Tag Archives: Graeme Braidwood

Odds and Sods

QUEERS (Set B)

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 12th May 2023

This series of eight monologues, presented in two batches of four, is an excellent showcase of the talented actors and directors of the Crescent.  Simply staged (a bar and a couple of pub tables with stools) the monologues come across as one-sided conversations, the sort you  might have with a stranger in a pub.  Part history, part confessional, the pieces are perhaps revelations for straight members of the audience; for the gays, it is a reminder of lived experience and the struggles of those who came before us.

First up in this batch, we meet Jack (I Miss The War by Matthew Baldwin), an old-school homosexual, a former soldier, now a tailor, at the time of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.  Played by Graeme Braidwood, Jack is dapper, well-preserved, and thoroughly acerbic in his observations and recollections, employing polari and innuendo in a manner that would make Kenneth Williams proud.  If you don’t know, polari is the arcane slang used by gays as a means to recognise each other.  For example, ‘the palone with the butch riah’ is a reference to Julie Andrews.  Braidwood coats vulnerability with brassiness, and there’s a darkness behind the bonhomie.

Next, in More Anger by Brian Fillis, we meet Phil (Mark Shaun Walsh) a jobbing actor who is typecast as young men dying of AIDS.  It’s the 1980s and the ‘gay plague’ is rampant, thanks in part to the poor response of the government of the time.  Phil lands a potentially ground-breaking role as a soap opera’s first gay character, who is non-camp and absolutely not ill, but the character turns out to be beiger than a buffet at a heterosexual wedding.  Meanwhile, his lover announces he is HIV positive, a death knell in those frightening times.  The piece concludes with a ferocious tirade.  Mark Shaun Walsh is utterly convincing, drawing us in with his amiability, so when he lets rip, we empathise with his rage (and then it’s revealed that it’s another acting job, with a clever punchline.) 

Walsh directs the third piece: A Grand Day Out by Michael Dennis, in which 17-year old Andrew tells us of a trip to London at the time of the sexual equality bill that oh-so-generously lowered the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18.  This gives rise to scenes of mild protest outside the House of Commons and Andrew is thrilled to take part.  Andrew is an innocent, finding his way in the world and exploring his sexuality.  It’s a winning performance by Francis Quinn, endearing, funny, and touching.  Society may have made some giant strides (and fairy steps) in the right direction, but that doesn’t prevent Andrew from feeling the universal gay fear that his parents will reject him when they find out.

Next comes Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean, with Peter Neenan as Steve, preparing a speech for his wedding to (gasp) another man, thanks to a change in the law in 1994.  As he rehearses, Steve reflects on the way people like him were absent from the stories he heard or read growing up.  As well as fretting about wedding preparations, he has to deal with his own doubts.  Does he really want what the straights have always had?  Isn’t that surrendering part of what it is to be gay?  He is reluctant to hold his beloved’s hand in a supermarket, until he is told that a gay child, happening to see such a public demonstration between two men, might be given hope and comfort.  It’s the most understated of these four pieces, but just as thoughtful.

I’m too young to remember the decriminalisation, but I have vivid memories of the terrifying ad campaigns of Thatcher’s reign and how they affected my own…emergence.  The evening gets me trolling down Memory Lane and looking ahead to how far we still have to go. 

Bona!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Coming of age, Francis Quinn as Andrew in A Grand Day Out (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

QUEERS (Set A)

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 13th May 2023

The other set of four monologues kicks off with The Man on the Platform, by Mark Gatiss (who actually compiled this anthology for the BBC).  We meet Perce, a soldier home from the so-called Great War.  He reflects on his relationship with a captain he met in a military hospital tent, and how, when discovered, they were both transferred to other regiments.  More striking is his boyhood memory of seeing Oscar Wilde under arrest at Reading station, being taken away.  A brief moment of eye contact with the disgraced writer stays with young Perce forever, mutual recognition of ‘a certain liquidity in the eyes’.  It’s a sad piece, played to perfection by Tom Lowde, making you want to give Perce a hug or at least buy him a pint.

Next comes The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune.  Bobby is a Burlington Bertie figure, all top hat and tails, swanning around, picking up women in pubs and taking them out the back and fingering them!  Dressed as a man, Bobby feels a freedom to behave in a way that a woman could never countenance.  Sadly, living this lie has its…shortcomings, shall we say? An exploratory female hand reveals Bobby isn’t pleased to see her, it’s a candle!  Katie Goldhawk is utterly charming in her dapper costume, balancing exquisite manners with ribald revelations, conjuring other characters with skilful ease, using her voice alone.  Again, the sadness of the piece is inescapable.

