Tag Archives: New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

Working Perfectly

OUT OF ORDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Friday 14th April, 2017

 

Ray Cooney directs this new production of his 1990 farce, complete with bang up-to-date topical references.  These give the play the illusion of happening right now but the structure and genre of the piece root it firmly in the past.  And this is no bad thing – we don’t sneer at those who can still crank out a perfect sonnet; likewise, the well-made farce is an art form that few can pull off.  Cooney is a master.

The set-up is Tory MP (of course) Richard Willey (tonight played by stand-in Geoff Harmer) has rented a suite at the Westminster Hotel in which to entertain the secretary of the Leader of the Opposition.  The couple’s illicit fun is interrupted before it can begin by the discovery of a dead body trapped by a faulty sash window.  Willey enlists his PPS, George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) to assist.  Add to the mix the secretary’s enraged husband, a snooty hotel manager who tends to walk in at the least opportune moments, and an opportunistic waiter and the stage is set for fast-moving action and an increasingly complicated situation.  The laughs keep coming via verbal humour, physical comedy and dramatic irony – we delight in the misunderstandings and their convoluted consequences.

The energised ensemble play the comedy to the hilt.  Susie Amy, mostly in a state of undress, plays panic to perfection.  Arthur Bostrom simmers haughtily as the manager; James Holmes relishes his role as the colluding, mercenary waiter; Jules Brown brings menace and howling vulnerability as the rampaging husband; Elizabeth Elvin amuses as Nurse Foster; Sue Holderness brings a touch of class as Willey’s wife.  The entire cast proves its skills – the pace doesn’t let down for a second – but it is Williamson who is the biggest jewel in this star-studded crown.  His pained expression and increasing confusion and exasperation are expertly portrayed.  The timing is spot on – his desperate puppetry with the corpse (David Warwick being dead good!) is a scream.

The mechanics of the plot and the performance are in perfect working order.  The funniest couple of hours I’ve spent at the theatre for a long time, the play reminds us of the lengths MPs will go to, the lies they will spin, to cover their own tracks.  It made me long for simpler times when all we had to worry about from that lot was their sleazy, personal affairs.  Now, what Willey hoped to do to Ms Worthington is what the government is doing to the whole country – and that isn’t funny.

out of order


No Wonder

WONDERLAND

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017

 

This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood.   Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting.  Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.

The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there.  Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is.  Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child.  Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.

The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them.  What brings this show crashing down is the book.  There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror.  There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen.  “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain.  Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.

Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes.  She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it.  Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake.  I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.

Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones.  He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context.  Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally.  Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story.  Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world.  This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.

A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.

kerry-ellis-as-alice-photo-by-paul-coltas

Kerry Ellis as Alice (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 

 


Old Flames

GASLIGHT

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th January, 2017

 

Written in 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is a pastiche of Victorian melodrama: an innocent girl is persecuted by an evil man but the intervention of a hero saves her from doom and thwarts the evil-doer’s plot…

Kara Tointon is a picture of innocence as the vulnerable Bella, believing herself to be going around the twist.  She is child-like, infantilised by her hubby who manipulates her every mood.  Tointon endears herself to us, keeping on the right side of pathetic and making the heightened dialogue sound natural.  As her bullying husband, Jack, Rupert Young domineers, exuding evil.  What begins as a study in mental cruelty swiftly becomes something even darker as the true nature of the man Bella married is brought to light.

It’s not all darkness: the unexpected arrival of Bella’s saviour in the form of former detective Rough (Keith Allen) brings humour and more than a touch of levity to proceedings.  Of course, this accentuates the moments of tension and suspense by contrast. Rough is a breath of fresh air to Bella’s stuffy, shut-in existence, and Allen plays him with relish in a funny and yet compelling portrayal.  There is also humour in the roles of the maidservants.  Charlotte Blackledge’s Nancy is cheeky to the point of impudence, while Helen Anderson’s Elizabeth is a masterclass in comic playing, doing so much with a simple “Yes, Miss” or “No, Miss”.  Wonderful stuff.

David Woodhead’s set design is to be savoured, capturing the oppression of Bella’s existence with a looming ceiling and dark panelling.  The set is enhanced by Howard Hudson’s lighting, which renders the action almost sepia at times, like the fading portraits on the walls, and, of course, the all-important gaslight that is so crucial to the plot. The sound design, by Ben and Max Ringham, augments the tension with dissonance, while Anthony Banks’s direction winds up the suspense like a watch spring.  Banks reins in the melodramatic excesses to keep the behaviour credible for a modern audience and this high-quality production proves this creaky old drama still has power to thrill.

