Tag Archives: Frances McNamee

Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

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Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)

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Cavalier Attitudes

THE ROVER

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th October, 2016

 

Loveday Ingram’s exuberant production of Aphra Behn’s raucous comedy is almost a reversal of The Taming of the Shrew, in which a wayward character (here, the titular Rover) is brought to heel by the machinations of another (the wily Hellena).  In the Shakespeare, the shrew is completely cowed and rendered submissive; here it is more of a meeting of minds, a matching of appetites.  Things are on a more egalitarian footing from the off – in fact, it is the females who rule the roost, in terms of plot devices and spirit.

Joseph Millson is marvellous in the title role.  His Willmore is a swaggering braggart with ratty pirate hair and an Adam Ant jacket.  He exudes bluster and charm in equal measure.  He is outrageous and irresistible.  Faye Castelow’s Hellena is adorably lively and witty.  As her sister Valeria, Emma Noakes is a livewire, while other sister Florinda (Frances McNamee) is more elegant but none the less funny.  Patrick Robinson is suitably noble and upright as good guy Belville, but things take a darker turn when the gauche Blunt (Leander Deeny), gulled by a prostitute, seeks violent revenge on any female who happens across his path.  Even in these scenes, Ingram keeps the energy levels high – this is a show performed with unrelenting verve and brio.  The cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely, transmitting that sense of fun to us, the lucky audience.

The carnival atmosphere is propagated and maintained by the superlative music, composed by Grant Olding, and performed live on stage throughout the action.  The Latin rhythms are infectious, the Spanish guitar, the muted trumpet – every note is delicious.  If the RSC doesn’t release a CD, they’re missing a trick.

A highlight for me is a flamenco-off between Dons Pedro and Antonio (Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes, respectively); another is Alexandra Gilbreath’s melodramatic courtesan, holding Willmore at gunpoint – there is a wealth of things to enjoy in all the comings and goings, the disguises, the misunderstandings and the mistaken identities.  It’s fast-paced, rowdy, riotous fun, performed with gusto and charisma by a vivacious ensemble.  Ultimately, Millson dominates with his colossal presence, but we love him for it and egg him on.  Willmore is flawed, at the mercy of his appetites – indeed, the men are victims of their own desires – but Behn celebrates human frailties without moralising.  She was way ahead of her time.

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Wild Rover: Joseph Millson as Willmore (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 

 


A Merry War

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th October, 2014

I’m not convinced by the idea that Much Ado is a companion piece to Love’s Labour’s Lost (also currently playing in a top-notch production) – there is a difference in quality to the writing that suggests to me that LLL is a preliminary sketch for the masterpiece of romantic comedy that was to follow. That said, the pairing of these productions works superbly: Simon Higlett’s sumptuous Downton Abbey set (based on real-life stately home Charlecote Park) gets a second airing and the cast reappear, this time post-WWI, to delight us anew, their warmth and conviviality all the cosier in a bright, wintery setting.

In short: this is the most enjoyable production I have seen at the RSC for a long time. It is an unalloyed joy. Even when a technical hitch with the scenery stops the show for several minutes, it is treated with good humour and patience – the audience has so much love for the production by this point, I suspect a fire alarm would not have dinted our enjoyment.

Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry dazzle as Benedick and Beatrice who, though arguably the sub-plot, are the undeniable stars. Their delivery is spot on, spouting Shakespeare’s funniest barbs with the precision of a marksman. Anyone who tells you Shakespearean comedy is not funny has never seen Much Ado. Bennett has some ludicrous business with a curtain and a Christmas tree, while Terry is not above casting herself to the floor in mockery. But there is real heart to the couple.   They ‘speak poignards’ and sometimes the words stab at your heart. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff that also makes you misty-eyed and warmed of cockle, and a firework display of wit and wordplay by William Shakespeare.

They are supported by an excellent company. John Hodgkinson’s affable Don Pedro has an easy gravitas and gregarious nature, while his brother Don John (whose soubriquet ‘The Bastard’ has been excised from the text) is a pent-up mass of resentment, a powder keg of malevolence, chillingly portrayed by Sam Alexander. David Horovitch is a strong Leonato, cut to the quick by false allegations, and Thomas Wheatley rises to the moment as his brother Antonio, driven to speak out against ‘fashion-monging boys’. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is romantic heroine Hero, bringing credibility to the difficult thwarted-wedding scene, when Hero is mainly silent in the face of vile accusations. Frances McNamee lends a touch of Mrs Doyle (ah, go on, go on, go on) to Ursula the maid and I warmed to Chris Nayak’s Brummie Borachio. Tunji Kasim impresses as the young Count Claudio, led astray by the villain’s lies. Nick Haverson’s Dogberry is full of tics to go along with his malapropisms but I do think director Christopher Luscombe took a wrong turn by setting the examination scene in an overcrowded kitchen: the script is funny enough without complicated comic business, although the scene did stop the show – literally!

Nigel Hess’s marvellous music is the icing on this Christmas cake, played live by an unseen band under the direction of John Woolf. It’s all in keeping with the music of the period – unlike some other productions where an anachronistic soundtrack serves only to alienate.

Much Ado is one of my favourite plays and so I approach every new production with trepidation – I don’t want to see it ruined. With this production it is apparent in seconds flat that we are in not only safe but expert hands, and I can sit back and wallow in the play’s brilliance, presented here in such an agreeable and sublimely entertaining fashion.

