Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Art Full

FAGIN’S TWIST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

 

Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic.  It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act.  Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition.  The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.

At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last.  It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling.  There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.

Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat.  Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.

There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.

Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now.  Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence.  Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it!  Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!

Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences.  Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.

AvantGardeDanceFaginsTwistProduction-2-0126-810x540

The cast of Fagin’s Twist

 


Ebenezer Good

EBENEZER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th December, 2018

 

The most famous ghost story of all time comes to the most haunted house in the country in this enchanting, one-man version of Charles Dickens’s perennial favourite.  It’s a promenade piece and an intimate one, with a cap on audience members to a dozen per performance; we are led through the building by our host and narrator, Ebenezer Crouch, who blends friendliness with otherworldliness.

“Marley was dead to begin with,” Crouch begins at the entrance to the museum, a kind of cold opener, before the more mundane advisories about the uneven floors and low ceilings within.  He shepherds us into the ticket office/gift shop, which serves as Scrooge’s office, where the story begins and ends.  Illuminated only by the dim light of the lantern he carries, Crouch is at once an engaging narrator, embodying Dickens’s characters and switching between them in the span of a breath.  Each one, the major players and the walk-ons, appears fully formed, vocally and physically.  We cannot help but be captivated from the get-go.

Crouch beckons us through the various sections of the Tudor barn, a surprisingly fitting backdrop to the Victorian tale, and never mind the anachronisms.  Cast into shadow, the mannequins and furnishings of the exhibits add to the overall spookiness of the event.

We traipse after Crouch from room to room, and these moments are the only instances when the pacing can flag, as we reassemble in each shady spot.  There is enough atmosphere in the building after dark to keep us in the mood.

Crouch is a consummate storyteller and actor, summoning out of Dickens’s prose a range of atmospheric scenes, running the gamut of human emotion.  Now matter how familiar you might be with the story and its countless incarnations, Crouch’s retelling renders it fresh, proving you don’t need special effects.  You don’t even need music or a change of costume, when all you’ve got it is the words of Dickens (a man who knew how to read aloud) and the spellbinding talents of a skilful storyteller.

Devised and performed by Paul Norton, this is a Christmas cracker.  Bone-chilling and heart-warming, this version reaffirms what Dickens knew: that Christmas is a time to remember the common humanity we share.  Sadly, in Tory Britain, the message is ever more pertinent.

This is the must-see show of the season, but you’ll have to be quick to grab your tickets.  The run is strictly limited and audience capacity is, by necessity, restricted.  Call Tudor World on 01789 298070 and give yourself a Christmas present.

Ebenezer Christmas Carol Portrait No Tex

 


Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

A-Christmas-Carol-production-photos_-2017_2017_Photo-by-Manuel-Harlan-_c_-RSC_236186

E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Inexplicable Elephant

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017

 

First version of the classic seasonal tale I’m seeing this year, this version’s staged by Bilston Operatic Company.  Oddly, the programme doesn’t credit any writers or composers, not even Charles Dickens.  A bit of research reveals the score is by the great Alan Menken.  I would never have guessed – it’s hardly his best work.

It’s a rather sanitised, musical version with samey songs and everything happening at the same pace, but the show is not without its merits.  There is a strong central performance from Nicholas Sullivan as the miserly Scrooge; reminiscent at first of the Child Catcher, he becomes more expressive and lively as the story unfolds.  After a seemingly interminable opening number, things ironically come to life with the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Tim Jones in a spirited performance, flying high over a chorus of zombies…)

Lydia Tidmarsh sings well as the Ghost of Christmas Past – she deserves a more supernatural entrance rather than just strolling out from behind Scrooge’s bed.  After the impressive Marley, the arrival of the other three ghosts is underplayed.

Jacob Kohli is in excellent voice as the Ghost of Christmas Present but his song becomes a weird production number in which the Victorian aesthetic is elbowed in favour of sequins, shorter skirts and tap shoes.  It is here we see an inexplicable elephant, also in a skirt.  WHY?  I can’t think for the life of me.  There is a nod to Dickens’s socialist agenda with an appearance by Ignorance and Want – sadly still rife in Tory Britain.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from a blind beggar in a hooded cloak to a kind of exotic, acrobatic performer, all veils and sequins, like a belly dancer getting married.  Again I ask WHY?  Imogen Hall is undoubtedly a lovely mover but this interpretation robs the role of the terror it must strike into Scrooge’s withered heart.

There is clearly no money in the Cratchit household for Tiny Tim to have singing lessons but Harry Lewis performs the role with such gusto, he wins us over.  Confidence is half the battle.

There is some nice character work from Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns as the Fezziwigs and an underused Sarah Houghton as Mrs Mops.

Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort but the crowd scenes lack focus – all the more important when your chorus is so populous.  On the whole though, the germ of Dickens’s perennial morality tale comes through and events reach their sentimental but satisfying conclusion in a production that tries hard, means well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

bilston carol

 


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)

 


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