Tag Archives: John Elkington

Peake Performance

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th September, 2018

 

This new play by Maxine Peake documents the true story of four members of Women Against Pit Closures and their occupation of Parkside Colliery in the 1990s.  Peake’s writing clearly shows the influence of the late, great Victoria Wood with whom Peake worked in dinnerladies:  the down-to-earth Northern humour, the bathetic domestic notes, and above all the warmth and humanity of people in adverse conditions.

Kate Anthony is Anne, determined and a bit scatty – it emerges she is the wife of a certain A. Scargill esq, and here the play offers insights into what life was like for his Mrs and their daughter.  Anthony is superb, balancing Anne’s drive with her more humorous moments.

Jane Hazlegrove, formerly of Casualty, is great fun as the brash, earthy Dot, who suffers from claustrophobia – but that doesn’t stop her from descending thousands of feet below the ground.  Joining Dot with the crasser remarks and brash observations is Danielle Henry as Lesley.  This is a very funny play.

Special mention goes to Lucy Tuck, recruited only a couple of days ago to take over the role of Elaine due to the indisposition of the originally cast actor.  Tuck comes on with a script but it’s mainly as a safety net; her performance is almost there as is the chemistry with the rest of the cast.  Quite an achievement – give her to the end of the week and you won’t see the join!

Male roles are played by Conor Glean as sympathetic and easy-on-the-eye miner Michael – a scene in which he and the women share imaginary ecstasy pills is hilarious – and John Elkington gives us villainy-embodied in the form of pit manager Ramsey and also Des the tour guide, and James, a miner who seems to be from another era…

Miners past and present, played by an ensemble of community volunteers, haunt the stage during scene transitions, evoking the industry that has come and gone.  Georgia Lowe’s design is a good fit for the arena set-up of the New Vic, where the darkness adds to the impression of being deep underground.  The pounding, industrial house music used to cover changes is a refreshing change from the colliery brass bands we might expect!

Director Bryony Shanahan paces the humour effectively and brings out the personal-is-political aspects of Peake’s fine script.  Peake raises issues, social and political, many of which have not been consigned to the past.

A highly entertaining and powerful piece that reminds us to stand up for what we believe, to protest those who ride roughshod over us, that it is the protest that matters, the being counted, rather than the result.  If we’re going down, it’s better to go down fighting.  A losing battle is still a battle although I’d like to think there is hope for success.

RET-QUEENS-OF-THE-COAL-AGE-L-R-Jane-Hazlegrove-Dot-Conor-Glean-Michael-image-Keith-Pattison

Going underground: Jane Hazledine and Conor Glean (Photo: Keith Pattison)

 

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Golden Oldies

FOREVER YOUNG

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 11th February, 2015

 

Set in the common room of a retirement home, this musical comedy adapted from the German original, has a cast of elderly characters, portrayed by much younger actors – a good thing: they move and act like old people but their singing voices retain the power of their comparative youth.

There is next to nothing in the way of plot and character development, and very little dialogue, come to think of it. Instead we spend a couple of hours in their company. There are periods of quiet, comic action and there are songs and plenty of them. In an eclectic song list that ranges from Joan Jett to Joan Baez, some lyrics take on additional significance. “The time to hesitate is through,” they sing during The Doors’ Light My Fire. Indeed.

The residents are patronised and coerced by Sister George (Georgina White) and here lies most of the show’s inherent conflict. On the whole though, they seem to rub along quite nicely – at one point a slow-moving (not slow-motion) slapstick spat breaks out, providing some measured, perhaps a little too slow, clowning.

Dale Superville is in fine fettle, with some physical shtick and a strong singing voice. His falsetto version of R E S P E C T goes down well, but his sweet duet of I Got You Babe with his sweetheart (Clara Darcy) is a highlight. Darcy goes on to give a plaintive rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit which becomes embittered and stirring when the others join in. In fact, the ensemble singing is delightful, harmonised to perfection. Stefan Bednarczyk (who co-adapted the piece with director Giles Croft) proves himself a versatile pianist, covering a vast range of musical styles. The excellent Rebecca Little hurls invective to comic effect and, when her prosthetic leg comes off, launches into a wistful Barbie Girl.  The nostalgia factor is strong in this one. When the elderly are asked to sing songs of the old days, and they come out with 90s pop hits, you know you’re getting on.

