Tag Archives: Michael Hodgson

Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

Romeo and Juliet production photos_ 2018._2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC_248980

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 

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The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

Macbeth production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Richard Davenport _c_ RSC_245921

Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 


Plenty to Treasure

TREASURE ISLAND

The REP, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd December, 2016

 

A favourite book of mine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate adventure is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Bryony Lavery, which remains on the whole true to the original – in spirit as well as plot – while adding a fresh spin: Jim Lad is a girl.  She behaves like the heroic boy of the original but proudly defies the gender norms of the age – and why not?  There were female pirates aplenty (most notably Ann Bonney and Mary Reade) – the point is it’s the story that matters and not what the characters may or may not have in their breeches.  Similarly, Doctor Livesey is here a woman, which may be stretching a point historically, but levels the playing field somewhat in this male-dominated story.  Director Phillip Breen sets his production on the stage of an old theatre.  Trappings of stage and of ship are equally in evidence.  We are left in no doubt this is storytelling, and in keeping with the season, principal boys are fair game!

Breen and Lavery make no concessions to the family audience.  This is a dangerous, violent world, bloody and frightening – perhaps not suitable for pre-school children but anyone else should find it gripping, tense, and atmospheric.  There is a darkness to the production as much as the tale and it’s all the better for it.

Sarah Middleton is a plucky, heroic Jim with a sweet singing voice and boundless energy.  Michael Hodgson’s sinister Long John Silver stalks around, redolent with menace and treachery.  Does he really care for Jim or is it all part of his nefarious plotting?  The ambiguity keeps us guessing, although Lavery changes Silver’s fate and so robs him and his relationship with Jim of some of its complexity.   Tonderai Munyeyu is great fun as the dunderhead Squire Trelawney, while Sian Howard provides the perfect counterpoint as the level-headed Doctor.  Dan Poole’s Black Dog and Andrew Langtree’s Blind Pew are genuinely scary.  Dave Fishley appears in two broadly contrasting roles: his Billy Bones is marvellously evocative, a swashbuckling, larger-than-life pirate, while his Gray is hilariously the opposite.  Man of the match for me though is Thomas Pickles’s unhinged Ben Gunn, quarrelling with himself in a manner that is funny, alarming and endearing all at the same time.  Marooning someone is surely the pirates’ cruellest punishment.

Dyfan Jones’s compositions enhance the atmosphere.  The songs and shanties sound in keeping with the genre and period, just as Mark Bailey’s design is grubbily theatrical and reminiscent of the glorious illustrations you find in old editions of the novel.  Fight scenes (by Renny Krupinski) are fast and furious, fun when they need to be.  When even the parrot puppet (operated by Suzanne Nixon) can pluck out your eyes, you know this is not some cosy panto – That is not to say there is not humour, there is, but this arises from character rather than the imposition of artificial situations and routines.

A top-notch family show then, perhaps unsuitable for the very young, but if it’s a rollicking, superbly presented adventure you’re after this holiday season, you need to set sail for the REP and get on board with this excellent production.

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Aar, Jim Lass. Michael Hodgson as Long John Silver and Sarah Middleton as Jim (Photo: Pete Le May)

 

 


Acts of Violence

GET CARTER

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd March, 2016

 

The iconic British film was based on the novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis.  This production by Northern Stage returns to that source material but keeps the film’s title – for publicity reasons, I imagine.

Adapted by Torben Betts, this is a story of revenge.  Jack Carter, old school gangster, returns to his North-East home for his brother’s funeral.  While there, he investigates what happened and determines to make those who put Frank in a box pay.  He winkles out the bad guys and lets them have it.  That’s about the size of it.  It’s almost Jacobean, almost Greek tragedy – Jack’s lust for vengeance brings about his own destruction.

As the anti-hero, Kevin Wathen is utterly convincing, delivering the script’s more lyrical, beat-poetic passages as well as the harsh, four-letter dialogue, with menace and aggression.

In fact, this is the most sweary script you will hear outside of Berkoff.  If a word doesn’t begin with F, it begins with C, in a relentless barrage of hard language.  It establishes the milieu as a rough, tough world and, at times, it’s also funny.  Like being hit over the head with a Viz magazine.

Ever-present is Jack’s dead brother, Frank (Martin Douglas) – someone for our narrator to talk to, rather than addressing us directly.  We are very much in Carter’s mind.  Douglas is also a mean drummer, underscoring the action in a way that brings to mind recent film Birdman – as well as evoking the jazz of the period.

