Tag Archives: Karen Welsh

Homeless not Hopeless

STREETS APART

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 6th April 2019

 

First off, it’s very pleasing to see new work being created and produced in a town that thrives on centuries-old drama.   This brand-new piece by local playwright Jackie Lines depicts what life is like for an increasing number of vulnerable people who, through no choice of their own, wind up on the streets.  Passers-by give examples of the abuse faced by homeless people and illustrate the negative attitudes and common misconceptions about them.  It’s an effective start.

The play tells of the efforts of a group of volunteers in a centre as they strive, with limited resources, to make life better for the homeless.  We meet a range of characters from the streets, such as ex-army, PTSD sufferer Neil (a powerful Graham Tyrer) who declaims poetry and rants through mental illness, like a latter-day Vladimir or Estragon.  There’s Mick, a former plumber who lost everything after a life-changing injury that led to an addiction to opiates, played by Mark Spriggs with intensity, strength and vulnerability.  The inclusion of a couple of original poems by Spriggs enriches the show.

Largely, the story concerns the fate of young couple Tom (Tom Purchase-Rathbone) and Susan (Emma Beasley) who have found each other on the streets, having each come from horrendous childhood backgrounds.  At first, they are cautious about accepting help from the centre, but gradually, they blossom and thrive, although there are some setbacks along the way.  Mick, who, despite the intercession of bleeding heart Sandra (Rachel Alcock) declines help, does not end so happily: there is some kind of moral message here.  If you accept help, you’ll be fine; if you don’t, you won’t.

Among an effective cast, Zoe Rashwan’s forthright Carol stands out and the drama is leavened by comic relief from Gill Hines as doddering volunteer Edna.  Chris Musson (appearing as guitarist Barry) brings original music, along with Chris Callaghan’s Eddie, as volunteers running song-writing sessions to give the homeless a voice.

As the volunteers, we have Stacey Warner as Anna, Barry Purchase-Rathbone as Greg, and Karen Welsh as Diane – whose elegant exterior masks a tale of injustice and loss that put her on the streets for a time.  The play shows that there are ways out of homelessness, and not all of them are tragic!

In terms of drama, I would like to see more direct conflict, perhaps involving the kind of authority figures whose policies exacerbate the problem.  Certainly, these people need to be in the audience of a show like this.  Director Greg Cole handles the slice-of-life tone, with scenes coming over as credible and authentic, although there are some staging issues.  In-the-round is more intimate, yes, and democratic, which is fitting, but cast members need to ‘share their backs’ so everyone gets a fair look at them!

By and large, the production is an awareness-raising, thought-provoking, conscience-pricking success, depicting the precariousness of life in society today and emphasising the humanity we all share with the homeless.

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Sex Toy Story

SEX CELLS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 19th July, 2018

 

You would think a play set in a call centre of a company that sells sex toys, marital aids and other assorted paraphernalia would be fertile ground for laughter.  Sadly, Anna Longoretti’s flaccid script is fatally flawed in the first act; what the four women who take the calls are selling is almost irrelevant.  It may as well be household insurance.  Longoretti doesn’t give us time to enjoy the context and enjoy the characters before she switches gear and the women’s personal lives enter the equation.  I suppose I’m saying we need more foreplay to get us into the mood.

Unfortunately, Olivia Jane Parker directs moments of humour and moments of pathos at the same pitch.  The comedy needs to be played broader in order to contrast with the emotional scenes.  And so, the first act limps along and we learn about the women’s problems: one wants a child at all costs; another is snowed under by the five kids she has; a third has a loveless marriage and an estranged grown-up son; while the fourth is a party girl, flitting between men.  Meanwhile, their ineffectual manager bumbles around.  I can barely raise a smile.

Fortunately, the second act is a good deal tighter and is played with more energy.  Although two of the subplots (overwhelmed mum, party girl) don’t really go anywhere, the play has something to say about motherhood, expectations and disappointments.  Plus, they mess around with the stock: dildos, rubber tits, blow-up dolls and the like, like they should have done from the off.

