Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017
Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it. When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better. There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.
Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics. He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations. And he is fallible. His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets. Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.
Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are. The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider. Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here. One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.
Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush. Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter. Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness. The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.
Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today. Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.
He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)
Leave a comment | tags: Against, Almeida Theatre, Amanda Hale, Ben Whishaw, Christopher Shinn, Gavin Spokes, Ian Rickson, Kevin Harvey, London, Naomi Wirthner, Philippe Spall, review | posted in Theatre Review
GUYS AND DOLLS
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th November, 2015
Frank Loesser’s classic musical comes to Birmingham prior to its residency in the West End in this new production by Chichester Festival Theatre. And it’s a safe bet for high quality entertainment. Based on the stories of Damon Runyon (think PG Wodehouse of the New York underworld) it’s a slight, light-hearted tale in which the protagonists are on the wrong side of the law, workshy, inveterate gamblers – perhaps that’s why we like them so much. Nathan Detroit (David Haig) is desperately seeking a venue for a craps game, meanwhile fending off the ire of his long-term fiancée, showgirl Adelaide (Sophie Thompson). To raise capital, he bets gambler par excellence Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) that he can’t persuade Salvation Army-type Sarah Brown (Siubhan Harrison) out on a date… And so the scene is set for a charming story, peppered with great songs – the tunes keep coming: some have become standards.
As Nathan, David Haig perhaps surprises with the lightness of his comic touch – we are more accustomed to him in dramatic roles, but he captures Detroit’s twinkle. Jamie Parker’s Sky is brash but seductive; we see the gambler struggle with unfamiliar emotions as he finds himself falling for the staid Sarah Brown – appealingly played by Siubhan Harrison. Their night-out in a Havana club descends into a drunken brawl. The journey of these characters is subtly but clearly portrayed, giving them credibility in this rarefied musical theatre world. But the night belongs to Sophie Thompson’s Adelaide, in a powerhouse performance in which she channels a little of Marilyn Monroe and a lot of Lucille Ball to present us with a rounded characterisation that is comic, touching and endearing at the drop of a mink stole.
The four leads are supported by an excellent chorus and ensemble, fleshed out by a wealth of minor characters. The comic timing is spot on. Stand-outs are Ian Hughes as Benny Sidestreet and Nic Greenshields towering over proceedings as cheating heavy Big Jule. Gavin Spokes stops the show with his Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat – his Nicely-Nicely Johnson is both detailed and broad, epitomising the production as a whole. With deft strokes, director Gordon Greenberg creates the world of the show, using Peter McKintosh’s emblematic set to keep the action fluid and scene transitions slick, allowing the cast to flesh out the characters who populate the story – they wear their humanity as obvious as the checks on their colourful suits. Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright fill the space with energetic choreography, evoking period without being clichéd – the Havana sequence, including the brawl, is a definite highlight.
It’s a feel-good musical, seemingly effortless in its execution; Detroit and Masterson mend their ways in order to please their ‘dolls’ but the wry humour of the book (by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) suggests that Detroit, at least, is not completely rehabilitated. It’s a show that celebrates human flaws and foibles in a production that delivers the highest standards of the performing arts.
Often, booking a ticket to see live theatre can be something of a gamble. Not in this case. A great night out is guaranteed. It’s as though the dice are loaded in the audience’s favour.
Reach for the Sky: Jamie Parker (Photo: Johan Persson)
Leave a comment | tags: Abe Burrows, Chichester Festival Theatre, Frank Loesser, Gavin Spokes, Guys and Dolls, Jamie Parker, Jo Swerling, Siubhan Harrison, Sophie Thompson | posted in Theatre Review
PIANO BAR LAUNCH
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st September, 2015
It’s not all reviews in this game, you know. Sometimes you get invited to other events in theatres – the pull of the complimentary drinks always proves irresistible, I find!
Never mind New Street Station! What’s put the New in the New Alexandra Theatre? The extra word was added to the name when there was a change of management a couple of years ago and the theatre became part of the ATG group of theatres. The new bosses have spent big money on bringing the building up-to-date and the purpose of this evening was to show off what has been achieved so far and to trail what is to come, with the event centred around the impressive new piano bar. Formerly “Gershwin’s” and another nameless bar/foyer area, the space has been unified into a coherent whole and very classy it is too. The floor is dark wood, the walls dark grey, set off by mirrors in gilt frames, with upholstered seats in a range of colours. If you know what it looked like before, it’s like someone’s been in from Changing Rooms, only this time the transformation is stunning in all the right ways. It’s upmarket but inclusive, stately but welcoming. It’s a very pleasant place to be. The crowning glory, of course, is the baby grand piano, which gets its ivory tickled before shows and during intervals. We have been upgraded!
