Tag Archives: Meera Syal

What a Croc!

PETER PAN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 20th December, 2018

 

Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre can be counted on to stage the biggest, brightest pantomime year after year and this year is no exception.  Peter Pan is a bit of a weird one, as pantos go, because we expect to see certain key plot points from the J M Barrie play along with traditional panto elements as befit the format.  There is no wedding celebration at the end, for example, because there is no couple of lovers; in fact, Peter and Wendy’s story ends with separation.  Bit of a downer, there, Mr Barrie.

Other than that, it is quite a good fit in this adaptation for the pantomime stage by Alan McHugh and director Michael Harrison.  Big, bold and extravagant, the Hippodrome panto is the jewel in the Qdos crown, but it doesn’t matter how much money you chuck at the stage, it doesn’t matter how big the Wow factor is, if the show doesn’t have any heart.

Rest assured, heart is not in short supply either, thanks to a superlative cast.

Back for his sixth year on the trot, funnyman Matt Slack almost dominates proceedings as Mr Smee.  With Slack, you know exactly what you’re getting, and you’re delighted to get it.  There is nothing slack about his comedic skills: a bit rude, a lot daft, and with exquisite timing.  His impressions are always impressive too.

Union J’s Jaymi Hensley is practically perfect as Peter, with his boyish good looks and angelic pop vocals.  I could listen to him all night.

jaymi

Pan-tastic: Jaymi Hensley

Cassie Compton makes an earnest Wendy, while Kellie Gnauck is an appealingly bratty Tinker Bell.  Meera Syal brings local colour to the show in her pantomime debut as the Magical Mermaid and is clearly enjoying herself immensely.  There are old-school variety acts courtesy of the remarkable Timbuktu Tumblers and a gravity-defying balancing act called the Drunken Pirates (Sascha Williams and his assistant Stephanie Nock).

The flying effects are as you’d expect but there are also some surprises.  Most impressive of all is the Crocodile, whose terrifying appearance brings the first act to a close.  Truly, the best I have seen.

The coup though is the casting of not-so little Jimmy Osmond in the role of Captain Hook.  Osmond is the embodiment of entertainment and one of those rare creatures, an American who gets pantomime.  He establishes an excellent rapport with Slack, the straight guy to the latter’s buffoonery, and he treats us with several songs from his brothers’ repertoire, for a rousing finale.

This spectacular affair is a lot of fun.  The comic song, If I Were Not in Neverland, brings the house down, and Slack’s handling of the four youngsters who come up on stage for the sing-along is always a highlight.

One thing I will say: the show could do with a wider range of costumes.  Captain Hook especially deserves an extensive wardrobe, and in the absence of a dame, the Magical Mermaid could do with some more outlandish outfits.

But never mind that.  This is a top-drawer production, an awfully big adventure that is hilarious and magical, demonstrating that what matters most of all is casting.  Get that right and everything else is a bonus.

jimmy osmond

Hooked on a feeling: Jimmy Osmond

 

 

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Anita and Me & I

ANITA AND ME

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th October 2015

 

Meera Syal’s partially autobiographical novel comes to the stage via this lively adaptation by Tanika Gupta. It’s the 1970s and Meena is growing up in a Black Country village; she’s already fed up with the demands of family life and so the chance to strike up a friendship with local ne’er-do-well Anita proves irresistible. There is more than a hint of Blood Brothers to it.

Bob Bailey’s set of terraced houses and discarded tyres is the backdrop for this working-class community, a tight-knit group who by and large have welcomed Meena’s family. When a new motorway threatens to run through the heart of the village, tensions break out. It doesn’t help that the official from the council is Punjabi. Racism, depicted early on as the comedy of ignorance, turns nasty and Meena at last sees Anita for what she is.

Mandeep Dhillon shines as Meena, carrying the show as the moody but imaginative teen, sulking and stamping around. Dhillon makes Meena endearing nevertheless.   Her rendition of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at a family gathering is a hoot. Jalleh Alizadeh is the pretty but ugly Anita, endowing her with enough of a spark that we hope Meena will help lift her out of her background.