Amy Cameron is excellent as Jack’s orphaned niece Doreen – able to give as good as she gets verbally, but also vulnerable and afraid.  Victoria Elliott is also good as tart-with-no-heart Margaret and female gangster Glenda – unrecognisable in a change of wig.  It is Michael Hodgson’s characterisations that distinguish his mob boss Kinnear and Irish heavy Con.  This latter has a terrifying scene with young Doreen – the play is very much a slow-burner but moments of tension arise and are expertly handled by director Lorne Campbell.

I also liked Donald McBride’s comically sweary toff, Brumby, and the set (by 59 Productions Limited) evokes brutalised post-war Britain: a landscape of mounds of broken red bricks, viewed through the arch of a viaduct or railway bridge.  It is over this rubble that the characters pick their way, striving to be king of the tip.

It’s an uncomfortable watch and far from a good advertisement for humanity, and it runs a little longer than perhaps it needs to.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it as such, but it’s so stylish and well-executed (loved the shadows!), I can’t help but admire the production values and the performances.

Get Carter assaults the ears and leaves a nasty taste – a brutal tale of brutal folk in a brutal place.

get carter

Kevin Wathen (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


A Load of Cobblers

THE SHOEMAKER’S HOLIDAY

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 23rd December, 2014

 

Thomas Dekker’s 1599 comedy makes for an entertaining alternative to traditional festive fare.  A prologue, staged with wit and brio, states that the play is ‘naught but mirth’ and right from the off, you know you’re in for a good time.

However, there is more to the piece than funny caricature and satirical humour.  There are also poignant, touching moments and high drama.  Poor Jane (Hedydd Dylan) seems to be a role comprised almost entirely of tears and heartbreak.  Husband Ralph is sent off to war and is later presumed dead.  He (Daniel Boyd) returns, crippled and disfigured, in time to prevent Jane’s marriage to slimeball Hammon (Jamie Wilkes).

At the heart of the show is a sparkling performance from David Troughton, exuding goodwill and bonhomie as shoemaker and social climber Simon Eyre, accompanied by his grotesque wife Margery – an hilarious turn from Vivien Parry, evoking the best of Julie Walters.

Joel MacCormack is the spirited and likeable cheeky chappie, Firk, bringing energy to his scenes.  Josh O’Connor’s young Lacy is also good fun, disguised as a Dutchman, in a credible comic performance, light years away from the mock-the-foreigner excesses of Allo Allo.  I loved the quiet strength of Michael Hodgson’s Hodge – the decency of the working man wrapped up in some neat touches of physical comedy.

There is a wealth of bawdy humour – even a flatulent character revelling in the name of Cicely Bumtrinket – but even in their vulgarity, we are drawn to the characters’ humanity.  The play celebrates the lower orders rather than holding them up for ridicule and censure

Sandy Foster’s Sybil is a force to be reckoned with – indeed this could be said of the entire company.  The stage is alive with energy.  Young boy William Watson looks perfectly at home with his elders – I doubt anyone gets better performances from child actors than the RSC.

Director Phillip Breen handles the subplots with the dexterity of a master chef keeping  several pots on the boil at once and I think the clarity of the production and its language owes a great deal to designer Max Jones.  Somehow the period costumes (all of them fabulous) convey the world of the play and assist our understanding in a way you don’t get when productions are translated to anachronistic times and other places.

Jack Holden’s King is more than a deus ex machina who shows up to bring resolution.  Holden makes a striking impression in a fully realised characterisation that is both funny and elegant, and he barely has to flex a regal muscle to remind us who is in charge in a chilling display of power.

Enjoy your days off and celebrate while you can, the play says.  There are forces out there that govern the way the lives of ordinary people turn out in order to further their own interests.

Success at 'last' - David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)

Success at ‘last’ – David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)


The Madness of War

CATCH 22

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th May, 2014

 

Joseph Heller’s story has appeared as a novel and as a film. This stage adaptation encapsulates the feel of both of those while at the same time being an effective piece of theatre in its own right. We follow the experiences of Yossarian, an everyman caught up both in a war and the bonkers bureaucracy of the men in charge. Philip Arditti plays it sardonically for the most part, until the absurdity of the situation pushes Yossarian to the limit. Arditti is the lone sane voice in this mad world and when he tries, literally, to divest himself of the craziness around him, as a human being laid bare, the rules and regulations of this crazy society won’t let him be.

