Tag Archives: Keith Harris

Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time.  Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation.  The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’.  Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns.  Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it.  In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.

Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock.  His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown.  Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work.  This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.

Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves.  Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better.  And I start to get chills…

Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong.  Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation.  Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers.  Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell.  There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.

Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown.  Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots!  James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself.  The production values of this show are of the highest order.

And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment?  Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again.  The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS).  It all rings ever-so-relevant.  How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising?  Every bloody time, that’s how many.

An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.

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Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK.  I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers.  In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape!  They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!

Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment.  There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home.  John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing.  He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper.  Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin.  Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him.  Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.

They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script.  A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death.  And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.

It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented.  Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.

There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues.  The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.

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Dave Hill, Brian Wilson and John Whittell (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

David Hare’s 1995 play gets a well-deserved revival in this robust production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.  Set in the dowdy North London flat of Maths teacher Kyra Hollis (Alice Kennedy) it reveals the story of her past affair with restaurateur and self-made millionaire, Tom (Graeme Braidwood) through reminiscence and recollection as the protagonists are reunited after a separation of three years – during which time Tom’s wife has died.  Guilty feelings abound.  As a friend of the family, Kyra is also missed by Tom’s son Edward (Jacob Williams) who regards her as a big sister.  Edward turns up out of the blue because his dad has become ‘unbearable’, and so begins an eventful night for Kyra…

As the youthful, mercurial Edward, Jacob Williams is a delight, veering between sweet and gauche with ease in a lively performance.   Williams, whose appearances dovetail the main action, makes a lasting impression.

Alice Kennedy’s Kyra is mature (compared with Edward!) but also vulnerable.  We glimpse her classroom manner from time to time and in plain sight is her passion for her vocation, her desire to give the help so desperately needed by society’s most downtrodden.  There is strength here and also nuance.

Much the same can be said for Graeme Braidwood’s Tom.  Opinionated and objectionable, he is also a character of passion.  Yes, we may find his views abhorrent, the way he treats people as objects, but he comes across as a credible figure, thanks to Braidwood’s performance and of course to David Hare’s excellent writing.

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Graeme Braidwood as Tom and Alice Kennedy as Kyra (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

As much a personal ding-dong as a political slanging match, the play emphasises the humanity of its arguments. The characters are rounded, contradictory  and fleshed out beings not mere ciphers to illustrate a point.

Director Mark Payne maintains a level of energy throughout in this emotionally charged drama that is richly laced with humour.  Braidwood’s delivery of Tom’s embittered barbs is impeccable and Williams’s Edward is amusingly observed and endearingly depicted – at least he is able to kick-start his relationship with Kyra again.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are high. Keith Harris’s detailed set with its old furniture and working hob (the smell of onions cooking in real time gets me salivating!) and the props (courtesy of Andrew Lowrie, Ben Pountney and Georgina Evans) show nothing has been overlooked, down to the graffiti on the covers of the exercise books waiting to be marked.

Beautifully played and well paced, this is an engaging, grown-up portrait of relationships as well as a heartfelt discourse on the state of our divided nation.  Surely the divide is wider now, 22 years later – what a depressing thought! – pushing the relevance levels of Skylight through the roof  (I couldn’t resist!).

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Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

 

 


Party Piece

THE GREAT GATSBY

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 10th September, 2017

 

The Crescent’s new season gets off to a fine start with this adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel.  Stephen Sharkey’s script retains the timbre of Fitzgerald’s prose, mainly in the mouth of our narrator Nick Carraway (John O’Neill).  Through Nick’s eyes we visit the partygoing rich of the Twenties, a carefree elite who drink and dance every night away.  By sheer coincidence, Nick happens to be renting a property next to the massive mansion of the titular Gatsby, who happens to be an old flame of Nick’s cousin, Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan… Gatsby urges Nick to organise a reunion, an event from which tragedy springs.

John O’Neill is a serviceable narrator, handling Fitzgerald’s heady words in a matter-of-fact way.  As Gatsby, Guy Houston exudes a suave and easy charm; along with Nick we come to understand the man and his motivations.  Colette Nooney’s Daisy is coolly laconic while Laura Poyner’s fiery Myrtle injects passion into the piece.  Mark Fletcher’s Tom Buchanan has an air of Clark Gable to him.  Kimberley Bradshaw seems perfectly at home in the era as famous golfer, Jordan Baker.  All the main players are in fine form, in fact, with strong support from character parts: Jason Timmington’s Treves, for example, and Simon King’s Wolfsheim, who brings a flavour New York into this rarefied atmosphere.  James Browning’s George Wilson is a fine characterisation but he needs to lift his head more so we see more than the top of his flat cap.

