Tag Archives: Lis Evans

The Best Laid Plans…

DIAL M FOR MURDER

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 3rd May, 2017

 

I have seen several productions of Frederick Knott’s masterpiece over the years but never in-the-round, so it’s intriguing to see how a story in which doors and windows are so important is staged with neither of these features…

The short answer is: brilliantly.

Lis Evans’s design gives us the London flat of Tony and Sheila Wendice, complete with floor plan showing us where the doors and French windows are, like an architect’s plan.  The flat is an island set on a sea of street maps, to give us the Maida Vale setting, while stylish furniture evokes the 1950s period.   Rather than have his actors mime the opening and closing of the non-existent doors, director Peter Leslie Wild opts for lighting changes and sound effects – the added bonus is we see characters arriving at the flat before they ring the doorbell, increasing the dramatic irony, and also exposing the workings of Knott’s taut plot – it’s like watching an exquisitely made clock with its cogs in full view.

Nicole Bartlett is a rather cool Sheila in the Grace Kelly mode, elegant and vulnerable.  Daniel Easton is a likeable Max – her one-time boyfriend – and Paul Brendan is a workmanlike Inspector Hubbard, teasing out the complexities of the crime.  But it is William Ellis’s Tony, the mastermind of the murder plot, who captivates, weaving his web of intrigue and drawing us in – even if we know what’s coming.  Rob Heanley’s Lesgate is the heavy, coerced into doing the dirty deed, completing a flawless ensemble.

Daniella Beattie’s lighting adds to the atmosphere, although things are a little too hazy at the start, as if the peasouper in the streets has invaded the flat.  James Earl-Davis’s sound has plenty to do to give us the sense of the flat, accompanying the action with appropriate sound effects, but there is also something disconcerting in the air, keeping us on edge.

There is something incredibly satisfying in seeing Tony scheme his detailed scheme, topped only by seeing how it is foiled, brought down by a similar attention to detail.  Much of it comes from Knott’s superlative writing, of course, but this production’s skilful handling of some wordy scenes along with tense moments of action and suspense, delivers all the thrills in all the right places.

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Plan for murder – Lis Evans’s set design for Dial M For Murder (Photo: Mark Douet)

 

 


Winning by a Nose

CYRANO

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

 

The New Vic has teamed up with Northern Broadsides for this new version of the classic romance by Edmond Rostand.  Writer Deborah McAndrew cleverly keeps the play as a verse drama – it’s not just rhyming couplets and doggerel; it’s a technical achievement in itself, let alone its faithfulness to the original while having an altogether fresh feel.  It’s her best work yet.

Director Conrad Nelson blends naturalism with more heightened moments – the changes in pace and tone of each act are handled to perfection.  We laugh, we love, we cry – in all the right places.  Nelson has also composed the score, performed by the ensemble of actor-musicians, that adds to the period feel and the emotional impact of each act.  Led for the most part by Michael Hugo’s Ligniere, the music casts its spell as much as the story and the characters.  Hugo is such an appealing presence as the minstrel – I also enjoy his ham actor Monfleury, heckled off the stage by the eponymous Cyrano.

Christian Edwards in the title role is outstanding – and I don’t just mean his massive conk.  He is everything you could wish for in a Cyrano de Bergerac.  Swaggering, witty, charming, brave and selfless.  Edwards plays it with panache, literally and figuratively.  He is supported by a team of excellent players: Sharon Singh is an elegant Roxane, headstrong and independent – worthy of Cyrano’s devotion.  Adam Barlow is the handsome but dim Christian, the third point of the love triangle – he contrasts nicely with Cyrano’s erudition and we can’t help but see how sweet he is.  Andy Cryer’s De Guiche changes our opinion – we see there’s more to him than the figure lampooned by Ligniere.  Paul Barnhill’s poetic pastry-purveyor Ragueneau, Perry Moore’s prancing ponce Valvert, Jessica Dyas’s sardonic Mrs Ragueneau, Francesca Mills’s busybody Sister Martha, all help to populate the story with a wide range of characters, different facets of humanity – Rostand has respect for all walks of life and yet he makes Cyrano seem more human than all of us.  Especially touching is Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, his heart breaking to see Cyrano’s decline.

