Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Let’s Twist Again

OLIVER!

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017

 

There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.

oliver!

Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

Advertisements

Like The Dickens

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Crescent Theatre,  Birmingham, Friday 9th December, 2016

 

Every year I see at least one show based on the quintessential Christmas story, some of them better than others.  I am happy to report this new adaptation by Alan K Marshall is definitely one of the better ones.  Making judicious use of Dickens’s words, the script captures the spirit of the book, which, at heart, is a ghost story as much as it is social commentary.  The story of the redemption of one man still has the power to move, when handled properly, and, sad to relate, the indictment of society and its treatment of the poor and needy is all too relevant almost 200 years later.

Andrew Lowrie delivers Scrooge’s grumpiness, his sour humour and his fear, as the miser goes on his spiritual journey.  His delirious joy in the final scenes is marvellous – Scrooge has rocketed to the other end of the spectrum.  Other standout performances include Nicholas Brady, a handsome and convivial Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; Chris Collett as Jacob Marley – in one of the show’s scariest moments, he makes a dramatic entrance; and Tony Daniels’s Bob Cratchit grieving over Tiny Tim is heartrending.  Standout scenes include the opportunists selling off Scrooge’s effects, played to perfection by Charwoman (Catherine Kelly – who also gives a lively performance as Fred’s Mrs), Laundress (Judy O’Dowd) and Old Joe (Ivor Williams); and the entrances of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Bob Martin) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are impressive – Production values are high; the team have gone all-out to make the most of their resources to create some ‘wow’ moments.

Kenny Holmes’s lighting design is especially effective, ranging from dim pools of Victorian candlelight to the more dazzling special effects that give the supernatural events such impact.  Dan O’Neill’s set serves as exterior and interior for all the scenes, complemented by fly-ins and roll-ins.  The action is continuous and fluid.  Alan K Marshall, directing his own script, wisely uses action for storytelling as much as Dickens’s words – wordless moments are equally as revealing of character as lines of dialogue.  He handles crowd scenes well and delivers a couple of surprises along the way.   Ghostly animation, projected across the walls, adds to the atmosphere.

Jennet Marshall and Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on, depicting the period as well as a kind of Christmas-card Victoriana, as characters’ colourful outfits contrast with Scrooge’s dour appearance and the general darkness of the age.

Music in the form of classical arrangements of carols works better in some scenes than others.  At times, I find it too grandiose for the on-stage action: the dance at the Fezziwigs’, for example, could do with being lighter and sparer, more folksy.  A moment when a voice offstage sings The First Noel unaccompanied while the grieving Cratchits traipse across the scene is all the more powerful, demonstrating that sometimes less is more.

Overall this is a stately production with some strong ideas that make it a fresh but faithful version of a story that still speaks to us today.  A warning against hardening our hearts against our fellow man and also of the dangers of ignorance could not be more timely in this small-minded, inward-looking, ‘post-truth’ age.

scrooge

Bah, humbug! Bob Cratchit (Tony Daniels) and Scrooge (Andrew Lowrie) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 

 


Execution is Everything

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 20th October, 2016

 

Mike Poulton’s masterful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic cracks along at a fair pace, distilling the novel into a couple of hours’ traffic on the stage.  It’s a powerful piece of storytelling.  Domestic scenes are interspersed with vignettes of violence as the mob takes over Paris and wreaks vengeance on the aristocracy.  The French Revolution is the backdrop and the antagonist in this story of love and sacrifice.

Jacob Ifan is Charles Darnay who, despite having renounced his inherited title, finds himself in shtuck with the French tribunal.  Ifan is handsome and reserved – except when he is talking politics and then the character’s passion comes to the fore.  By contrast, Joseph Timms’s Sydney Carton is a livelier presence, a spirited nihilist whose swagger only serves to advertise his lack of self-esteem.  Timms is charismatic, commanding our attention.  Carton boxes clever to save Darnay’s neck on more than one occasion.  (Carton…boxes…? Suit yourself!)

Both men are in love with Lucie Manette (an elegantly emotional Shanaya Rafaat) – and external events conspire to bring the triangle to a devastating denouement.

There is sterling support from Patrick Romer as Dr Manette, Michael Garner as faithful Mr Lorry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor amuses as servant/bodyguard Jerry, while Harry Attwell makes an impression as Stryver The ensemble is afforded many chances for some character cameos: Sue Wallace’s Pamela Keating and Rebecca Birch’s Jenny Herring stick in the mind – Dickens certainly knew how to give voice to the lower orders. Villain of the piece, Madame Defarge (Noa Bodner) personifies the kind of thinking that urges Brexit voting idiots to denounce all opposition as traitors.  The red of her skirt is a rare splash of colour in Ruth Hall’s muted costume palette, suggesting the bloodshed of those terrible times.

