Tag Archives: Derby Theatre

Christmas Carroll


Derby Theatre, Tuesday 6th December, 2016


Lewis Carroll’s classic dose of nonsense, word play and silliness poses at least one problem for those who wish to adapt it for the stage.  Chiefly, it offers very little in the way of plot or character development.  It is basically one strange thing after another until (spoiler!) Alice wakes up.  It’s a dream and dreams, by and large, don’t have narrative structure or make much sense.  Writer Mike Kenny addresses this problem by framing the visit to Wonderland in a present-day setting.  Alice is a young teen facing an ‘important’ exam.  The pressure placed on children to pass tests at various (too many) stages in their education is something to which we can all relate.  No wonder she is having troubling dreams!

Abby Wain is a marvellous Alice, our guide through all the strangeness.  Relatable, expressive and self-reliant, Alice is our touchstone for what is ‘normal’ in the weird world that surrounds her.  Along the way, she meets outlandish characters who are reminiscent of people from her real life.  Among them is Jack Quarton’s twitchy white rabbit, John Holt Roberts and Paula James as Tweedles Dee and Dum, and Joanna Brown’s imperious and tyrannical Queen of Hearts, whose remarkable costume would not be out of place on a fashion show catwalk!  Neil Irish’s costumes bring colour and style to the blackboard set.  Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter is a dapper figure, sporting a kilt and playing the bagpipes – they’re a versatile bunch, these actor musicians – and he’s in great voice too.  Ivan Stott’s original songs are all catchy and fun in a range of upbeat styles.  A highlight for me is the Duchess’s Act One closing number, given plenty of welly by Elizabeth Eves, a perfectly pitched piece of character acting.  It’s also fun to see Tweedledee and Tweedledum rocking out with electric guitars and Mohawks.


Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter enjoys tart an’ tea.

There is much to enjoy here.  Mike Kenny intersperses lines and rhymes from Lewis Carroll with poetry of his own, giving us the key scenes we expect to see: the tea party, the caucus race, the trial, the croquet match, and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat (both played by a lively Keshini Misha).  Director Sarah Brigham makes inventive use of the theatre’s revolve and there is canny staging of Alice’s changes of size, and her fall down the rabbit hole is daringly presented with breath-taking circus skills.

I do think greater contrast could be made between Alice’s real life and the surreal land of her dreams.  Her real life is stylised, as befits a musical, but it’s essentially the same space and means of presentation as the supposed weirdness of Wonderland.  I would have gone the Wizard of Oz route if I was in charge.  But I’m not.

By the end, we feel like we’ve been treated to spectacle and entertained by an energised bunch of talented performers.  Alice comes to a kind of self-awareness and is able to put the Big Scary Exam into perspective – a valuable message, delivered in an irresistibly enjoyable way.


Alice (Abby Wain) in a key scene. KEY SCENE!!… Suit yourselves.


Ah, Gym Lads


Derby Theatre, Thursday 2nd June, 2016


This brand new piece is written by the cast of two, namely Fatih Goksu and Andy Mandoiu.  Fresh and funny, it examines the objectification of men that has given rise to gym culture and addiction to exercise.  The pressure to mould one’s love handles into a six-pack is immense but one which I have thus far managed to resist.

The pair address a video camera, YouTubers making a post about their philosophy/exercise program, called Trans Tatum – trans as in transition, Tatum as in Channing, the beefcake actor.  They evangelise about their method but in between their videos, the cracks appear in their friendship.  As Andy becomes increasingly driven and obsessed, his personality changes.  He becomes less nice to know; while Fatih struggles with self-consciousness, unable to look at his own reflection.

It’s a fast-moving, ever-changing kaleidoscope of ideas.  Director Lewis Pike keeps the changes of pace and style coming, channelling the energy of his versatile actors, so that nothing is allowed to become static.  It’s not all banter, quips and funny voices.  Behind the running around and physical jerks, there is a thought-provoking teasing out of important issues.  Male suicide is touched upon, addiction, self-esteem, peer pressure, media pressure… There’s a great deal packed into just one hour.

Andy Mandoiu is the more assertive with an excellent line in famous boxer impressions, while Fatih Goksu is more sensitive, struggling to get results.  He addresses the camera as if it’s his confidante or a modern-day form of confessional – which is another comment on today in itself.  The idea that conforming to a physical norm makes you a better person is held up for question, in a wide range of amusing ways.  A doughnut and cigarette are subjected to trial and subsequent execution.  Captions on a screen behind the performers undermine their claims and statistical ‘evidence’.

