Tag Archives: Crescent Theatre

Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

Director James David Knapp brings his own adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic to the stage in this ponderous production.  This is an Alice who wonders about things rather than at them, as she is presented with riddles and cod philosophies from almost all the strange characters she encounters.

Ruth Waterson, making her Crescent debut, gives an assured performance as Alice, playing her as a serious, thoughtful child.  She comes to life when she joins in with the other characters: the caucus race, for example, and the Lobster Quadrille.  If Alice, our guide through this weird land, is so serious, the characters she encounters should be weirder, crazier, but they’re a bit po-faced too.

There is a lot to enjoy from the large cast.  Marcus Clarke’s Dodo shakes his tail-feathers and has a mad spark in his eye; later, his King of Hearts is delightfully dotty – he could do with a crown, though.  Erin Hooton’s twitchy White Rabbit, John Paul Conway’s snooty Knave, Niall Higgins’s Mock Turtle… Standing out is Molly Wood’s Duchess, a bedraggled eccentric, convincingly bonkers.  Jordan Bird’s Mad Hatter makes an arch, camp double act with Carl Foster’s March Hare, along with a fearsome French Dormouse (Ella-Louise McMullan) keeping them in check.  There is a delicious portrayal of the mad Queen of Hearts by Alice Macklin, capricious, volatile, tyrannical, truly psychopathic, and bringing a lot of oomph to the second act.  But I think I enjoy most of all the trio of gorblimey gardeners, played by Amelia Hall, William Stait and Ronnie Kelly.

James David Knapp provides a new twist in the tale.  It’s not easy bringing Carroll’s plotless novel to the stage to make a coherent piece, but Knapp provides a through-line – the material is on his side, with the disclaimer that not everything has to make sense.  He has clearly drilled his ensemble of children very well – every one of them is in step and focussed, which is no mean feat.

The costume department has excelled itself.  The designs of Dyjak Malgorzata combine what we expect of the characters with some innovative ideas, with the assistance of Vera Dean and Pat Brown to craft these wonderful creations.

The show works best during its absurd moments, rather than when Alice is being exhorted from all corners to ‘grow up’ – when she is clearly the most mature character on stage.   The production values, the talent, the ideas are all there.  All it needs, overall, is to lighten up, to – as Alice’s draconian mother is reminded to do – let its hair down.

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Off her head: Alice Macklin as the Queen of Hearts (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

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Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 


Work of Genius

BREAKING THE CODE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 6th October, 2018

 

Before Alan Turing became a household name some fifty years after his early death, Hugh Whitemore wrote this play which went a long way to establishing the computing pioneer as one of the most important figures of the Second World War.  Turing’s work in cracking the code of the Germans’ Enigma machine played a major part in our defeat of the Nazis – we have a lot to thank him for.

The timeline of the play is not in chronological order.  It is up to the audience to decode the order of events to build up a picture of Turing’s life story.  Director Liz Plumpton keeps the staging simple, allowing clues from the script to inform us which decade we’re in. She is blessed with a superlative cast, who keep us riveted throughout.  The intimacy of the in-the-round setting puts us right in the action as we eavesdrop on Turing and the people in encounters at work and at play.

Making his debut at the Crescent, Jack Hobbis is stunningly good in the lead role.  Hardly ever offstage, he is utterly convincing, inhabiting the character with nuance, animation and total conviction.  This Turing is eminently likeable, for all his eccentricities, quirks and directness.  I suggest the Crescent treat Hobbis the way Turing treated his tea mug: chain him to a radiator so he can never leave the building!  I have seen lesser performances win all sorts of awards.

The mighty Brendan Stanley is thoroughly credible as no-nonsense detective Mick Ross, and Phil Rea is also on excellent form as Turing’s Bletchley Park boss, Dilwyn Knox, a humorous cove, decidedly old-school.  Angela Daniels, as Turing’s mother, adds depth to her characterisation as the action unfolds, while Sanjeev Mistry makes a strong impression as Turing’s fateful bit of rough, Ron Miller.  Amy Thompson combines sweetness with efficiency as female boffin Pat Green, and Tony Daniels has a pleasing cameo as top-secret brass, John Smith.  Young actor Louis Clare appeals as Turing’s schooldays chum, Chris Morcom and later dazzles as Greek trick, Nikos, spouting the language like a native – an impressive feat on its own but Clare imbues Nikos with a remarkable presence as he listens to Turing’s babbling.

