Tag Archives: John Holt-Roberts

Christmas Carroll

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 6th December, 2016

 

Lewis Carroll’s classic dose of nonsense, word play and silliness poses at least one problem for those who wish to adapt it for the stage.  Chiefly, it offers very little in the way of plot or character development.  It is basically one strange thing after another until (spoiler!) Alice wakes up.  It’s a dream and dreams, by and large, don’t have narrative structure or make much sense.  Writer Mike Kenny addresses this problem by framing the visit to Wonderland in a present-day setting.  Alice is a young teen facing an ‘important’ exam.  The pressure placed on children to pass tests at various (too many) stages in their education is something to which we can all relate.  No wonder she is having troubling dreams!

Abby Wain is a marvellous Alice, our guide through all the strangeness.  Relatable, expressive and self-reliant, Alice is our touchstone for what is ‘normal’ in the weird world that surrounds her.  Along the way, she meets outlandish characters who are reminiscent of people from her real life.  Among them is Jack Quarton’s twitchy white rabbit, John Holt Roberts and Paula James as Tweedles Dee and Dum, and Joanna Brown’s imperious and tyrannical Queen of Hearts, whose remarkable costume would not be out of place on a fashion show catwalk!  Neil Irish’s costumes bring colour and style to the blackboard set.  Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter is a dapper figure, sporting a kilt and playing the bagpipes – they’re a versatile bunch, these actor musicians – and he’s in great voice too.  Ivan Stott’s original songs are all catchy and fun in a range of upbeat styles.  A highlight for me is the Duchess’s Act One closing number, given plenty of welly by Elizabeth Eves, a perfectly pitched piece of character acting.  It’s also fun to see Tweedledee and Tweedledum rocking out with electric guitars and Mohawks.

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Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter enjoys tart an’ tea.

There is much to enjoy here.  Mike Kenny intersperses lines and rhymes from Lewis Carroll with poetry of his own, giving us the key scenes we expect to see: the tea party, the caucus race, the trial, the croquet match, and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat (both played by a lively Keshini Misha).  Director Sarah Brigham makes inventive use of the theatre’s revolve and there is canny staging of Alice’s changes of size, and her fall down the rabbit hole is daringly presented with breath-taking circus skills.

I do think greater contrast could be made between Alice’s real life and the surreal land of her dreams.  Her real life is stylised, as befits a musical, but it’s essentially the same space and means of presentation as the supposed weirdness of Wonderland.  I would have gone the Wizard of Oz route if I was in charge.  But I’m not.

By the end, we feel like we’ve been treated to spectacle and entertained by an energised bunch of talented performers.  Alice comes to a kind of self-awareness and is able to put the Big Scary Exam into perspective – a valuable message, delivered in an irresistibly enjoyable way.

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Alice (Abby Wain) in a key scene. KEY SCENE!!… Suit yourselves.

 

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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)