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Party Piece

GREASE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 29th May, 2017

 

When it was first staged in the 1970s, the show was a nostalgic look-back at supposedly simpler times.  The film version, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as positively geriatric teenagers, became a phenomenal global hit, still highly popular, and giving the stage show a new lease of life that shows no signs of failing.  Inevitably, with the film so fixed in the popular consciousness, there are audience expectations that director David Gilmore must meet.  We know how Grease should be done.  Or we think we do.  Some of the songs don’t appear at the same points in the story as they do in the screenplay.  Other numbers, only background music in the film, are given centre stage here.  Conversely, what appears in the film but not in the show, has been interpolated here: chiefly, the opening number by songwriter supremo, Barry Gibb.

Plotwise, it couldn’t be simpler.  Boy meets girl but they’re in different groups at high school, where peer pressure is irresistible… Who will change to overcome the cultural divide?

Frankly, the T-Birds, all leather jackets and DA haircuts, come across as a bunch of twats.  Danny (Tom Parker) feels obliged to deny his feelings for Sandy (Danielle Hope) in order to keep in with his laddish mates.  For her part, Sandy is too straitlaced to be fully integrated into the girls’ gang, the Pink Ladies.  Parker, former member of boyband The Wanted, sings competently; his real strength is in the physical comedy of his portrayal.  Hope is suitably prim as Sandy, her singing voice rich and with a more mature sound than her girlfriends.

Louisa Lytton is a brassy Rizzo.  She gets the ‘dramatic’ moments when a pregnancy scare allows her to belt out There Are Worse Things I Could Do.  Like Danny, she is hampered by her public image.  Revealing her true self would be a sign of weakness.  And so, the show is about the pressures on teens to conform – with whatever group they wish to be part of.   Also, Frenchy (a vivacious Rhiannon Chesterman) feels she can’t tell her friends she has flunked out of beauty school, while her would-be suitor Doody (Ryan Heenan) is physically incapable of stringing the words together to ask her to the dance.

Heenan stands out among the T-Birds as the likeable, little one.  He gets a couple of solo moments, showcasing his talents.

Greased Lightning is a big production number with Tom Senior’s Kenickie cranked up to 11.  It’s loud and brash, laddism writ large.  It’s like being beaten up by a song.

Treat of the night comes from a cameo appearance by ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond himself as a somewhat superannuated Teen Angel.  Pure showbiz royalty, Osmond knows when to milk it, knows when to be cheesy – how dairy!  His song brings the house down and such is his charisma and the fact that IT’S JIMMY OSMOND, we hardly notice the showgirls swanning around in true Las Vegas style.

The energetic ensemble generates a lot of heat.  Arlene Phillips’s choreography is flashy and fun, adding to the infectious quality of the show.  People are here to have a good time.  This audience doesn’t need warming up.  It’s a party of a show, a guaranteed good time and a chance to escape from whatever it is you might want to escape from.  Cosy and safe, Grease is a reliable crowd-pleaser – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

grease

You’re the one from The Wanted, oo-oo ooh. Tom Parker and Danielle Hope

 

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Bubbling Over

THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 6th April, 2017

 

A co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East, this new version of Kirsten Childs’s appealing musical froths with effervescence, like champagne.  But, as our protagonist demonstrates, there’s a nasty undertone to life and all she can do is to move on to the next frothy moment.   Viveca “Call me Bubbly” Stanton spends her life trying to be liked.  We see her go from childhood dreams of being a world-famous dancer and being white to trying to fit in with flower power and the growing black consciousness, to auditioning for Broadway roles, and so on, all before she at last fulfils the promise of the show’s title and quits trying to blend in and be herself.

The first act is set in L.A. and begins when a very young Bubbly (a perky Karis Jack) learns of the deaths of four young girls in Alabama, bombed while they were at church.  It’s a scarring moment – and motivates Bubbly’s ‘chameleon’ nature.  She doesn’t want the same fate to befall her.  Karis Jack is a mass of energy, with a sweet voice and broad smile – you can’t help liking her; Bubbly’s delusions, dreams and ambitions are her shields against the racial intolerance and hate crimes in her world.  The second act follows Bubbly to New York City where the role is taken over by Sophia Mackay, who belts out her more soulful numbers.  Both actors are immensely talented, vocally and comedically.  And so we get two leading ladies for the price of one, which can’t be bad.

