Tag Archives: Bryony Lavery

Plenty to Treasure

TREASURE ISLAND

The REP, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd December, 2016

 

A favourite book of mine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate adventure is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Bryony Lavery, which remains on the whole true to the original – in spirit as well as plot – while adding a fresh spin: Jim Lad is a girl.  She behaves like the heroic boy of the original but proudly defies the gender norms of the age – and why not?  There were female pirates aplenty (most notably Ann Bonney and Mary Reade) – the point is it’s the story that matters and not what the characters may or may not have in their breeches.  Similarly, Doctor Livesey is here a woman, which may be stretching a point historically, but levels the playing field somewhat in this male-dominated story.  Director Phillip Breen sets his production on the stage of an old theatre.  Trappings of stage and of ship are equally in evidence.  We are left in no doubt this is storytelling, and in keeping with the season, principal boys are fair game!

Breen and Lavery make no concessions to the family audience.  This is a dangerous, violent world, bloody and frightening – perhaps not suitable for pre-school children but anyone else should find it gripping, tense, and atmospheric.  There is a darkness to the production as much as the tale and it’s all the better for it.

Sarah Middleton is a plucky, heroic Jim with a sweet singing voice and boundless energy.  Michael Hodgson’s sinister Long John Silver stalks around, redolent with menace and treachery.  Does he really care for Jim or is it all part of his nefarious plotting?  The ambiguity keeps us guessing, although Lavery changes Silver’s fate and so robs him and his relationship with Jim of some of its complexity.   Tonderai Munyeyu is great fun as the dunderhead Squire Trelawney, while Sian Howard provides the perfect counterpoint as the level-headed Doctor.  Dan Poole’s Black Dog and Andrew Langtree’s Blind Pew are genuinely scary.  Dave Fishley appears in two broadly contrasting roles: his Billy Bones is marvellously evocative, a swashbuckling, larger-than-life pirate, while his Gray is hilariously the opposite.  Man of the match for me though is Thomas Pickles’s unhinged Ben Gunn, quarrelling with himself in a manner that is funny, alarming and endearing all at the same time.  Marooning someone is surely the pirates’ cruellest punishment.

Dyfan Jones’s compositions enhance the atmosphere.  The songs and shanties sound in keeping with the genre and period, just as Mark Bailey’s design is grubbily theatrical and reminiscent of the glorious illustrations you find in old editions of the novel.  Fight scenes (by Renny Krupinski) are fast and furious, fun when they need to be.  When even the parrot puppet (operated by Suzanne Nixon) can pluck out your eyes, you know this is not some cosy panto – That is not to say there is not humour, there is, but this arises from character rather than the imposition of artificial situations and routines.

A top-notch family show then, perhaps unsuitable for the very young, but if it’s a rollicking, superbly presented adventure you’re after this holiday season, you need to set sail for the REP and get on board with this excellent production.

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Aar, Jim Lass. Michael Hodgson as Long John Silver and Sarah Middleton as Jim (Photo: Pete Le May)

 

 

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Everybody needs good neighbours

THE BELIEVERS

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 13th March, 2014

Bryony Lavery’s new play, created in collaboration with Frantic Assembly is the stuff of horror films.  When their house falls victim to flooding, Joff and Marianne, along with their daughter, are invited to spend the night in the home of neighbours Ollie and Maud, who also have a daughter.  The two girls play together, off-stage and unseen, while the adults get to know each other over a bottle of white rioja and Ollie’s special peanut sauce.  A comedy of manners ensues as Joff and Marianne react to their hosts’ religious convictions in a beautifully played and very funny scene around the dinner table.

The evening takes a turn for the weird long before a terrible life-changing event that stems from Ollie and Maud’s well-meaning plan to ‘cleanse’ their guests’ wayward daughter.

