Tag Archives: Conrad Nelson

Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

Anna

Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)

 

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Winning by a Nose

CYRANO

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

 

The New Vic has teamed up with Northern Broadsides for this new version of the classic romance by Edmond Rostand.  Writer Deborah McAndrew cleverly keeps the play as a verse drama – it’s not just rhyming couplets and doggerel; it’s a technical achievement in itself, let alone its faithfulness to the original while having an altogether fresh feel.  It’s her best work yet.

Director Conrad Nelson blends naturalism with more heightened moments – the changes in pace and tone of each act are handled to perfection.  We laugh, we love, we cry – in all the right places.  Nelson has also composed the score, performed by the ensemble of actor-musicians, that adds to the period feel and the emotional impact of each act.  Led for the most part by Michael Hugo’s Ligniere, the music casts its spell as much as the story and the characters.  Hugo is such an appealing presence as the minstrel – I also enjoy his ham actor Monfleury, heckled off the stage by the eponymous Cyrano.

Christian Edwards in the title role is outstanding – and I don’t just mean his massive conk.  He is everything you could wish for in a Cyrano de Bergerac.  Swaggering, witty, charming, brave and selfless.  Edwards plays it with panache, literally and figuratively.  He is supported by a team of excellent players: Sharon Singh is an elegant Roxane, headstrong and independent – worthy of Cyrano’s devotion.  Adam Barlow is the handsome but dim Christian, the third point of the love triangle – he contrasts nicely with Cyrano’s erudition and we can’t help but see how sweet he is.  Andy Cryer’s De Guiche changes our opinion – we see there’s more to him than the figure lampooned by Ligniere.  Paul Barnhill’s poetic pastry-purveyor Ragueneau, Perry Moore’s prancing ponce Valvert, Jessica Dyas’s sardonic Mrs Ragueneau, Francesca Mills’s busybody Sister Martha, all help to populate the story with a wide range of characters, different facets of humanity – Rostand has respect for all walks of life and yet he makes Cyrano seem more human than all of us.  Especially touching is Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, his heart breaking to see Cyrano’s decline.

Lis Evans’s design is stylish – the stage floor is beautiful – and the New Vic’s costume department has pulled out all the stops for the 17th century setting.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting emulates the soft glow of the chandeliers with the occasional shaft of brightness – like Cyrano’s wit, enlivening the gloom.

Cyrano’s panache tickles the funny bone before plunging into your heart.  I know it’s only February but already I think I might have seen the show of the year.

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“You don’t have to put on the red light…” Cyrano (Christian Edwards) and Roxane (Sharon Singh)  Photo: Steve Bould


Sounds Horrible

DRACULA

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th March, 2015

 

Director Theresa Heskins has adapted the Bram Stoker novel fairly faithfully for this brand new production – most of the main characters are here and all the key scenes but what lifts this version above and beyond the main pre-existing others is…well, everything.

The stage is darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not only does this lend a creepy atmosphere but it focusses our hearing. Sound is brought to the fore in the form of sound effects, performed live by the cast – we’ve all seen footage of radio drama being recorded or sound effects being added to a film soundtrack. At first, as the effects support the mime of the actors, you look up to their workbenches to see how the sounds are produced, but after a while, you let that go as the action draws you in. Sound designers James Earl-Davis and Alex Day are certainly inventive and undeniably ‘effect’-ive. Also, the eerie music and atonal soundscapes of brilliant composer James Atherton create an unsettling mood, as evocative as they are unnerving.

An excellent Isaac Stanmore is a lively Jonathan Harker, arriving at Castle Dracula, and our narrator. Light and dark create doorways – as with radio drama, the scenery is left to our imagination. Daniella Beattie’s lighting is precise and sharp, using chiaroscuro like an Old Master to illuminate or keep in shadow. With horror, it’s not so much what is shown as what remains hidden. And what we don’t see, we hear. That sound may really be a fork plunging into half a cabbage or whatever, but to our engaged imaginations, it is something much, much worse.

From his first entrance, Jack Klaff’s Dracula casts a long shadow – just as the character does over the rest of the proceedings. He stalks around the stage at a steady pace, intoning his lines without melodrama. That famous line about the “children of the night” is absolutely chilling here – Heskins has successfully avoided all notions of the camp and the kitsch. The well-worn story comes across as something entirely fresh. Klaff, with his snow-white hair and his exotic vocal tones embodies menace. His three brides (Hazel Lam, Sophie Morris, and Rebecca Rennison) bring Gothic eroticism in their seduction of Jonathan Harker, shinning up lengths of rope and silk and contorting themselves in mid-air. It’s rather spectacular but the work of ‘aerial director’ Vicki Amedume really packs a visual punch in the second act, when Dracula, now younger and revitalised and Jonathan Charles, hovers over Mina’s bed, slowly swooping down to her in hypnotic silence. Absolutely stunning.

