Tag Archives: Katy Stephens

Double-edged War Puns


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018


It’s become quite a tradition at the Belgrade that while the panto is on in the main house, the B2 studio hosts an alternative, something for the grown-ups.  This year, writer Nick Walker chooses the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War and of the start of the women’s suffrage movement as the basis for this pun-riddled romp.

As ever, the script is jam-packed with groanworthy gags, delivered with the rapidity and subtlety of a machine gun, as it tells the story of four men enlisted to go to the Front to rescue a troupe of actresses.  The cast is entirely female – the reason for which becomes apparent by the end.

Laura Tipper sings sweetly as Bell, and harumphs horribly as Sidebottom, complete with period moustache.  Aimee Powell is dashing as Ashwell, dapper in black tie and tails.  Kimisha Lewis shows her versatility as Flowers, a German, and a balletic Red Baron.  Miriam Grace Edwards is magical as stage magician Mickey… The ladies have several roles each and are well-matched for talent and likeability.

Walker’s clever script has a repeating plot device, taking us back time and again to a music hall, interspersed with scenes of action and espionage reminiscent of a John Buchan.  Director Katy Stephens, a veteran of several of these shows, paces the delivery to perfection.  There is a silent-movie type sequence involving a bomb in a French restaurant that is superb, and a break from the otherwise relentless barrage of bad jokes.  (“Is it snails?” “No, this is a fast food restaurant.”)

It’s not all daftness and running around.  Walker, recognising the solemnity of the occasion, provides a sucker punch ending.  We’ve all seen how Blackadder turned out; here the impact is equally if not more powerful as it is revealed that the characters are all based on real women, and there really was a mission to rescue the actresses.  The final moments commemorate the contributions of women to the war effort and the sacrifices they made, something that many of the events we have seen over the past four years have overlooked.

Delightfully corny, rib-ticklingly daft, and ultimately sobering, this is a solid hour of entertainment with a powerful message.


All Puns Blazing


B2, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 8th December, 2017


One Christmas tradition that doesn’t get me bah-humbugging all the way home, is the Belgrade Theatre’s annual alternative production to the (excellent) pantomime in the main house.  The B2 studio becomes home to a show for the grown-ups, in a genre- as well as gender-bending cavalcade of bad jokes.  This year, riffing on Cinderella, writer-director Nick Walker gives us a Western with a cast of four women, playing cowboys.  There is a plot, a chase to beat the bad guy to some buried treasure, and along the way we encounter a range of tropes (the saloon, the train, the Native American guide) as well as a host of larger-than-life characters performed by this versatile and industrious quartet.

Doc (the mighty Katy Stephens) is our protagonist and narrator.  Such is her wry charm, we let her get away with the worst puns imaginable without rising up and lynching her.  She is supported by the Magnificent Three: Miriam Edwards, Laura Tipper and Aimee Powell, in this relentless barrage of fun.  Some of the jokes are as old as the hills and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but there is plenty of invention in the pun-fire, lots of new material to make groan-ups of us all.

Walker evidently spends the rest of the year writing jokes for Christmas crackers, and is possessed of a particular kind of genius.  For example, the treasure could be silver, could be gold – it could be either ore.

I can hear you groaning from here.  This type of thing is perhaps an acquired taste.  It is certainly right up my alley.

Performing with indefatigable brio, the cast pull out all the stops to keep the laughs coming, and the knowing looks add to the fun.  We are not expected to take a second of it seriously – but the cast certainly do, playing with commitment and skill – the comic timing is superb; and the production values are certainly no joke.  The Belgrade’s in-house production services dress the show in quality costumes.  I love the tumbleweeds that punctuate the script’s worst excesses and the horses are hot to trot.  A simple but effective set with a sunset backcloth serves for all locations, allowing the performers to do most of the work, while the sound effects (Rob Clews) and the lighting (Chris Munn) evoke the genre while augmenting the humour.

