Tag Archives: Blue Orange Theatre

Telling Tales

GRIMMS FAERY TALES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 22nd December, 2018

 

The festive offering at the Blue Orange this year is a trilogy of tales, familiar stories with a twist.  Performed by a talented ensemble of five, the stories comprise an entertaining anthology, suitable for all the family.

First up is Rapunzel, directed by Oliver Hume, setting the tone and the style.  The actors share narration and adopt a larger-than-life style that’s not quite panto, but not far off.  For the most part, they play it straight, even though the script is witty.  Hume’s staging is deceptively simple; there’s some sophisticated storytelling going on here.

Simon Ravenhill’s Little Red Riding Hood (directed by Marcus Fernando) is a more overtly comic, almost cartoonish affair, with heightened physicality and even some chasing around with Yaketty Sax blaring out!

Finally, we have Mark Webster’s Rumpelstiltskin, a return to the style of the opener but with added atmosphere: cast members remain onstage, supporting the main action – like the spinning of the straw, for example.

The stories are performed by a fine quintet.  James Nicholas is wonderful as a high-camp Witch, a rather butch Granny, and a splendidly creepy Rumpelstiltskin.  Adam Simmons is appealing as Rapunzel’s Prince, perfectly arrogant as the avaricious, gold-hungry Prince, and charming as a Narrator.  Alan Nikitas delivers long-suffering peasants and fathers, but really shines as an exasperated Big Bad Wolf that is a real treat to see.  Rebecca Ross supports as mothers, guards, and is especially good fun as a felonious Goldilocks, menacing all who cross her path.  Playing the heroines in all three stories, Stephanie Grey delights as the imprisoned princess, the put-upon Gretchen, and especially as a garrulous Little Red Riding Hood.

The action is slick, engaging and funny.  The adaptations are clever enough to amuse the adults, and the lure of the original stories still has the power to enchant and enthral the children.

Perfectly charming and thoroughly enjoyable, this is a production that will hold you in its spell, and it’s all rounded off with a sweetly sung rendition of Auld Lang Syne.  Glorious rather than grim.

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Alex Nikitas and James Nicholas squaring up as the Wolf and Granny

 

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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

 


Life in a Northern Town

HE’D MURDER ME

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

James Nicholas’s one-act one-hander tells the story of Jack, a young man who grew up in Huddersfield during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders.  Jack, it transpires, is gay, a fact he is compelled to keep secret because his world is steeped in violent homophobia.

Richard Buck is Jack in this challenging piece.  He is an affable narrator, dipping in and out of characters swiftly and with precision, using gesture, voice and stance to depict the host of people that form Jack’s story.  This economic style is so effective; we can picture each person so vividly.  Jack is haunted by the Yorkshire Ripper, who contributed to making his teen years so terrifying, and, as the tale unfolds, we come to understand exactly why.  Buck is superb and doesn’t miss a beat.

Director Ian Craddock keeps Buck moving – the stage is full of him.  Changes of location and mood are subtly signalled through lighting changes but Craddock allows the power of his actor to keep us engaged in this tale of coming-of-age without coming-out.  Nicholas’s beautifully detailed writing builds to a shattering revelation.  The enforced keeping of a secret – homosexuality, I mean – can have devastating effects on the secret-keeper, with long-lasting effects on mental health and wellbeing.  In Jack’s case, it is truly a matter of life and death.

Absorbing, gripping and emotional with a magnetic performance from Richard Buck, this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves a larger audience.

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About last night…

THE MORNING AFTER

Blue Orange Theatre, Monday 23rd July, 2018

 

This witty three-hander first produced three years ago gets a welcome revival as part of this year’s Birmingham Fest at the Blue Orange.

Written and directed by Darren Haywood, it’s the story of Sam (Jacob Wright) who wakes up hungover to the realisation that he sent a string of regrettable texts to his girlfriend.  Wright is wide-eyed, often horror-struck, a master of the comic reaction; you can see the cogs working in his befuddled brain.  Waking up next to him is Niamh (Gabby Killick) a complete stranger.  Neither she nor Sam has any recollection of the night before.  It falls to Echo, the escort in the bath tub, to fill in the blanks – played with snarky relish by Lisa McKinley.  McKinley is the perfect foil for Killick’s stuck-up drama queen.  Level-headed Echo has all the barbed, deadpan observations, while Niamh excels at melodramatic outbursts and over-reactions.  They are equally strong at opposing ends of the scale.

