Tag Archives: James Atherton

Having It Large

THE BORROWERS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 29th November, 2014

 

Artistic Director Theresa Heskins is not shy of setting herself challenges. Following last year’s triumphant 101 Dalmatians, she has raided the bookshelf of childhood once again, turning her attention and invention to Mary Norton’s classic novels – a story I remember dimly but fondly from back when I was *this tall*.

It begins with Pod (Nicholas Tizzard) dropping in, like a spider, or like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. He is ‘borrowing’, a euphemism for stealing items to take back to his little family under the floorboards. Within minutes, the conventions of the production are laid bare. Ingenious dual-staging using puppetry and miniatures shows us, like a split-screen, both the ‘human bean’ sized world and the Borrowers’ scaled-up home. Heskins’s imaginative staging is more than ably supported by the work of the theatre’s own workshop. Laura Clarkson’s set is the star of the show, and with every scene there is a more marvellous prop. A cheese grater is greater than a bed; an enormous boot splits open so we may see the family in their new home… They are ousted from their big house by the villainous and horrible Mrs Driver – a larger than life performance from Polly Lister, summoning a cat and a rat-catcher to rid the house of people she regards as vermin.

And here is where the show points out something I as a little boy did not realise. There are parallels here with the treatment of the Jews prior to and during the Second World War. The Borrowers’ neighbours and relatives are all gone but no one is sure where. Are they still alive? Have they been eaten? The point is underscored, literally, by an original score by musical director James Atherton, who uses more than a hint of ‘Jewishness’ in the music, played live by the composer himself, with the accompaniment of various cast members.

The story puts us very much on the side of the underdog and the oppressed. The best side to be on given the current political climate. It’s a chilling reminder and, sadly, one that is still needed in this time of increasing intolerance and inequality. The Borrowers represent anyone on the fringes of society, the dispossessed and the disappeared. One can all too easily imagine a post-UKIP, apocalyptic society where ‘others’ are hounded out of their homes.

But hey, don’t let that bring you down. This is a highly enjoyable fantasy adventure that evokes a sense of wonder in terms of content and form. At the heart of the ensemble is Vanessa Schofield’s Arrietty, a wide-eyed and inquisitive young girl, who yearns to see the world beyond the floorboards. Schofield embodies youthful enthusiasm and curiosity – no more so than when she teams up with Spiller, an almost feral Borrower, played by man of rubber, the always excellent Michael Hugo. Tizzard’s pragmatic Pod is married to Homily (Shelley Atkinson) who provides many of the laughs with her ‘kvetching’, you might call it. What comes across is the humanity of these tiny characters, the love and warmth of the family unit, striving to survive and to stay together despite terrible hardships and grave danger: there is a tense encounter with a humongous bird, for example, and when you see the tiny puppets walking across the vast expanse of the open stage, you see how vulnerable they are and how, like animals, they spend most of their lives in a state of fear and the struggle for survival – and you wonder how you yourself might cope if all the comforts and trappings of civilisation, hearth and home were stripped away.

Thought-provoking, thrilling and heart-warming, The Borrowers is a timely assertion of the humanity we have in common with everyone in society. And that’s a Christmas message I can get behind.

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty

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Well Spotted

THE 101 DALMATIANS

The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2013

 

The festive season of family fare gets off to a cracking start with this non-seasonal story from the New Vic’s artistic director Theresa Heskins.  Her adaptation of Dodie Smith’s classic children’s novel is a stylish, charming and inventive piece with plenty for all ages to enjoy.

Set in the 1950s, the cut of Lis Evans’s costumes is clean and sharp in bright colours or, of course, vibrant white with black spots.  The cast is paired off into dogs and their human pets.  They lindy hop (I believe it’s called) in a joyous opening number.

What takes the dog biscuit is the jazz-informed score by James Atherton, performed by the man himself, and various cast members when they’re not wagging their tails or holding up props as human fixtures and fittings.  The music is irresistible, the heartbeat of the performance, playing under scenes like a particularly cool and hep film soundtrack, and then coming to the fore for the songs, the best of which are belted out by Polly Lister’s Cruella De Vil.   Atherton’s score is the sumptuous icing on the top of a very big cake.

Playing the lead, as well as wearing one, is Oliver Mawdsley as the energetic Pongo.  He and Perdita (Hannah Edwards) form an appealing and amusing pair, casting asides over their shoulders, commenting on the strange behaviour of the humans.  When their large litter of little puppies is stolen, they em-bark on a quest to retrieve them and the production goes all out for invention and surprise.  The ‘twilight barking’ uses dogs cropping up through trapdoors and speaking in a range of regional accents to convey the distance the message is spread.  The question in my mind, if not everyone else’s, is how is Theresa Heskins going to show us the full complement of Dalmatians?

Well, she does.  A troupe of local children, dog-eared (so to speak) and tailed represent some of the puppies but they are also puppeteers operating many more.  That’s fair enough but then the ideas keep coming – any single one of which would have been more than adequate.  Theresa Heskins has access to an inexhaustible well of invention, it seems.

Polly Lister stalks and declaims (and even drives a marvellous customised car) around the stage.  Her insatiable lust for fur and animal skins marks her out as the villain – Dodie Smith must have been among the first to criticise the fur-fashion industry.

Pashcale Straiton is very funny as Nanny, producing newborn pups from about her person and I would have liked to have seen more of Cruella’s comedy henchmen, Anthony Hunt and Andy Cryer as the Baddun brothers. Matt Connor and Sophie Scott are suitably perky and bright as human couple, the Dearlys – they emphasise the Englishness of this production, reclaiming the story from Disney’s England-through-American-eyes cartoon.

