Tag Archives: Kneehigh

Double Double


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019


On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.


Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)



Steam and Steaminess


The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 5th December, 2015


Emma Rice’s glorious adaptation of the Noel Coward classic is brought to life by a small but versatile company of actors, directed with sophistication and style by Nicky Cox. In a railway café, a woman has something in her eye. A tall, handsome stranger, who happens to be a doctor, comes to her aid – and so begins a romance, an affair – scandalous, when Coward first wrote it, but he makes us egg them on. We want to see them together. Meanwhile, around them, minor characters of lower social standing are having flings of their own.   Not for them the soul-searching and the agonising; they just get on with it and, consequently, have a lot more fun!

Juliet Grundy is a treat as Mrs Bagot, running the café and trying to chivvy  her skivvy, Beryl (Charlotte Froud), putting on airs and graces one minute, and enjoying a bit of slap and tickle behind the counter the next. Steve Farr is her paramour, railway worker Albert, complete with Carry-On film chuckle. Farr is in especially fine singing voice and his comic timing is spot on. Also, Matthew Collins, as Albert’s younger colleague Stanley, impresses vocally and at the piano. Richard Ball makes more of an impact as a trouble-making squaddie than as cuckolded husband Fred – but I suppose that’s the point: Fred is so boring, it’s no wonder that his Mrs finds solace elsewhere.

The other man, Alec, is someone who declares his feelings rather than expressing them – perhaps he is the most dated character of the piece in this respect – but Tony Homer cuts through the British reserve and stiff upper lip and plays Alec with a good deal of truth. We see it in his eyes rather than feel it through his words.

As Laura, the wife, Natalie Danks-Smith is magnificent. You can see her heart breaking while she listens to a train taking away the man she loves, as annoying friend Dolly (Lindsey Allwork in a striking cameo) prattles on. It’s the emotional climax of the piece.

The show is a lot of fun, peppered with period songs and also original compositions from the Kneehigh production. The ensemble singing is lovely. The coarse humour of the working-class characters is sharply contrasted with the more tentative, well-mannered courtship of the protagonists. Nicky Cox marries naturalism with more stylised staging for humorous and romantic effect – an impressive feat in this intimate space. Bel Derrington’s set gives us the café, a railway bridge, and the Jessons’ home in one economic design – the piece keeps its theatricality to the fore and is all the more effective because of it.

The cast seemed to warm up as the play went on; like the trains, they pick up steam – the opening scenes could do with more ‘attack’ to match the energy of what follows, but on the whole, they create atmosphere without resorting to the exaggerated or clipped accents of that bygone age, and scenes in which eating takes place have to be choreographed as thoroughly as a dance.

Technically sophisticated, euphonious and hilarious, this is a Brief Encounter that tickles the funny bone as much as it touches the heart.


The Honeymoon is over…


The REP, Birmingham, Friday 1st May, 2015


Expectations are more than knee high for a Kneehigh production. You expect to see certain things delivered in a certain style and once again director Emma Rice does not disappoint. The trappings of a Kneehigh show are all in evidence: the onstage musicians underscoring the action, beautiful puppetry (the dog is especially endearing) and a certain brio to the performance style.

Daphne du Maurier’s dark tale of jealousy becomes in this treatment a fairy story. A young girl moves into a castle (well, Manderley!) and discovers, Bluebeard-like, that her new husband has secrets… It’s not that the house is haunted but the inhabitants are, unable to shake off the memory of De Winter’s first wife, the eponymous and unseen Rebecca.

Imogen Sage is suitably appealing as the second Mrs De Winter, blundering from faux pas to faux pas and giving rise to tension. Tristan Sturrock cuts a dash as widower/newlywed Maxim De Winter, a man whose inner torments cause anguish and outbursts of temper. He is out-debonaired though by Ewan Wardrop as Jack Favell, his first wife’s lover. Wardrop sweeps across the stage, Astaire-like and cocky. You can see why Rebecca strayed! Emily Raymond is dour and yet impassioned as housekeeper Mrs Danvers, devoted to her former boss, and particularly enjoyable are Lizzie Winter and Andy Williams (not that Andy Williams) as hedonistic in-laws, Beatrice and Giles. Katy Owen almost steals the show as young servant Robert, whose dancing has to be seen to be believed.

For me, this production is all about the staging. Leslie Travers’s set combines elements of the rugged Cornish coast with the interior of Manderley and, depending on how scenes are lit (designed by Tim Lutkin) either the house or the Poldarkian  landscape dominates. A boat, lowered from the flies, becomes part of the floor in the house – it is as though they are dancing on the drowned Rebecca’s grave. Flashes of lightning remind us of the duality of mankind; beneath the veneer of civilisation run the powerful forces of nature. This is certainly true of Maxim De Winter – and the rest of us too!

It’s an enchanting and inventively theatrical production that should satisfy Kneehigh fans and Du Maurier aficionados alike.


Recycled Material

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012

I had a problem with this one before going in: I’ve never been much of a fan of the source material, but I hoped director and adaptor Emma Rice would be able to work a bit of Kneehigh magic on me and win me over.
In brief: she couldn’t.

