Tag Archives: Curve Leicester

The Cat’s Meow

THE CAT IN THE HAT

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th February, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s bestselling children’s book is brought to vibrant life in this new touring production from Leicester’s Curve theatre.  The story of two children, Sally and Boy (Conrad in the book) who, bored on a rainy day, get a visit from a fantastical cat and his troublesome brace of Things, is faithfully re-enacted using many of Seuss’s rhymes.

It begins with a prologue, a warm-up in which the children introduce themselves to us before bringing out the super-soaker water guns.  They get us on our feet and singing along, to get us in receptive mood before the main action begins.  Which it does – opening the story with a dumb-show sequence, brimming with physical comedy, as the children try to occupy themselves and annoy each other.  We meet their pet goldfish, here portrayed as an operatic diva in a bubble.  And then, at last, the Cat himself arrives…

As Sally and her brother, Melissa Lowe and Sam Angell are full of childlike energy, only outdone in this respect by Thing 1 (Celia Francis) and Thing 2 (Robert Penny) two wild-haired acrobats who hurl themselves around the set, with skill and exuberance.  As the Fish, Charley Magalit is glamorous to look at and beautiful to hear.  But it is Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the eponymous Cat who captivates and amazes the most.  He is urbane and smooth in his delivery, with slinky moves and a jazzy voice, all of which he demonstrates while balancing on a ball, holding an increasing variety of objects.  It’s an astonishing feat.

When the Things get out of control, Sally and the Boy despair at the mess being made and try to contain the tearaway creatures.  The Cat wheels in a weird contraption to tidy up before he takes his leave.  But what does it all mean?  The Cat is a trickster, an agent of chaos, and his antics are at first attractive to the children.  The Fish is the unheeded voice of reason, the conscience.  The wanton behaviour of the Things teaches the children there are boundaries, and the Cat takes responsibility by cleaning up the mess.  So, it’s a moral lesson after all: it’s OK to be a bit Dionysian, just don’t go the full Bacchae.

Suba Das directs this colourful, anarchic spectacle with gusto, showing a great eye for comic business and an understanding of what makes children laugh.  Isla Shaw’s remarkable set (part illustration, part practical) is put to extensive use to support the storytelling and the physicality of the shenanigans.  The costumes are delightful, capturing the spirit of Seuss’s original drawings, yet adapting them for human-shaped performers.  The Things are spot on, and I love the Cat’s furry tuxedo, complete with tail and his signature red-and-white striped stovepipe hat.

There is much to marvel at here in this show bursting with theatricality and brio.  It’s a thrilling live experience for the little ones, something they’ll never get from a screen or an app.  More senior members of the audience will be nostalgic for when they read the book, and will derive pleasure from seeing the much-loved classic staged so inventively.

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Purrfect: Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the Cat in the Hat on two chairs (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017

 

Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.

The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core.  Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there.  The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation.  What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing.  Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams.  The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society.  And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.

Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom.  Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed.  Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.

Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare.  The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….

Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire.  The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce.  Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment.  That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.

A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.

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Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


Nunny Girl

SISTER ACT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 27th February, 2017

 

This touring production originates from Leicester’s Curve theatre, a place with a growing reputation for the excellence of its musicals – and this one goes all out to uphold that reputation.  The story will be familiar to fans of the Whoopi Goldberg film comedy, but the score does not use the same old songs.  Alan Menken’s vibrant original score pastiches the music of the era (the action is transposed from the 1990s to the 1970s) and gives the show its own musical identity.

Leading the cast as sassy club-singer-turned-fugitive Dolores, is TV talent show alumnus Alexandra Burke.  Her singing voice is heavenly but she also proves herself an accomplished comic performer, physically as well as vocally.  Lighting up the stage whenever she appears (and she is rarely off) Burke is a revelation (but not the bad kind from the Bible!) and an utter joy to behold.

