Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Class Struggle

EDUCATING RITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019

 

Almost forty years after its first production, Willy Russell’s acerbic two-hander is doing the rounds again, and it’s a pleasure to reconnect with the story of hairdresser Rita as she pursues her academic aspirations in order to better herself and improve her lot.  The tutor assigned to her by the Open University is jaded lecturer and functioning alcoholic Frank, who overcomes his reluctance and forms a bond with his persistent and unconventional new student.

We laugh at Rita’s gaffes, as we meet her through Frank’s eyes – the play credits us with a modicum of literary knowledge – and we see, also through Frank’s eyes, how education changes the bright but awkward young woman into a confident, knowledgeable scholar.  Frank thinks he has created a monster, Frankenstein-style – but what Rita has done is break the mould of her working-class upbringing.  By aspiring to something other than material gain and a ‘good night out’ down the pub, Rita has changed her life.  She now has something she never had before: choices.

As Frank, Stephen Tompkinson does a flawless job, dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  Jessica Johnson’s Rita has impeccable comic timing, although her accent can wander around the Mersey estuary (and sometimes across the Irish Sea).  There is nothing to say that Rita has to be from Russell’s hometown of Liverpool; she could spring from any working-class community.

The star of the show is Willy Russell, and it’s great to be reminded of the richness of his writing. There is much more to the play than the snappy jokes and the developing relationship and mutual respect between tutor and student.  There is social commentary about the rigidity of the class system and the perceived need to maintain the boundaries that define who people are.  Rita battles against the prevailing working-class attitude that art, books, the opera and so on are ‘not for us’, but once the genie is out of the bottle, she is unable to go back to pub singalongs and settling down with her lot.

Director Max Roberts navigates Rita’s mercurial mood changes: one minute she’s mouthing off, making wise cracks, and the next she’s revealing some home truth; Roberts keeps his cast of two busy.  Both characters are somewhat histrionic in their own way so there is no danger of things becoming static.  Patrick Connellan’s set, with books everywhere, encapsulates dishevelled academia (representing Frank himself) with Rita as an agent of change, for herself and for her unwilling tutor.  Neither of their lives will be quite the same again.

There are plenty of laughs, and even a couple of touching moments.  The message is not heavy-handed, but I wonder how relevant it is today.  And then I think of the obstacles placed in the path of working-class people that hinder their access to higher education, some of which come from the working-class mindset itself, and I think, yes, the play still has currency.

A modern classic, finely presented, this play will make you laugh and make you think.

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Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson

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Look Who’s Stalking

THE BODYGUARD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th June,2019

 

Never having watched the Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner film, I come to Alexander Dinelaris’s stage adaptation of Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay without expectations – other than I expect to know the songs (the score is Houston’s back catalogue).  But will the whole enterprise be nothing more than a glorified, glamourised jukebox musical?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: yes, it is.

Rachel Marron is a diva at the top of her game, and as stroppy a Queen of the Night as her namesake in The Magic Flute.  When security expert Frank Farmer is hired to protect her from the nutter who has been sending creepy messages, she digs in her high heels and stubbornly refuses to comply with the measures Frank puts in place.  You can see where it’s going: she gets in danger, Frank rescues her, and it’s not long before they’re snogging.  Frank is conflicted with this blending of his professional and personal lives.  Meanwhile, the nutter is becoming more audacious, and Rachel’s overshadowed sister is mooning over Frank with unrequited affection…

It’s a loud, brash, lavish affair and I have to say I enjoyed it immensely.  As the determined diva, Jennlee Shallow is the real deal, a phenomenal belter-outerer of Houston’s signature songs.  (Alexandra Burke will take over the role for the second week of the show’s sojourn in Wolverhampton).  Shallow is matched by Micha Richardson as sister Nicki – her renditions of Saving All My Love For You and All At Once are definite highlights for me.

French actor (and renard d’argent) Benoît Maréchal is unbelievably handsome in the role of Frank Farmer, bringing Gallic charm and charisma to the role.  His lacklustre karaoke version of I Will Always Love You is hilarious.  In fact, the best scenes between the two leads are when they lighten up with each other.

Phil Atkinson is an imposing and menacing presence as The Stalker, although I wonder how he has time to run a campaign of terror when he is clearly never out of the gym.

