Tag Archives: Emma Rice

Double Double


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019


On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.


Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)



Close Encounters of the Brief Kind


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th February, 2018


Emma Rice’s adaptation of the Noel Coward script makes a triumphant return to the REPa decade since its first incarnation.  Trimmed down to a jam-packed 90 minutes, this new production is a roller-coaster of theatrical invention and charm.  The illicit, irresistible romance of central couple Alec and Laura plays out in a crazy, stylised world in which the other (working class) characters act as a kind of chorus, their own uncomplicated love lives contrasting with the restraint and guilt of the protagonists.  It strikes me, this time around, how much the elements play a part in the telling of this story: air, fire and water are particularly prevalent, in the wind that blows through the station, and water in the waves of emotion that wash over the scenes… A fire is present and the earth, is represented I suppose, by the stacks of coal to one side.  The most elemental force in play though is Love.

Jim Sturgeon is every inch the English gent as Dr Alec Harvey, going against type to express his feelings.  He is matched by guilt-ridden Isabel Pollen’s Laura.  It’s all ‘teddibly, teddibly’ in its stuffiness but the emotions come up fresh and relatable.  They are surrounded by supporting players (sometimes, physically supporting!) with old-fashioned accents – the show strongly presents a bygone age: the romance of steam locomotion, when brandy was thruppence a glass, when middle class morals defined action… Propriety has given way to political correctness in society – and this is not a bad thing, but this quaintly English piece (English in its humour, its tea-drinking) is deliberately skewed away from the naturalistic.  The world was never like this, so don’t get too nostalgic for what didn’t exist.

Beverly Rudd absolutely shines as café girl Beryl, among other roles, and Lucy Thackeray’s Mrs Baggott is a remarkable characterisation and no mistake.  Dean Nolan, who also doubles as Laura’s becardiganed husband, is a lot of fun as railway worker Albert, while Jos Slovick’s Stanley leads the singing, his voice at odds with his silly hat.

This being a Kneehigh show, there is live music almost throughout, played by the cast and a complement of musicians.  A few Noel Coward numbers are included, because it’s not just about the brilliance of Emma Rice, you know.  The production reminds us of Rice’s skills and insights as a director.  There is much playful sophistication behind her ideas: Alec and Laura swooning in love, rising on chandeliers, the splash of water as they each tumble into a river, the puppet children being beastly to each other… The show bursts with ideas we appreciate on an emotional as well as analytical level.  The form delivers the content in a symbolic, stylised manner enabling us to engage emotionally, rather than keep us distant through theatrical alienation.

Exhilarating entertainment that reminds us why we fell in love with theatre in the first place, this is an all-too brief encounter with brilliance and a ride you don’t want to miss.


Isabel Pollen (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec)

Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon getting a bit carried away

The Honeymoon is over…


The REP, Birmingham, Friday 1st May, 2015


Expectations are more than knee high for a Kneehigh production. You expect to see certain things delivered in a certain style and once again director Emma Rice does not disappoint. The trappings of a Kneehigh show are all in evidence: the onstage musicians underscoring the action, beautiful puppetry (the dog is especially endearing) and a certain brio to the performance style.

Daphne du Maurier’s dark tale of jealousy becomes in this treatment a fairy story. A young girl moves into a castle (well, Manderley!) and discovers, Bluebeard-like, that her new husband has secrets… It’s not that the house is haunted but the inhabitants are, unable to shake off the memory of De Winter’s first wife, the eponymous and unseen Rebecca.

Imogen Sage is suitably appealing as the second Mrs De Winter, blundering from faux pas to faux pas and giving rise to tension. Tristan Sturrock cuts a dash as widower/newlywed Maxim De Winter, a man whose inner torments cause anguish and outbursts of temper. He is out-debonaired though by Ewan Wardrop as Jack Favell, his first wife’s lover. Wardrop sweeps across the stage, Astaire-like and cocky. You can see why Rebecca strayed! Emily Raymond is dour and yet impassioned as housekeeper Mrs Danvers, devoted to her former boss, and particularly enjoyable are Lizzie Winter and Andy Williams (not that Andy Williams) as hedonistic in-laws, Beatrice and Giles. Katy Owen almost steals the show as young servant Robert, whose dancing has to be seen to be believed.

