Tag Archives: Christopher Hogben

A Nightingale Sings in Belgrade Plaza

MISS NIGHTINGALE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 10th February, 2016

 

It’s wartime London and posh impresario Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (played by the equally impressively double-barrelled Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) is eager to promote a new singer from Oop North around the city’s nightspots. Dubbed ‘Miss Nightingale’ because of her day job as a nurse, Maggie Brown (Clare Darcy) soon becomes the toast of the town, thanks in no small part to the innuendo-laden ditties penned for her by Polish-Jewish refugee George (Conor O’Kane). But this is not so much the story of Maggie’s rise to the top but rather the love story between the two men, who are forced to keep their relationship clandestine due to the laws of those dark days. Maggie’s spiv boyfriend Tom (Christopher Hogben) gets wind of the affair and tries to blackmail Sir Frank.

With its nightclub setting and the cast playing musical instruments, the show is very much like Cabaret – if it had been written by Victoria Wood. Miss Nightingale is more like Gracie Fields than Sally Bowles and her songs are riddled with saucy seaside postcard humour that is decidedly British. The script too has wit in abundance – book and lyrics are all the work of one man, namely Matthew Bugg (also appearing as Maggie’s soldier brother).

It’s a towering achievement and a joy from start to finish, with Coutu-Langmead spot on as the debonair toff. Equally good is O’Kane as the more overtly emotional George – it’s an excellent ensemble all round but it is Clare Darcy who gets your jaw dropping. She is astonishingly good. We marvel at the length and breadth of her talent. She can sing in a range of styles from Fields to Coward via Dietrich, as well as playing the trumpet, double bass and glockenspiel, and performing the splits on the top of an upright (piano, that is)!

The central love story is sweet and perilous – the three leads are all sympathetic while Hogben’s Tom makes an effective but not overwritten villain. We genuinely care how things will turn out. The score is top drawer; Bugg is a versatile composer and a corker of a lyricist. Particularly entertaining are The Pussy Song, The Sausage Song and I shall never think of the Pied Piper in the same light again thanks to Let Me Play On Your Pipe. There are also searing torch songs as the characters search their souls in-between Maggie’s cheeky show tunes.

Funny, touching and heart-warming, Miss Nightingale is practically perfect in terms of content and execution. Sadly, its stand-up-for-yourself message is all too relevant as we learn that places like Michigan in the so-called Land of the Free is turning its back on homosexuality. The days are still dark.

Miss N Blue Dress

Saucy songbird Clare Darcy

 

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Lacking Bite

CARMILLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th July, 2014

 

Based on a novel that predates Dracula, David Campton’s script has all the makings of a Hammer horror: the gothic 19th century setting, the pretty young girl at risk, the dashing hero… The twist is that the monster is a striking, apparently young woman who feeds off the blood of the locals, with her sights set on the pretty young girl as a long-time companion.   Horror has always used the monster to symbolise the ‘other’ in society. Here it says that sex that is not procreative, is evil, and saps the strength of those who indulge, weakening them in body and mind until they die.

Ian Dickens has assembled a fine cast for this atmospheric tale. Christopher Hogben is the dashing, resolute Captain Field and I enjoyed James Percy’s brief turn as creepy servant Ivan, clicking the heels of his magnificent boots together. Peter Amory is a gruff Colonel Smithson, a sort of Von Trapp character in a bad mood, and Paul Lavers is effective as the ostensible man of reason, Doctor Spielsberg.  Karen Ford gives solid support as the governess and Melissa Clements’s Lucy is suitably lively and engaging – until the ‘illness’ begins to take its toll.

In the title role, Michelle Morris is good as the commanding vampire, with a strident tone and a bit of Jedi mind control power in her hand. I would have liked a bit more light and shade to her or, alternatively, a little bit more camp. The production could do with a lot more camp, in fact. It’s played just a little too straight – and it’s a difficult mood to create and sustain, but all too easy to puncture. A portrait is carried on to show the likeness between Carmilla and a woman who has been dead for centuries. It looks too much like a publicity headshot rather than an oil painting of the period. The destruction of Carmilla at the end – mostly in blackout – is laughable with (SPOILER ALERT) lights up to reveal a naked skeleton lying on a tomb.

Now, if the approach had been a little more light-hearted, including the audience in the asides for example, we would forgive any clumsiness or ineffectual special effects. When Hogben comes on, in disguise as a gypsy, the show really comes back from the dead. I think the whole show should have been done with this larger-than-life gusto – we would be more willing to go along for the ride. This is the spirit, I thought, and I loved Beppo the monke

At the time when the story first appeared, vampires were brand new as a genre of popular culture. Nowadays we are all over-familiar with the lore: the mysterious marks at the side of the neck, the preventative properties of garlic… that it is nigh on impossible to scare us.

The play is therefore riddled with dramatic irony rather than suspense. Our knowledge is vastly superior to any of the characters.

Also, I would have tackled the lighting design differently. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do. More spots and candlelight would have raised the play’s game in the scary stakes. And I would have nixed the plodding tick-tock music that covers every scene transition.

A good-looking production in terms of costumes and set, Carmilla could have been an entertaining evening of comic-horror. As it stands at the moment, it’s rather bloodless and toothless.

carmilla

 


A Slow Death

LADIES IN RETIREMENT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton,Tuesday 3rd June, 2014

 

Written in the 1940s and set in the 19th century, this play by Edward Percy and Reginald Denham tells of retired actress Leonora Fiske who shares her lonely marshland home with stony-faced housekeeper and confidante Ellen Creed (Erin Geraghty).  The pair are glamorous chalk and drab and dour cheese but they rub along together nicely enough until Ellen arranges for her two aged and emotionally immature sisters for an extended visit.  The old kooks are as tiresome to the audience as they are to Miss Fiske and so we understand why she wants rid of them and sharpish.   Familial devotion gets the better of the housekeeper’s loyalty and a murder is committed.  The second half of this over-long piece is concerned with bringing the murder to light.

It’s not without its moments.  There are some amusing lines of dialogue and some members of the audience gasped audibly a number of times.  It’s just that the play takes a long time to get where it’s going – and that’s not very far.

As faded chorine, Miss Fiske, Shirley Ann Field still cuts an elegant figure, speaking with her distinctive “lived-in” voice.  Being the start of the tour, I expect the lines will settle in and the whole thing will pick up its pace.  Erin Geraghty is suitably stern as the treacherous housekeeper, and Karen Ford and Sylvia Carson do a good job as the irritating old dears, little girls in old women’s bodies.

The show really comes to life whenever Lucy the maid (Melissa Clements) and cocky geezer Albert Feather (Christopher Hogben) are on stage.  These two bring energy to their characters and their scenes, lifting us out of the doldrums.

Gradually, the drama takes hold but director Ian Dickens needs to do something about the handling of the murder that ends the first half.  A quicker blackout would be more effective and I’m not sure about the pre-recorded, protracted scream as the curtain falls.  Also, it is laughably obvious that the cast are not actually playing the on-stage piano; if it were angled differently, this could be masked to avoid our cringes and derision.

Ian Marston’s set adds to the atmosphere and period feel but this slow-burner needs an accelerant to ignite our interest earlier on.  A big hit in its day, it may be time for Ladies in Retirement to be put out to grass. 

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