Tag Archives: Isla Shaw

The Cat’s Meow

THE CAT IN THE HAT

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th February, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s bestselling children’s book is brought to vibrant life in this new touring production from Leicester’s Curve theatre.  The story of two children, Sally and Boy (Conrad in the book) who, bored on a rainy day, get a visit from a fantastical cat and his troublesome brace of Things, is faithfully re-enacted using many of Seuss’s rhymes.

It begins with a prologue, a warm-up in which the children introduce themselves to us before bringing out the super-soaker water guns.  They get us on our feet and singing along, to get us in receptive mood before the main action begins.  Which it does – opening the story with a dumb-show sequence, brimming with physical comedy, as the children try to occupy themselves and annoy each other.  We meet their pet goldfish, here portrayed as an operatic diva in a bubble.  And then, at last, the Cat himself arrives…

As Sally and her brother, Melissa Lowe and Sam Angell are full of childlike energy, only outdone in this respect by Thing 1 (Celia Francis) and Thing 2 (Robert Penny) two wild-haired acrobats who hurl themselves around the set, with skill and exuberance.  As the Fish, Charley Magalit is glamorous to look at and beautiful to hear.  But it is Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the eponymous Cat who captivates and amazes the most.  He is urbane and smooth in his delivery, with slinky moves and a jazzy voice, all of which he demonstrates while balancing on a ball, holding an increasing variety of objects.  It’s an astonishing feat.

When the Things get out of control, Sally and the Boy despair at the mess being made and try to contain the tearaway creatures.  The Cat wheels in a weird contraption to tidy up before he takes his leave.  But what does it all mean?  The Cat is a trickster, an agent of chaos, and his antics are at first attractive to the children.  The Fish is the unheeded voice of reason, the conscience.  The wanton behaviour of the Things teaches the children there are boundaries, and the Cat takes responsibility by cleaning up the mess.  So, it’s a moral lesson after all: it’s OK to be a bit Dionysian, just don’t go the full Bacchae.

Suba Das directs this colourful, anarchic spectacle with gusto, showing a great eye for comic business and an understanding of what makes children laugh.  Isla Shaw’s remarkable set (part illustration, part practical) is put to extensive use to support the storytelling and the physicality of the shenanigans.  The costumes are delightful, capturing the spirit of Seuss’s original drawings, yet adapting them for human-shaped performers.  The Things are spot on, and I love the Cat’s furry tuxedo, complete with tail and his signature red-and-white striped stovepipe hat.

There is much to marvel at here in this show bursting with theatricality and brio.  It’s a thrilling live experience for the little ones, something they’ll never get from a screen or an app.  More senior members of the audience will be nostalgic for when they read the book, and will derive pleasure from seeing the much-loved classic staged so inventively.

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Purrfect: Nana Amoo-Gottfried as the Cat in the Hat on two chairs (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Wilde Thing

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 14th September, 2016

 

“We live in a world of surfaces,” says Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece that holds a mirror up to society.  Designer Isla Shaw takes this at face value and gives us a set that is all mirrored surfaces.  It’s opulent and bright, and a nifty idea, but rather than draw us in, suggesting that the play is showing us ourselves, I find it distracting to see the actors reflected from all sides.

There seems to be a desire to give the piece – over a century old – a contemporary feel.  This is entirely unnecessary; the lines are as fresh and funny as ever.  Rather than blasting out electro-dance music, director Nikolai Foster should allow the play to speak for itself, and let it remind us how contemporary it feels without these jarring trappings.  Poor Gwendolen (Martha Mackintosh) has to wear a period dress lacking a front from the knees down.  It’s entirely out of keeping and I find myself questioning the design choices rather than listening to the dialogue.  Fela Lufadeju’s John Worthing fares a little better: one of his suits makes him look like a bus conductor and his mourning clothes are a little too steampunk.

Apart from these disturbing elements, this is a highly enjoyable production, especially when the genius of Wilde is allowed to come to the fore.  Handsome Edward Franklin seems most at home as the hedonistic Algernon, while Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is as formidable and imperious as you could hope.  There is some neat character acting from Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble and Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism, and I like Sharan Phull’s youthful energy as Cecily Cardew.  Darren Bennett gives us two markedly different butlers; I’ve never seen a Merriman so camp. Some of the timing needs sharpening – the bitchy scene between the two young girls could be more arch – but on the whole, the cast deliver Wilde’s often convoluted sentences very well.  They also, at times, need to ride the laughs a little better so that follow-up ripostes are not lost to us.

The delights of Wilde’s contrivances still tickle us.  This seemingly trivial play is rich with social commentary and satire, and the revelations at the denouement are still breathtakingly silly.  This production for the most part is a lovely confection; there are just one or two things I would leave on the side of my plate.

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Edward Franklin and Sharan Phull (Photo: Tom Wren)

 

 

 


Barnstormers

WIPERS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 12th May, 2016

 

Ishy Din’s new play, co-produced by the Belgrade with Leicester’s Curve Theatre and Watford’s Palace Theatre, is a good fit for the B2 space.  Isla Shaw’s impressive set brings us inside a barn near the French town of Ypres.  Rafters spread like the ribs of a wrecked ship or a beached whale, as though the armies at war around it are fighting over something that’s already dead.  With atmospheric lighting by Prema Mehta and sound design by Jon Nicholls that enables to imagine the conflict raging offstage, the scene is set for an engaging and powerful drama.

Into the barn come commanding officer Thomas (Jassa Ahluwalia) and Sadiq (Simon Rivers), following orders to secure the location.  An appealing Ahluwalia convinces as the young toff, out of his depth – even his salutes betray his nervousness.  Rivers’s Sadiq is more practical, a professional soldier.  They are joined by Sartaj Garewal as AD and, later, Waleed Akhtar as Ayub.  Humour comes from the clash of cultures and the language barrier.  Subtly, the actors use different accents depending on who they’re conversing with.  Ahluwalia is ‘teddibly, teddibly’ upper class Brit – when the men speak to him, their Indian accents are thicker.  When the men speak among themselves, they’re ordinary, working class blokes.

Rivers and Garewal are especially strong – perhaps that’s unfair: this is an excellent quartet! – in their heated and often very funny exchanges.  Through contact with these men, Thomas grows in confidence and learns appreciation of their culture, through cuisine and their respect for the fallen.  Din’s tight script enables us to get to know these men, as Thomas gets to know them – it’s reminiscent of Journey’s End, in this respect, so that when they finally leave the barn to face their fate (shades of Blackadder Goes Forth here!) we care about what might become of them.

Director Suba Das slowly winds us up.  Tense moments, loud moments, are contrasted with humour and silence.  It’s a timely reminder of our common humanity: these soldiers fought on our side, even if they weren’t exactly sure what they were fighting for.  In these times of rising resentment against the foreigner using our resources, the play is starkly relevant as well as marking the sacrifice of other nations supporting the British cause during WW1.

More fun than you might expect with emotionally charged, engaging performances, Wipers is a superb addition to the ongoing centennial commemorations of the so-called Great War.

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Plenty to write home about: Jassa Ahluwalia (Photo: Pamela Raith)