The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021
The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose. Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India. The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.
The premise is delicious. A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…
Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant. Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact. She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess. They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones. Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.
Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions. Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War. Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!
The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom. Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments. And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!
On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 27th October, 2015
Kneehigh’s latest is one of their best. It’s so good that I’m back to see it a second time less than a month after its visit to Birmingham’s REP theatre. A new version of The Beggar’s Opera this is not a good advertisement for humanity but an excellent advocate for live theatre. You just don’t get this kind of stuff on the telly or Netflix. Unbridled in its theatricality, this exuberant production pulls out all the stops to tell its tale of establishment corruption, mirroring the personal corruption of individuals. There is live music, newly composed by Charles Hazlewood, lively choreography by Etta Murfitt, and puppetry by Sarah Wright – the eponymous dog is the cutest you’ll see (before his demise, of course!).
The ensemble cast is the heartbeat of the show, expending energy and displaying versatility to bring Carl Grose’s deliciously lurid script to irresistible life. Dominic Marsh is the amoral but amiable Macheath, our anti-hero, hired to assassinate the Mayor (Ian Ross) who knows too much. The town is really in the pocket of Les Peachum and his Mrs. Martin Ryder oozes sleaze as Les but it soon becomes apparent that it’s his wife (Rina Fatania) who wears the (leopard print) trousers. Fatania almost steals the show with her grotesquely hilarious performance. I would not like to meet her down a well-illuminated alley, let alone a dark one.
Beverly Rudd is a bluff Lucy Lockit – her song about being a ninja butterfly is a definite highlight in a show that is nearly all highlights. Hazlewood uses strains of Greensleeves and Over The Hills and Far Away from John Gay’s original work to enhance his own vibrant score, which has elements of funk, jazz, punk and ska all working together. It’s infectious.
Lucy Rivers has taken over from Patrycia Kujawska as the Mayor’s widow and perhaps the only ‘decent’ character in it – her stirring violin playing is an expression of her grief, complementing her emoting. Angela Hardie sings sweetly as the Peachums’ daughter Polly – until she turns to the bad, that is, while a bekilted Giles King is a lot of fun as corrupt copper Colin Lockit, squawking into his loudhailer. Best voice of the lot though must be Jack Shalloo’s as Filch. He also appears as other characters, each of them extremely funny.
Sarah Wright’s puppets are both charming and horribly satirical. A Punch and Judy show mirrors the live action (just as the live action is a caricature of our world) but unlike Mr Punch, Macheath is ultimately unable to defeat everything life chucks at him. It’s a nasty, cesspit of a story. Director Mike Shepherd uses Brechtian ideas to entertain us. There is no revolution, the play says and I tend to agree. That should be its rousing call to action but it isn’t. It’s an entertaining wallow through the mire of our society – we enjoy these horrible people who have free rein to do what they like, and the sheer breath-taking impact of the performance exhilarates.
I will never see those anti-social wheeled suitcases in the same light. Every time I am nearly tripped by one, I shall suspect there’s a dead dog in it.
The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 3rd March, 2014
Told By An Idiot and writer Carl Grose’s new play takes an affectionate if irreverent look at the bygone golden age of Saturday morning television for children. The play takes the format of a retrospective TV programme, “Looking Back (Together)” which dredges up long-cancelled series Shushi (basically TISWAS by another name) The series was pulled, host Niall Ashdown explains, following the live transmission of some disturbing content – our interest is piqued. As well as actors in 70s clobber running around spouting silly catchphrases, there is drama here, a dark undercurrent – some of it due to the relationships of the characters and a lot of it stemming from the ethos of the era. And so, the show’s only female (the always marvellous Petra Massey of Spymonkey renown) is the butt of a lot of the jokes and subject to physical abuse and harassment at the end of a rubber mallet. Okorie Chukwu plays an ardent fan, invariably picked to be put in the stocks and pelted with pies, his name repeatedly mangled and mocked. (The cast use their real names but I hope not their real personalities!)
As well as triggering nostalgia for my younger days, the play is very funny, often in that post-modern way of holding up something we (now) regard as offensive, and we laugh, ironically or not as the case may be. There is also some fun poked at those who pick apart social mores of the past and get offended on behalf of others. One scene in particular involves a buck-toothed Korean butler and an astounding portrayal of a black woman that takes your breath away (with laughter rather than outrage). Petra Massey’s vocal skills and comic timing are matched, if not exceeded by her physical comedy.
