Tag Archives: Mark Benton

Sales and Fails

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 21st February, 2019

 

Having enjoyed this production during its London run, I am delighted to catch it again on tour with a new cast.  David Mamet’s sweary piece about the cutthroat world of real estate offers plenty of opportunity for fine character work and this new company does not disappoint.  The short first act is comprised of three separate duologues in a classy Chinese restaurant, and here we meet the main players.

Mark Benton (currently enjoying huge success in Shakespeare & Hathaway) is faded salesman Shelly Levene, desperate to claw his way back to the top of the Salesman of the Month board.  Benton is superb; we actually feel some measure of sympathy for the man as he struggles to regain his glory days in this very dirty game.

Top of the board is Ricky Roma, a very handsome Nigel Harman, of EastEnders fame.  He is top of this food chain, a predator, and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work – just as we might enjoy the shark in Jaws chomping its way through the cast.  Harman gives us Roma’s skill at manipulation, his charm and his arrogance, but the sparks really fly when he loses his rag.

These two are supported by a tight company.  Wil Johnson’s increasingly despairing George; Scott Sparrow’s distant Williamson; Zephryn Taitte’s rough and tough detective… James Staddon is almost understated as Lingk, Roma’s latest customer/victim, unable to stand up for himself against the barrage of Roma tricks.  Denis Conway makes a strong impression as the angry and aggressive Dave.  You want toxic masculinity?  Throw in some problematic remarks about race and you get the measure of how distasteful this milieu is.

Mamet makes great use of stichomythia – the timing is impeccable – to build up natural speech rhythms.  He punctuates the argot of the profession with the copious use of profanity.  The men throw words at each other like punches – when they’re not trying to dominate proceedings with some anecdote or philosophising.  The relentless effing and jeffing adds to the intensity and also the humour of the exchanges.  It all adds up to a compelling piece of theatre.  Definitely not an advertisement for capitalism, this play is a chance to see actors at the top of the game, delivering an electrifying script and reminding us, because apparently some people still need reminding, that greed is not good, and financial gain at the cost of one’s compassion is never a price worth paying.

L-R Mark Benton (Shelley Levene) & Nigel Harman (Ricky Roma) - Glengarry Glen Ross UK Tour - Photo By Marc Brenner (2289)

Sold! Mark Benton and Nigel Harman (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 

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Good Clean Fun

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th May, 2015

 

Opening night of the tour of this West End smash hit; I feel like a bit of a scoundrel myself for reviewing the show before the official press night (tomorrow) but then I can only talk about the performances I see.

I remember the Michael Caine/Steve Martin film from years ago only dimly: the Ruprecht scene, and the denouement – rest assured you need no foreknowledge of the movie to appreciate this adaptation in all its glory.

And glorious it is. There is a lightness of touch throughout – we are never invited to take any of it seriously. Even the supposedly more emotion numbers are tongue-in-cheek, and involve duplicity at some point. David Yazbek’s catchy tunes and witty lyrics are in keeping with the humour of Jeffrey Lane’s book, and there is a casual break-the-fourth-wall approach to the staging that adds to the fun.

Set on the French Riviera, this is the story of conman Lawrence (silver fox Michael Praed) who pretends to be a European prince in need of funds to save his country. Enter Freddy (Noel Sullivan, better than he’s ever been) a low-rent American trickster – the pair team up to fleece a Oklahoman heiress (Phoebe Coupe making a lasting impression as the bullish Jolene). When ‘soap queen’ Christine arrives in town, the pair become rivals, competing for both her money and the right to stay in town and ply their trade.

Carley Stenson is a powerful presence as the American target of the two conmen, belting out her songs in a good, old-fashioned musical voice. Noel Sullivan is spot on as Freddy, displaying a fine line in physical comedy, while Michael Praed is smooth and debonair and just as swoonsome as he was in Dynasty as European Prince Michael of Moldavia, managing to remain suave even when he’s swanning around in disguise as a German psychiatrist.  This talented and enjoyable trio are supported by the excellent Mark Benton as Andre, the crooked chief of police, and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Muriel. It is clear from the off that the cast are enjoying themselves – without being self-indulgent. This enjoyment transmits to the audience and so we enjoy the performances rather than admire the reprehensible behaviour of this unscrupulous, immoral characters. It’s not even a morality tale. No one is reformed at the end.

The story flourishes in its new theatrical medium. Peter McKintosh’s elegant set hosts a lively ensemble of dancers for the production numbers. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography and direction give a flavour of the South of France, tempered with some Latin American moves and music.