You can tell it’s working when the villain is booed during his curtain call!

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Kara Tointon (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Wheel Meet Again

GHOST

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 19th September, 2016

 

The musical by Bruce Joel Rubin, Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard gets a new lease of life from Bill Kenwright in this new touring production.  Gone are the gliding TV screens I found a distraction in the show’s previous incarnation; instead the action is stripped down.  It’s low-tech and old-school and to my mind the story benefits from this approach immensely, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Scenes like Sam’s death and the subway ghost’s anger are simply but effectively handled by director Bob Tomson.  In fact, Tomson handles every aspect of the tale well, be it comedy, drama, thriller, supernatural, or just plain romantic.

Former Hollyoaks heartthrob Andy Moss is no stranger to coming back from the dead (his TV character Rhys reappeared as a ghostly figure in the soap, a symptom of another character’s psychosis.  Don’t ask!)  He is the perfect fit for the male lead.  Handsome, funny, charming and sweet, Sam is the boyfriend you wouldn’t want to have gunned down in a bungled mugging.  Moss proves he is leading man material, from Sam’s effortless humour to his confusion and anguish as a powerless ghost.  The singing is powerful, emotional and strong.  Moss carries us with him on Sam’s journey and we are in very safe hands.

Sarah Harding (Girls Aloud) plays bereaved girlfriend Molly – it’s a bit of stunt casting, perhaps, but Harding acquits herself more than adequately.  I find her pop voice suits the rather poppy score.  Her rendition of the heart-breaking With You is sweetly stirring.  If anything, it’s the acting that’s a bit one-note, but her accent is strong and consistent and, let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a thankless role, all grief and vulnerable victim.  Her voice blends well with Moss’s, and she does a good job.

If Moss is the beating heart of the show, Jacqui Dubois as psychic charlatan Oda Mae Brown is the life and soul of the party.  Hilarious in each of her scenes, Dubois really lifts the piece, steering us away from mawkishness.  The comic timing is spot on and the singing to die for.

A slick and smart ensemble supports, with a neat cameo appearance from James Earl Adair as the Hospital Ghost, and Garry Lee Netley as the aggressive, bad-ass Subway Ghost.

Of course, Unchained Melody features, along with the most famous potter’s wheel since the Interlude (ask your gran).  It all adds up to an engaging evening’s entertainment, sweet, touching and at turns hilarious.  It makes me glad this Ghost has been resurrected.

ghost-set-ups-078

Andy Moss and Sarah Harding


Keeping up with the Joneses

TOM – A Story of Tom Jones: The Musical

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st June, 2016

 

Those expecting a jukebox musical of Jones’s many hits may be surprised to find there is more in the way of drama on offer here – in that way, it IS unusual.  This is the story of Tom from Pontypridd, a mining town in the ‘Land of Song’.  It’s the 1950s, and Teddy Boy Tom sings in a pub at weekends.  The rest of the time he devotes to his job at the mill, brawling in bars and getting himself chucked through chip shop windows.  He impregnates his girlfriend at an early age and they marry.  She – Linda – believes her husband is set for greater things and supports him every step of the way, even when the groupies start to get their hooks into him.  Eventually, a move to London is made to cut a demo for Decca… Unlike other stories of this type, fame and fortune don’t come easy, and certainly not before the interval.  Here we see the star going through his troubles before he hits the big time.

As Tom, Kit Orton plays a blinder.  His Tom-Jonesishness grows as the character develops as a performer.  With each song, he sounds more and more like that famous soulful voice, and all the moves including pelvic thrusts are there.  Elin Phillips is sweet and funny as the loyal and devoted Linda, while Richard Corgan makes a strong impression as manager and impresario Gordon Mills, gambling his finances on Tom’s potential.  Phylip Harries is a bright-eyed, enthusiastic narrator – it all ticks along steadily enough but it is a hilarious scene involving eccentric record producer Joe Meek that kick-starts the show.  Energy levels rise and the show becomes more energised and electrifying.  As Tom develops as an entertainer, the show develops as a piece of entertainment, and it turns out to be rather good indeed.

The action culminates in the release of It’s Not Unusual – the entire cast joins the band for a rousing rendition, including some searing trumpet playing from Nicola Bryan (who also delivers strong and funny character work as Tom’s mum).  Tom Jones is propelled into worldwide stardom and we have been shown glimpses of how he earned it.   A medley of early hits gets us on our feet – by the end it’s Kit Orton we’re cheering for, a star turn who carries off the musicality and the drama most effectively.

