Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Back in Black

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 22nd May, 2017

 

It’s unusual to have a long-running show in the West End (27 years and counting!)  that isn’t yet another musical or The Mousetrap.  The longevity of The Woman In Black is testament to its brilliance – everyone should go and see it at least once. Even when you know what’s coming, the show is still a suspenseful thrill-ride.  And now, with this touring production, you have your chance.

Ostensibly, a two-hander, Stephen Mallatratt’s masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story keeps its theatricality to the fore.  Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has recruited an actor (Matthew Spencer) to rehearse the telling of his own experiences with the eponymous apparition.  Using only basic furniture to represent every location, along with recorded sound effects and well-placed lighting, their narrative works on our imagination – and this is what makes the stage version infinitely superior to the film.  Nothing can scare us more than our own minds.  It begins with humour as the performance style is established and between scenes from Kipps’s story, the men drop in and out of the framing device – there is an ongoing story here that will also come to a chilling conclusion… Gradually, Kipps’s story takes over and the atmosphere grips, the action surprises, makes us jump.

It’s a real showcase for the two performers.  Matthew Spencer is excellent as the effusive ‘actor’ taking on the role of the younger Kipps – it is his reactions that create much of the terror – while David Acton demonstrates his range, first as the nervous, ineffectual orator Kipps and then as everyone else in the story.  Such is the skill of the two that we are made to care about a little dog, Spider, that isn’t even there!

Robin Herford’s direction pushes all the right buttons in all the right places.  Especially effective are the silences, keeping us on edge.  Michael Holt’s deceptively simple design sits well within the Grand’s ornate proscenium.  Similarly, Kevin Sleep’s straightforward lighting proves you don’t need realism to ignite the imagination.  The whole enterprise is decidedly spooky and fills us with dread.  And delight.  Scaring audiences at the theatre is difficult to pull off, with all the coughing and fidgeting and the nervous laughter, but The Woman In Black continues to put the willies up us (if that’s not a contradiction!) and long may she continue!

Go and see her before she comes to see you!!

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Give him a big hand! Matthew Spencer exploring the haunted house…

 

 


Kinky Roots

SUNNY AFTERNOON

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 18th April, 2017

 

You might think that the Kinks’ lead man Ray Davies had spent his entire life writing this musical; his songs have always had an autobiographical quality and so they support perfectly this telling of his rise to fame, if not fortune.  And it’s astonishing how many I, never a devout fan, know of the songs.  Their sound has a rougher edge to the Beatles’, making them more akin to the Rolling Stones, but both of these mega-groups cast the Kinks into something of a shadow.  This musical goes a long way to renewing admiration for Davies and his talents as a songsmith.

Ryan O’Donnell takes centre stage as Ray, a sensitive young man who ‘thinks in songs’, clings to his artistic integrity and does the decent thing by marrying the young girl he knocks up while on tour in Bradford.  O’Donnell is both powerful and vulnerable as the gifted Ray, a grounded contrast to younger, cockier brother Dave – an energetic performance from Mark Newnham – who takes full advantage of the rock-and-roll lifestyle suddenly on offer.  Newnham brings a touch of punk attitude, underlining the idea that the Kinks were ahead of their time.  Joseph Richardson is also remarkable as drummer Robert Wace – the musical talents of the entire cast are beyond dispute – and Garmon Rhys is equally great as deadpan guitarist Pete Quaife, unsure about his future in the band.

The highlights keep coming.  There is a Lionel Bart feel to some of the numbers with the whole cast joining in.  Dedicated Follower of Fashion is a lot of fun involving tailors’ dummies.  Miriam Buether’s design and Adam Cooper’s choreography combine to create a vibrant 60s atmosphere, not seen since the last Austin Powers movie.  Duets between O’Donnell and Lisa Wright as wife Rasa are sweet and touching – Wright sings I Go To Sleep as a solo so full of yearning it gets you right in the feels.

