Tag Archives: Dewi Johnson

Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


Cosy fun totally

IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

Crescent Theatre, Friday 16th November, 2018

 

Based on the comic opera Cosi fan tutte by Mozart and Da Ponte, this fresh little farce from the Foppish Theatre Company is vibrant with wit.  The script by Dewi Johnson (who also directs) and Andrew Buzzeo (who also appears as ‘Alistair’) adheres to Da Ponte’s libretto after an establishing scene in which soldier buddies, William and Benjamin, accept a bet from their cynical, worldly chum Alistair, who claims that within a day he can make the soldiers’ girlfriends turn to infidelity…  This scene, performed between the three, on the apron with nothing more than a simple bench, shows how direction can keep things engaging by eliciting energetic performances from the actors.

As Alistair, Andrew Buzzeo is hugely enjoyable, a sardonic manipulator and social commentator.  Equally entertaining are Luke Grant’s Benjamin and Zach Powell’s William, posing and posturing in ridiculous disguises (oh, those moustaches!) and flailing around from the effects of poison; Powell provides a superb study in comic playing when Alistair’s scheming bites William in the backside.

As the unwitting participants, the girls, Zoe Birkbeck is a haughty and bookish Fiona, never less than elegant, while Tessa Bonham Jones’s Charlotte is delightfully dim and frivolous.  As Phoebe, the conniving maid, Georgina Morton gives an arch but down-to-earth performance; her appearance as a notary, with a beard as long as she is tall, is ludicrously funny.

Johnson and Buzzeo’s script crackles with witty lines, and the dialogue has an authentic sound, with only the occasionally anachronistic turn of phrase to remind us that this is a modern-day pastiche and not a long-existing text.  I even recognise some lines as direct translations from Da Ponte’s original; well, if it ain’t broke…

The set, by Ludwig Meslet Poppins, consists of white cloth, creating flats and wings, like the ghost of an 18th century stage.  It’s a blank backdrop against which the colourful characters play out the farce, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Rosemarie Johnson’s costumes are bright, evoking the period setting, and adding to the elegance of the enterprise.

It’s fast-moving and funny, and irresistible in its appeal.  Johnson’s direction is sharp, like a cut diamond  The sexual mores on display may remind us of the distance between the past and our present, but the machinations of the plot, played here to perfection, show that ‘old-fashioned’ conventions can come across as a refreshing and, above all, entertaining alternative to the pervasive naturalism of the modern-day stage and screen.

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Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

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Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 


Spell Trouble

MACBETH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017

 

Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland.  The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds.  There is more to them than their doll-like exterior.  Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place.  It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent.  Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic.  Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?

I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters.  Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way.  Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.

These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.

Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words.  Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments.  She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible.  Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches.  But that’s just me.

Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up.  His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield.  The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint.  I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.

Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out.  Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone.  It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out!  Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us.  Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on.  Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.

Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt.  Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself.  I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.

Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.

Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip.  Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own.  The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.

A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them.  I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun…  I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.

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You need hands… Charlie Woolhead as Macbeth (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Humorous Liaisons

THE WILL

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 7th January, 2017

 

Marivaux’s 1736 comedy deals with the mercenary nature of marriage and the folly of placing money above human emotion (in this case, love).  The Marquis (Andrew Buzzeo) stands to inherit 600,000 francs if he marries Hortense (Tessa Bonham Jones) but forfeit a third of this fortune to her if he doesn’t.  Neither he nor Hortense is motivated to marry the other, apart from the prospect of financial gain – they each have their hearts set on other people: he, the Countess (Cicely Whitehead) and she, the Chevalier (Liam Fernandez).  Add to the mix a couple of scheming servants in the form of Lepine (Dominic Weatherill) and Lisette (Scarlett Saunders) and the scene is set for a lot of comings and goings, plots and counterplots, and ridiculously volatile and transient affections.  The characters speak their minds in asides that the other characters can hear, making for some funny exchanges and additional complications.  They are all pretty much stock figures – most of them don’t have names, only indicators of social standing – but they are exquisitely played by this tight ensemble, it is a pleasure to see them work themselves up and then extricate themselves from their own machinations.

Tessa Bonham Jones is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Hortense – it falls to her to provide a good deal of exposition at the start, as Marivaux sets out his stall.  Liam Fernandez’s Chevalier is handsome and passionate; Andrew Buzzeo’s Marquis hilariously and charmingly blusters, like a kind of articulate Hugh Grant, struggling to express his feelings to Cicely Whitehead’s coolly elegant Countess.  Dominic Weatherill is suitably cocky as Lepine but it is Scarlett Saunders’s worldly and wily Lisette the maid who threatens to steal every scene she is in.

The timing is impeccable.  Dewi Johnson’s direction is pacy, augmenting the witty translation with comic business, and keeping things moving.  The mannered performance style fits the heightened language and the audience acknowledgments keep us in collusion with the plotters.  Denisa Dumitrescu’s costumes are gorgeous (the play has become a period piece rather than the contemporary social satire it was originally) and Charlotte Orsler’s set is largely a huge document – the will of the title – which towers over the action, forming the backdrop and also the floor; the characters traipse over the stipulations that motivate them, until they come to their senses and realise love is more important than money.

Hugely enjoyable, this production tickles and amuses; we love to see self-centredness at work so overtly, safe in the knowledge that higher motivations will prevail.

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