Tag Archives: Crescent Theatre Birmingham

Something out of Nothing

NOTHING

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 11th February, 2018

 

Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action.  The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens.  And that is the point.  The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently.  It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times.  I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.

Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero.  He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven.  Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her.  We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities…  The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality.  There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.

There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows.  We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.

Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next).  In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.

An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.

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Love Bites

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th January, 2018

 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King.  The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further.  Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.

Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence.  In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production.  A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.

There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.

Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him.  The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’.  Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow.  Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan.  Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.

But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body.  Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun.  Her violence is as credible as it is merciless.  Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence.  It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience.  It’s also the sweetest horror story going.

A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.

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Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Nearly Perfect

CLOSER

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 14th November, 2017

 

Patrick Marber’s award-winning play from 1997 is brought to fresh life in this production from final year students at the Birmingham School of Acting (which, I believe, is now part of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire).   A four-hander, it charts the ups and downs, the comings (I use the word advisedly) and goings of two couples, glimpsed at various stages of their encounters across a period of years.  Gaps of months and years occur and it is largely down to the audience to fill in those gaps.

We meet Dan (Shobat Kadara), an obituary writer and failed novelist, who leaves his girlfriend to strike up a relationship with Alice (Mara Huf) whom he has rescued from a minor traffic accident.  Alice is a young, chaotic, impulsive and American stripper – it’s no wonder Dan’s head is turned.  He later cheats on Alice with photographer, Anna (Muyiwa Ibie) who, thanks to a prank sex-chat Dan has online with dermatologist Larry (Seabert Henry) finds a husband.  But not for long, because Dan is on the scene and Alice is out of the picture – until Larry meets her at a gentleman’s club…

The twists and turns keep coming, to the gasps of the audience.  It is not the sexually explicit nature of the dialogue that shocks us, it’s how unbelievably (or perhaps all-too-believably) selfish these people are – the men especially.  The irony is that they never get any closer to each other.  Desire, it turns out, gets you nowhere in the long run.

The excellent quartet of performers play out these melodramatic moments with a strong degree of truth, firing off Marber’s rapid-fire barbs.  Director Vik Sivalingam paces the arguments well so there is a naturalistic feel to the exchanges.  Even though these people seem somewhat rarefied, with their jobs, for example, and Marber’s spiky script aims for punchlines and come-backs, and the minimalist setting of movable blocks and frames stylises the presentation, the watchword for this production is Truth, both as a theme and as a performance quality.  The traverse staging adds to the intimacy of the already cosy Ron Barber studio.

Other themes might be, “The grass is always greener” and “You can’t handle the truth!”

Not a great advertisement for human beings and relationships, this nearly perfect production is a superb showcase for the talents of these young people at the threshold of their careers.

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Left to right: Shobat Kadara, Seabert Henry, Muyiwa Ibie, Mara Huf

 


The Original Walk-in Wardrobe

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th December, 2017

 

Mention C S Lewis’s classic book for children and people get a bit misty-eyed with nostalgia, and indeed, the idea of finding a mythical land at the back of your closet has entered the popular imagination.  It’s only when you (and by you I mean me) return to the material that you realise the idea of it is better than the actual experience.  Glyn Robbins’s stage adaptation is faithful to the novel, and that’s probably where it falls short.  It couldn’t half do with a few laughs in it.  Lewis’s dialogue is earnest, sometimes ponderous – they all need to lighten up a bit.  I have several problems with Narnia, but I’ll try to focus on the production playing out before me.