Lis Evans’s design is stylish – the stage floor is beautiful – and the New Vic’s costume department has pulled out all the stops for the 17th century setting.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting emulates the soft glow of the chandeliers with the occasional shaft of brightness – like Cyrano’s wit, enlivening the gloom.

Cyrano’s panache tickles the funny bone before plunging into your heart.  I know it’s only February but already I think I might have seen the show of the year.

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“You don’t have to put on the red light…” Cyrano (Christian Edwards) and Roxane (Sharon Singh)  Photo: Steve Bould


Winter Wonderland

THE SNOW QUEEN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 26th November, 2016

 

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is given the Theresa Heskins treatment in this beautiful new version that continues the New Vic’s impeccable tradition of superlative Christmas entertainment.  Heskins’s adaptation improves on the original, in my opinion, by giving the Snow Queen a backstory.  We understand why she is the way she is by seeing how she became the bogeyman, a legend used to frighten children.  The play begins with a sweet courtship scene between the awkward Soren Sorenson (a sweetly clumsy and tongue-tied Oliver Mawdsley) and Karen, the object of his affection.  They skate around the issue – literally: the cast wear inline roller skates to glide around – and come to an understanding, only to have tragedy strike, putting their romance on ice.

Polly Lister gives a chilling performance as the icy, mournful ghost.  Everything about her is striking, the voice especially.  Once again, we are treated to a magnificent score by genius composer James Atherton, and Lister’s voice is the strongest of the night.  Her scenes with Kai (Luke Murphy) are reminiscent of Edmund and the White Witch of Narnia, and there are echoes of other tales, other myths: Summer’s garden, on which Gerda becomes trapped, is like Circe’s island, and the three puzzles Kai must solve remind me of icy Turandot’s riddles with their one-word answers.

Natasha Davidson is an appealing heroine/narrator as the plucky yet bookish Gerda.  Books form the scenic elements here, great slabs like ice floes.  There is a running theme that storybooks are at least as valuable as factual ones.  The Dickensian, Gove-like education meted out by Schoolteacher (Rachael Garnett) is not enough to get children through life and its problems.  Creative thought is vital to our survival.

It’s a stunningly beautiful show, visually, thanks to Laura Clarkson’s set (the stage floor is especially important to the story), Lis Evans colourful Danish-Victorian chic costumes, and Daniella Beattie’s magical lighting design; and aurally, courtesy of Atherton’s evocative compositions, played on stage by the talented actor-musicians.

The splendid leads are supported by equally strong ensemble members.  Matthew Ganley’s Bitzer, for example, and Rachel Dawson’s Robbergirl, help to populate Gerda’s account with engaging characters.  Heskins’s direction includes her trademark ‘distance fighting’, a kind of non-contact violence that is expressive, effective and fun, and there are also stand-out sequences, like the toboggan race, the flight of the Snow Queen, and a stunning backwards scene – Heskins puts the performer at the heart of her stage effects.  She gives the design and tech teams challenges (which they meet, no question) but she is essentially an actors’ director and, above all that, a consummate storyteller.

Ultimately heart-warming, this is the perfect entertainment for a chilly winter’s night.  You leave the theatre feeling cosy and warm.  It’s the simple, uncomplicated things of life that make you feel good, especially at this time of year – I suppose this is the hygge that’s all the rage these days, something that Hans Christian Andersen knew all about.

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Frozen assets: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Talking Shop

DIANA OF DOBSON’S

New Vic Theatre, Saturday 7th May, 2016

 

Written in 1908 by Cicely Hamilton, this forward-thinking piece is given a lively revival by the team at the New Vic.  It begins in the dormitory of Dobson’s store, where the shop girls are getting ready for bed.  One of them, the rebellious Diana (Mariam Haque) decries their lot and the starvation wages they are forced to accept.  She’s a firebrand and ahead of her time.  But then she gets news of a surprise inheritance – things turn a bit Spend, Spend, Spend when she decides to blow the lot during a month of living entirely for pleasure.   She winds up at a posh hotel in Switzerland where she is accepted among the toffs, as long as she gives the impression that there is plenty of moolah in her coffers.

