Tag Archives: Keith Harris

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)


Fee Fi Fo FUN!

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2012

 As usual, the Wolverhampton pantomime is a lot of fun, adhering to the winning formula of corny jokes and barely relevant pop songs to enrich the retelling of a traditional story.  The script by Jonathan Kiley and Michael Vivian hits all the plot points you expect with extra helpings of silliness along the way.

It is a curious thing in Pantoland that all the villages are populated by troupes of young dancers and small children.  They perform an energetic opening number, led by Princess Apricot (Sophie Brooke-Ford) who has been seeing a commoner on the downlow: the eponymous Jack, played by Ben James-Ellis, who is the ideal pantomime hero.  He’s handsome, sings, dances, and displays a neat line in cod heroic posturing and over-the-top reactions.

The traditional giant’s henchman, Fleshcreep, has been given a sex change and a new identity in order to accommodate Sherrie Hewson as “Lady Temple-Savage”.  She appears in a range of glamorous outfits, all sequins and feathers, and is not shy of sending herself up.  It didn’t matter that she lost her grip on some of the material – in fact it added to the fun.  I enjoyed booing her very much.

Ken Morley is King Crumble, in a bumbling, funny characterisation – I was pleased that his and Hewson’s Coronation Street connection was only alluded to and not done to death.   Niki Evans impresses as Fairy Fortune – her voice works very well with James-Ellis’s in a couple of rousing numbers.  Most of the fun and audience interaction comes from Keith Harris and little green duck Orville.  It struck me that the kids in the audience might not know who he is.  They certainly did by the end of the evening.  Harris remains a skilled and talented ventriloquist but it is when he replaces the duck for the anarchic monkey Cuddles that his act really takes off.  The jokes become more puerile and ever nearer the knuckle, delighting children and adults on different (low) levels.

For me the shining star of the night is veteran of 38 pantomimes, Nigel Ellacott, who storms the stage as Jack’s ‘mother’, Dame Trot.  His performance is a master class in pantomime technique, a controlled display yet he is able to improvise and adlib as the need arises.  It is performers of this calibre that keep this theatrical form alive, rather than TV stars and ‘reality celebs’ just mucking around.

Andrew Lynford’s direction takes in traditional business and contemporary references, keeping the energy levels high for most of the show.  The performance I saw was still early in the run – the routines and gags will settle in, and the cast will bond into a more tightly knit ensemble with every show they do.

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Picture credit: Gavin Dickson Photography