For me, this production is all about the staging. Leslie Travers’s set combines elements of the rugged Cornish coast with the interior of Manderley and, depending on how scenes are lit (designed by Tim Lutkin) either the house or the Poldarkian  landscape dominates. A boat, lowered from the flies, becomes part of the floor in the house – it is as though they are dancing on the drowned Rebecca’s grave. Flashes of lightning remind us of the duality of mankind; beneath the veneer of civilisation run the powerful forces of nature. This is certainly true of Maxim De Winter – and the rest of us too!

It’s an enchanting and inventively theatrical production that should satisfy Kneehigh fans and Du Maurier aficionados alike.


Currying Favour


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 18th April, 2013


Emma Rice’s production of this new play by Tanika Gupta has Kneehigh running through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock.  All the familiar elements are here: the singing, the puppet children, the music, film projections… giving the story of the experiences of a range of Indian characters in Victorian London both a mythic and a contemporary feel.

This is the black-and-white days, in terms of the palette and also the politics. Abdul Karim (the charming Tony Jayawardena) arrives in England as a gift to Queen Victoria.  Vicky takes to him right away, thanks to his promise to cook curries for her.  He sets about to spice up her life and causes more and more of a stir in the royal household.  This is similar to the film Mrs Brown, in which Vicky cosied up to her equerry, Billy Connolly.  We visit their relationship at various points in the Queen’s final decades, and while Karim becomes more favoured and promoted, the scenes are all rather similar.  Perhaps if Her Maj had been more diffident with him to begin with and he had had to thaw her reserve, the impact of her declaration, in Hindi, that she loves him, might be more striking.

This is also the story of Rani (Anneika Rose) who travels to England as a nanny but is promptly dismissed by her employers as soon as they dock.  Her fortunes rise and fall and rise again, Cinderella in the big city; a Victorian gentlemen takes advantage of her when she impresses him with her culinary skills and throws her out, pregnant and destitute.  We see Rani change from the wide-eyed naive girl to an assured and educated and accomplished woman.  You can almost hear Beyonce saying “You go, girlfriend.”  Her boyfriend Hari (Ray Panthaki) leaves her behind, becoming increasingly politicised thanks to his harsh treatment, before returning for a storybook reunion at the end.  Again, this is a moment that should be more touching.  A madras moment rather than a korma.

Rose carries most of the weight of the piece.  It is through her that we visit the backstreets and underworld of Victorian London.  As she learns about prejudice and the fate of ayahs, we do too.  She gives a likeable performance of a fairytale heroine.  As Queen Vic, Beatie Edney adopts a ‘royal’ intonation, ‘royal we’-ing all over the place and giving the notoriously not-amused monarch a surprisingly girly giggle.  We get a sense of the authority of the woman and also the humanity – I just would have liked this aspect to be coaxed out of her with a little more resistance.

Lez Brotherston’s set evokes a sailing ship and there are monochromatic miniatures of London landmarks.  The floorboard stage is edged by a moat, reminding us of the sea, and the island nation.  After Vicky pops her royal clogs, the cast set fire to little paper boats and float them in this water as tribute.  But there is also a sense of burning boats – Rani, Hari and Karim are on their way back to India, never to return.  This is the kind of moment of theatrical impact Emma Rice does so very well.

Rina Fatania adds comedy as the worldly Firoza.  In the second act when the piece begins to take on a slightly more documentary feel, she gives a speech about her life experiences.  Vincent Ebrahim has dignity as the prospective MP who faces Tory opposition; he, when elected, makes a speech describing the true conditions faced by people ‘liberated’ by colonisation.   It’s all well-presented and well-performed but it’s all a bit soft-edged.  There are lessons to be learned from the past and parallels with the treatment of immigrant workers of today.  Wrapped up in this, admittedly enjoyable, presentation, the story is warming but lacking in bite.

Posh/Spice: Beatie Edney and Tony Jayawardena. Photo: Steve Tanner

Posh/Spice: Beatie Edney and Tony Jayawardena. Photo: Steve Tanner

Recycled Material

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012

I had a problem with this one before going in: I’ve never been much of a fan of the source material, but I hoped director and adaptor Emma Rice would be able to work a bit of Kneehigh magic on me and win me over.
In brief: she couldn’t.

