Tag Archives: Keith Harris

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)

 

 

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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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Class Acts

THE HISTORY BOYS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 8th September, 2013

 

Alan Bennett’s widely acclaimed play, examining approaches to and effects of education, is presented in this excellent production by Birmingham’s little gem of a theatre.  The house was full for this performance and I believe everyone went away happy and perhaps even edified a little.

The Headmaster of this fictional school is all too recognisable from life, fixated as he is by league tables and his obsession with being able to quantify everything.  He recruits Irwin, a supply teacher to help prepare a bunch of high fliers for their Oxbridge entrance exam.  Irwin’s methods are at odds with those of General Studies teacher, Hector, who sees education as enrichment for life rather than a means to jump over prescribed hurdles. The boys themselves come to appreciate the contrast in their deliveries, on their way to becoming rounded individuals and/or members of the academic elite.

Bennett treats us to comedy high and low.  One scene, in schoolboy French, is particularly funny, as the boys enact a transaction in a brothel.  Other moments are more subtle; and among the humour there are also moments of pathos.  Of all the boys Michael Jenkins shines as sensitive, lovelorn Posner, in a detailed and layered performance.  Jenkins’s singing voice is a particular asset for this production.  This is a young man with a future in musical theatre or there is no justice in the world.   Other standouts are David Harvey as Scripps, whose narration is assured and philosophical.  I also liked Scott Richards’s Lockwood and Gwill Milton’s Timms.  Robert Dean grows into the cockiness of school stud Dakin but needs to be more at home in himself from the outset, and Dominic Thompson needs to slow down his delivery of Rudge’s punchlines at times in order to maximise their effect.

Alan Marshall is a wonderful Hector, warm and funny, he holds the audience in his thrall as much as his charges.  The fact that his approach to education (along with his groping of the boys on his motorcycle) is damaging to the young men is treated largely as an undercurrent, balanced against preparation for exams as too limiting a function of the education system.

As young Irwin, Mark Payne is equally good, dazzling in the classroom, nervous and out of his depth outside of lessons. Annie Harris gives solid support as Mrs Lintott, who gets the choicest words to shout out in the staff room, and Brian Wilson is suitably uptight as the results-driven Headmaster.

There are a few moments when the energy of some scenes seems to drop but for the most part, director Ian Robert Moule gets the tone just right.  Keith Harris’s multi-levelled set allows for swift and efficient transitions, accompanied by bursts of 80s hits to remind us we are looking back, just as the boys are looking back in their history classes.

Set in the 1980s, the play is still all too relevant today, considering we have a Minister for Education who seems to equate memory with achievement.  Sad to relate, only one point made seems to have been overridden: there are now female historians on the telly – Bennett did not foresee the advent of Mary Beard.

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Something Appealing

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 30th May, 2013

 

The plays of ancient Roman Plautus are a cornerstone of Western comedic tradition.  The works have influenced Shakespeare, among others, and more recently have been rediscovered and re-imagined by 20th century writers and dramatists.  In England, we got Up Pompeii with the wonderful Frankie Howerd as the wily slave protagonist.  In the States, composer Stephen Sondheim created the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which although not as riddled with innuendo as its British counterpart, has its fair share of bawdy humour and suggestive jokes.

Tiffany Cawthorne and Keith Harris (not that Keith Harris) direct this colourful and lively production with a hard-working cast that for the most part hits all the right notes.  The show begins with its most well-known number Comedy Tonight! and a sequence of organised chaos as the chorus prepare for the show proper to begin.

Pat Brown and Jo Thackwray’s costume designs are perfect – so is the bright and beautiful set (Phil Parsons and Keith Harris – again, not that Keith Harris). 

Nick Owen is wily slave Pseudolus, desperate to buy his freedom.  In collusion with his master’s son, Hero (Michael Jenkins) he contrives to get the boy the girl of his dreams in exchange for his emancipation.  Owen is thoroughly in charge of all the machinations and consequences, establishing an easy rapport with the audience with his asides, managing to be camp without being effeminate (that is left to the eunuchs!).  Jenkins is adorable as naive young Hero, pulling off with ease some of Sondheim’s not-so-easy solos.

The object of Hero’s infatuation is airhead courtesan Philia – a consistently funny turn from Laura Poyner, with a beautiful singing voice.  She and Jenkins are wholly credible as the young lovers, despite the training she has received that makes her react like a fembot to, um… stimuli.

There is strong support from Toby Davis as Lycus, the proprietor of the house of ill repute, and Dave Rodgers as dirty old man Senex, although perhaps this latter could do with being a little louder in some scenes.  Senex’s wife Domina is a Christine Hamilton of a woman, a self-assured battleaxe played with aplomb by Annie Harris.  Butch braggart Captain Miles Gloriosus is a delight of a characterisation by Tom Fitzpatrick, but the out-and-out star turn comes from James David Knapp as hysterical slave Hysterium.  He makes a strong impression from the start and, as the character becomes embroiled in the increasingly farcical twists and turns of the plot, gets better and better.  It’s a nuanced yet broad performance, perfectly pitched for this type of material.

The action becomes more and more convoluted before descending into moments of pure farce with the cast running on and off in all directions.  It’s a difficult scene but the company keep the energy levels high.  Never less than amusing, and very often laugh-out-loud funny this is an excellent night out, thanks to the strength of the material and the calibre of the company.

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Roman Romance: Hero (Michael Jenkins) getting to grips with Philia (Laura Poyner)