Mike Britton’s set evokes the Ancien Régime in decline, and Paul Keogan’s lighting intensifies the drama, contrasting dimness with moments of sharpness.  James Dacre directs, using contrasts for clarity and building a sense of a world in turmoil encroaching on individual lives.  The treatment of the poor – as typified here by Christopher Hunter’s cruel marquis – is facing resurgence in Britain today as the ruling classes demonise those less fortunate.  The shadow of the guillotine looms large in this story – perhaps we are overdue our own revolution.  Nobility, says the play, is nothing to do with title, wealth or privilege but is rather something within us – well, some of us.

To cap it all, Rachel Portman’s original score is striking, stirring, melancholic and tragic.

It all adds up to an excellent evening, an absorbing, gripping and moving production of which the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company should be very proud.

Great stuff and – if I might use the term – well executed!

tale-of-two

A tale of two, sitting: Joseph Timms, Rebecca Birch and Jacob Ifan


Bells and Whistles

CLASSIC GHOSTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 13th February, 2014

 

The best format for ghost stories is the written word.  Just the reader alone with the story – no one can scare you like you can scare yourself, and writers like M R James and Charles Dickens know how to tickle your imagination until you get a shiver down your spine.

Next best is tales around a campfire – a good storyteller can convey atmosphere and suspense and make you jump.  Long-running hits like The Woman In Black and, recently returned for its second West End run, the brilliant Ghost Stories, fully exploit this.  These shows employ aspects of narrative theatre that address the audience’s imagination directly.  And very scary they are too.

Middle Ground Theatre Company does not take this narrative approach, opting instead for naturalism and keeping the audience safely behind the fourth wall.  In doing so, the company makes a rod for its own back.  Unlike film, where you can use close-ups and changing points of view, the stage is a much harder place on which to create tension and atmosphere.  It doesn’t help that one of the stories in this double bill relies on atmosphere more than anything for its chills and surprises.

Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad tells of a Professor Parkins (Jack Shepherd) who checks into a hotel on a storm-battered East coast, out of season to play some golf and to root around in a local archaeological site.  He buddies up with Colonel Wilson (Terrence Hardiman) with whom he discusses his scepticism with regard to all things supernatural.  He has found an old whistle, the blowing of which seems to conjure the wind.  The whistle bears an inscription, “Who is it who is coming?” and the scene is set for some creepy palaver with moving bedclothes, knocking doors and a bush tapping incessantly on the windowpane.  Eventually, the prof is reduced to a sobbing, terrified mess.  And that’s it.  People expecting explanations are left decidedly nonplussed.  I think Margaret May Hobbs’s adaptation hits all the plot points of the M R James story but, given the absence of a resolution, a narrative theatre approach might engage the audience better.  The special effects are rather good – apart from the face of the ghost projected large enough to fill the backdrop.  Otherwise, the stage technology conspires to give some spine-tingling moments – despite one woman in the audience laughing her face off somewhat inappropriately.

The Signalman fares better.  Shepherd in the title role is paired with Hardiman again and tells him tales of railway disasters and spooky comings and goings.  This story-telling sets us up nicely for what transpires and there is a proper surprise denouement that rounds it off neatly.  A more conventional ghost story, then, and Francis Evelyn’s adaptation of Dickens works a good deal better than the James.

Shepherd is very good as the eccentric professor who loses his wits and equally solid as the signalman.  Hardiman is spot on as the bluff old colonel and as the inquisitive traveller.  There is excellent support from Dicken Ashworth as the hotel boss and a railway inspector.  With a lesser cast, these dramatisations would fall completely flat.

Director and designer Michael Lunney goes all out to create a sense of period, place and atmosphere, although I would say his set for the hotel in Whistle is a little too crowded.  The set for Signalman is impressive and Bob Hodges’s excellent sound designs do most of the work in creating mood in both pieces, but on the whole I came away thinking less would be considerably more.  There are too many ‘bells and whistles’ in addition to those that feature in the stories. A darkened space with someone holding a torch under his chin is as good a starting place as any – anything else is gravy.