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Spanish Gold

In the Belgrade’s B2 studio, there’s a little drama festival going on, a brief season of three Spanish plays written by contemporaries of Shakespeare who are, unaccountably, little known by the general population of Britain.

A LADY OF LITTLE SENSE – Tuesday 1st April, 2014

David Johnston’s translation of Lope de Vega’s La Dama Boba (1613) is sharp and funny, the language updated without being slangy, delivered in an almost throwaway naturalistic style. There is also a lot of rhyming verse, in soliloquies for example – a challenge for any translator. The sparkling script is brought to life by a company of energetic actors, directed to frenetic activity by Laurence Boswell.

The plot has similarities to The Taming of the Shrew: a wealthy man seeks to marry off his daughters, bestowing the larger dowry on the beautiful but dim-witted Finea. This sum attracts suitors who are quickly distracted by her sister Nise’s intelligence.

As the seemingly untameable Finea, Frances McNamee hurls herself around the stage with abandon but the extremes that she goes to somehow endear us to the character, and so when romantic intrigues beset her, we feel for her. It is a remarkable performance, the beating heart of this madcap comedy.

McNamee is supported by an ensemble who populate the stage with a wealth of funny characters (the cheeky servant – a splendid Hedydd Dylan; the dancing teacher – the marvellous Jim Bywater…) Nick Barber is flamboyant and given to grand stylised gestures as mercenary suitor Laurencio, whose plotting drives the storyline; he is nicely contrasted by Simon Scardifield’s sensitive Liseo. Scardifield is a fine physical comedian although he does need to watch he doesn’t drop his voice too much in certain speeches. In the B2 studio, he can just about get away with it – although I was only five rows from the stage.

A delightful couple of hours which includes a spot of flamenco dancing, A Lady of Little Sense runs like a well-oiled contraption thanks to the energy of the talented, hard-working cast. It’s a life-affirming comedy that proves there is still mileage in the old conventions and devices of yesteryear.

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Funny girl: Frances McNamee as Finea

PUNISHMENT WITHOUT REVENGE – Wednesday 2nd April, 2014

Don’t you just hate that awkward moment when you fall in love with the woman you rescue from a road traffic accident and she turns out to be your dad’s new fiancée?

So begins Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, a tale of forbidden love, honour and betrayal. Son and stepmother do what they can but ultimately they are powerless to resist. They succumb to their passion, are discovered and dealt with. It’s a revenge tragedy that doesn’t end well for anyone. De Vega’s characters are rounded out from their stock types and our modern-day sensibilities don’t condemn the illicit lovers as much as his contemporaries would have.

Nick Barber and Frances McNamee (who has rocketed towards the top of the list of my favourite actors) are remarkably good as the transgressing lovers. Barber’s Federico is a sensitive soul, mooning about like Hamlet, suffering the pangs of what he initially thinks is unrequited love. McNamee commands respect as Duchess Cassandra, tortured and vulnerable. The scenes between these two are electric.

They are supported by this excellent ensemble. William Hoyland is powerful as the wronged husband and father, and Katie Lightfoot, forever in white frocks, adds depth to her role as Aurora, trying her own hand at romantic intrigue.

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Woman in white, Aurora (Katie Lightfoot) and faithless Federico (Nick Barber)

DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES – Wednesday 3rd April, 2014

Tirso de Molina’s comedy is an amusing confection, a kind of ‘revenge comedy’: wronged woman Juana pursues the man who hurt her and thwarts his plans to wrong another woman by adopting the pseudonym he is operating under, along with a bright green outfit, breeches and all, that makes Juana appear dashingly irresistible to women. Complications build on complications – de Molina pushes the farcical aspects of the situation as far as they can go and we delight in the artifice and contrivance of it all. It’s a bit of silly fun but I feel the cast work harder to keep this particular balloon in the air. The script doesn’t have the drive of a Lope de Vega and also his wisdom (I’ve seen two of his plays; I’m an expert!) – the stakes aren’t as high as in the other plays in this trio.

As the cross-dressing Juana, Hedydd Dylan has fun, adopting a macho swagger and deepening her voice while conveying Juana’s discomfort at the same time. She would be an excellent Viola or Rosalind. Jim Bywater amuses as the man servant she employs, put upon and world-weary, and Doug Rao is sufficiently dashing and dastardly as the gallant on the make. Chris Andrew Mellon is hilarious as the rather camp Quintana, rushing through his comic asides, and Simon Scardifield gets some good laughs as a rather petulant and posturing Don Juan.  Katie Lightfoot gets a chance to lighten up, playing a younger version of the girl-in-the-white-dress character with relish.

Director Mehmet Ergen gives the production some stylish flourishes and it’s a bright and colourful affair, but I’m glad I saw it third and last. It’s a sweet dessert after the more nutritious and satisfying earlier courses.

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It’s not easy being green. Hedydd Dylan and Jim Bywater

Mark Bailey’s set of black squares edged with gold proves versatile across all three plays and his work on costume merits commendation. Each play has its own aesthetic within the all-purpose setting, matching the overall tone of the piece. I especially liked the black, gold and white palette of Punishment Without Revenge.

You won’t go wrong if you only see one of the three, but I’d urge you to go to two or all three, and you’d be hard-pressed to find better quality productions of these pieces. I can’t believe the RSC don’t stage more of these but until they do, I am grateful to Laurence Boswell and the Belgrade for rekindling my interest in the golden age of Spanish drama.