She is supported by a fine ensemble of actor-musicians who carry their instruments around like fashion accessories.  Among the nuns’ chorus, Sarah Goggin’s postulant Sister Mary Robert has the most developed character arc, growing from shyness to full-on belt.  There is something inherently comical about nuns, and this show gets a lot out of this without resorting to off-colour gags about cucumbers or soap in the bath.  These nuns are funny, individualised along the lines of the seven dwarfs: there’s the old one, the happy one and so on.

Karen Mann’s Mother Superior is a powerful stage presence and her solo numbers are masterclasses in musical theatre.  Aaron Lee Lambert is afro-sporting villain, Curtis, with a rich, chocolatey voice, contrasting with Joe Vetch’s good guy cop Eddie.  Their songs range from old-school r&b to disco – oddly, perhaps for a show directed by Craig Revel Horwood, the numbers are not saturated with choreography.  Horwood uses the 70s moves sparingly, so the Travolta-moves lift the songs when appropriate, without becoming parodies of themselves.

Matthew Wright’s set keeps the ecclesiastical interior throughout, dressing it with disco stairs or police cell bars as the plot requires, in an economical and effectively emblematic fashion, allowing the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.  Behind the scenes, the band fills out the sound of the onstage performers.  Led by MD Greg Arrowsmith, this tight combo does as much to raise the roof and our spirits as those we can see.

An unadulterated pleasure from alpha to omega, this is a joyous night at the theatre, energising and uplifting as only live theatre can be.  Perhaps the best of the trend for adapting films for the musical stage, Sister Act has everything you could pray for in a show.

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Creature of habit: Alexandra Burke

 


Barnstormers

WIPERS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 12th May, 2016

 

Ishy Din’s new play, co-produced by the Belgrade with Leicester’s Curve Theatre and Watford’s Palace Theatre, is a good fit for the B2 space.  Isla Shaw’s impressive set brings us inside a barn near the French town of Ypres.  Rafters spread like the ribs of a wrecked ship or a beached whale, as though the armies at war around it are fighting over something that’s already dead.  With atmospheric lighting by Prema Mehta and sound design by Jon Nicholls that enables to imagine the conflict raging offstage, the scene is set for an engaging and powerful drama.

Into the barn come commanding officer Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia) and Sadiq (Simon Rivers), following orders to secure the location.  An appealing Ahluwalia convinces as the young toff, out of his depth – even his salutes betray his nervousness.  Rivers’s Sadiq is more practical, a professional soldier.  They are joined by Sartaj Garewal as AD and, later, Waleed Akhtar as Ayub.  Humour comes from the clash of cultures and the language barrier.  Subtly, the actors use different accents depending on who they’re conversing with.  Ahluwalia is ‘teddibly, teddibly’ upper class Brit – when the men speak to him, their Indian accents are thicker.  When the men speak among themselves, they’re ordinary, working class blokes.

Rivers and Garewal are especially strong – perhaps that’s unfair: this is an excellent quartet! – in their heated and often very funny exchanges.  Through contact with these men, Thomas grows in confidence and learns appreciation of their culture, through cuisine and their respect for the fallen.  Din’s tight script enables us to get to know these men, as Thomas gets to know them – it’s reminiscent of Journey’s End, in this respect, so that when they finally leave the barn to face their fate (shades of Blackadder Goes Forth here!) we care about what might become of them.

Director Suba Das slowly winds us up.  Tense moments, loud moments, are contrasted with humour and silence.  It’s a timely reminder of our common humanity: these soldiers fought on our side, even if they weren’t exactly sure what they were fighting for.  In these times of rising resentment against the foreigner using our resources, the play is starkly relevant as well as marking the sacrifice of other nations supporting the British cause during WW1.

More fun than you might expect with emotionally charged, engaging performances, Wipers is a superb addition to the ongoing centennial commemorations of the so-called Great War.