Jon Bausor’s corrugated iron set is dominated by a bisected aeroplane in and around which the action takes place. Scott Twynholm’s sound design helps to keep us on edge. We flit from office to brothel to war zone and the actors elide from character to character by swapping hats or spectacles. The transitions are slick; scenes blend and jar, as though we are in Yossarian’s consciousness. Director Rachel Chavkin lays the craziness bare, keeping the action focussed and not overburdened with gimmicks and ‘cleverness’. An example of what works really well is when soldiers start dancing in place, symbolising their adherence to rules of behaviour, their subjugation to someone else’s tune.

Supporting the excellent Arditti is a strong ensemble, each member of which doubles up on roles. Very funny is David Webber’s Major Major who would rather defenestrate himself than receive visitors in his office; Michael Hodgson’s Colonel Cathcart is a jobsworth on a monstrous scale; Christopher Price’s Milo Minderbinder is the capitalist on the make, exploiting the war for personal profit. Heller’s work is remarkably relevant outside of the context of war!

The absurdity of bureaucracy and the horrors of war intermingle to create a very funny, sometimes shocking, always engaging night at the theatre. It perhaps makes all its points well before the running time elapses but you don’t really mind numbness in the bum when your mind is both tickled and dismayed by Northern Stage’s high quality production.

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Philip Arditti (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

 

 


Toys’ Story

THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th December, 2012

The RSC’s Christmas family show this year is Tamsin Oglesby’s adaptation of Russell Hoban’s 1968 novel for children.   Hoban, I have found, is an acquired taste – and one which I have yet to acquire.  Presented on stage before my very eyes, the similarities with the works of Samuel Beckett are plain to see – and, guess what, I’ve never really taken to Beckett either.

Angela Davies’s set is magnificent; its circles and holes and suspended cotton reels and so on, suggest all at once the cosmos, the cogs and components of clockwork, and also gives us a sense of scale.  The toy and animal characters are the size of human actors, of course – their microcosm is a representation of our world, our society.

It begins with the clockwork toys, the titular Mouse and his Child waking up – or becoming aware – in a toy shop.  Right away we are plunged into Beckettian questions of existence.  The absurdist nature of life soon becomes apparent and runs through the entire piece.  As I said earlier, I’m not a Beckett fan.  We get glimpses of Vladimir and Estragon, and Pozzo and Lucky, for example – even the supporting chorus members are dressed as tramps.

But the material is also familiar in other ways.  I couldn’t stop thinking about A. I. (Artificial Intelligence) in which the constructed character seeks validation and recognition as a living being in his own right – which is itself derivative of Pinocchio.  Indeed, the Mouse and the Child are forced to perform, much as the little wooden boy had to for Stromboli.  In this instance, it’s within a rather avant garde theatre company run by two crows and a parrot, who in turn brought to mind the Crummles from Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby... There is something Dickensian too about the milieu in which the protagonists find themselves.  The baddie, Michael Hodgson as Manny the Rat, has more than a hint of Fagin about him as he despatches his band of rats to steal and scavenge bits and bobs.  The Mouse and the Child long to be self-winding just as Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy.  It’s all a metaphor for growing up and being independent, but also having free will as living beings.

The costumes are inconsistent in their effectiveness.  I couldn’t tell what some of the characters were meant to be; had it not been for the captioning for the deaf, I may never have known that the two cloaked figures with Merseyside accents were supposed to be hawks, but on the whole the production is a visual delight – and an aural one too, thanks to the marvellous musicians who remain on stage and complement the action with cartoon-like sound effects.

I particularly liked Carla Mendonca as the graceful, dignified maternal figure, an elephant on roller skates, and Daniel Ryan as the Mouse makes a warm-hearted Dad.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t warm to Bettrys Jones as the Child.  I found the characterisation too shouty and too strident.  There needs to be moments of cuteness and vulnerability.  Long before the end, I found I didn’t care what happened to him.  David Charles is likeable as a kind of new age hippy weirdo frog, who prophecises doom and success in equal measure, complete with 1960s psychedelic effects. Julia Innocenti provides a neat comic turn as Ralphie, a rat unhindered by his lack of intelligence, and the entire company clowns around energetically.  There is a fight scene to evict the baddies from the doll’s house (like routing the weasels from Toad Hall) that is an orgy of cartoon violence and very funny. Paul Hunter’s direction gives us moments of inventiveness and humour in a scattergun approach.  Not all the gags hit the mark but those that do keep you interested.

Michael Hodgson dominates as the quirky Manny who is cured of his evil compulsions when his plan to burn everyone to death backfires and results in a dose of electro-shock therapy.  This is just one of the many moments of darkness in the piece.  It’s no cute and cuddly adventure and it certainly isn’t twee.  I just wasn’t won over by the material, despite the talent, energy and creativity that went into the performance.

Michael Hodgson (Manny)