Tag Archives: James Atherton

Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

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In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)

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Oatcakes and Circuses

ASTLEY’S ASTOUNDING ADVENTURES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th July, 2018

 

When pressed to come up with names from the history of circus, you might recall worthies such as Billy Smart or Mary Chipperfield.  You probably won’t even know of the father of it all, the inventor of the modern circus, one Philip Astley, an innovative impresario and equestrian performer.  Now, this brand-new production staged in his home town brings this unsung hero firmly into the limelight.  We learn that he was a military man who fought in the Seven Years War – the redcoat of his uniform inspires the traditional attire of the ringmaster – and his riding school, based on marshland in Lambeth, like him, was snubbed by the nobility whose patronage he craved.  Dubbed ‘the major with the funny voice’ Astley doesn’t fit in, he’s a solecism made flesh, until inspiration strikes, and he draws together pre-existing elements (horse-riding tricks, clowns, musicians) and invents the standard for the circus ring (still in use today…)

Frazer Flintham’s snappy script leavens the historical detail with sharply comedic, sometimes saucy, dialogue, delivered with verve by a superlative ensemble.  Irrepressible clown Michael Hugo narrates – when he’s not engaged in hilarious business – and the entire enterprise crackles with fun.

Nicholas Richardson plays Astley as a swaggering, handsome figure.  Beneath the posturing is a man driven by his heart, and his heart is in the right place.  He’s also very, very funny.  He is matched by Danielle Bird as love interest Patty Jones, a spirited, driven young woman who becomes Astley’s rock and life-partner.  Their romance is decidedly unsentimental but is encapsulated in an aerial acrobatic sequence high above the stage and without a safety net, providing one of the truly jaw-dropping moments of the night.

An accident befell the mighty Andrew Pollard, causing him to break his foot the day before the dress rehearsal last week.  A swift piece of re-blocking has him sitting among the audience with his injured extremity raised, as per doctor’s orders, but this is not enough to dampen his performance.  He gives us a range of comic characters via a variety of hats and wigs – his George III is a scream, reminding us of the present Duke of Edinburgh.  Pollard’s marginalisation is only physical; his contribution remains at the heart of this production and it befits his high-status roles (the King, Colonel West) to have them apart from the main action.

Jason Eddy declaims and postures as Astley’s treacherous rival, Charles Hughes, while Nickolia King-N’Da impresses as Astley’s talented but rebellious son, John, who doesn’t wish to be saddled with horse-riding tricks for the rest of his days.  Luke Murphy does a star turn as Billy the Little Military Horse, in a hilarious scene of audience involvement.  Gareth Cassidy is also great fun as Astley’s BFF Alfie, while Oliver Mawdsley lends splendid support as Bert.  The cast is augmented by a quartet of circus performers who tumble and juggle and brandish fire around, bringing the thrills of the circus to this already-entertaining show.

Director Theresa Heskins brings her hallmarks to bear (non-contact combat, letters thrown across the stage…) and they work like a dream.  There is also a wealth of inventiveness that heighten the theatricality of the piece and add to the humour: walking across the marshland, for example; judicious use of ladies’ fans…)  How do you stage trick-riding when you have no horses?  Cleverly, is the answer.

There is also much that is deeply traditional, from the clowning to the carnival barking, but it is married with amusing anachronisms and contemporary references, making this just as much a play of the now as it is of the then.  Co-director Vicki Amedume ensures the action looks and feels like it belongs in a circus.

James Atherton’s original music is suitably circussy and melodramatic, providing the perfect accompaniment to the daring of the acts and the perfect underscore to the twists of Astley’s fortune.   The New Vic Workshop has outdone itself with the props: bicycles converted into fairground horses are wonderful to behold, and Lis Evans’s costumes keep the 18th century to the fore.

I come away having laughed a lot and having been charmed by the story, thrilled by the acts, and above all with a sense of injustice.  Surely Astley, the progenitor of an entire form of popular entertainment, deserves a more permanent monument than this excellent but ephemeral entertainment?

Meanwhile, this is the New Vic doing what it does best, and I cannot recommend this wonderful show highly enough.

Astounding!