For the most part naturalistically performed, the piece is given a peculiar feel by its pared-down set.  Empty frames form doorways and corners, suggesting different rooms and locations.  Odd angles add an expressionistic element – the actors move the set around in a graceful, choreographed manner and it’s surprising how evocative these sparse lines are, pushing the emotions of the characters to the fore, leaving the audience to imagine things like décor, furniture and objects.

Andy Purves’s lighting design gives a Caravaggio-like appearance to some of the scenes.  With the addition of Carolyn Downing’s design for sound, the lighting gives us a few ghost-train scares.  It’s extremely effective.

Director Scott Graham keeps the action accessible and the people relatable although inhabiting a highly stylised space.  Their gravity-defying suspension on ropes changes our perspective and keeps a sense of ‘otherness’ running through the performance.  Events have thrown these lives off-kilter; the characters are adrift in familiar settings that have become unworldly to them.

Eileen Walsh (Marianne) and Christopher Colquhoun (Joff) are excellent as the ordinary couple overwhelmed by a nightmare, while Richard Mylan (Ollie) and Penny Layden (Maud) keep the weirdo neighbours credible.  Bryony Lavery’s writing is as sharp as ever – there is a kind of poetry to her naturalistic dialogue that is mirrored by the eerie beauty of the production style.

Stark, gripping, funny, inventive and scary, The Believers holds belief up to question in a way that reminded me a little of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle, and provides a thought-provoking, entertaining trip to the theatre.

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Chilling

FROZEN

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2014

 

We are accustomed to seeing sign language interpreters at the side of the stage, translating plays for deaf audience members.  New theatre company fingersmiths give us much more than that in a way that enhances the performance for those of us fortunate to be able to hear.

Each of the three characters in Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play is portrayed by a pair of actors, one speaking, the other signing.  The result is more than translation.  Often the signer reveals the inner life of the speaker.  Sometimes the signs anticipate the words – it’s an intriguing psychological approach to a play that deals with the human mind, its workings and malfunctions.

And so we get parallel performances occupying the same space, but the actors are also linked, like shadows, like reflections, like twins.  It is absolutely captivating.

The play deals with the disappearance of a young girl and the subsequent arrest of a man charged with her abduction and murder.  As the girl’s mother, Hazel Maycock is superb, delivering monologues in an offhand, matter-of-fact fashion that Alan Bennett would kill for.  This serves to intensify the anguish of later, heart-rending speeches.  Equally powerful is Maycock’s signing counterpart, Jean St Clair.  By definition, the signers give a more expressive performance, as counterpoints to the naturalism of the speaking players.  It’s hypnotic.

Marvellous Mike Hugo is stunningly good as serial killer Ralph, convincing in his psychosis and outbursts of rage.  He and his signer Neil Fox-Roberts, have a sort of relationship, breaking the convention, interacting with each other, like a mind fractured in two, or like each other’s evil twin.

Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri play brain expert Agnetha, whose professional swagger barely conceals anxiety and vulnerability.  Both convey the contrasts very well.

It’s a play about damaged lives and what damages them.  Lavery (and Hugo and Fox-Roberts) don’t give us a one-dimensional monster in the form of Ralph.  Neither is the mother just a mouthpiece for moral indignation.  Director Jeni Draper keeps us focussed throughout  what is largely a succession of monologues interspersed with a few scenes in which the characters interact.  Jo Paul’s set is minimalistic but versatile: one ingenious item of scenery serves as a table, a settee, a coffin and so on, allowing the action to move seamlessly from scene to scene.

An exploration of the darker side of human experience, Frozen is a gripping and absorbing piece of theatre, distressingly still relevant.  I look forward to seeing fingersmiths tackle their next piece – something comedic perhaps.  Please.

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Lacking in Spirit

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2013

 

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Dickens’s seasonal classic emphasises its own theatricality.  A chorus of spirits in Victorian garb – grubby and dark, unlike the picturesque variety you find on Christmas cards – decide to influence the affairs of mortals (a bit like the gods in Clash of the Titans) and they focus their endeavours on one Ebenezer Scrooge, the epitome of anti-Christmas feeling and misanthropy.  The spirits wheel on lampposts, doors and so on, calling for special effects to manipulate each scene.  In a way, this allows director Tessa Walker to be rather inventive and, neatly and cleverly, to convey scene changes and depict the more fantastical elements of the tale.