The performers rarely stay still for a second, expending a great deal of energy in physical exercise and physical comedy.  The writing and the performance may be fresh but the hot little studio at Derby Theatre certainly isn’t, reeking as it does of sweat – for authenticity, I believe!

Trans Tatum is a joy from start to finish, a hugely entertaining piece that actually says something.  One image, perhaps, encapsulates the show exactly: Andy doing press-ups over a full-length mirror, mixing the narcissism and masochism that are at the heart of gym culture.  Clearly, Optical Fraud is a company of exciting new talent, if this play is anything to go by.  The show deserves a longer run and a wider audience.

Transtatum Square

Andy Mandoiu and Fatih Goksu

Double Whammy


Derby Theatre, Friday 5th February, 2016


The Hour Before We Knew Nothing of Each Other

Peter Handke’s unconventional piece is based on the idea of sitting in a café and watching the world go by. The people we glimpse, their lives, moods, situations, we can only guess at – some more accurately than others. And so the cast give us a ceaseless parade of characters and character types, coming and going, and it is for us as beholders to look for meaning, to read each vignette as it flits by. It’s an interesting and engaging idea. Wordless and plotless, the show excites our fascination with people-watching and our need to impose narrative and order in the world. Some things we glimpse are more readable than others: a young woman walks by, smiling proudly at the huge potted plant she carries, a man brings on a roll of carpet… Other moments are symbolic: a blindfolded figure walks through a group of bobbing dancers, stilling them as she passes… Other times are more abstract or surreal. There is always a tension that something might happen, that a thumbnail sketch will develop into incident with consequences and aftermath. Some figures recur – there is a running joke of a man with a broom trying to keep the stage clean, an exercise in futility.

Technically, it is brilliant. A challenge for the stage management team with so many cues and props to handle, to get on and off to keep the action seamless. The pace never lets up; this show is slick and the energy never flags. There are moments of beauty, moments of clowning, and the comings and goings shed light on as much as they obscure about aspects of the human experience. As a piece of physical theatre, it impresses, and stimulates the imagination – until the time runs out and it stops. The experience will be different for each of us, in much the same way that no two people can ever read the same book. I enjoy the parade but it’s not the kind of thing I’d sit through twice.


The second part of this double bill is Dennis Kelly’s more conventional drama about teenage bullying that turns to tragedy. A gang hounds a boy to his death and try to cover-up his disappearance by framing a local man for the boy’s abduction. It’s a kind of cross between Lord of the Flies and Blue Remembered Hills. Emily Pell’s Leah handles lengthy monologues well, trying to provoke a response from her taciturn boyfriend, Phil (Mitchell Robbins). She even tries to throttle herself, in a delightfully comic moment. It is Phil who masterminds the plan to cover their tracks – Robbins could do with being more menacing when imposing his will. Dillon North gives an enjoyably funny portrayal of the wimpy crying Brian, later going to the opposite extreme due to medication. Harry Smith impresses as new boy John Tate – it’s a pity his character disappears halfway through, and I also enjoy Angus Pickering as Richard and Chelsea Watts as Jan. The ensemble handle Kelly’s naturalistic dialogue with aplomb, and the entire show is stylishly presented. The woodland setting is not only where the action takes place but representative of the dark place in which the kids find themselves. Charlie Brentnall’s Adam, the victim of the piece, twitches and rambles a bit like Poor Tom in King Lear – you’d think his hair would be messier though after his ordeal!

Kelly’s neat thriller has plenty of dark humour but is ultimately a bleak view of humanity, showing how peer pressure can lead people down the wrong path at the cost of individual well-being – for the victim and the perpetrators alike.

A thoroughly enjoyable and captivating evening at Derby Theatre, with Theatre Arts students working alongside theatre professionals to give us a high standard of thought-provoking entertainment.


Mitchell Robbins and Emily Pell (Photo: Steve Gresty)

Derby and Joan


Derby Theatre Studio, Derby, Saturday 18th July, 2015


The studio at Derby Theatre is set out for a spot of in-the-round. We sit behind tables on chairs and stools – it’s like pub theatre and there is even a bar in one corner. While we take our seats, a young woman in a ‘Tank Girl’ tee-shirt and black shorts is pacing around, murmuring, “She’ll be here in a minute.”

