Famously, little is known of Shakespeare the man, although we actually know more about him than other playwrights of the time. The gaps in our knowledge are taken as an open invitation to screenwriters, novelists, and everyone else to invent whatever they like to make their own version of him. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman chose to straightwash the bard in their screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1998 film – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day is widely recognised as having been written for a man. The screenplay takes plot points from Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night, with the idea that these life events inspired the plays, when in truth Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of pre-existing stories. Not that this matters if we take this version at face value. Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the screenplay holds true to the spirit of the film, and there’s a lot of fun to be had recognising versions of famous quotes. Even if you’re not well-versed (ha) in the Works, there is much to enjoy in this historical rom-com.
What strikes you first off in this sumptuous production is the set, which evokes the Globe Theatre and serves well for other locations. Milling around pre-show the cast give us previews of their costumes. As ever the costume department at the Crescent goes all out. This is a fabulous-looking show; Rosemary Snape and her team should be commended.
Oliver Jones is a handsome and endearing Will Shakespeare, managing to be both cerebral and bumbling. Alisdair Hunt makes an impression as his rival-mentor-friend Kit Marlowe. The notion that Marlowe fed Will some of his best lines under a balcony is more akin to Cyrano de Bergerac!
Bethany Gilbert absolutely shines as Viola de Lesseps who disguises herself as a boy in order to secure a role on the stage. Her delivery of the verse is second-to-none, although the play misses the opportunity to make the most of Will’s apparent attraction to someone of the same sex, as in Twelfth Night, say.
The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis is, have a guess, excellent as ever in his portrayal of harried theatre manager Henslowe, with superb timing and a performance that is just the right side of Carry On. The mighty James David Knapp absolutely storms it as the larger-than-life actor Ned Alleyn, while Joe Palmer is suitably entitled and horrible as villain of the piece, Wessex.
Also great are Mark Thompson as the bullish financier Fennyman who taps into his artistic side when he lands the role of the apothecary; Phil Rea as a deliciously bombastic Burbage; and Pat Dixon-Dale as Viola’s long-suffering Nurse. Jaz Davison’s imperious Queen Elizabeth is not without nuance.
There are many pleasing moments from supporting players: Charles Hubbard as boy-actor Sam; Dylan Guiney-Bailey as a bloodthirsty Webster; Niall Higgins as the Nurse within the play; Simon King as a riverboat cabbie…
A taut consort of musicians and vocalists provide period music to underscore the action and to cover transitions, and it all sounds perfectly lovely under Gary Spruce’s musical direction. There are a few moments when the music almost drowns the dialogue – luckily Mark Thompson is often around to tell them to shut up!
Director Michael Barry keeps the action well-focussed on an often busy stage – the period choreography is charming and doesn’t get in the way of the action. Keith Harris’s gorgeous set is backed by beautiful scenic projections, with Kaz Luckins’s fight direction adding authenticity as well as excitement.
A fine and funny fabrication that demonstrates the high quality production values on which the Crescent prides itself. All in all, an evening of excellent entertainment.
Familiar from the much-loved film, the musical version, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, comes to Birmingham as part of its first national tour, and the Hippodrome is a good fit for this West End-quality show.
Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, this is the story of a young boy whose interest in ballet is kindled when he wanders into a class in favour of the boxing lessons his dad would prefer he attend. The dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson spots real talent in the boy and arranges an audition with the Royal Ballet school, opening a can of worms that include cultural expectation, gender roles, male sexuality… There is more to the story than a boy’s struggles to achieve his dream. Billy faces prejudices like a wall of riot shields – the police presence and the bellicose spirit of the miners shows us that such attitudes are of the past, but the spectre of Margaret Thatcher is very much still with us as the country continues to be shafted (that’s a mining joke) by the Tories.
Annette McLaughlin is superb as the tough-talking, chain-smoking Mrs Wilkinson, able to face up to the stubborn, prideful figure of Billy’s Dad (a highly credible Martin Walsh) and Billy’s brother Tony (a passionate Scott Garnham). The supporting players are second-to-none and there is much to enjoy in the troupe of girls who are nowhere near Billy’s level of skill and prowess. Daniel Page’s Mr Braithwaite puts in a surprisingly athletic turn in a very funny dance routine, and there is heart-warming character work from Andrea Miller as Billy’s Grandma. Elliot Stiff stops the show with his portrayal of Billy’s best friend Michael – the two of them perform a number with some oversized frocks that brings the house down.
If I had to pick a standout moment, I’d plump for when Billy dances with his older self (Luke Cinque-White), an exhilaratingly beautiful pas de deux.
Inevitably, the night belongs to Billy – on this occasion performed by the remarkable, phenomenal Lewis Smallman (who hails from nearby West Bromwich!). Hardly off-stage, he sings, he dances, he acts and – perhaps most difficult: pulls off a credible North-East accent! It’s a breath-taking display of talent and skill, humour and emotion. Exceptional.
Astounding, life-affirming and joyous, Billy’s story is eclipsed only by the talent on show by the performers. The indomitable human spirit triumphing in the face of adversity and setbacks is a universal theme, but you will rarely see the message so eye-poppingly presented.
