Tag Archives: Crescent Theatre Birmingham

Stella Performance

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019

 

When she has nowhere else to go, fading Southern belle Blanche Du Bois rocks up at her sister’s seedy place in the ironically named Elysian Fields – her sojourn turns out to be more like a visit to Hades.  From the get-go, playwright Tennessee Williams indicates that all is not how it seems, making us privy to the lies Blanche tells others about how little she drinks.  It then becomes a matter of time for her sordid secrets to come to light, and in true Williams tradition, for the spectre of homosexuality to rear its degenerate head (although it is only ever implied).

As Blanche, Annie Swift captures the airs and graces of the role, keeping the mannerisms and declarations on the right side of camp, lest the character become a laughingstock.  As the fantasies with which Blanche shields herself are stripped away, she becomes increasingly unable to cope with grim reality, resulting in mental decline.  Doing the bulk of the stripping is brutish brother-in-law Stanley (Ollie Jones) a domineering primate, bully and domestic abuser.  Jones is fine in the role; his Stanley has a sharpness rather than a brooding quality.  Beth Gilbert is excellent as the put-upon but feisty Stella, the bridge between her sister and her husband, between Blanche’s former life and this new, unwelcome and unsettling one.

There is strong support from Nicole Poole as Eunice and James Browning as Steve, a couple of neighbours.  Even the most minor roles make an impression:  for example, Destiny Sond as a neighbour, and Patrick Shannon as a young man making charity collections.  Joe Palmer is altogether splendid as Harold Mitchell, the antithesis of Stanley, all politeness and good manners – until he can’t have what he wants.

The production is enhanced considerably by sultry lighting (designed by Patrick McCool and Chris Briggs) casting horizontal shadows across the scene, while vibrant sunsets paint the window.  Andrew Cowie and Ray Duddin’s sound design, so effective at creating atmosphere of the street (we can hear the eponymous transport!), really comes into its own during moments when Blanche is becoming unhinged and we hear what’s going on in her increasingly deluded state.

James David Knapp’s direction creates some lovely moments of tension around the table, and the outbursts of violence are neatly handled.  Everything comes together for a blistering final act, and we are left to consider who has it worse: Blanche being taken away or Stella left behind with a man who doesn’t stop short of sexual violence.  Blanche’s troubles stem from the realisation that her husband was ‘a degenerate’ – everything she has done since his suicide has been leading her to this slippery slope, captivatingly portrayed here by Annie Swift and a powerful ensemble.

 

streetcar

 

 


Act of Remembrance

POPPYFIELDS The Musical

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019

 

This new show from Dreamworks Productions arrives in Birmingham in good time for Remembrance Sunday.  After four years of centenary commemorations, when the First World War was at the forefront of our minds, it is important to keep the ball rolling 101 years since the Armistice, and 102 and 103… you get what I’m saying.  The trick is, with a glut of material out there, to present ideas in a new way while at the same time respecting the reality and meeting audience expectations.  It’s a big ask.

John Howard’s script focusses on a love story between mild-mannered man of principle from the working class with the daughter of the local gentry, a star-cross’d lovers deal with the class divide like a trench between them.  He, our protagonist, glories in the unlikely name of Tommy Gunn, and no matter how many times he is beaten to a pulp by warmongering peers, he is adamant he will not harm his fellow man.  She, our leading lady, Elizabeth, is involved in the movement for women’s suffrage and is not shy to speak out against her snooty, authoritarian father (David Wright, who later doubles as a German captive).  There’s a subplot about Tommy’s best mate Freddie getting his lady-friend Maisie up the duff, leading to a hasty wedding, before, wouldn’t you know it, the lads are conscripted and sent off “on ‘oliday to Flanders”.

There is everything you expect: white feathers, lovers parting, underage conscripts, write-every-day, and over-by-Christmas, delivered with conviction by the mainly young cast.  As Tommy, Tom Scott shows us the courage of a man going against the tide to stick to his morals, contrasting with his nervousness of chatting to a girl for the first time.  Daniella Williams’s Elizabeth has fire in her belly, a modern woman ahead of her time.  Jack Henderson brings humour and immense appeal as Freddie, while Jodie Welch’s Maisie is endearing – there is a duet at their wedding which is especially effective.

