Tag Archives: David Woodhead

Breaking the Ice

TITANIC – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 4th June, 2018

 

This story about belief in the infallibility of technology is delayed by a technical hitch, sort of foreshadowing what is to befall the ill-fated ‘unsinkable’ ship – although there can’t be a soul in the house who doesn’t know the story; it is a disaster branded in the public imagination and therefore, any retelling is flooded with dramatic irony.  The audience knows what’s coming but the crew and passengers do not, and so it is the job of the script to try to engage us with the lives of individuals before the main event disrupts everything.  And here – and only here – is where this musical adaptation is scuppered.  It’s a safe bet that the women (and children) are likely to survive; their husbands, beaux, fathers etc, not so much.  There are too many characters and too little time for us to be manipulated into caring about any of them very much, given that we know they have a date with an iceberg, and there is very little opportunity for characters to develop and endear them to us.  Lines like “I believe this will be my final voyage” clang like dropped anchors.

But it’s very well presented.  David Woodhead’s riveted steel proscenium frames a simple set with an upper and lower deck and a movable set of stairs, while his fabulous Edwardian costumes evoke the sense of period.  Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are Sondheimesque in tone and effect (I mean that as a compliment, of course), giving the cast, individuals and chorus alike, plenty of opportunity to belt their hearts out.  Director Thom Southerland tackles the wrecking of the ship with simple, stylised staging, enough to tease the imagination – we don’t even see the lifeboats, let alone the iceberg, but where the show has greatest impact is where the survivors stand before a role call of all those who perished, the lettering too small to be read, because those lost souls are, after all, unknowable.

Among the large cast several stand-out performances arise: Simon Green’s arrogant, hubristic J Bruce Ismay; Greg Costiglioni’s passionate Mr Andrews; Claire Machin’s social-climbing Alice; Lewis Cornay’s appealing Bell Boy and bandleader; and the mighty Niall Sheehy as Fred the boilerman.  Sheehy is set up as the hero of the piece and sings like one – but of course, poor Fred is no superman, and his sacrifice is almost understated.

Others have their moments: Judith Street and Dudley Rogers as the elderly Mr and Mrs Straus have a touching scene, deciding to face their fates together; Captain Smith (Philip Rham), Mr Ismay and Mr Andrews have a great scene in which they lash out, each blaming the others for the shipwreck.  A trio of girls, introduced as the Three Kates, show promise but only one (Victoria Serra) gets any real stage time – and makes the most of it.

By the end, I’m wondering if musical theatre was the way to go.  Perhaps a docu-drama style would have been more appropriate in bringing home the scale of the enterprise and the enormity of its loss.  And should a disaster – any disaster – be the basis of a piece of entertainment?  As it is, this Titanic is great on the ears, but leaves the heartstrings of this reviewer unplucked.

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Niall Sheehy’s Fred before it all goes belly-up (Photo: Scott Rylander)

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Going off the Rails

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 29th January, 2018

 

Based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this adaptation by Craig Warner plunges us into an amoral world, where man’s actions are not punished by the rule of law – the judicial and law enforcement systems exist but only to the extent that they are bogeymen, incited to shape the course of the action.  One man introduces himself to another as they travel on the same train across 1950s Texas.  A few drinks and a bit of chit-chat give rise to a deadly pact between them.  The extrovert Charles Bruno (Chris Harper) proposes to murder the troublesome wife of Guy Haines (Jack Ashton) in exchange for Ashton’s murder of Bruno’s stingy father… It seems like a joke, a bit of drink-induced fun.  Except Bruno goes through with his part of the bargain and soon expects Haines to do his…

As the loudmouth Bruno, Harper dominates the action, coldly amusing – the life and soul of any party, were he not such a chilling killer.  Harper recites Bruno’s account of the first murder with icy relish.  On the other hand, Jack Ashton’s Guy Haines is a complete contrast.  Initially more reserved than Bruno, we see him shut further in on himself as the consequences of the pact begin to pinch.  Both of these central roles are compellingly portrayed.  Haines struggles to keep his life on the rails while Bruno keeps crashing into it like a runaway train.

There is excellent support from Hannah Tointon as Anne, Guy’s second wife, showing more backbone than we might expect by the play’s denouement.  Also impressive are Helen Anderson as Bruno’s doting mother and brief appearances from Sandy Batchelor as Frank and Owen Findlay as Robert.

The star name for this tour must be John Middleton.  Formerly the mild-mannered vicar Ashley Thomas in Emmerdale, Middleton gives a more assertive performance as Arthur Gerrard, the trusty retainer of Bruno’s late father, who smells a rat and winkles out the truth.  Just as the murders occur off-stage, so does the bulk of Gerrard’s investigation, and so it does seem as if he stumbles across the facts with ease – but this is not a whodunit, rather a will-they-get-away-with-it, and the focus is on the aftermath’s effects on the protagonists.