As ever with the Crescent, production values are high.  The costumes in particular (designed by Jennet Marshall) are impressive, sticking to a WWII aesthetic, even in the land beyond the wardrobe.  There is no attempt to animalise the actors playing roles such as Beaver (here presented as a regular Tommy) and his Mrs (all overall and headscarf, like a stereotypical housewife), so when we come to Aslan, he’s very much a high priest sporting a lion’s head hat, his leopard acolytes in ceremonial robes with Cleopatra beads in their hair.  Ruth Collins’s set is basically a stone wall with a central flight of stairs, but there is scenery within this scenery, opening out to show us Mr Tumnus’s cottage, for example.  It falls to the lighting to denote changes of location, time and season – some excellent design here by Kenny Holmes, providing some dramatic visuals;  for example, the sacrifice scene is superbly presented, and the direction matches the visuals, as raggedy creatures in black dance around while the White Witch stands supreme isolated in a white spot against a red wash.

Speaking of the White Witch, Nikky Brady is marvellous in the role.  Imperious, coolly cruel, she stalks around with a regal, if evil, presence.  I do wonder how this witch, who struggles to recognise a human boy when she sees one, knows all about Turkish delight.  Andrew Lowrie is similarly imperious as the pompous Aslan (who strikes me as a neglectful ruler, deserting Narnia for generations and thereby enabling the White Witch to hold sway) and could do with a bit more warmth in his welcome of the Pevensey children.  He shows moments of humour but is perhaps too aloof overall.

Of the po-faced Pevensey children, Lucy (Charlotte Upton) is earnest and passionate; Edmund (Jason Timmington) is mischievous, sulky and lively; but Peter and Susan, the elder ones, played by Sam Wilson and Molly Wood respectively, come across as bossy and bullying prefects.  It’s only when they become involved in the action that I warm to these two killjoys. In fact, Peter becomes quite the dashing hero, while Edmund has all the sass knocked out of him.

Jacob Williams makes for a sympathetic, nervy Mr Tumnus, but most impressive about the casting this time is the chorus of ‘snow spirits’, figures in white who observe the action, creeping around the stage, adding to the atmosphere and creating some rather eerie moments.  Director Alan K Marshall maintains an artistic integrity in his production, even if I’m not particularly enamoured of the material.

Looking at the children in the audience, wrapped up in the story, you can see that C S Lewis’s magic works best on them.  And I can imagine them in years to come, taking their own families to see a production of the story, because they will have a fond memory of it that doesn’t necessarily go deeper than fascination with the idea of it.

This is a high-quality production of a story that’s not my favourite, but it’s commendable in every aspect.  One final point: the children, during wartime, are sent away from home as evacuees to live many miles away with complete strangers, but before curtain up, we the audience are admonished not to take photographs because there will be children appearing on stage.  An indicator of how times have changed!

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Those crazy Pevensey kids: Sam Wilson, Charlotte Upton, Molly Wood and Jason Timmington (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

 


Boots and All

HOBSON’S CHOICE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 12th November, 2017

 

Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy first appeared in 1916 when the tide of women’s suffrage was running high.  Set in 1880, it tells of Hobson, a widower and owner of a shoe shop, seeking liberation from the three grown-up daughters who work in his shop without pay, so he can have some peace and quiet.  He sets to marrying off the younger two – the eldest, at the advanced age of 30 is beyond hope, he feels.  This eldest, Maggie, takes matters into her own hands by browbeating the timid on-site shoemaker into marrying her.  She then orchestrates matters so that her sisters are able to wed the men of their choosing, manipulating their father until he is worse off than when he started.

The script still sparkles with sarcastic barbs and acerbic observations and feels fresher than any episode of Open All Hours penned in more recent years.

As blustering, boozing patriarch Hobson, the mighty Colin Simmonds gives a majestic performance in a superb characterisation.  The timing is impeccable; the nuances and the broader moments provide a masterclass in comic acting.  He is matched by two fellow leads: Kimberley Cormack as the level-headed, assertive and somewhat Machiavellian Maggie in a formidable display – you wouldn’t want to cross her; and James David Knapp is endearing and extremely funny as the timid and shy cobbler, Willy Mossop.  You wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, so to speak.

Between them, these three bring the play to remarkable life and they are supported by a strong team of players: Notably, Amy Thompson as Vickey, Emily Jane Carey as Alice, Carl Foster as Fred Beenstock, and Damien Dickens as Albert Prosser.  There are memorable cameo appearances from Jo Thackwray as the haughty Mrs Hepworth and Brian Wilson as Hobson’s drinking buddy, Jim.