The play saves all its action until the end as the consequences of the characters’ behaviour burst to the fore.  We are amused by these people but kept at a distance from them – in the end, we have only warmed to Nick and Gatsby – and so Fitzgerald’s critique of the in-crowd sinks in its teeth.  This is the empty hedonism of Made In Chelsea with dramatic bite.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are strong.  The art deco arches that represent Gatsby’s gaff, with their artificially organic elegance, evoke the period as soon as we see them.  Keith Harris’s set flows swiftly from each location to the next – there are a lot of scenes and changes are enhanced by Jake Hotchin and Tom Buckby’s lighting design, especially the beautiful work on the cyclorama.   Stewart Snape’s costumes fulfil our expectations of the era – Gatsby’s outfits are particularly snazzy – and Jo Thackwray’s choreography gives us all the Charleston moves and black bottoms we could wish for.  If I had to nit-pick, I would say at times the music playback needs to be a touch louder, and a crucial sound effect – a car crash – needs to have more impact.  It is the turning point of the story, after all.

Director Colin Judges keeps a steady pace, allowing moments of humour to surface like bubbles in champagne.  Stylish and elegant, this is a great Gatsby.

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John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Austen Powers

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

The Crescent Theatre, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

 

Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel whizzes along at quite a lick, condensing the action without cutting any of the important bits.  What couldn’t be clearer is the chauvinism of the age and the restrictions placed on women: they can’t inherit, they can’t go anywhere alone with a man – both of which are important plot points.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are dispossessed after her husband’s death and find themselves in reduced circumstances, swapping the family’s grand home for a little cottage near Exeter.  Suitors come calling, scandals come to light… On the surface, it’s a frothy rom-com but beneath it’s a biting social satire.  The wry wit of Jane Austen powers the exchanges and fuels the dramatic irony of the situations.

Karen Kelly makes a warm-hearted matriarch as Mrs Dashwood – her announcement of her husband’s death is strongly handled.  Naomi Jacobs is suitably restrained and fretful as the serious Elinor; Elinor is the ‘Sense’ of the title, ruled by her head; Marianne the ‘Sensibility’, ruled by her heart and her impulses.  Both are played well but I would like more contrast  between them.  Stephanie Cole’s Marianne who could do with being giddier or at least smiling more, especially from the off.  When reading poetry, she should really go for it.  Charlotte Upton, in a convincing portrayal as little sister Margaret, seems to embody both aspects of heart and head, in her childlike thirst for knowledge and honest reactions to events.

Thomas Leonard looks the part as the dapper Edward Ferrars, but could do with being a little bit more cut-glass in his delivery of Austen’s erudite dialogue.  Jacob Williams makes a pleasant Mr Willoughby, while James Lewis amuses as the sarcastic Mr Palmer.  Jordan Bird offers strong support as faithful servant Thomas but Adam Ragg’s Colonel Brandon is a particularly fine characterisation: the stiff-upper lip, the British reserve, the gentlemanly qualities.  Decency oozes out of him.

The evening belongs to Laura Poyner, superb in both her roles.  Provincial Mrs Jennings’s vulgarity and lust for life is in stark opposition to her snobbish Mrs Dashwood – her Fanny is a joy to behold.  The stage comes alive whenever Poyner is on and most of the cast is able to match her energy and commitment.

James David Knapp’s direction keeps the action clear in this stylish and slick production that should do well on its tour of other venues.  His original music is bittersweet and evocative.  Above all, the play serves as a showcase for the excellent costume team at the Crescent, with flawless and impressive work from Vera Dean, Pat Brown and Olivia Barnes.  Keith Harris’s simple yet elegant set: three period doorways among a landscape of books proves a versatile backdrop.

An enjoyable comedy of manners that brings a classic book to life in an accessible and entertaining way.