I refrained from throwing my knickers at the stage – just about.

tom jones ish

Kit Orton thrusts himself into the spotlight as Tom


Users and Losers

AMERICAN IDIOT

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th May, 2016

 

What sets this show apart from other jukebox musicals, like Mamma Mia or Save The Last Dance For Me, for example, is the fact that the songwriter (Billie Joe Armstrong) was actually involved in the writing of the show’s book.  This lends the project authenticity – to a point.

The story involves three friends leaving home to make something of themselves in a world immediately after the 9/11 attacks – the sight of George W Bush on a TV screen makes me think he must be the American idiot of the title!  Just as they set off, Will (Steve Rushton) learns his girlfriend is pregnant, so he stays behind to spend his days on the sofa.  Tunny (Alexis Gerred) is inspired to enlist in the army – the next we see him he is in a hospital bed, one leg short (him, not the bed).  Leading man Johnny (Newton Faulkner) is a Sideshow Bob lookalike.  He meets a girl.  He meets a boy who has drugs.  He uses the drugs and loses the girl.  The three lads reunite in their home town.  That’s it, really.  There may have been other things going on, but I couldn’t tell – lyrics get lost in the loud guitar-based music; I could have done with surtitles.  Except when Amelia Lily (Whatsername) is on – her singing is loud, clear and in keeping with the pop-punk genre.

If you’re a Green Day fan – and there’s plenty of them in the audience – you’ll know the songs and what they’re singing about.  Perhaps I should have Spotified the lot before I went in.

Johnny is an unappealing character, who readily admits he ‘forgot’ to shower – Faulkner is at his best with his acoustic guitar but I find it difficult to engage with Johnny or his situation.  Tunny at least has something to gripe about – a dream sequence is particularly striking: Director Racky Plews seems to approach the show as one continuous music video.  There are ‘cool’ moments and the chorus seem good-natured in their aggression.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to hook me and draw me in.  Green Day’s songs are melodious and give the vocalists chances to impress but there is not enough drama or plot to sustain my interest or make me care.  As a piece of musical theatre, it doesn’t satisfy.  As a concert, it’s pretty good.

Cast of American Idiot, The Arts Theatre

What’s her name? Amelia Lily (Photo: Darren Bell)

 

 


Public Laughs

PRIVATE LIVES

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 8th February, 2016

 

Noel Coward’s comedy comes to town in this new touring production and yet again passes the test of time.   Yes, certain words have changed, and so have some attitudes, but the play’s underlying humanity remains the key to its longevity. On the surface, it’s a conventional, drawing-room comedy, of the well-to-do, living the high life, with only romantic complications to contend with. Coward subverts the genre by having two of those characters, Elyot and Amanda, behaving despicably. Divorced from each other for five years, they are both on honeymoons with brand new spouses. But as soon as they meet, the sparks fly, rekindling their former, decidedly destructive passion. They run off together and this is when we get to see them behind closed doors. Moments of intimacy are interrupted by outbursts of violence. The couple sling barbed comments, brickbats and objets d’art at each other. They’re like Japanese fighting carp, unable to co-exist in the same space without conflict and yet needing each other in order to exist at all.

Laura Rogers is spot on as Amanda, combining cool elegance with hot-headed passion, often in the same epigram. Tom Chambers’s Elyot may not be able to match her in managing the plummy language but his physical comedy and his double-take reactions are superb. Of course, his Strictly background comes out: the couple dance a loose Charleston in their Paris flat, a lovely moment in contrast with all the verbal bombardments. Director Tom Attenborough allows Chambers to play to his strengths, giving him plenty of larger-than-life comic business.

Richard Teverson gives strong support as Amanda’s fuddy-duddy second husband, Victor, while Charlotte Ritchie’s Sybil, Elyot’s second wife, encapsulates the innocence of the era – that is until she loses her rag with the infuriating Victor in a tremendous loss of temper, enabling the show to finish on a moment of high comedy. A magnificent performance – you wouldn’t think Sybil would have it in her.

Lucy Osborne’s set hints at the glamour of the south of France, with its art deco hotel balconies and also grounds us in the cosy chic of the stylish apartment, contrasting the airy public spaces with the solid, private rooms. It is behind closed doors that we reveal who we really are.

Of course, it is Coward’s audacious script that is the star of the show. The wit effervesces like champagne while the undercurrents of the characters’ true natures bubble to the surface in shocking glimpses. Elyot and Amanda deserve each other but Coward is also showing us that behind the public façade, even the most rarefied creatures have hidden depths.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an absolute classic.

'Private Lives' Play on Tour

Strictly entre nous. Laura Rogers and Tom Chambers (Photo: Alastair Muir)