With its anthropomorphism of the dogs and even the hat-racks and table lamps, the show hints at a darker story.  It’s not only a matter of animal cruelty and exploitation, it’s about man’s inhumanity to other humans too. Written post-war, the novel is an archetypal rescue-and-escape story.  It’s Maria and the Captain leading the Von Trapp family away from the Nazis.  Cruella’s Hell Hall is a concentration camp in which the prisoners will be violently exterminated and skinned, their hides put to use – I shivered when I saw a cast member holding up a lampshade.

This is not an overt metaphor but it’s there if you look for it.  What you get at the New Vic is a superb evening’s entertainment, funny and touching.  It’s enchanting in both form and content and will no doubt knock spots off the competition.

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Here, boy! Cruella (Polly Lister) eyes up her next handbag.


Sentinel Review: Stones in his Pockets

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 5th July, 2013

Here’s a link to my review on The Sentinel website.

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All the Stage’s a World

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 19th April, 2013

Phileas Fogg cuts a dashing but aloof figure as he makes his way from bed to gentlemen’s club, in an empty routine of a life that runs like clockwork.  Theresa Heskins’s marvellous production begins with an amusing sequence set to James Atherton’s evocative music, establishing a physical theatricality to the piece from the off.  Fogg employs a new servant in the form of wiry and gregarious Frenchman, Jean Passepartout – this latter is seeking a quiet life but his engagement coincides with a rather silly and extravagant wager Fogg has with some of his whist-playing chums at the club.  And so we see where pub talk can lead!

The floor is a map of the world – a thing of beauty in itself.  Around the walls behind sections of the audience hang maps of the continents through which the action travels.  Actors clamber over seats and spectators to slap arrows on the maps to chart Fogg’s progress.  This device, along with a couple of performance spaces among the seating, brings the audience into the action.  The New Vic has never felt more intimate and yet so…global.

We rattle through Europe on trains made from trunks and suitcases.  The cast quickly change hats from berets to straw boaters to fezzes to provide local colour, bobbing about in their seats to convey the motion of the train.  Travel by boat is similarly suggested.  Actors and railings sway in unison – you almost find yourself joining in.  The show is full of fun theatrical ideas.  Theresa Heskins has gathered a creative and agile ensemble, wisely incorporating their ideas with her own to create a show of dazzling invention and wit.  There is also another level to the silly cleverness. The show acknowledges its own artifices and celebrates them: for example in a scene on deck between Passepartout and Mr Fix, the actors sway chairs and a table to maintain the context of sea travel, but they also have a scene to play out – they negotiate their way around the furniture making sure the rhythm is never lost.  But then, Fix is left alone to keep it going – we are in the scene and yet out of it.  It’s “meta” (as the trendies say) but above all delightful.

At the centre of it all is Andrew Pollard as cold fish Fogg, who (thanks to a running joke and sleight of hand) travels the world throwing his money around.  His height marks him out as a beacon of Englishness and decency.  His urgency is not motivated by financial gain but by pride; he has a point to prove and risks losing everything to make that point.  Stubborn is another word for it.  Keeping his nose in his book of timetables or his hand of cards, he is travelling the world but is not in the world.

As Passepartout, Michael Hugo treats us to another display of his superior clowning.  Every move he makes, every facial expression is spot on, calculated to maximise the humour of the situations.  It’s all larger-than-life but never over-the-top.  His experience in an opium den is remarkable slapstick from first puff of the pipe to passing out and then coming to and trying to drag his intoxicated body offstage. It’s a breathtaking performance and that’s before I even mention his French accent which manages to be broad and funny without exaggerating to Clouseau or Allo Allo proportions.  I didn’t need the reminder but he showed me again why he is my favourite actor.

Dennis Herdman’s Inspector Fix is an excellent foil for Passepartout.  A fine physical comedian, he and Hugo engage in a fist-fight at long distance, a hilarious device that diffuses the violence into cartoon capers.  There’s also a brawl in a temple – the funniest martial arts combat you will ever see.

The supporting players work their socks off, hardly ever off-stage, and playing up to 30 parts each, in this fast-moving romp across continents.  Okorie Chukwu impresses with his acrobatic skills as well as his characterisations.  Suzanne Ahmet, Matt Connor and Pushpinder Chani change accents as quickly as they change their outfits; they are a metaphor for the clockwork precision with which Fogg lives his life.  The action flows seamlessly from place to place; you’d think the cast was much larger than it actually is, helped along by James Atherton’s charming score, which is evocative of place and also the passage of time.

Fogg looks up from his book long enough to realise a woman needs rescuing and so, courtesy of an astounding  but simple appearance of an elephant, the beautiful  and elegant Mrs Aouda (Kirsten Foster) is saved and becomes his travelling companion for the rest of the journey.  From this point, Fogg is more in-the-moment, problem-solving and using up his resources to achieve his ends.  It’s not saying if you’re rich you can do anything you want.  When Fogg is on the brink of ruin, Mrs Aouda proposes marriage.  She wants the man not the money.  Fogg learns that life is to be experienced and not read about and is rewarded with someone with whom to live it.  This is a message to all those of us who keep our eyes on our phones, viewing experiences through camera apps rather than experiencing them first hand.

You haven’t got 80 days to see this exhilarating production.  I suggest you make Fogg-like exertions to get there.  Already I’m thinking this is the best show of the year.

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Trained actors Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo