Tag Archives: Coventry

Madskillz

CIRQUE BERSERK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 26th July, 2018

 

Circus has changed – evolved – since its inception by Philip Astley 250 years ago.  Exotic animals have come and gone (thank goodness) and what we have today relies solely on the skills of human performers.  Gone too is Astley’s innovative ring in this ‘made for theatre’ show.  And with no ring, there is no ringmaster; the acts follow each other unannounced, giving the show an organic feel.

The Timbuktu Tumblers from Africa get things off to a flying start.  Dressed as walk-ons from Hamilton they hurl themselves through a skipping rope then pile onto each other in a range of configurations.  In the second half, they set fire to a limbo stick, setting the bar high – or rather, lowering it at increments.  They’re an engaging bunch and I look forward to seeing them later in the year at the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime.

Luciana Gabriel and Carina treat us to a display of bolas spinning, to dazzling and percussive effect.  I can only think of the bruises they must have incurred during training!

Our clowns for the evening are a double-act from Brazil, the Mustache Brothers – imagine if Charlie Cairoli had sired the Super Mario Brothers and you get some idea.  Their make-up is subtle if their expressions are not. Their dumb-show antics are charming and, yes, funny, involving a ladder, a bucket of smoke, and a table.  The universal language of slapstick speaks to us all.

Other acts that impress are aerialists Rosey and Jackie, Odka, a contortionist who arrives on stage in a jar, unfolds herself and performs archery with her feet.  The Tropicana Troupe from Cuba use a platform, a seesaw and a crash mat to gobsmack us all, their deadpan expressions making them all the more camp.  Toni the Czech knife thrower is the most traditional act of the night; the brave woman who stands unflinchingly before him amazes me the most.  I also enjoy Laci Fossett and his aerial pole work, Germaine Delbosq who juggles on her back, using her feet to manipulate a cube, a cylinder and a ring while her hands deal with balls, Zula with his tower of chairs…  I would have liked more to be made of the flame-throwing robot.

The big finale for both halves concerns the ‘Globe of Death’ a spherical cage into which a man on a motorbike enters and rides around.  He is followed by a second.  And then a girl goes and stands in there with them.  The heady smell of petrol fills the auditorium – I spend the second half in a kind of awe-inspired daze, so by the time the globe reappears for the big finish, topping the feats of the first act, I am well away.  Perhaps too, the interval wine had something to do with it.

The upshot is a spectacularly entertaining evening.  Creative director Julius Green keeps things seamless, with contrasting acts and moods so nothing feels tired or repetitive.  In these days of commonplace CGI effects in just about everything, it is refreshing and thrilling to see real people perform these skills before your very eyes.  Cirque Berserk is non-stop entertainment, lacking the pretentiousness of other troupes I could mention.  Costumes of a bygone age blend with costumes from faraway places in a thoroughly contemporary setting, showing that the circus is still alive and well.  It’s solid fun for all the family and you can’t help admiring the hell out of everyone involved.

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On target: Odka (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

 

 

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A Nudge To Arms

TRYING IT ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Friday 8th June, 2018

 

At the grand age of 70, playwright David Edgar turns performer for the first time in this self-penned piece that blends autobiographical material and interviews with fellow activists, people who were active (for want of a better word) in the student movement of 1968 and beyond.  A survey of the political landscape of the past fifty years, a potted life story, and history lesson, the play’s didactic elements are leavened by humour and theatrical devices: Edgar converses with himself at age 20 via a voice from an antiquated cassette player; ‘stage manager’ Danielle Phillips upbraids him for his shortcomings, his dated language, his previous dismissal of feminism… It’s a searing attack that Edgar takes on the chin – the left has always been prone to bickering and in-fighting.  Indeed, the Labour party today is chronically divided, even if it has veered away from socialistic ideals and is squabbling over centrist pursuits.

