Tag Archives: Mark Ravenhill

Dress To Impress


Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019


I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant.  This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).

This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people.  His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals.  Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress.  Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.

Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles.  Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on.  A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance.  He will knock your frocks off.

The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time.  It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.

Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son.  Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across).  Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John.  Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).

The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work.  Take that, Gary Barlow!  Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today.  Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast.  Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.

It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress.  “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James.  You go, girl!

A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too.  And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Boy in the Dress production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_299317

Masterful: Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC copyright



Smile; you’re in Candide Chimera!


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th September, 2013

Voltaire’s most celebrated work is the springboard for this new play by the RSC’s resident playwright, Mark Ravenhill.  I’m pleased to say you don’t need in-depth knowledge of the original in order to get a lot out of this intriguing and thought-provoking piece.

It begins on expected ground, in the 18th century, but already there’s a twist.  Candide (an appealing Matthew Needham) is being shown a dramatisation of his life, enacted on a scaled-up version of a toy theatre.  It takes him a while to cotton on that the people in front of him are not those he knows but actors representing characters.  It’s a framing device similar to that in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – in fact this production has Brecht’s handiwork sharing the driving seat with Voltaire.  The highly mannered performance style of the ‘actors’, a blend of 18th century posturing and ‘gestus’, the under-projected singing, drawing attention to the message rather than eliciting admiration for the voices – Ravenhill gives us a potted Voltaire before setting out his stall with his own flights of fancy.

There are abrupt changes of gear between sequences.  Suddenly we are witnessing a birthday party at which everything is black.  A massacre ensues, with some stylised bloodshed and more than a hint of Tarantino.  This event triggers other sequences: the survivor (an excellent, powerful Katy Stevens) goes on to write a book, and then the screenplay for a film of the events, fuelled by the philosophising contained within Candide.

In-between these scenes, we cut back to Candide as he travels in search of his lost love Cunegonde, including a visit to the almost idyllic land of Eldorado.  It’s a real challenge to Candide’s world view, but ultimately greed and capitalistic exploitation rear their ugly heads.

Ravenhill extends the satire of Voltaire into our age and beyond.  There is a science fiction twist at the end, when Candide’s inexplicably long-lived mentor Pangloss is now seeking to medicate the entire population, isolate the ‘optimism gene’ so that mankind can forever more be happy – or rather his definition of happy.  It’s an amusing and effective idea in a play that is crammed with ideas, and riffs on ideas.  It’s a lot to take in and some scenes are better at getting their point across than others.  Ultimately, the play never falls short of interesting, played out by an excellent company and presented in some inventive ways by director Lyndsey Turner.

Special mention for the wonderful Ishia Bennison in a range of roles, and prologue Harry McEntire, whose voice I could listen to all night.  Sarah Ridgeway’s birthday girl Sophie is pretty powerful, Ian Redmond’s Pangloss is as avuncular as he is driven, and John Hopkins is in hilarious form as monstrous movie producer ‘Tim’.

It’s only when you’ve seen the whole that you appreciate the parts of this chimera.  Pangloss’s optimism is still with us, in one form or another, and there is as much to criticise and satirise in the world as ever there was.  Everything is not for the best.  This is not the best of all possible worlds.

Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry) Photo: Manuel Harlan

Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry)
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Star Turn


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th February, 2013

Roxana Silbert’s production of this new translation by RSC resident playwright Mark Ravenhill gives us a Brecht play that adds weight to the characters’ humanity, wisely restricting the Brechtian aspects of the staging to the inter-scene transitions.

We begin with a backdrop like huge sheets of blue graph paper.  A handheld microphone lies centre stage.  Electronic noticeboards hang over the stage, scrolling the captions for each scene. The mic is snatched up by Galileo himself.  As he begins to narrate, cast members run by, stripping him down to his boxer shorts.  As he washes himself, he instructs his landlady’s young son in the basics of his argument: that the Earth is not a fixed point at the centre of the universe; it moves and turns, as all stars do…  And so, the play begins with both man and his ideas laid bare before us.

As Galileo, evil emperor Palpatine off of Star Wars himself, Ian McDiarmid gives a towering performance.  We see the mathematician’s enthusiasm and delight along with his egotism, his boastfulness, his drive, his passion and his arrogance on almost a Dawkins-like scale.  This is a portrait of a man, painted with deft strokes and more naturalism than you might expect in a Brecht play.  In fact, in this world of plastic chairs and nifty red stepladders, the cast breathes life into the characters, making them more than mouthpieces for either side of the central argument.

That argument is uncannily topical.  It is astounding to me to know that in 2013 reason still faces such strong opposition from institutionalised superstition.   You only have to think back a fortnight or so and recall the fatuous arguments of the wilfully ignorant trying to bolster their bigotry against equal marriage with highly selective quotes from scripture.  You don’t have to watch the news for long to see countries where facts are stubbornly denied and contradicted by those who cling to superstition.  Change will damage society, these people claim, when what they really mean is their positions of power will be challenged.  On a smaller scale, my own Twitter feed is littered on a daily basis with horoscopes posted by people who, in other respects, seem intelligent and insightful. Brecht’s play, first presented in 1937, is very much a chronicle for the early 21st century.

An extra topical note the producers could not have foreseen is the changeover of popes.  Galileo looks forward to a less reactionary man in a pointy hat… I wish I could share his optimism.