 Image


Pickwick From A Distance

THE PICKWICK PAPERS

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 4th December, 2013

An ambitious project: to bring Charles Dickens’s rambling, episodic novel (originally a serial) to the stage.  But it has been done magnificently with regard to Nicholas Nickleby, so why not give it a go?  Unfortunately, The Pickwick Papers lacks the scale and the scope of that other book and, most crucially, it lacks drama.  So, what we get with Nicola Boyce’s adaptation is a series of scenes of little consequence involving characters that veer towards caricature.

Ian Dickens (some relation?) directs a cast of faces familiar from his other productions and pretty much gives them an easy ride.  Rebecca Wheatley gives a star turn as Mrs Leo Hunter performing a poem set to music about an ‘expiring frog’ – this characterisation contrasts effectively with her other role as the shy Miss Wardle.  David Callister is enjoyable as conman Jingle, inhabiting the costume and the vernacular with ease.  Poppy Meadows is underused – very funny as Mrs Bardell.  Dean Gaffney is well within his comfort zone as affable manservant Sam Weller – a pity he doesn’t get to flex the comedic muscle we saw earlier this year in Murder in Play.  Daniel Robinson and Scott Grey are the effeminate, giggling, shrieking ninnies Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass – they get the best scene in terms of action when poor Winkle finds himself embroiled in a duel thanks to the misconduct of Callister’s Jingle.

On the whole, the cast is very good and looks good in the costumes.  I think part of the problem is the set.  Most of the action takes place on a rostrum but this is set so far upstage it adds further distance between the actors and the audience beyond that provided by the fourth wall.  It is very difficult for them to engage with us and us with them, being so far removed from each other – my seat was fifth row centre and I felt like I needed binoculars.  Often the stage is crowded with people with their backs to us, further shutting us out. A disembodied voice narrates passages to cover scene changes, keeping us at a distance yet again rather than addressing us directly.

Also, the running time is not borne out by the content.  The story, such as it is, is too flimsy to sustain interest for almost three hours.  I found my mind wandering, unable to focus on some of the verbiage – Pickwick, nicely played by John D Collins – is a garrulous old thing but the script is in need of editing.

What should be a delightful, diverting way to pass an evening, becomes something of an endurance test.  It’s like trying to have a five-course meal in a sweet-shop: delightful at first but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in nutrients.

 Image


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.

Image


Going Bump in the Night

THE HAUNTING
Derby Theatre, Monday 26th November, 2012


Writer Hugh Janes has adapted ghost stories by Charles Dickens, resulting in a play that has a good deal in common with long-running West End hit, The Woman in Black. A young man is despatched to an isolated mansion for bureaucratic reasons and is disturbed by supernatural phenomena… Unlike its predecessor, The Haunting is more straightforward in its structure and approach and, thanks to Simon Scullion’s impressive, Victorian gothic set, has a more naturalistic feel. The atmosphere is perfect with mists and cobwebs and decay. Doors open and slam of their own accord. Books fly from shelves. There are plenty of ‘jump’ moments to rouse the audience and crank up the tension.

David Robb is splendid as the urbane, sardonic Lord Gray, a sceptic who is trying to sell off his late father’s estate, including his library of valuable books. There is a fey humour to his dismissals of the paranormal and he looks suitably dashing in a range of frockcoats and dressing gowns.

I didn’t take to his young counterpart in the same way. As the credulous book dealer, James Roache is togged up like Daniel Radcliffe in the film of The Woman in Black, but his delivery of most of his dialogue is off-putting; he attacks his lines like a barrister making courtroom revelations.

Where the play is let down is in some of the dialogue. At times they speak in descriptions, giving voice to passages from the Dickens original (“the house, pinched on all sides by the moor”) or spout the most florid lines (“I consider literature the buttress of pedantry”) that it is a good job the set and props are there to interrupt them before it all becomes too wordy and dense.

Director Hugh Wooldridge handles the atmosphere splendidly. All the old tricks in the book of old tricks are here. Drawn-out silences suddenly shattered by loud noises. Mists and shadows and things moving about. Disembodied voices and ghostly apparitions… And it all works very well. The mystery of the ghost story is gradually unravelled, and is not without surprises.

On the whole, this is an exercise in demonstrating the pleasure we take in being wound up and scared. It’s an intriguing little story, well-executed and presented. Special mention must go to Jonathan Suffolk’s sound design, which plays such an important role in putting us on edge. Well worth the trip, the production gives you that unique frisson of hundreds of people all being startled at once, and then gasping and laughing at what silly creatures we all are. You don’t get the same experience at the cinema.