Tag Archives: mac Birmingham

Catching Some Rays

ALL IS WELL

mac, Birmingham, Friday 12th May, 2017

 

Vanessa Oakes’s play centres around four characters who lose their way in a forest.  Not just any forest but the contaminated one at Chernobyl, site of the biggest nuclear accident (so far, that is).  As is the custom, Aleks (Mark Carey) has returned to pay respects to his mother’s grave.  He’s not the only one on a similar quest.  People’s concern for tradition outweighs fear over the radiation that continues to poison the area, and will do so for thousands of years.  Young couple Stefan (Jack Richardson) and Nina (Aimee Powell) separate, reunite, fall out (no pun intended) and reconcile.  Meanwhile, old Anna (Janice McKenzie) gets on with her life in this forbidden forest, lamenting the loss of her home and defying the law of the land.  There is some mystery about who she is – the ambiguity is intriguing: is she Aleks’s mother?  Is she a ghost?

The presentation is simple, the location suggested by a rusty Russian sign, overgrown, a door frame standing alone.  The characters narrate scene headings and provide descriptions of what is not staged, so we build in our imaginations the scale of the forest, the weather conditions and so on.  Mark Evans directs with an assured hand, keeping things straightforward so that the ideas in the script are clearly transmitted.  The result is a stark reminder of the terrible accident, its impact on the locals and the area, and also a reminder of the folly of nuclear power.  Even after Chernobyl, people still want it – even though, the play points out, it is much more expensive than renewables.

The characters visit this toxic territory as though it’s a post-apocalyptic theme park.  We learn that tourists flock to the region, attracted by the horror, the ‘ghost town’.  How ghoulish!  And how typical of the attitude the play decries, that of not looking to the future, of hankering for the past through the prism of nostalgia instead of protecting ourselves and the land.

Janice McKenzie’s Anna is both wise and foolish, worldly and blinkered.  Aimee Powell’s Nina is passionate, tinged with fear, in her anti-nuclear stance, while Jack Richardson makes an emotional Stefan, albeit a bit of a twit.  Mark Carey’s Aleks is a scientist, resigned to radiation in the world, as if there is no alternative to nuclear energy.  The four meet each other in turn, throwing up in their conversations the questions Oakes wants us to think about.  Is it really worth gambling the environment?  Silly question but some people (corporations, governments) think it is.

It’s not all bleak.  There is humour here, reminding us the people of Chernobyl are humans like us and not just statistics.  And there is a charming blackbird puppet (designed and made by Joff Chafer) expressively operated by Jack Richardson.  Life goes on, the blackbird signifies, and while it does, all must be well.  Mustn’t it?

A thought-provoking hour that amuses and horrifies, but we engage with the issues and ideas more than with the characters.

Anna - All Is Well 2017

Anna (Janice McKenzie) Photo: Anand Chhabri

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Bloody Funny

MACBETH

mac, Birmingham, Sunday 17th July, 2016

 

This latest version of the Scottish play by Oddsocks (their third, I believe) has a steampunk aesthetic, making for their best-looking production to date.  The costumes (by Vanessa Anderson and the company) are exquisite: platform boots, long coats and goggles are the order of the day, on a set of riveted steel, cogs, gears and tubes.  It’s a dystopian world of leadership challenges, and therefore ripe for topical comedy along with the trademark Oddsocks silliness and delivery of Shakespeare’s text without too many alterations.

Director Andy Barrow is a northern Macbeth, sounding like Ned Stark – the accent leads to new gags at Shakespeare’s expense.  Barrow is a generous performer and allows the rest of his cast of six to shine in their own way.  Rebecca Little’s Lady Macbeth is powerful and funny, a tiny tyrant with a nice line in vocals and melodramatic posturing – her sleepwalking scene is an utter joy: she plays it relatively straight against the backdrop of general silliness and the interpolation of a Tears For Fears classic number.  Gavin Harrison gives us a toffee-nosed King Duncan and a bungling murderer, while Ben Locke’s Macduff is a cocky, heroic Scot.  Anna Westlake’s Fleance is a bit of a scene-stealer, an emo kid with a dark side, and Oddsocks stalwart Joseph Maudsley gives us the daftest Banquo’s ghost I’ve seen.

The witches are gothic automatons, glitchy and eerie but it’s the scene in which they show Macbeth the apparitions that is when the steampunk theme comes to fruition, with puppet babies suspended in a vacuum tube.  This is Oddsocks creativity and inventiveness at its best.

