Tag Archives: Matthew Kelly

Bostin’ Austen


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th November, 2017


Not the Donald Trump story but Jane Austen’s finest and funniest novel, brought to the stage in this touring production by Regent’s Park Theatre, in a sparkling adaptation by Simon Reade.

Reade captures the wit of the dialogue and the spirit of each character, and director Deborah Bruce includes moments of broader comedy, as well as linking scenes with stylised sequences that evoke both period, character and storytelling.  Choreography plays a huge part in creating atmosphere and adding to the fun, courtesy of movement director Sian Williams and beautiful, haunting music composed by Lillian Henley.  The characters, dressed by Tom Piper, inhabit the elegant revolving set (designed by Max Jones) – decorative railings and sweeping staircases serve for all locations, aided by Tina Machugh’s expressive lighting.  Production values are high and the excellent cast lives up to them.

Felicity Montagu is in superb form as Mrs Bennet, desperate to marry off her five daughters to whomever crosses their path.  Matthew Kelly is equally delightful as her long-suffering husband and the indulgent father of his brood.  Of the girls, Hollie Edwin certainly looks the part as the pretty one, Jane, and Mari Izzard bounces around as the spirited one, Lydia.  Of course, it is Elizabeth who is our focus, winningly played by Tafline Steen, tempering Elizabeth’s headstrong nature with charm and humour.  Benjamin Dilloway towers over proceedings as a sour-faced but handsome Mr Darcy and it’s not long before we are willing the pair to get together, in this quintessential rom-com.

There is strong support from Steven Meo as the insufferable parson Mr Collins and Daniel Abbott is a suitably dashing and roguish Mr Wickham.  Dona Croll impresses as the haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh, a forerunner of Lady Bracknell, and I also like Kirsty Rider’s snobbish Miss Caroline.

Elizabeth and Darcy may be the stars but it is the double-act of Montagu and Kelly, two seasoned performers with exquisite comic timing, that have the star quality among this comparatively young and inexperienced ensemble.  Mr and Mrs Bennet are a joy to behold.

Delivered with a lightness of touch, this is an utterly charming evening at the theatre, a refreshing retelling of the classic tale.  Austen seems as fresh and funny as she ever was and her wry observations of human nature, albeit in a rarefied and bygone milieu, still delight and ring true.


Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly stealing the show (Photo: Johan Persson)

Urbane Fox


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd July, 2015


Trevor Nunn’s new production of Ben Jonson’s 1606 comedy is contemporary in setting and feel.  It is our world of smart phones and tablets, of ECG machines and CCTV.  The text too has been tweaked to include present-day references to the Grecian economy, for example, bringing the satire up-to-date.  The point is to remind us that human nature has not changed.  The flaws and foibles Jonson satirises remain all too current.

Volpone is a con artist, fleecing avaricious types who seek to inherit his fortune.  You can almost see the pound signs in their eyes as they flock to what they think is his death bed.  In the title role, Henry Goodman is magnificent, smooth and slick; his Volpone has an innate sense of fun.  He is a conman we can admire – part of the enduring appeal of stories about confidence tricksters is our enjoyment of the cleverness of the scam, being in on it with the tacit acknowledgment that we, the audience, would never be duped… And, of course, the victims deserve what they get; they are terrible people.

The excellent Matthew Kelly is Corvino, a jealous, abusive tyrant of a husband, who turns out to be willing to whore out his wife if it means he will be named Volpone’s heir.  Geoffrey Freshwater is in good form as the doddering Corbaccio, willing to disinherit his own son in order to secure Volpone’s riches.  We enjoy seeing these men stitched up, due to Goodman’s splendidly timed asides and hilarious fakery.  A baldie wig and no small amount of drooling work wonders.  True, Volpone too is motivated by avarice but his victims are taking advantage of what they presume is a feeble invalid at death’s door.  Where Volpone oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable is when he attempts to force himself on Corvino’s comely Mrs, Celia (Rhiannon Handy).  This is why Volpone has to be punished at the end.

Goodman is a thoroughly charming silver fox and each disguise he assumes is audaciously funny, for example the Italian mountebank who mangles the English language into something that sounds ruder than it is.  Volpone is aided and abetted by his able sidekick, Mosca (the elegantly expressive Orion Lee) – a bit like Clouseau’s Cato but without the impromptu karate attacks.

Annette McLaughlin is funny as the grotesque Lady Politic Would-Be, here portrayed as a self-obsessed reality TV diva, complete with cameraman in tow.  The ever-appealing Colin Ryan makes Peregrine a likeable American backpacker, and Andy Apollo makes Bonario a dashing heroic figure.  The peculiar trio of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite (Jon Key, Julian Hoult, and Ankur Bahl, respectively) add a bizarre touch of colour to proceedings.  Every home should have such a trio.

