Tag Archives: Mark Shaun Walsh

Hired and Fired-Up

THE HIRED MAN

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 4th May, 2018

 

If Thomas Hardy upped sticks and moved north to Cumbria (or Cumberland, as it was known then) the chances are he would have come up with something very like Melvyn Bragg’s family saga about farm-workers and miners near Cockermouth.  There is plenty of Hardyesque bonhomie among the lower orders, strife from the owners, plus most crucially, a love triangle.

Ian Page is John, the eponymous hired man, newlywed to Emily (Jenne Rhys-Williams).  Page has a striking tenor voice and comes into his own later in the story with a plaintive song about his son.  Rhys-Williams, as female lead, bears the emotional brunt of the story, singing the gamut of feelings in a moving portrayal.  The couple is supported by lively turns from Anya McCutcheon as daughter May, and Will Page as stubborn son Harry.

Thom Stafford (no relation) is eminently likeable as John’s hedonistic brother Isaac, contrasting nicely with Gavin Whichello’s Seth, the other, more principled brother, trying to stir up interest in a miners’ union.

The rest of the ensemble get their moments too.  There is pleasing character work from Julian Bissell as the landowner and other roles; Ralph Toppin-Mackenzie as a vicar; Iona Cameron’s Sally gets a lovely duet with Emily about prospective lovers…

Mark Shaun Walsh is magnificent as the handsome, caddish Jackson Pennington, brimming with emotional intensity and vocal power.  His scenes with Rhys-Williams are electrifying, his characterisation so engaging, we care about the character’s fate, despite his transgressions.

Director Kirsteen Stafford (no relation either) works her ensemble of 12 hard and to great effect.  Group scenes are handled well and there are moments of brilliance: a slow-motion fight between John and Jackson while Emily emotes through song is particularly well realised (with fight direction by Thom Stafford).

Howard Goodall’s rich, stirring and moving score is performed by just two musicians.  Musical director Chris Davis and Maddy Evans sound like more than two, delivering all the colours of the music, achieving great variety in tone within a unifying piano-and-violin based sound.  The ensemble singing is beautiful where it needs to be, and rousing and atmospheric as the story demands.  Chris Lamb’s emblematic set evokes farm fences, pubs, the trenches… in an economic but versatile design.

It’s an involving, melodramatic piece with some good tunes, excellently presented, managing to be both intimate and epic in scale.  We get the sense of family and marital strife (universals) against the backdrop of a changing world – oh yes, the First World War rears its ugly and unnecessary head too, changing lives and circumstances forever.  It’s very moving too – expect to come away with wet cheeks!

Great stuff!

hired man

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Christmas Turkey

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th November, 2017

 

For their Christmas production this year, BMOS have chosen to mount this musical adaptation of a creaky old film, a perennial favourite – in the USA more than here perhaps.  The story of a department store Father Christmas who claims to be the real deal and is put on trial for his sanity.

Things are much worse over there than they are here – in terms of the commercialisation of Christmas, I mean.  Although… there are people here who get all excited about department stores’ Christmas TV ads and practically wet their pants to see a lorry delivering Coca-Cola… so the rot is definitely spreading!

Written by Meredith (Music Man) Willson, the show is a cracker that doesn’t bang.  The original songs are uniformly awful and unmemorable – for which I am grateful – and the book is leaden and cringeworthy.

Jo Smith (Doris, shopworker and single mom) and Matt Collins (Fred,ex-army, wannabe lawyer and child befriender) work hard to bring life to the clunky dialogue but they are acted off the stage by young Willow Heath as Susan.  Heath is spot on in terms of accent and intonation, and we are spared moments of saccharine sentimentality.  Stewart Keller’s Kris Kringle thaws as the action unfolds.  At first he’s a little pompous and you don’t know if he’s going to sell you a bucket of chicken or unleash resurrected dinosaurs.

Director Suzi Budd’s choreography gets interesting during a comic number (‘She Hadda Go Back’) performed by Fred and a bunch of marines.  Unfortunately, the song is totally extraneous in terms of plot development and should be cut – anything to shorten the show’s overly long running time.

John Spencer gives a pleasing turn as shop mogul R H Macy but there is one cast member whose performance is of a highly professional standard, in a detailed but larger-than-life characterisation and with a fully supported singing voice: the incomparable Mark Shaun Walsh as Doris’s uptight assistant Mr Shellhammer.  Walsh is an uplifting presence and a joy to behold.  BMOS are unbelievably lucky to have him in their ranks.  No offence to them, but I hope Walsh finds himself a professional engagement worthy of his talents.

The massive troupe work hard to keep things going are there are pleasing moments and amusing touches but I can’t help feeling they are flogging a dead reindeer with this turkey of a show.  The time, energy and resources of the company would be better focussed elsewhere, on material worthy of their attention.

