Tag Archives: Liam Steel

Magic Moments

WINNIE AND WILBUR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017

 

The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.

Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson).  She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example.  The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect.  A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight.  Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.

Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.

Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal.  Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner.  Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.

She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble.  Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy.  Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home.  Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma.  The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes.  The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.

I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.

Sophie Russell (Winnie), Ben Thompson (Wilbur) and Ed Thorpe

Sophie Russell and Ben Thompson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Housebound

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 17th March, 2014 

 

To the infectious strains of the bustling overture, courtiers in evening dress play out scenes of drunkenness and indulgence.  One figure stands out.  Not only does he not join in, he is trapped and seeking an escape.

So begins English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s final work for the stage.  Whenever I see this piece, I look forward to the opening.  How will they do the serpent (or ‘monster’) that is chasing the Prince?  I’ve seen puppets.  I’ve seen a man in a kind of Godzilla costume.  Here, director Liam Steel opts for a very human giant snake, a conga line of courtiers that back Tamino against a wall.  It’s symbolic of his desire to quit the hedonistic lifestyle that threatens to consume him.  I think.

The fariytale story is played out on a set with three levels and lots of doors.  It’s like a darkened room in a stately home – a haunted house: hands pop up through little trapdoors to bring on a range of props, like Thing in The Addams Family.  The set fits some parts of the story better than others.  The scene where Tamino summons woodland creatures loses its magic when its just the courtiers in masquerade.  The Queen of the Night steps through a large mirror and fills the stage with the train of her dress in a spectacular moment but at other times the action seems confined by its interior-ness, and too housebound.  Also, the raised levels of the stage seem to amplify every footfall – it’s very noisy.

Nicholas Sharratt is a dependable Tamino and there is enjoyable interplay between him and Wyn Penacregg’s Papageno.  The first act is a lot of fun.  The Queen’s three ladies (Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, Helen Johnson) camp it up nicely in contrast with the staid and pompous goings on in the Temple during the second act.  With spoken dialogue rather than recitative, it soon becomes apparent who are the stronger actors.

As bird-catcher Papageno, Wyn Penacregg is a constant delight, using his Welsh accent to support the comedy of his lines.  His duet with Pamina (Anna Patalong) is just lovely, and both arias by Laure Meloy’s Queen are highlights.  Under the baton of Michael Rosewell, the orchestra plays spiritedly, although I feel the scene where Papgeno contemplates suicide is a little rushed.  The most beautiful moment is the achingly poignant aria by Pamina, when she can’t understand why Tamino won’t speak to her (he’s being tested, you see, as part of the initiation into a kind of masonic cult).  Anna Patalong is heartbreakingly good here.

Andrew Slater’s Sarastro, the cult leader, is competent, like a stern uncle, but doesn’t get the hairs on your neck stirring with his big bass moments – and I think that’s symptomatic of the production as a whole.  It’s well presented and performed but lacks that spark of magic to enchant us and help us overlook the ropeyness of Schikaneder’s plot.

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