Derby Theatre puts itself on the theatrical map with this production of Lea Hall’s raucous black comedy, the theatre’s first home-produced show. The venue has a history of excellence in its produced work (I remember some superb Sondheims, astonishing Ayckbourns, and a gem of a Treasure Island) but with the recent chequered past now firmly behind it, the place will go from strength to strength if the quality of this production is anything to go by.
The action takes place in a suburban house, gloriously depicted in Hayley Grindle’s two-storey set: a living room and kitchen with stairs leading up to a landing and a teenager’s bedroom. The teenager is Jill, our narrator and scene-announcer for the evening. Played with verve by Laura Elsworthy, Jill is a 14 year-old with an interest in cookery that borders on obsession. She despairs of her English teacher mother, who glams herself up and brings home strange men to satisfy her sexual needs. Polly Lister is ‘Mam’, a plain-speaking bully, masking her guilt and vulnerability with mouthing-off and heavy drinking. The strange man she brings home at the start of the play is Stuart (Adam Barlow) who works in a cake factory. Within seconds she has ordered him to strip to his underpants – this is no subtle comedy of manners, but an in-your-face sex comedy with graphic scenes and colourful language. It is absolutely hilarious.
Why does Mam bring these creatures home? The answer is painfully present in the shape of her paralysed husband. Brain-damaged in a car accident, Dad can do nothing for himself, and has to be brought on and (nudge, wink) brought off. It’s a sobering portrayal from Jack Lord but then – and this lifts the piece out of the macabre – Dad has a nifty line in Elvis Presley impersonation. He springs from his chair to link and underscore scenes with songs of The King in a range of impressive outfits. Jack Lord is nothing short of sublime.
Mark Babych pitches the tone just right and directs his excellent quartet to keep energy levels high and the characterisations just short of caricature. This kind of farcical, rather outré plot requires a broad style of playing, but also we have to accept and go along with these characters for the ride or else it would just descend into prurience and bad taste. Adam Barlow’s Stuart is sweet – for a drip – and he becomes both predator and prey as he worms his way under the table (well, on top of it!); Polly Lister is fierce and brittle, but the evening belongs to Laura Elsworthy as the young girl who goes through a rite of passage in less than ideal circumstances, guiding us from scene to scene and setting the tone for the entire piece.
The play is a kind of mash-up of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone &Treacle in terms of content and delivery, and yet has a charm of its own. Beyond the foul language and the sex on the dining table, there is real heart to the piece, and a mother and daughter who both experience a healing. Life’s not about the tragedies, Jill concludes, it’s about the tiny moments that keep us going in the dark, the smiles.
By the curtain call, you will be grinning and clapping along to Jack Lord’s closing number. You may even be on your feet and joining in the party. It is shows of this calibre that keep us going in the dark.
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 25th March, 2013
Lee Hall’s play gets off to a conventional start with a group of men turning up for an adult education class on Art Appreciation. They’re miners – apart from a Marxist dental engineer and a young lad who is unemployed – and their down-to-Earth plain-speaking and Geordie humour put their posh tutor in his place. It’s familiar territory, bringing to mind Educating Rita (the tutor shows them a slide, “A Titian!” Bless you! – that kind of thing), The History Boys, and also Art by Yasmina Reza. The characters – a comical bunch of contrasting types – have heated discussions about the nature and purpose of education and of art. It’s all very amusing and the comic timing is impeccable.
It’s all based on truth, a real group of working class painters from Ashington who achieved success during the 1930s and 40s. Their images are projected on screens and discussed. The pretensions of the art world are pricked and punctured, and it’s all rather engaging and enjoyable.
But, in the second act, things really get going…
Philip Correia is excellent as naive (in more ways than one) painter Oliver Kilbourn, who blossoms under Mr Lyon’s tutelage. This performance is the heart of the piece as Oliver struggles with an offer that seems too good to pass up, held back by notions of his humble origins and loyalty to his class. Correia brings sensitivity and passion to the role; his growing confidence and ability to articulate his ideas, his regret, anger and frustration at an opportunity missed. It’s entirely gripping to see and Correia is more than ably supported by Louis Hilyer as Lyon and Suzy Cooper as Lady Sutherland, Oliver’s would-be patron.
Riley Jones impresses as the young unemployed lad, on the fringes of the group. He also doubles as famous artist Ben Nicholson in a dazzling display of his versatility.
Nicholas Lumley is funny as stickler-for-rules George although most of the out-and-out funny lines go to Donald McBride’s Jimmy. Joe Caffrey brings intensity and humour to his role as the Marx-spouting dental engineer, and Catherine Dryden gets them all in a tizzy when she turns up as a life-model. Later we hear that she has abandoned her artistic pursuits – the all-too common story of opportunities forsaken. It’s a tight ensemble but for me Philip Correia is the stand-out performance.
Most of the characters survive the War and here the play becomes starkly relevant to us today in 2013. The post-war optimism of the working class in Britain has been obliterated by the likes of Thatcher and successive rotten governments (including “New” Labour). The play ends with the men looking forward to a better life for everyone after the massive sacrifices of the war, to the brand new NHS, to better aspirations for all, to nationalisation and shared ownership of the means of production… And I just sat there feeling sick and disgusted at what we had in this country and what has been taken from us and sold off, and how the people of this country have been hoodwinked and betrayed. An opportunity lost.
It’s a real kick in the teeth, perfectly delivered by director Max Roberts and Lee Hall’s script in a show that brims with warmth and humanity.