It’s an hour of fantastic fun and it makes me think we don’t see many Westerns on the stage.  Yes, there are musicals and opera set in the Wild West but no ‘straight’ plays?  It’s a gap in the market perhaps I can head off at the pass…


The Magnificent Four: Laura Tipper, Aimee Powell, Katy Stephens and Miriam Edwards (Photo: Robert Day)


Royal Pain


The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th February, 2015


David Seidler’s play became more widely known – globally, in fact – through its Oscar-winning film adaptation. Add to that the ever-popular Jason Donovan in the cast and you have quite a seat-filler on your hands.

It’s almost a history play, in the Shakespearean sense. We see the trials and tribulations of those who rule. Functioning as a chorus, Winston Churchill (Nicholas Blane) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Martin Lang) keep the historical details and no small amount of Royal gossip coming.

But at its heart, it is the story of the friendship between two men who are, almost literally, poles apart. Raymond Coulthard, who has always looked regal, is stammering Bertie, driven to seek the assistance of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Jason Donovan). The best scenes are when these two are alone together, negotiating through their prickly relationship both a friendship and a means to save the credibility of a monarchy under pressure.

Coulthard is sublime – his is the more challenging role – and, regardless of one’s views of the monarchy as an institution – you can’t help rooting for him. Donovan inhabits his role as the bluff Australian, who doesn’t give a stuff for protocol and convention, and it’s a revelatory performance. He seems totally at home and natural, in contrast with Coulthard’s repressed and vulnerable Prince. Logue’s auditions for Shakespearean roles are terrible – but Donovan keeps their mannered delivery within the realms of believability.

Both men are supported by their wives. Claire Lams is cool-headed but caring as Bertie’s Mrs (mother to our present Queen), withering in her putdowns. The splendid Katy Stephens is Logue’s Sheila, Myrtle, adding more Aussie drawl among the cut-glass accents. Bertie’s brother David, who becomes Edward VIII, is very much the villain of the piece – not because of his anti-Semitism and his fraternisation with Nazis, but because his affair with an American divorcee threatens to undermine the Establishment. Jamie Hinde plays him as a nasty, hedonistic piece of work. All our sympathies are skewed towards Bertie, the victim of bullying and mockery by David and also their father, George V (William Hoyland).

Tom Piper’s set is all wooden panels – the floorboards radiate in a sunburst, bringing to mind a 1930s wireless – but gradually reveals its secrets and its versatility as the action unfolds. Director Roxana Silbert uses the flexibility of the set to the hilt, keeping the action continuous, with transitions flowing from one scene to the next, like a musical. But it is her handling of the ups and downs, the peaks and troughs of the central relationship of the two men that shows attention to detail and an ear for contrast and an eye for timing.

The show is a triumph for all concerned. Even if you’ve seen the film, I defy you not to be royally entertained throughout and then, right at the end, moved by the simple declaration of gratitude and friendship, and a breach of protocol on Bertie’s part: he removes his glove to shake Logue by the hand. In those closing seconds, we see how far he has come. Logue has not only taught him how to speak in public, he has turned a Prince into a man.

Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Yes It Most Definitely Is


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 10th December, 2014


In the Belgrade’s B2 Studio there’s an alternative to the traditional pantomime playing in the main house. This show is pitched at adult audiences and is a refreshing antidote to the season of good will that has been forced down our throats since October.

It begins backstage during a performance of Jack & The Beanstalk. Both halves of a pantomime cow are desperately looking for a gun needed for the next scene. What the front half doesn’t know is that the rear end is in league with the actress playing the giant; they are assassins hired to bump off the principal boy…

A farce unfolds with real and prop guns, poisoned and unpoisoned apples. When the scene changes to the actual performance the sense of desperation and tension escalates. With more twists than a corkscrew factory, Nick Walker’s plot moves along at breakneck speed – it has to, to fit into an hour’s running time. It’s also a very funny script with a rich vein of corny humour you expect from seasonal entertainment.