As tragedies go, this one is relentlessly laugh-out-loud funny.  No detail is overlooked to wring as many laughs out of the audience as possible.  Visual gags supplement the verbal.  Slapstick and silliness underscore some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.  The violence is cartoony rather than horrific.  The whole thing is absolutely daft but in the cleverest way.  It’s knockabout stuff but it ticks along like clockwork.

Yet again, Andy Barrow delivers a marvel, an evening’s entertainment using an ancient text, even older theatrical traditions and conventions, and yet the result is something that feels absolutely fresh and new.

Oddsocks have been touring such high quality shows for 27 years.  If this latest gem is anything to go by, these punks are showing no signs of running out of steam.

macbeth

Riveting: Ben Locke and Andy Barrow cross swords as Macduff and Macbeth.


Sublime and Ridiculous

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

mac, Birmingham, Sunday 19th July, 2015

 

Oddsocks is back (are back?) with another madcap double bill of Shakespearean comedy. The one I catch is my favourite of all of Will’s work (they’re also doing Twelfth Night) and I can’t wait to see what director Andy Barrow has done with and to it. With only a cast of six, there are some inevitable changes and truncations but the bulk of the text survives, along with the drama; Barrow takes away but he also gives – the action is augmented by the clever interpolation of pop songs. Amazingly, it all works like a dream.

Barrow heads the cast – I’d never seen a Much Ado in which Leonato is the star turn, but here we go. Unflinchingly silly, Leonato sports a Llewellyn-Bowen wig and a lounge lizard suit. He rips off his trousers to dance along to Single Ladies, and his shirt for a wrestling bout in order to settle his grievance with Claudio. As a performer, Barrow is a mass of physical energy; as a director, he is unerringly clever. It feels as though he is collaboration with Shakespeare.

Regular Oddsockian Kevin Kemp is a cheeky and adorable Benedick, who gets us on his side from the get-go. Kemp also doubles as henchman Borachio – a broader characterisation but nonetheless entertaining. Rebecca Little’s Beatrice is puckish and feisty. The pair handle the ‘merry war’ of wit with clarity and apparent ease – Andy Barrow lets Shakespeare’s best lines out untrammelled. Little is also Dogberry, leader of a neighbourhood watch whose interrogation techniques contravene several laws, including those of biology and physics. While in general the playing is broad, when it comes to the ‘low’ comedy, it gets broader still. Silliness abounds. It’s ridiculous but in keeping with the overall approach.

And then we come to the sublime. In the wedding scene, it falls to Peter Hoggart to turn the mood from comedy to drama as his dashing and handsome Claudio renounces his fiancée at the altar. It’s a powerful moment and you feel the gear change. And then he breaks into a rousing rendition of Tainted Love and we’re back in silly mode again. When Benedick and Beatrice admit their love for each other, you can hear a pin drop. Barrow lets Shakespeare do the work here and it’s electrifying. When Benedick challenges Claudio, we know he means it. Even in this cartoon-world of silly wigs and pop music, there can be genuine tension. Marvellous!

Lucy Varney is a spirited Hero who throws herself into the physical humour – and all the cast are adept at adlibbing. Gavin Harrison delights as villain Don John, a creep and a weirdo indeed. His Don Pedro is more understated (if anything in this production is understated) and allows for the dramatic tension of the later scenes to play. Shakespeare balances humour and emotion; Barrow does the same but cranks it up to eleven.

Oddsocks deliver the goods again. An accessible, highly entertaining evening enjoyed by all. I cannot praise or recommend them enough.

Beatrice (Rebecca Little), Benedick (Kevin Kemp) look on as the Friar (Gavin Harrison) ministers to the fallen Hero (Lucy Varney)

Beatrice (Rebecca Little), Benedick (Kevin Kemp) look on as the Friar (Gavin Harrison) ministers to the fallen Hero (Lucy Varney)


Norsing Around

NORSESOME

mac, Birmingham, Friday 25th July, 2014

 

People have at least a nodding acquaintance with Norse mythology – be it from the names we give to the days of the week, to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, or of course, the comics and CGI-laden films of the MARVEL adaptations. This production by Temple Theatre reminds me why it’s my favourite mythology, rich as it is in adventure and magical happenings.

Devised by the company and scripted by Paul O’Mahony (who also performs) and Mike Tweddle (who also directs), it is a 90-minute romp through the stories, a dazzling display of physical comedy, performed by three energetic and versatile actors on an almost bare stage.  