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Plenty to write home about: Jassa Ahluwalia (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Getting Hitched

THE LOVESONG OF ALFRED J HITCHCOCK

Derby Theatre, Friday 8th November, 2013

 

A director’s chair in a spotlight.  A director under scrutiny. David Rudkin’s beautifully written play is not exactly a biography of Alfred Hitchcock but a series of glimpses into his history and into his mind.  As the story unfolds we begin to see the bigger picture and there are Freudian clues to why he was the way he was, and why he made it his life’s work to shock and scare cinema audiences.  Through monologues and two-handers, Rudkin interlaces ideas and we make the links.  This is no lecture or straightforward biopic.  Like a Hitchcock piece, there is a slow build to its surprises, a twist or two on the road to psychological revelation.

Martin Miller is a very strong lead as Hitchcock, speaking in terms of a shooting script he is forever forming in his mind.  With just a few words, he paints pictures in our imagination – the economy of narrative theatre. Behind him, silhouettes appear on a gauze – his mother is first revealed as a shadowy figure saying Boo to her little boy to make him jump.

As Hitchcock’s mother and then as his wife, Roberta Kerr is utterly compelling.  Unlike Miller, she is released from the added pressure of having us scrutinise her portrayals for recognisable traits.  Solid support comes from Anthony Wise as a priest, a teacher and, especially, a sleazy stranger on a train – sorry, strangler on a train; and Tom McHugh impresses as a young screenwriter, trying to keep abreast of Hitchcock’s creative whims.

Asuza Ono’s lighting shapes the scenes on this Spartan stage, with touches of Caravaggio highlights and, of course, cinematic glows. Jack McNamara’s direction keeps the distinction between the inside and outside of Hitchcock’s mind clear.  We are included in the action but not privy to all the secrets all at once.  McNamara gives us suspense, intensity and humour – the hallmarks of a Hitchcock film.  There are plenty of nods and references to Hitchcock’s oeuvre for the fan to spot and recognise.

This small-scale touring production from New Perspectives and Leicester’s splendid Curve deserves wide-scale acclaim and a much larger audience.

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Pan handling

FINDING NEVERLAND
Curve, Leicester, Wednesday 3rd October, 2012

This brand spanking new musical, fresh out of the box for its world premiere performance, tells the story of playwright J M Barrie and the events that led him to create one of the most enduring stories in popular fiction.
A shipload of money had been spent to bring this show to the stage. Production values are higher than the second star to the right. A lot of money and the latest technology to create a show that looks, sounds and feels old-fashioned – and I mean that in a good way.

From the beginning we are pulled into a world of storybook illustrations from the beginning of the 20th Century. It occurred to me – and it’s not an original thought – that the musical is a fantastical form to begin with – the conventions of bursting into song, of scenery gliding in and out – the characters are already in an enchanted world. So, when we enter the world of J M Barrie’s imagination, things had better be pretty spectacular or we won’t notice the difference.

Spectacular is only the half of it. There is a pirate ship that sails onto the stage to close the first act, that is absolutely beautiful. In fact, Scott Pask’s scenic design and Paul Wills’s costumes are superb, and the video projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington enhance the action rather than distracting from it.

The songs (by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel) reminded me of Robert & Richard Sherman, the brothers who wrote so many wonderful hits for Disney: “When You Believe It” has more than a touch of Mary Poppins about it, and I was also reminded of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang several times before Barrie acquires his first automobile. In context and as a whole, the score is perfectly charming and the lyrics witty and character-revealing, but I wonder if any of the numbers will emerge as stand-alone hits. A musical needs at least one hit song.

The cast is perfect. Julian Ovenden is in fine voice as the naive Barrie, whose imagination is ignited when he meets the Llewellyn-Davies boys in Kensington Park. He strikes up a friendship with their mother, Sylvia (Rosalie Craig – who, like La Traviata, is able to belt out a good refrain while dangerously ill); the four boys are splendid. Harry Polden’s Peter is confident and touching, but all four of them strike the correct balance of charm and amusement.

