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no difficulty in taking the series through the change of the century, despite oppositional claims that they’re already outdated and no longer have a place in a society that has moved beyond innuendo.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 Dallas, Carry 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
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
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023
Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s. We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them. This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example. It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.
Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker. (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)
All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills. Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair. To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.
There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues. The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles. Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.
The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022
Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married. To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks. Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…
So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats. The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.
Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares. Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely. Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.
The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action. Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling. Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.
The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time. It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 28th July 2022
This brand-new one act play, a neat little three-hander from Thirsty Theatre is showing as part of this year’s Birmingham Fest. (It’s not all Commonwealth Games, you know).
It’s long past closing time in the museum and Carlton, the security guard, is doing his rounds. Unbeknown to him, a notorious jewel thief has already infiltrated the building, with his sights set on the infamous Dark Ruby which bears a curse (“It sends people fucking mad” – according to Carlton). Add to the mix an escaped convict in his underpants and the stage is set for a knockabout farce with some very funny moments.
As the hapless security man, Jason Adam quickly establishes himself as an audience favourite, while Oliver Jones’s Mason has an assured enough air to make his story of being a new starter testing the security arrangements sound plausible… Apparently, this is Ian Cooper’s acting debut, appearing as the convict in his underpants. He displays superb comic acting and timing – as well as quite a lot of skin! The three cast members play off each other well, lending support when a couple of lines aren’t quite there.
Writer-director Ben Mills-Wood has delivered a taut script, full of laughs, reversals, plot twists, and surprises. Some of the reversals won’t bear close scrutiny, but while the action is flowing, we go along with it, because we’re having fun. There are also some moments where the fourth wall gets cheekily demolished, heightening the artifice of this farcical frolic. As a director, Mills-Wood makes judicious use of freeze-frames and blackouts to depict the cartoonish violence, along with comical sound effects. Stupid characters in clever situations make this show quite a gem.
All-in-all, a fine funny farce, although the comic business could do with tightening up here and there to give the production more polish, and to wring even more laughs out of the action.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 22nd October, 2021
This stage adaptation by ‘Mark W’ of the most famous case of the Baker Street detective is doggedly faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle original, down to the chapter titles that separate the action into sections. As in the book, our narrator is Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas), recounting the tale while the rest of the cast of four play multiple roles to populate the stage. James Nicholas’s Holmes is spirited and arrogant, brimming with verve. He has the barefaced boldness to portray Barrymore the butler without the beard for which he is noted, but I find this doesn’t irk me as much as it might—the characterisations are so different, so vivid.
Becoming a fixture at the Blue Orange, Richard Buck returns again to portray Sir Henry, heir to the Baskerville fortune and the cursed hound, along with others like a coach driver and old Mr Franklin. Buck makes a tall and handsome Henry. Indeed, this production is a chance for this trio of actors to showcase their versatility – none more so than its only female member, Emma Cooper, who along with all the female parts, gives us a Doctor Mortimer that is probably the strongest characterisation of the lot. Nikitas’s Watson remains a constant throughout, our touchstone amid the comings and goings; his Watson is a man of intelligence, a true apprentice to Holmes, and not the bumbling sidekick he is sometimes portrayed to be.
The character changes are handled swiftly and economically, with the addition of a hat and a coat and a change of stance. I know if it were me, I’d put the wrong voice to the wrong hat, my accents all blending into one. Director Oliver Hume demands a lot of his cast, never letting them leave the stage for a second. He also works hard to keep the piece from becoming static; it is rather wordy as no detail from the Doyle is omitted.
The action is supported by Michael Harris and Nathan Bower’s work on lighting and sound, with well-placed effects to add to the atmosphere. I think the show could withstand more of this, more music and atmospheric sound effects. The set, by Mark Webster, strongly suggests Holmes’s Baker Street residence, with the props and furnishings utilised to represent the other locations; we never lose sight of this being a story Watson is telling in Holmes’s flat. Like all good pieces of narrative theatre, it engages the audience’s imagination to fill in what cannot be staged.
There are a couple of moments when the energy and pace flag a little during this first night performance, but on the whole this is an engaging piece of storytelling, servicing the mystery well. The titular Hound is left to our imaginations, which is probably the best way to handle it on this occasion. To use any other method, they’d be barking.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th October, 2021
“Fear and laughter sit right next to each other,” observes one of the characters in this two-hander. He’s not wrong. It is notoriously difficult to frighten people in the theatre. What is intended to scare can come across as risible but pitch the elements right and you can really put your audience through the mill.
Writer-director James Williams gets just about everything spot on in this taut chiller, loosely based on historical figure, Katherine Ferrers, who has already inspired films and plays: the noblewoman turned highway robber, defying conventions and morality. Williams sets his piece very firmly in the present day, so the eponymous Wicked Lady is long dead, although maybe not gone. Assisting the police in their investigation into a missing child, ghostbuster Alice Beaumont winds up in the Wicked Lady’s decaying mansion and the scene is set for a series of shocks and surprises.
As Alice, Nicki Davy is superb and utterly convincing as her “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts” mindset is besieged by the unexplained and the downright terrifying. She is matched by Saul Bache as persistent Detective Sergeant Sean Fenton, who has his own reasons to be invested in the outcome of the investigation.
