Tag Archives: Crescent Theatre Birmingham

Let’s Twist Again

OLIVER!

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017

 

There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.

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Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


The Truth Comes Out

THE LARAMIE PROJECT

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th May, 2017

 

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 sent shockwaves across the USA and around the world.  A tipping point had been reached, it seemed and, although it took a while, law was passed to protect minorities from hate crime.

At the time, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming several times, interviewing local people of a variety of walks of life and with a range of views on the murder.  Those interviews form the basis for this play, using verbatim the words of the Laramie people.

Almost twenty years later, this new production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio demonstrates the piece has lost none of its power and, sadly, none of its relevance.  It’s a play about its own making.  Actors play actors from the theatre company along with the people they interview and the whole piece is structured around the murder – before, during and its aftermath, covering a year in the life of Laramie.  It’s a compelling piece of work and this production certainly does it great service.

The cast of ten populates the space with police, neighbours, family members, the clergy – over 60 roles, all aided by the costume designs of Pat Brown and Vera Dean: we see who these people are in an instant, before they speak for themselves.  I cannot assign roles to particular actors (I’m sure to get it wrong) so, as the programme does, I shall just list them: Kassie Duke, Juliet Ibberson, Simon King, Sean McCarthy, Judy O’Dowd, Liz Plumpton, Ben Pountney, Phil Rea, John Whittell, and Sam Wilson.  They all rise to the challenges of the piece, delivering varied and rounded characterisations as well as the emotional punch of key scenes.

There is an especially chilling and repulsive portrayal of hate-mongering, Bible-brandisher Fred Phelps – all the more sickening because you realise bastards like him are still around, spouting their bilious nonsense and disrupting funerals of gay people.

Rod Natkiel does a remarkable job of directing the action on his minimalist stage – each monologue and exchange is delivered differently.  There is nothing samey or static in the presentation; we have a lot to listen to but he keeps us engaged and, even though we know the outcome, gripped as the story is pieced together.  Natkiel also uses specially shot video clips – news bulletins, mainly – which add to the verity of this docudrama, as well as upping the Americana factor.  I have to say the accents are uniformly strong.

A play about hatred but there are also the more positive aspects of humanity in evidence: humour, warmth and compassion, to name but three.

As societies across the world, from the USA to Chechnya take backwards strides in their treatment of gay people, the grisly death of Matthew Shepard is back to haunt us and ask us what kind of society do we want to be.

Compelling and a shining example of the high quality of work produced at the Crescent.

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Men of Letters

NOT ABOUT HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd April, 2017

 

It seems there were a lot of poets sent to fight the Bosch in the First World War.  We seem to hear a lot about them in any case.  Stephen Macdonald’s play deals with the friendship struck up between two of them, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland, where they are convalescing with nervous disorders.  Sassoon narrates the story from fifteen years after the end of the war and Macdonald wisely uses verbatim lines taken from the correspondence between the two friends so what we get is a dramatic reconstruction of scenes – Owen’s poetry is called into service to give us glimpses of life in the trenches and, especially in the second act, the men exchange anecdotes of the horrors they have witnessed.  But this is not a war story; it’s more of a repressed love story, a bromance we’d call it these days, as the men dance around their feelings for each other while braving the worst of circumstances.

George Bandy is a somewhat deadpan Wilfred Owen; without overdoing the stammer, he gets over the poet’s nervousness and awkward shyness – and there are also moments when his passionate outcries blaze as strongly as any words the poet penned.  As Siegfried Sassoon, Andrew Smith gives a masterly performance, perfectly at home in his character’s skin and affectations.  Sassoon is a likeable if slightly pompous fellow and his knack for understatement is especially poignant.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Moonga keeps this wordy, rather slow-moving tale engaging with changes of pace.  The set by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris provides a stark backdrop of silhouetted barricades against a changing sky, along with real world touches to ground the characters at their desks.  Mike Duxbury’s lighting and Roger Cunningham’s sound design enhance the nightmares of the men, with flashes and sounds of the war that haunts them both.  But it is the presence of the two actors that hooks us in – Smith’s effortless Sassoon will stay with me for a long time.

A timely production that reminds us that in Owen we lost a formidable talent, and far too many lives in a senseless and misguided conflict.

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Leaving Sassoon? Andrew Smith and George Bandy


Stockinged Feat

BLUE STOCKINGS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th March, 2017

 

Originally produced at the Globe in 2013, Jessica Swale’s drama charts an academic year in the life of a group of female students at Cambridge’s Girton college.  It’s 1896 and the ladies are there on sufferance, rather than suffrage – their studies will get them nowhere and they are struggling to be awarded the right to graduate.  The fight mirrors the wider campaign for the Vote, and, if the male characters of this piece are anything to go by, they are not a good advertisement for the gender.  The sexism is overt, laid on with a trowel, neatly dividing the cast into heroines and villains.  Where the line is blurred is when female characters such as Miss Welsh decries her Suffragette sisters, and lecturer Mr Banks sides with the ladies.

