Tag Archives: Birmingham

Great Danes

HAMLET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020

 

I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity.  It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech.  But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.

Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent.  Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront.  Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes.  Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus.  A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.

That being said, this production has some moments of excellence.  Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable.  Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer.  Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator.  Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes.  As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life.  Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.

Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet.  Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark.  Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words.  His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.

The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience.  Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.

Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak.  This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.

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Sweet Prince: Jack Hobbis as Hamlet (Photo: Jack Kirby)


Many Wrongs Make a Right

PETER PAN GOES WRONG

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th February, 2020

 

Mischief Theatre followed up their mega-hit The Play That Goes Wrong with this adaptation of J M Barrie’s classic.  This one continues the traditions established by the earlier show by framing the performance within the context of an inept am-dram group with their internal dramas and shortcomings foreshadowed and impinging on proceedings.  What makes this one better than the first, to my mind, is that because we are familiar with the source material, our expectations are higher.  We know what should be happening and our expectations are both met and confounded in the same instant.  For example, we know Peter Pan is supposed to come flying in through the bedroom window and we expect something will go awry but when it happens/fails to happen, it’s funnier than we could have hoped.

I won’t give away the shocks and surprises but the show adheres to Sod’s Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong; and so we get collapsing set pieces, props going astray, lighting and sound cues botched, lines mangled, and so on, all while the inner conflicts and agendas of the cast play out in and around Barrie’s much-loved story.

It’s a breath-taking cavalcade of disaster.  Every nightmare every actor ever had is crammed into this catalogue of failures.  And that’s where the success lies.  For everything to go so ‘wrong’, everything must go absolutely right.  The timing is impeccable – I dread to think what the risk assessments are like for this production!

Katy Daghorn’s Wendy brings over-acting to a new low, with dance moves illustrating every phrase.  James Marlowe’s Pan manages to pursue his off-stage womanising despite his experiences on the wires.  Oliver Senton is a scream as long-suffering canine retainer, Nana – and later, he is hilariously unintelligible as pirate Starkey.  Romayne Andrews is suitably one-note as John, being fed his lines by radio feed, and Phoebe Ellabani has an exhausting series of quick changes, switching from Mrs Darling to the maid, often between lines.  Her Tinker Bell comes a cropper in line with Barrie’s narrative, adding another layer of brilliance to the script (by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields).  Patrick Warner carries on doggedly as the Narrator with a wayward chair, and George Haynes’s pain is palpable as he struggles on as Mr Darling and as a Captain Hook who decries audience participation.  Georgia Bradley’s Tootles, afflicted by crippling stagefright (among other things) is good fun, and watch out for Ethan Moorhouse as hapless stage hand ‘Trevor’.  But it is Tom Babbage who wins our hearts, playing ‘Max’ who is only in the show because of a financial contribution.  Yes, this is a version of Peter Pan that gets us rooting for the crocodile!

It’s quite simply one of the funniest nights you will ever have at the theatre and it leaves you marvelling at the skill of the cast who manage to fake all this catastrophe without apparent injury.  The show celebrates the human spirit, to keep going when all around you is collapsing.  The show must go on and so must life!

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' Play on Tour

You’ve been framed! James Marlowe wings it as Peter Pan

 

 


Happy Slappers

BAND OF GOLD

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2020

 

Kay Mellor’s hit series (which I must confess to never having watched) comes to the stage in this new adaptation.  Retaining its 1990s setting, the story puts sex workers at the forefront of the action, making them the protagonists rather than incidental characters.  We meet Carol (tart with a heart) on the game to provide for her daughter, who was sired by her copper of an ex-boyfriend; there’s Anita (hooker with a cooker) who rents out the flat her fancy man keeps her in for working girls to use); and then there’s Rose (slut with guts) who rules The Lane…

The plot kicks off when newly-separated Gina (Sacha Parkinson) finds selling cosmetics door-to-door is not bringing in enough dosh to pay off the evil loan shark (a menacing Joe Mallalieu) who keeps turning up.  So, with little in the way of soul-searching or agonising, she decides to go on the game – it’s preferable to getting back with her aggressive and abusive husband (a convincingly volatile Kieron Richardson – Ste off of Hollyoaks).  At first, things go well for Gina…

A murder mystery emerges, and with all the male characters being disagreeable, to put it mildly, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Enter Carol’s ex, Inspector Newall (Shayne Ward) back from exile in Wolverhampton, of all places.  Ward is underused – it’s the girls who get to the bottom of things, so to speak.  The show has quite a large cast but there’s not enough time to give them more than fleeting appearances.