This is silliness of the highest order, at times exhilarating, at others uncomfortable, but never short of hilarious. Stephen Harper is Shushi’s lead presenter, cynically going through the motions. Ged Simmons is the show’s producer, pushing the boundaries. In a delicious scene, the two phone-in to prank call rival show, Wake Up And Smell The Sunshine, hosted by Petra Massey in a Noel Edmonds beard; the Dionysian excesses of TISWAS pitted against the staid Apollonian order of Swap Shop. There is a just about perfect Cheggers-a-like by Dudley Rees, who also gives us a cracker of a Frank Carson. Many of the nods and nudges will be lost on those in the audience with the misfortune of being born too late to have seen these programmes but nevertheless the skits are still extremely funny.
One by one, Niall Ashdown interviews those involved in Shushi, inviting them to look back (together). These interviews give the play structure but they are also daft and satirical in themselves. This kind of nostalgic programme over-dramatises the trivial and (“Coming up next week, another crazy gang: the Khmer Rouge!”) trivialises the serious. Niall Ashdown is more than the show’s straight man or anchor. He is the contact with the audience, fielding heckles and warming us up. That the people in the front seats are issued plastic ponchos gives you an idea of how the custard pies and the buckets of water fly around. One particular pie fight in slow motion is a thing of beauty. That the scenes are linked with blasts of Eve of Destruction suggests we are witnessing a civilisation in decline.
The play ends with a riotous celebration, an orgy of flan-flinging in a fast-moving sequence of clips from the series: Nobby’s Tool Time, Kick A Vicar… It’s the funniest 90 minutes I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Whatever your age or experience of TISWAS, this is a joyous piece of theatre, performed by skilful clowns and directed to heights of brilliance by Paul Hunter. It is an evening of unalloyed bliss. I bloody loved it.
Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex, is one of the greatest works of Drama ever written, but don’t go to a Spymonkey show if it’s tragedy you’re after. Spymonkey is an irreverent company producing some of the most entertaining theatre touring the country today.
The first half is all back story. A crash course in the events that lead up to the action of Sophocles’s play. Narrated by a caryatid, the story of the curse of the house of Laius is played out to hilarious effect through judicious use of brightly coloured wigs and physical comedy. There is a daftness to Spymonkey that calls to mind the sketches of Morecambe & Wise, the surrealism of Reeves & Mortimer and the energy of the Keystone Cops. The pace never lets up but none of the action, the sight gags, the slapstick, ever feels laboured. The characterisations are one-dimensional cartoons – this is theatrical shorthand, a short cut to the laughs. Above all, comedy comes from the sheer theatricality of it all. The set – as versatile as the cast – provides a backdrop but is also incorporated into the silliness. It is almost a fifth member of the troupe.
The second half is, in terms of structure, more recognisably Sophoclean, but where, back in his day the action would be broken up by choric interludes, here we have confessional monologues by cast members, dropping out of character to complain about their ailments, the way they are treated by the others, or to reveal their plans to escape to pastures new as soon as this tour is over. These little moments of darkness are also very funny but they bring to mind the idea that this is not just a knockabout cartoon we’re enjoying, just as the original tragedy is not about distant and lofty figures of mythology. And so another level is added to the performance, along with the ridiculous several-laughs-a-minute style, and the Brechtian moments that puncture and undermine the ongoing show: there is a kind of meta-drama going on with versions of the actors and their personal issues. The main thing though is that all of it is very, very funny in one way or another. I wonder if I can ever go back to the Sophocles without being reminded of Spymonkey’s antics.
Toby Park, managing director of the company and composer, leads as spokesman and narrator. As blind seer Tiresias he suffers ridicule and an extreme form of torture before treating us to a song very much in the early Bowie style, complete with glam rock outfit. Aitor Basauri provides a range of supernumerary characters including Lucky and Plucky a pair of hirsute shepherds, crucial to the plot. But it is as murdered King Laius, a pederast and unicyclist in a blue teddy boy wig that he comes to the fore. As doomed Oedipus, German actor Stephan Kreiss is a force of nature, tearing around the stage, snapping out his lines and all with a bad back and a lunchbox full of painkillers. The best stage actress in Britain (her words not mine) Petra Massey plays Queen Jocasta like a cross between Cleopatra and a character from Battle of the Planets. It is a bizarre design choice but not at all out of place. She also portrays the Sphinx in two equally hilarious versions and her suicide as Jocasta is a coup de theatre that epitomises the production’s inventive and hilarious approach. I fear I am overusing the word ‘hilarious’ but honestly, it‘s the most apt word in the thesaurus to describe this joyous production.
It culminates in a hanging and a blinding, an overblown display using a lot of red ribbon – a device often used by director Emma Rice with her own excellent company, Kneehigh. Even with its script by another Kneehigh stalwart, Carl Grose, this is still unmistakably a Spymonkey show.
The tour continues well into May. I can’t wait to see it again.