This is Joan. Of Joan of Ark fame. When the houselights go down, she takes centre-stage to tell us her story. It’s down-to-earth stuff and very funny, like a Northern comic, like Paul Shane. Joan is mannish and behaves oddly for a girl in thirteenth century France. She doesn’t conform to gender expectations, although she gives it a good go, enlisting a man from the front row to be a potential suitor. There’s a lot of this: direct audience address, speaking to individuals, borrowing a jacket, asking questions, but so engaging is the performance, irresistible in its insistence, that we stop feeling on edge and go with it. When it comes to full-on audience participation for a battle scene, we do our best, with only a little cajoling.

This version of Joan’s biography is enormous fun and a great laugh but it also engages our emotions with its lyrical passages: Joan’s visions of Saint Catherine, for example. And then we’re off again with a contrasting change of pace: writer/director Lucy J Skilbeck keeps the laughs coming, the story moving, and the writing beautiful in a blistering first play.

It’s a one-woman show, a tour de force (your actual French) performance from Lucy Jane Parkinson, whose energy is infectious and her ad libs quick-fire and sharp. Before our very eyes she transforms herself into key male figures from Joan’s life, and each successive transformation is more elaborate, more startling. Parkinson is an award-winning drag king – and you can easily see why. There are songs, cabaret-style, humorous and catchy – until Joan’s final torch song (pun intended) touches the heart.  Joshua Pharo’s lighting and David Lewington’s subtle sound design take us from the pub setting and into a France of our imagination but it’s Parkinson who commands our attention.

It’s an exhilarating, captivating show as much about humanity and gender restrictions (still prevalent today) as it is a history lesson. Joan may go to the stake but Lucy Jane Parkinson sets the world on fire.

Publicity image for JOAN

Publicity image for JOAN

Tragic Roundabout


Derby Theatre, Tuesday 16th June, 2015


A large, mirrored circle is suspended above a stage that is bare apart from a roundabout, the kind you used to see in children’s playgrounds. Meanwhile, a sound effect plays continuously: a wheel going around, or a giant’s game of roulette, or someone roller-skating in circles… Whatever it is, it gets old pretty quickly. It, and other loud and menacing sounds, recur when something portentous is happening. Enough with the sound effects already!

It’s a shame because this plucky cast speak Shakespeare’s verse – much of it rhyming – with clarity and ease, bringing naturalism and truth to the characters in the somewhat contrived tragic circumstances. They don’t need drowning out.

Also, while I’m at it, there is a row of spotlights along the back that shine directly into the audience’s faces. Again and again. Ouch.

These things are annoyances rather than enhancements to what the actors are doing.

Director Polina Kalinina ditches the prologue, thereby losing some of the inevitability of events; in its place we get a song from Cymbeline – until the FX drown it out.

All this aside, this is a cracking, entertaining production from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Paapa Essiedu is an appealing Romeo, imbued with a lively sense of humour. We fall for him straight away. Juliet (Daisy Whalley) does not have the same immediate impact but, by the balcony scene, I have warmed to her. She has a tendency to gallop through her lines somewhat – the impatience of youth, I suppose – but could do with reining it in at times to allow us to enjoy her longer speeches.

Sally Oliver’s Nurse is stylish but dim, funny and touching. The excellent Oliver Hoare’s bohemian Mercutio fills the stage with banter and bawdy gestures – when he is killed, even though you may know it is coming, it is a truly shocking moment. The violence matches the passion of the love scenes – and the roundabout is utilised well, its handrails dismantled for weapons.  The wheel of Fortune, indeed.

Fiona Sheehan and Timothy Knightley as Juliet’s mum and dad do grief-stricken very well, while Alan Coveney’s Prince has a measured authority. Paul Currier’s Friar Laurence is a quiet man, devastated by his part in the tragic events, and the rest of the cast support with unrelenting energy and style.

It’s a good-looking production, with 1960s costumes (by Emma Bailey) even if the sound effects and music are a little out of joint. Polina Kalinina keeps things cracking along, navigating the play’s mood swings effectively. Even though I know Shakespeare’s play very well, I find I am still amused, shocked and moved in all the right places.

Paapa Essiedu as Romeo %26 Daisy Whalley as Juliet © Craig Fuller-1

Paapa Essiedu and Daisy Whalley (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Larger Than Life


Derby Theatre, Monday 7th April, 2014 


“There are no small parts, only small actors.”  That cliché refers to mentality rather than stature.  Massive star Warwick Davies knows there are lots of small, as in short, actors who are not getting the chance to display their talents outside of Snow White pantomimes and Gringott’s bank.  Davies set up the Reduced Height theatre company to provide just that chance and their first production, Philip King’s 1944 farce gets them off to a running start.