It’s quite bonkers when you think about it but the spectre of mortality is waiting in the wings. Live life, the oldies urge us, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. This gets a cheer from the audience, comprised mainly of white-haired people (refreshing to be among the youngest present!), but for all its feel-good fun, it’s not as funny as it thinks it is. Perhaps something was lost in translation and the European humour doesn’t travel. The first half is too long and some business is drawn out too far. We don’t get to hear John Elkington’s Imagine after three or four false starts – a pity; he is in great voice (when he’s not falling off the stage or breaking wind).

It’s a pleasant couple of hours but it’s a packet of biscuits rather than a meal.

Tim Frater and John Elkington (Photo: Robert Day)

Tim Frater and John Elkington (Photo: Robert Day)


A Bird in the Hand

KES

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 17th September, 2013

Sarah Brigham directs her first production for the phoenix-like Derby Theatre, choosing for her debut Lawrence Till’s adaptation of Barry Hines’s famous novel, A Kestrel For A Knave.  If this show is an indication of the quality of work we can expect, I may as well set up residence in the auditorium.

Simple staging creates the world of Billy Casper.  Bits of rooms, shops and his school fly in and out, while a tight ensemble formed from professional actors and kids recruited from the community, perform the characters who taunt, bully and torment poor Billy at every turn.  Barney George’s design evokes the period – who could forget the geometric patterns of a 1960s school curtain? – with hints at pitheads and poverty.  Projections show us the countryside that abuts the town – at one point, giant stalks of wheat dwarf the characters, symbolically reminding us of the power and supremacy of nature.  Ivan Stott’s music supports the moods and the action with a cinematic quality.

Billy hasn’t much going for him.  He escapes into dramatic reconstructions of Desperate Dan comics.  He nicks from the shopkeeper who employs him as a paperboy.  He is bullied relentlessly by older brother Jud (a brutish Jimmy Fairhurst), blunted by the hardship of his working life down t’pit.  Mother (Samantha Seagar) is ineffectual – Nowadays you’d hope social services would swoop down on them like a – well, like a hawk.

At school he faces aggression from John Holt-Roberts as MacDowall, and disdain from Thomas Pickles as Tibbut.  Pickles gives us an electrifying monologue about wellies and tadpoles, enchanting us as much as his classmates.  It is remarkable how well the cast gels together – apart from the most obvious differences in height and age, they operate as a convincing entity, populated by individual characterisations.

Paul Clarkson’s headmaster Gryce is a delicious tyrant, exposing the brutality of the education system, and the lack of provision for boys like Casper, serving as a warning that a return to so-called ‘traditional values’ is not going to work.  I also loved Andrew Westfield as the pompous PE teacher, another representative of an institution that cannot support Casper’s needs.

The show belongs to Sam Jackson.  His portrayal of Billy is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  With his youthful energy and almost elfin, Peter Pan-like features, he utterly convinces as a 15 year old urchin.  He brings a physicality to the role, not just in his comic-book dramatisations but also in Billy’s moments of stillness.  Billy’s enthusiasm for and expert knowledge of training the kestrel he rescued surprises teacher Mr Farthing (a sympathetic John Elkington).  No one is a write-off, the play says.  Even someone like Billy Casper has potential for beauty, creativity and can make a contribution. There is hope for us all and it is a tragedy if that potential is not nurtured and encouraged to flourish.

Very cleverly, the production works on an allegorical level.  Sarah Brigham has selected this particular play to tell us that there is hope for theatre in Derby, despite its chequered past.  If Kes is anything to go by, Derby Theatre will soar very high indeed.

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John Elkington and Sam Jackson (Photo: Robert Day)