Rob Ashford’s direction keeps us on the right side of sentimentality, bringing together technical elements and actors’ performances to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. For me the stand-out moment is a Jekyll and Hyde confrontation between Barrie and his darkest creation, Captain Hook (a delicious performance by Oliver Boot). They sing a duet and engage in swordplay in the perfect fusion of the real and the imaginary. It’s a glamorisation of what goes on in a writer’s mind, but brings some verve and vigour to the second act. As Tinkerbell is in the ascendancy, poor Sylvia’s light is dimming. Barrie’s marriage to Mary falls apart (Clare Foster is excellent as the long-suffering wife and music hall star). But while all this happening, something wonderful is being born.

It’s a long time before we see Peter Pan – there’s a pared-down synopsis of the play – and throughout the piece I was wondering if we would see any flying… Of course, we do – I won’t say when it happens but when it does, it’s exactly right.

It’s a dazzling, lavish production, amusing, touching and technically impressive. J M Barrie, presented here as a man-child who never grew up, not only creates his greatest work but also finds emotional fulfilment, a Lost Boy no more.

Judging from the way this Pan is handled, I’d say producer Harvey Weinstein has found gold.


Tall Stories

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS
Curve, Leicester, Friday 1st June, 2012

There are some people who think Gulliver’s Travels is a kids’ story. These people hardly ever see beyond the surface – or past the chapters concerning the Lilliputians. Happily, I am able to report that this Dragon Breath Theatre production covers the whole story and, while child friendly, deals with the grown-up issues and emotions contained within Swift’s story, which first appeared in 1726. In particular I was pleased to see the political satire intact and updated: the witty –and rhyming- script counterpoints Jove with the ‘almighty Gove’ as, in its most absurdist episode, on the flying island, the closed thinking of educational policy is exposed as ridiculous.

Each of Lemuel Gulliver’s adventures presents technical challenges. How will they stage Lilliput? The Giants? The Houyhnhnms? Director Adel Al-Salloum rises to each challenge and deals with them with inventive and charming solutions. The tiny Lilliputians reminded me of the Tombliboos on In The Night Garden and the Houyhnhnms are horse heads on flexible rods, beautiful and graceful. The changes in scale are handled superbly.

The ensemble of performers transform the simple shipdeck setting into spaces on which the audience can project imagined pictures conjured by Peter Rumney’s evocative and funny script. Lemuel Gulliver (Chris Jack) is emotionally and mentally disturbed – it’s quite harrowing to see him in this state as the play begins. Daughter Molly (Jennifer Welwright) urges him to speak and so he narrates to her (and to us) his tales of wonders. Chris Jack is an appealing Gulliver, the voice of reason in each mad land he visits. He learns lots about human nature and society – most of it negative. It’s not a pretty picture. The flying island’s policy of bombing people who disagree into submission is particularly disturbing and idiotic. Gulliver is stunned – he would pitch a fit if he knew that the world today, as run by humans, hasn’t changed at all since Swift’s day. As a foreigner in the land of the giants, Gulliver, a trained surgeon and educated man, is reduced to dancing on tabletops as a novelty act and regarded as sub-human. I’m sure many immigrant workers today would recognise this beastly treatment. Oh, technology has improved and fashion has got worse, but basically people and politics are still the same.

The glimmer of hope for a better world comes in the Land of the Houyhnhnms, where horses rule over brutish humans (Swift gave us the word “Yahoo”). Here, conflict is disdained rather than sought. Gulliver longs to go back, despite the Houyhnhnms insistence that he is worse than Yahoo, because he can think and feel and yet is still bellicose and full of anger. The Houyhnhnms suggest we can rise above our baser instincts and aspire to Utopia. We are still a long way off, folks.

Chris Jack is an appealing Gulliver, emanating warmth and narrating with a rich, evocative voice. Also impressive are Jim Findley and Becky Matter in a variety of roles, and Jennifer Welwright is touching as Molly and the giantess Glumdalclitch. Duncan Chave’s atmospheric music is delightfully performed by Yvonna Magda, and Nettie Scriven’s design is elegant and stylish. The costumes are beautiful, adding to the conjuring of Gulliver’s bygone era but above all, this absorbing and entertaining production reminds us of the state of our world today. We must not let the Yahoos and the mental midgets continue to have their way.