The play is old-fashioned but wearing well. Directed by the legendary Eric Potts, the emphasis is on getting as many laughs as possible from the material.

Davies is Reverend Lionel Tapp and shows a nice line in comic reactions, spit takes and double takes, and is ably supported by his troupe of character actors. Rachel Denning swans around as the vicar’s glamorous wife;  Francesca Papagno is an absolute hoot as local frump and busybody Miss Skillon who gets pissed as a fart and stowed in a cupboard.  Phil Holden is great fun as actor-turned-soldier Clive, and Jon Key is suitably indignant as scandalised as fuddy-duddy bishop Uncle Dudley.

It’s all played in a heightened (so to speak) style with larger-than-life characterisations.  There’s lots and lots of running around, some of it gratuitous, in this tale of disguise and mistaken identity.  Raymond Griffiths adds a touch of menace as an escaped POW with a cod German accent, Jamie John brings camp and confusion as a visiting vicar, but the stand-out of the night is Francesca Mills as Ida, the cheeky maid, all gorblimey and eye-rolling, complete with a Barbara Windsor cackle.

It’s fast paced – it has to be or it would die on its arse – and gloriously silly fun, good-natured and refreshingly uncynical in its contrivances. Eric Potts works his players hard, piling on the comic business, making use of their physicality without mockery.  There is something extra funny in seeing their little legs run, and it’s funny in another sense how their lack of height adds a dimension to the comedy.

I hope they’ll tackle a straight drama next.  This production takes giant strides away from the notion of short actors as novelty acts.


Homeward Bound

Mike Kenny’s new version of The Odyssey condenses 20 years of travel and adventure into two hours of stage time.  The first act, which deals with Odysseus’s journey, certainly benefits from a fast pace, giving us the key episodes of the epic voyage in brief scenes.  A chorus of gods is our narrators while the man himself lies spark out centre stage.  As the action gets under way, Odysseus becomes his own storyteller, narrating a story within a story – but don’t worry: it’s all very accessible and easy to follow.

It’s action-packed and fast-moving with some stirring acapella  singing from soloists and the entire company.  Composer and sound designer Ivan Stott should be commended for his excellent contributions.  He also appears as a range of characters, including Eumaeus the swineherd.

Director Sarah Brigham hardly lets the cast keep still for a second; the action is fluid and the staging is rich with invention and ideas, making the most of the present-day army aesthetic.  But for me, the tone is slightly off.  Some of the narration and heightened dialogue is a little too earnest and po-faced.  The piece could do with lightening up – that is not to say it is humourless because it has its funny moments; I just think the bias is the wrong way round.  They need to have more fun with it so that moments of anguish and suffering are all the more striking by contrast.

Christopher Price is a darkly funny Cyclops, stalking around on stilts, half-man, half-Dalek.  Wole Sawyerr is a weary Odysseus, conveying most of the hero’s exhaustion through body language, summoning up yet another idea to save their skins and finding the energy to command his crew.  He seems to come alive in the second act when the plot slows down to focus on events upon his much-delayed return to his home on Ithaca.  Here is human drama – as opposed to the derring-do with gods and monsters in the first act – and the cast is able to invest more emotion in the playing of these scenes.

Emma Beattie is a hard-nosed Penelope, standing her ground against an infestation of suitors and guarding her emotions until she is finally sure her long-lost husband has returned.  Similarly effective is Rich Dolphin as Odysseus’s troubled teenage son Telemachus, convincing us with his entire demeanour that he is younger than he really is, without descending into caricature.  Adam Horvath gets the arrogance and cruelty of would-be husband Antinous just right, and I also enjoyed Ella Vale’s haughty Circe as well as Anna Westlake’s loyal servant Eurekleia.

The fights (directed by Ian Stapleton) and other acts of violence are handled extremely well – I just wish the production didn’t take itself quite so seriously in the first half.  There is more than enough energy and creativity at work here to allow for a lighter touch that would sharpen the contrast with the heavier moments.

Technically and theatrically impressive, this Odyssey is enjoyable but doesn’t really hit home until its hero does.


Promotional image for the production

Nice and Horrible


Derby Theatre, Thursday 2nd January, 2014


This year’s Christmas show at Derby Theatre is a refreshing departure from the ubiquitous traditional fare – although there are some elements of panto to it: we get to boo the baddies and cheer the good guys, for example.