Unlike other stories of this ilk, it is not drink or drugs that gets in the way.  Rather, the band is bogged down by legal wrangles and exploitation by a management team – it’s a refreshing change; like their music, the story of the Kinks does not follow the cliched pattern.

Joe Penhall’s book is funny and banterous – if I can use such a horrible word.  Director Edward Hall keeps the action slick, the storytelling sharp, and the music infectious and irresistible.  This wholly enjoyable show culminates in the all-time classic Waterloo Sunset, the finest testament to Davies’s talent, cementing his place in the history of popular music.

Superb entertainment, Sunny Afternoon provides an enjoyable evening.  It’s one production where you definitely wouldn’t want them to iron the Kinks out!

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Ryan O’Donnell and Mark Newnham as Ray and Dave Davies (Photo: Kevin Cummins)

 

 


Nunny Girl

SISTER ACT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 27th February, 2017

 

This touring production originates from Leicester’s Curve theatre, a place with a growing reputation for the excellence of its musicals – and this one goes all out to uphold that reputation.  The story will be familiar to fans of the Whoopi Goldberg film comedy, but the score does not use the same old songs.  Alan Menken’s vibrant original score pastiches the music of the era (the action is transposed from the 1990s to the 1970s) and gives the show its own musical identity.

Leading the cast as sassy club-singer-turned-fugitive Dolores, is TV talent show alumnus Alexandra Burke.  Her singing voice is heavenly but she also proves herself an accomplished comic performer, physically as well as vocally.  Lighting up the stage whenever she appears (and she is rarely off) Burke is a revelation (but not the bad kind from the Bible!) and an utter joy to behold.

She is supported by a fine ensemble of actor-musicians who carry their instruments around like fashion accessories.  Among the nuns’ chorus, Sarah Goggin’s postulant Sister Mary Robert has the most developed character arc, growing from shyness to full-on belt.  There is something inherently comical about nuns, and this show gets a lot out of this without resorting to off-colour gags about cucumbers or soap in the bath.  These nuns are funny, individualised along the lines of the seven dwarfs: there’s the old one, the happy one and so on.

Karen Mann’s Mother Superior is a powerful stage presence and her solo numbers are masterclasses in musical theatre.  Aaron Lee Lambert is afro-sporting villain, Curtis, with a rich, chocolatey voice, contrasting with Joe Vetch’s good guy cop Eddie.  Their songs range from old-school r&b to disco – oddly, perhaps for a show directed by Craig Revel Horwood, the numbers are not saturated with choreography.  Horwood uses the 70s moves sparingly, so the Travolta-moves lift the songs when appropriate, without becoming parodies of themselves.

Matthew Wright’s set keeps the ecclesiastical interior throughout, dressing it with disco stairs or police cell bars as the plot requires, in an economical and effectively emblematic fashion, allowing the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.  Behind the scenes, the band fills out the sound of the onstage performers.  Led by MD Greg Arrowsmith, this tight combo does as much to raise the roof and our spirits as those we can see.

An unadulterated pleasure from alpha to omega, this is a joyous night at the theatre, energising and uplifting as only live theatre can be.  Perhaps the best of the trend for adapting films for the musical stage, Sister Act has everything you could pray for in a show.

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Creature of habit: Alexandra Burke

 


Rubbing the Right Way

ALADDIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 13th December, 2016

 

This year’s panto may be the Grand’s most lavish for years, containing moments of spectacle and glamour, but of course what matters most is the cast.  Qdos Entertainment has gathered a fine ensemble of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, all of whom go all out to deliver the goods.