The action shifts along at quite a lick – you barely notice the running time – and the show belongs to Henry Goodman, in the most entertaining performance of the RSC’s current season.  Jonson turns moralist at the end as the judges mete out punishments left, right and centre.  We are admonished to look to our own conduct.  It is one thing to enjoy the vices of others, vicariously at the theatre, but quite another to indulge in those vices in our real lives.

Orion Lee helping Henry Goodman look his worst.  (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Orion Lee helping Henry Goodman look his worst. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Maltese Crossed


The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th April, 2015


Christopher Marlowe’s play, which has a Jew as the villain, is not staged anywhere near as often as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – perhaps we find Shylock more palatable to our modern sensibilities. While we can understand the motivation of Marlowe’s Barabas, his path of vengeance and destruction renders him inhuman – psychopathic, even.

Forced to surrender his fortune in order to pay the state’s protection money to the Turks, Barabas soon bounces back, and sends his spirited daughter Abigail undercover as a nun into the nunnery his house has been turned into, to dig up his secret stash of gems and gold. With these he is able to rebuild his fortune – but that is not enough. He embarks on a plan of revenge on all those who have wronged him. The son of the governor is set up in a duel with a rival that ends fatally. A priest is framed for the murder of a friar. The nuns are wiped out by poisoned porridge…

It’s melodramatic stuff but Justin Audibert directs with a sense of humour and the result is a very black comedy indeed. As the titular Jew, Jasper Britton portrays a delicious kind of evil in a compelling performance. He is aided and abetted by his henchman, Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu, who uses physicality to add humour to his characterisation). Catrin Stewart is powerful as Barabas’s loud and strident daughter and there is excellent support from Matthew Needham as pimp to Beth Cordingly’s jaded hooker, Bellamira. Marcus Griffiths cuts a dash as the imperious Turk, Calymath, while Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly vie amusingly with each other for Barabas’s soul and gold coins as two supposedly holy men.  Particularly striking is Annette McLaughlin as Katherine, grieving for her murdered son.

Oliver Fenwick’s sunny lighting gives us the brightness and warmth of the Maltese climate, bouncing off Lily Arnold’s paving stone set. Jonathan Girling’s music, performed live, is both evocative and beautiful, and the fight sequences by Kevin McCurdy have the front rows flinching in their seats.

Marlowe gives his villain all the best lines – Barabas is able to be scathing about religion and people who profess to be Christians but behave contrary to their faith (reminding me of our current and hopefully outgoing government!). “Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion,” says Barabas. He is not wrong.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which Barabas’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. Moving along at a cracking pace, with plenty of laughs and shocks along the way, the show is as entertaining as you could wish.

To hear the word ‘Jew’ as an insult and disparaging term, makes us wince. We like to feel we are more inclusive and that there is less anti-Semitism around – but then I recall that only the other day the Tories had to sack one of their own for saying she would never support ‘the Jew Ed Miliband’ and I despair.

Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Passion Play


The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 27th April, 2015


There’s often a reason why a play isn’t performed for centuries: it’s not very good or its day has come and gone and there is nothing of relevance to it. With this in mind, I settle into my seat at the RSC’s Swan and try to keep an open mind.

John Ford (you know, him – he wrote Tis Pity She’s A Whore) gives us a tragedy, the likes of which opera has been thriving on for yonks. Two best friends, one woman, loved by both but married by one… It can only end badly.

Matthew Needham is excellent as The Duke, whose emotions are never far from the surface. He is an exuberant hedonist, when things are going his way, but there is the suggestion he could become unhinged at any moment – we see flashes of his violent temper. His bride Bianca (Catrin Stewart) is perky and lively, and obeys her husband’s instructions to treat his bff Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) like a second husband, in all ways except one, of course! Bianca and Fernando get the hots for each other but never consummate their passion, despite a few stolen moments – enough to get the villain of the piece plotting and scheming. Stewart and King go through the anguishes of love without the pleasure, matching Needham’s emotional outpourings in intensity. As the villain D’Avolos, Jonathan McGuinness is a snide and unctuous presence, Iago with an admin job – and it almost looks like he will get away with it.

There is a couple of subplots, one of which ends horribly. Arrogant womaniser Ferentes (Andy Apollo making an impression) gets his comeuppance in a masque, when three of his conquests decide to have a stab at vengeance. Superannuated fop Mauriccio (an exquisite Matthew Kelly) has a happier ending – if banishment and marriage are anything to go by – and his relationship with Brummie servant Giacopo (Colin Ryan) is both funny and touching. Kelly and Ryan are a little and large double act with perfect comic timing – I find I am more moved by the resolution to their story than I am to the main plot.