The cast of four work their tights off to keep it going. As an audience though, we need warming up a bit. It takes us a while to get with it. Emily May Smith is the diminutive, shock-haired giant and hired killer, wide-eyed and energetic. Robert Kidd is hilarious as the rear end of the pantomime cow and a comedy vicar in a performance that would not be amiss in Royston Vasey. Tom Shepherd’s front half of the cow is the more down-to-earth of the quartet but has a nice line in physical comedy. However it is Jack him-herself who takes the crown. The mighty Katy Stephens is superb as the overbearing actress that people want dead. Not above poking fun at herself and her RSC experiences, she commands the stage, desperate to keep the increasingly shambolic panto going and outwit her would-be killers at every turn. It’s a powerhouse performance of comedic skill and Stephens is more than ably supported by the other three.

The action becomes increasingly manic culminating in one final twist like a punchline to the hilarious hour.

Oh No It Isn’t – once you warm to it – has much to enjoy. It’s well worth dropping into the theatre for an hour to get yourself in a good mood before the rest of your night out.

Silly Cow.  Katy Stephens pulls the udder one.

Silly Cow. Katy Stephens pulls the udder one.

Bloody Marvellous


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th May, 2013


A box office hit in Shakespeare’s day, this Roman revenge tragedy packs more into its two-and-a-half hours than an entire series of The Jeremy Kyle Show.  It’s got the lot: murder, betrayal, mutilation, rape, and of course revenge.  It’s grisly, gory and gruesome, sordid, squalid and shocking.  And it’s bloody funny.

Stephen Boxer is in the title role as a man already steeped in tragedy and grief: most of his 25 sons have been killed in the wars he fights on Rome’s behalf.  The rest meet their doom pretty quickly.  Two are framed and executed for murder.  Another dies at Titus’s own hand in an almost casual neck-breaking scene.  Life is rough in this supposedly civilised empire.

Titus sacrifices a son of captive Goth queen Tamora, setting in motion a tit-for-tat vendetta that escalates to a blood bath in the final scene.  Katy Stephens is striking and strident as the queen with a grudge.  Fierce and fearsome – you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.  As with Boxer’s Titus, there is relish in the exacting of her revenge.

Titus’s brother Marcus (Richard Durden) is the calm voice of reason in the unfolding carnage.  His scene with the mutilated Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) is very moving.  Reynolds is the car crash you can’t help looking at.  Her agonies are fascinating.  With hands cut off and tongue torn out, she tries to smash and eat a boiled egg.  Horror and pity vie for dominance in the spectator.

Kevin Harvey brings a Merseyside twang to the villainous Aaron; his malevolence is not quite matched by Tamora’s sons, two chavs in hoodies riding bicycles and waving knives around (Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon).  You aren’t sorry to see them strung upside down, their throats slit and drained like pigs – This is the main theme of the piece.  Justice has been usurped by vengeance.  The punishments meted out on both sides could have been devised by the subscribers of certain Facebook pages.

Director Michael Fentiman sets his production in a sort of timeless, undefined space, using images we recognise from contemporary life and history.  Cowled monks in black mingle with big-haired women in biker boots. The soldiers’ tunics combine the historical and the contemporary.  The Emperor’s Italian suit is classic – John Hopkins’s Saturninus is an indulgent, immature figure, a comical bully.

I also liked Matthew Needham as Titus’s noble son Lucius but it is Boxer who dominates. His powerful grief turns to powerful madness before our very eyes.  When it all kicks off at the end, when it is revealed that Tamora has been tucking into her own sons baked in a pie, when everyone jumps from their places at table and the bloodshed is a fast and furious free-for-all, it’s a cathartic release that brings about a swift resolution to what constitutes the worst (or best) episode of Come Dine With Me in history.

The Elizabethans were more accustomed to brutality in the streets and public executions and all of that kind of thing.  This production shows us how we must guard against this violence and bloodlust.  “Thou art a Roman,” Marcus admonishes early on, “Be not barbarous.”

