some of Richard Rodgers’s most romantic melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s most searing lyrics.  Another belter of a moment comes from Cezarah Bonner’s Lady Thiang, whose solo gives me shivers.  Truly, ‘something wonderful’.

Caleb Lagayan impresses as the young Crown Prince, with a powerful singing voice that belies the character’s self-doubts. His first entrance is a stark, dramatic contrast to the cutesy kowtowing of the King’s other children. Also strong is Charlie McGuire as Anna’s son Louis in an assured and mature performance.

There is drama, there is humour, there is something about gender roles and challenging the entrenched attitudes of the patriarch. There is something about European interference. There is the marvellous play-within-a-play: a staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin through the prism of Siamese dance and theatrical conventions – an absolutely delightful piece of storytelling. Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costume designs allow for plenty of melodramatic swishing of fabric and add to the sense of another place in another time.

This no-nonsense production reminds us why the show is one of the greatest musicals and why Rodgers & Hammerstein are geniuses.  Captivating, involving and powerful, this show will entertain and move you, and get you humming all those great tunes all the way home.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

We are Siamese if you please: The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Photo: Johan Persson)