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Linked in: Jason Eddy and Nicholas Richardson (Photo: Clara Lou Photography)


Pleasure Voyage

TREASURE ISLAND

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 25th November, 2017

 

With this new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure, Theresa Heskins plots a course for another big Christmas hit.  Setting her version firmly in the North West, there is a host of Merseyside accents here – a change from the now-cliched West Country aarrs we immediately associate with the genre!  Our hero is plucky Gem Hawkins (a plucky Nisa Cole) who has to disguise herself as a cabin boy, having stowed away on board a ship bound for the titular island.  Cole is a ball of energy, likeable and expressive, and our guide through this dangerous, exciting world.

Another change is that Doctor Livesey is also female (Ellen Chivers) but if the TARDIS can have one, why not the Hispaniola?

Into the sleepy coastal pub where Jem works with her mother (a forceful Jessica Dyas) comes a stranger – in the book he’s Billy Bones, here he’s Captain Flint (Richard Costello), bringing with him intrigue, mystery and action but also electric guitars! Suddenly, James Atherton’s score is alive with heavy rock!  It’s a surprise and a welcome one.  Atherton can write in any style, it seems, and this deliberate period-smashing inclusion heightens the energy levels and the theatricality of the storytelling.  Heskins directs with customary wit and invention (Flint polishing off plate after plate of eggs and bacon is a delight!) and everything is in service of the narrative.  However, it does feel at times that the narrative loses momentum and needs crank-starting every now and then as the next iconic moment appears on the horizon.

The production is rich with gems: Andy Burse’s Squire Trelawney is a hugely enjoyable, upper-class buffoon; Lauryn Redding’s Darby McGraw is in great voice and is the most menacing of the pirates (female pirates are well-documented); William Pennington is a sweetly mad Ben Gunn – and he plays a mean xylophone; and Gareth Cassidy’s Red Dog is amusing in his intensity and attempts at subterfuge.

Tom Peters’s Long John Silver lacks the impact or charisma of Costello’s Flint, and it takes quite a while for the character to come alive.  His first scene requires him to sit, static, an approach which provides contrast to all the action we’ve seen so far, but denies him a big introduction.  We need to engage with him in order to be taken in.  Stevenson makes him a morally ambiguous figure and his relationship with Jim/Gem is key.

Certain moments are perfect.  A dance of tropical birds, fleshed out by members of the Young Company and accompanied by Atherton’s rousingly tropical score, is a delight for eye and ear.  The scene with Gem and agile baddie Israel Hands (Leon Scott) in the ship’s rigging is the best scene of the piece: tense and expertly executed.  The pirates’ song that opens the second act.  James Atherton’s score as a whole.  The New Vic’s production team: Lis Evans’s costumes, Daniella Beattie’s lighting, Alex Day’s sound… as ever, production values are high, from the big ideas (the wooden frame that lowers to represent the ship) to the smallest detail (the puppet parrot is elegantly performed (by Jessica Dyas).

There is a wealth of good ideas here, enough to get us through the patchy (eye-patchy?) bits when the dramatic thrust of the plot is becalmed.

Funny, thrilling and inventive, this is one worth setting sail for.

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The show is rigged! Nisa Cole leads a cast of pirates

 


World Class

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th October, 2017

 

An absolute treat to be able to catch this New Vic production for the third time – but what can one say that has not already been said?  I’ll probably repeat many of the plaudits of my previous reviews but here goes:

The hit show has a new lease of life with this lengthy tour.  Originally produced in-the-round, this is a chance to see the action re-directed for end-on stages and, for the most part, it’s a great fit.  With a new set by Lis Evans – all suitcases, packing trunks and umbrellas – a versatile space is created, with an ancient map as a backdrop.  Warwick Arts Centre’s Butterworth Hall is perhaps a bit cavernous, denying us the intimacy of the New Vic’s cosy arena – the regular theatre space is undergoing refurbishment at present – but the cast work hard to get the show across.

All over again I am struck with wonder.  James Atherton’s original score is the beating heart of the production, evoking sense of place and also the passage of time, as well as underscoring the action and the emotional beats of the story.  Andrew Pollard’s stately but silly Phileas Fogg; a Frenchman’s satirical view of the Englishman abroad: eccentric, entitled but ultimately decent.  I wonder if Jules Verne were writing today if his portrait would be less endearing, as we seem to have become a baffling, stubborn joke to the rest of the world.  Kirsten Foster’s beautiful and elegant Mrs Aouda – the subtlety with which she has an effect on Fogg, awakening his emotions is a heart-warming delight.  This is a Fogg to admire rather than to mock.