The plot may be simplistic but such are the production values, with Tim Hatley’s sliding set and Mark Henderson’s cinematic lighting, we are swept along.  It’s a love story, a thriller and above all, a reminder of how many great tunes Whitney Houston put out there.  The hits keep coming and the orchestra, led by Michael Riley, is superb.

This is musical theatre on a grand scale, a spectacle, a chance to escape from reality for a couple of hours, and it manages to deliver the goods without descending into schmaltz and sentimentality.

I may not have seen the film, but I have heard the old joke about Whitney Houston’s favourite kind of coordination…

Hand-eye………………….

Jennlee Shallow and Benoît Maréchal in The Bodyguard UK Tour - 2704 - Photo by Paul Coltas [1]

Up in arms: Jennlee Shallow and Benoît Maréchal (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 


Holiday Camp

CLUB TROPICANA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 29th April, 2019

 

Don’t you just hate it when your wedding is called off so your mates take you abroad to a hotel to drink it off and you end up at the same place as your intended and their mates?  This is the set-up for this new jukebox musical, the flimsy framework on which to hang hit songs from the 1980s.  Add to the mix a subplot about an anonymous hotel inspector and a stalled love affair between the hotel owners and we’re pretty much set.  As with other shows of this type, we get musical theatre performers emoting their way through vaguely relevant pop songs – part of the fun is the recognition of each song.

But what sets this one above those other shows is the star quality of its leading lights.  Talent show champion Joe McElderry is Garry, the hotel’s entertainment officer, sporting a pink (rather than a red or even a yellow) coat, coming across like the love child of George Michael and Dale Winton.  The pop songs are a walk in the park for McElderry’s excellent vocals but it is especially pleasing to see how much he has developed as a comic actor, with flawless timing, a neat line in facial expressions, and some energetic physical comedy.  It’s camper than Christmas and it feels like McElderry has found his home.

Also bringing the goods is veteran comic actor and impressionist Kate Robbins, appearing as Consuela the maid – from the Allo Allo school of funny foreigners.  In the hands of a pro like Robbins, the character is more than a stereotype, and is a superb comic creation in its own right.  Robbins gets the chance to show off her impressions, through the prism of Consuela attempting to make the hotel look busy by donning a succession of fancy-dress costumes (didn’t they use that idea in Crossroads?).

Other members of the company get their moments to shine.  Amelle Berrabah’s Serena delivers a lovely Only You, Karina Hind’s Lorraine gives a kick-ass Call Me and Cellen Chugg Jones’s Olly shows his vocal range with a-ha’s tricksy Take On Me.  Emily Tierney gives a broad comic turn as accident-prone snob, Christine, who is not all that she seems… Neil McDermott’s Robert appeals, with a neat delivery of some snappy one-liners.

Michael Gyngell’s script keeps the complications uncomplicated; we shrug off the thinness of the plot because he gives us so many funny lines.  Nick Winston’s choreography recalls the signature moves of the decade, and the band, led by MD Charlie Ingles, gets the audience on its feet.

Strindberg or Ibsen, this ain’t, but it’s not trying to be.  While Club Tropicana doesn’t exactly push the boundaries of theatre, it’s undemanding, hilarious, old-fashioned fun, performed by a likeable company.

But it strikes me as odd that the famous and much-loved title song is never sung.  Perhaps the rights could not be obtained.  In that case, they should have called the show something else – but then I suppose Hotel California is too downbeat for this hugely enjoyable farcical frolic.

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Joe McElderry as Garry


Dutch Treat

ROTTERDAM

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd April, 2019

 

Alice is a British girl working in Holland.  New Year’s Eve is fast approaching and she’s in anguish over an email she’s trying to write to her parents, finally telling them that she is gay.  On hand to offer advice is girlfriend Fiona, a down-to-earth northerner – trouble is, Fiona has her own revelation to make: she is a he and wants to present as such.  Alice has difficulties supporting ‘Adrian’, fearing the loss of the woman she loves…

So begins Jon Brittain’s searing social comedy, on tour at last.  The writing is sharp and funny, and it rings true, emotionally speaking.  And there is more to the piece than laughter.  The play gives us an insight into the personal lives of people who transition, in an empathetic albeit hilarious and sometimes moving fashion.  The setting – Rotterdam – a port where everyone is either coming or going, reflects the state of flux of the play’s central relationship.

