Tag Archives: Mike Kenny

Magic Moments

WINNIE AND WILBUR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017

 

The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.

Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson).  She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example.  The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect.  A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight.  Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.

Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.

Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal.  Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner.  Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.

She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble.  Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy.  Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home.  Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma.  The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes.  The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.

I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.

Sophie Russell (Winnie), Ben Thompson (Wilbur) and Ed Thorpe

Sophie Russell and Ben Thompson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Christmas Carroll

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 6th December, 2016

 

Lewis Carroll’s classic dose of nonsense, word play and silliness poses at least one problem for those who wish to adapt it for the stage.  Chiefly, it offers very little in the way of plot or character development.  It is basically one strange thing after another until (spoiler!) Alice wakes up.  It’s a dream and dreams, by and large, don’t have narrative structure or make much sense.  Writer Mike Kenny addresses this problem by framing the visit to Wonderland in a present-day setting.  Alice is a young teen facing an ‘important’ exam.  The pressure placed on children to pass tests at various (too many) stages in their education is something to which we can all relate.  No wonder she is having troubling dreams!

Abby Wain is a marvellous Alice, our guide through all the strangeness.  Relatable, expressive and self-reliant, Alice is our touchstone for what is ‘normal’ in the weird world that surrounds her.  Along the way, she meets outlandish characters who are reminiscent of people from her real life.  Among them is Jack Quarton’s twitchy white rabbit, John Holt Roberts and Paula James as Tweedles Dee and Dum, and Joanna Brown’s imperious and tyrannical Queen of Hearts, whose remarkable costume would not be out of place on a fashion show catwalk!  Neil Irish’s costumes bring colour and style to the blackboard set.  Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter is a dapper figure, sporting a kilt and playing the bagpipes – they’re a versatile bunch, these actor musicians – and he’s in great voice too.  Ivan Stott’s original songs are all catchy and fun in a range of upbeat styles.  A highlight for me is the Duchess’s Act One closing number, given plenty of welly by Elizabeth Eves, a perfectly pitched piece of character acting.  It’s also fun to see Tweedledee and Tweedledum rocking out with electric guitars and Mohawks.

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Dominic Rye’s Mad Hatter enjoys tart an’ tea.

There is much to enjoy here.  Mike Kenny intersperses lines and rhymes from Lewis Carroll with poetry of his own, giving us the key scenes we expect to see: the tea party, the caucus race, the trial, the croquet match, and the caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat (both played by a lively Keshini Misha).  Director Sarah Brigham makes inventive use of the theatre’s revolve and there is canny staging of Alice’s changes of size, and her fall down the rabbit hole is daringly presented with breath-taking circus skills.

I do think greater contrast could be made between Alice’s real life and the surreal land of her dreams.  Her real life is stylised, as befits a musical, but it’s essentially the same space and means of presentation as the supposed weirdness of Wonderland.  I would have gone the Wizard of Oz route if I was in charge.  But I’m not.

By the end, we feel like we’ve been treated to spectacle and entertained by an energised bunch of talented performers.  Alice comes to a kind of self-awareness and is able to put the Big Scary Exam into perspective – a valuable message, delivered in an irresistibly enjoyable way.

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Alice (Abby Wain) in a key scene. KEY SCENE!!… Suit yourselves.

 


Homeward Bound

Mike Kenny’s new version of The Odyssey condenses 20 years of travel and adventure into two hours of stage time.  The first act, which deals with Odysseus’s journey, certainly benefits from a fast pace, giving us the key episodes of the epic voyage in brief scenes.  A chorus of gods is our narrators while the man himself lies spark out centre stage.  As the action gets under way, Odysseus becomes his own storyteller, narrating a story within a story – but don’t worry: it’s all very accessible and easy to follow.

It’s action-packed and fast-moving with some stirring acapella  singing from soloists and the entire company.  Composer and sound designer Ivan Stott should be commended for his excellent contributions.  He also appears as a range of characters, including Eumaeus the swineherd.

Director Sarah Brigham hardly lets the cast keep still for a second; the action is fluid and the staging is rich with invention and ideas, making the most of the present-day army aesthetic.  But for me, the tone is slightly off.  Some of the narration and heightened dialogue is a little too earnest and po-faced.  The piece could do with lightening up – that is not to say it is humourless because it has its funny moments; I just think the bias is the wrong way round.  They need to have more fun with it so that moments of anguish and suffering are all the more striking by contrast.

Christopher Price is a darkly funny Cyclops, stalking around on stilts, half-man, half-Dalek.  Wole Sawyerr is a weary Odysseus, conveying most of the hero’s exhaustion through body language, summoning up yet another idea to save their skins and finding the energy to command his crew.  He seems to come alive in the second act when the plot slows down to focus on events upon his much-delayed return to his home on Ithaca.  Here is human drama – as opposed to the derring-do with gods and monsters in the first act – and the cast is able to invest more emotion in the playing of these scenes.

Emma Beattie is a hard-nosed Penelope, standing her ground against an infestation of suitors and guarding her emotions until she is finally sure her long-lost husband has returned.  Similarly effective is Rich Dolphin as Odysseus’s troubled teenage son Telemachus, convincing us with his entire demeanour that he is younger than he really is, without descending into caricature.  Adam Horvath gets the arrogance and cruelty of would-be husband Antinous just right, and I also enjoyed Ella Vale’s haughty Circe as well as Anna Westlake’s loyal servant Eurekleia.

The fights (directed by Ian Stapleton) and other acts of violence are handled extremely well – I just wish the production didn’t take itself quite so seriously in the first half.  There is more than enough energy and creativity at work here to allow for a lighter touch that would sharpen the contrast with the heavier moments.

Technically and theatrically impressive, this Odyssey is enjoyable but doesn’t really hit home until its hero does.

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Promotional image for the production