The action sequences still astound.  The long-distance fighting allows for cartoonish excesses without physical contact, and the running gag of flying banknotes and passports does not get old.  Director Theresa Hawkins has created a classic piece of comic theatre, rich with physicality and also theatricality.  Sound effects, especially, are brought into play to heighten the atmosphere and augment the fun.  The timing is super-impeccable.  It is like watching the intricate workings of an exquisite clock as the indefatigable ensemble dart around, setting and striking scenes, creating illusion and impression as well as over a hundred characters.  This is a show that uses great stores of imagination to get our imaginations working.  We readily buy into the swaying ship’s rails and tilting furniture and there is hilarious interplay between the world of the play and the world of the performance, with audience members enlisted to perpetuate the effects.

And it is absolutely wonderful to see a new audience fall in love with the marvellous Michael Hugo.  His Passepartout sees him at his most energetic, physically versatile and most lovable.  Hugo is a living cartoon and seems to defy the limits of the human body and I suspect he may be a CGI character, projected somehow onto the stage…

The other players lend strong support: Pushpinder Chani’s Mr Naido, Matthew Ganley’s Colonel Proctor, Joey Parsad’s Miss Singh, all rushing about and coming and going to keep us on the move from country to country.  Dennis Herdman’s nominal villain, the meddling Inspector Fix is an excellent foil for Hugo’s sweetly decent and naïve Passepartout.  Herdman is also larger-than-life in his actions and reactions – we almost feel for Fix in his failures.

Above all, the story retains its charm.  A frivolous wager reveals the best of human qualities: selflessness and determination among them.

On the road for more than 80 days, this ongoing tour is your chance to experience one of the finest productions I have ever seen.  Breath-taking in both its invention and execution, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a superlative piece of theatre.

Review ends.  If I have repeated myself, I am not sorry.  I am consulting my gazetteer to see when I can catch it again.

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Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo be trippin’

 

 

 

 

 


Winter Wonderland

THE SNOW QUEEN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 26th November, 2016

 

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is given the Theresa Heskins treatment in this beautiful new version that continues the New Vic’s impeccable tradition of superlative Christmas entertainment.  Heskins’s adaptation improves on the original, in my opinion, by giving the Snow Queen a backstory.  We understand why she is the way she is by seeing how she became the bogeyman, a legend used to frighten children.  The play begins with a sweet courtship scene between the awkward Soren Sorenson (a sweetly clumsy and tongue-tied Oliver Mawdsley) and Karen, the object of his affection.  They skate around the issue – literally: the cast wear inline roller skates to glide around – and come to an understanding, only to have tragedy strike, putting their romance on ice.

Polly Lister gives a chilling performance as the icy, mournful ghost.  Everything about her is striking, the voice especially.  Once again, we are treated to a magnificent score by genius composer James Atherton, and Lister’s voice is the strongest of the night.  Her scenes with Kai (Luke Murphy) are reminiscent of Edmund and the White Witch of Narnia, and there are echoes of other tales, other myths: Summer’s garden, on which Gerda becomes trapped, is like Circe’s island, and the three puzzles Kai must solve remind me of icy Turandot’s riddles with their one-word answers.

Natasha Davidson is an appealing heroine/narrator as the plucky yet bookish Gerda.  Books form the scenic elements here, great slabs like ice floes.  There is a running theme that storybooks are at least as valuable as factual ones.  The Dickensian, Gove-like education meted out by Schoolteacher (Rachael Garnett) is not enough to get children through life and its problems.  Creative thought is vital to our survival.

It’s a stunningly beautiful show, visually, thanks to Laura Clarkson’s set (the stage floor is especially important to the story), Lis Evans colourful Danish-Victorian chic costumes, and Daniella Beattie’s magical lighting design; and aurally, courtesy of Atherton’s evocative compositions, played on stage by the talented actor-musicians.

The splendid leads are supported by equally strong ensemble members.  Matthew Ganley’s Bitzer, for example, and Rachel Dawson’s Robbergirl, help to populate Gerda’s account with engaging characters.  Heskins’s direction includes her trademark ‘distance fighting’, a kind of non-contact violence that is expressive, effective and fun, and there are also stand-out sequences, like the toboggan race, the flight of the Snow Queen, and a stunning backwards scene – Heskins puts the performer at the heart of her stage effects.  She gives the design and tech teams challenges (which they meet, no question) but she is essentially an actors’ director and, above all that, a consummate storyteller.

