Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Muck and Brass

BRASSED OFF

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th August, 2017

 

It’s been forty years since Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre produced a show of its own but now comes this new production of a time-honoured crowd-pleaser, Mark Herman’s stage adaptation of the much-loved British film.  Set in 1994, ten years after the miners’ strike and the pits are still under threat.  With closure in the air, the men are offered ‘bribes’ in the form of what might seem like generous redundancy pay-outs.  While the women of the community continue to protest and fight, the men fill their non-working hours with drinking and band practice.

Ash Matthews is Shane, our young, part-time narrator, guiding us back to those times.  Matthews, playing much younger than he is, is a likeable presence, capturing Shane’s ebullience and childish preoccupations.  Shane is an innocent trying to make sense of what the grown-ups are up to.

Ash Matthews (Shane) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Ash Matthews as Shane (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Christopher Connel is Shane’s dad, Phil, who is really struggling to make ends meet.  It’s difficult to put bread on the table when the bailiffs have taken the table.  Connel and Miriam Grace Edwards as wife Sandra, provide most of the emotional content of the show, as their marriage comes under strain, and Phil’s mental health declines.  In a moving and desperate speech, he spits out bitter jokes as he tightens a noose around his neck.  Connel is absolutely compelling.  It’s a dark moment in what is for the most part a story leavened with a lot of down-to-earth Northern humour – most of which comes from Jim and Harry (Greg Yates and Tim Jones) and their wives Rita and Vera (Donna Heaslip and Susie Wilcox).  It’s the womenfolk who talk sense in this piece.

Shane’s grandfather and Phil’s dad, Danny, is also the leader of the colliery band, striving to keep things going and get the band through heats of various competitions.  Jeffrey Holland (from Hi-de-Hi on the telly, and countless pantomime appearances as an exemplary Dame) is a revelation in this dramatic role, balancing the dry humour with passion.  Danny may have coal dust in his lungs but he also has fire in his belly.  A dying man, he is a metaphor for the coal industry, with capitalism as the disease that will kill him.

Eddy Massarella makes a strong impression as the directionless Andy, whose interest is aroused by the return of old flame Gloria (an excellent Clara Darcy) who blows a mean flugelhorn but has a hidden agenda.  Their thwarted love story falls second, however, to scenes that show the blight on the communities by Tory ideology – and it is here that the play retains its relevance.  It is people that matter, Danny declares in an impassioned speech, not making a bob or two – despite the way the Tories carry on to this day.

Director Gareth Tudor Price handles the tonal changes as assuredly as conductor Danny steers the music.  And what music it is!  From the bouncy Floral Dance to the searing Concerto d’Aranjuez and a stirring William Tell Overture, the brass band sound is gorgeous.  The cast is augmented by the City of Wolverhampton Brass Band and it’s a real treat for the ears.

I hope this show heralds a new era of in-house productions for the Grand.  This foul-mouthed but heart-warming story is a superb way to start.

Jeffrey Holland (Danny) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Jeffrey Holland as Danny (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

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The Brice is Right

FUNNY GIRL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 24th July, 2017

 

Barbra Streisand indelibly stamped herself on this role fifty years ago so it’s a tough job for anyone to follow in her Oscar-winning footsteps.  Natasha J Barnes steps up to the plate to give us her version of Jewish entertainer, Fanny Brice – and she knocks it out of the park.  Barnes’s Fanny is magnificent, sucking us into her world, with an energised, extrovert performance – Brice as a performer was larger-than-life and hardly ever ‘off’.  Her humour is a defence mechanism and a shield for situations when she feels uncertain or nervous, cracking jokes and pulling faces to mask her fears or her heartbreak.  Barnes can also sing, with subtlety and with full belt.  Her ‘People’ is almost understated in its tenderness and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ brings the house down.  Rising through the ranks of showbiz, Brice’s instincts are to undermine the sexist tosh that is ‘His Love Makes You Beautiful’ – mainly because of her looks, which she is told repeatedly, ain’t pretty.  I take issue with this and this alone: Barnes is rather pretty indeed, lacking the distinctive features of La Streisand or La Brice.

Darius Campbell is a towering romantic lead as inveterate gambler Nick Arnstein, with his basso profundo delivery and inexhaustible supply of smarm and charm.  Nigel Barber is the long-suffering impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and Nova Skipp makes an endearing impression as Fanny’s mum.  Joshua Lay is excellent as Fanny’s friend and fellow hoofer, Eddie, while Martin Callaghan is good fun as Mr Keeney, the man who (reluctantly) gives Fanny her first break.  The entire company is on great form as an amusing bunch of characters supporting the powerful and, yes, funny central performance from Barnes. Lynne Page’s quirky period choreography also brings the Ziegfeld glamour to the production.  Michael Pavelka’s elegantly sparse set: a proscenium arch askew, mirrored wings, serves as every location for this stripped-down staging.  Harvey Fierstein may have reworked Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show but the show remains an undeniably old-school, old fashioned musical. It’s A Star is Born with a lot of heart and a lot of fun.

