Tag Archives: New Alexandra Theatre

Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

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Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)

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The King is not Dead

THIS IS ELVIS

New Alexandra Theatre, Monday 19th March, 2018

 

This new musical is not the usual fare, in that we don’t get the rags-to-riches rise of the protagonist.  When the show begins, Elvis Presley is already the biggest star in the world but, after a decade of making questionable movies, he’s planning a comeback concert on live television.  Nerves are running high, the King’s self-esteem is at a low point and the time he is spending at work is putting a strain on his marriage to Priscilla.  Around him, his entourage of ‘friends’ discuss his plans and problems, like sycophants at a royal court.  Among them are Presley’s best friends, Joe Exposition (sorry, Esposito) played tonight by Ben Stratton, and Charlie Hodge (Mark Pearce).  The dialogue, by Philip Norman, is clunky, heavily laden with factoids, telling us things rather than showing us; it’s a relief when these ‘dramatic’ interludes give way to the songs.  We are not allowed to meet the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, nor Mrs Presley herself – Both of these interesting characters are restricted to telephone calls, and we don’t even get to hear their side.  The show misses out on a couple of humdinger scenes by keeping these sources of conflict off-stage.

The second half is given over to a recreation of a Las Vegas show.  Seeing it in context – we’ve glimpsed the King’s drug abuse, his self-doubt, his loneliness – makes what follows all the more remarkable.  As the man himself is the phenomenal Steve Michaels, who has Presley down pat: the voice, the mannerisms, the moves, in an uncanny performance that brings Elvis into the building.  So many highlights, including Suspicious Minds, It’s Now or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight?…

The entourage from the first half form the backing band, a taut combo, augmented by a trio of backing vocalists, Sweet Inspirations (Chevone Stewart, Katrina May, and Misha Malcolm).  Together they are terrific, creating an authentic sound.  But it is frontman Michaels who grabs us by the pelvis and, channelling the King, gets our blood pumping and our hands clapping.  And so what starts out as a ropey dramatic reconstruction culminates in an hour-long tribute act that is irresistible and exhilarating.  The King is not dead; he has been reincarnated.

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This is Steve Michaels (Photo: Pamela Raith)

 


Working the Crowd

WEST SIDE STORY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 25th August, 2017

 

It is a firm fixture of the summer programme: the annual production by Stage Experience involving dozens (and dozens) of kids from the region – and every year I marvel at the process of staging a show of such high quality given a short rehearsal time any hardened professional would baulk at.  This year it’s Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic reworking of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic tale of Tony and Maria who find love on opposite sides of some silly feud, here represented as gangland violence (translated into dance moves).

Elliot Gooch shines as Tony.  Already distancing himself from his gang, The Jets, he finds his adolescent emotions sparked to both love and war as events unfold.  Gooch is stunningly good.  His rendition of ‘Maria’ is enough to raise goosebumps and would work anywhere as an audition piece.  One tip I do have for him, speaking as a former teacher of theatre, is to watch his perfect enunciation of every letter in every word does not get in the way of characterisation.

He is matched by Grace Whyte’s rather operatic Maria.  Her soprano is striking and expressive and furthermore, her Latino accent remains consistent and her passions are utterly credible.

Also excellent is Leah Vassell as Anita, who is more worldly-wise than Maria.  Her musical numbers are highlights, whether she’s satirising life in America or pleading with Maria to stick to her own kind.  She brings humour, and darker emotions after the murder of Bernardo (Javier Aguilera, who moves with easy grace).

Among the Jets, Jordan Ricketts’s Riff makes an impression (before his untimely end!) and also strong is Caven Rimmer as the hot-headed Action.

