Tag Archives: Mark Shaun Walsh

Straight Acting

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 17th August, 2022

Less of a musical and more of a revue, this show which has enjoyed one of the longest runs in American theatre history, charts, through unconnected scenes, songs and vignettes, the course of love (true, or otherwise) of heterosexual people.  When theatre holds up a mirror to life, it either validates what it shows or poses questions.  Many people (straight ones) will recognise something of themselves in the character types and cliched moments on view, but from a queer perspective, the show takes on a completely different meaning.  This is what your lives are like, the show tells straight people, and you are living a narrow nightmare of convention, societal expectations and guilt trips.  The laughter of recognition should be followed through by a cringe or two at the very least. 

The cast of six (customarily the piece is performed by four) work hard to pull it off, and it requires a certain set of skills to swiftly establish characters and emotions at the drop of a hat.  Every member of this sextet has the talent, the skill – and the considerable energy it takes! – to deliver this demanding cavalcade of songs and sketches.

Jimmy Roberts’s score is serviceable rather than memorable, containing a variety of styles.  Some standout numbers include I Will Be Loved Tonight performed by Hannah Lyons, and Hey There, Single Gal/Guy in which a pair of disappointed parents lay a guilt trip on their son and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.

Recognising the undiluted heteronormativity of the piece, directors Mark Shaun Walsh and Neve Lawler give one of the songs an LGBTQ+ twist, showing that the gays can have long-term relationships too, and have the same fears and doubts as everyone else.  The number Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You, is beautifully sung by Walsh, and this feels like one of those moments of validation I talked about.  This tweak broadens the scope of the material.

There is also some relief where single life is not depicted as a terrible condition that must be cured as soon as possible: the second act opener Always A Bridesmaid has the wonderful Kimberley Maynard revelling in her independence in a rousing countryfied number.

Some of the material is old hat (men not stopping to ask for directions) but some of it is acutely observant.  The monologue of a divorced woman making a dating video is painfully funny and superbly delivered by Hannah Lyons.  It also goes to show how the world has moved on from the world of the show, now that apps like Tinder dominate the dating experience.  The libretto could do with an update to make it more directly relevant.

The cast take full advantage of this opportunity to showcase their skills: Jack Kirby as a husband and father who has transferred his affections to his car; Luke Plimmer and Anya McCutcheon Wells as a pair of elderly people meeting at a funeral, in the show’s most sentimental sequence.  All in all, it’s flawlessly presented, with musical duo Chris Arnold (piano) and Lizi Toney (violin) giving virtuoso performances of the score’s diverse demands.

Given the almost relentless parodying of heterosexuality, I write in the notebook I keep on my knee, “Is the writer gay?”.  At home I look up Joe DiPietro.  He is.  Ten points to me!

An enjoyable evening of laughter, with the occasional poignant moment.  To sum up: I liked it, it’s imperfect, needs change.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


All binge, no cringe

BLACKADDER II

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th June, 2021

My heart sinks a little when I hear theatre companies are tackling this kind of thing, more so when it’s a well-beloved series like Blackadder II – Will the production be no more than a patchy impression of the show, where the cast, no matter how good they may be, cannot possibly hope to emulate the iconic performances of the television stars?  And why should I drag myself out when the show is easily watchable at home?  (I’m not a fan of tribute bands, either!)

That being said, director Kevin Middleton, aware of the pitfalls, tackles the material with aplomb, making full use of a range of projected backcloths (cod-Elizabethan etchings designed by Colin Judges) thereby enabling almost instantaneous scene-changes (with a giddying effect) allowing the action to flow much as it would on the telly.  Middleton also restricts the set to furniture that can be wheeled on and off in seconds, and so there is an old-school, Shakespearean aspect to the staging, married with modern-day technology.  It gives the production its own style, and it works extremely well.

The task for the actors is meeting audience expectations and imbuing the well-loved characters with something of themselves.  As Edmund Blackadder, the most sarcastic man in Elizabethan England, Shaun Hartman channels rather than impersonates Rowan Atkinson, in a role that was tailor-made for Atkinson, and is note-perfect in his sardonic intonation, skilfully managing the verbal fireworks and dazzling hyperbole of his lines.  Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s script shines through, reminding us this is their best work, collectively and as solo writers.

Hartman is supported by a talented cast, notably a lively Katie Goldhawk as the spoilt and girlish Queen Elizabeth whose cruelty is never far beneath the surface.  Mark Shaun Walsh is an undiluted delight as Sir Percy Percy, making the role his own with high-camp imbecility and physical comedy.  The greatest departure from the TV version comes in Brian Wilson’s Lord Melchett, dispensing with the bombast of Stephen Fry’s portrayal in favour of a more understated interpretation.  It works very well, providing contrast with the excesses of the others.  Karen Leadbetter is brain-dead fun as Nursie, also appearing as Edmond’s formidable puritanical aunt – an excellent opportunity to display her range!  Becky Johnson is appealing as Kate/Bob in the show’s best episode, where Shakespearean transvestism drives the plot; and I also enjoyed Simon King’s monstrous Bishop of Bath & Wells and his charade-playing Spanish torturer.  Daniel Parker brings a Brummie edge to his Baldrick, demonstrating flawless comic timing in his reactions, while Paul Forrest’s villainous Prince Ludwig mangles the English language to hilarious effect.  Joe Palmer’s Lord Flashheart starts big and keeps growing, assisted by a ludicrous fright wig—The wigs and beards are hilarious, too.  Coupled with the backdrops, they give the show a cartoonish aspect.  As ever at the Crescent, the costumes (by Rose Snape and Stewart Snape) are superb and production values are high.

Special mention goes to the irrepressible Nick Doran, singing the theme song between episodes, including a bespoke version that starts the show, reminding us to switch off our phones etc.

There are some gloriously funny moments, expertly handled, culminating in a raucous rendition of a bawdy song at the end of the third episode.  This is when you realise they’ve pulled it off.  They’ve paid homage to one of the greatest TV shows of all time and made it their own, and it’s wildly entertaining and extremely funny.

Because each of the four episodes recreated here is self-contained, there is nothing in the way of character development and no through storyline.  The sitcom format demands that everything is reset to the status quo.  And so, it’s exactly like binge-watching a series.  After three episodes on the trot, Netflix asks if you’re still watching.  By the time we get to the fourth one, I have had my fill.  Consistently enjoyable though this production is, you can have too much of a good thing.

****

Blackadder (Shaun Hartman), Percy (Mark Shaun Walsh), and Baldrick (Daniel Parker) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

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


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.

p10

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