There are many, many peaks; the only troughs are shallow ones, whenever Fanny isn’t on stage and a couple of the numbers feel like fillers, however superbly presented.   Barnes is irresistible, almost an attention vortex, giving us the vulnerability and pain of Fanny behind the gurning and the glitz.  If you’re only going to give one standing ovation this year, this is the one who deserves it.

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The greatest star… Natasha J Barnes gives us her breathtaking Fanny

 


Comedy/Tragedy Tonight!

ROMEO & JULIET/TWELFTH NIGHT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, 2017

 

The Watermill Theatre’s tour of a Shakespeare double bill arrives in Wolverhampton and gets off to a stirring start with a contemporary setting for Romeo & Juliet.  Aimed at a YA audience, it appears, this is Verona Hollyoaks-style, where a chorus of hoodie-sporting youths narrate and provide some of the show’s most effective non-naturalistic sequences.  A young cast overall, they are headed by Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva as the star-cross’d lovers.  What really comes across is the youth of the characters, their exuberance, gaucheness and headlong surrender to violent emotions.  This makes the balcony scene awkwardly funny but nonetheless sincere in its outbursts and declarations of love.

Victoria Blunt makes a bold, tomboyish Benvolio while Offue Okegbe is an endearing Mercutio – although I think he could ditch the wetsuit and flippers and still be funny.  Peter Dukes is a beefy Tybalt and Rebecca Lee a sympathetic Friar Laurence but it is Lauryn Redding as the Nurse (and also as the Prince who uses a rubber ball as a gavel to punctuate his pronouncements) who shows us how it’s done.  Among a strong ensemble, she stands out in terms of conviction and delivery.  I also admire Capulet (Jamie Satterthwaite) and his cheesy dad speech.

Director Paul Hart interlaces scenes with up-to-date musical numbers performed live by the cast.  This is at its most effective as a soundtrack underscoring key moments, e.g. a Movement sequence at R and J’s wedding brings the first half to a close with a preview of what is to come.  The style is very much influenced by Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh – and this is in no way a bad thing, making the action accessible and the emotions plain.  On the whole, the cast handle the verse expertly – apart from the off moments when they’re rushing it.  A sophisticated and engaging production, brimming with youthful energy.

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Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva on the balcony

Back again the following evening for the bittersweet rom-com, Twelfth Night.  This Illyria has a 1920s vibes to it and the music is vibrant and jazzy – some of the songs used are anachronistic but this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Effective use of Tears For Fears’ Mad World, for example, and again I am struck by the musical and vocal abilities of the cast.  Rebecca Lee is the cross-dressing Viola – this is a world in which genders are bent and no one bats an eye: Sir Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding being marvellous again) is such a figure, referred to as a ‘she’ but dressed like a man (with conduct to match) and the honorific ‘Sir’.  No wonder Viola is able to get away with it.  Jamie Satterthwaite is a suitably self-indulgent Orsino, while Aruhan Galieva’s regal Olivia soon shows us the love-struck young lady behind the veil.   Offue Okegbe’ s easy-going Feste and Mike Slader’s prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek add to the pervading comic mood; Victoria Blunt’s cunning Maria and Emma McDonald’s earnest Antonia keep the plot moving with conviction.  There is always a melancholic air to this play, as though people are trying to distract themselves with practical jokes, music, and the folly of love (and, of course, drink!).  Paul Hart’s direction keeps the party atmosphere going without neglecting the undercurrent – people are hurt by these ‘distractions’, none less than Peter Dukes’s show-stealing Malvolio who transforms from a stuffy butler type to a kind of ‘sweet transvestite’ in yellow stockings and feather boa, to a broken, humiliated man, bent on revenge.  It’s a delight of a show, like bitter chocolate, reminding us that Shakespeare can still push our buttons to make us laugh and to make us empathise with our fellow humans.  The downbeat happy ending is here enlivened by a jazzed-up rendition of Hey-ho, the Wind and the Rain.   In fact, Ned Rudkins-Stow’s arrangement of the play’s songs are all well done, from O, Mistress Mine to Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave.  Shakespeare wasn’t half bad as a lyricist either, it turns out!

A thoroughly enjoyable pairing – you should catch at least one if you can.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander-029

Rebecca Lee and Offue Okegbe (Photos: Scott Rylander)

 


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!

kinks kevin cummins

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.

burke

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.

aladdin-joe

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.