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Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. Stephanie Cole, Naomi Jacobs, Karen Kelly, and Charlotte Upton. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Men of Letters

NOT ABOUT HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd April, 2017

 

It seems there were a lot of poets sent to fight the Bosch in the First World War.  We seem to hear a lot about them in any case.  Stephen Macdonald’s play deals with the friendship struck up between two of them, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland, where they are convalescing with nervous disorders.  Sassoon narrates the story from fifteen years after the end of the war and Macdonald wisely uses verbatim lines taken from the correspondence between the two friends so what we get is a dramatic reconstruction of scenes – Owen’s poetry is called into service to give us glimpses of life in the trenches and, especially in the second act, the men exchange anecdotes of the horrors they have witnessed.  But this is not a war story; it’s more of a repressed love story, a bromance we’d call it these days, as the men dance around their feelings for each other while braving the worst of circumstances.

George Bandy is a somewhat deadpan Wilfred Owen; without overdoing the stammer, he gets over the poet’s nervousness and awkward shyness – and there are also moments when his passionate outcries blaze as strongly as any words the poet penned.  As Siegfried Sassoon, Andrew Smith gives a masterly performance, perfectly at home in his character’s skin and affectations.  Sassoon is a likeable if slightly pompous fellow and his knack for understatement is especially poignant.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Moonga keeps this wordy, rather slow-moving tale engaging with changes of pace.  The set by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris provides a stark backdrop of silhouetted barricades against a changing sky, along with real world touches to ground the characters at their desks.  Mike Duxbury’s lighting and Roger Cunningham’s sound design enhance the nightmares of the men, with flashes and sounds of the war that haunts them both.  But it is the presence of the two actors that hooks us in – Smith’s effortless Sassoon will stay with me for a long time.

A timely production that reminds us that in Owen we lost a formidable talent, and far too many lives in a senseless and misguided conflict.

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Leaving Sassoon? Andrew Smith and George Bandy


Comedy First Class

THE GRADUATE

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th September, 2015

 

We are accustomed to seeing films adapted into stage shows these days, usually as musicals. Here, adaptor Terry Johnson turns the iconic film of the swinging 60s into a thoroughly enjoyable comedy of sexual mores.

Fresh out of college, Benjamin Braddock lacks direction in life. An encounter with the wife of his father’s friend leads to sexual liaisons in a hotel room. Mrs Robinson, however experienced, is not enough for young Ben, who craves conversation as well as rumpy-pumpy, and so he latches onto his lover’s daughter instead. Before long, the situation unravels and Ben decides to leave it all behind, but will Elaine go with him, and is marriage the happy-ever- after it’s cracked up to be?

Shaun Hartman is excellent as the stumbling, fumbling Ben, and he is well-matched by Sarah Ridgley as Elaine. Tiffany Cawthorne is flawless as the casually predatory Mrs Robinson, oozing self-assurance as well as boredom. Brendan Stanley is her husband, really coming into his own when the truth becomes known to him in the second act. We can sympathise with his hurt and sense of betrayal but also laugh at his psychotic hot-headedness.  Wanda Raven is hilarious as Ben’s excitable mother, and there is strong support from Helen Rose Carter in a number of roles, including a be-tassled stripper in a sleazy club. The mighty Colin Simmonds delivers a masterclass in comic timing as Ben’s bewildered father – his remarkable performance is worth the admission price alone, but he is surrounded by a company of highly effective actors who are too good to be upstaged. Director Keith Harris pitches every scene just right for maximum comic effect, allowing the dramatic moments to develop, and the simple but versatile set hints at the period rather than swamping us with detail. Similarly, Angela Daniels’s costumes are evocative, allowing the timeless qualities of the story to come to the fore.

Are we shocked today by Benjamin’s carrying-on? Not in the least but it’s interesting that included on the poster among the warnings of nudity and sexual activity is the advisement that herbal cigarettes will be smoked. This is how times have changed. (PS. Herbal cigarettes always stink the place out).

This production offers many delights: a funny script delivered with skill and panache. My one quibble is that some of the scene changes take a little long, adding to the running time, but because it’s early in the run, I’m sure the hard-working stage hands will pick up the pace.  Some scenes end suddenly, revealing the script’s cinematic origins – transitions need to be snappy to match.

Once again, the Crescent delivers the goods to an extremely high standard. The Graduate plays until September 12th and is well worth a couple of hours of your time.

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