Faye Rowse’s set design evokes the period stylishly and effectively, while Angela Daniels’s costumes reveal not only the characters’ status but also the changes in their fortunes as the action unfolds.  Charlotte Robinson’s hazy lighting suggests gas- or candlelight.  Director Les Stringer hits all the comedic hotspots while maintaining the emotional truth of the situations.

Thoroughly engaging and massively entertaining, this is a splendid production of a masterpiece and is a ‘shoe-in’ for one of my favourites of the year.

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The shoe’s on the other foot. Kimberley Cormack, James David Knapp and Colin Simmonds (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Spell Trouble

MACBETH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017

 

Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland.  The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds.  There is more to them than their doll-like exterior.  Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place.  It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent.  Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic.  Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?

I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters.  Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way.  Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.

These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.

Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words.  Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments.  She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible.  Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches.  But that’s just me.

Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up.  His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield.  The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint.  I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.

Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out.  Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone.  It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out!  Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us.  Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on.  Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.

Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt.  Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself.  I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.

Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.

Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip.  Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own.  The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.

A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them.  I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun…  I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.

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You need hands… Charlie Woolhead as Macbeth (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Party Piece

THE GREAT GATSBY

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 10th September, 2017

 

The Crescent’s new season gets off to a fine start with this adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel.  Stephen Sharkey’s script retains the timbre of Fitzgerald’s prose, mainly in the mouth of our narrator Nick Carraway (John O’Neill).  Through Nick’s eyes we visit the partygoing rich of the Twenties, a carefree elite who drink and dance every night away.  By sheer coincidence, Nick happens to be renting a property next to the massive mansion of the titular Gatsby, who happens to be an old flame of Nick’s cousin, Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan… Gatsby urges Nick to organise a reunion, an event from which tragedy springs.

John O’Neill is a serviceable narrator, handling Fitzgerald’s heady words in a matter-of-fact way.  As Gatsby, Guy Houston exudes a suave and easy charm; along with Nick we come to understand the man and his motivations.  Colette Nooney’s Daisy is coolly laconic while Laura Poyner’s fiery Myrtle injects passion into the piece.  Mark Fletcher’s Tom Buchanan has an air of Clark Gable to him.  Kimberley Bradshaw seems perfectly at home in the era as famous golfer, Jordan Baker.  All the main players are in fine form, in fact, with strong support from character parts: Jason Timmington’s Treves, for example, and Simon King’s Wolfsheim, who brings a flavour New York into this rarefied atmosphere.  James Browning’s George Wilson is a fine characterisation but he needs to lift his head more so we see more than the top of his flat cap.

The play saves all its action until the end as the consequences of the characters’ behaviour burst to the fore.  We are amused by these people but kept at a distance from them – in the end, we have only warmed to Nick and Gatsby – and so Fitzgerald’s critique of the in-crowd sinks in its teeth.  This is the empty hedonism of Made In Chelsea with dramatic bite.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are strong.  The art deco arches that represent Gatsby’s gaff, with their artificially organic elegance, evoke the period as soon as we see them.  Keith Harris’s set flows swiftly from each location to the next – there are a lot of scenes and changes are enhanced by Jake Hotchin and Tom Buckby’s lighting design, especially the beautiful work on the cyclorama.   Stewart Snape’s costumes fulfil our expectations of the era – Gatsby’s outfits are particularly snazzy – and Jo Thackwray’s choreography gives us all the Charleston moves and black bottoms we could wish for.  If I had to nit-pick, I would say at times the music playback needs to be a touch louder, and a crucial sound effect – a car crash – needs to have more impact.  It is the turning point of the story, after all.

Director Colin Judges keeps a steady pace, allowing moments of humour to surface like bubbles in champagne.  Stylish and elegant, this is a great Gatsby.

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John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)