It is a cliché that people become more right-wing as age withers them.  It is shocking to realise that the hard-won changes in legislation regarding race, gender, and gay rights were fought for by the same generation that largely voted for Brexit.  What happened to them?  Surely it is more than the ageing process?  Edgar attempts to enlighten us on this point and it’s a s sobering as it is entertaining.  He’s an engaging presence, seemingly effortless in his fascinating discourse.  The altercation with Phillips creates tension – this is no cosy lecture – and we are made to think for ourselves and our own position, as the world turns backwards and the progress we have made is threatened with erasure.

There is a lot to take in and ruminate over here.  It’s amusing, insightful and dismaying all at once, although there is a sense that Edgar is preaching to a choir of liberals, people who willingly and regularly attend the theatre and regard it as an arena for social commentary and change.  Perhaps we will be shaken from our comfortable complacency, our classical music and our Waitrose cuisine, and take up the cause to continue the fight before the political gains we have made are lost.  This is in addition to the long way we have still to go.

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Repeat Offender

FLEABAG

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 9th May, 2018

 

It’s a real treat to be able to see Maddie Rice reprise the hit one-woman show, three years since I first enjoyed it in Birmingham.  Since then, the TV version starring the show’s writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge materialised, opening the show out to six half-hour episodes – each of them brilliant, but it is refreshing to return to the original format of just over an hour, one actor, one chair… The simplicity of the presentation is deceptive.  This is a highly sophisticated piece of storytelling, and Waller-Bridge’s script still feels fresh and funny as ever.

Rice interacts with pre-recorded voices at times but mostly she delivers both sides of a range of conversations, switching in and out of characters in the blink of an eye, while providing asides as narrator.  It’s a dazzling display with precision and impeccable comic timing.  Rice is expressive in many ways.  Sometimes it’s a look, a mere shift of the eyeballs.  Sometimes it’s her entire stance.  Director Vicky Jones ensures it’s always the optimum expression, pacing the exchanges to perfection, allowing for reaction time among the snappy delivery and moments of reflection among the rapid-fire anecdotes.  Elliott Griggs’s subtle lighting signals shifts in mood, location and timeline.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny stuff as our narrator, seemingly without filter, recounts her experiences, sexual and otherwise, and yet it’s as endearing as it is outrageous.  Amid the funny stories, tragedy and pathos surface as we learn of mistakes made and we come to understand the excesses of her behaviour, the destructive spiral she is in.

The hour flies by in Rice’s entertaining company and virtuoso performance, and I’m left trying to think of a better one-person show, and I fail to come up with one that comes close.

My original review from 2015 can be found here.

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Funny girl: Maddie Rice

 


Hired and Fired-Up

THE HIRED MAN

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 4th May, 2018

 

If Thomas Hardy upped sticks and moved north to Cumbria (or Cumberland, as it was known then) the chances are he would have come up with something very like Melvyn Bragg’s family saga about farm-workers and miners near Cockermouth.  There is plenty of Hardyesque bonhomie among the lower orders, strife from the owners, plus most crucially, a love triangle.

Ian Page is John, the eponymous hired man, newlywed to Emily (Jenne Rhys-Williams).  Page has a striking tenor voice and comes into his own later in the story with a plaintive song about his son.  Rhys-Williams, as female lead, bears the emotional brunt of the story, singing the gamut of feelings in a moving portrayal.  The couple is supported by lively turns from Anya McCutcheon as daughter May, and Will Page as stubborn son Harry.

Thom Stafford (no relation) is eminently likeable as John’s hedonistic brother Isaac, contrasting nicely with Gavin Whichello’s Seth, the other, more principled brother, trying to stir up interest in a miners’ union.

The rest of the ensemble get their moments too.  There is pleasing character work from Julian Bissell as the landowner and other roles; Ralph Toppin-Mackenzie as a vicar; Iona Cameron’s Sally gets a lovely duet with Emily about prospective lovers…

Mark Shaun Walsh is magnificent as the handsome, caddish Jackson Pennington, brimming with emotional intensity and vocal power.  His scenes with Rhys-Williams are electrifying, his characterisation so engaging, we care about the character’s fate, despite his transgressions.