The Blue Orange may be short on space, but it is definitely not short on atmosphere. The team pull out all the stops to engender a suspenseful atmosphere. Alex Johnson lights the impressive set he has designed to highlight key moments and to pull our focus away with a bit of misdirection. Dan Clarkson’s excellent sound design surrounds and chases around us, with eerie breathing, childlike singsong, and sudden loud noises that keep us on edge. There are also original music compositions by Tomas Wolstenholme to augment the tension and underscore the action. Production values are sky high; this is easily the most lavish production I’ve seen here.
Well-written and superbly executed, this is a gripping piece of theatre, a sublime example of what smaller, independent venues can do and why they deserve your support.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th September, 2021
John Buchan’s novel has been adapted several times, each incarnation having precious little in common with the source material. Patrick Barlow’s joyful stage version borrows heavily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s but delivers a purely theatrical rather than cinematic experience. The script is peppered with reference to Hitchcock’s films for those in the know.
The whole thing is enacted by a cast of four, led by Richard Buck, who does a great job of bringing the dashing Richard Hannay to life, dashing around the stage/Scottish Highlands, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and trying to break up a spy ring in order to clear his name. Buck’s wide-eyed perplexity and skilful physical comedy make him a worthy focus for the action.
Playing the female parts is Kimberley Bradshaw, mangling the English language as German agent Arabella Schmidt, looking winsome in a red wig as crofter’s wife, Margaret, and, best of all, as the romantic interest Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and falling for him despite herself. Bradshaw’s long-suffering looks to the audience as she negotiates the tortuous corridors of a Highland hotel are a delight.
Appearing as everyone else are two consummate comedic players, James Nicholas and Darren Haywood. They both prove their versatility beyond question, often switching between characters at the drop, or the picking up, of a hat. Nicholas is great value as the treacherous Professor and Scottish hotelier Willy, as well as a host of other roles, but it is Haywood who gives the virtuoso performance, depicting characters with an arch look here, a purse of the lips there in the most consistently hilarious display I’ve seen in a long time. Together, they are a dream of a double act.
Director Simon Ravenhill doesn’t let the close confines of the Blue Orange stage get in the way of his chase scenes and his punch-ups. The action is deftly handled. This is a show that is so silly it’s actually very clever.
It does run a bit long though, due mainly to the time it can take to change scenes. While the set is almost as versatile as the actors, it can take a while to reconfigure, presenting opportunities for energy levels to flag. Luckily, the enthusiasm and brio of the players prove irresistible, and we revel in the fun of it all.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 23rd July 2021
This new one-act play begins as an old-school farce. Set in a room of the Hotel Royale, two men are inadvertently there to meet the same woman. Somehow they manage to avoid each other at first, with plenty of well-timed comings and goings through the various entrances and exits. And, being a farce, the trousers soon come off.
Things take a darker turn when the woman fails to turn up. Now we are in clever thriller territory—think Sleuth or Deathtrap and nothing is as it first appeared. Writer Ben Mills-Wood has created a tight and funny script, but I’m afraid his direction can’t quite bring his ideas to the stage. He comes pretty close, though.
There is much to enjoy here, not least the writing. There’s Jason Adam’s affable comedic stylings as the cheeky concierge; David Sims as Harvey the husband is at his strongest when he loses his temper; and Oliver Jones as the lover balances exaggeration and nuance to give an effective performance. There are delightful moments of frame-breaking, drawing attention to the artifice and contrivance of the piece. But this kind of thing needs consistent energy. Unfortunately, commitment to the action tends to be patchy as the cast’s confidence ebbs and flows.
To be fair, this is the first night, so you can forgive a few stumbles, a few dropped lines, and you can expect things to shape up for subsequent performances. The pacing needs sharpening so that every convolution of the plot hits the spot and doesn’t slip between the cracks. It should run like clockwork, but a few cogs need tightening. Or, to change metaphors, this diamond in the rough requires some targeted polishing to make it the gem it has the potential to be.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 2nd September, 2019
The publicity material for this two-hander of an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes classic says the show stars “No one famous” but a little detective work on my part leads me to suspect that the performers are called Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille, who share the narration as Holmes and Watson (here, Doctor Jane) as well as playing all the parts in the play.
It’s fast-paced and funny – there is much to be enjoyed in the slipshod way the pair tear around, donning hats and wigs and so on to populate the story. It’s deceptively slapdash, with lines fluffed and forgotten, crucial props going astray and plenty of onstage bickering. Every now and then they come together (to use one of their own innuendos) with instances of slick comic timing. You want innuendo? They will give you one. The script (by Thomas Moore) is riddled with double (and single) entendres. Each characterisation is more grotesque than the last, with Holmes giving us his bent-backed Barrymore and his louche Laura Lyons, and Watson her bizarre Doctor Mortimer and knee-slapping Sir Henry.
Oliver Hayes has a cheeky twinkle in his eye, like a young Michael Palin, while Bibi Lucille is as funny as she is versatile. The whole thing is camp, cheeky and daft, yet the plot adheres to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, hitting all the main points of action and including all the major characters – we, the audience, are recruited to portray the titular Hound, howling on demand.
Hilarious, energetic, silly, saucy and smart, this show provides a good workout for your laughing muscles, even though some of the gags are a bit laboured and repetitive, which somehow adds to the fun. The muckiness is in the great British comedic tradition, and these two are such a hugely likeable pair, they can pull it off with ease.
What a pair! Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille (Photo: The Other Richard)