With music hall songs interpolated between scenes, Abbey Wright’s likable production creates an Edwardian feel – not least due to Lis Evans’s design work with costume and set.  There is a chirpiness that runs through the show – from Rosie Abraham’s perky Miss Jay, to Kate Cook’s bright-eyed and grasping Mrs Cantelupe.  It has an authentic feel – the songs really help convey the sense of period.  I particularly enjoyed Brendan Charleson’s nouveau riche Jabez, Anne Lacey’s Mrs Whyte-Frazer (along with a couple of other roles that demonstrate versatility) and the sterling support from Susannah Van Den Berg, Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Claire Greenway.  Adam Buchanan shines as well-to-do wastrel Victor, who learns what is truly valuable in this life, and the superlative Andrew Pollard shows us all how it’s done with a delicious song to close the first half, a kind of Sweet Transvestite meets The Lumberjack Song, through the prism of the Edwardian Music Hall.  Absolutely delightful.  Pollard also displays his strengths as a character actor with a warm portrayal of a bobby on the beat.

Unfortunately, the fun and engagement engendered by the songs is not always present in the action.  I find myself interested in the social commentary and the politics rather than affected by Diana’s exploits or her plight.  I think it’s because the leading lady sounds like she comes from another time – she’s a bit too 21st century in her tone and plays it all on the same level.  A bit more light and shade, and a bit more sparkle and pluck might make us fall in love with her a little bit.  Instead, I find I just don’t care.

Yes, the play still – unfortunately – has much to say to us today in these times of the so-called living wage and the slavery of ‘work fare’ but what I come away from it with is an admiration for the ensemble and a rekindled appreciation of the songs of the day.

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Rosie Abraham (left) and Mariam Haque (centre)

 


Back in the hood

ROBIN HOOD AND MARIAN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 28th November, 2015

 

The Christmas show at the New Vic is invariably a highlight of the season and yet again director Theresa Heskins hits the bullseye with her own adaptation of the Robin Hood legend.

It begins with the wedding of Robert of Loxley to Marian Fitzwater, but the ceremony is interrupted; there’s a bit of a barney resulting in Robert being dispossessed and Marian being repossessed – he becomes an outlaw and she becomes a ward of the evil Prince John. The outlaw gathers friends and followers, with familiar episodes along the way: for example, meeting Little John for the first time – a fast and furious fight on a rope bridge that is economically, and therefore effectively, staged.

As Robin Hood, Isaac Stanmore manages to be dashing while keeping things down to earth. He’s an ordinary man driven to extraordinary things by his conscience rather than a thigh-slapping aristocrat. Heskins’s Marian is Robin’s equal in all things – in fact, it is often she who saves him from peril. Crystal Condie brings confidence and feminine ferocity – Marian is no tom-boy but her murderous asides revealing what she’d like to do to Prince John are vivid in their imagery. You would not like to cross her.

Perry Moore makes a marvellous and credible villain as the unmanly Prince. He strives to assert himself and come out from under his mother’s wing, while being imperious and cruel. His love for Marian redeems him – a little bit, and Moore is in good voice for both his proclamations and his solo number. As his overbearing mother Queen Eleanor, Charlotte Palmer would not be out of place in a Disney fairy tale.

David Kirkbride’s Little John brings humour as well as brawn, while there is something of Robin’s dashing drive in Jonathan Charles’s Sheriff – he is Robin on the Dark Side, you might say. Susan Harrison is a feisty Young Much and Liam Gerrard an assured Will Scarlet, and I very much enjoyed Bryn Holding as Tuck. Heskins’s script gives the characters plenty to do, and the actors space to establish themselves. They’re a hard-working bunch – if they’re not in a scene, holding a tree, or operating a puppet, they’re in the tiny pit playing live music.

And such music! James Atherton’s scores are always wonderful but he has excelled himself this time. There is medieval colouring to it, with flute, drums and strings, and there is something cinematic in the underscoring of moments of action and of emotion. The songs have a hint of Sondheim to them, catchy and sophisticated. Beautiful. I crave a recording!

Lis Evans’s costumes are colourful without being pantomime, and Laura Clarkson’s set of stark branches and stony outcrops evokes both forest and castle. The fights, up close and in the round, are electrifying. Directed by Philip d’Orleans, whether it’s hand-to-hand, with swords, knives or what-have-you, the violence seems both heightened and real – characters lives’ are affected by the outcomes. This is not knockabout or slapstick in any way. There is a moment of slow-motion before the fights break out, like the tension of pulling back a bowstring before the arrow is released. Exciting!