Safest Spot in Town by Keith Jarrett brings us up to the 1940s.  Among the dropping bombs, Fredrick from Jamaica seeks out like-minded men in the public toilets of the West End.  Denied access to an underground venue because of his skin colour, he escapes destruction, a case of being excluded working in his favour!  Khari Moore is instantly delightful as the twinkly-eyed Fredrick.  Our laughter comes thick and fast, perhaps as a release from the melancholy of the previous pieces, but mainly from Moore’s elegantly timed anecdotes and reactions.  Easily the most overtly funny piece of this set, it points up Fredrick’s double whammy of exclusion, as a black man who is gay.  Society has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, hasn’t it?  Has it?

Finally comes Missing Alice by Jon Bradfield.  Fi Cotton plays Alice, a middle-aged married woman who didn’t realise until long past the wedding night that the man she has married is, you know.  At first, she blames herself and starts to cut down on meals in a bid to make herself more attractive.  All her efforts are doomed but over time, she and her husband come to an accommodation.  It turns out there can be love and affection in a sexless marriage.  Fi Cotton is splendid; you can easily see her tackling an Alan Bennett.

Of course, I saw the two sets of monologues in the ‘wrong’ order, in terms of chronology, but I don’t think this has diluted my enjoyment of these well-written pieces, superbly performed and presented in the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio. What comes across is the misery and heartache spread by the criminalisation of homosexuality throughout the ages. We live in more enlightened times. I hope.

A different Q word springs to mind: Quality.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Khari Moore as the debonair Fredrick (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Great Danes

HAMLET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020

 

I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity.  It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech.  But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.

Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent.  Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront.  Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes.  Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus.  A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.

That being said, this production has some moments of excellence.  Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable.  Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer.  Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator.  Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes.  As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life.  Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.

Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet.  Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark.  Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words.  His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.

The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience.  Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.

Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak.  This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.

hamlet hobbis

Sweet Prince: Jack Hobbis as Hamlet (Photo: Jack Kirby)


Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

nell

Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


Boss Play

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble.  Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.

Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles.  Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses.  He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.

Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins.  This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.

Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value.  Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim.  There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.

The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in.  Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!

Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect.  The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.

A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent.  I had a boss time.

one man crescent

Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

David Hare’s 1995 play gets a well-deserved revival in this robust production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.  Set in the dowdy North London flat of Maths teacher Kyra Hollis (Alice Kennedy) it reveals the story of her past affair with restaurateur and self-made millionaire, Tom (Graeme Braidwood) through reminiscence and recollection as the protagonists are reunited after a separation of three years – during which time Tom’s wife has died.  Guilty feelings abound.  As a friend of the family, Kyra is also missed by Tom’s son Edward (Jacob Williams) who regards her as a big sister.  Edward turns up out of the blue because his dad has become ‘unbearable’, and so begins an eventful night for Kyra…

As the youthful, mercurial Edward, Jacob Williams is a delight, veering between sweet and gauche with ease in a lively performance.   Williams, whose appearances dovetail the main action, makes a lasting impression.

Alice Kennedy’s Kyra is mature (compared with Edward!) but also vulnerable.  We glimpse her classroom manner from time to time and in plain sight is her passion for her vocation, her desire to give the help so desperately needed by society’s most downtrodden.  There is strength here and also nuance.

Much the same can be said for Graeme Braidwood’s Tom.  Opinionated and objectionable, he is also a character of passion.  Yes, we may find his views abhorrent, the way he treats people as objects, but he comes across as a credible figure, thanks to Braidwood’s performance and of course to David Hare’s excellent writing.

tom and kyra

Graeme Braidwood as Tom and Alice Kennedy as Kyra (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

As much a personal ding-dong as a political slanging match, the play emphasises the humanity of its arguments. The characters are rounded, contradictory  and fleshed out beings not mere ciphers to illustrate a point.

Director Mark Payne maintains a level of energy throughout in this emotionally charged drama that is richly laced with humour.  Braidwood’s delivery of Tom’s embittered barbs is impeccable and Williams’s Edward is amusingly observed and endearingly depicted – at least he is able to kick-start his relationship with Kyra again.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are high. Keith Harris’s detailed set with its old furniture and working hob (the smell of onions cooking in real time gets me salivating!) and the props (courtesy of Andrew Lowrie, Ben Pountney and Georgina Evans) show nothing has been overlooked, down to the graffiti on the covers of the exercise books waiting to be marked.

Beautifully played and well paced, this is an engaging, grown-up portrait of relationships as well as a heartfelt discourse on the state of our divided nation.  Surely the divide is wider now, 22 years later – what a depressing thought! – pushing the relevance levels of Skylight through the roof  (I couldn’t resist!).

jacob

Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)