Beth Cordingly is strong as strident widow Fiormonda, and Marcus Griffiths’s Roseilli, banished but comes back disguised as a simpleton, cuts a dash, but is too removed from the main action – This is a fault of the writer.

On the whole, it’s a watchable, rewarding piece with passions running as high as the production values and well worth sacrificing an evening to see. Anna Fleischle’s design conveys the period beautifully, but the projections on the back wall add little beyond mood lighting – I am too busy watching the actors to take much notice of these effects. There is, for my taste, a little too much of the discordant music. Director Matthew Dunster interrupts the action with interludes of dumb show – I could do without these. He also adds many humorous touches, heightening the comedy to match the intensity of the drama.

Many of the plot points can be traced to Shakespeare but I come away thinking about the great Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, a playwright The Swan would do well to feature – in translation, of course!

Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be... (Colin Ryan and Matthew Kelly.  Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…
(Colin Ryan and Matthew Kelly. Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Class War


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 22nd October, 2013

E R Braithwaite’s autobiographical story covers familiar ground.  It’s not the first tale (and definitely not the last) to deal with an unruly class of kids who are eventually tamed by an unconventional teacher.  There are ups and downs and plenty of respect is earned along the way.  The storyline has become something of a cliché but at least Braithwaite actually lived it.

Set in those first few years of optimism after the end of WW2, the production brings to light many parallels with today’s education system and indeed society beyond.  Headmaster Florian (Matthew Kelly, effortlessly exuding warmth and status) looks forward to some of the more progressive methods of the 60s and 70s – the audience finds itself looking back.  Our incumbent Secretary of State for Education seems hell-bent on a return to the kind of rote-learning and imparting of useless facts against which Florian fights so passionately.  Braithwaite learns the hard way that Florian’s methods and philosophy reap dividends and he blossoms in tandem with his charges.  He’s an unqualified teacher and the play demonstrates very clearly the pitfalls a lack of professional training can bring.  Braithwaite learns that it’s not enough to spout about 19th century art and literature, just because that is what he encountered during his own schooling.

And so the play, rather than evoking nostalgia, stirs us with its relevance.  Outside school, Braithwaite faces racial prejudice and while we can say we have come a long way (the gasps of dismay and shocked laughs from the audience whenever a racist remark is made on stage, for example) there is still prejudice within our supposedly enlightened society, casual and institutionalised.  Look at our government’s approach to immigration, for example, and the myths perpetrated to foster prejudice and ignorance.

As Braithwaite, Ansu Kabia is a dignified presence, keeping a lid on his outrage and exuding humour and warmth.  The scenes he share with Matthew Kelly are particularly strong.  He is supported by a class of unruly teenagers – and it’s pleasing to hear that their accents are in keeping with the period too.  Harriet Ballard’s Monica is funny as a character study as well as for her role in the drama. Mykola Allen leads the resistance as Denham, the toughest nut to crack, and Kerron Darby is equally effective as mixed race Seales.  Paul Kemp spouts most of the unsavoury slurs as old-school (heh!) teacher Weston, who also learns to respect the kids and Braithwaite as people.

The kids dance and jive (lindy-hopping or something like that) through the scene transitions, keeping the energy levels high.  Mike Britton’s set reminds us of the bombings London endured, but also suggests an institution in ruins – by extension, the education system in this country.  Director Mark Babych delivers the heart-warming payoff you expect, keeping mawkishness at bay – that’s the beauty of Ayub Khan Din’s adaptation of Braithwaite’s book: it evokes the era but also reflects our present.  The production satisfies our expectations of this type of story but also has a salient point to make about the nation today.


Penned-up aggression: Ansu Kabia and Mykola Allen disagree over an item of stationery

Lessons from the Past

Malvern Theatres, Malvern, Monday 14th May, 2012

This revival of Willy Russell’s first big hit, starring Matthew Kelly as boozy lecturer Frank and Claire Sweeney as wannabe intellectual hairdresser Rita, is like going back in time to the early 1980s. Some lines have been updated by Russell – Rita makes a joke about ‘fusion’ cuisine, for example – but on the whole, this is now largely a period piece.

Matthew Kelly warms to his portrayal of the alcoholic Frank, in much the same way that Frank warms to Rita as the illicit stash of Scotch warms his personality. The play opens with him speaking to himself, searching his bookcases for a hidden bottle, and it’s a theatrical moment that goes against the naturalistic flavour of the rest of the piece. But, as I said, he settles into the role and we can’t help liking him. This I feel has more to do with Kelly’s presence as an actor than the writing of this jaded and cantankerous booze hound. Frank is a figure in decline. Not so much a has-been as a never-was. His enthusiasm is reignited by the arrival of scatty but bright hairdresser Rita, who yearns to better herself via the Open University.

