Tag Archives: Emily Johnstone

Shrewd Moves

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 2nd May, 2019

 

Gender-swapping is all the rage in theatre these days but if there’s a play where changing the men to women and vice versa actually makes a point about the world we live in, it’s this one, Shakespeare’s not-so-romantic comedy about conformity to gender roles.  The setting is a matriarchy, instantly conjuring memories of The Two Ronnies and their Worm That Turned series.  While that show was about revolution, Shakespeare’s is about moulding the individual to comply with societal norms.  Both, I think, show the limitations of expecting as gender to behave in a certain way.  Unlike The Two Ronnies’ serial, which was set in a dystopian future, this production is set very much in the 1590s and things are ticking along nicely, thank you, with women, mature women, ruling the roost as captains of trade and industry.

Baptista Minola (a strident Amanda Harris) is trying to marry off her sons.  The one is sweet and lovely (and hilarious – beautifully played by a hair-tossing James Cooney); the other is aggressive and ferocious – but these women are not cowed by such masculine outbursts, mainly because in their world, such displays are exceedingly rare.  ‘Kate’s tantrums are perceived as an individual’s aberrations, rather than the way that men carry on in general.  As Katherine, Joseph Arkley is both a commanding and an appealing presence.  He is a stallion to be broken, a hound to be brought to heel, a direct contrast to the effeminacy prevalent in other men, for example Richard Clews’s camp old retainer, Grumio.

The woman for the job is Claire Price’s wild-haired Petruchia, all gusto and caprice – it’s OK for women to have their norm-stretching eccentricities, of course.  Well up for a bit of ruff, Price is delightfully unpredictable and very funny.  In fact, the production is riddled with funny women.  There’s a joyous double act: Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania – the latter a real hoot when disguised as a noblewoman.  Sophie Stanton’s Gremia glides around as though on wheels, while Amy Trigg’s Biondella, actually on wheels, darts around, adding to the farcical elements of the action.  There is an elegant turn from Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia.  This Padua is more like Cougar Town, with women of a certain age eyeing up the young male totty.

There’s a vibrant, gorgeous score by Ruth Chan and sumptuous period costumes by Hannah Clark.  Director Justin Audibert keeps the staging traditional – apart from the gender-swaps – and it works brilliantly.  A finely-tuned ensemble keeps the laughs coming and the gender-swaps cast new light on what can be a problematic piece for present-day audiences.  Inversion puts the status quo in the spotlight, and we see how ludicrous it can be to expect individuals to tailor their conduct to adhere to one end of the spectrum or the other.

There’s a lightness of touch to the whole enterprise, so don’t dread a sociological treatise.  This is a hugely enjoyable, refreshing take on a classic that works beautifully.  Wonderful.

The Taming of the Shrew production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_275034

Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)

 

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As You Lump It

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

 

The plot of this rom-com from Shakespeare is bunched up at either end of the play.  A lot happens in the opening scenes – even a wrestling match – but when characters become exiled from the dukedom, the story line goes for a meander through the Forest of Arden, branching out into subplots about various pairs of lovers, until our protagonist Rosalind, seems to realise we’ve reached Act V and decides to pull all the threads together for a resolution.

The opening scenes are fine, with Anthony Byrne’s menacing, paranoid Duke Frederick ruling the roost.  David Ajao is an embittered and angry Orlando, disenfranchised by his weaselly brother Oliver (an excellent Leo Wan) but Orlando softens when the surprise of his victory (sorry if that’s a spoiler) against the Duke’s in-house wrestler Charles, is topped by his surprise falling in love with Rosalind at first sight.  Graeme Brookes’s Charles is more of a besuited bouncer – Frederick runs his realm like some kind of underworld boss, and Emily Johnstone is also good fun as Le Beau, tottering across the grass in her high heels and Krystle Carrington hairdo.

Lucy Phelps is a hugely appealing Rosalind, but I find Sophie Khan Levy even more so as her good-time gal cousin, Celia.  And so, I am liking this As You Like It

Then we get to the forest.

In a startling moment, director Kimberley Sykes flips the production on its head – much as the characters’ lives are turned upside down – and, taking the words of Jaques as a game plan, shows us that all the world is indeed a stage.  Sykes’s Arden is a bare stage with costume rails wheeled on, where lighting cues can be summoned by characters at the click of a finger.  It’s a bold move, and a valid one, except I am no longer with the characters on their journey.  I am, like Celia, Aliena-ted, and kept at a distance.  It’s a case of the concept working against the content.  With new characters coming and going as the subplot rattles along, I lack the attachment and investment one feels in say, a Much Ado, or a Twelfth Night.  Shakespeare gives us love in many facets in these scenes, but I find myself not caring.

Sandy Grierson is striking as Touchstone the fool, like a glam-rock Max Wall with a touch of Billy Connolly, but his love scenes are too aggressive.  He practically bullies lonely goatherd Audrey into a relationship (via the medium of British Sign Language, which adds another layer of humour to the scene).  Gender-swapped Jaques (Sophie Stanton) wanders about aimlessly, and I like the fluidity of Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy – very funny) who has set her sights on Rosalind as a boy, while being pursued by bright-eyed Silvia (Amelia Donkor) her earnest same-sex suitor…

At the moment when Rosalind effects a resolution, the scene is dominated by the arrival of a massive puppet, altogether too distracting I find.  In her epilogue, Rosalind invites us to ‘like as much of this play as please you’.  Unfortunately, the parts I do like are overshadowed by those I don’t.

As You Like It production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_273380

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind before they are ‘turfed out’ (Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC)


Oh What a Lovely Show!

MISS LITTLEWOOD

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.

Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche.  Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene.  The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography.  There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling.  Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life.  The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.

She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage).  Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years.  This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed.  Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.

There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production.  Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another.  Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.

Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller.  Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.

Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did.  Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag.  The show is relentlessly charming.  Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline.  The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.

For me, the star is the show’s creator.  Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish.  The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim.  It’s magnificent.

An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.

Miss Littlewood production photographs_ 2018 _2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis_253490

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018

 

Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)