Janice Connolly lends strong support as neighbour Mrs Worrall, and Amy Booth-Steel is twice the value as Anita’s grotesque mother and do-gooding shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod, whose true colours are revealed late in the piece. Joseph Drake convinces as tearaway Sam, disaffected by lack of opportunity, to the point of violence and Nazi salutes.   Ameet Chana and Ayesha Dharker are excellent as Meena’s parents – some characters are more rounded than others, which is fine, because we are seeing everything through Meena’s eyes.

There is much to enjoy – the 1970s references, the clash of cultures and some very funny lines. I can’t quite swallow how beautiful they keep saying the village is, given the Coronation Street stylings of the set, but this is more than a period piece, alas. The protests of the locals against the new motorway that is ‘inevitable’ have echoes in the ill-advised HS2 railway, working class youth are still disaffected, and the rise of racist nastiness is with us all over again – you can bet Mrs Ormerod is a UKIP voter these days.  The production’s fusion of cultures gives a positive message about Britain – a Bhangra rendition of My Old Man’s A Dustman goes down a treat.

Director Roxana Silbert delivers on the fun, the tension and above all the heart of this story of friendship and family. The whole cast exudes energy and fun but the evening belongs to Mandeep Dhillon in a star turn as a girl forced to grow up.

Bostin.

Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Don’t Mind If Ado

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 31st July, 2012


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, mothballed for a while, is back in business with this vibrant and colourful production of Shakespeare’s quintessential romantic comedy. Director Iqbal Khan sets the play in present-day India, a relocation that works very well – on the face of it. Issues of chastity and arranged marriages are at the heart of the conflict, and the caste system provides a ready-made underclass of servants and messengers other relocations have to struggle to accommodate.

There is an amusing pre-show as you settle into your seat – once you’ve dodged the washing lines in the aisles and there are more bicycles than in a chain of Irish pubs – and as soon as the play proper begins, the inflection and cadence of the Indian accents works very well with Shakespeare’s prose (and the verse too, in the dramatic scenes).

Madhav Sharma is a dignified but warm-hearted Leonato who opens his house to a troop of soldiers on their return from a victory in war. Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick is likeable enough although I couldn’t get past his resemblance to the young Boris Karloff. The joke about his name (“Bendy Dick”) is perhaps a little overused. Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio, coarse, vulgar henchman to the baddie, is an earthy characterisation. He is driven by his appetites and pisses like a racehorse. I’m not even joking. Villain of the piece is a brooding Gary Pillai as Don John the Bastard, setting himself apart from the verbal exuberance of the rest of this society and manipulating events towards tragedy. There is a hint of Yul Brynner and Lex Luthor about him (he’s bald, is what I’m trying to convey).

Big name draw, Meera Syal is perfectly cast as the sparky, witty Beatrice, wise-cracking but with an undercurrent of sadness and perhaps loneliness. She is elegant but fragile; her wise-cracks form a protective shield. She is not quite matched by Bhattacharjee’s Benedick but you still root for the pair to get together.

Where the production stumbles is with the physical comedy. The scenes in which Benedick and then Beatrice overhear about their supposed love for each other don’t realise their potential. In the first, there is too much of a little servant girl trying to hand the hiding Benedick the book he requested. In the second, the gossip is relayed by the loudspeaker of a mobile phone, robbing the conspirators of interaction and eye-contact. And why “Ursula” has been usurped by Verges, the supposedly elderly partner in the play’s cop duo, I don’t know.

The scenes with the Watch try to upstage the wonderful comic interplay of the script with some unfocussed and raucous ‘business’ out of keeping with the generally civilised conduct of the rest. I liked Simon Nagra’s Dogberry but mostly because he provides a lot of amusement in the pre-show.

At one point – the wedding scene – members of the audience are pulled up to sit on cushions. All well and good if they don’t sit there grinning as the drama unfolds. I found them a distraction from the main action.

On the whole though, it is an entertaining evening with Shakespeare’s dazzling script outshining everything. The look and sound of the piece is evocative and it was rather hot in the auditorium. All that was lacking was the aroma of cooked spices… I compensated for this oversight after the performance by directing my feet to the nearby Thespian’s Indian restaurant.