Tag Archives: Libby Watson

Stuff and Nonsense

The Quite Remarkable Adventures of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st February, 2017


Edward Lear’s famous nonsense poem was the springboard for a book by former Python Eric Idle.  Now the book is adapted for the stage by composer and musical director, Dougal Irvine (who also provides the voice of the ‘Small Guitar’ and an imaginary dragon!).

The production is nothing short of charming.  An energetic ensemble of actor-musicians, led by Irvine, get proceedings underway with an audience singalong – normally the kind of thing to make me shrink in my seat, but the tune is infectious, the lyrics (including animal noises) are fun, and so I join in and am immediately put into a good mood, and predisposed to think kindly of the action as it unfolds.

The titular pair, both riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem, form a bond when, Deep Impact style, they notice a comet is heading directly for the Earth, threatening an extinction event not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out.  They inform an appropriate human at a university and set out on a quest to find the runaway Bong Tree (voiced by Idle himself, no less!).  Meanwhile, the show’s baddie, Lord Firelord is planning to wipe out all life on Earth with the creation of a new ice age…

The charm of the actors and the richness of the score, with its lively melodies and clever lyrics, keeps us on board this ride in the pea-green boat.  There is some social comment here – humans are too preoccupied with shopping to notice or care about their imminent destruction, and there is an obvious environmental message – but I think the show’s ‘lessons’ are in danger of being considered ‘nonsense’ along with the rest.  Characters take pride in speaking nonsense; anything they say that we are meant to take on board could easily be dismissed…

That aside, this is an enjoyable, family show, performed with verve and heart.  Danny Lane as Owl, and Sally Frith as Pussycat, are likeable protagonists, and their singing voices blend magnificently in their duets.  Miri Gellert impresses, voicing two glove puppets at once – similarly, Yanick Ghanty portrays a pair of henchmen simultaneously.  A comic highlight of the show is when he falls out with himself and beats himself up in a skilful display of physical comedy.  Vedi Roy plays bad guy Firelord with relish, complete with maniacal laughter, although I found his costume made him look like an Indian Elvis in Vegas.  Lizzie Wofford’s Pig and Professor Bosh show her versatility as a character actor – her singing voice is particularly powerful.

Director Hamish Glen balances larger-than-life characters and outlandish events with quieter, emotional moments, allowing the cast to bring out the ‘human’ (for want of a better word) side of the characters.  The kids in the audience are clearly enrapt by the drama with its themes of global extinction and mortality, friendship and love, while the adults enjoy the sharper jokes.  Libby Watson’s versatile set forms a backdrop for Dick Straker’s video projections, to depict the story’s various locations attractively and economically.  But for me, the production is all about one man – Mr Dougal Irvine.  His script is enriched by his compositions, a beautiful score other, larger productions would do well to emulate (I’m looking at you, Wonderland!)


A Little Learning


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd February, 2016


Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes is updated here by Ranjit Bolt – I say ‘updated’, the action is set firmly in the 1980s, yet this biting satire still has much to say to us today. Written in verse, the dialogue is heightened for comic rather than poetic effect. The production does not hide its artificiality – sparing use is made of asides, but it’s clear the situations and the characters are fashioned in such a way to make a point.

We are in the house of Chrysale (Peter Temple) an easy-going fellow, whose wife rules the roost. She is power-dressing Philaminte (Julia Watson), a formidable matriarch with a thirst for knowledge. She is the fly in the ointment – her domineering attitude will not allow younger daughter Henriette ( a winsome Vanessa Schofield) to wed poor but honest Clitandre (Joshua Miles), preferring to marry her off instead to pretentious poet Trissotin (a preening, beret-wearing Paul Trussell) in order to satisfy her own intellectual pretensions. Trissotin is truly awful as a poet, declaiming his verses as he strides along the coffee table. Clitandre is by contrast a less meaty role but Joshua Miles gives him the backbone he needs to stand up for what he wants.

Meanwhile, deluded cougar Belise (a sultry Joanna Roth) wants to get her claws into Clitandre, add to the mix Miriam Edwards as cheeky housemaid Martine, and hilarity ensues.

The play is in favour of the education of women, to be sure, but to me it is more about the sacrificing of femininity in order to succeed in a man’s world. There is something Thatcheresque about Philaminte – all the writers she admires are male, incidentally. Her maternal instincts are subdued in favour of pseudo-intellectualism, almost to the destruction of her marriage and family.

It’s fast and funny, comical and clever. Bolt’s adaptation keeps the spirit, shape and meaning of the Moliere original while making the references relatable to those of us who survived the 1980s, and it’s performed by a flawless ensemble who heighten their playing just enough to accommodate the verse. Funniest of this funny bunch though is Katherine Manners as elder daughter Armande, whose shoulder-padded blazer is at odds with her tartan mini-skirt, as she seeks to suppress her sexuality in favour of ‘higher’ things. There is strong support from Paul Hamilton as Artiste and Valentine Hanson as rival poet Vadius.