The score is irresistible – there’s not a duff number in it.  Musically, it’s a lot like Hair with a touch of Little Shop of Horrors.  Mykal Rand’s choreography evokes each decade of Bubbly’s story as much as Rosa Maggiora’s costumes.  Childs’s lyrics sparkle with wit and her book tends to keep matters light – this is musical theatre, after all.  Hairspray deals with civil rights issues more directly – here we see the individual’s response – in NYC, Bubbly faces discrimination more directly and, until her metaphoric skin-shedding, adapts to accommodate it, cranking up the stereotype in order to be accepted.

Trevor A. Toussaint as Bubbly’s Daddy has a deep rich voice I could listen to all night, while Sharon Wattis as Bubbly’s more pragmatic Mommy shares a searing duet with her daughter that gives rise to chills.  Llandyll Gove amuses as a fairytale prince and as dippy hippy Cosmic Rainbow.  Jessica Pardoe is striking as Bubbly’s childhood doll (white, of course!) Chitty Chatty, and later as a succession of dance teachers.  Shelley Williams almost stops the show dispensing Granny’s Advice, a rousing, gospel-like number, and Jay Marsh’s Gregory shows incredible vocal range. The orchestrations by musical director Jordan Li-Smith convince with their authentic sounds across the timespan of the story.

It’s a hugely enjoyable piece with plenty of laughs and toe-tapping songs.  It also has something to say to us in this benighted age, by showing us the psychological devastation of racism on a child.  Growing up black in a white world has much in common with growing up queer in a straight one (that’s a dissertation for someone else to write!) – we see the consequences of prejudice and hate, blighting Bubbly’s life before she’s started to live it.  The show doesn’t browbeat us with its message but is nonetheless powerful for its apparent lightness.

bubbly

Karis Jack

 


They Shoot Horses…

FOR THEIR OWN GOOD

mac, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2013

 

Untied Artists bring their straight-talking, matter-of-fact two-hander to Birmingham.  On paper it looks like it might be a bit of a tough watch and a bit polemical, but on stage it’s an engaging and provocative piece.

It tells the story of Scott, a new recruit at the abattoir (sent there by the jobcentre because he wanted to work with animals) and how he learns the trade from experienced knackerman Tom.  We follow Scott’s progress and also the growing friendship between the two men.

Their naturalistic (and funny) scenes are broken up with snippets of narration.  The actors crouch behind tiny buildings that are lit from within.  In a sentence they reveal the story of each building, and every story is related to death in some way.  As well as these, we hear pre-recorded voices, first-hand experience from people in real life –this documentary touch gives the play an authenticity, buoying the naturalistic approach.

Dominating the space is the recumbent figure of a horse – a marvellous life-sized puppet that is hoiked up on pulleys and shot in the head.  It is strung up to be drained of blood before being dismembered and skinned.  The puppet is articulated to suggest horse movements economically (it takes three to operate the one in War Horse!).  When it is taken to pieces, I flinched not just from what this represents but also at the deconstruction of such a beautiful piece of art!

It is a play about managing death.  The knackermen are ordinary blokes, not bloodthirsty monsters.  They are the professionals and know the most humane ways to despatch an ill or lame animal better than the precious owners.  Respect the animal, find the right moment, says Tom before chasing after a rat to twat it with a shovel – it’s a funny moment but highlights one of the main points: how our attitudes to death differ depending on whose or what’s life is at stake.  Tom forks out eight hundred quid in vet’s bills after his dog is run over (“He’s a member of the family”), but later is quick to shoot that very dog when it takes to worrying sheep.

It’s all leading up to the spiky topic of assisted suicide but presented in a quiet, personal way: Tom has inherited a terminal brain disease from his father and begins to falter. Rather than dwindle into indignity Tom approaches Scott, now fully trained, to help him out.  This is not sensationalised – nothing in the piece is sensationalised – or melodramatic.  It is plain-speaking, matter-of-fact and honest and all the more effective because of this.

