Tag Archives: Mark Babych

Whisky Business

WHISKY GALORE

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018

 

Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.

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Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)

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Dodgy Lodgers

THE LADYKILLERS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 14th April, 2015

 

Working in collaboration with Hull Truck, the New Vic stages this new production of the West End hit adaptation of the much-loved Ealing comedy film. Having seen both the film and the original tour, I was intrigued to see how they would stage this rather housebound story where doors and windows are very important, in the round.

The answer is: brilliantly. Patrick Connellan’s set works on different levels, so to speak. Mrs Wilberforce’s cluttered house is represented by platforms, seemingly held up by stacks of books and suitcases. The upstairs room she leases to a lodger is higher up – with a suggestion of the window and the roof and railway tracks beyond. Doors are stunted, sawn-off affairs that delineate the boundaries of one space and another and the furniture keeps us in post-war London. A flight of stairs is formed from treads that look like suitcases, adding to the cluttered look but also heightens the setting so that the farcical aspects of the plot are accentuated. Radio announcers and telephone callers pop up out of the floor. We are at a remove from reality and it works very well.

Anna Kirke is marvellous as sprightly old biddy Mrs Wilberforce, a seemingly frail and delicate and not to mention dotty character, forever bothering the police with paranoid tales of Nazis in the newsagents. Timothy Speyer’s Constable is a slice of old England and helps set the tone for the rest of the piece, although Graham Linehan’s adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay has a more modern line in gags. Speyer also appears as Mrs Tromleyton, along with a host of old ladies, not all of them female and not all of them clean-shaven. It’s a Pythonesque moment, again underlining the Britishness of the humour.

Andy Gillies is superb as One Round, a heavy who is endearingly thick. But there is menace in his physicality. Matthew Rixon, by contrast, is Major Courtney, an old-school English gent type with a fondness for frocks, in a delicious performance of suppressed camp. Matt Sutton brings energy as pill-popping Teddy Boy Harry Robinson, and the marvellous Michael Hugo brings darkness as vicious Romanian killer Louis. Hugo is deadpan for the most part, looking like Eddie Munster or Nosferatu at times and his emotional outbursts are perfectly pitched for both humour and threat.

But the night belongs to Andrew Pollard as leader of the pack, Professor Marcus, with a crazy haircut and a scarf Tom Baker’s Doctor would kill for. Pollard’s characterisation fills the stage with erudition, false good manners, and a camp sensibility. His pretensions eventually prove to be his downfall as in the second act, events take a much darker turn. Director Mark Babych handles the changes of tone expertly even though sometimes the action seems a little cramped. The crazy set becomes a hell of passing trains with their noise and their steam, and a real sense of nastiness comes into play. Suddenly the comedy is very black indeed.

The Ladykillers is an enjoyable romp with an edge of menace. It’s nostalgic and yet fresh, thanks to a very funny script, played to a tee by an ensemble of all-round excellence. The message is clearly that crime doesn’t pay, but I would urge you to beg, borrow or, yes, even steal a ticket if you have to.

Pictured left to right: Anna Kirke as Mrs Louisa Wilberforce, Andy Gillies as One-Round, Matthew Rixon as Major Courtney, Michael Hugo as Louis Harvey, Andrew Pollard as Professor Marcus and Matt Sutton as Harry Robinson during rehersals at the New Vic Theatre Photo: The Sentinel

Pictured left to right: Anna Kirke as Mrs Louisa Wilberforce, Andy Gillies as One-Round, Matthew Rixon as Major Courtney, Michael Hugo as Louis Harvey, Andrew Pollard as Professor Marcus and Matt Sutton as Harry Robinson during rehersals at the New Vic Theatre
Photo: The Sentinel


Class War

TO SIR WITH LOVE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 22nd October, 2013

E R Braithwaite’s autobiographical story covers familiar ground.  It’s not the first tale (and definitely not the last) to deal with an unruly class of kids who are eventually tamed by an unconventional teacher.  There are ups and downs and plenty of respect is earned along the way.  The storyline has become something of a cliché but at least Braithwaite actually lived it.

Set in those first few years of optimism after the end of WW2, the production brings to light many parallels with today’s education system and indeed society beyond.  Headmaster Florian (Matthew Kelly, effortlessly exuding warmth and status) looks forward to some of the more progressive methods of the 60s and 70s – the audience finds itself looking back.  Our incumbent Secretary of State for Education seems hell-bent on a return to the kind of rote-learning and imparting of useless facts against which Florian fights so passionately.  Braithwaite learns the hard way that Florian’s methods and philosophy reap dividends and he blossoms in tandem with his charges.  He’s an unqualified teacher and the play demonstrates very clearly the pitfalls a lack of professional training can bring.  Braithwaite learns that it’s not enough to spout about 19th century art and literature, just because that is what he encountered during his own schooling.