Libby Watson’s stylish set is elegant in its simplicity, dominated by bookcases just as the household is dominated by Philaminte’s book-learning. Mike Robertson’s lighting washes the set in acidic colours – director Hamish Glen gives us dumbshows during transitions between acts to a soundtrack of 80s hits.

It all adds up to a delicious evening of comedy and social commentary. It’s like finding a snake in a box of chocolates and being pleased to see it.

sisterhood 2

Plain speaking. Brummie maid Martine (Miriam Edwards) tells it like it is.



Monkey Business


Derby Theatre, Wednesday 20th February, 2013


Eclipse Theatre Company bring us this revival of Don Evans’s 1982 play of social and sexual mores among the black community in Philadelphia, in this celebratory and exuberant production.

The set is very TV-like, split in two – and it soon becomes clear why.  The show is framed like the recording of a situation comedy in the 1970s.  Large red ON AIR signs hang above the scene.  The cast parade on before the action begins to ‘meet’ the audience.  There is canned laughter and applause.  The costumes are a riot of 1970s gaudiness, clearly connoting the comic stereotypes we will encounter as the plot unfolds.  Libby Watson’s designs are a joy.

Dawn Walton directs the cast within this heightened world of old-fashioned TV comedy.  We are quite accustomed to this retro-feel, thanks to currently popular shows Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys.  The comic timing, the reactions, are superbly done.  There are the occasional moments when the blocking is a little off, with actors masking each other in the crowded living-room set, but I suspect this might be part of the aesthetic, reminding us we are supposed to be the fourth wall in a TV studio rather than a theatre.  I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.

The plot involves the arrival of country cousin Beverly into the home of socially pretentious Myra and her preacher husband Avery.  Their teenage son may or may not have impregnated his less affluent girlfriend, Li’l Bits.  Beverly has inherited a share in a jazz club run by Caleb, who is now her legal guardian.  It’s the basic shenanigans of sitcom and farce.

The scenes are separated by individual characters coming to the fore and performing monologues, commenting on the action and wider society in general.  This is where Evans makes most of his overt points about his ‘message’.  I found these speeches, however well-performed, slowed down the action and the gathering momentum – I wanted to see the pay-off when sexually-frustrated Myra and Avery experiment with pages from The Joy of Sex.  The comic playing of these two especially is top notch.  But then it occurred to me, it is precisely because they slow the plot down that Evans includes them.  We are NOT watching a fluffy piece of silliness.  He makes us pause and listen as the characters present themselves in more-rounded terms than the stereotypes the action requires them to be.  The message seems to be a moral one.  There is much to do with snobbery, and more to do with double standards for men and women, especially concerned with sexual matters.  At the end, when two of the three couples are neatly brought together in convenient sit-com resolution, the third – Caleb and Beverly – the road ahead is not going to be as easy.  Beverly asserts herself and makes it clear she’s not going to be walked over.  Caleb, bent but not broken, looks forward to navigating this new path, while holding onto as much of his pride and saving as much of his face as he can.  Evans points the way forward and suddenly, this decades-old play, this nostalgic bit of fun, is wholly contemporary and pertinent.

As Myra, Jocelyn Jee Eslin is superb, with her malapropisms, her pretentions and her ridiculous attempts at poise.  Karl Collins as frustrated preacher Avery is her match.  There is some lovely physical comedy from both of these and some perfectly executed reactions.  Rochelle Rose’s Li’l Bits is proud and beautiful in her enormous afro – I couldn’t help thinking of Foxy Cleopatra from Austin Powers – and I really enjoyed Jacqueline Boatswain in both of her contrasting character parts, as Mozelle the sassy beautician and the energetic Mrs Caldwell.  Rebecca Scoggs’s Beverly, the voice of reason for the most part, is a little too quiet in some scenes, I found, but there are some delightful moments with her and Clifford Samuel’s cocky Caleb, as their relationship shifts and changes, and they develop an understanding.  Isaac Ssebandeke is energetic as ‘preppy’ son Felix, trying to cope with his awakening sexuality, and the entire company is superb when reacting in unison to the surprises the plot contrives to throw at them.

It’s a very funny piece, a comedy of manners seen through the prism of the tropes of television sitcom.  It’s The Cosby Show (or even The Fosters – for those of you elderly enough to remember that one!) with a social conscience.  It’s not just about representing certain aspects of society and displaying their concerns and issues.  With Don Evans, it’s about telling them something as well.


Isaac Ssebandeke (Felix) and Myra (Jocelyn Jee Eslen) contemplate The Joy of Sex.

Isaac Ssebandeke (Felix) and Myra (Jocelyn Jee Eslen) contemplate The Joy of Sex.