Horrible Histories mastermind Terry Deary has written a story that amuses and informs without being didactic or labouring its message.  Young boy Watson (Mark Newnham) sneaks downstairs in the middle of the night to open a couple of presents, only to witness the arrival of evil Sidney Claus, the antithesis to Father Christmas, and his reindeer sidekick Rudolph.  This pair has come to steal the presents rather than deliver any.  Sidney’s master plan is to destroy Christmas forever.

Watson teams up with chirpy detective Shirley Holmes (Sarah Pelosi) and the scene is set for a time-travelling romp that takes us back to Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell, Henry VIII and so on, all the way to Bethlehem and King Herod.  On the way we learn about the origins of certain traditions like roast turkey for dinner and Christmas stockings, but these facts are always incidental to the fun.

Andrew Vincent is an enjoyable villain, with Simon Snashall amusingly dim as his side of venison.  The ensemble double up on parts; favourites for me are Elizabeth Rose as Oliver Cromwell’s dour Mrs debunking Christmas carols  (Good ‘King’ Wenceslas was only a Duke, you know) the Puritans’ production number and the marvellously flamboyant, rapping Charles II.

As you’d expect, if you’ve seen the brilliant TV series, there is a lot of silliness, fun with anachronisms, and plenty of wit in the lyrics to the jolly songs.

In fact, my only reservation is it’s not horrible enough.  The emphasis here is on fun and there is even a touching moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.  It’s just that I was expecting a bit more gore and a lot more pooh.


Getting Hitched


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.


A Bird in the Hand


Derby Theatre, Tuesday 17th September, 2013

Sarah Brigham directs her first production for the phoenix-like Derby Theatre, choosing for her debut Lawrence Till’s adaptation of Barry Hines’s famous novel, A Kestrel For A Knave.  If this show is an indication of the quality of work we can expect, I may as well set up residence in the auditorium.

Simple staging creates the world of Billy Casper.  Bits of rooms, shops and his school fly in and out, while a tight ensemble formed from professional actors and kids recruited from the community, perform the characters who taunt, bully and torment poor Billy at every turn.  Barney George’s design evokes the period – who could forget the geometric patterns of a 1960s school curtain? – with hints at pitheads and poverty.  Projections show us the countryside that abuts the town – at one point, giant stalks of wheat dwarf the characters, symbolically reminding us of the power and supremacy of nature.  Ivan Stott’s music supports the moods and the action with a cinematic quality.

Billy hasn’t much going for him.  He escapes into dramatic reconstructions of Desperate Dan comics.  He nicks from the shopkeeper who employs him as a paperboy.  He is bullied relentlessly by older brother Jud (a brutish Jimmy Fairhurst), blunted by the hardship of his working life down t’pit.  Mother (Samantha Seagar) is ineffectual – Nowadays you’d hope social services would swoop down on them like a – well, like a hawk.

At school he faces aggression from John Holt-Roberts as MacDowall, and disdain from Thomas Pickles as Tibbut.  Pickles gives us an electrifying monologue about wellies and tadpoles, enchanting us as much as his classmates.  It is remarkable how well the cast gels together – apart from the most obvious differences in height and age, they operate as a convincing entity, populated by individual characterisations.

Paul Clarkson’s headmaster Gryce is a delicious tyrant, exposing the brutality of the education system, and the lack of provision for boys like Casper, serving as a warning that a return to so-called ‘traditional values’ is not going to work.  I also loved Andrew Westfield as the pompous PE teacher, another representative of an institution that cannot support Casper’s needs.

The show belongs to Sam Jackson.  His portrayal of Billy is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  With his youthful energy and almost elfin, Peter Pan-like features, he utterly convinces as a 15 year old urchin.  He brings a physicality to the role, not just in his comic-book dramatisations but also in Billy’s moments of stillness.  Billy’s enthusiasm for and expert knowledge of training the kestrel he rescued surprises teacher Mr Farthing (a sympathetic John Elkington).  No one is a write-off, the play says.  Even someone like Billy Casper has potential for beauty, creativity and can make a contribution. There is hope for us all and it is a tragedy if that potential is not nurtured and encouraged to flourish.

Very cleverly, the production works on an allegorical level.  Sarah Brigham has selected this particular play to tell us that there is hope for theatre in Derby, despite its chequered past.  If Kes is anything to go by, Derby Theatre will soar very high indeed.


John Elkington and Sam Jackson (Photo: Robert Day)