They are dressed like ordinary people of today – the gods have very human foibles as well as superpowers; the actors don hats and neckties and so on, to signal the rapid changes between characters. The whole of Asgard is represented, each god delineated by an alteration to stance and demeanour. There’s a lot of running around but Tweddle’s direction keeps the action perfectly clear; there is no confusion about who’s doing whom at any moment.

Keep an eye out for the magnificent Troels Hagen Findsen as Odin, holding court – while Paul O’Mahony and Leon Scott tear around as gods and goddesses, often exchanging dialogue with themselves. O’Mahony’s Loki is how I imagine the trickster to be, rather than the snooty posturing ponce we’ve seen in recent blockbuster films, and Scott’s Thor is a marvellously hilarious characterisation. Such is the skill of the actors, I feel bad for not mentioning other characters, as if I’m missing someone out!

It’s fast-moving in terms of action and plot, and thanks to a tight and witty script, peppered with original songs (by O’Mahony and Rob Castell) never flags for a second. Phill Ward’s sound design enhances the imaginative use of mime, physical theatre, voice, gesture, and (yay!) puppets is marvellously entertaining and although this is a very humorous take, the stories themselves are not buggered about with. There are moments –just little touches – of high drama too, as the global consequence of these often bonkers events are considered. There is a pertinence here, a relevance to current events in our world of men and monsters. The most important thing in the world is peace, says Odin.

You can’t argue with that.

norsesome


This Night’s the Night!

TWELFTH NIGHT

mac, Birmingham, Saturday 12th July, 2014

 

“If music be the food of love, play on,” Count Orsino utters the famous first line. The onstage band launches into Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug and suddenly Orsino’s white suit and black tie make sense. “That strain again,” he interrupts his rendition, “it has a dying fall.”

There, in a nutshell, you have the essence of this production. Pop music (and plenty of it) is blended with Shakespeare’s text. Sometimes the gear change jars but for the most part, the transitions are seamless – it’s almost as if Old Bill had wanted to write a modern jukebox musical all along.  Every song is a happy surprise, adding to the action rather than interrupting it. Nowhere else will you get Viola belting out Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and a petulant, strutting Malvolio with a humongous quiff giving us his best Morrissey.   I tremble to imagine the music clearance bill for this production.

Yes, Oddsocks is back. This is their 25th anniversary tour and I’m proud to say I’ve been a devotee for most of that period. Director Andy Barrow never seems to be short on ideas and his Twelfth Night ranks up there with my favourites.

Rebecca Little is a hoot as a diminutive Viola, running around with a stepladder, in her presumed dead brother’s Robert Palmer suit. Much is made of the height difference between her and her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian – the magnificent Dom Gee-Burch who also gives us a Feste the Clown as a kind of Russell Brand figure.

The mighty Andrew McGillan’s Sir Toby Belch is an ageing rocker in patched denim, a hair band around his Hair Band wig. It’s a revelation of a characterisation. The drunkenness and hedonism are presented in a way that is entirely relatable to everyone in the audience; this has been Barrow’s approach for a quarter of a century: making Shakespeare accessible and above all enjoyable to people of all ages and academic achievement. Barrow is some sort of theatrical alchemist, mixing very British silliness with Shakespeare’s speech patterns and poetry. The text always survives the Barrow treatment and plenty of Shakespeare’s original jokes go down very well.

Louisa Farrant is a beautiful, gawky Olivia – Miranda Hart could learn a lot from her delivery. As always, Barrow has put together a cast of consummate comedy performers, and there is such warmth and goodwill generated by this excellent ensemble, it’s no wonder people keep coming back to Oddsocks for a fun night out.

Barrow himself is the prissy, sneering Malvolio, giving a master class in verbal and physical humour. His cross-gartered scene is, literally, a revelation.

Joseph Maudsley steals the show in my opinion doubling as a suave Orsino and a prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Orsino’s barely repressed attraction to Viola in disguise as a man gives us the most hilarious running joke of the night – Little too, as Viola or as Maria a Cockney maid who would not be out of place drinking with Kat Slater in the Queen Vic, is another jewel in this production’s crown.

It’s a unique, fast and funny take on Shakespeare’s rather melancholic rom-com from a theatre company at the height of their game.

Arrive early if you can – at some venues there is an extra treat before the show begins: a set from Outsider (Felix Mackenzie-Barrow and Lucy Varney), an upcoming and talented musical duo performing their own material, that eases us in rather nicely before the silliness explodes onto the stage.

 

Andy Barrow. Heaven knows he's Malvolio now.

Andy Barrow. Heaven knows he’s Malvolio now.