Once again director Pollyann Tanner has worked miracles.  Her choreography fulfils our expectations of Hal Prince’s original moves and there is balletic beauty by the ton – a difficulty with having a company so large is giving each kid their time in the spotlight; at times, dance sequences look like an amorphous mass of heads and limbs, but when the dancers have space, you can see the skills at play.  Every kid in every crowded corner is thoroughly disciplined and committed.  The levels of focus are astonishing.  Personally, I would have foregone the softening of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ by swamping the stage with what looks like a Persil advert and let the number have its bitter edge.   The assault of Anita is all the more shocking from its stylised presentation, and the show loses none of its ultimate emotional impact when the tragedy reaches its conclusion.

Sadly, the show’s themes of anti-immigration feeling and knife crime still resonate today.  The emotions are timeless but one would have liked society to have moved on from the racism displayed here.  Perhaps, some day… somewhere…

A remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.  My mind boggles to think of the logistics of it all but what matters most to an audience member is the effectiveness of the final product.  Yet again, Stage Experience delivers the goods: an enthralling, entertaining and moving piece of theatre.  Bravo!

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Valentine’s Day

SHIRLEY VALENTINE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7th March, 2017

 

This revival of Willy Russell’s play from 1986 reminds the film version’s legions of fans that the piece started life as an extended monologue, a one-woman show.  The one woman this time, following in the footsteps of the likes of Noreen Kershaw and Pauline Collins, is musical theatre star Jodie Prenger, and I am interested to see how she will fare without recourse to her impressive singing voice.

As forlorn housewife Shirley, Prenger more than acquits herself, pulling off a comic turn that is as endearing as it is funny.  I could be churlish and nit-pick her adopted accent, which tends to roam around Merseyside at times, but on the whole, she captures the cadence of Russell’s Liverpudlian phrases – what matters is she can time a punchline, and the script is riddled with those.  As she recounts her story, Shirley presents other characters: her mardy husband, her son and daughter, her neighbour, and so on.  Prenger effectively sketches these personalities for us through voice and attitude, and tells her anecdotes with verve and energy.  Alone throughout, Prenger fills the stage with her presence and it is enjoyable to behold.

Director Gwen Walford takes a straightforward approach, having Prenger animated and larger-than-life for the funny bits, and keeping her still for the poignant moments.  Simple but strong.

Amy Yardley’s set gives us the sunshine yellow of Shirley’s kitchen – a gilded cage – and also an effective representation of a secluded Grecian beach – it is here that James Whiteside’s gorgeous lighting beats down like the relentless sun.

Jodie Prenger’s comic energy and commitment to the role keep us on board with Shirley – her journey is as much a mental one as a physical change of location – and it’s delightful to be reminded of the quality of Willy Russell’s writing.

Russell’s script stands the test of time.  There is an element of nostalgia in its references to the F-Plan diet and the Milk Tray man but the jokes hold up, as does the play’s central message: Life is to be lived.  In this sense, Shirley is more than a downtrodden housewife reclaiming her identity and asserting her independence; she is an Everyman, speaking to us all.

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Murder with Class

A JUDGMENT IN STONE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 20th February, 2017

 

Formerly the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company hopes to emulate its earlier success by expanding the range of writers it draws upon, and so we have this adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, delivered in the company’s solid and classy style.

I don’t know if it exists in the book, never having read it, but this version, by Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard, uses the device of alternating scenes of the police investigation with flashbacks leading up to the brutal murder of the Coverdale family.  Past and present collide and keep us hooked on the developing mystery.

Sophie Ward is excellent as the dowdy housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, hiding what to her is a terrible secret.  As the detectives, Vetch and Challoner, Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon exude an air of easy professionalism.  Mark Wynter amuses as the smug patriarch George Coverdale, while Rosie Thomson as his wife is the life and soul of the household.  Joshua Price mills around as the bookish, oddball son, and Jennifer Sims brings emotional depth to her role of Melinda, the daughter home from university.  We know the family is doomed – it’s a matter of when and by whom that keeps us intrigued.  They’re all so terribly middle-class, calling each other ‘darling’ all the time, that we perhaps don’t much care about them as individuals.  Rather our sympathy lies elsewhere – but that would be telling.