There is some excellent character work from Derek Willis, first as bleating army officer Carruthers, and later as good-humoured Welshman Taffy in the trenches.  Alex Tompkinson makes an impression as Harry, a fourteen-year-old who lies his way into the war; likewise Ellie Pugh as Tommy’s sister Tilly attempting to enlist disguised as a boy; and I also enjoy Molly Jane Cheesman as Tommy’s mum – especially in her spat with Emily Walker as Lady Victoria.  The strong cast bring the material to life beyond the scope of its clichés.

The score, however, is a weakness of the production.  If you’re going to use contemporary arrangements and pop-style singing, you have to be consistent.  The modern sound will link the period story to the present, showing that people then are just like people now, so we can identify with their losses.  Here though, new songs in a modern idiom are uneasy bedfellows with more traditional-sounding numbers, including standard tunes like Men Of Harlech (a rousing rendition by the Suffragettes) and the almost obligatory Pack Up Your Troubles.  It is the older-sounding songs that come over best and give authenticity to the piece.  There is no defining ‘voice’ to the music, probably due to the long list of songwriters credited in the programme.

Also, there are scenes crying out for songs.  The Gunn family get one, to establish their cheery working-class deprivation; the Fitzgeralds in the big house don’t.  The scene where the lads enlist could be set to music… This is a musical that needs more music, and music that has a consistent sound.  And it’s a shame because the dramatic side of proceedings delivers some hugely powerful moments.  We are given the humanity of the characters – they are more than mindboggling statistics – and the rousing finale goes beyond the fictional community singing about their boys, to all of us in the real world and the debt we all owe.

As it stands, the show has potential.  To realise it, it needs to pick a musical style and run with it.  Personally, I prefer the period-style numbers; the others are, dare I say it, too ‘poppy’.

poppyf

 

 


Table Talk

THIS HAPPY BREED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th July, 2019

 

Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time.  We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time.  In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.

At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life.  Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly.  Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint.  The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).

As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi.  Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter.  Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part.  Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.

It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.

Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production.  The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move.  It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change.  Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.

The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at.  Progress isn’t always a good thing.

A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.

happy breed

Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood


All’s Fairy in Love and War

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 9th June, 2019

 

The Crescent’s summer touring production this year is Shakespeare’s enduring romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, and I am lucky enough to catch an indoor performance rather than brave the vagaries of the British summer!

This is an enjoyable, accessible production – Director Georgina Evans opts for modern-dress on a simple set of slender branches and fairy lights; although, I do find the draconian laws of Athens at odds with the familiarity of the attire.  I think more needs to be made of the sheer unreasonableness of the patriarchy here (Marry whom I tell you to or be celibate for the rest of your life) and poor Hermia (Charlotte Thompson) needs to be more terrified/upset/resentful/what-have-you at the onset, so that when Lysander (the excellent Jacob Williams) steps forward with an escape plan, it comes as more of a relief, a desperate measure for desperate times.  Hold up, I did say this is a comedy… In Shakespeare, a comedy is where the problems of the drama are overcome by the characters (as opposed to tragedy, where the characters are overcome by the problems).  After this dark and severe (and potentially tragic) opening, the fun and frolics in the forest should come as sharper contrast.  Evans has an eye for comic business, and it’s the little details, the interplay, the fleeting expressions, that bring the joy to this production.

Ollie Jones is Duke Theseus – he warms into the role as the play goes on, lacking the imperious tones and power of Andrew Cowie’s magnificent fairy king Oberon (special mention to Angela Daniels for his striking costume and headdress).  Aimee Ferguson is a subdued Hippolyta, yet this conquered Amazon is not shy to express her views, through action, while Shady Murphy’s Titania is a dynamic presence.  Les Stringer brings gravitas as the unreasonable Egeus, softening into a kind of Polonius figure when he is finally overruled by the Duke.

Charlotte Thompson has her moments as Hermia – particularly the slanging match with Jessica Shannon’s marvellous Helena.  Jordan Bird is a pleasing Demetrius, vying with Jacob Williams’s Lysander – both do the lovestruck fool bit rather well.  Dayna Bateman is thoroughly charming as the hardworking Puck, whose meddling in mortal affairs does not always go to plan.

