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Spot On

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017

 

Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year.  Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution.  Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint.  Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.

Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own.  Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness.  Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world.  Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations.  Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.

Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention.  Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her.  Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!

Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood.  Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat.  But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side.  The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.

Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings.   A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.

James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.

All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years.  It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Narnia Business

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th November, 2015

 

The REP’s Christmas offering this year pulls out all the stops in terms of production values in order to bring C S Lewis’s classic novel to the stage in this adaptation by Adrian Mitchell. It looks and sounds great. Jamie Vartan’s set has layers that strip away: the real world of the Pevensie siblings is rather two-dimensional but once they step through the eponymous wardrobe, they find themselves in the 3D land of Narnia. The snow-laden landscape looks beautiful under Colin Grenfell’s lights, and with original music by Shaun Davey played live under the baton of MD Neil MacDonald, there is much to appreciate. Narnia’s weird inhabitants (some of them are animals, some are anthropomorphic animals, and some are mythical creatures) are brought to life by some expressive and delightful puppets and some inventive costume designs, inspired no doubt by The Lion King. The transitions between the two worlds, where time moves differently, are stylishly done.

And so technically and artistically, the show is very strong.

The casting too is great. Allison McKenzie doubles as the stern housekeeper and the White Witch, self-appointed Queen of Narnia. She struts around melodramatically and the most incredible vocal sounds come out of her in moments of duress. She’s an enjoyable baddie, a despotic diva. Thomas Aldridge and Sophia Nomvete bring humour (and tons of exposition) as Mr and Mrs Beaver, while Jo Servi is a likeable Mr Tumnus the faun.

The four children are led by handsome Michael Lanni as eldest brother Peter, striving to be grown-up but still childlike at times. Leonie Elliott is solid as sensible Susan, James Thackeray is a suitably surly and self-serving Edmund, and Emilie Fleming brings out the naivety and innocence of youngest sister Lucy. It’s never easy to have adults playing children alongside other adults, but these four pull it off rather credibly.

My problem is with the material. C S Lewis’s heavy-handed allegory has never sat well with me, and Aslan the lion (an impressive, beautifully articulated, three-man puppet that reminds me of War Horse) is unbearably pompous.

Narnia is full of contradictions. They have tea and toast but don’t know what a wardrobe or a spare room are. How they source their Turkish delight is another mystery. But these are quibbles compared to the main plot itself. The children are helped by the Beavers, a funny, friendly couple who turn out to be religious nutters. How quickly the kids are indoctrinated into their cult of Aslan! And then Father Christmas himself rocks up and arms them with weapons for their holy war against the oppressor, the White Witch. The sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan – the most blatant part of the allegory – should be the most powerful part of the story, but by then I’m past caring. It’s all too po-faced and self-important to engage me. Ah, says the Witch, there’s some deep magic rules that mean I can do this. Oh, says Aslan, what she doesn’t know is there’s some deeper magic rules which mean I can do this. Oh, give over, I think, giving up trying to suspend my disbelief.

The play needs to be a little less earnest and to lighten up a lot. It’s all a bit worthy for my tastes to be involving – A pity because the talent on stage and the creativity behind the scenes demonstrate that excellence is well within reach.

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Closet cases: White Witch Allison McKenzie confronts Aslan with a plot twist. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Lacking in Spirit

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2013

 

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Dickens’s seasonal classic emphasises its own theatricality.  A chorus of spirits in Victorian garb – grubby and dark, unlike the picturesque variety you find on Christmas cards – decide to influence the affairs of mortals (a bit like the gods in Clash of the Titans) and they focus their endeavours on one Ebenezer Scrooge, the epitome of anti-Christmas feeling and misanthropy.  The spirits wheel on lampposts, doors and so on, calling for special effects to manipulate each scene.  In a way, this allows director Tessa Walker to be rather inventive and, neatly and cleverly, to convey scene changes and depict the more fantastical elements of the tale.

The trouble is this approach robs the story of spookiness and surprise.

Standing in as Scrooge, Jo Servi does a nice line in wide-eyed double-takes, and pent-up aggression to anyone who bids him a merry Christmas.  As the spirits show him the past and present, traces of old emotions leak out from his tight-lipped callousness – it’s not so much a change in the man as a rekindling of what is already there, what is in all of us to begin with: our common humanity.   Scrooge’s reawakening is a release of suppressed emotion and Servi carries it off well enough with a sprightly song-and dance number.

Marc Akinfolarin’s Jacob Marley intones a stark warning in a beautiful bass voice and there is a lot of energy provided by Roddy Peters as the antithesis to Scrooge, the permanently cheerful nephew Fred.

Jason Carr’s score is very reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, weaving in snatches of traditional carols in a rather discordant way.  As Scrooge thaws, the numbers become more melodic and somewhat more memorable.

Ti Green’s set – all bricks and floorboards with a false proscenium arch upstage – echoes the theatricality of the approach and suggests the dingy London streets.  I like the fact that it doesn’t change in line with Scrooge’s change of heart.  It’s the people, now all colourful and happy, that decorate this environment with Christmas cheer.

The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is an enormous rod puppet, a griffin spreading its tattered wings like a skeletal vulture.  It’s a striking image but it’s a cumbersome process getting it on and off and it lacks the humanity of the previous spectral visitors.  It’s like the carcass of a Christmas bird picked clean, a sign of austere times to come.  It’s handled very expressively but, like the rest of the production, it’s a little too pedestrian to ignite the imagination or elicit an emotional response.

The openly artificial approach, efficient and clever though it may be, doesn’t give us a single “how did they do that?” moment to surprise us or fill us with wonder.  Instead we get a workable, workday version of the well-known story, performed by a likeable and proficient company, but lacking in that special ingredient to touch us and warm our hearts.

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