Tag Archives: Crescent Theatre

Trouble and Strife

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd September, 2013

Edward Albee’s masterpiece from 1962 has lost none of its bite and this studio production directed by Colin Judges packs quite a punch.  George and Martha (I keep wanting to call her Mildred) are a couple who tear strips off each other in their verbal sparring.  It is the way they operate, through vicious snarking and sniping.  They are joined for some very late night drinks by a young couple they met at a faculty party hosted by Martha’s father, who runs the university at which George and the younger man, Nick, teach.  There are few things more embarrassing than being witness to a marital spat but George and Martha go further than that.  So hurtful and hateful is the sparring between them, the couple find themselves not only spectators to a bout of hostilities but also embroiled and implicated in them.

As Martha, Tanya Coleman is loud and brash, with Bette Davis vowels and intonation.  She is excellent with her sarcastic commentary on her husband’s shortcomings, often bursting out into loud and violent invective.  By contrast, George is quieter and more controlled; Andy Butterworth is perhaps a little too quiet at times, and some of his lines get lost.  George needs a little bit more oomph if we are to understand why Martha hasn’t made mincemeat of him long ago.

Jason Rivers’s Nick is a little too distant.  I would like to see more discomfort and embarrassment before the drink takes him over.  As Nick’s wife Honey, Laura Poyner gives the best performance of the piece, finely detailed and well-observed; she is utterly credible as a young woman quietly becoming inebriated on brandy among the maelstrom of marital strife.

The direction handles the escalation of the many rows very well but there are some losses of momentum, particularly in the scenes between the two men – a pity when other moments are electrifying.

George and Martha’s tragedy is eventually revealed at the play’s climax and is very well handled here.  With a little tightening and a little more truth, this could be a blistering piece of theatre.

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Class Acts

THE HISTORY BOYS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 8th September, 2013

 

Alan Bennett’s widely acclaimed play, examining approaches to and effects of education, is presented in this excellent production by Birmingham’s little gem of a theatre.  The house was full for this performance and I believe everyone went away happy and perhaps even edified a little.

The Headmaster of this fictional school is all too recognisable from life, fixated as he is by league tables and his obsession with being able to quantify everything.  He recruits Irwin, a supply teacher to help prepare a bunch of high fliers for their Oxbridge entrance exam.  Irwin’s methods are at odds with those of General Studies teacher, Hector, who sees education as enrichment for life rather than a means to jump over prescribed hurdles. The boys themselves come to appreciate the contrast in their deliveries, on their way to becoming rounded individuals and/or members of the academic elite.

Bennett treats us to comedy high and low.  One scene, in schoolboy French, is particularly funny, as the boys enact a transaction in a brothel.  Other moments are more subtle; and among the humour there are also moments of pathos.  Of all the boys Michael Jenkins shines as sensitive, lovelorn Posner, in a detailed and layered performance.  Jenkins’s singing voice is a particular asset for this production.  This is a young man with a future in musical theatre or there is no justice in the world.   Other standouts are David Harvey as Scripps, whose narration is assured and philosophical.  I also liked Scott Richards’s Lockwood and Gwill Milton’s Timms.  Robert Dean grows into the cockiness of school stud Dakin but needs to be more at home in himself from the outset, and Dominic Thompson needs to slow down his delivery of Rudge’s punchlines at times in order to maximise their effect.

Alan Marshall is a wonderful Hector, warm and funny, he holds the audience in his thrall as much as his charges.  The fact that his approach to education (along with his groping of the boys on his motorcycle) is damaging to the young men is treated largely as an undercurrent, balanced against preparation for exams as too limiting a function of the education system.

As young Irwin, Mark Payne is equally good, dazzling in the classroom, nervous and out of his depth outside of lessons. Annie Harris gives solid support as Mrs Lintott, who gets the choicest words to shout out in the staff room, and Brian Wilson is suitably uptight as the results-driven Headmaster.

There are a few moments when the energy of some scenes seems to drop but for the most part, director Ian Robert Moule gets the tone just right.  Keith Harris’s multi-levelled set allows for swift and efficient transitions, accompanied by bursts of 80s hits to remind us we are looking back, just as the boys are looking back in their history classes.

Set in the 1980s, the play is still all too relevant today, considering we have a Minister for Education who seems to equate memory with achievement.  Sad to relate, only one point made seems to have been overridden: there are now female historians on the telly – Bennett did not foresee the advent of Mary Beard.

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Toad Away!

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012


Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.

First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.

The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.

The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?

The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.

The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.

There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.

Wind-in-the-Willows


Prelude to the Mane Event

Disney’s THE LION KING Launch
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012

The cinema has trailers to let you know of forthcoming attractions. The theatre has launches. I was lucky enough to be invited to such an occasion this morning in Birmingham’s tucked-away gem, the Crescent Theatre. It had been taken over for the day by Birmingham Hippodrome to promote what will be one of the city’s greatest theatrical events next year: the touring production of the West End, Broadway and global phenomenon, the stage musical adaptation of one of the most successful animated feature films ever.

Gasp.