The Mechanicals are a likeable bunch, led by ‘Rita’ Quince (Nicole Poole) with Scott Wilson’s Flute blossoming into a sublimely ridiculous Thisbe, towering over a diminutive Pyramus (Crescent stalwart James David Knapp having a crack at Bottom, so to speak).  Knapp’s comic instincts are sound and I’d say he could afford to be even more bullish as Bottom dominates the group’s rehearsals.

While there are some line-readings that don’t quite come across, on the whole everyone handles the language rather well and with conviction, which is no mean feat when there are scenes comprised of rhyming couplets.  Of course, the play-within-a-play provides the most laughs – it’s one of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare, in all theatre, probably, and the company do an excellent, raucous job with it.  There’s a lovely celebratory feel to the closing moments and a rousing song to finish.  Funny and sweet, the show would perhaps benefit from starker contrast between the dark and light to intensify the impact of both.

bottom

Top Bottom: James David Knapp (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Grail Trail

SPAMALOT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd June, 2019

 

Eric Idle’s musical parody of Arthurian legend speaks of a leader who will rise from chaos to unite a divided country… We couldn’t half do with King Arthur today!  I doubt such a leader will spring from the current Tory leadership contest.

This lavish production at the Crescent is directed by Keith Harris, bringing together all the technical elements of the production and marrying them to an outstanding cast, with the result being a hugely impressive, massively enjoyable visit to the theatre.  They really have pulled out all the stops with this one.  Colin Judges’s splendid set of castle walls, towers and trees has just the right amount of storybook illustration to it, while Stewart Snape’s costume designs remain true to the period (when they need to) and introduce glamorously anachronistic specimens (when they don’t): the Camelot presented here has more in common with Las Vegas than Medieval England!  There is also an appearance by a magnificent wooden rabbit.  Of course there is.

Joe Harper heads the cast as King Arthur, imperious, regal and daft in equal measures.  He has a fine singing voice too – in fact, when the knights all sing together, the quality enriches the material.  Idle’s songs are pastiches, sometimes simplistic in structure, but the chorus at the Crescent still delivers the goods.  The musicians, under the baton of Gary Spruce add pizzazz and texture to the score.   Beautiful.

The female lead is Tiffany Cawthorne’s Lady of the Lake, with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks that doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the over-singers and belters of musical theatre and elsewhere.  Cawthorne is also a delightful comic player and doesn’t miss a trick.

Among the knights there is plenty to relish: Mark Horne’s camp Sir Robin, Paul Forrest’s heroic Lancelot (who has a surprise for us later on that is deliciously realised), and Nick Owenford’s Marxist-peasant-turned-loyal-knight Dennis Galahad.  I always have a soft spot for the faithful manservant Patsy, and here Brendan Stanley does not disappoint in a masterclass of a portrayal that demonstrates how supporting roles can make a mark.  Brilliant.

There are so many highlights, so many hilarious throwaway moments, I can’t mention them all, but I have to bring attention to Katie Goldhawk’s defiant posturing as the stubborn Black Knight, Jack Kirby’s Hibernian enchanter, Tim, Luke Plimmer’s Not Dead Fred, and Dave Rodgers as a taunting French soldier.

For me, the funniest scene is between Herbert (Nick Doran) and his father (Toby Davis), with a couple of dim-witted guards and a daring rescue by Lancelot.  Doran plays the gayness of the role without mockery or stereotype and his Herbert is all the more endearing because of it.

You don’t have to be a Monty Python aficionado to be royally entertained.  For those of us that are, it’s fun to identify where Eric Idle nicked the ideas from.  Only the other day I was bemoaning the fad for adapting every bloody film into stage musicals – this is one of the best ones, not least because it makes fun of the theatrical form as much as sending up the content.

Director Keith Harris gets the tone spot on and for almost all of it, the required energy levels are there to carry it off.  This is a real tonic of a production, joyous, silly and glorious – now, if only I could stop whistling THAT SONG from The Life Of Brian…

spamalot

Brendan Stanley and Joe Harper (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

Based on the comic opera Cosi fan tutte by Mozart and Da Ponte, this fresh little farce from the Foppish Theatre Company is vibrant with wit.  The script by Dewi Johnson (who also directs) and Andrew Buzzeo (who also appears as ‘Alistair’) adheres to Da Ponte’s libretto after an establishing scene in which soldier buddies, William and Benjamin, accept a bet from their cynical, worldly chum Alistair, who claims that within a day he can make the soldiers’ girlfriends turn to infidelity…  This scene, performed between the three, on the apron with nothing more than a simple bench, shows how direction can keep things engaging by eliciting energetic performances from the actors.