As uptight Alice, Bethan Cullinane is utterly credible, whether Alice’s outbursts are sarcastic or heartfelt.  Equally strong is the excellent Lucy Jane Parkinson as Fiona/Adrian, plain-speaking in some respects and desperate to articulate emotions and experiences at other times.  As the pair come under strain, we are brought to an understanding of both points of view.

They are supported by Elijah W Harris as Adrian’s brother and Alice’s ex (and now her best friend), Josh (Brittain keeps it in the family for added confusion and comedy value!), and Ellie Morris as Dutch party girl Lelani.  Harris is the mediator, the Apollo to Morris’s Dionysus, pulling Alice in opposing directions.  Both are great, with Morris in particular being very funny.

Director Donnacadh O’Briain gets comedy and emotion from his cast – even the transitions are fun (the scenic transitions, I mean!); there is also subtlety here.  Beneath all the yelling and histrionics, the emotional truth comes out.   It’s a vibrant, extremely likeable and thought-provoking production that sheds light on aspects of today’s society about which there is ignorance and prejudice.  The humour makes the characters relatable, which leads to better understanding of this slice of human experience.  Above all, it’s a love story and everyone can relate to that.

I could have done without the blaring electropop music though.  Perhaps I’m just old.

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Bethan Cullinane and Lucy Jane Parkinson (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Ideas Above Her Station

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 18th March, 2019

 

Paula Hawkins’s smash hit novel comes to the stage in this effective adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel.  Our protagonist is Rachel, a woman whose life has gone off the rails since her divorce from Tom.  She hits the bottle and commutes to London, her journey taking her past her former house.  She makes up lives for the people she sees, especially a young couple she calls Jess and Jason.  Except Jess is really Megan and Megan has gone missing… and Rachel has drink-induced gaps in her memory…

As ramshackle Rachel, Samantha Womack is superb, stumbling through the mystery like a drunken (and much younger) Miss Marple, conducting her own investigation just as the cops are investigating her.  Rachel is on stage throughout, so we only get to find out what she finds out.  Womack manages to arouse our sympathy for this broken woman and she is also rather funny.

Oliver Farnworth is also strong as Megan’s buff and bluff husband Scott, whose fits of rage make him a suspect.  John Dougall is highly enjoyable as Detective Inspector Gaskill, and there is a good supporting cast: namely, Naeem Hayat’s shady therapist Kamal, Adam Jackson-Smith as Rachel’s smarmy ex-husband Tom, and especially Lowenna Melrose as Tom’s second wife, Anna – her exchanges with Womack are bitter fun.  Kirsty Oswald comes and goes as missing Megan; she gets her moment in the spotlight, recounting the harrowing history of her baby in a particularly affecting scene.

Director Anthony Banks keeps the action fluid; the scene transitions run more smoothly than any rail service, with James Cotterill’s pieces of scenery sliding in and out and across, their motion bringing to mind railway carriages – or perhaps I’ve just been commuting too long myself.  Jack Knowles’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s projections suggest the passing trains as well as heightening moments of tension.  Banks brings all of these elements together to give us a taut, twisty thriller that retains the flavour of the book and improves on the film adaptation.

As well as a whodunnit, it’s a play about the abuse of women by men – but don’t let that put you off.  Compelling and intriguing, this touring production is well worth getting on board for.

TGOTT 11 Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack Photo by Manuel Harlan

Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Mac Duff

MACBETH

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th March, 2019

 

I have lost count of the number of productions of the Scottish Play I have seen over the years; I have yet to see one that gets everything absolutely right.  This touring version of the acclaimed National Theatre production doesn’t, I’m afraid, do it for me either.

Set ‘now’ but ‘after a civil war’, the action takes place in a dingy world of camouflage gear and the kind of clothing that gives the cast the appearance of an urban dance troupe that has fallen on hard times.  I’m all for diversity in casting, but I can do without Diversity as an aesthetic.  I half-expected Ashley Banquo to come on and flip Fleance over the heads of the group.  Said Fleance is gender-swapped and dressed like a young rapper.  Nuff said.

Rae Smith’s set includes a large ramp, like a broken footbridge, which is initially put to good use but is then side-lined in favour of plastic chairs and beat-up sofas.  There are also tall poles, like bedraggled palm trees, up and down which the Three Witches clamber and slide like post-apocalyptic circus performers – I could have done with more of this kind of thing, and a bit less of their booming, echoey voices, which go against their other ethereal qualities.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is all right to listen to, but we don’t get the impression of a great warrior gone bad – especially not when he’s being duct-taped into his armour.  Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth’s first appearance, in khaki vest, has the look of a military physical trainer, which she trades up for some garish gowns, at odds with the rest of the design.  Besterman brings intensity though and her sleepwalking scene is rather good.

