Tag Archives: Mark Payne

Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)

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Boss Play

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble.  Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.

Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles.  Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses.  He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.

Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins.  This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.

Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value.  Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim.  There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.

The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in.  Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!

Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect.  The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.

A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent.  I had a boss time.

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Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Guilty Pleasure

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th February, 2017

 

Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama is a far cry from the typical, almost cosy murder mystery affair to which she is inextricably linked.  The play uses the trappings of civilised society, i.e. a court of law, to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature.  In the safe haven of our seats in the auditorium, we enjoy the unfolding details – a violent murder, acts of betrayal – but there is a bitter aftertaste to this entertainment that reminds us our fascination with crime as drama is, at best, a guilty pleasure.

This production exudes excellence at every turn.  A top-notch cast populates the story with credible characterisations, breathing life into Christie’s wry observations and the more verbose legalese of the professional lawmen.

Geoff Poole and Katie Merriman get things off to a promising start with some amusing character work as employees of Sir Wilfred, the barrister defending the case.  Their accents give us both place and period.  We’re in London in the 1950s.

Bill Barry is excellent as Sir Wilfred.  He and Brian Wilson, as lawyer Mayhew, give off an air of focussed professionalism, inspiring confidence in the system at work.  Equally strong is the barrister for the prosecution, Myers (John O’Neill), grandstanding in the courtroom under the quiet authority of Mr Justice Wainwright (Geoff Poole again, in complete contrast to his earlier role).

When Zena Forrest enters, as German ex-pat Romaine Heilger, she makes a striking impression, not just because of her Teutonic froideur.  Angela Daniels’s costume work cuts a dash – especially with the female characters.  After all, men’s suits and the accoutrements of the court have barely changed for decades!  Forrest is superb as the haughty femme fatale, provoked on the witness stand to losing her composure and saying too much… Alex Whiteley makes a good fist of Scottish busybody, Janet McKenzie, bringing humour to proceedings with a pleasing appearance in the box.

Director Les Stringer keeps us hooked throughout.  It’s a lengthy sit (three hours, including two intervals) but Stringer manages to avoid any sense of the staid and the static in scenes that involve a lot of talk and a lot of sitting around.  He contrives a crescendo at the end of the second act between prosecutor and prisoner, that is absolutely electrifying.

The set by Colin Judges (his real name) is stunning for the courtroom scenes, displaying craftsmanship to be sure, but it also says something.  The court speaks of power and permanence, and the establishment at work.  The set adds to the authenticity of the piece as much as the language and ritualised conduct of the court.  But even the establishment can get it wrong sometimes, Christie reminds us.

Christie provides more twists than Chubby Checker for a thrilling denouement.  The tables aren’t just turned, they spin!

Mark Payne dazzles, if that’s the right word, as nervy defendant Leonard Vole, as twitchy as his rodent namesake.  Personable and decent, he elicits our sympathy from the start, in what develops into a towering and emotional performance with real star quality.

A thoroughly enjoyable, old-school visit to the theatre, but old-fashioned does not mean lacking in power to entertain.  On the contrary, when it is played and presented this well, you know you’re in safe hands for a good night out.

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Every One’s a Winner

DEALER’S CHOICE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th January 2014

Patrick Marber’s award-winning comedy is resurrected in the Ron Barber Studio by a talented all-male cast under the astute direction of Andrew Smith.  Set in a restaurant, the action involves the anticipation of a weekly poker school before, in the third act, the poker school itself takes place.

Marber’s script is very funny and allows the actors to build credible and rounded characterisations. There is Mark Grady as rough-and-ready cook Sweeney, anxious to keep some money aside to spend on his daughter; Frankie (James David Knapp) dreams of travelling to Las Vegas and hitting the big time on the tables; joker in the pack Mugsy (an excellent Mark Payne) seeks funding for his own restaurant, a public toilet conversion that doesn’t sound very palatable; and boss man Stephen the restaurateur (Dave Hill).  Added to this bunch is Stephen’s troubled son, gambling addict Carl (Andrew Elkington) and the quietly menacing Ash (Phil Rea) to whom Carl owes several grand.

