Tag Archives: Mike Shepherd

Double Double


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019


On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.


Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)



Dead Dog/Live Show

DEAD DOG IN A SUITCASE (and other love songs)

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 27th October, 2015

Kneehigh’s latest is one of their best.  It’s so good that I’m back to see it a second time less than a month after its visit to Birmingham’s REP theatre.  A new version of The Beggar’s Opera this is not a good advertisement for humanity but an excellent advocate for live theatre. You just don’t get this kind of stuff on the telly or Netflix. Unbridled in its theatricality, this exuberant production pulls out all the stops to tell its tale of establishment corruption, mirroring the personal corruption of individuals. There is live music, newly composed by Charles Hazlewood, lively choreography by Etta Murfitt, and puppetry by Sarah Wright – the eponymous dog is the cutest you’ll see (before his demise, of course!).

The ensemble cast is the heartbeat of the show, expending energy and displaying versatility to bring Carl Grose’s deliciously lurid script to irresistible life. Dominic Marsh is the amoral but amiable Macheath, our anti-hero, hired to assassinate the Mayor (Ian Ross) who knows too much. The town is really in the pocket of Les Peachum and his Mrs. Martin Ryder oozes sleaze as Les but it soon becomes apparent that it’s his wife (Rina Fatania) who wears the (leopard print) trousers. Fatania almost steals the show with her grotesquely hilarious performance. I would not like to meet her down a well-illuminated alley, let alone a dark one.

Beverly Rudd is a bluff Lucy Lockit – her song about being a ninja butterfly is a definite highlight in a show that is nearly all highlights. Hazlewood uses strains of Greensleeves and Over The Hills and Far Away from John Gay’s original work to enhance his own vibrant score, which has elements of funk, jazz, punk and ska all working together. It’s infectious.

Lucy Rivers has taken over from Patrycia Kujawska as the Mayor’s widow and perhaps the only ‘decent’ character in it – her stirring violin playing is an expression of her grief, complementing her emoting. Angela Hardie sings sweetly as the Peachums’ daughter Polly – until she turns to the bad, that is, while a bekilted Giles King is a lot of fun as corrupt copper Colin Lockit, squawking into his loudhailer. Best voice of the lot though must be Jack Shalloo’s as Filch. He also appears as other characters, each of them extremely funny.

Sarah Wright’s puppets are both charming and horribly satirical. A Punch and Judy show mirrors the live action (just as the live action is a caricature of our world) but unlike Mr Punch, Macheath is ultimately unable to defeat everything life chucks at him.  It’s a nasty, cesspit of a story. Director Mike Shepherd uses Brechtian ideas to entertain us. There is no revolution, the play says and I tend to agree. That should be its rousing call to action but it isn’t. It’s an entertaining wallow through the mire of our society – we enjoy these horrible people who have free rein to do what they like, and the sheer breath-taking impact of the performance exhilarates.

I will never see those anti-social wheeled suitcases in the same light. Every time I am nearly tripped by one, I shall suspect there’s a dead dog in it.

Kneehigh_Dead Dog In a Suitcase_1

Dominic Marsh as Macheath

Recycled Material

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012

I had a problem with this one before going in: I’ve never been much of a fan of the source material, but I hoped director and adaptor Emma Rice would be able to work a bit of Kneehigh magic on me and win me over.
In brief: she couldn’t.

Rice has selected four scripts by Ray Galton & Alan Simpson and has presented them here as a unified piece of theatre. The dialogue seems intact – the setting has been modified. The set consists mainly of a large cube that represents the rag and bone cart by means of which the characters earn a business and also their living quarters and the gates to their junkyard. It is reminiscent of a pageant wagon and reminded me of the brilliant Oddsocks Productions and their ingenious use of such a property.

Transitions between scenes involve the cast of three dancing, singing or lip-synching to popular music of the day. There are also musical sequences in which, through movement and song lyrics, the characters reveal their inner life. These are the best bits. I wanted more of these.

I was pleased to find that the cast do not seek to imitate original actors Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble. This pair has a West Country burr to their voices (Kneehigh is based in Cornwall) and they bring their own interpretations to the characters. Kneehigh veteran Mike Shepherd is the irascible Harold Steptoe, a ‘dirty old man’, lonely and in need of constant attention. Dean Nolan is son Harold, whose aspirations and pretensions are thwarted and punctured at every turn by the machinations and manipulations of his father. This is one of the more hellish situations from sit-com history. The rules of sit-com dictate that by the end of the episode, the status quo will be restored, so that the wrangling and the suffering can continue from scratch next time. On the telly, on a week by week basis, this works very well. In a two-hour stretch in a theatre…not so much. Like watching a DVD box set – soon all the episodes blur into one.

A theatre piece needs to build and grow to keep us interested. The plot needs to develop and the characters need to grow. Here, every 25 minutes, they return to their default setting and nothing has changed. They are the Vladimir and Estragon of the sit-com world. Their existentialist angst is dictated by the situation they are trapped in. Harold is eternally claiming he will move out and start a life of his own while he’s still young. He never does.

The fourth section adds a neat twist to round things off. This time, Albert is threatening to break free by announcing his engagement to a widow. Harold becomes defensive and tries to dissuade the old man. A role reversal that has more to do with desperation than anything else.

Shepherd’s Albert is an energetic moaner, giving the lie to his supposed lack of health. He topples easily to the floor at the merest mention of his war-wounded leg, and clambers up to the roof of the wagon like an energised monkey. Nolan’s Harold also has impressive physicality, and a kind of grace to his movements. He’s a large fellow but he can’t half dance – even performing the splits at one point. The female roles, such as they are, are all performed by Kirsty Woodward in a range of wigs and period outfits. In the end, I found it was the charm of the performers that kept me watching and enjoying, rather than the script or the interpretation.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, these characters do not move. In any sense of the word. I think I was missing the customary sense of enchantment Kneehigh usually brings.