As Tom, Jake Oldershaw is humorous and warm, an ordinary bloke.  You can’t help liking him just as Jack Trow’s Scott gets to know and like him.  Both give seemingly effortless performances.  Arzhang Pezhman‘s script is informative without being didactic, with true-to-life dialogue that matches the factual input from the recorded voices.   Steve Johnson’s direction balances the naturalistic with the stylised.  It never feels like we are lurching from one to the other. The switching off of the lights in the little houses is a neat idea, really brought home when Tom, on the eve of his final day, plunges us into blackout.

For me though it’s the horse and the way it’s handled that will be my most abiding memory of the show.  Even the space it leaves is evocative.  Crafted by Harry Trow, it is the bridge between the naturalistic and stylised elements of the production and the symbol that epitomises the main theme.

If we can manage the death of other living things as humanely as we do for some animals, why not with people too?  In Tom’s case we feel it’s the right thing but because the play finishes before the event, it opens up the debate.

A thoroughly engaging and more entertaining hour than you might expect, For Their Own Good deserves to be seen by much larger audiences, for their own good.

Fortheirowngood-Large

 

 


Djinn Trap

MUSTAFA
Birmingham REP at mac, Wednesday 18th April, 2012

An exorcism has been botched. A teenager is dead. The man who performed the exorcism is jailed on a manslaughter charge. What makes this supernatural thriller different from others of the genre is that Roman Catholicism is not the starring religion. Neither is Voodoo. This time it’s Islam at the core of the conflict. This innovation keeps the drama fresh.

This new play by Naylah Ahmed keeps the audience intrigued as the mystery unfolds and tension builds. The prisoner, the titular Mustafa (a softly spoken and dignified Munir Khairdin) is put in isolation – a disused wing of the prison is re-opened just for him – following an incident in the dining hall. His lawyer Shabir (the excellent Gary Pillai) is also his brother. It is in the scenes between these two that the writing is at its best. One is a mullah, the other is a lapsed Muslim who likes a drink and the “easy life”. And so an extra layer is added to the central conflict. Shabir doesn’t believe the djinn Mustafa drove from the boy is now possessing his brother. And at first, the audience is presented with clues that yes he might be, or no, he’s mentally ill.

Of course, being a ghost story, the play has to uphold the belief that these supernatural beings exist – if only for the purposes of plot development at least. It made me think of the use of religion in entertainment. It happens all the time. Greek mythology fills cinema screens to this day. Christianity (usually Catholic) is a staple of horror films from Dracula to The Exorcist to Drag Me To Hell. Does their place in these stories validate them or reduce them to tropes in story-telling? This play has the same failings as others of its type. Those who believe will come away with a different feeling to those who don’t. I am willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride as long as the ride is an effective one.

We also meet two ‘screws’. They are a pair of bickering Brummies played by Paul McCleary and Ryan Early. My problem with these two is it’s difficult to distinguish when they are providing comic relief from when they are trying to be menacing. When the djinn manifests itself, in the form of the younger prison officer, it is laughably unthreatening, suffering the worst dialogue of the piece. Ahmed strings together vernacular idioms and colloquialisms as though writing Naturalism by numbers. “That Mo’s a goon, who’s been in and out of here since he was sixteen – he doesn’t know jack.” The dialogue is slang-heavy to the extent it sounds unreal. Sometimes plain-speaking is more effective than trying to capture local colour.

As the play draws to its conclusion and Mustafa strives to prevent the djinn from claiming another victim, lights fizzle and pop, smoke billows about –there is a nifty bit of misdirection with a fire extinguisher – but The Woman In Black this ain’t. Better handled, this could be a taut little chiller with something to say about Westernisation as well as providing a few scares. Although the plot kept me intrigued, the tension was diluted by the overwritten dialogue and Mustafa ended up, I’m sorry to say, a bit of a damp squib.


