Tag Archives: Joe McGann

Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

028_The Last Ship_Extra Production Photographs_Pamela Raith Photography

Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)

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October in Coventry

APRIL IN PARIS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 8th October, 2014

 

I have mentioned before my preference for John Godber’s earlier works: plays like Teechers and Bouncers, which combine theatrical brio with pertinent social commentary – so what brings me to Coventry to this touring revival of his 1992 piece, which is characteristic of his later works: plays invariably preoccupied with lower middle-class couples going through marital strife while indulging in pursuits like city breaks, booze cruises or cable car rides?

Frankly, I’ve come for the cast. The play is a two-hander, featuring Shobna Gulati (Corrie, dinnerladies) and one of the clan McGann (Joe, this time).   From the off, this pair engage me and it’s also pleasing to note that Godber (who also directs) has updated or refreshed the script: it works a lot better than a production I saw years ago. It’s funny – in a sit-com kind of way but there is a political undercurrent, there if you look for it. If you don’t, it’s a very funny study of married life.

Al (McGann) and Bet (Gulati) could bicker for England. Gulati shows a nice line in deadpan Northern camp, supplemented by some hilarious physical comedy (her disco-dancing is a sight to behold!) while McGann is spikey and sarky, embittered by his lot in life.  They form quite a double act.

When Bet wins a magazine competition, the couple travel to Paris, arguing all the way. The sniping can turn quite savage and acerbic but what also begins to emerge is how much these two love each other. Bickering is how they communicate and there are moments when they allow each other to be happy that are rather touching. Nestled within the barbed attacks is a lot of truth. Al’s pride is injured: he can’t afford to treat his wife to foreign holidays and so will not let himself enjoy the freebie trip because he feels he hasn’t ‘earned’ it. Godber nails this working-class attitude perfectly: you only deserve what you have earned – this contrasts nicely with Al’s tightness about spending money on what he regards as fripperies: magazines and scarves.

There is a complexity to the characters and their relationship that enriches the piece beyond its sit-com set-up, a complexity brought to life by an excellent brace of actors. There is also commentary on the state of the nation, with its boarded-up high streets and Godber hints that staying in the European Union is to the nation’s benefit. It’s subtly done; the emphasis is on the central relationship. There is plenty to get me laughing out loud.

Pip Leckenby’s set symbolises the smallness of Al and Bet’s world, opening out when they get to Paris. Travel broadens their outlook and instils them with a greater appreciation for what they have at home.

And now I find myself looking forward to any future refreshed versions of Godber’s stuff. With this production, he has won me round.

april


Big Talent

THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE
Malvern Theatres, Monday 8th October, 2012

Jim Cartwright’s in-your-face contemporary fairytale is doing the rounds in this colourful and lively production, which he also directs. It is a fabulously funny night out – to paraphrase John McGrath.

As the audience filed into the elegant Festival theatre in well-heeled Great Malvern, a compere in gold lame jacket cracks jokes and introduces some turns: a spoon-player, a female George Formby impersonator; plunging us into the working men’s club that will feature in the story later on. There is even a raffle – some lucky bugger behind me won the prize jar of pickled gherkins. It all serves to set the tone for a raucous and riotous couple of hours.

The set is a doll’s house, more Fisher Price than Henrik Ibsen, the two-up, two-down residence of Mari (Beverley Callard) and her taciturn daughter, the eponymous Little Voice. Beverley Callard gives the performance of her career in this grotesque caricature of her onscreen persona. Mutton dressed as a parrot. But it’s not all boozing and swearing. There is a kind of poetry to Cartwright’s dialogue, most noticeable in Mari’s lines (perhaps because she speaks the most!). The heightened language and the characters’ names add to the fairytale aspects of the play. This is not gritty realism.

Ray Quinn, the telephone engineer’s mate, is the boyish Prince, who visits Little Voice at her bedroom window as though she is Rapunzel. It’s a sweet portrayal among all the larger-than-life characters. Sally Plumb is excellent as Mari’s big friend Sadie, using her physical presence to great comic effect. Joe McGann is a suitably smooth-talking as the self-serving agent, Ray Say, and Duggie Brown is in his element as club owner and compere Lou Boo.

