Tag Archives: Erica Whyman

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)

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Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

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Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 


Broad Strokes

THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016

 

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods.  Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage.  In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey.  While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey.  The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings.  With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.

A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent.  Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity.  He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.

Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.

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Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out.  His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones).  Their Bootle is tough.  Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable.  The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer.   The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely.  Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process.  Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west.   They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.

Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!

The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here.  As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature.   It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together.  Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last.  What are we to do with it?  As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.

We must be strong.

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Tom Georgeson and TJ Jones (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


A Way With The Fairies

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A Play For The Nation

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 16th June, 2016

 

As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare’s 400th death-iversary, The RSC has undertaken the unenviable and colossal task of staging a production of his popular comedy and touring it around the country – but that’s only the half of it.  At each stop, the so-called ‘rude mechanicals’ are being played by hand-picked troupes of amateur performers.  A big chance for them and a big gamble for the RSC.  Add to this, dozens of children from local primary schools… Luckily, no one handles child performers like the RSC – you only have to think of Matilda to know this is going to work brilliantly.

If this afternoon’s performance is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off in spades.  It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘The Nonentities’ from Kidderminster taking the stage among world class professionals, and holding their own.  But I’ll come back to them in a bit…

Among the pros – a delightful ensemble that, under Erica Whyman’s direction, make familiar lines sound fresh and funny – we get a female Puck (Lucy Ellinson) a kind of cross-dressing music hall figure, like Vesta Tilley.  Ellinson is both knowing and clownish in this setting: we’re in a disused theatre, it looks like, during wartime.  Tom Piper’s design gives us bare floorboards and footlights.  The forest has not a speck of green but rather the red of the Curtain.  Chu Omambala’s Oberon, the fairy king, is stylish in his white suit, bringing a jazzy element to proceedings, in contrast with Ayesha Dharker’s exotic Titania, in blood red sari.  Omambala and Dharker are deadly serious – these are not fairies of whimsy, however petty their squabble may seem.

The other ruling couple, Theseus (Sam Redford) and Hippolyta (Laura Harding) stride around like genial aristocracy.  It is the younger members of the cast that bring life to the scenes in Athens.  Mercy Ojelade is a fiery Hermia, her passion born of pain and injustice, while Laura Riseborough’s Helena also expresses the pain of unrequited love in a highly sympathetic characterisation.  Chris Nayak’s Demetrius is a pompous prig, so it’s enjoyable to see him go to the other extreme in the name of love, but it’s Jack Holden’s delightful school prefect of a Lysander that gets the most laughs and touches the heart.  It is the freshest interpretation of this character I have seen.  Scenes in which the young men vie for Helena, to Hermia’s dismay and fury, are superbly done, using physicality as well as Shakespeare’s barrage of insults to great comic effect.

But back to those mechanicals.  Chris Clarke is spot on as overbearing bully Bottom – and you can’t help liking his ridiculous declamations.  Sue Downing’s Peter Quince is assertive enough to stage-manage Bottom’s ego, and Andrew Bingham’s shy Snug makes for an adorably shy and cowardly lion.  Of course, the West Midlands accent gives them a head start when it comes to comic value, but here it is the playing that gets the laughs and endears them to us.  Alex Powell’s Flute blossoms as a performer so we he comes to give his Thisbe (or Thiz-bay, as they would have it) we see how far he has come.  The performance that is the culmination of their efforts is absolutely joyous.  It is surely Shakespeare’s funniest scene and here it is expertly executed.  The affection we feel for the mechanicals succeeding in their task is echoed by the admiration we have for this company who rise to the challenge, hold their own, and pull it off with aplomb.

An unadulterated delight.

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Chris Nayak and Jack Holden restrain Mercy Ojelade – just about (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

 


He Says, She Says

HECUBA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 5th October, 2015

 

New adaptations of ancient Greek tragedies are all the rage at the moment, with the Oresteia and Bakkhai being extremely successful down in London. Now comes Marina Carr’s retelling of the story of Hecuba, wife of Priam – loser of the Trojan War.

Carr employs an unusual device – we are accustomed to having narrators to describe what is not staged – but here she has the characters narrate to each other’s faces, reporting conversations while they are having them, and so Hecuba tells us what Agamemnon is saying and vice versa. It’s all a bit odd to begin with, but you soon become accustomed to it, get caught up in it.

The tale is one of unrelenting horror but in true Greek tradition, it’s all kept off-stage. Instead we imagine the butchered bodies, the bashed-in bonces of babies, in more vivid detail than any shlock film director could put on the screen. The characters endure such grief and misery – on both sides of the conflict. Hecuba has lost just about everyone (those who remain will be taken from her during the course of the play!) and Agamemnon grieves for the daughter he had to sacrifice in order that the wind might change – Ah, religion! It brings no comfort to anyone in this extreme situation. Of course, there are parallels to be made with situations going on today: war crimes and atrocities visited on the vulnerable, but I am reluctant to make them. Carr’s language ennobles both the doer and the deed and the barbarians of today don’t deserve such grand and poetic language.

Derbhle Crotty is spellbinding as the ousted Queen of Troy, in terms of expressing her own agony and reporting the reactions of others. There is dignity among the bloodshed, poise and resilience amid terrible losses. Crotty is matched by Ray Fearon’s Agamemnon, the conquering King. He is more than the perpetrator of barbaric cruelty: he is an honourable soldier and a family man touched by his own tragedy. Together the pair are electrifying.

Nadia Albina is a sassy Cassandra, disowned for her prophetic gifts; also striking is Amy McAllister as doomed daughter Polyxena. Chu Omambala impresses as Odysseus and there is some haunting singing from Lara Stubbs.

Director Erica Whyman keeps us hooked through this onslaught of horrific acts by keeping the intensity levels high – we don’t get an interval so there is no let-up in the barrage of sickening images we are made to picture for ourselves. By the end, I am a little punch-drunk and stagger out, a little like blinded Polymestor (Edmund Kingsley) although I wouldn’t be seen dead in his lemon yellow pyjama suit.

Oh, Hec! Derbhle Crotty and Ray Crotty (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

Oh, Hec! Derbhle Crotty and Ray Crotty (Photo: Topher McGrillis)