Ultimately heart-warming, this is the perfect entertainment for a chilly winter’s night.  You leave the theatre feeling cosy and warm.  It’s the simple, uncomplicated things of life that make you feel good, especially at this time of year – I suppose this is the hygge that’s all the rage these days, something that Hans Christian Andersen knew all about.

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Frozen assets: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen (Photo: Andrew Billington)


With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

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Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

 


Sounds Horrible

DRACULA

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th March, 2015

 

Director Theresa Heskins has adapted the Bram Stoker novel fairly faithfully for this brand new production – most of the main characters are here and all the key scenes but what lifts this version above and beyond the main pre-existing others is…well, everything.

The stage is darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not only does this lend a creepy atmosphere but it focusses our hearing. Sound is brought to the fore in the form of sound effects, performed live by the cast – we’ve all seen footage of radio drama being recorded or sound effects being added to a film soundtrack. At first, as the effects support the mime of the actors, you look up to their workbenches to see how the sounds are produced, but after a while, you let that go as the action draws you in. Sound designers James Earl-Davis and Alex Day are certainly inventive and undeniably ‘effect’-ive. Also, the eerie music and atonal soundscapes of brilliant composer James Atherton create an unsettling mood, as evocative as they are unnerving.

An excellent Isaac Stanmore is a lively Jonathan Harker, arriving at Castle Dracula, and our narrator. Light and dark create doorways – as with radio drama, the scenery is left to our imagination. Daniella Beattie’s lighting is precise and sharp, using chiaroscuro like an Old Master to illuminate or keep in shadow. With horror, it’s not so much what is shown as what remains hidden. And what we don’t see, we hear. That sound may really be a fork plunging into half a cabbage or whatever, but to our engaged imaginations, it is something much, much worse.

From his first entrance, Jack Klaff’s Dracula casts a long shadow – just as the character does over the rest of the proceedings. He stalks around the stage at a steady pace, intoning his lines without melodrama. That famous line about the “children of the night” is absolutely chilling here – Heskins has successfully avoided all notions of the camp and the kitsch. The well-worn story comes across as something entirely fresh. Klaff, with his snow-white hair and his exotic vocal tones embodies menace. His three brides (Hazel Lam, Sophie Morris, and Rebecca Rennison) bring Gothic eroticism in their seduction of Jonathan Harker, shinning up lengths of rope and silk and contorting themselves in mid-air. It’s rather spectacular but the work of ‘aerial director’ Vicki Amedume really packs a visual punch in the second act, when Dracula, now younger and revitalised and Jonathan Charles, hovers over Mina’s bed, slowly swooping down to her in hypnotic silence. Absolutely stunning.

Charles also moves with inhuman grace – his Dracula is not like us at all, and more animalistic than Klaff’s elder statesman.

Jasmine Blackborow is Lucy, full of girlish verve until the Count sinks his fangs into her. Her transformation into an undead wraith is superbly realised and so is her execution with a stake to the heart. Here sound and visuals combine in a moment of sheer horror. And yet there is nary a flash of fang or a drop of blood – Heskins keeps those details in our minds, and there’s nowhere scarier than one’s one mind.

New Vic stalwart Ali Watt’s Dr Seward has an emotive outburst, while John O’Mahony’s Professor Van Helsing maintains a sort of calm urgency. Sarah Schoenbeck’s Mina, ostensibly the damsel in distress, has an inner strength and an appeal that goes beyond her character’s function in the plot. Indeed, the whole ensemble is top notch – even the unseen Renfield, played (vocally) to the hilt by Conrad Nelson. Scenes are interspersed with recorded snatches of the lunatic’s case, as a counterpoint to the main action, a scientific examination to contrast with the supernatural events as they unfold. Unfortunately there is no pay-off for Renfield – the extracts don’t really go anywhere.

Tables and beds, formed of black blocks, rise and sink into the stage floor, the trap doors yawning like graves… There are many things about this production, both in form and in content, that will stay with me for a long time. Heskins has triumphed yet again in this departure from her usual style and has created a piece that is truly memorable, creepy and above all, beautiful.

Jack Klaff

Jack Klaff