But the night belongs to Little Voice. In her dramatic scenes, she is vulnerable and shy but when she is called upon to sing, Jess Robinson is nothing short of astonishing. She performs a medley, impersonating a wide range of divas in a dazzling display of vocal ability: Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner and even Cilla Black, to name just a few. It is like a whole series of Stars In Their Eyes condensed into ten minutes. And then, later, when Ray pushes her too far, Little Voice lets rip with an even more astounding barrage of impressions, flinging song lyrics at him in the appropriate voices with an almost machine-gun delivery. Brilliance.

As all fairytales should, this Cinderella story ends with the bad ones being brought down and the Princess getting her Prince. It’s been knockabout fun – there was even a game of bingo after the interval – and Cartwright pitches it perfectly. Working class drama doesn’t have to be anguish at the kitchen sink or trouble at mill, or indeed exclusive in its appeal.

The X Factor fodder who infest the entertainment industry (effectively replacing the old variety shows) haven’t the hard luck story of Little Voice, nor indeed a smidgeon of her talent. Go and see live shows, folks, and be uplifted rather than embittered.


Female Parts

CALENDAR GIRLS
Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 1st February, 2012

It is often the cry of actresses of a certain age that there are not enough parts for them, that they become invisible. This hugely successful play belies that complaint: middle-aged actresses and their parts are undeniably visible in this case!

In recent years a new genre of play has emerged specifically to address the shortage of roles for older females, it seems. Plays in this genre are all essentially the same and adhere to a very formulaic set-up. A diverse group of women come together for a common goal. In Stepping Out, it’s tap dancing. In The Naked Truth, it’s pole dancing. In The Tart And The Vicar’s Wife, it’s brothel-keeping. .. The women are differentiated by markedly different costumes and each will have a defining characteristic along the lines of Walt Disney’s dwarves. There’s the brassy one, the vulgar one, the timorous one, the prudish one… As they work towards their common goal along the way there will be tears and tantrums and much larking around. Someone will surprise us with how good they are at the activity in question. Someone else will reveal a private tragedy. Friends will fall out and be reconciled. They will all rise to the occasion and achieve the goal. It is play-writing by numbers.

This formula has been applied to the based-in-truth story of women in a Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute who posed nude for a best-selling calendar that raised more than enough money for a new settee in a hospital. You don’t need to know the facts – you can tell exactly what is going to happen on stage because of the formula.

As depicted here, this small Yorkshire community is peopled by wise-cracking individuals with boundless exuberance – ‘appen there’s summat in t’water – throwing punch lines around like buckshot. Even the bloke dying from leukaemia, (Joe McGann) is relentlessly funny. The spectre of cancer casts a brief shadow on all this exuberance; it is a comedy, after all, but the attempts at pathos lack punch.

The funniest sequence is the photo shoot for the calendar. Fuelled by vodka, the women soon lose their inhibitions and their dressing gowns and create a series of tableaux that are more saucy postcard than titillating burlesque. The script glosses over the fact that they are blatantly short of five months but then I suppose seeing all twelve would slow the pace considerably.

The cast throw themselves into proceedings with, guess what, exuberance. Lynda Bellingham provides much of the impetus as Chris (brassy), ably supported by June Watson as Jessie (grumpy) and Lisa Riley (fatty, self-conscious, prudish). Deena Payne (Viv Windsor off of Emmerdale) is the musical one. Jan Harvey is the sad one. Former Hi-de-Hi glockenspiel banger, Ruth Madoc is Marie, chair of the branch. She is responsible for booking speakers who give talks on such edifying topics as the history of the tea towel and the provenance of broccoli. Her performance is like a demonstration of accents of the British Isles. There is a cameo by Camilla Dallerup as a skinny beautician that improves on her recent foray as Genie of the Lamp but I couldn’t help cheering when Lisa Riley, overcoming her prudishness, tells her to fuck off. Formerly Jake off of Hollyoaks, Kevin Sacre doubles as the hospital-porter-cum-photographer and as a callous media type, but overall the cockles are warmed by the central friendship between Bellingham and Harvey. Fundamentally that is what these plays are all about: sisterhood and the friendship between women rather than forwarding any feminist agenda.

The play is like eating a box of chocolates in one go. Pleasant while it lasts if not entirely to one’s taste, but not all that nutritious when it’s over. And it is a box of chocolates with only one layer. I would like to see one of these plays subvert the formula and frustrate expectations. Calendar Girls is a reliable, crowd-pleasing confection. It’s like settling down to watch your favourite soap or sit-com. You’re in safe hands here as sure as April follows May.