Andrew Smith keeps the banter tearing along, managing crescendos and silences like a maestro.  Some of the rapid-fire cross-cutting between kitchen and restaurant needs a little bit of tightening but this was only the second performance of the run so I expect that will be sorted – This is a slick, well-oiled production with something of the atmosphere of Mojo currently in the West End and, yes, something of the high quality of that show too.

Hill and Elkington have the most emotional moments as father and son, negotiating their relationship over sums of cash borrowed or given.  Hill is rather touching in his portrayal, playing his cards close to his chest, you might say.  Elkington too is very strong in his selfish outbursts.  Grady and Knapp provide comedy and pathos – we see how far these men are steeped in their gambling pursuits, and Rea, the ostensible villain of the piece, does a nice line in understated as well as unequivocal threat.  But for me the energy of the performance stems mainly from Mark Payne’s characterisation of the hapless dreamer Mugsy.  We take delight and have pity in his ups and downs.  It’s a detailed and effective study in comic playing. Sonia Chopra’s set is flexible in its economy – the stairs painted like playing cards are a nice touch – and nothing gets in the way of the cast,

Cards on the table time: if you’re looking for a couple of hours’ worth of excellent, enjoyable drama, Dealer’s Choice is very much a safe bet.

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Class Acts

THE HISTORY BOYS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 8th September, 2013

 

Alan Bennett’s widely acclaimed play, examining approaches to and effects of education, is presented in this excellent production by Birmingham’s little gem of a theatre.  The house was full for this performance and I believe everyone went away happy and perhaps even edified a little.

The Headmaster of this fictional school is all too recognisable from life, fixated as he is by league tables and his obsession with being able to quantify everything.  He recruits Irwin, a supply teacher to help prepare a bunch of high fliers for their Oxbridge entrance exam.  Irwin’s methods are at odds with those of General Studies teacher, Hector, who sees education as enrichment for life rather than a means to jump over prescribed hurdles. The boys themselves come to appreciate the contrast in their deliveries, on their way to becoming rounded individuals and/or members of the academic elite.

Bennett treats us to comedy high and low.  One scene, in schoolboy French, is particularly funny, as the boys enact a transaction in a brothel.  Other moments are more subtle; and among the humour there are also moments of pathos.  Of all the boys Michael Jenkins shines as sensitive, lovelorn Posner, in a detailed and layered performance.  Jenkins’s singing voice is a particular asset for this production.  This is a young man with a future in musical theatre or there is no justice in the world.   Other standouts are David Harvey as Scripps, whose narration is assured and philosophical.  I also liked Scott Richards’s Lockwood and Gwill Milton’s Timms.  Robert Dean grows into the cockiness of school stud Dakin but needs to be more at home in himself from the outset, and Dominic Thompson needs to slow down his delivery of Rudge’s punchlines at times in order to maximise their effect.

Alan Marshall is a wonderful Hector, warm and funny, he holds the audience in his thrall as much as his charges.  The fact that his approach to education (along with his groping of the boys on his motorcycle) is damaging to the young men is treated largely as an undercurrent, balanced against preparation for exams as too limiting a function of the education system.

As young Irwin, Mark Payne is equally good, dazzling in the classroom, nervous and out of his depth outside of lessons. Annie Harris gives solid support as Mrs Lintott, who gets the choicest words to shout out in the staff room, and Brian Wilson is suitably uptight as the results-driven Headmaster.

There are a few moments when the energy of some scenes seems to drop but for the most part, director Ian Robert Moule gets the tone just right.  Keith Harris’s multi-levelled set allows for swift and efficient transitions, accompanied by bursts of 80s hits to remind us we are looking back, just as the boys are looking back in their history classes.

Set in the 1980s, the play is still all too relevant today, considering we have a Minister for Education who seems to equate memory with achievement.  Sad to relate, only one point made seems to have been overridden: there are now female historians on the telly – Bennett did not foresee the advent of Mary Beard.

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