Caught between this virgin and whore, Sam is both mediator and target of the women’s vitriol, as the power shifts around the trio and allegiances are formed, broken, and re-formed in seconds.

Haywood’s script is quickfire.  Every punchline hits home and is expertly handled by his excellent cast.  He paces the action nicely, wringing the comic potential from every moment.    Haywood keeps events within the realms of plausibility while keeping a steady hand on the helm.  The playwright’s hand and the director’s eye are there, shaping the delivery, skewing the naturalism for the purposes of giving us a laugh.  The humour largely arises from character, and the cultural references they make are drawn mostly from television, with the occasional classical allusion – Echo comes across as well-read, and why shouldn’t she?

The result is an extremely funny sixty minutes. It’s almost a contemporary morality play as Sam’s chickens (the way he has treated his girlfriend) come home to roost.

A delight.

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Drama Therapy

HAMLET

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd February, 2018

 

Director Oliver Hume’s production strips Shakespeare’s four-hours-plus great work right down to two fifty-minute chunks.  With much of the text excised, what we are left with comes across as Hamlet’s Greatest Hits.  All the main plot points are intact along with the majority of the iconic speeches and for the most part, the cast of five handle the blank verse excellently, so it sounds and feels like Shakespeare with modern voices.

Hume sets his version in a doctor’s office, complete with portable screens (the arras!) and a full skeleton (doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and poor Yorick).  With Ashleigh Aston leading the cast as Hamlet, a psychiatric patient, the rest are dressed as doctors, nurses, orderlies and what-have-you, and double, sometimes treble, as other roles.  The action of the tragedy unfolds, leading to its fatal resolution, and while I enjoy particular scenes very much (Ophelia’s mad scene, To Be or Not To Be, the ‘fencing’ contest, Hamlet visiting his mother’s chamber) and I can’t help wondering where it’s going.  At some points, the setting is little more than a backdrop; at others, it works very well… and I question if this is all in Hamlet’s mind, why are we getting scenes in which he doesn’t appear?

Ashleigh Aston makes for a superb Hamlet, with a sensitive, impassioned portrayal, convincingly unhinged when the need arises.  She is supported by a strong quartet, among whom Bryony Tebbutt’s Gertrude stands out, Hayley Grainger’s Ophelia, and Alex Nikitas’s imperious Claudius.  Edward Loboda makes an impression as Polonius and a hot-blooded Laertes.

Three cast members share the role of Horatio, donning a brown hat so we know it’s him and it is this device that is the key to the entire concept.  Hume pulls his ideas together right at the end when, (SPOILER!!) after all the deaths, the medical staff resurrect themselves and wake their patient, handing her the brown hat.  It has all been a dramatic reconstruction to help Horatio get through the trauma of what he experienced at Elsinore…

Bravo!  Suddenly it all becomes clear and it’s a real ‘Ahh!’ moment.

Truncated it may be, but definitely not lacking in drama and some superb handling of Shakespeare, breathing fresh life into the well-worn lines and coming at the play from a new angle.  This play’s the thing!

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Something’s Got To Give

THE LATE MARILYN MONROE

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2018

 

We’ll never know what happened during the last moments of the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Conspiracy theories abound, each one wackier than the last (the CIA, the Mafia, she was about to tell the world about the existence of aliens…); here, writer-director Darren Haywood, following extensive research, pieces together an impression of what might have been, but his play is more than a dramatic reconstruction.

We spend Marilyn’s final hours with her in her bedroom.  The constantly ringing telephone is a source of annoyance and also comfort as she takes and makes calls, looking forward to plans for the next day, the next week… For a time, we don’t believe this is a woman on the verge of suicide.  But then, as Tania Staite’s impressive portrayal reveals, Monroe is not exactly stable.  Capricious and volatile, she rounds on those closest to her, hurls colourful invective down the phone at Bobby Kennedy, and then switches back to a child-like persona, desperately insecure about her looks, caving under the pressure of having to be Marilyn Monroe.