Rice has selected four scripts by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson and has presented them here as a unified piece of theatre. The dialogue seems intact – the setting has been modified. The set consists mainly of a large cube that represents the rag and bone cart by means of which the characters earn a business and also their living quarters and the gates to their junkyard. It is reminiscent of a pageant wagon and reminded me of the brilliant Oddsocks Productions and their ingenious use of such a property.

Transitions between scenes involve the cast of three dancing, singing or lip-synching to popular music of the day. There are also musical sequences in which, through movement and song lyrics, the characters reveal their inner life. These are the best bits. I wanted more of these.

I was pleased to find that the cast do not seek to imitate original actors Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble. This pair has a West Country burr to their voices (Kneehigh is based in Cornwall) and they bring their own interpretations to the characters. Kneehigh veteran Mike Shepherd is the irascible Harold Steptoe, a ‘dirty old man’, lonely and in need of constant attention. Dean Nolan is son Harold, whose aspirations and pretensions are thwarted and punctured at every turn by the machinations and manipulations of his father. This is one of the more hellish situations from sit-com history. The rules of sit-com dictate that by the end of the episode, the status quo will be restored, so that the wrangling and the suffering can continue from scratch next time. On the telly, on a week by week basis, this works very well. In a two-hour stretch in a theatre…not so much. Like watching a DVD box set – soon all the episodes blur into one.

A theatre piece needs to build and grow to keep us interested. The plot needs to develop and the characters need to grow. Here, every 25 minutes, they return to their default setting and nothing has changed. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of the sit-com world. Their existentialist angst is dictated by the situation they are trapped in. Harold is eternally claiming he will move out and start a life of his own while he’s still young. He never does.

The fourth section adds a neat twist to round things off. This time, Albert is threatening to break free by announcing his engagement to a widow. Harold becomes defensive and tries to dissuade the old man. A role reversal that has more to do with desperation than anything else.

Shepherd’s Albert is an energetic moaner, giving the lie to his supposed lack of health. He topples easily to the floor at the merest mention of his war-wounded leg, and clambers up to the roof of the wagon like an energised monkey. Nolan’s Harold also has impressive physicality, and a kind of grace to his movements. He’s a large fellow but he can’t half dance – even performing the splits at one point. The female roles, such as they are, are all performed by Kirsty Woodward in a range of wigs and period outfits. In the end, I found it was the charm of the performers that kept me watching and enjoying, rather than the script or the interpretation.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, these characters do not move. In any sense of the word. I think I was missing the customary sense of enchantment Kneehigh usually brings.

Pretty Grimm


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 27th October, 2011-10-27


It’s always a thrill when Kneehigh tour a new show – they have certainly set the bar high for themselves with previous productions such as Tristan & Yseult, Cymbeline and Brief Encounter.  They don’t always match the excellence of these shows but they often come close.


This latest offering is up there with the best.  Based on a folk tale, it has all the hallmarks of a Kneehigh production: the on-stage musicians, the beautiful puppetry, emblematic theatre, poetic dialogue, emotive movement… Director Emma Rice has established a theatrical style that is so very rich and effective, you can understand why the auditorium was filled with Drama teachers and their students: you could teach an entire performing arts course by looking at Kneehigh alone.


The eponymous heroine is portrayed by the three actresses of the company, representing the character at different stages in her story.  That they don’t speak (the unfortunate woman expresses herself through bouts of interpretive dance), coupled with the behanding of the girl at a young age, suggests the powerlessness of not just her, but all women.  One of the two male actors, Stuart McLoughlin as the Devil Himself, sneers that this is “a feminist folk tale”, and so it is, but it is also more than that.   Emma Rice is savvy enough to include all humanity in the play, tapping into the collective unconscious with fairy tale imagery (Note to Drama teachers: get your students to flick through Bruno Bettelheim).


This is narrative theatre and in narrative theatre, anything can happen.  The girl, now a wife and mother living wild in the woods, grows a new pair of hands.   We believe it because we recognise on a subconscious level this means something else.  Only when she is whole again does she speak, with the Hungarian lilt of the striking Eva Magyar.  She has survived every ordeal the play has thrown at her.  She defeats the Devil and gets him off her case.  She is reunited with her prince, who has also been living wild in the woods, and they form a family group and a happy ending having regained entry into Eden, you might say.


The music, which plays throughout most of the evening, is bluesy and seductive.  There is some searingly beautiful singing from the diminutive Audrey Brisson, matched by the plaintive fiddle-playing of Patrycja Kujawska – the company of five are called upon to pick up instruments and play along with Ian Ross to provide a soundtrack for the unfolding drama.  The design is American Depression, the kind of clothes The Waltons would wear.  Stuart Godwin as the Father and later, the Prince, delivers most of the show’s comedy  and displays a nifty spot of legwork in his rather fetching kilt. The Devil sports a pinstripe suit, like Ryan O’Neal’s travelling Bible seller in Paper Moon.  He represents the establishment and organised religion, both of which cripple and hinder the potential of women to fulfil themselves.


Not that Kneehigh is ever preachy.  Everything is transmitted in a symbolic way, affecting us on an emotional level rather than the intellectual.  Even the blinding and mutilation of a deer has a savage beauty.  Poetry is not confined to Carl Grose’s witty and poignant script.