Rice has selected four scripts by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson and has presented them here as a unified piece of theatre. The dialogue seems intact – the setting has been modified. The set consists mainly of a large cube that represents the rag and bone cart by means of which the characters earn a business and also their living quarters and the gates to their junkyard. It is reminiscent of a pageant wagon and reminded me of the brilliant Oddsocks Productions and their ingenious use of such a property.

Transitions between scenes involve the cast of three dancing, singing or lip-synching to popular music of the day. There are also musical sequences in which, through movement and song lyrics, the characters reveal their inner life. These are the best bits. I wanted more of these.

I was pleased to find that the cast do not seek to imitate original actors Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble. This pair has a West Country burr to their voices (Kneehigh is based in Cornwall) and they bring their own interpretations to the characters. Kneehigh veteran Mike Shepherd is the irascible Harold Steptoe, a ‘dirty old man’, lonely and in need of constant attention. Dean Nolan is son Harold, whose aspirations and pretensions are thwarted and punctured at every turn by the machinations and manipulations of his father. This is one of the more hellish situations from sit-com history. The rules of sit-com dictate that by the end of the episode, the status quo will be restored, so that the wrangling and the suffering can continue from scratch next time. On the telly, on a week by week basis, this works very well. In a two-hour stretch in a theatre…not so much. Like watching a DVD box set – soon all the episodes blur into one.

A theatre piece needs to build and grow to keep us interested. The plot needs to develop and the characters need to grow. Here, every 25 minutes, they return to their default setting and nothing has changed. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of the sit-com world. Their existentialist angst is dictated by the situation they are trapped in. Harold is eternally claiming he will move out and start a life of his own while he’s still young. He never does.

The fourth section adds a neat twist to round things off. This time, Albert is threatening to break free by announcing his engagement to a widow. Harold becomes defensive and tries to dissuade the old man. A role reversal that has more to do with desperation than anything else.

Shepherd’s Albert is an energetic moaner, giving the lie to his supposed lack of health. He topples easily to the floor at the merest mention of his war-wounded leg, and clambers up to the roof of the wagon like an energised monkey. Nolan’s Harold also has impressive physicality, and a kind of grace to his movements. He’s a large fellow but he can’t half dance – even performing the splits at one point. The female roles, such as they are, are all performed by Kirsty Woodward in a range of wigs and period outfits. In the end, I found it was the charm of the performers that kept me watching and enjoying, rather than the script or the interpretation.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, these characters do not move. In any sense of the word. I think I was missing the customary sense of enchantment Kneehigh usually brings.

Crazy Motherf***ers

Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 27th March, 2012

Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex, is one of the greatest works of Drama ever written, but don’t go to a Spymonkey show if it’s tragedy you’re after. Spymonkey is an irreverent company producing some of the most entertaining theatre touring the country today.

The first half is all back story. A crash course in the events that lead up to the action of Sophocles’s play. Narrated by a caryatid, the story of the curse of the house of Laius is played out to hilarious effect through judicious use of brightly coloured wigs and physical comedy. There is a daftness to Spymonkey that calls to mind the sketches of Morecambe & Wise, the surrealism of Reeves & Mortimer and the energy of the Keystone Cops. The pace never lets up but none of the action, the sight gags, the slapstick, ever feels laboured. The characterisations are one-dimensional cartoons – this is theatrical shorthand, a short cut to the laughs. Above all, comedy comes from the sheer theatricality of it all. The set – as versatile as the cast – provides a backdrop but is also incorporated into the silliness. It is almost a fifth member of the troupe.

The second half is, in terms of structure, more recognisably Sophoclean, but where, back in his day the action would be broken up by choric interludes, here we have confessional monologues by cast members, dropping out of character to complain about their ailments, the way they are treated by the others, or to reveal their plans to escape to pastures new as soon as this tour is over. These little moments of darkness are also very funny but they bring to mind the idea that this is not just a knockabout cartoon we’re enjoying, just as the original tragedy is not about distant and lofty figures of mythology. And so another level is added to the performance, along with the ridiculous several-laughs-a-minute style, and the Brechtian moments that puncture and undermine the ongoing show: there is a kind of meta-drama going on with versions of the actors and their personal issues. The main thing though is that all of it is very, very funny in one way or another. I wonder if I can ever go back to the Sophocles without being reminded of Spymonkey’s antics.