General Manager, Andrew Lister welcomes us all. There is more to come, he says. The stalls and dress circle have all been refurbished with new carpet and seating – which uses something called ProBax technology, a sort of memory foam I suppose for added comfort and, more importantly, improved leg-room! The upper circle is to follow suit in the near future. There’s the Ambassadors’ Lounge, a 30-capacity bar tucked under the dress circle, for an exclusive hospitality passage: it’s like something out of the Orient Express (without the murders). Very swish.
We are treated to a performance of Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat by Gavin Spokes, who sings Nicely Nicely very nicely. The theatre has pulled off something of a coup: Guys And Dolls is coming to Birmingham prior to its West End run. Programme Director Stuart Griffiths is keen to bring more drama in. The New Alex is better suited to some touring productions than other venues (likewise, some productions are better suited elsewhere) but, he says, there are enough people to keep Birmingham’s range of theatre going. “We’re not in competition,” he states, “but we complement each other.”
For me, the most striking moment of the tour of the building, is the chance to stand on the stage where a range of performers have stood over the past century. Mae West has performed here. Morecambe and Wise… Ant and Dec…
It’s a treat to see this historical auditorium from another perspective and appreciate the surprising intimacy of the place. What’s also great is to know the old place is in safe hands and unequivocally a major player in Birmingham’s cultural scene.
Leave a comment | tags: Andrew Lister, ATG, Gavin Spokes, Guys and Dolls, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, Piano Bar launch, Stuart Griffiths | posted in Launch/Event
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th March, 2015
The National Theatre’s hit production reaches Wolverhampton for the final week of its tour and the energy levels show no signs of flagging. The emphasis is on laughs and plenty of them in this non-stop cavalcade of comedy in the old-fashioned way, right down to the comic asides that keep us in on the action.
Francis Henshall (Gavin Spokes) has been kicked out of his skiffle band but finds employment as a general factotum to not one but two unsavoury characters in the form of Roscoe Crabbe (really his own twin sister, impersonating her late brother!) and the boyfriend of Roscoe’s twin sister (and also his murderer) Stanley Stubbers. Add to the mix, arranged marriage, large sums of money and a shedload of slapstick, and the stage is set for a riotous couple of hours. It’s farce. It’s commedia dell’arte. It’s seaside postcards and Carry On.
Spokes heads an ebullient cast. The comic timing is flawless. As hapless Henshall, Spokes throws himself into the role, literally – he even beats himself up. But, despite the title, this is not a One Man show. Shaun Williamson is superb as long-suffering patriarch, Charlie ‘the Duck’ Clench, with Jasmyn Banks hilarious as his melodramatically thick daughter, Pauline. A perfectly ridiculous Edward Hancock struts and postures around as wannabe actor Alan Dangle and David Verrey is good value as his lawyer father, Harry Dangle. The two guvnors, Alicia Davies and Patrick Warner, are equally preposterous in their characterisations – this is not a show about nuance. Characters are caricatures at the service of the plot and it’s utterly refreshing to see something so old-school working so well.
Emma Barton’s Dolly brings to mind a Joe Orton creation – in fact, Richard Bean’s wonderful script mines the traditions of British humour from the past three or four centuries. I particularly enjoyed Derek Elroy’s cheery old lag Lloyd Boateng but geriatric waiter Alfie (Michael Dylan) almost steals the show. It is Gavin Spokes who drives the engine, adlibbing with audience members and clearly still enjoying himself after all this time on the road.
Scene changes are covered by skiffle band The Craze (not the Krays, as I thought when I first heard them) but the interludes become increasingly bizarre as the show goes on. We are treated to a xylophone solo and later, someone plays an array of rubber-headed horns. It all adds to the heightened atmosphere of a piece that revels in contrivance and artificiality.
You don’t need to know the play’s heritage (although it’s detailed in the programme) to be able to laugh your face off at this relentlessly funny production. An absolute delight from start to finish.
Leave a comment | tags: Alicia Davies, David Verrey, Derek Elroy, Edward Hancock, Emma Barton, Gavin Spokes, Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, Jasmyn Banks, Michael Dylan, National Theatre, One Man Two Guvnors, PAtrick Warner, review, Richard Bean, Shaun Williamson | posted in Theatre Review