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Stewart Keller, Jo Smith and Mark Shaun Walsh (Photo: Ariane Photography Studio)


Tapping Into Talent

42nd STREET

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 13th August, 2015

Stage Experience is an intensive two-week programme in which youngsters from across the region rehearse a full-scale production and have it fit for public consumption in a proper theatre. Hot on the heels of last year’s rip-roaring success, Footloose, comes this toe-tapping classic musical, where the score (by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) is better known with standard following standard. Also, the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is a lot of fun, bubbling with witty one-liners and amusing incidents. But does the young cast, like leading lady Peggy Sawyer herself, rise to the challenge of learning a show in no time at all and, in the process, make a star of herself?

You betcha!

From the opening, when the curtain rises to reveal a dense forest of legs all moving in step, and the rat-a-tat of tap shoes beats a tattoo, you know you are in for an exhilarating experience. There is something wonderful about tap-dancing but to see and hear it en masse is something else. And this is just the opening number!

Out of the hundred and ten performers – all of whom act with discipline and focus – individuals emerge. Mollie-Anna Riley is appropriately superior as the diva Dorothy Brock. Katie Gladwin impresses as the show’s ‘writer’ Maggie, with a mature performance that belies her young years and lack of previous experience. Matt Pidgeon is hypnotically good as tenor and head hoofer Billy Lawlor – this boy can dance and has a singing voice in keeping with the period of the piece. There is strong support from Kieran Palmer as Dorothy’s love interest, Pat Denning, Nicholas Jones as choreographer Andy Lee, and Chris Johnstone as Bert.

As the chorus girl getting her big break, Caprice Lane shines – despite a ropey wig – to bring out Peggy Sawyer’s talent, drive and clumsiness. We know, because of plot reasons, she’s going to succeed, but we still root for her just the same. Lane’s tap-dancing is second-to-none and she imbues the character with charm and humour.

The incomparable Mark Shaun Walsh plays Julian Marsh, the authoritarian director of the show-within-the-show. The accent is spot on – we expect nothing less – but Walsh portrays the tension of the character through his posture and delivery. We have to wait until well into the second act to be treated to his West End-quality singing voice, for the iconic Lullaby of Broadway. He also closes the show with a solo rendition of the title song and it gives you chills. This young man ought to have a stellar career ahead of him.

The show is a lot of fun – amusing material superbly presented. The stage can seem a little crowded at times, with the huge chorus crammed onto the apron, but the sea of bodies on the full stage is a spectacle in itself. Apart from the plethora of dodgy blonde wigs and a few missed microphone cues, everything is of such high quality, you’d think they’d been working on it since the curtain came down on their previous production.

Director and choreographer Pollyann Tanner works her magic once more and brings out the best in her enthusiastic and talented crowd. I’m already looking forward to next year’s offering.

42


Bringing Home The Bacon

FOOTLOOSE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 21st August, 2014

Familiar from the 1980s Kevin Bacon film, this is the story of Ren whose mother moves him from Chicago to the backwater town of Beaumont, where public dancing is banned by the town council, headed by a closed-minded but charismatic clergyman. Teenage rebellion is not far away, with newcomer Ren as the catalyst.

The New Alexandra’s STAGE EXPERIENCE project is an ambitious undertaking. A cast of 120 (that’s one hundred and twenty) youngsters flock on and off, every one of them giving their utmost. Director/choreographer Pollyann Tanner handles crowds with aplomb and also gets excellent performances from her main players, never for one second losing focus. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Matthew Russell leads the cast as Ren –an assured and skilful performance from this talented fifteen year old. Yes, that’s right: he’s only fifteen. He sings, dances and skips rope all at the same time without slipping a step, missing a note or stopping for breath. Great things must be ahead for this young man.

He is supported by a strong troupe of players. Molly Hope Williams (Ren’s mom) and Aneira Evans (Minister’s wife Vi) give their roles maturity and depth, and can certainly belt out the musical numbers when appropriate. Another belter is Georgia Anderson as preacher’s daughter Ariel (odd that he didn’t give her a Biblical name!), rebellious and misunderstood. Her “Holding Out For A Hero” is a rousing production number.

Outstanding is Nicole Appleby as fast-talking Rusty – she reminds me of Linda Lewis (oops, my age is showing) and her rendition of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” is a highlight. Callum Connolly’s Willard is a splendid study in character acting, consistent, engaging and rounded. His big number “Mama Says” is a divine moment, slickly interpreted and executed – I have seen professional productions that fall miles short of this quality.

Man of the match for me though is Mark Stuart Walsh as the Reverend. His rich, deep singing voice has power and subtlety, and his characterisation brings warmth and vulnerability to what is essentially the villain’s role.

It’s an exhilarating production; the energy just pours off the stage. I have only one quibble and that’s with the sound – With a stage full of kids singing their heads off, the vocals just drop in the mix and the band overpowers them. This means that some of the big moments are diluted.

When it is revealed that the show has been put together in less than a fortnight, you realise it is more towering an achievement than you first imagined. Everyone else in the business may as well just retire.

Matthew Russell (centre) as Ren

Matthew Russell (centre) as Ren