Heskins covers a lot of ground in her intelligent and accessible script. The show doesn’t talk down to the audience and is flavoured with plenty of medieval-sounding vocabulary (insults especially) and syntax to give the piece authenticity. The central ensemble is fleshed out by a well-disciplined team of local children, and some beautifully crafted puppets: the birds of prey have a scene to themselves in which they discuss gender roles – it’s one of the play’s central messages but because it’s puppets it doesn’t seem preachy. Elsewhere this message is delivered very clearly via action.

The title might lead you to think it’s about the central relationship between the two leads but it’s not. Robin and Marian are equals, fighting together against injustice and oppression. I find myself surprisingly moved, not by a love story, but by the call-to-arms to give the poor and needy a better deal. Heskins’s masterstroke is the inclusion of Magna Carta into proceedings, with King John rebranding himself (a little) in order to secure his place in history. It strikes a chord: we could do with a Robin or Marian figure these days to bring our current government to account for the very same reasons.

An exciting, fresh and relevant take on the legend, Robin Hood and Marian has plenty for everyone to enjoy.

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Theatrical Gold – part two

HOARD FESTIVAL (2nd Visit)

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 16th July, 2015

 

An eagerly anticipated return visit to the New Vic to catch more of the excellent festival of work inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard. Before the double bill in the main house, I catch another couple of ‘table plays’ in the bar.

In Hwaet! by Tom Wells, Elizabeth Elvin plays a woman in cod-Anglo Saxon garb, a mother preparing a surprise party for her daughter who is leaving to study archaeology at university. It’s an amusing monologue – the woman has a very funny turn of phrase – but running through it is a rich vein of emotion that is ever-present in Elvin’s eyes, behind the smiles and the laughter. Lovely stuff.

Sara Pascoe’s Hoarder features a young Anglo Saxon widow who monitors squirrels so she can dig up the nuts that hide away. She is a bit squirrel-like herself and she seeks the stash of gold her late husband buried – she even asks a couple of people around the table to open their bags or empty their pockets. It’s an energised performance from Gwawr Loader, tightly wound and delivered with conviction. Fab.

On to the main double bill.

UNEARTHED by Theresa Heskins

The New Vic’s resident director Theresa Heskins appears (here portrayed by Bryonie Pritchard) to explain how she put the play together. She interviewed a range of people connected with the discovery and then edited their words together to create the narrative. And so the actors speak verbatim words of real-life people. The style mixes naturalism with documentary elements. Pritchard withdraws, substituting us, the audience, as Theresa; the characters now address us, as narrators. This is a fascinating account of an endlessly fascinating story. We meet Terry whose metal detector found the treasure (David Nellist in bluff, amusing tones) and the museum experts whose minds were blown away when he took it to them. Also included is famous TV historian Michael Wood (invoked by the wonderful Adam Morris) who speculates about the nature and the origins of the find. It cracks along at a fair pace; names are projected on the floor to help us keep track of who is whom and images of some of the pieces appear and spread across the stage. There isn’t much in terms of on-stage action but that’s not the point. The documentary style engages us and holds us throughout. As facts and opinions are unearthed, our imagination is stimulated and our sense of wonder activated. Pure gold.

THE GIFT by Jemma Kennedy

This is a story of an Anglo Saxon community thrown into conflict by the return of the menfolk from battle. They bring with them a bag of gold from the recent convert to Christianity, their King. He wants to enlist them to help build a cathedral at Lichfield. The men are up for it; the women not so much. In this society, the women have equal say in decisions and ownership of property – but it’s no egalitarian utopia: they keep bondsmen and slaves to do their bidding.

Jemma Churchill impresses as the formidable matriarchal Wilda, determined to stick to their own ways and values, contrasted sharply with the meek Welsh girl, their slave Cain (Gwawr Loader). David Semark wears the garb and his chieftain’s attitude as though he was born to them, while brash,blokish Beorn (David Kirkbride) shows us lad culture stretches across the centuries. Romayne Andrews is appealing as young man Teon, who is sweet on the slave girl, and Johnson Willis adds to his portrayal of Dudda the bondsman with some sweet lyre-playing. Paula James is ‘wise woman’ Rowena, who interprets dreams and conducts rituals (they are a superstitious bunch) but the rot of Christianity is spreading, infecting hearts and minds, even within this very tribe.