As Alistair, Andrew Buzzeo is hugely enjoyable, a sardonic manipulator and social commentator.  Equally entertaining are Luke Grant’s Benjamin and Zach Powell’s William, posing and posturing in ridiculous disguises (oh, those moustaches!) and flailing around from the effects of poison; Powell provides a superb study in comic playing when Alistair’s scheming bites William in the backside.

As the unwitting participants, the girls, Zoe Birkbeck is a haughty and bookish Fiona, never less than elegant, while Tessa Bonham Jones’s Charlotte is delightfully dim and frivolous.  As Phoebe, the conniving maid, Georgina Morton gives an arch but down-to-earth performance; her appearance as a notary, with a beard as long as she is tall, is ludicrously funny.

Johnson and Buzzeo’s script crackles with witty lines, and the dialogue has an authentic sound, with only the occasionally anachronistic turn of phrase to remind us that this is a modern-day pastiche and not a long-existing text.  I even recognise some lines as direct translations from Da Ponte’s original; well, if it ain’t broke…

The set, by Ludwig Meslet Poppins, consists of white cloth, creating flats and wings, like the ghost of an 18th century stage.  It’s a blank backdrop against which the colourful characters play out the farce, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Rosemarie Johnson’s costumes are bright, evoking the period setting, and adding to the elegance of the enterprise.

It’s fast-moving and funny, and irresistible in its appeal.  Johnson’s direction is sharp, like a cut diamond  The sexual mores on display may remind us of the distance between the past and our present, but the machinations of the plot, played here to perfection, show that ‘old-fashioned’ conventions can come across as a refreshing and, above all, entertaining alternative to the pervasive naturalism of the modern-day stage and screen.

folly


Steps in the right direction

THE 39 STEPS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 8th September, 2018

 

Of all the incarnations of John Buchan’s novel of 1915, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation is my favourite – perhaps it’s because the world has moved on and the stiff-upper-lip hero is hard to take seriously anymore.  I have lost count of the number of productions I have seen yet it is still with excitement that I approach this one in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.

The space is dominated by Keith Harris’s set, which consists mainly of a mini proscenium arch with curtain and a rostrum.  This comes in useful for scenes set in the London Palladium and later in a Scottish hall, but most of the time it pushes the action downstage and so close to the audience it feels cramped.  The rest of the scenery is conjured from judicious use of some simple settle-type benches, which create an armchair, a box at the theatre, a bed and so on as the story demands.  There is a portable window, which is used for laughs, but no portable door – a missed opportunity, there.

The cast of four is very strong.  Leading is a dapper David Baldwin as urbane twit and action figure, Richard Hannay.  He is pitch perfect and, in this intimate space, you can see Hannay’s cogs working behind his eyes.  As his three leading ladies, Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, Molly Wood is also strong – her ‘Cherman’ accent is particularly good, but she needs to ensure that Pamela’s best line (I’m not surprised you’re an orphan) is not lost among her wracking sobs.

Everyone else is played by a couple of ‘Clowns’, both of whom prove their versatility.  Katie Goldhawk’s Scottish characters come across especially well, while Niall Higgins’s nefarious Professor and his wacky Scottish landlady are hilarious.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Mounga elicits wonderful characterisations across the board, and her staging gives rise to plenty of titters.  In her hands, Barlow’s script is consistently amusing but I get the feeling we are being short-changed when it comes to the play’s set pieces: the escape from the train, for example.  Much fun is had with the party behind the closed-door bit, but the wild wind outside Margaret’s cottage is another opportunity overlooked.  The sound effect is there, courtesy of Roger Cunningham, but it doesn’t affect the action.  More could be made of the actors’ physicality to get locations across.  Further steps could be taken.

There is plenty to enjoy here, but I come away thinking the creative envelope could be pushed a little further to give us moments of inventiveness to dazzle and delight and take our breath away.

39 steps crescent

Strangers on a train: Katie Goldhawk, Niall Higgins and a bemused David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)