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)

Wood for the Trees

The Old Rep, Birmingham, Friday 31st August, 2012

Opening night/preview performance reviewed.

Created for the World Shakespeare Festival, this piece “based on texts by William Shakespeare” is a bit of a curate’s egg. Uneven in tone and quality, it gradually becomes more rewarding as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts.

It begins in a clinically white space, dominated by a tree standing on a box. At once, I thought of Waiting For Godot. Cast members wander on to the stage and peer at it as though it’s some kind of art installation in a gallery. The arrival of musician Maika Makovski begins the show proper. Beautiful, with a voice to match, Makovski provides the accompaniment to most of the action, with moments in the spotlight for her songs. My initial reaction was she’s the best thing about this show, which is a bit like a live-action music video. Or a ninety-minute trailer for an arthouse movie.

The cast step forward and speak lines from Shakespeare, mostly from scenes set in forests. And so there is quite a bit of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Taken out of context, and with the cast not interacting, it’s all a bit odd and you wonder what the point is.

When they start to interact, it is as though the language they speak separates them. But this is not important. At this moment they are happy to be alive. They tear around the stage, round and round the tree, with the exuberance of children. They divest themselves of their grown-up clothes and cavort and gambol. Oh, just shoot me, I thought.

The child’s play leads to dressing up, which, in Shakespearean tradition, leads to cross-dressing. Christopher Simpson makes a stunning woman – think Phillip Schofield dressed as Cher. Katy Stephens, in Simpson’s suit, looks clownish in her bowler hat, a tie around her waist doubling as belt and phallus. These children discover their sexuality and events begin to take a darker turn.

The turning point is George Costigan’s performance of Jacques’s Seven Ages of Man speech. The speech is allowed to flow and to retain its meaning. It is a moment of clarity, and amusingly done, ending with the starkness of “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything.” This throws everyone into an existential crisis (as if I wasn’t already having one of my own) and suddenly it all goes a bit Lord of the Flies. A dog puppet is stabbed repeatedly and pinned to the pros arch. A woman is stapled to the wall, her knickers pulled down to her ankles, and raped in the mouth by the tie-phallus. All is discordant. The cast attack the box in the centre, pulling tons of soil all over the place. And so we move from Godot, to Beckett’s Happy Days. At once I felt pity for the stage managers who have to clean up this mess. And I half expected them to unearth Billie Whitelaw.

The cast become isolated in their own anguish. They perpetrate atrocities on themselves and each other. A woman performs an abortion on herself, standing over a bucket. Another wraps her own head in polythene. A son believes he has killed his father, and vice versa. The happy innocence of the opening scenes has been lost forever, and this violation is also represented on a larger scale with the destruction of the ordered and natural environment.
Roser Cami, her knickers up again but her breasts revealed, soiled with, um, soil, speaks passionately and movingly. In Catalan. Subtitles are provided at either side of the stage, scrolling the dialogue throughout the play but this only adds to the problems of focus. You can read the subtitles or you can watch the stage. You can’t do both.

It is all very bleak. Josep Maria Pou pulls out a reel-to-reel tape recorder on which he records and replays snatches of dialogue. This is a bit Krapp, I thought. He puts a gun in his gob and blows his brains out. Everyone is damaged, defiled and desolate.

And then there’s an epilogue. Everyone cheers up. They attach red balloons to the tree and speak lines that are meant to show us that life need not be as bad as all that. I could have done without that. I think the piece would be more powerful to end with the desolation and destruction.

Only having seen the whole thing can I guess at what it was about. Much is lost in the experience because there’s a lot happening all at once. And it was all too Beckettian for my liking. Director Calixto Bieito is obviously a big fan. But it does go to show that Shakespeare contains some very dark thoughts indeed. Given room to breathe, it is his words that give this disjointed piece its power.