Tag Archives: Gwenda Hughes

Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Life Lessons

THE ROTTERS’ CLUB

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th April, 2016

 

Richard Cameron’s adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s novel of schoolboy life in Birmingham in the turbulent decade of the 1970s, comes to the REP stage in a Young Rep production.  A talented ensemble of young actors brings Coe’s characters to energetic life.  The plot unfolds in an episodic, rather cinematic fashion but Gwenda Hughes’s direction keeps the action clear, and linked by slick and stylish transitions.  It’s a bit History Boys with its scenes of classroom banter but we focus on the lives of a couple of characters: would-be writer Ben Trotter (or Bent Rotter as his cronies would have it) and Claire Newman, a girl who has an unrequited crush on Ben and whose big sister is up to all sorts of no good with a married man.

It’s a tale of innocence waiting to be lost, the rites of passage of the education system, the trials of puberty, set against the backdrop of industrial unrest, terrorist atrocity, and power cuts.  The setting is familiar from memory – and from much of today’s news!

Anna Bradley is excellent as Claire, turning out to be more sensible than her love-struck and doomed older sister Miriam (Jasmin Melissa Hylton).  Much of the show’s broad humour comes from Haris Myers as class clown Harding – a compelling stage presence.  Harding also brings to light the darker side of race relations of those days – again, we’d like to think times have changed…  Alice McGowan makes an impression as Lois Trotter, Ben’s sister, deeply affected by a bomb in a Birmingham pub, and I especially enjoyed Daniel Carter’s portrayal of her boyfriend Malcolm – the end of the first act is sensitively handled and powerfully done, when characters’ lives are changed forever by terrible, external events.

Yusuf Niazi is good fun as Ben’s mate Chase, Adnahn Silvestro brings passion and energy to left-wing idealist Doug, while Maggie McGuire Smith captures the vanity and pretentiousness of Cicely on whom Ben has a crush.  There is strong support from Andrew Morrin as Culpepper and Louis Sutherland as Richards – the conflict that erupts between these two brings most of the second act’s drama.

But holding the show together is an affable performance from Charlie Mills as the likeable Ben.  He delivers wordy monologues with aplomb, shows us the developing maturity of the character (the plot nips back and forth in time a bit), all with humour, sensitivity and truth.  Ben goes through all the usual teenage anguish – Mills imbues him with a spark of individuality that makes him the kind of kid you would have liked to have been growing up.

It’s an engaging and enjoyable piece – the local references are nostalgia for some, ancient history for others.  I would have liked a bit more period music to enrich the 70s feel, but that’s nit-picking on my part.  The young, skilful cast carry it off in impressive and effective fashion – and I don’t mean Malcolm’s sheepskin coat!

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Class acts: Charlie Mills and Yusuf Niazi (Photo: Robert Day)


Girl Powers

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, February, 2015

This spellbinding production translates John Van Duren’s 1950s play to the 1970s, making it a period piece of sorts.  There is something otherworldly about Michael Holt’s set.  Its stylishness is offset beautifully by Danielle Beattie’s atmospheric lighting and James Earl-Davis’s eerie sound design of chimes and bells and what sounds like someone running their finger around the rim of a wine glass.

We are in Gillian’s London flat; Gillian is an independent, confident and wilful gal about town but it’s not just Women’s Lib that empowers her.  She is a witch, able to manipulate situations to her advantage.  When Anthony, the handsome bloke in the flat above, catches her eye and she learns he is engaged to an old school rival of hers, Gillian casts a spell on the hapless young man and he is unable to resist her.

As Gillian, Emma Pallant has a commanding stage presence – there is something hypnotic and seductive about her, something feline – like a panther in its lair.

In contrast we have her warlock brother Nicky, who sounds like Adam Faith in Budgie but dresses like Huggy Bear.  Adam Barlow literally lights up the stage in a measured and nuanced comic performance.  There is an undercurrent of menace offset by his flamboyant clobber and his disco strut.

Janice McKenzie is a delight as Queenie, in glorious Dracula’s Auntie costumes.  Director Gwenda Hughes doesn’t overplay the laughs, instilling a level of credibility in the fantastical aspects of the plot.

Geoffrey Breton does an appealing turn as the enchanted Anthony and there’s some lovely character work from Mark Chatterton as self-professed expert in magic, the muggle Sidney Redlitch.  And special mention must be made of ‘Casper’ who appears as Pyewacket, Gillian’s feline familiar.  Unlike the Blue Peter cats or McCavity, he doesn’t seek to flee the scene at the first opportunity.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an intelligent and funny play.  There are no short cuts to falling in love, that magical state that renders us all too human.

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SENTINEL review: Talking Heads

SENTINEL review: Talking Heads

TALKING HEADS

New Vic Theatre, Friday 25th January, 2013

Here is my review for the opening night of the New Vic’s new production of Alan Bennett’s classic monologues.


Toad Away!

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012


Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.

First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.

The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.

The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?

The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.

The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.

There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.

Wind-in-the-Willows