Tag Archives: Crescent Theatre Birmingham

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.

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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.

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

 

 


Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK.  I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers.  In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape!  They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!

Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment.  There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home.  John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing.  He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper.  Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin.  Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him.  Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.

They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script.  A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death.  And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.

It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented.  Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.

There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues.  The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.

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Dave Hill, Brian Wilson and John Whittell (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


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)