It’s a story of the end of a world. Kennedy’s script has an air of authenticity about it and the production benefits from Lis Evans’s design work in terms of the set and the costumes. Gemma Fairlie’s direction keeps proceedings clear, but the piece seems a little too earnest to me. When Teon elopes with Cain and marries her in a Christian ceremony, she is merely swapping one kind of slavery for another: the new religion diminishes the status of women in society – we’re still working through the consequences.

There is still plenty more going on at the New Vic that I haven’t seen. Like the treasure of the hoard itself, or Anglo Saxon society, I can only glimpse tantalising parts with my understanding incomplete, and the whole thing unknowable.

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David Nellist as Terry, the world’s luckiest detectorist


Well Spotted

THE 101 DALMATIANS

The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2013

 

The festive season of family fare gets off to a cracking start with this non-seasonal story from the New Vic’s artistic director Theresa Heskins.  Her adaptation of Dodie Smith’s classic children’s novel is a stylish, charming and inventive piece with plenty for all ages to enjoy.

Set in the 1950s, the cut of Lis Evans’s costumes is clean and sharp in bright colours or, of course, vibrant white with black spots.  The cast is paired off into dogs and their human pets.  They lindy hop (I believe it’s called) in a joyous opening number.

What takes the dog biscuit is the jazz-informed score by James Atherton, performed by the man himself, and various cast members when they’re not wagging their tails or holding up props as human fixtures and fittings.  The music is irresistible, the heartbeat of the performance, playing under scenes like a particularly cool and hep film soundtrack, and then coming to the fore for the songs, the best of which are belted out by Polly Lister’s Cruella De Vil.   Atherton’s score is the sumptuous icing on the top of a very big cake.

Playing the lead, as well as wearing one, is Oliver Mawdsley as the energetic Pongo.  He and Perdita (Hannah Edwards) form an appealing and amusing pair, casting asides over their shoulders, commenting on the strange behaviour of the humans.  When their large litter of little puppies is stolen, they em-bark on a quest to retrieve them and the production goes all out for invention and surprise.  The ‘twilight barking’ uses dogs cropping up through trapdoors and speaking in a range of regional accents to convey the distance the message is spread.  The question in my mind, if not everyone else’s, is how is Theresa Heskins going to show us the full complement of Dalmatians?

Well, she does.  A troupe of local children, dog-eared (so to speak) and tailed represent some of the puppies but they are also puppeteers operating many more.  That’s fair enough but then the ideas keep coming – any single one of which would have been more than adequate.  Theresa Heskins has access to an inexhaustible well of invention, it seems.

Polly Lister stalks and declaims (and even drives a marvellous customised car) around the stage.  Her insatiable lust for fur and animal skins marks her out as the villain – Dodie Smith must have been among the first to criticise the fur-fashion industry.

Pashcale Straiton is very funny as Nanny, producing newborn pups from about her person and I would have liked to have seen more of Cruella’s comedy henchmen, Anthony Hunt and Andy Cryer as the Baddun brothers. Matt Connor and Sophie Scott are suitably perky and bright as human couple, the Dearlys – they emphasise the Englishness of this production, reclaiming the story from Disney’s England-through-American-eyes cartoon.

With its anthropomorphism of the dogs and even the hat-racks and table lamps, the show hints at a darker story.  It’s not only a matter of animal cruelty and exploitation, it’s about man’s inhumanity to other humans too. Written post-war, the novel is an archetypal rescue-and-escape story.  It’s Maria and the Captain leading the Von Trapp family away from the Nazis.  Cruella’s Hell Hall is a concentration camp in which the prisoners will be violently exterminated and skinned, their hides put to use – I shivered when I saw a cast member holding up a lampshade.

This is not an overt metaphor but it’s there if you look for it.  What you get at the New Vic is a superb evening’s entertainment, funny and touching.  It’s enchanting in both form and content and will no doubt knock spots off the competition.

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Here, boy! Cruella (Polly Lister) eyes up her next handbag.