As tough-talking Rose, Gaynor Faye (off of Emmerdale) is good value and she is matched by Emma Osman’s plain-speaking Carol and, at this performance, Virginia Byron’s increasingly desperate Anita.  There is strong support from Olwen May as Gina’s mother Joyce, along with Mark Sheals as George, and Andrew Dunn (you know, him from Dinnerladies) as Councillor Barraclough.

The play touches on subjects like women’s empowerment versus their exploitation, the corruption of businesses and local government, the dangers of working the streets… but there is not enough time to examine any of these things in depth.  The shortness of the scenes underlines the show’s origins as television drama.   Mellor packs a lot in at the expense of resonance.  Nevertheless, the show is instantly engaging and there is a rich vein of bluff Northern humour running through it along with some cracking lines (“He’s got a face like a fart in a trance”).  It may be a bit drama-by-numbers, but it’s effortlessly watchable, entertaining fare, although the significance of the title continues to elude me.

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Kieron Richardson and Gaynor Faye (Photo: Ant Robling)

 


Out of the Question

ASKING FOR IT

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 3rd February, 2020

 

Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre is hosting the UK premiere of this Irish production, based on a novel by Louise O’Neill.  At first, Meadhbh McHugh’s adaptation plays like Derry Girls meets Skins, with the school uniforms of the characters emphasising their youth and immaturity.  Like most young people, they’re looking forward to a party where drink and drugs and members of the opposite sex will be freely available.  They’re not an especially appealing bunch, with the lads bringing obnoxious to new levels – is their conduct exaggerated to make a point?  Probably, but not by much, I’d wager.

Emma (Lauren Coe) is our protagonist.  Having previously counselled a friend who was assaulted to say nothing, she finds herself in the same boat when the party takes a dark turn.  An ill-advised sexual encounter degenerates into a gang-rape and photos of the event are plastered all over social media.  Somehow, Emma is to blame.  For the event, for pressing charges, for causing upset to the boys’ poor mothers… Emma becomes increasingly isolated and withdrawn, her entire life a nightmare.

Lauren Coe is superb as the victim, bringing depth to her silences and pain to the voiceovers that work as asides.  As her parents, Dawn Bradfield and Simon O’Gorman give powerful performances, demonstrating clearly the attitudes Emma is up against.  It takes brother Bryan (Liam Heslin) a more-enlightened soul having been away to college, to stand up for his sister and lay the blame where it belongs, squarely at the boys’ feet.  Bryan is fighting a losing battle.

Paul O’Mahony’s changeable set design serves as a range of locations.  Under Sinead McKenna’s lighting and accompanied by Philip Stewart’s sound design, the staging is a nightmarish setting, an assault on our senses.  Loud, discordant music and loud, unsettling sounds contribute to the visceral experience, putting us in Emma’s mindspace.  For the second half, the set closes in, claustrophobically, for a more conventional kitchen-sink scene as the family lash out and thrash out, forcing Emma to make a decision.

Director Annabelle Comyn keeps us gripped throughout the play’s bum-numbing running time, eliciting powerful performances from her young ensemble, and enhancing the experience with stage technology.  Jack Phelan’s video raindrops fall like tears.  A tight spotlight pinpoints Emma and isolates her in darkness.  There is a lot of dark beauty to this production.

Rather than focussing on rape culture, I find the story is more about blame culture – victim-blaming and shaming, that is.  The real culprits are plain for all to see, and we see how they are dealt with.  The play is a clarion call to change all of this.