Colette Nooney is striking as Miss Welsh, imperious and determined, while Jacob Williams’s Banks is a perfect piece of characterisation, from the look to the smallest mannerisms.  They look the part because yet again Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on.

The Crescent’s Youth Theatre has amassed a strong ensemble, led by Jessica Shannon as Tess, in a remarkably nuanced performance that endears the character to us from the off.  She is supported by Neve Ricketts’s well-travelled Carolyn, Jessica Williams’s forthright Celia, and Charlotte Upton’s Maeve – who has a powerful moment when fetched home by her yokel brother Billy (Tate Wellings).  Holly Mourbey is effective as Miss Blake and there is humour from Laila Abbuq as Minnie the maid.  Jessica Potter makes an impression as strict chaperone Miss Bott.

Of the men, a right bunch of pompous prigs, Julian Southall stands out as Edwards – especially when drunk – and Laurenc Kurbiba makes a suave, caddish Ralph.  Villain of the piece is Charlie McCullum-Cartwright as Lloyd – one can easily imagine the Bullingdon Club adopting him as a mascot.  Jack Purcell-Burrows shines as the decent, gentlemanly Will, but on the whole, we wince, cringe and flinch at the abhorrent attitudes on display.  A dying breed?  I would like to think so.

James David Knapp directs with an assured hand, providing crescendos of high drama among the rituals and routines of college life.  The humour is well-timed and, for the most part, the cast handle the heightened language and stuffy accents with aplomb.  Keith Harris’s attractive set of Gothic arches divided by bookshelves serves to represent both the interior and exterior of the college, while Chris Briggs’s lighting adds to the sense of location and the atmosphere.

A challenging play well-presented, this production of Blue Stockings has legs.

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Guilty Pleasure

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th February, 2017

 

Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama is a far cry from the typical, almost cosy murder mystery affair to which she is inextricably linked.  The play uses the trappings of civilised society, i.e. a court of law, to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature.  In the safe haven of our seats in the auditorium, we enjoy the unfolding details – a violent murder, acts of betrayal – but there is a bitter aftertaste to this entertainment that reminds us our fascination with crime as drama is, at best, a guilty pleasure.

This production exudes excellence at every turn.  A top-notch cast populates the story with credible characterisations, breathing life into Christie’s wry observations and the more verbose legalese of the professional lawmen.

Geoff Poole and Katie Merriman get things off to a promising start with some amusing character work as employees of Sir Wilfred, the barrister defending the case.  Their accents give us both place and period.  We’re in London in the 1950s.

Bill Barry is excellent as Sir Wilfred.  He and Brian Wilson, as lawyer Mayhew, give off an air of focussed professionalism, inspiring confidence in the system at work.  Equally strong is the barrister for the prosecution, Myers (John O’Neill), grandstanding in the courtroom under the quiet authority of Mr Justice Wainwright (Geoff Poole again, in complete contrast to his earlier role).

When Zena Forrest enters, as German ex-pat Romaine Heilger, she makes a striking impression, not just because of her Teutonic froideur.  Angela Daniels’s costume work cuts a dash – especially with the female characters.  After all, men’s suits and the accoutrements of the court have barely changed for decades!  Forrest is superb as the haughty femme fatale, provoked on the witness stand to losing her composure and saying too much… Alex Whiteley makes a good fist of Scottish busybody, Janet McKenzie, bringing humour to proceedings with a pleasing appearance in the box.

Director Les Stringer keeps us hooked throughout.  It’s a lengthy sit (three hours, including two intervals) but Stringer manages to avoid any sense of the staid and the static in scenes that involve a lot of talk and a lot of sitting around.  He contrives a crescendo at the end of the second act between prosecutor and prisoner, that is absolutely electrifying.

The set by Colin Judges (his real name) is stunning for the courtroom scenes, displaying craftsmanship to be sure, but it also says something.  The court speaks of power and permanence, and the establishment at work.  The set adds to the authenticity of the piece as much as the language and ritualised conduct of the court.  But even the establishment can get it wrong sometimes, Christie reminds us.

Christie provides more twists than Chubby Checker for a thrilling denouement.  The tables aren’t just turned, they spin!

Mark Payne dazzles, if that’s the right word, as nervy defendant Leonard Vole, as twitchy as his rodent namesake.  Personable and decent, he elicits our sympathy from the start, in what develops into a towering and emotional performance with real star quality.

A thoroughly enjoyable, old-school visit to the theatre, but old-fashioned does not mean lacking in power to entertain.  On the contrary, when it is played and presented this well, you know you’re in safe hands for a good night out.

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Made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 28th January, 2017

 

Nick Dear’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel that spawned modern science fiction will be familiar to many from the landmark National Theatre production directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cumberdick Bendibatch.   Here, in the Ron Barber studio, the show is inevitably scaled down but director Jenny Thurston ensures the play loses none of its power.

