Tag Archives: Blue Orange Theatre

Heir of the Dog

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

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.

****

Caning it: Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas) and Sherlock Holmes (James Nicholas)

Well Wicked

THE WICKED LADY

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.

Woman in Black – who?

*****


A Taste of Hannay

THE 39 STEPS

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.

Richard Buck

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.

A real tonic.

****

Darren Haywood


Half-Farced

DUPLICITY FOR BEGINNERS

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.

***


Dog Muck

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

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.

Brilliant!

Hound of the Baskervilles ©The Other Richard

What a pair! Oliver Hayes and Bibi Lucille (Photo: The Other Richard)


Will they, won’t they?

SUNDOWN

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 24th July, 2019

 

Sometimes you go to the theatre and they get everything right.  The artistic choices made serve the material perfectly, and the performance of the piece is just exquisite.    An example of this is this neat little one-act two-hander from the pen (or the keyboard) of Darren Haywood, one of Birmingham’s most consistently excellent playwrights.

Set on a cliff top, the action concerns the meeting of two strangers, each with their own reason to be there.  Their lives have brought them to this point, this place with a view, with a view to tossing themselves off (the cliff).  Lara, a solicitor by trade, is dealing with a crisis in her personal life.  Kris, a betting-shop worker, has drink and gambling issues, and the debts are piling up…   The pair strike up a conversation, and come to an understanding and appreciation of each other.  Haywood spares us scenes of gut-spilling and deep-and-meaningfuls.  Instead, the conversation is interspersed with the characters’ inner monologues, so we are privy to their innermost thoughts, we come to learn their personal histories, while their outward discourse rattles along in fits and starts.  The two share a moment of real connection, and we suspect they may not go through with their separate plans of ending it all after all.  We suspect this may not be the end of them, not the last of their conversations…

As the somewhat stroppy Lara, Emily Summers is superb.  Her annoyance with the interloper Kris is writ large on her features, while her internal turmoil is more subtly portrayed.  The monologue where she reveals the nature and story of her anguish is powerfully played.

As the gauche, wise-cracking Kris, Davey Ezra imbues the character with more than snappy one-liners.  Kris uses humour as a shield, and Ezra lets us see beneath the mask.  His big monologue about an opportunity to steal from his employer is recounted with conviction and truth.

The actors are helped massively by the quality of Haywood’s writing.  Haywood has an ear for naturalistic dialogue and can write in quips and retorts that sound like they arise from the conversation.  He can also shape the action, keeping his cards close to his chest, gradually dealing them out so we get to know the characters and their situations in an organic way.  It works brilliantly.

Also directing this production, Haywood keeps staging to the absolute minimum, so his words, via the actors, are given full sway.  A raised platform serves as the cliff top at Beachy Head.  Seagulls and surf on a loop are all the scenic colour required.  It truly is a case of less being more.  Slight dips in the lighting cover represent the night drawing in – we don’t even need to see the sundown of the title.

Funny, intriguing and touching, Sundown runs for less than an hour but is thoroughly satisfying – perhaps because of its constraints.

I loved it.

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Strangers at sunset: Davey Ezra and Emily Summers

 

 


Camptastic!

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 3rd May, 2019

 

Charles Ludlam’s camp classic is more well-known in the USA than on this side of the pond.  A two-hander that parodies Victorian melodrama, Gothic romances, and creaky old horror films, this is a chance for a pair of actors to showcase their versatility and, equally importantly, their quick-change skills.  Lady Enid, second wife to Lord Edgar, pries into the history of the family estate of Mandacrest.  She unearths a tale of vampires, werewolves and Egyptology, while beyond the French windows, a wolf preys on lambs, spreading terror…

Stuart Horobin is great as stuffy Lord Edgar, more tweed than man, clinging to the memories of his late first wife.  Horobin throws himself into his roles with gusto: Edgar conjuring a long-dead Egyptian queen, for example; or as dour housekeeper Jane, serving up huge dollops of exposition.

He is joined by Darren Haywood, his match in wide-eyed histrionics.  Haywood is a hoot as stable man Nicodemus, stumping around on a ‘wooden’ leg, and he’s magnificent as the lip-quivering Lady Enid.  His appearance as the reincarnated mummy is a highlight – in fact, whenever he’s on stage, which is most of the time, he delivers, in a consistently funny performance that is a real treat to behold.

Both actors handle the florid verbiage Ludlam liberally doles out with conviction.  The dialogue paraphrases the likes of Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe and is riddled with daftness and peppered with some choice double entendres – I could always do with more of these.  Ludlam’s script comes across as somewhat patchy but director Simon Ravenhill keeps the laughs coming with some delicious bits of comic business.  Nicodemus screwing his wooden leg back on, for example, or the hilariously pedestrian werewolf transformation scene.

In the end, it’s the playing not the material that proves the more entertaining.  Not so much Hammer, as Sledgehammer Horror, this is a case of the high quality of the production compensating for any weakness in the script, making for a hugely entertaining evening that deserves to be seen by greater numbers.

irma vep

Darren Haywood in a publicity shot

 

 

 


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.

grimm

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

 


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.

dracula

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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