It’s a stark production that is to be experienced and admired rather than enjoyed.  Never less than engaging, it gets its message across and provokes discussion all the way home.

Lauren Coe as Emma in Asking For It_credit Patrick Redmond (5)

Lauren Coe as Emma (Photo: Patrick Redmond)

 

 


Phantom Menace

GHOST STORIES

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020

 

Scary shows are rarely done live, and even more rarely, done successfully.  You think of The Woman in Black which continues to put the willies up audiences in the West End decades after it opened – and that’s about it.  Until the advent of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which went on to have a decent run and is now embarking on its first national tour.  Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, this is an anthology of tales, curated by Professor Goodman (an excellent Joshua Higgott), who in a kind of lecture or TED talk, seeks to debunk the supernatural.  Because there’s a rational explanation for everything.  Isn’t there?

I am under strict instruction not to reveal any of the show’s secrets so I will skate over the subject matter by saying only this.  Each story is completely different and is narrated by a different character, ranging from Paul Hawkyard’s down-to-earth Tony Matthews, to Gus Gordon’s more agitated Simon Rifkind, and to Richard Sutton’s boorish, braggart, Mike Priddle.

What I will tell you is you are in for ninety minutes of suspense, shocks and scares.  I saw the original production at the Lyric; there are more laughs than I remember, some of them the nervous kind, but the script is richly laced with humour, calculated to relieve the tension.  It’s beautifully written; the stories unfold in such a way that they play on your imagination, and the staging of each one is exquisite.  Everyday activities take on an aspect of suspense.  The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary…

Technically the show is a marvel of darkness (James Farncombe’s lighting design excels in what it doesn’t reveal as much as what it illuminates) with an unsettling sound design by Nick Manning.  There are jump-scares, sudden loud noises, eerie silences… every trope you might expect, and an almost relentless sense of dread.  You spend a lot of the time dreading what might happen and when things happen, wondering how they do it.  Everything is achieved with impeccable timing and it works brilliantly.

Even on second viewing, the show loses none of its power to grip, to thrill and to entertain.  It’s a funfair ride, a visceral and intellectual experience, addressing dark aspects of the human psyche.  It’s a pleasure to be manipulated in this way. The show is a testament to the power and unique properties of live theatre.  You won’t get frissons like this by watching the movie version on your phone.

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Phat Lot of Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS – The Musical

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s Christmas classic is given the Broadway treatment in this vibrant musical version by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) with music by Mel Marvin.  As the years pass, I feel a growing affinity with the Grinch, a hermit-like, curmudgeonly Scrooge of a creature who begrudges the simple townsfolk their seasonal cheer.  He is the Anti-Santa, entering people’s homes and taking stuff away – although even I stop short of burglary.

John Lee Beatty’s set design draws heavily on the Seuss illustrations, with their off-kilter, pen-and-ink style.  Robert Morgan’s costumes follow suit, padded to alter the shape of the actors, especially those playing the Whos, the peculiar race of Christmas worshippers.  Add to the mix Ben Cracknell’s luscious lighting design, and you have a weird and wonderful world straight out of a storybook.  Production values certainly are high – just look at the size of the chorus!

Steve Fortune is Old Max, formerly the Grinch’s dog.  He is our narrator, our link to the past.  Fortune has a strong and pleasant baritone, which he gets to demonstrate in his rendition of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch – a song from an animated TV version of years ago.  The song is more well-known in the States than over here, so later, an audience singalong doesn’t really come off.

Playing Young Max is Matt Terry, last seen as a lion in Madagascar.  Terry seems to be carving out a career playing animals in musicals, and why not?  He is excellent at it, and this show gives him chance to show off his movement skills, even with his padded costume, and his vocal talents.