And so the play, rather than evoking nostalgia, stirs us with its relevance.  Outside school, Braithwaite faces racial prejudice and while we can say we have come a long way (the gasps of dismay and shocked laughs from the audience whenever a racist remark is made on stage, for example) there is still prejudice within our supposedly enlightened society, casual and institutionalised.  Look at our government’s approach to immigration, for example, and the myths perpetrated to foster prejudice and ignorance.

As Braithwaite, Ansu Kabia is a dignified presence, keeping a lid on his outrage and exuding humour and warmth.  The scenes he share with Matthew Kelly are particularly strong.  He is supported by a class of unruly teenagers – and it’s pleasing to hear that their accents are in keeping with the period too.  Harriet Ballard’s Monica is funny as a character study as well as for her role in the drama. Mykola Allen leads the resistance as Denham, the toughest nut to crack, and Kerron Darby is equally effective as mixed race Seales.  Paul Kemp spouts most of the unsavoury slurs as old-school (heh!) teacher Weston, who also learns to respect the kids and Braithwaite as people.

The kids dance and jive (lindy-hopping or something like that) through the scene transitions, keeping the energy levels high.  Mike Britton’s set reminds us of the bombings London endured, but also suggests an institution in ruins – by extension, the education system in this country.  Director Mark Babych delivers the heart-warming payoff you expect, keeping mawkishness at bay – that’s the beauty of Ayub Khan Din’s adaptation of Braithwaite’s book: it evokes the era but also reflects our present.  The production satisfies our expectations of this type of story but also has a salient point to make about the nation today.

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Penned-up aggression: Ansu Kabia and Mykola Allen disagree over an item of stationery


Recipe for Hilarity

COOKING WITH ELVIS

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 30th April, 2013

Derby Theatre puts itself on the theatrical map with this production of Lea Hall’s raucous black comedy, the theatre’s first home-produced show.  The venue has a history of excellence in its produced work (I remember some superb Sondheims, astonishing Ayckbourns, and a gem of a Treasure Island) but with the recent chequered past now firmly behind it, the place will go from strength to strength if the quality of this production is anything to go by.

The action takes place in a suburban house, gloriously depicted in Hayley Grindle’s two-storey set: a living room and kitchen with stairs leading up to a landing and a teenager’s bedroom.  The teenager is Jill, our narrator and scene-announcer for the evening.  Played with verve by Laura Elsworthy, Jill is a 14 year-old with an interest in cookery that borders on obsession.  She despairs of her English teacher mother, who glams herself up and brings home strange men to satisfy her sexual needs.  Polly Lister is ‘Mam’, a plain-speaking bully, masking her guilt and vulnerability with mouthing-off and heavy drinking.   The strange man she brings home at the start of the play is Stuart (Adam Barlow) who works in a cake factory.  Within seconds she has ordered him to strip to his underpants – this is no subtle comedy of manners, but an in-your-face sex comedy with graphic scenes and colourful language.  It is absolutely hilarious.

Why does Mam bring these creatures home?  The answer is painfully present in the shape of her paralysed husband.  Brain-damaged in a car accident, Dad can do nothing for himself, and has to be brought on and (nudge, wink) brought off.  It’s a sobering portrayal from Jack Lord but then – and this lifts the piece out of the macabre – Dad has a nifty line in Elvis Presley impersonation.   He springs from his chair to link and underscore scenes with songs of The King in a range of impressive outfits.  Jack Lord is nothing short of sublime.

Mark Babych pitches the tone just right and directs his excellent quartet to keep energy levels high and the characterisations just short of caricature.  This kind of farcical, rather outré plot requires a broad style of playing, but also we have to accept and go along with these characters for the ride or else it would just descend into prurience and bad taste.   Adam Barlow’s Stuart is sweet – for a drip – and he becomes both predator and prey as he worms his way under the table (well, on top of it!); Polly Lister is fierce and brittle, but the evening belongs to Laura Elsworthy as the young girl who goes through a rite of passage in less than ideal circumstances, guiding us from scene to scene and setting the tone for the entire piece.

The play is a kind of mash-up of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle in terms of content and delivery, and yet has a charm of its own.  Beyond the foul language and the sex on the dining table, there is real heart to the piece, and a mother and daughter who both experience a healing.  Life’s not about the tragedies, Jill concludes, it’s about the tiny moments that keep us going in the dark, the smiles.

By the curtain call, you will be grinning and clapping along to Jack Lord’s closing number.  You may even be on your feet and joining in the party.  It is shows of this calibre that keep us going in the dark.

Polly Lister gets to grips with Adam Barlow

Polly Lister gets to grips with Adam Barlow