Tag Archives: Birmingham

Out for the Count

DRACULA

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th October, 2018

 

Dracula is one of those characters that has become part of global culture; like Tarzan or Peter Pan, everyone has heard of him, thanks in no small part to the innumerable film versions of the story and its spin-offs.  The original Bram Stoker novel can come as a surprise to first-time readers due to its epistolary nature: the story is told through letters between the characters, so it has multi-first-person viewpoints.  Here Mark Webster’s faithful-ish adaptation makes great use of characters reading what they are writing, or from letters they have received, often as preludes to flashbacks or reconstructions of incidents.

It gets off to a strong start with Adrian Rosu capturing our attention as a Sea Captain making entries in his log.  Rosu’s authentic Romanian accent (he’s from that part of the world) immediately evokes the atmosphere as he recounts incidents in which a mysterious figure on board picks off his men.  Webster begins the play with the arrival of the Count in England – the book’s opening events (Jonathan Harker’s experiences at Castle Dracula) are saved for later in extended flashbacks.  Rosu also appears as Harker, giving his RP accent an airing, and clearly portraying the various stages of Harker’s health, pre- and post-Transylvania.

Taresh Solanki is a nervy, passionate Doctor Seward, while Chris Del Manso’s Professor Van Helsing is authoritative and eccentric without going over the top, in a commanding performance.  Nisaro Karim is a tall and burly Arthur – is the character American?  I can’t remember and I can’t tell.  Karim doubles as a tall and burly Count; in these scenes Karim’s stage presence is stronger.  His Dracula towers over proceedings.  You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

The female members of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Nichola Woolley’s perky Lucy really comes to life, ironically, when the character joins the ranks of the undead.  Danica Corns’s Mina has fortitude – this is no shrinking-violet, damsel in distress.  Kaz Luckins is compellingly wild-eyed and intense as a gender-swapped mental patient, the zoophagous Renfield, but it is Carys Jones who makes the strongest impression of all in a range of roles: asylum warder Hennessey, Sister Agatha, Lucy’s mum…

Director Simon Ravenhill’s set is multi-purpose, coming into its own when two or three scenes are staged concurrently, the action cross-cutting between them.  The intimate, even cosy, stage at the Blue Orange, means we can take it all in, without having to move our heads like spectators at a tennis match.  There is a lot going on but it is skilfully presented so that we never lose focus.  The action sequences, the outbursts of violence, are very well staged.

Dean Bowyer’s lighting makes shrewd use of red and green colour washes, and the occasional chilly blue.  Mark Webster’s sound design successfully evokes scenery: crowds etc, while also providing a great deal of the eeriness.  Renfield’s flies, for example, and the otherworldly voices of the vampire women, which are extremely well done.

Inevitably, I suppose, it’s a very wordy piece and it runs a bit long, but the sterling efforts of the strong cast keep us hooked – even if we are familiar with the tale.  There are a few instances when the energy drops a little but, this being the first night of the run, I am sure things will tighten up as the week progresses.

An atmospheric, tonally perfect piece with moments of menace and an unusual twist at the end I didn’t see coming, this production is definitely worth an evening of your time.

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Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula

 

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Boss Play

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble.  Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.

Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles.  Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses.  He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.

Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins.  This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.

Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value.  Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim.  There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.

The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in.  Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!

Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect.  The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.

A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent.  I had a boss time.

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Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Quartet with strings

FOUR PLAY

The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th September, 2018

 

Jake Brunger’s play from 2016 is a fresh and funny four-hander about relationships and commitment, particularly among gay men.  Rafe and Pete, seven years in, are itching to broaden their experience, only ever having been with each other.  They recruit Michael, a friend from Facebook, for an evening with each of them.  There are rules: Michael’s partner Andrew must not find out, being chief among them.  Of course, anyone who has seen Gremlins knows that as soon as rules are mentioned they are going to be broken…. Michael tells Andrew from the off…

This comedy of manners gets off to a hilarious start as the nervous Rafe and the taciturn Pete meet Michael to make the proposition.  Conor Nolan is superb as the adorably awkward, sweet but slightly twattish Rafe, with flawless timing and sensitivity.  He is utterly credible from the start.  Dominic Thompson’s Pete is initially a man of few words; it emerges that it is Pete who initiated the idea to spice up their sex lives, Rafe is going along with it for the sake of peace.  Thompson imbues Pete with an animalistic intensity.  Beyond the smart trousers and bottles of prosecco, Pete is a seething mass of passion.  Thompson is an actor of charismatic presence in all he does, and he brings out Pete’s softer, more romantic side too.

