Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021
It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…
Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage. A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.
Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes. Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work. It’s a stonking characterisation.
The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm. The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow. There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us. It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.
Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection. Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range. You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.
With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.
It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018
Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies. The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her. She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages. Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont. Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.
There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries. This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before. The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.
Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going. At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat. It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested. Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.
Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.
That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017
Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.
Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world. In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites. First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping. Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance. He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.
Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave. This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth. Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.
Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.
Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night. Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!
There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style. Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).
Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms. Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit. It’s not the plots we come for but the playing. And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.
Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)
The first thing that strikes you about this production of Jim Cartwright’s comedy is the set. Designer Colin Richmond gives us a skeletal house, a two-up-two-down framework that revolves between scenes, often with the characters in residence. It’s a remarkable construction in which to house the action – and there are further surprises: the electrics are on the blink, plunging the inhabitants into power cuts, and later, there is a house fire… The setting perfectly supports and enhances the performance style. There is a heightened quality to Cartwright’s dialogue and larger-than-life aspects to the characterisations.
Vicky Entwistle is on great form as Mari, a brash, coarse, loudmouth, mutton dressed as pork kind of woman, fond of a drink and lurching from man to man. In the opening scenes, she browbeats her shy and withdrawn daughter in what is tantamount to an extended monologue. It’s very funny and often vulgar – Mari could have dropped out of a copy of Viz magazine, and Entwistle is relentless in her energetic portrayal. In contrast, Nancy Sullivan as the much-harangued daughter L.V. is quiet, taciturn and self-conscious. When Mari brings home latest fella, Ray (Chris Gascoyne) and a power cut allows them to hear L.V. singing in her room, perfectly replicating Judy Garland, Ray (who turns out to be a showbiz agent, wouldn’t you know it?) decides to string Mari along so he can have access to the daughter and exploit her remarkable talent as a vocal impressionist. If only the girl was willing to go along with his plans, and actually set foot outside the house.
L.V.’s world becomes a little bigger when she attracts the attention of Billy (Tendayi Jembere) who is equally shy but forced from his shell by his attraction to her. Jembere is endearing as Billy, whose confidence grows along with the contact he has with L.V. Gascoyne is deliciously monstrous as the smarmy user, winkling L.V. out of her bedroom, and there is a hilarious comic turn from Joanna Brookes as Mari’s faithful and much-derided neighbour Sadie. Brendan Charleson is good value as club-owner Mr Boo, struggling to tame his Northern club audience, but inevitably, the performance of the night comes from Nancy Sullivan who is utterly remarkable as L.V. She delivers a medley of songs: Bassey, Piaf, Garland, Holliday, Monroe (Marilyn not Matt!)… and that is jaw-dropping, but then even more gobsmacking is an emotional outburst in which she switches from impression to impression mid-sentence. It’s like zapping between television channels. Never mind Little Voice’s small-scale foray into showbiz, Sullivan must surely be on her way to stardom.
Director James Brining keeps energy levels high throughout and Cartwright’s script crackles like the flames that lick at the house. The second act runs a little long, it feels, but when we reach L.V.’s finale, a valedictory rendition of This Is My Life, we are with her all the way, as she brings the house down.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 15th January 2014
Ella Hickson has adapted J M Barrie’s classic tale for this family-oriented fare – giving us a straight play rather than yet another pantomime version. Giving Wendy first billing in the title sets the tone: this is an updated version in terms of content if not setting. There are no mermaids, no what would have been called ‘Red Indians’ – instead we get Tiger Lily as an urban Amazon warrior… Wendy (an earnest Fiona Button) serious and bossy even when she’s supposed to be having fun, asserts herself, learning to go beyond the expectations of her gender imposed on her by a patriarchal society. Well, good for her. It just seems a little laboured at times.
Where this production works best is when J M Barrie’s hand is still detectable. The plot structure is unaltered, although there is the addition of a fourth Darling child whose demise in the early moments of the play is excellently handled and very moving. Kudos to actor Colin Ryan who establishes a likeable character in a few deft strokes. The story becomes Wendy’s quest to get her lost boy brother back, blaming herself for his illness – she neglected to sew a button on his pyjamas.
Where it falls short and breaks its own magic spell is with the dialogue which lurches from passable Edwardian English to contemporary slang. Mrs Darling telling her husband to ‘bog off’ just ain’t right, however empowered and suffragette-y she might have become.
Peter Pan himself (Sam Swann) looks the part and moves with grace and energy, lifted and held aloft by a chorus of his ‘shadows’, a troupe of ghostly pallbearers. Of course at times ropes and wires are involved but the workings of his flight are never hidden from us. It’s about make-believe and imagination after all. Some of his lines make you cringe. I understand the updated dialogue might engage a young audience but it robs the play of some of its ‘otherness’ and magical qualities.
Charlotte Mills’s Tinkerbell is a big surprise, sounding like Kathy Burke with none of the finesse. It is easy to imagine her propping up the bar at the Queen Vic, her tiny wings part of a raucous hen night uniform.
The crocodile is also a surprise – and a disappointing one. Arthur Kyeyune is a skilled physical performer but his ‘crocodile’ is no more than a man in a top hat and long coat, creeping and stalking around, holding a clock. Imagine Baron Samedi meeting Flava Flav. As a symbol of Hook’s impending mortality he is rather disturbing (he is also the doctor who attends the dying Darling) but how can they not show us a crocodile? Given the beauty and invention of the rest of Colin Richmond’s design work for this production, this is very unsatisfying. On the other hand, Hook’s pirate ship is wonderfully impressive, a storybook galleon with a giant skull and skeleton hands as figurehead, gliding and revolving across the stage.
Hook (an enjoyable Guy Henry) is less aristocratic than he is usually portrayed. There are hints at the tragedy of the human condition here as he despises and envies the lost boys their youth. But without a proper crocodile, his demise is a letdown. His interactions with Gregory Gudgeon’s Smee lighten the mood and break the fourth wall more effectively than Pan’s appeal for applause to resurrect his fairy friend.
Visually engaging, occasionally touching, Wendy & Peter Pan takes itself a little too seriously at times, too heavy-footed to really get off the ground.
Hook (Guy Henry) and Smee (Gregory Gudgeon) set sail. Photo: Manuel Harlan.