Brought Down to Earth

GRAVITY
Birmingham REP at the mac, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd February, 2012

Set in a secondary school, Arzhang Pezhman’s brand new play tells the story of science teacher, David (Nigel Hastings) following his return to work after a long-term absence due to depression. David – Mr Milford to the kids – is enthusiastic about his subject to the extent that he bores on about it at every opportunity. The man never speaks of anything else. It becomes apparent that this is very much a coping strategy. He is unable to deal with the day-to-day details of his life so he keeps his head in the clouds – beyond the clouds, in fact.

The three students we meet on stage are a motley trio. There is loudmouth, class clown Reece (Boris Mitkov) with the Adidas logo shaved into the back of his neck. He is the most exaggerated of the three, a caricature of every child who ever ate up and spat out a supply teacher. There is Chantay (Rebecca Louden) who might get somewhere in life if she could only remove the mobile phone from her hands. Finally, there is Kyle (Ashley Hunter) the most sympathetic of the three, a lad with some kind of syndrome. He can’t get enough science. He attempts his own version of Schrodinger’s cat experiment with a shoebox and an unfortunate frog; and, worryingly, handles radioactive materials in the school physics lab.

Overseeing all of this is Kathy (Imogen Slaughter), a sickening example of the kind of Senior Management monster that is rife in schools today. She is all about appearance, gathering data and giving kids lollipops. She is insensitive and lacks understanding of the nature of depression. She has no time for the esoteric and no sense of wonder whatsoever.

Kathy “punishes” Reece and bystander Chantay for Reece’s attempted murder of Mr Milford by putting radioactive chemicals in his coffee mug with a day’s team-building through the medium of abseiling. Incredibly, the Police are not brought in. The boy is not excluded. This is one example of the play’s stretching of credibility in order for the plot to happen. Conversely, and all too believably, good boy Kyle is fobbed off with a couple of photocopied certificates snatched from a filing cabinet. It is no wonder the lad goes off the rails. A chain of events, unstoppable as a nuclear reaction, is set in motion. Provocation from Reece – brought back into the classroom because Kathy doesn’t want the inspectors to see naughty children in the corridors – brings Mr Milford to the boil. When he sees Kyle indulging in some misbehaviour with a Bunsen burner, he reaches critical mass, drags Kyle into the supply cupboard and – next thing we know, the cops and paramedics have been brought in and Mr Milford is facing serious criminal charges. He is lost in his thoughts about the Large Hadron Collider – perhaps the discovery of anti-matter will make time travel possible? Perhaps he could go back and change…

The LHC crops up now and then as a metaphor for something or other. Mr Milford’s circling of the school perimeter, perhaps. The smashing together of personalities until disaster strikes. It doesn’t ring true, just like aspects of the plot.

Comparisons with the excellent Mogadishu, which I saw only two days prior to this, are inevitable. This one lacks authenticity in the kids’ patois. The language doesn’t flow as naturalistically and the situation at the core seems unrealistic. There is a Grange Hill earnestness to it all. I also found the invisible rest of the class somewhat awkwardly presented. Mr Milford remonstrates with people who aren’t there, looking sideways at them, telling them to be quiet when no sound has been made. This is not part of his mental illness but a way of suggesting a larger cast beyond the scale of this production. Less awkward would have been if he had directed his reprimands towards the fourth wall, as if the audience was sitting where the rest of the class would be. To me, this was a stylistic decision that didn’t quite work.

The performances are strong. In fact, they could be toned down a little in the quieter moments to accentuate the contrast when things kick off. Among an energised ensemble, Ashley Hunter impresses as Kyle, the good kid disillusioned with a system that favours the unruly and the unteachable. As the awful Kathy, Imogen Slaughter captures the tone perfectly, stalking around the stage in six-inch stilettos while upbraiding both students and staff for their standards of dress.

Fabrice Serafino’s set is versatile but I could have done without the assault of overly loud music bombarding the atoms of my eardrums with sound waves during the transitions.

The play shows the stressful nature of secondary school teaching, the pressures and the bullshit. It highlights a lack of understanding of stress-related depression. It seeks to be clever with its tacked-on (tachyon?) references to CERN, but Mr Milford is no Prof Brian Cox. His endless expounding and explaining fails to engage. When he finally blows his top, I found it difficult to give a quantum of a toss.