Tom Silverton retains a measure of detachment and elegant aloofness as Michael, the recruit, who is apparently able to separate sex from emotion.  It is only when the situation reaches breaking point that he expresses his true feelings – never mind can of worms, these are electric eels bursting out.  The archness and bitchiness of Andrew (Tye Harris) masks vulnerability and low self-esteem, as he clings to Michael despite the ‘rules’ of their open relationship.  Harris’s outbursts are powerful, revealing the true Andrew beneath the campness.

All four members of this quartet turn in a compelling, rounded performance.  The comedy of manners develops into searing emotional scenes.  Director Tracey Street manages the tonal changes splendidly.  The minimalist setting gives focus to the actors in this intimate space – which is all this piece requires.  In fact, as soon as props come in, we get wine sloshed around, glasses get broken… Street contrasts the overall naturalism of the performance with a stylised, contemporary-dance-like sequence to represent Pete and Michael having sex.  It’s a beautiful moment – for us, to appreciate the movement skills of Thompson and Silverton – but ugly in what it means for the characters we have come to care about.

Brunger’s writing is dazzlingly good.  The play suggests that open relationships may not necessarily be all that open, that monogamy might not be that monogamous, that there is indeed more than one way to have a relationship, but as long as those involved want different things, there will always be tension and the potential for breaking-up.  And perhaps sex cannot be entirely detached from emotion after all.

Entertainment of the highest quality, this production is thoroughly engaging, funny and touching.  I adored it.

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Awesome foursome: Tom Silverton, Tye Harris, Dominic Thompson, and Conor Nolan


Party On!

Stage Experience: BOOGIE NIGHTS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd August, 2018

 

Every summer about a hundred young people flock to Birmingham and just a fortnight later, they’re performing to packed houses.  It’s the Alex’s annual Stage Experience project, a highlight of the theatre’s calendar.  Previous shows include 42nd Street, Footloose, and West Side Story.  This year the choice is Boogie Nights, a jukebox musical of 1970s hits with a plot so shallow it makes Dreamboats & Petticoats seem like The Cherry Orchard.   This is Saturday Night Fever lite, with characters living for their nights out at the local nightclub, and there’s a party atmosphere long before the performance begins with cast members in the aisles encouraging the audience to get up and dance.

The miracle worker, as ever, is the indefatigable Pollyann Tanner who directs and choreographs her huge cast of youngsters with an assured hand.  It can’t be easy managing such a troupe but the enthusiasm of every member shines through – this lot clearly don’t need cattle-prods to get them to cooperate!  I can’t list them all, so forgive me, chorus, for focussing on the main players.

Leading the cast is Elliot Gooch as Roddy, our narrator.  Gooch has presence and a twinkle in his eye, but Roddy is written in such a way, we can’t be charmed by his throwaway sexism and his selfishness.  Gooch works hard to sell the character to us, but ultimately Roddy is an obnoxious plonker.  As Roddy’s long-term girlfriend Debs, Isabella Kibble positively shines in a flawless performance.  She can handle the London-ish accent superbly and sings like a dream.  Furthermore, she brings credibility to the part and is the emotional centre of the piece.  Kibble is supported by Melissa Huband as best friend Trish, who also sings well and displays spot-on comic timing.

Grace Williams also makes a strong impression as night-club singer Lorraine.  Her duet with Debs (No More Tears/Enough is Enough) is a definite highlight.

Among a colourful array of Seventies costumes, Gibsa Bah looks marvellous as Spencer, strutting on huge platforms with an afro like a black cloud over his head, whose chauvinistic attitudes remind us that the period was not just great pop music and big collars.  Thomas Parkinson adds humour as Roddy’s mate Terry, while handsome Jonah Sercombe has the best male singing voice of the lot – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more from him – but I would advise him not to rush his dialogue, and please, someone get him a wig to hide his on-fleek 2018 hairdo!  There is an excellent performance from Liam Huband as Roddy’s Elvis-worshipping father, Eamon – a strong characterisation, Eamon gets most of the best lines (even if Jon Conway’s script strings together as many old jokes as old songs).

The songs keep coming (and coming) along with gratuitous period references to crank up the nostalgia factor.  A tight ensemble led by Musical Director Chris Newton provides a great sound, and you can’t resist the energy coming off the stage.  More of a party than a play, this show’s delights come from seeing young people giving it their all, rather than getting their teeth into a meatier piece of musical theatre.

boogie

 


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

 


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.

box of frogs

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.

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