David Woodhead’s set places the scenes in compartments with sliding panels that reveal and conceal parts of the stage accordingly.  This means the actors don’t have much room to manoeuvre, adding to the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense that events are closing in on the killers.  Woodhead dresses the cast in sharp suits of the period, complementing the strains of cool jazz that serve as incidental music for scenic transitions.  The production is suffused with an Edward Hopper feel: murky yet dispassionate.  In the confined settings, director Anthony Banks keeps things from becoming too static (although the lengthy opening scene on the train is in peril of becoming just that) by drawing out the intensity of the performances.  Each character is heightened in some way.

Consistently intriguing rather than gripping, the production offers, via Highsmith, a different take on morality.  Whether we want either Bruno or Haines or both of them to get off scot-free is a reflection on us.

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Chris Harper and Jack Ashton getting acquainted on the train


Old Flames

GASLIGHT

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th January, 2017

 

Written in 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is a pastiche of Victorian melodrama: an innocent girl is persecuted by an evil man but the intervention of a hero saves her from doom and thwarts the evil-doer’s plot…

Kara Tointon is a picture of innocence as the vulnerable Bella, believing herself to be going around the twist.  She is child-like, infantilised by her hubby who manipulates her every mood.  Tointon endears herself to us, keeping on the right side of pathetic and making the heightened dialogue sound natural.  As her bullying husband, Jack, Rupert Young domineers, exuding evil.  What begins as a study in mental cruelty swiftly becomes something even darker as the true nature of the man Bella married is brought to light.

It’s not all darkness: the unexpected arrival of Bella’s saviour in the form of former detective Rough (Keith Allen) brings humour and more than a touch of levity to proceedings.  Of course, this accentuates the moments of tension and suspense by contrast. Rough is a breath of fresh air to Bella’s stuffy, shut-in existence, and Allen plays him with relish in a funny and yet compelling portrayal.  There is also humour in the roles of the maidservants.  Charlotte Blackledge’s Nancy is cheeky to the point of impudence, while Helen Anderson’s Elizabeth is a masterclass in comic playing, doing so much with a simple “Yes, Miss” or “No, Miss”.  Wonderful stuff.

David Woodhead’s set design is to be savoured, capturing the oppression of Bella’s existence with a looming ceiling and dark panelling.  The set is enhanced by Howard Hudson’s lighting, which renders the action almost sepia at times, like the fading portraits on the walls, and, of course, the all-important gaslight that is so crucial to the plot. The sound design, by Ben and Max Ringham, augments the tension with dissonance, while Anthony Banks’s direction winds up the suspense like a watch spring.  Banks reins in the melodramatic excesses to keep the behaviour credible for a modern audience and this high-quality production proves this creaky old drama still has power to thrill.

You can tell it’s working when the villain is booed during his curtain call!

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Kara Tointon (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Movie Musical

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 15th October, 2015

 

It is commonplace these days to adapt popular films for the stage, often as musicals. Here the 1957 Ealing Comedy (which starred Peter Sellars and Margaret Rutherford) gets the jukebox musical treatment but all the songs are written by the great Irving Berlin. Standards like Blue Skies and What’ll I Do flesh out the action of this utterly charming period piece.

Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spencer (Haydn Oakley) inherits a cinema in a provincial town. The place is on its uppers, thanks to the underhand tricks of the owners of rival cinema, the Grand. Spencer and his wife Jean (Laura Pitt-Pulford) plan to tart up their picture house in order to get a better offer from the rivals, Albert and Ethel Hardcastle. But the Spencers soon find themselves emotionally attached to the old place and the Hardcastles have a fight on their hands.

It’s all good, clean fun, steeped in the sepia tones of nostalgia and brought to life by a likeable and energetic ensemble. Haydn Oakley is a rich-throated crooner but the superb Laura Pitt-Pulford steals the limelight – her solos are showstoppers and a treat for the ears. Matthew Crowe is delightful as camp solicitor-turned-drag-artiste Robin Carter and Ricky Butt is suitably booable as the snooty and conniving Ethel. Sam O’Rourke’s naïve Tom, a walking encyclopedia of cinematic trivia and the Hardcastles’ lovely daughter Marlene (Christina Bennington) bring the house down with Steppin’ Out With My Baby, in which Lee Proud’s choreography brings to mind the wonderful Gene Kelly.

Liza Goddard brings comedy and melancholy as Mrs Fazackerlee, former silent movie pianist, while Brian Capron (having abandoned teaching woodwork at Grange Hill comp) manages to be both scruffy and dashing as drunken projectionist Percy Quill. Musical Director Mark Aspinall and the rest of his sextet play sublimely the irresistible jazz arrangements and swing rhythms of the superior-quality score. David Woodhead’s set evokes the shabby grandeur of the picture house, enhanced by atmospheric lighting designed by Howard Hudson.

Director Thom Southerland captures the innocence of the era, delivering a feel-good piece that’s all warm and cosy like slipping into a warm bath.  It’s sweet, funny and charming, an unadulterated delight.  And there’s nothing wrong with that for a great night out at the theatre. You may also read more into it, if you’re that way inclined. The piece reeks of ‘British values’ in the best possible sense: fair play and rooting for the underdog, decency, loyalty and pulling together in the face of underhand tactics and dirty tricks.  The villains of the piece are those who seek to make profits by whatever means they deem necessary – and that’s something worth keeping in mind in these days under a government inebriated by the will to privatise everything they can get their mitts on.

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