Tania Staite gets the cadences of Monroe’s voice – it’s an evocation rather than an impersonation, and Staite settles into the role; it’s the first night and I can’t tell whether first-night stumbles are actually part of Monroe’s distracted state!

There is sympathetic support from Ellie Darvill as housekeeper Mrs Murray, a maternal, nurturing presence who is on the receiving end of Monroe’s paranoid flights of fury.  Dru Stephenson is also good as Monroe’s long-suffering friend and publicist, while Martin Rossen’s visiting psychiatrist adopts more of a friendly and paternal bedside manner than a professional detachment.

Haywood’s writing is excellent – his Monroe really comes alive when she’s recounting anecdotes of Hollywood gossip – and, thanks to Staite’s performance, we do care about this vulnerable victim of the celebrity machine.  The whole thing is flooded with doom and dramatic irony.  We know she’s not long for this world and so lines like “I may just go to sleep and never get up” and “You’ve got time ahead of you” have resonance the characters don’t realise.

Marilyn’s early death speaks to our age directly.  Not just because of its fairy-tale-gone-wrong aspects but because her story reveals times have not changed.  The celebrity machine churns on, chewing up and spitting out stars, and our culture is still obsessed with every detail of their private lives.  Also, Monroe discloses (although it’s not secret) that she had to sleep her way through a slew of directors and producers to get her break, and this brings the production bang up-to-date with the spectre of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.  Show business has not changed and, by extension, the world has not changed.  Monroe’s demise remains a powerful indictment of the sleazy patriarchy that both made and broke her.

Absorbing and well-played, the production could benefit from a few cuts – especially in the second act – so that it makes its points more efficiently.

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Dodgy Lodger

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Blue Orange Theatre, Thursday 5th October, 2017

 

Joe Orton’s version of the ‘well-made play’ still has the power to amuse fifty or so years since its original production.  Society has moved on and we are all accustomed to seeing and hearing more overtly shocking things on television any night of the week, so for us it may be difficult to imagine the impact of Orton’s work.  His characters speak with vernacular erudition, almost epigrammatically, revealing their own desires – in true comic tradition (from the ancients, in fact) characters are driven by their vices.  In this case, it seems to be lust, on the part of Kath and her brother Eddie, inspired by the arrival into their lives of the enigmatic Mr Sloane.

Director Ian Craddock goes for period piece (of course, the play was contemporary with the time of its production) but ups the shock factor by introducing a spot of nudity, creating a frisson early on in proceedings.  Outbursts of anger and violence are handled well – I am struck by the similarities between Orton and early Pinter.  This is comedy with menaces.

As sentimental, possessive and damaged Kath, Elaine Ward is top notch, in a layered characterisation that goes deeper than the grotesque.  We glimpse the heartbreak that has affected her entire personality, although we have to piece together the details of her back story from contradictory accounts, some of them out of Kath’s own mouth.  Ivor Williams blunders about as the elderly and infirm Kemp, Kath’s father – we feel sympathy for the old man while we laugh at his callous mistreatment from all and sundry.  William Hayes as brother Eddie encapsulates the menace and intensity the part requires, richly laced with sarcasm – although he does appear to be the only Brummie in this London-set family.

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William Hayes (Eddie) and Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane)

For me, the night belongs to Sloane himself – which is only fitting given the way he turns the heads of Kath and Eddie.  As the handsome, amoral opportunist, Jake Hodgkinson is spot on and irresistible.  You can see why the others find him so attractive from the off – before his trousers come off, I mean!   Hodgkinson combines the looks (the dyed blond hair suits!) with a wily charm and a bad boy attitude.  The violence is entirely credible, as are the flashes of vulnerability when events threaten to overpower him.

It’s a very funny play with Orton satirising the hypocrisy of those who take advantage of others under the guise of charitable acts.  Many of the lines, spouted in an Alf Garnett manner, could come directly from the streets of today, where UKIP and Brexit views have become more prevalent – but no less abhorrent.

An excellent production that showcases a masterpiece and allows each member of the cast to demonstrate their skills.  Inevitably, I feel the loss of Orton all over again.  What wonders he may have gone on to write are forever denied us, and that’s a terrible pity.

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Jake Hodgkinson (Sloane) and Elaine Ward (Kath)