Charles also moves with inhuman grace – his Dracula is not like us at all, and more animalistic than Klaff’s elder statesman.

Jasmine Blackborow is Lucy, full of girlish verve until the Count sinks his fangs into her. Her transformation into an undead wraith is superbly realised and so is her execution with a stake to the heart. Here sound and visuals combine in a moment of sheer horror. And yet there is nary a flash of fang or a drop of blood – Heskins keeps those details in our minds, and there’s nowhere scarier than one’s one mind.

New Vic stalwart Ali Watt’s Dr Seward has an emotive outburst, while John O’Mahony’s Professor Van Helsing maintains a sort of calm urgency. Sarah Schoenbeck’s Mina, ostensibly the damsel in distress, has an inner strength and an appeal that goes beyond her character’s function in the plot. Indeed, the whole ensemble is top notch – even the unseen Renfield, played (vocally) to the hilt by Conrad Nelson. Scenes are interspersed with recorded snatches of the lunatic’s case, as a counterpoint to the main action, a scientific examination to contrast with the supernatural events as they unfold. Unfortunately there is no pay-off for Renfield – the extracts don’t really go anywhere.

Tables and beds, formed of black blocks, rise and sink into the stage floor, the trap doors yawning like graves… There are many things about this production, both in form and in content, that will stay with me for a long time. Heskins has triumphed yet again in this departure from her usual style and has created a piece that is truly memorable, creepy and above all, beautiful.

Jack Klaff

Jack Klaff


A Matter of Death and Life

THE GRAND GESTURE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 29th October, 2013

 

Northern Broadside bring their loose adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide to the New Vic – the action has been translated to a vague representation of the North West of England – but do not let my use of words like ‘loose’ and ‘vague’ put you off.  Everything about this production is spot on.

The plot concerns Simeon Duff, depressed from long-term unemployment, his male pride dented because his wife is the breadwinner.  Whatever he tries (a scene in which he attempts to teach himself to play the tuba is particularly funny) comes to naught, flinging him from the mania of hope to the despair of failure.  He decides to kill himself and it is at this point that he becomes worth something to people – people who try to appropriate his suicide as a ‘grand gesture’ to further their own causes.  He is touted as a martyr for the revolution, or a martyr for the church – among other things.  His unscrupulous landlord is cashing in, offering sponsorship deals of the big event.

Angela Bain almost steals the show as Duff’s mother-in-law, with her constant appeals to the saints for assistance, her malapropisms and her physical comedy.  All the performances are heightened in a larger-than-life world.  Robert Pickavance as intellectual Victor Stark is particularly mannered (and hilarious) and other notable mentions go to Alan McMahon as the priest with a propensity for drink and off-colour poetry, and to Howard Chadwick as wheeler-dealer landlord Al Bush. Samantha Robinson brings emotional intensity as Duff’s wife  but above all the play offers leading man Michael Hugo a chance to showcase his considerable talents.  Duff is a tricky role in that we laugh at him but we are not laughing at his plight, but rather the absurdity of his situation.  Hugo pitches it perfectly, the rubber-faced reactions, the physicality of the character in all his moods – the performance is heightened but the man’s anguish seems genuine, within the context of the play.  By the end, he has become an Everyman, and his speech on the nature of Life is particularly hard-hitting and affirming.

Conrad Nelson directs with an eye for detail and timing to make the comedy as sharp as it is broad.  Deborah McAndrew’s wonderful script (so good I bought the book) is laden with double entendres and gags, but there are also plenty of literary references (to Blake and Burns, for example) that give the farcical elements some depth.  I also detected a hint of Alan Bleasdale here and there. Another strong point is the social commentary.  The play touches on the mental health of the long-term unemployed and how they are not seen as people but as statistics, mascots for whatever cause you might embrace.

With its wit, energised performances and the added bonus of some lovely singing, The Grand Gesture all makes for a grand night’s entertainment.

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Embracing the cause: Robert Pickavance and Michael Hugo


SENTINEL review: Talking Heads

SENTINEL review: Talking Heads

TALKING HEADS

New Vic Theatre, Friday 25th January, 2013

Here is my review for the opening night of the New Vic’s new production of Alan Bennett’s classic monologues.