Lucinda Toomey is the strongest of the bunch as longsuffering Lily, armoured with barbed humour, who awakens from the decades-long depression of her married life and seeks to forge a meaningful bond with her alienated son.  Karen Welsh is suitably histrionic as the highly-strung Sylvie (who is French for some reason) while Stephanie Surrey pulls all the right faces as harassed mum-of-five Janice.  Ally Gibson’s party-hearty Tiffany seems natural – despite the ill-advised rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate on an ever-so-convenient ukulele.  Philip Hickson flounders and fumbles as the weak-as-dishwater boss.  It’s a shame his declaration of affection is not given more welly.  He needs fire and not just cake in his belly.

The set combines the call centre with a ‘break-out’ space, the manager’s office and the warehouse, with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere as though health and safety regulations mean little to this company – I hesitate to call it a ‘firm’.

The second act shows us the potential of the premise and of the cast, but what should be a real buzz from curtain up disappoints like pound-shop batteries or an inflatable companion with a slow puncture.  A let-down.

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Camp in the Woods

INTO THE WOODS

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May, 2017

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company presents an ambitious production of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated and bitter fairy tale drama – a challenge for performers, whatever their provenance – and here their valiant efforts result in success.

The mash-up of elements familiar from fairy tales is a difficult sing; Sondheim doesn’t make it easy on his singers, but the cast for the most part handle the dissonance and unusual phrasings very well.  Rebecca Walton’s Cinderella is a prime example of the quality of this ensemble, mastering the music as well as delivering a neat characterisation.  Similarly, Pollyanna Noonan’s Little Red Riding Hood is an assured and feisty performance.  She sports a red (what else!) hoody – the whole piece has a charity-shop aesthetic: the setting is contemporary, a refugee camp and the residents are sharing stories, the same stories familiar to us.  A gentle reminder from director Richard Sandle-Keynes that refugees are people just like us.  The action is brought right up to us – it’s like we’re all huddled around a camp fire.  When, in the second act, the characters are cast adrift from their happy-ever-afters and wander in the forest, facing devastation and loss at the hands (well, the feet) of a vengeful giant at large, they are refugees too.  It’s an interesting approach and works well, offering moments of cleverness, for example the climbing of Rapunzel’s hair and the shadows playing on polythene fences amusingly depict dancers at the Prince’s ball and the violent fate of the Big Bad Wolf.

Speaking of whom, Bardia Ghezelbash makes a sinister Wolf, but he needs to take care that his volume doesn’t drop so much it detracts from his characterisation.  Indeed, there are moments throughout the show, where mic cues are not picked up and lines of dialogue and lyric are lost.  David Bolter’s Prince Charming comes alive when he’s singing, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Daniel Denton-Harris in a fun and detailed performance) is a definite highlight.   Karen Welsh’s Witch is suitably eccentric and twisted in one of the show’s camper characterisations, and Christopher Dobson’s Baker comes into his own when singing the more mournful moments in the score.

Under the baton of Sam Young, a tight orchestra plays almost throughout the piece, delivering Sondheim’s jaunty, romantic and idiosyncratic music with verve and atmosphere.  If only those damned mics were cued properly!

Patchy bits aside, this is an impressive production: the ensemble singing together sounds especially great.  The star turn comes from Jessica Friend as the Baker’s Wife, an assured, captivating presence with many colours – Friend delights whenever she’s on.

The piece has a timely pertinence: the vengeful giant represents evil in the land, and the play questions our responses to terror.  Do we kill the giant or show forgiveness?

It also points out that happy-ever-afters don’t exist and getting what you want isn’t the end of your problems.  You’re not out of the woods and perhaps you never will be.  We may be grown-ups but that doesn’t stop us from wishing that things were other than they are.

An engaging and entertaining evening, slickly presented and courageous enough to go beyond a cosy and conventional setting.   And I can’t stop thinking of the old joke: Did you find the refugees’ camp?  Some of them, yes.

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The Baker’s Wife (Jessica Friend) discovering it’s not all bad in the woods…