Tag Archives: Jonathan Wilkes

Local Heroes

WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 7th April, 2012

 

Carrying on and celebrating the New Vic’s tradition of social documentary dramas with a strong local (North Staffordshire) identity, comes this new piece by writer Alecky Blythe and director Theresa Heskins.

The set is a stark, almost lunar, landscape.  Mounds of nutty slack and broken china house television sets.  The area’s industrial past has been superseded in this day and age.  The Potteries are now home to rife unemployment – people who stay at home and watch the telly.  I have to confess my heart sank a little when I realised the show is based around an X Factor type talent show – often the recourse of unimaginative GCSE drama groups – but my initial misgivings were quickly washed away by the style and execution of the piece.

The words spoken by the cast are all verbatim.  The people who entered the 2010 “Stoke’s Top Talent” contest provide all the dialogue in its naturalistic, often hilarious, glory.  But further to that, the production goes a step further.  The actors are wired with earpieces.  Recordings of the real people speaking the lines are played to them and the actors deliver those lines with the same inflection and intonation as close to the original speaker as possible.  The actor is the mouthpiece for the person.  While this is a peculiar way of working for the performers, isolated as they are from the atmosphere in the auditorium, it pays dividends for the audience.  As characters emerge then come and go, and we follow their experiences in the audition process, the warmth and humanity of these people shine through.

I couldn’t help thinking of Creature Comforts.

The humour, unconscious on the part of the speaker in some cases, is delightful.  “My girlfriend’s 24,” boasts a 19 year old contestant, “and she’s only got two kids.”

“Jonathan Wilkes” hosts the heats, but this contest is not about the glorification of the judges.  Neither is it about holding up the contestants to ridicule.  What comes to the fore is how important this competition is to the people of Stoke on Trent, now there is nothing else to offer them hope of bettering themselves.  The prize money of £1,000 and the chance to appear in professional panto for a month may seem small beer compared to the large-scale televised talent shows – but the contestants recognise it has a start, as a chance, a leg-up.  They go back, year after year, to try again, and they take it seriously.

You couldn’t get more of a local flavour if you sat through the show stuffing yourself with oatcakes.  But the show is much more than a local show for local people.  As an outsider to the region, I saw the national relevance of the play.  Stoke-on-Trent  becomes a microcosm for the whole country.  The obsession for these talent contests.  The death of industry.  The lack of opportunity compared to the wealth of talent and ambition.  It’s all there.  This is a state-of-the-nation piece, documenting a moment in time.  It is a celebration of the human spirit in bleak and trying times.

Theresa Heskins has collected an impressive ensemble of actors who slip in and out of a range of characters to populate the show.  Samuel Hargreaves plays 14 year old Sam, the eventual winner.  His talent and ambition are nicely counterpointed by the bathos of the slightly camp Northern bathos of his family.  The show ends with his rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” by local boy done good, Robbie Williams.  The song takes on extra significance.  The boy is at the outset of his career.  We are not told what’s become of him in the two years since his pantomime appearance.

One of my favourite actors on the planet, Michael Hugo is superb as slightly thuggish, skinhead Mark, struggling with all manner of problems and trying to stay out of trouble so he will be accepted by another means of escape from his surroundings, the armed forces.

Oliver J Hembrough evokes rather than impersonates local star-maker Jonathan Wilkes but really excels as the father in musical duo, “Lad ‘N’ Dad” – guitar, bongos and “Yummy Yummy Yummy”.

Andrew Pollard is heart-breaking as gentle charity-shop worker Graeme who can’t face the pressure of the audition process then regrets not going through with it.  Alan Bennett could write an entire show based on this man alone.

Mona Goodwin’s Kerry (runner-up in the final) displays the excitement and nervous energy and not forgetting the talent.  You really feel for her when she doesn’t win (and I knew the outcome beforehand, having seen the panto two years ago!).  Peter Temple’s pensioner Norman is finally taking his chances after a lifetime of hard work.  “Where have I been all my life?” he asks himself.  It is the line that gives the show its title, and a poignant moment about roads not taken.  Rebecca Brewer depicts a range of roles, adding to the likeability and general warmth. Angela Bain switches from middle-aged mum to ten year old little brother at the change of a shirt – the entire company proves its versatility. That is not to say this is a whitewash.  Human fallibility and the darker aspects of society are all here too.

Everyone comes out of this very well but really the show is a testament to the people of Stoke and a mirror showing what’s happening all over post-industrial Britain.  It’s more uplifting and relevant than anything Simon Cowell sticks his fingers in.

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It’s Beneath You!

PANTOS ON STRIKE
Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Tuesday 17th January, 2012

This “show for grown-up boys and girls” has a sense of humour that makes Mrs Brown’s Boys seem like Chekhov. The story, such as it is, involves Robbie Williams’s mate, Jonathan Wilkes teaming up with Peter Kay’s mate, Paddy McGuinness when the Fairy Godmother (a very game Zoe Tyler) summons them to Pantoland to save the day. The Princess has been kidnapped. The villain (Brian Capron having a ball) is demanding that Evil be allowed to conquer Good for a change – pantomimes across the land are threatened. Characters form a picket line, refusing to comply until the Princess is rescued.

Or something.

Whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, they do it at a cracking pace – it’s all about getting from one pantomime set-up to the next. No one is allowed to slow the action down by going into their act. And so we get a messy kitchen scene, plenty of “He’s behind you” and even a flying scene. It’s all childish and juvenile but if you disengage your brain it’s very funny. Too many scenes end with an expletive for a punch line, I found – a sort of get out clause for every situation, and there are times when the stage is cluttered with characters with nothing to do but, on the whole, the silliness and puerile humour work very well.

Jonathan Wilkes (who co-wrote and directed the thing) is the same affable panto persona he usually is. A likable, cheeky chappie who immerses himself into the spirit of the piece wholeheartedly and the audience (admittedly, it’s his home town) are in the palm of his hand, precisely because he treats them as any other panto crowd. The audience regressed to their childhood – that part of childhood spent behind the bicycle sheds. Wilkes is an accomplished performer in musical theatre but pantomime is definitely his milieu. It is a sphere in which few are able to perform so expertly.

Paddy McGuinness is, in contrast, an unwilling participant, mocking and belittling the conventions of pantomime. He is punished (or rewarded, depending on your viewpoint) by attracting the sexual favours of a transvestite dwarf (the energetic Phil Holden) – it will distract him from his habitual abuse of a toy rabbit while he watches a video of Watership Down… You should have a strong idea of the kind of material we’re dealing with here. One can detect the hand of panto god Eric Potts in the structure. The subversion, I suspect, came largely from the brain of McGuinness.

Christian Patterson’s Dame Dolly Dumpling is a joy. A traditional Dame but with a foul mouth and questionable manners, he gives an authenticity to the proceedings – the rest of the cast may be attractive young things in sexy fairy tale outfits, but Dame Dolly is the real deal. Zoe Tyler (Loose Woman and singing coach) is more than up for it, and Brian Capron, formerly the baddie in TV’s longest-running panto, Coronation Street, has fun with his declamations and provoking us all to swear at him.

Politically incorrect and exploitative, you might say, but within context the only criterion for judging Pantos On Strike should be “Is it funny?”

Oh yes, it fucking is.