Director Kirsteen Stafford (no relation either) works her ensemble of 12 hard and to great effect.  Group scenes are handled well and there are moments of brilliance: a slow-motion fight between John and Jackson while Emily emotes through song is particularly well realised (with fight direction by Thom Stafford).

Howard Goodall’s rich, stirring and moving score is performed by just two musicians.  Musical director Chris Davis and Maddy Evans sound like more than two, delivering all the colours of the music, achieving great variety in tone within a unifying piano-and-violin based sound.  The ensemble singing is beautiful where it needs to be, and rousing and atmospheric as the story demands.  Chris Lamb’s emblematic set evokes farm fences, pubs, the trenches… in an economic but versatile design.

It’s an involving, melodramatic piece with some good tunes, excellently presented, managing to be both intimate and epic in scale.  We get the sense of family and marital strife (universals) against the backdrop of a changing world – oh yes, the First World War rears its ugly and unnecessary head too, changing lives and circumstances forever.  It’s very moving too – expect to come away with wet cheeks!

Great stuff!

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Crooning Glory

CROONERS

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 29th March, 2018

 

As the curtain opens, a David Attenborough-type voiceover introduces us to that rare and endangered species, the crooner, inviting us to observe them in their natural habitat, namely being on stage with a band.  The three specimens presented to us look curiously British, in an old school type of way: bowler hats, tweed jackets and so on.  They each sport an elaborate and not-to-mention false moustache.  A dapper trio, indeed.  We meet Charlie (Roman Marek, who has also written and directed the show), Rupert (Phil Barley) who has something of Lord Lucan to him, and Winston (Jim Whitley) who proves to be the most proficient dancer of the troupe.

The premise is the crooners need to find mates in order to perpetuate their vanishing species and this is the trigger for banter-aplenty with the audience.  It’s good-natured ribbing and the humorous exchanges between the musical numbers are saucy rather than vulgar.  The trio exudes oodles of charm and generates an abundance of fun.  Their urbane cheekiness is irresistible.

The set list is rich with standards.  Come Fly With Me, Fly Me To The Moon, On The Street Where You Live – it’s all solid Rat Pack fare, and the three voices blend marvellously.  They each get solo spots: Charlie’s Frank Sinatra is particularly good but I loved Rupert’s tipsy Dean Martin.  Winston’s Sammy Davis Jr gives us a show-stopping Mr Bojangles.

Some of the jokes are even older than the songs but Roman Marek’s Benny Hill naughty-boyishness pulls them off, and he is an accomplished physical comedian.  There are many moments of undiluted delight.  The second half opens with the men in their underwear.  They perform a reverse strip-tease, getting dressed to music, donning the familiar black-tie attire of this kind of affair.

The band is magnificent and tireless: The Mini Big Band, a ten-piece combo of hot brass, cool sax, rocking drums and moody piano, under the musical direction of Chris and Jon Hibbard.  They underscore, accompany and participate in the action, but above all, sound fantastic.

Oh yes, there’s also tap-dancing, the kind of choreography old Brucie was doing right up until the end.

Utterly enjoyable, entertaining and hilarious, Crooners is a joy from start to finish.

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Pip pip! Phil Barley, Roman Marek and Jim Whitley

 

 


The Bees’ Knees

HONEY

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd March, 2018

 

When you behold a patchwork quilt, you see it at first as a whole.  Then you might move on to look closely at individual patches, and then how they relate to their neighbours.  Such is the fabric of Tiffany Hosking’s sweet and rich new play, named for the produce of Anwen’s bees, but quite easily the play could be renamed or subtitled, How To Make A Welsh Quilt.