I make a big deal of it because I’m against a notion prevalent within the minds of some producers, agents and other showbiz professionals that nothing of note goes on beyond the bounds of the M25. That a tour of a show of this scale (50 people on stage, 150 behind the scenes) is now do-able is good news all around the country and is a big feather in the Hippodrome’s cap. If people are attracted to their local theatre by a big show, they may well come back for some of the other, homegrown fare. Theatre can be very addictive.

(Of course, there is a counter-argument that someone more academic than I could posit in a hefty dissertation about the branding of shows and the plundering of other cultures in the postmodern, corporate world. I’m not going to do that here. Perhaps I will be led to touch on such matters when I come to review the show next June.)

These launches are always very pleasant. A glass of Buck’s Fizz at 10:30? Don’t mind if I do. Who attends? Apart from yours truly and various members of the Press, the place was packed with “friends” of the Hippodrome, group bookers, and also representatives from a range of businesses. An influx of theatregoers into the city will bring opportunities for restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and all the rest of them. This is a marketing exercise, after all.

It was also a very enjoyable morning.

The presentation was led by Stephen Crocker of Disney Theatrical Group. Using slides and video clips, he described the genesis of the stage show – a sort of ‘making of’ feature like you find on DVDs. Best of all there were songs by cast members in full get-up. “Rafiki “got things off to a hair-raising, blood-stirring start with The Circle of Life, backed by the Birmingham Gospel Choir. There is something primal, something rousing about this number, coupled of course with nostalgia for the film. Other songs were performed by members of the London cast, as Simba and Nala. We began to see how the masks, on top of their heads rather than over their faces, work.

Crocker demonstrated some of the masks and even in his inexpert hands, the remarkable puppet of the bird Zazu came to life. On screen, director and genius-in-chief Julie Taymor spoke of her eclectic use of Masai dress and Balinese jewellery for example, and the simple but ingenious way animals, plants and even the sunrise are represented. It’s all about theatricality, which is refreshing in this CGI-saturated world. More than that, The Lion King, like any myth, like the Shakespeare from which it borrows, is about people. This informs all of Taymor’s design and directorial choices. It was fascinating. You might say, she has pride in her work. (You might; I would never stoop to such a poor joke.) It might be (well, it definitely is!) a commercial venture, but it’s also about artistry of the highest quality.

And it certainly did the trick with me. I can’t wait to see the show. June 2013 seems a long way off. Start saving your pennies, folks.


You Beauty

SLEEPING BEAUTY
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th December, 2011


Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is an enormous improvement on their recent yuletide offerings. Last year’s joyless Secret Garden, for example, was an abject lesson in how not to do a festive show.

Rufus Norris’s adaptation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale is high on charm, heavy on the fart jokes and not afraid to be scary and gruesome when the story requires it. The acting style is broad but not without subtlety: the characters (archetypes rather than stereotypes) are presented as overgrown children; they stamp their feet, they sulk, they see the world as if it is revolves around them. This is a refreshing alternative to the stylisation of traditional pantomime.

Driving the story as protagonist-cum-antagonist-cum-narrator is Fairy Goody (Jenna Augen) who has the unfortunate affliction, whenever she casts a spell, of letting rip exaggerated blasts of flatulence. It is a running joke that is not overdone – in fact, as in-your-face and as loud and as brash as this production is, it never outstays its welcome and remains entertaining and surprising right until the end. The parties of school children that attended the same matinee as me were certainly enthralled, captivated and amused from start to finish – what better mark of quality could you hope for in a children-focussed show? There are also plenty of jokes for the grown-ups to appreciate. Everything is pitched exactly right.

The long-anticipated kiss-the-Princess-awake scene is handled with humour and originality, with the Prince (Ciaran Owens) displaying that beneath his heroic posturing and swagger he is still a boy with an immature aversion to girls. But there is no happy-ever-after, not just yet at any rate. This is only the end of the first act. When the action resumes, a few years have passed and Beauty and her Prince now have two puppet children. They are in peril from the Prince’s mother, a cannibalistic Queen (Moyo Akande) who is both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. There are grisly scenes involving a donkey, a goat and a pussycat but these are handled with such verve and gusto, the audience is swept along. The Queen reveals herself to be an Ogress and the Prince a half-breed. Beauty baulks at this at first but promises that if he should ever bite her, she will bite him back only harder. No wilting lily, she.

The whole company is strong. When they’re not being courtiers, slaves or animals, they form a chorus of woodland sprites who mimic the last words of each line of dialogue in that annoying way that kids do. These sprites form the wall of thorns that surrounds the castle but they also provide musical accompaniment and sound effects, on strings, brass and percussion. The whole things ties together very well. Director Sarah Esdaile keeps the pace cracking along – there are a couple of slides on either side of the proscenium via which characters make speedy entrances (and in this case, unlike the RSC’s Heart of Robin Hood, does not become tiresome)

A huge wheel hangs over all, the spinning wheel that fulfils the fairy’s curse and also the wheel of life or fortune. For all its fairy tale fun, the play makes no bones about its darker message: that love and life don’t last for long so get on with it.