In an excellent cast, I especially liked Matthew Aubrey as landlady’s son Andrea.  We watch him grow from curious young lad to fervent proponent of the new thinking.  Philip Whitchurch’s Barberini, Jake Fairbrother’s Ludovico, and Martin Turner’s Cardinal Inquisitor all lend weight and credibility to the ‘other side’; and there is a wonderfully comic moment from Patrick Romer as a ‘very old cardinal’ stomping around, knackering himself out, proclaiming he is the centre of the universe.  Jodie McNee is Galileo’s pious daughter – her repeated chanting of “Hail Marys” is disturbing, as she prays her dad will recant his heretical hypotheses.  Tom Scott’s design is simple and clean, like a new geometry set on the first day of school.  John Woolf leads the band of musicians in some raucous and rousing tunes.

It’s a provocative and compelling production.  Silbert and Ravenhill make Brecht accessible and enjoyable, but the evening belongs to McDiarmid – his performance is, dare I say, a tour de ‘Force’?

The Force is strong in this one.  Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

The Force is strong in this one. Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

Apache Effort

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6th August, 2012

On arrival in the Swan auditorium, you can’t fail to notice there’s a wigwam on stage. Interesting, you might think; you don’t expect tepees in a play about the Trojan War. But then you think, the besiegers of the ancient city spent year after year in tents.

But this is not the Greek encampment. This is Troy itself. In a curious blend of Native American tradition and modern day materials, the Trojans open the play. Sometimes, with Shakespeare, it can take your ear a few minutes to attune to the language, so I wasn’t too put off when I couldn’t follow the opening few lines – but then I found I wasn’t picking it up at all. For one thing, the actors were all mic’d up – you can’t tell who is speaking, which is a barrier to understanding. They also speak in a sort of atonal rhythm, which I assume is meant to recreate the patterns of the Apache tongue, but unfortunately, this monotonous delivery mangles the Shakespearean verse out of all recognition and mugs it of all meaning. They recite rather than act the lines. Precedence is given to the rhythm rather than the sense – they may as well have been infants in school reciting their times tables. Then, all of a sudden, they burst into chants about John Wayne and his false teeth. Ok…

There are video screens, playing scenes of Inuit and other ethnic groups, but the screens are too small to be watched properly and therefore add nothing to the production. In fact, if you try to watch them, you are distracted from the confusing action on the stage. I found it very easy to disregard them. Utterly pointless. Just another idea thrown into the pot.

Things pick up, momentarily, when the action shifts to the Greeks. How will they be represented, I wondered? Perhaps as the cavalry. Perhaps we were going to have a Little Big Horn kind of affair.

No. Not even a game of Cowboys and Indians.

The Greeks are in contemporary military gear, pale and faded desert uniforms, army boots and jaunty purple berets. Tellingly, these actors are not mic’d up. They project their voices and give some life to the language. The arrival of Ulysses (the wonderful Scott Handy) is a breath of fresh air, but then he is made to fake a choking fit and puff on an inhaler. It’s not funny. Many other heavy-handed attempts at humour follow – I only laughed once: when mighty Achilles fell off his hospital trolley bed and the cast scrambled to pick him up. I’m not sure this was meant to happen. They should keep it in.

This is a co-production between the RSC and an American company, the Wooster Group. Directed by Mark Ravenhill and Elizabeth LeCompte, two individuals who like the couple in a weather vane, I suspect have never met or interacted. Imagine Little Big Man directed by David Lynch and Pee Wee Herman. The different approaches clash horribly – and it’s not just a ‘clever’ way of representing the opposing sides in the conflict. This is more like keeping the audience under siege with an onslaught of ideas that don’t come off. After the interval there were quite a few empty seats as people took the opportunity to escape.

Scott Shepherd’s Troilus is very hard on the ear. I wonder if Stephen Hawking was his vocal coach. Just as tiresome is Marin Ireland as his paramour Cressida. (They are tepees in a pod! Hah!) She is a walking, talking alienation effect, playing most of her scenes like an animatronic Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. She runs around in circles while others try to have a conversation with her, an hyperactive child with all sorts of attention disorders.

Mighty Hector (the diminutive Ari Fliakos) has hints of Bob Dylan in his delivery and a stunning mullet Joe Dirt would be proud to sport. He’s another one given to running around in circles. The woman to my right leaned towards me and murmured, “It’s like watching The Hobbit.” Cruel, I thought, but fair.

Agamemnon (Danny Webb) spends the second half disguised as Crocodile Dundee. Achilles (Joe Dixon) doffs his white bath towel in favour of a full-length, blood red evening gown. Ajax (Aidan Kelly) poses as postures in a padded body suit, part time WWF wrestler, and part time heavy metal rocker. It is all rather embarrassing. Someone has watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest too many times.

I became punch drunk. By the time Andromache (Jennifer Lim) appeared to plead with her little husband not to fight, dragging the campfire behind her, I was on the verge of hysterics. “Mad cousin Cassandra” appears but is no less or no more comprehensible than the rest of the tribe. A bit of distortion on her mic does not a visionary make.

And still the thing showed no sign of ending. At three and a half hours it felt like the Trojan War itself would have been a lot easier to sit through. Experimental approaches are all well and good but I felt this one overran by about 180 minutes. It outstayed its welcome very quickly, a nonsensical mishmash of ideas, techniques and approaches that denies the play its meaning and its poetry.

As the audience filed out, I heard comments like “That’s three and a half hours I won’t get back” and quite a few expletives. I’m not against new approaches (companies like Kneehigh, Propeller and Oddsocks manage to stamp their own identity on a play without killing it) but there needs to be some kind of editing process and quality control so that the whole exercise is not just a self-indulgent project for the companies involved. This production would, I feel, have been better directed by sat-nav.