Bossy Anwen (Vey Straker) focusses on making the quilt, piecing together hexagons (like a honeycomb!) while her husband is away.  She hopes he is doing his job (defusing bombs!) rather than shacking up with another woman.  Her 22-year-old son Caron (Callan Durrant) is autistic.  He watches Happy Feet on repeat and expresses himself through idiosyncratic choreography (by Lizie Gireudeaux); meanwhile Anwen’s tattoo artist sister Celandine (Jemma Lewis) strives to help out, longing to be loved and for a child of her own.  Also in the picture is their half-sister Armes (Jenni Lea Jones) whom Anwen shuns.  Everyone is superb but Lea Jones really plucks at the heartstrings, and Lewis’s sardonic humour has us in stitches, so to speak.  Durrant is a lovely mover, compelling in his silence, but Straker’s Anwen is the heart of the piece.

It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully played by all and the writing is gorgeous.  Hosking also directs, stitching together a range of styles to make a cohesive whole.  For the most part, it’s naturalistic albeit in a stylised setting: three stacks of boxes represent the beehives but these come apart and are reconfigured to suggest furniture and fixtures of different locations: a post office counter, for example, or tables in the pub… Characters address other characters that we don’t see or hear, in one-sided conversations.  Most revealing, the characters will visit the bees to tell them their news and innermost thoughts (it’s a Thing, apparently), in monologues addressed to the audience.  The action in non-linear but we piece together the timeline, the cause and effect of actions and events.  Gentle drama laced with gentle humour becomes something quietly profound and ultimately touching.  Caron discloses to the bees, in the only instance of him saying anything, that the very chemicals responsible for the decline of their kind may be responsible for the surge in autism – the play’s political point, there, but generally it’s about family and community and connections.  It has much to do with tradition but also feels completely fresh and of the now.  I adored it and audiences should swarm to see it.

The play begins and ends with the same scene: Anwen proudly displaying the completed quilt to the bees, wrapping the story in a neat package and making the show as warming as any such blanket.

honey


Full of the Devil

LIVING WITH THE LIGHTS ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 1st November, 2017

 

I am welcomed into the temporary, pop-up theatre by writer-performer Mark Lockyer.  He shakes my hand and invites me to get a cup of tea and a hobnob.  This informal, cosy beginning gives nothing away of what is to come.   When the audience is all in and settled, Lockyer begins properly, shedding his genial, corporate trainer demeanour to tell us his story – and it is his story.  What follows is a searing account of his experiences but this is no chummy recollection of theatrical anecdotes.  His time at the Royal Shakespeare Company features, of course, including a manic episode as Mercutio.  But Lockyer is more of a Macbeth, his sanity unravelling before our very eyes.

The storytelling is energised, volatile even.  The incidents related are increasingly chaotic and destructive.  When he tells us he has met the Devil, we believe him although SURELY it must be a metaphor for something-or-other.  We are not sure…

Tapping into a long-held cultural tradition of using devils and demons as personifications of mental illness, Lockyer weaves a searing tale of calamity.  In a blistering performance, he gives us a tour of his personal hell.  It’s gripping stuff, sometimes shocking, often funny, always compelling.  Director Ramin Gray keeps Lockyer on the move, making sure the range of characters that populate the story are clearly differentiated, and the tone of the piece forever changing.  There is light and dark here, humour and tension.

More than a showcase for his skills, more even than a confessional, this autobiographical show is a clarion call for more talk about mental health and better provision of services.  The lack of beds in psychiatric wards is a running motif in Lockyer’s story.  Importantly, he shows us that even the lowest point is not the end; you can come back from it, you can learn to live with manic depression, rampant paranoia and so on.  You can live with the lights on.

Lockyer has beaten his demon into submission.  Others can too.  The importance of bringing issues of mental health into the open is more than a hot topic.  For many, it is a matter of life and death.

This important show from the Actors Touring Company deserves a much wider audience.  Cancel your plans and head to Warwick Arts Centre.  Living With The Lights On is playing there for the rest of this week.  It’s a blistering piece of theatre with something crucial to say.

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