The trouble is this approach robs the story of spookiness and surprise.

Standing in as Scrooge, Jo Servi does a nice line in wide-eyed double-takes, and pent-up aggression to anyone who bids him a merry Christmas.  As the spirits show him the past and present, traces of old emotions leak out from his tight-lipped callousness – it’s not so much a change in the man as a rekindling of what is already there, what is in all of us to begin with: our common humanity.   Scrooge’s reawakening is a release of suppressed emotion and Servi carries it off well enough with a sprightly song-and dance number.

Marc Akinfolarin’s Jacob Marley intones a stark warning in a beautiful bass voice and there is a lot of energy provided by Roddy Peters as the antithesis to Scrooge, the permanently cheerful nephew Fred.

Jason Carr’s score is very reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, weaving in snatches of traditional carols in a rather discordant way.  As Scrooge thaws, the numbers become more melodic and somewhat more memorable.

Ti Green’s set – all bricks and floorboards with a false proscenium arch upstage – echoes the theatricality of the approach and suggests the dingy London streets.  I like the fact that it doesn’t change in line with Scrooge’s change of heart.  It’s the people, now all colourful and happy, that decorate this environment with Christmas cheer.

The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is an enormous rod puppet, a griffin spreading its tattered wings like a skeletal vulture.  It’s a striking image but it’s a cumbersome process getting it on and off and it lacks the humanity of the previous spectral visitors.  It’s like the carcass of a Christmas bird picked clean, a sign of austere times to come.  It’s handled very expressively but, like the rest of the production, it’s a little too pedestrian to ignite the imagination or elicit an emotional response.

The openly artificial approach, efficient and clever though it may be, doesn’t give us a single “how did they do that?” moment to surprise us or fill us with wonder.  Instead we get a workable, workday version of the well-known story, performed by a likeable and proficient company, but lacking in that special ingredient to touch us and warm our hearts.

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Packing a Punch

BEAUTIFUL BURNOUT
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 9th October, 2012

Bryony Lavery’s rather lyrical story of amateur boxing is brought to invigorating life by Frantic Assembly in this new production, doing the rounds (Doing the rounds! Hah! …suit yourselves). Loud music boxes your ears, bright lights assault your eyes, but what is most stunning is the slick, choreographed moves of this tight cast of six. These movements all stem from boxing and the exercises from training in preparation for boxing – the physical fitness of the actors is incredible; they bring a grace and an insistent intensity to the proceedings.

This is the story of shoplifter and car-borrower Cameron who is reformed by becoming a member of the amateur club run by Bobby Burgess (Keith Fleming as a sort of avuncular sergeant major). There, Cameron meets showboat Ajay The Cobra Chopra (Taqi Nazeer), walking Wikipedia Ainsley (Ali Craig), hothead Neil Neill (Matthew Trevannion) and hardnosed female boxer Dina (Margaret Ann Bain). Cameron ducks and weaves his way into the group and soon Burgess is selecting suitable candidates to turn pro.

This gives rise to concern in Cameron’s mother, in a excellent comic turn from Julie Wilson Nimmo. Her relief over her boy finally getting some structure and discipline in his life is replaced by justifiable fear that he will sustain some serious injury. The play’s title tells us tragedy is coming…

Cameron doesn’t quite make it from rags to riches. Stuart Ryan stands out as the young contender who tries to better himself. Not so much flawed as floored.

Technically, the show is dazzling. The music and lights are secondary to the performances of the actors. Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use freeze frames and thought tracking to eye-opening effect. Slow motion and a revolving stage add a Matrix-like air to the fight sequences – we are not meant to get caught up in the violence of the match; this is character-led drama and because of this handling, the ending leaves us all the more punch drunk.

A vibrant, slick and tight production. A knockout.