Jennet Marshall’s costumes do most of the period work for the production, evoking the era superbly, while Kristan Webb’s lighting design stylishly takes us from place to place and time to time.  The final moment, of Turing with his poisoned apple, will stay with me a long time.

A superlative production that is both humorous and gripping; another jewel in the Crescent’s sparkling crown.  We learn a good deal about the tragic genius, who has become a hero-martyr type, a figurehead for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  I wonder if the Alan Turing Law, passed as recently as 2017, pardoning all those cautioned or convicted of homosexual acts, would bear his name if he hadn’t saved us all from fascism, or whether the long-overdue law would have been passed at all.

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Genius! The brilliant Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Boss Play

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble.  Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.

Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles.  Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses.  He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.

Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins.  This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.

Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value.  Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim.  There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.

The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in.  Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!

Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect.  The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.

A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent.  I had a boss time.

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Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Stable Relationship

EQUUS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 30th June, 2018

 

The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production.  Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.

The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night.  Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny.  Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on.  Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.

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Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)

Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others.  Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life.  An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…

Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child.  Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.

Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses.  As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness.  John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks.  The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.

The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship.  The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself.  Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes.  John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.

This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.

In a word: blinding.

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Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time.  Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation.  The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’.  Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns.  Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it.  In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.

Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock.  His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown.  Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work.  This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.

Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves.  Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better.  And I start to get chills…

Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong.  Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation.  Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers.  Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell.  There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.

Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown.  Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots!  James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself.  The production values of this show are of the highest order.

And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment?  Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again.  The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS).  It all rings ever-so-relevant.  How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising?  Every bloody time, that’s how many.

An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.

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Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Extra Special

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st April, 2018

 

Marie Jones’s comedy has, rightly, become a modern-day classic.  It tells the story of the intrusion of a Hollywood film company into a rural Irish community.  The filming brings employment prospects, however temporary, and many of the locals take advantage of the opportunity to become extras.  We meet Charlie and Jake, two such extras, and through their eyes encounter a host of other characters: other extras, members of the film crew, even a Hollywood star.  Jones populates her story with some deftly drawn personalities, but it falls to the cast of two, yes, just two, to bring them all to life.

For this production, we are in the safe hands of two of the Crescent’s most reliable and talented actors.  James David Knapp is Charlie, a downtrodden fellow trying to outrun his depression and lack of prospects by palming off a screenplay he has written to anyone who will take it.  Knapp is infinitely watchable and the split-second changes between characters hold no fear for him.  His Charlie is affable, but his Caroline, the Hollywood diva, is a wonder to behold.  Similarly, his British director, Clem, is also brilliantly portrayed.

John O’Neill is Jake, newly returned from the States and trying to restart his life – a kind of everyman figure.  O’Neill is good in this part, to be sure, but he really takes off when he becomes production assistant Aisling, castigating the extras through her pink loudhailer.  Also, as old-timer and movie veteran Mickey, he brings physicality to the part.  In fact, both actors’ use of body language and mannerisms is spot on.  The truth of the characters shines through in every detail.

The play demands a lot from its actors and these two deliver the goods without question.  There is a sharpness and a precision to the delivery and the quick changes that adds to the humour of the situation.  Director Andrew Brooks ensures the pace is maintained and the changes are smooth, to the extent that we can almost see the characters all at once.  It’s hysterically funny but there is more to the play than laugh-out-loud comedy.  Brooks delivers the pathos well too – when tragedy threatens to disrupt the filming, the resentment and indignation of the locals comes to the fore.  A gasp went up from the woman beside me when the significance of the title became clear, in the show’s most poignant scene.

Knapp and O’Neill handle all the requirements of the script with aplomb.  They also ride the waves of laughter they generate and handle impromptu audience input with style and with ease.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of a marvellous piece.  I haven’t laughed so much on a Sunday afternoon for a long time!

Now, what would be really interesting would be a production performed by female actors…

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Extra! Extra! James David Knapp and John O’Neill (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)