Instead of crowns, the ruling monarch sports a blood-red suit, and so Duncan (Tom Mannion – effortless in his nobility) looks like a lounge singer.  When Macbeth later dons the trousers, it brings to mind the “I am in blood stepped in so far” line, which makes sense of Moritz Junge’s costume choice at last.

I can’t take to Joseph Brown’s Malcolm in the slightest but I do like Deka Walmsley’s bawdy Geordie Porter, Patrick Robinson’s Banquo, and above all Rachel Sanders’s Ross – these three seem to get the most out of the language, while coping with director Rufus Norris’s decisions, some of which make Shakespeare sound ironic: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (it doesn’t; it looks like half a portacabin) and “Never shake thy gory locks at me” (Banquo’s pate is as bald as a Malteser)…

There is some effectively dissonant original music by Orlando Gough, and Paul Arditti’s sound design adds to the eeriness – until it becomes intrusive – while Paul Pyant’s lighting is suitably dramatic.  But the action doesn’t grip me, the tragedy of a great man brought low by his ambition and supernatural interference doesn’t’ come across.

Ditch the camouflage get-up and the urban combat gear.  Let’s have a Game of Thrones version.  That would be relatable to the Youth too.

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Ramping up the action: the cast of Macbeth

 

 

 


Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

Second panto of the season for me and my second Sleeping Beauty.  This extravaganza in Wolverhampton’s beautiful Grand Theatre hits all the high notes, with their most consistently excellent pantomime production in years.

Debbie McGee kicks things off with a Grand entrance as the Lovely Fairy Crystal.  It’s not long before she’s demonstrating her hoofing skills.  Strictly between us, she’s still a fantastic mover, even if she is prone to a spot of corpsing in her dialogue scenes – actually, this adds to the fun.  As her evil counterpart, the wicked fairy Carabosse, Julie Paton is hugely enjoyable; it’s not until the second act that we get her finest moment, a lyrically-adapted rendition of  I Will Survive.  Paton also choreographs the show, the customary blend of fairy-tale costumes and contemporary dance.

Ian Adams returns to Wolverhampton on double duty, as director and as a deliciously camp dame, Queen Wilhelmina (Call me Willy!)  Adams is clearly in his element here, bringing drag queen elegance.  The innuendo levels sky-rocket whenever he is on.  Also back is Doreen Tipton, as hilariously dreary Nurse Doreen, bringing a very local flavour to proceedings and also some of the rudest remarks.

Bethan-Wyn Davies is an appealing Princess Beauty, looking like she’s dropped out of a Disney movie, and singing like a pop princess.  Her love interest is Prince Harry, played by the delightful Oliver Ormson, handsome, funny and with the voice of an angel, he is the perfect panto prince.

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Oliver Ormson and Bethan-Wyn Davies as Harry and Meghan – sorry, Beauty (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

The big draw for me though is the casting of Sooty.  As himself.  There is so much love for the little golden bear with black ears, and I’m pleased to see it’s not just me.  The older members of the audience revel in the nostalgia while the younger ones are delighted by his mischievous antics perhaps for the first time.  Of course, you can’t have Sooty without Sweep, who treats us to a rendition of Nessun Dorma like no other.  It’s a surreal moment.  Part of you knows it’s a hand in a glove squeezing a squeaker, but another part of you overrules it and you find yourself urging him on.  Go on, Sweep, give it some welly!

Accompanying the puppets is Richard Cadell.  More than Sooty’s handler, he is a splendid comic performer in his own right and also a fine stage magician.  The show has some amazing set pieces, magic tricks on the small and the large scale.  Cadell is irrepressibly funny, a true showman.

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Richard Cadell as Muddles and Sooty as himself (Photo; Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

With musical director Kelvin Towse in charge of a tight ensemble, a troupe of talented dancers (who are perhaps a little underused) and a smattering of ‘babes’ from the Classic Academy of Dance, this is a high-quality show that really does have something for everyone.  Production values are impressive (apart from a naff helicopter) and while the kids revel in the slapstick, the grown-ups are tickled by the risqué jokes.  There are traditional routines, spectacular effects, and above all a whole lot of fun.

Magic.