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Wow factor: Joe McElderry as Aladdin

In the title role is Joe McElderry, last seen on these boards as an excellent Joseph.  He sings like an angel from pop heaven, to be sure, but can he handle the comedy?  The answer is an unqualified yes.  McElderry is a natural for the panto style and makes an affable, adorable hero.  Lucy Kay is a beautiful Princess with a voice to match (her duets with McElderry are especially good); Adam C Booth’s Wishee Washee is a highly energised crowd pleaser and Ian Adams’s Widow Twankey is an old-school dame, played to perfection.  Lisa Riley, in great shape, is an amusing Slave of the Ring, bluff, Northern and friendly, but it is the Lazy Empress, played by Doreen who almost steals the show, giving Old Peking a decidedly and inescapably Black Country flavour.  Doreen also proves she is more than a one-trick pony (or should I say ‘oss’?) with a song-and-dance number that defies her supposedly lazy persona.  A real treat is Stefan Pejic’s delicious Abanazar.  Pejic plays the villain with such relish you can’t help liking him! Ben Faulks is fun as PC Ping Pong, although if you don’t know of his children’s TV gardening-based series, some of the references leave you a bit cold.  Neal Wright’s smart-talking Genie of the Lamp is a great surprise.

Michael Harrison and Alan McHugh’s script is faithful to the story – the bizarre mash-up of Arabian Nights and Chinese kitsch – while allowing for contemporary touches and moments of wonder.  We’ve seen flying carpets before but not like this one, but it’s a comic song routine about alternative employment for the characters that brings the house down.

Kelvin Towse leads a tight group of musicians. The glamorous dancers are complemented by kids from the Classic Academy of Dance. The belly laughs don’t stop coming and the impetus never flags.

This production is excellent value and unrelenting fun.  You couldn’t wish for a better show.

 


Sing Like An Egyptian

AIDA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 21st November, 2016

 

Producer and director Ellen Kent is renowned for the lavish spectacle of her productions, yet this new staging of Verdi’s grandest opera seems somewhat scaled down.  A versatile, almost Romanesque set serves as the backdrop for each scene, and from the overture, the presence of stone walls is prominent, foreshadowing the tragic fate of the lovers.  (Spoiler: they get walled into a tomb, buried alive!)

As the prisoner/slave Aida, Olga Perrier sparkles.  Many of this production’s highlights are her solo arias, just Perrier in a spotlight, emoting her head off.  Similarly, Liza Kadelnik shines as the scheming Princess Amneris, suitably evil and cruel, although in her scenes with Perrier, the acting seems more mannered and more like melodramatic, silent-movie posturing.  In fact, the whole production style seems like a throwback – the show feels more like a reconstruction than a new staging.

There is strong, authoritative singing from baritones Vadym Chernihovskyi as High Priest Ramfis, and Oleksandr Forkushak as the Egyptian King.  Iurie Gisca makes a powerful impression as Amonasro, Aida’s cross and vengeful dad, but for me,  the standout performance comes from handsome teno Giorgi Meladze as the heroic Radames.  Meladze’s singing is robust and stirring – and he has a nice pair of legs!

The cast is augmented by extras from Theatre Workshop Birmingham and elsewhere, and while the choral singing is rather good, the acting leaves something to be desired.  Some of them look fed up or at a loss.  Standard bearers trudge across the stage as if they’re on their way to the job centre rather than taking part in a triumphal parade.  I applaud the involvement of local groups and appreciate the pressures but there is a sense that this bunch are under-rehearsed.

That being said, this is still an evening of superb singing.  The leads are all magnificent and Verdi’s score, under the baton of Vasyl Vasylenko, is unassailable, rousing and glorious.

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Fascinating Aida: Liza Kadelnik and Olga Perrier


Execution is Everything

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 20th October, 2016

 

Mike Poulton’s masterful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic cracks along at a fair pace, distilling the novel into a couple of hours’ traffic on the stage.  It’s a powerful piece of storytelling.  Domestic scenes are interspersed with vignettes of violence as the mob takes over Paris and wreaks vengeance on the aristocracy.  The French Revolution is the backdrop and the antagonist in this story of love and sacrifice.

Jacob Ifan is Charles Darnay who, despite having renounced his inherited title, finds himself in shtuck with the French tribunal.  Ifan is handsome and reserved – except when he is talking politics and then the character’s passion comes to the fore.  By contrast, Joseph Timms’s Sydney Carton is a livelier presence, a spirited nihilist whose swagger only serves to advertise his lack of self-esteem.  Timms is charismatic, commanding our attention.  Carton boxes clever to save Darnay’s neck on more than one occasion.  (Carton…boxes…? Suit yourself!)

