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Spot On

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017

 

Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year.  Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution.  Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint.  Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.

Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own.  Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness.  Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world.  Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations.  Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.

Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention.  Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her.  Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!

Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood.  Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat.  But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side.  The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.

Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings.   A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.

James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.

All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years.  It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

pan in scarlet

Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)