At the heart of the show is a towering performance from Andrew Cowie as the Creature.  From his ‘birth’, we see his cognitive development – he becomes an inquisitive toddler before our very eyes.  Nick Dear keeps the Creature at the centre of the story and so we empathise with him rather than fear him.  The Creature is the outsider, the ‘different’, hated for his appearance – his only recourse is to take revenge on the society that shuns him, and the creator who abandoned him.

James David Knapp is excellent as Victor Frankenstein, uptight and twitchy – he becomes unravelled as though he is the one held together by stitches.  His scenes with Cowie are electrifying – even if you know the story.  The tension is palpable.

The two main players are supported by a tight ensemble who come and go in all the other roles.  Charlotte Ireland makes an appealing Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée; there is some amusing character work from Tom Silverton and Richard Constable as a pair of Scottish graverobbers; Paul Harris’s kindly blind man, Bethany Wyde’s cheeky Clarice, Charlotte Upton’s sweet William, Rosa Pardo Roques’s earnest Agatha, Sam Wilson’s devoted Felix – all populate the story with the best and worst of humanity.  It is very telling how they are all united, even the decent, hard-working ones, in their rejection of the Other.

Thurston delivers the macabre humour, the shocks and the tension but above all the thought-provoking aspects of Shelley’s novel: the nature of Man, the pursuit of scientific discovery, the genie out of the bottle…

There are puppets, rabbits and dogs and so on (designed and made like children’s toys, by Jenny Thurston and Richard Constable), which observe much of the action, reminders of Nature, but echoing Victor’s unnatural creation.  They are for the most part highly effective, but I think the birds could be handled with a little more finesse.  Faye Rowse’s economical set serves the locations well – a table piled with sacks suggests a snowy mountain range, and illustrative projections remind us we are watching a story from a book.  The costumes, as ever at the Crescent, are superb.  Pat Brown and Vera Dean capture the period and, as the Creature’s intellect develops, the clothes he wears change too, civilising him – on the outside, at least.

Chris Briggs’s lighting creates atmosphere, patches of enlightenment in the murk, and the inclusion of snatches of music by Messiaen underscores the action with discord.  It all adds up to a Gothic setting for Shelley’s fable, framed by the device of a group of nervous lantern-bearers opening the book and, at the end, slamming it shut.  We must be careful where we shine our light, the production says.

All in all, this is unquestionably the most powerful production I have yet to see at the Crescent, superbly presented and performed, thrilling, moving, funny and heart-rending.  Andrew Cowie’s magnificent Creature will haunt me for a long time to come.

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Humorous Liaisons

THE WILL

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 7th January, 2017

 

Marivaux’s 1736 comedy deals with the mercenary nature of marriage and the folly of placing money above human emotion (in this case, love).  The Marquis (Andrew Buzzeo) stands to inherit 600,000 francs if he marries Hortense (Tessa Bonham Jones) but forfeit a third of this fortune to her if he doesn’t.  Neither he nor Hortense is motivated to marry the other, apart from the prospect of financial gain – they each have their hearts set on other people: he, the Countess (Cicely Whitehead) and she, the Chevalier (Liam Fernandez).  Add to the mix a couple of scheming servants in the form of Lepine (Dominic Weatherill) and Lisette (Scarlett Saunders) and the scene is set for a lot of comings and goings, plots and counterplots, and ridiculously volatile and transient affections.  The characters speak their minds in asides that the other characters can hear, making for some funny exchanges and additional complications.  They are all pretty much stock figures – most of them don’t have names, only indicators of social standing – but they are exquisitely played by this tight ensemble, it is a pleasure to see them work themselves up and then extricate themselves from their own machinations.

Tessa Bonham Jones is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Hortense – it falls to her to provide a good deal of exposition at the start, as Marivaux sets out his stall.  Liam Fernandez’s Chevalier is handsome and passionate; Andrew Buzzeo’s Marquis hilariously and charmingly blusters, like a kind of articulate Hugh Grant, struggling to express his feelings to Cicely Whitehead’s coolly elegant Countess.  Dominic Weatherill is suitably cocky as Lepine but it is Scarlett Saunders’s worldly and wily Lisette the maid who threatens to steal every scene she is in.

The timing is impeccable.  Dewi Johnson’s direction is pacy, augmenting the witty translation with comic business, and keeping things moving.  The mannered performance style fits the heightened language and the audience acknowledgments keep us in collusion with the plotters.  Denisa Dumitrescu’s costumes are gorgeous (the play has become a period piece rather than the contemporary social satire it was originally) and Charlotte Orsler’s set is largely a huge document – the will of the title – which towers over the action, forming the backdrop and also the floor; the characters traipse over the stipulations that motivate them, until they come to their senses and realise love is more important than money.

Hugely enjoyable, this production tickles and amuses; we love to see self-centredness at work so overtly, safe in the knowledge that higher motivations will prevail.

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