Both men are in love with Lucie Manette (an elegantly emotional Shanaya Rafaat) – and external events conspire to bring the triangle to a devastating denouement.

There is sterling support from Patrick Romer as Dr Manette, Michael Garner as faithful Mr Lorry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor amuses as servant/bodyguard Jerry, while Harry Attwell makes an impression as Stryver The ensemble is afforded many chances for some character cameos: Sue Wallace’s Pamela Keating and Rebecca Birch’s Jenny Herring stick in the mind – Dickens certainly knew how to give voice to the lower orders. Villain of the piece, Madame Defarge (Noa Bodner) personifies the kind of thinking that urges Brexit voting idiots to denounce all opposition as traitors.  The red of her skirt is a rare splash of colour in Ruth Hall’s muted costume palette, suggesting the bloodshed of those terrible times.

Mike Britton’s set evokes the Ancien Régime in decline, and Paul Keogan’s lighting intensifies the drama, contrasting dimness with moments of sharpness.  James Dacre directs, using contrasts for clarity and building a sense of a world in turmoil encroaching on individual lives.  The treatment of the poor – as typified here by Christopher Hunter’s cruel marquis – is facing resurgence in Britain today as the ruling classes demonise those less fortunate.  The shadow of the guillotine looms large in this story – perhaps we are overdue our own revolution.  Nobility, says the play, is nothing to do with title, wealth or privilege but is rather something within us – well, some of us.

To cap it all, Rachel Portman’s original score is striking, stirring, melancholic and tragic.

It all adds up to an excellent evening, an absorbing, gripping and moving production of which the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company should be very proud.

Great stuff and – if I might use the term – well executed!

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A tale of two, sitting: Joseph Timms, Rebecca Birch and Jacob Ifan


Inside Story

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 27th September, 2016

 

Stephen King’s story spawned a film, that has proved to be the nation’s favourite, and now this stage adaptation by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns.  Without the scale of the cinematic version, O’Neill and Johns focus on a select group of inmates, showing us their humanity along with the brutality and privations of the system.  I saw it when it toured last year and now it’s doing the rounds again with a new cast, I am more than happy to see it again.

Red is our narrator – Ben Onwukwe channelling Morgan Freeman in a performance that exudes warmth.  He introduces us to the hotheaded Latino Rico (Adam Henderson Scott), bullies Bogs and Rooster (Jeff Alexander and Sean Croke) and old lag Brooksie (Andrew Boyer in a heartbreaking portrayal of institutionalisation).  Into their midst comes Andy Dufresne, a man wrongfully convicted of the murders of his wife and her lover.  Andy is reserved, decent and kind, but this façade conceals a calculating mind.  Former EastEnders star Paul Nicholls gives us a Dufresne that is markedly contrasted with the larger-than-life characters around him, in a quiet, almost underplayed performance – until you see the intensity beneath the surface.  Dufresne is almost a Messiah figure to the others – and we all know how Messiah’s get treated.

Daniel Stewart impresses as the vicious screw Hadley but the villain of the piece is the god-bothering governor, Warden Stammas – a commanding Jack Ellis, oozing evil.

Director David Esbjornson handles moments of tension well, leavening them with humour, while Chris Davey’s lighting aids and abets Gary McCann’s all-purpose set to create different spaces within the prison.  There is violence and brutality, depicted and implied and the escape, when it happens, is presented symbolically – a beautiful moment.  As with last time, I can’t help noting how sparsely populated this prison is.  Pre-recorded voices go some way to give the impression of hordes of inmates off-stage – perhaps something could be done with local volunteers at each venue to flesh out scenes in the exercise yard, for example… I don’t know.

That aside, the play provides a compelling evening, even if you’ve read the book or seen the film countless times.  And the ending packs a punch right to the feels, as King reminds us that hope is a good thing and sometimes it pays off.

Excellent.

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