It all adds up to a cracking night out – a superior example of a film-to-stage adaptation, a toe-tapping, laugh-out-loud fun ride performed by a stellar cast, company and band.

dirty rotten


Hair Today

HAIRSPRAY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 23rd May, 2013

 

Originally a film by the ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters, Hairspray might seem unlikely material for a feel-good musical, accessible to and enjoyed by a mass audience, but such is the genius of this adaptation, one wonders whether other examples of Waters’s oeuvre might suit similar treatment.  Cry-Baby is the obvious choice but I would dearly love to see Pink Flamingos or Desperate Living: the Musical.

The show is almost unrelentingly upbeat.  Set in 1962, it has a score by Mark Shaiman (with lyrics by the composer and Scott Whitman) in which the tunes keep coming.  Every song is incredibly catchy, using the pop aesthetic of the era in a manner similar to Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors.   It opens with Good Morning, Baltimore, a scene-setter that introduces our protagonist (an energetic Freya Sutton) Tracy Turnblad.  Her self-awareness and the mocking tone of the lyrics are charming (drunks, rats and flashers are the picturesque sights that greet Tracy on her way to school), parodying such rousing numbers as Oh What A Beautiful Morning. We are being shown a stylised representation of a time and place and we lap it up right from the get-go.

The stage is hardly ever devoid of bright young things bopping and bouncing around.  It’s infectious.

Mark Benton (Waterloo Road, the Nationwide ads) is a revelation as Tracy’s massively overweight mother Edna.  He even looks like role-originator Divine in his early, dowdier scenes.  He brings gracefulness to Edna’s movements and capitalises on the lower register of his voice for comic effect. The spirit of John Waters shines through: the outsiders, the freaks, those who are different, marginalised, and shunned by ‘decent’ society, are presented in a way that celebrates and empowers them.  The show is often lauded for its social commentary on racial segregation but the theme of body issues and self-esteem is just as strong.

Just like the fat jokes keep coming, some characters are openly racist in a blatant but casual way.  Worst offenders are the Von Tussles – a TV producer and her obnoxious daughter.  These two represent the institutionalised prejudice of the day (how lovely it would be to say this no longer exists in this day and age…) Wendy Somerville (standing in for Lucy Benjamin) is deliciously bitchy as Velma, but she is no match for Tracy and her mother.

As the plot develops, the catchy tunes keep coming.  “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now” is joyous, but “I Can Hear The Bells” is my personal favourite, encapsulating that feeling of love at first sight and planning one’s life together all in a split second, celebrating teenage feelings and gently mocking them in an affectionate way.

Because her hairdo is so big it prevents other students from seeing the blackboard, Tracy is consigned to ‘Special Ed’, where she meets some black kids with whom the system is unable or unwilling to engage.  She learns some spicy dance moves that finally secure her a place on the TV dance show of her dreams, and becomes a hit with the viewers.  Tracy’s self-esteem is a smack in the pouting face of the media portrayal of conventional beauty, but it is her activism against racial segregation that gets her into trouble with the law.

It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and performed with such verve, you can see why this is sometimes deemed a ‘bubblegum musical’.  That phrase does the piece an injustice.  More than a look back at less-enlightened times, the show is an all-too timely reminder that there are forces at work (the media in particular) to divide society.  As the UK lurches cruelly to the right, and the TV spews out a constant diet of Tory obfuscation and UKIP fuckwittery, it is no wonder that the marginalised and disenfranchised are cracking under pressure.

Freya Sutton is a strong and likeable lead.  Luke Striffler is both cool and hot as boyfriend Link, who has moves like Elvis, and learns the error of his selfishness. Josh Piterman is a smooth Corny Collins, the cheesy TV presenter at odds with his producer, and Sandra Marvin gives a storming performance as sassy DJ Motormouth Maybelle – her “I Know Where I’ve Been” stops the show.   Marcus Collins brings humour and dignity to Seaweed J Stubbs, impressing with his vocals and his moves – clearly musical theatre is where he belongs rather than on a mediocre TV talent show.

Paul Rider is Tracy’s big-hearted father Wilbur Turnblad.  His duet with Edna (“You’re Timeless To Me”) is sweet and funny.  The actors’ rapport and enjoyment is evident in this simply-staged moment that brings the house down.

The main cast is supported by a chorus of young dancers and singers that keeps the energy pouring off the stage.  By the time we reach the show’s exhilarating finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” everyone’s on their feet and dancing along.

A thoroughly entertaining production, non-stop fun with a serious heart, Hairspray is one of my all-time favourites, and it’s heartening to see a tour of such high quality doing the rounds.

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Bed head. Tracy (Freya Sutton)dreams of a brighter future