Tag Archives: Curve Leicester

Glowing Colours

THE COLOR PURPLE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th July, 2019

 

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of 1982 was brought to the silver screen three years later by Steven Spielberg.  Now it arrives on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage in a brand new production of the Tony award-winning musical, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  It’s a landmark production: the first co-production between the Hippodrome and Leicester’s Curve theatre and, for the first time out, it sets the bar impossibly high.

The ticket gives a heads-up that the show ‘contains themes of Rape, Abuse, Incest, Overt Racism and Sexism’ and you wonder how depressed you’re going to be by the curtain call.  It is surprising how many laughs there are in it!  Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the story tells of the terrible tribulations of Celie (T’Shan Williams) whose wicked stepfather impregnates her twice and takes her newborns away.  Celie is palmed off to abusive widower ‘Mister’ (Ako Mitchell) to serve as wife, mother to his kids, and general dogsbody – little better than a slave, in effect.  Adding to the pain is forced separation from beloved sister Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) and that’s just the start of Celie’s troubles…

The entire cast excels.  The score is gospel- soul- and jazz-infused, punctuated by some show-stopping numbers.  T’Shan Williams is astonishing, bringing the house down with her solos, without being overly melodramatic in her dramatic scenes.  Her Celie has dignity to make the size of her heart and the indomitability of her spirit.  There are some crowd-pleasing moments of defiance that elicit electrified responses from the audience.  Danielle Fiamanya is warm and passionate as Nettie, and there’s a performance that threatens to steal the show from Karen Mavundukure as the ferocious but hilarious Sofia.  Joanna Francis brings glamour and a touch of the Blues as itinerant singer Shug Avery, and there is humour courtesy of Simon-Anthony Roden’s henpecked Harpo, the perfect contrast to the domineering, bullying male figures of Mister and Pa.  Perola Congo adds to the fun as would-be singer Squeak.

Delroy Brown is perfectly monstrous as the tyrannical stepfather, while Ako Mitchell’s Mister goes through a transformation that demonstrates that old attitudes and behaviours are not written in stone.  There is hope and the possibility of redemption.

Alex Lowde’s walled set with its pair of doll’s-house openings allows a swift and slick change of locations, with superbly realised costumes assisting the passage of the years.  Director Tinuke Craig leavens the dark themes of Walker’s tale with humour, exuberance and vitality, making us care about these characters from the off.  The emotional resolution jerks tears from every eye in the house.   One of the most heart-warming and uplifting theatrical experiences I have had the pleasure to experience.  By the time I leave the building, my hands are the colour red.   Magnificent!

The Color Purple_Karen Mavundukure (Sofia)_Photography by Manuel Harlan

A rare moment of quiet for Karen Mavundukure as Sofia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 

 

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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)


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.