At first, I thought Claire Sweeney was playing it too hard-faced (an uncharitable gentleman seated behind me complained that she is too old; Rita is thirty-one) but on reflection, her entrance and her demeanour are entirely appropriate. Rita comes from the mean streets where money is tight, aspirations don’t exist and drink and drugs abound. That would age a person, make them harder. All the more effective then is her transformation as the course in Literary Criticism progresses. By the end, she is a confident, erudite and sophisticated woman, retaining her natural wit and warmth.

Not having seen the play for decades, I was struck by how bitty it is. Scenes are short – some of them only a few seconds – Claire Sweeney has several very quick changes to perform while onstage, Matthew Kelly merely changes his cardigan. Having seen more of Willy Russell’s output in the meantime, I could recognise his signature theme: how the working class holds itself back, how it is down to the individual to struggle against peer pressure and break out of the confines of the class structure. Rita, having trained as a hairdresser, wants more than her lot. She intimates that this disaffection is more widespread – her own mother has lapses and mourns the poor quality of life – but Rita has the will to do something about it.

Of course, what she becomes is questionable too. Frank realises his Pygmalion figure has become Frankenstein’s monster. Rita has progressed beyond his tutelage. Her star is in the ascendancy; his is in retrograde. She passes her exam; he is shipped off on a sabbatical to Australia as penance for his booze-fuelled misdemeanours. The play ends with a clumsy bit of innuendo. She is going to take ‘ten years off him’. She kneels in front of him… then takes her professional scissors from her back and holds them up. The way this was staged looked like she was about to castrate him – although perhaps she already has.

I was surprised that it was the performances that kept me engaged rather than any argument in the play. Some of the quips are a little too forced, in that sardonic Carla Lane kind of way. Tamara Harvey’s direction brings out the affection the characters develop for each other in a friendship that transcends the barriers of class and education. Perhaps this is the strongest point made by the play: the common humanity of people whatever their background. It was pleasant to revisit Rita and Frank after all these years but their story has lost some of its impact, in a way that an earlier Russell work, Stags & Hens, has not.

An American horror story

Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 22nd November, 2011

This revival of an early work by American dramatist Sam Shepard is spot on. The tone is exactly right. A very strong cast breathe life into the oddball characters in a way that makes them seem realistic and disturbing in that realism. They could have wandered in from the set of Twin Peaks or any other David Lynch production, for that matter.

The set, a sparsely furnished living room in a remote Illinois farmhouse, is overshadowed by a field of corn. Tall, emaciated plants hang over the characters’ lives like desiccated triffids. This cornfield descends as a curtain to cover the transitions between the three acts, a constant reminder of the mysterious event that has shaped all of their lives. This is not a case of something nasty in the woodshed but buried in the soil out back.

As the title prefigures, this dread secret is bound to come to light, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy and as the story unfolded, I found myself reminded of other works by other playwrights: the inner life of the characters, the thought sequences are like a blue-collar Arthur Miller. If Willy Loman had been a farmer he would have fitted right in, on the sofa beside debilitated patriarch Dodge (a splendid Matthew Kelly who manages to dominate the scene even though he never stands up throughout the play). The incest and infanticide suggest Tennessee Williams in the boondocks – all of these comparisons have been made by others elsewhere, but for me, the play has strongest kinship with Harold Pinter. The Homecoming in particular sprang to mind: The dysfunctional family, the lack of communication, the menacing undertones, the violent outbursts, a member of the younger generation bringing his female partner to meet the family… It’s all there.

How Shepard makes this his own is more than using the American idiom. With symbolism Henrik Ibsen would be proud of, he teases out and exposes details of these damaged people’s circumstances. More questions are raised than are answered. The overall effect is devastating but you’re not sure why exactly. He uses the three-act structure to show we cannot possibly know people and their lives and motivations in so neat a package and by extension, we cannot possibly fully know other people’s lives at all.

The set is as impressive as the cast. Light shines up through the cracks in the floorboards – more symbolism: the secret coming to the surface. Among the impressive troupe is Michael Beckley’s one-legged Bradley ( the limb was lost in some nebulous incident with a chainsaw). His first entrance is in silence. He manipulates his artificial leg so he can stoop to plug in his clippers in order to cut his father’s hair while he sleeps. It is a scene redolent with menace and humour, grotesque and thrilling. Catrin Stewart as girlfriend-brought-home Shelly is very much our eyes, asking the questions the audience wants to ask. That the answers don’t come and that she has more to her than meets the eye conflate the intrigue.

Director Paul Kerryson delivers a powerful evening at the theatre. That you’re puzzling it out all the way home is not a criticism. This is an engaging production that makes you want to understand. The cleverness of the writing means we are afforded the opportunity to fill in the gaps ourselves. Like Shelly, we piece together our own version of events.

How much of it was real? How much of it memory? And whose memory?

Don’t ask me!