Holly Dale Spencer shines as Mama Who, with a fine singing voice, and a quirky way of moving.  There is a touch of mania in her eyes that is just delicious.  Together with Alan Pearson as Papa Who, and Karen Ascoe’s Grandma (in a towering pink wig like a dollop of ice cream) and David Bardsley (a sprightly Grandpa), there is a lovely quartet as the adults prepare the house on Christmas Eve.  The score is rich, and very Broadway, with catchy tunes and Sondheimesque phrasing.

Tiny Isla Gie almost steals the show as cute-as-a-button Cindy Lou Who, who interrupts the Grinch’s housebreaking.  She holds her own in a hugely impressive performance, like Shirley Temple with an edge.  Matt August’s direction allows a satirical touch so that things never get too saccharine or cloying.  The show delivers its message that Christmas is not about consumerism and brand names but those with whom you share it.

Now to the Grinch himself.  Edward Baker-Duly is just magnificent.  He makes the role his own with some cartoony reactions and some masterful showmanship.  One of a Kind is an old-fashioned showstopper.  This is a villain to be cherished and enjoyed – and I enjoy his throwaway topical references.

This crazy, stylish, funny and tuneful show has heart and is a welcome alternative to all the versions of A Christmas Carol that are out there.  It will get you in the feels; it even melted this cold-hearted Grinch of a reviewer.

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Fine and Dandy

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th November, 2019

 

Years ago, back when the Odeon on Birmingham’s New Street was a music venue, I saw Adam and the Ants play, with a huge pirate ship filling the stage.  Adam Ant was up and down that rigging like nobody’s business.  It is a fond memory of one of the first gigs I ever attended.  Now, many years later, he is back, sans Ants, with a concert version of his solo album from 1982, Friend or Foe – the one with hits like Goody Two Shoes and Desperate But Not Serious, both of which prove to be highlights of tonight’s set.   The exuberant brass section that colours the album is here replaced by guitars (along with the signature pair of drummers) giving the set a heavier, raunchier overall sound.

The theme from old TV series The Saint plays the band onstage, setting the tone nicely (and dating most of the audience!) and the set opens with the album’s title track.  Ant looks fabulous, of course, belying his age and he’s in excellent voice.  This is quickly followed by Something Girls, which includes some of the best whistling since One Man and His DogPlace in the Country is faster, reinvigorated; we are rattling through the album at quite a lick.  Hello, I Love You (a cover of The Doors) is just about perfect, followed by the autobiographical Goody Two Shoes, which is joyous – anything that follows this banger is bound to sound weak by comparison, so Crackpot History and the Right to Lie seems like the wrong kind of gear change.

The album concludes with the instrumental, Man Called Marco which affords Ant the chance to step and trip around with those snake hips of his – he is wearing the skinniest fit trousers and tight boots that give his legs a spindly, insect-like aspect.  Perhaps he is turning into an ant after all.

“Here are some more songs you might enjoy,” he says, ushering us into Greatest Hits territory, kicking off with Dog Eat Dog – which is like Ennio Morricone doing metal.   Antmusic provides the best moments of the night; it’s just fantastic, and I enjoy the opportunity to revisit older tracks from his early punk days, such as Zerox and Car TroublePrince Charming is an anthem and a call to arms, with its war cry introduction and its mantra, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” – words to live by, indeed!   Puss In Boots is great fun, and Kings of the Wild Frontier is stunning, with its darker edge, but it is Stand And Deliver, closing the set, that proves the most exhilarating.  “The way you look,” Ant sings, “you’ll qualify for next year’s old-age pension.”  Well, the lyrics might be catching up with him, but you’d never guess to see and hear him play.  The outfits are less flamboyant but he still cuts a dashing figure.  The man who brought theatricality and fun to post-punk music is still going strong.

The encore is comprised of three ancient tracks, Press Darlings, Red Scabs, and You’re So Physical and while it’s a rare opportunity to hear them with this richer, fuller sound, I kind of hanker for something poppier, like Apollo 9 for example, so we can have a good old singalong before we go.

A wonderful evening that reminded me why I loved him so much in the first place.  Antastic!

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Adam Ant (Photo: Barry Brecheisen)