Toby Park, managing director of the company and composer, leads as spokesman and narrator. As blind seer Tiresias he suffers ridicule and an extreme form of torture before treating us to a song very much in the early Bowie style, complete with glam rock outfit. Aitor Basauri provides a range of supernumerary characters including Lucky and Plucky a pair of hirsute shepherds, crucial to the plot. But it is as murdered King Laius, a pederast and unicyclist in a blue teddy boy wig that he comes to the fore. As doomed Oedipus, German actor Stephan Kreiss is a force of nature, tearing around the stage, snapping out his lines and all with a bad back and a lunchbox full of painkillers. The best stage actress in Britain (her words not mine) Petra Massey plays Queen Jocasta like a cross between Cleopatra and a character from Battle of the Planets. It is a bizarre design choice but not at all out of place. She also portrays the Sphinx in two equally hilarious versions and her suicide as Jocasta is a coup de theatre that epitomises the production’s inventive and hilarious approach. I fear I am overusing the word ‘hilarious’ but honestly, it‘s the most apt word in the thesaurus to describe this joyous production.

It culminates in a hanging and a blinding, an overblown display using a lot of red ribbon – a device often used by director Emma Rice with her own excellent company, Kneehigh. Even with its script by another Kneehigh stalwart, Carl Grose, this is still unmistakably a Spymonkey show.

The tour continues well into May. I can’t wait to see it again.

Pretty Grimm


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 27th October, 2011-10-27


It’s always a thrill when Kneehigh tour a new show – they have certainly set the bar high for themselves with previous productions such as Tristan & Yseult, Cymbeline and Brief Encounter.  They don’t always match the excellence of these shows but they often come close.


This latest offering is up there with the best.  Based on a folk tale, it has all the hallmarks of a Kneehigh production: the on-stage musicians, the beautiful puppetry, emblematic theatre, poetic dialogue, emotive movement… Director Emma Rice has established a theatrical style that is so very rich and effective, you can understand why the auditorium was filled with Drama teachers and their students: you could teach an entire performing arts course by looking at Kneehigh alone.


The eponymous heroine is portrayed by the three actresses of the company, representing the character at different stages in her story.  That they don’t speak (the unfortunate woman expresses herself through bouts of interpretive dance), coupled with the behanding of the girl at a young age, suggests the powerlessness of not just her, but all women.  One of the two male actors, Stuart McLoughlin as the Devil Himself, sneers that this is “a feminist folk tale”, and so it is, but it is also more than that.   Emma Rice is savvy enough to include all humanity in the play, tapping into the collective unconscious with fairy tale imagery (Note to Drama teachers: get your students to flick through Bruno Bettelheim).


This is narrative theatre and in narrative theatre, anything can happen.  The girl, now a wife and mother living wild in the woods, grows a new pair of hands.   We believe it because we recognise on a subconscious level this means something else.  Only when she is whole again does she speak, with the Hungarian lilt of the striking Eva Magyar.  She has survived every ordeal the play has thrown at her.  She defeats the Devil and gets him off her case.  She is reunited with her prince, who has also been living wild in the woods, and they form a family group and a happy ending having regained entry into Eden, you might say.


The music, which plays throughout most of the evening, is bluesy and seductive.  There is some searingly beautiful singing from the diminutive Audrey Brisson, matched by the plaintive fiddle-playing of Patrycja Kujawska – the company of five are called upon to pick up instruments and play along with Ian Ross to provide a soundtrack for the unfolding drama.  The design is American Depression, the kind of clothes The Waltons would wear.  Stuart Godwin as the Father and later, the Prince, delivers most of the show’s comedy  and displays a nifty spot of legwork in his rather fetching kilt. The Devil sports a pinstripe suit, like Ryan O’Neal’s travelling Bible seller in Paper Moon.  He represents the establishment and organised religion, both of which cripple and hinder the potential of women to fulfil themselves.


Not that Kneehigh is ever preachy.  Everything is transmitted in a symbolic way, affecting us on an emotional level rather than the intellectual.  Even the blinding and mutilation of a deer has a savage beauty.  Poetry is not confined to Carl Grose’s witty and poignant script.