The usually glamorous Shirley Anne Field dresses down as cleaner Mrs Baalham, and Deborah Grant muttons up as outlandish postmistress and religious crank, Joan Smith.  Revelation of the night (apart from the whodunit) is former Blue singer Antony Costa delivering a nice line in character acting as the reformed criminal and gardener, Rodger Meadows.

Julie Godfrey’s set epitomises the country house mystery, but it also communicates a message about the permanence of the class system – this is a story with class, in more ways than one.  Director Roy Marsden keeps the action flowing seamlessly between the two timelines, using Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design to mark when we are, as well as to highlight certain dramatic moments.

It all makes up for a solid and reliable piece of entertainment, excellently presented.  We may guess who is responsible, but when the murder scene finally arrives it is no less shocking.  Pace and tone are handled expertly to deliver the goods.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is dead; long live the Classic Thriller Theatre Company!

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Sophie Ward (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

 


Jazzed Up

CHICAGO The Musical

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 12th December, 2016

 

I’ve seen this Kander and Ebb musical two or three times before and have always come away wanting.  In the past I have found the characters and their actions reprehensible – this still holds true but I think this time, with this touring production, I am an older and I hope wiser man.  I appreciate now the vaudevillian setting of the piece, not merely as an alienation device (we’re not meant to like these people) but as a format in itself.  The story is presented as a series of vaudeville numbers in a range of styles.  The (excellent) jazz orchestra dominates the space.  There is no concession to scenery or much to costume.  It’s a performance about performance, as murderess Roxie Hart rehearses for her court appearance.  More than that, it’s a satire about how we as a society afford notoriety to the worst kinds of people.  Criminals, liars, cheats and manipulators – these are portrayed as attractive, by sheer force of the actors’ talent.  But the format keeps us at a distance from the characters and we must remember to see them for what they truly are.

The show gets off to a cracking start with Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma Kelly, a sultry siren writhing her way through the iconic All That Jazz.   Ann Reinking’s choreography is as sharp and sensual as Fosse would have intended.  Hayley Tamaddon is an indefatigable firecracker as Roxie, with her eye on the main prize: fame and fortune.  Every move she makes, every note she sings, is perfectly in character.  As her hard-done-by husband, Neil Ditt attracts our sympathy – Amos is the only moral character in the piece but in this world of topsy-turvy morality, he is weak and ineffectual, while swanky hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn thrives.  As Flynn, John Partridge is in his element with his matinee idol looks and his belter of a voice – despite all the scantily clad females on show, his are the best pair of lungs!  Soul legend Mica Paris looks and sounds at home as the corrupt prison matron Mama Morton – her introductory number is a highlight of the night.  Also impressive is the Cell Block Tango and Velma and Mama bemoaning the lack of Class.  “The whole world’s gone low-brow,” they sing.  Ain’t that the truth!

There is energetic support from a crack chorus, including a surprising soprano from A D Richardson’s Mary Sunshine and Francis Foreman cuts a dash as Roxie’s ill-fated lover, Fred.

This is Kander and Ebb’s strongest score – the tunes keep on coming.  It is also their strongest social comment.  Although the play is set in 1920s, gangster-run Chicago, it is all too relevant today, when the media is complicit in the rise of some of the worst ogres humanity has to offer (I’m looking at you, BBC and Farage, and at Trump).  Criminals and undesirables don’t just become famous these days; they get elected to office!

My applause is not for the characters but for the performers.  Chicago is an unusually intelligent musical, probably the best Brechtian show that Brecht and Weill didn’t write.  So rouge your knees and get down to the New Alexandra for a lively alternative to the usual Christmas fare.

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John Partridge and Hayley Tamaddon (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

 


A Bit of Old Cheese

THE MOUSETRAP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 31st October, 2016

 

Running in the West End since 1952, the touring production of Agatha Christie’s celebrated play started a few years back and is still doing the rounds.  It’s my third time seeing it but knowing ‘who done it’ means you can spot the clues, false trails and red herrings Christie builds in.  The characters are drawn in broad strokes – it seems to me the playing seems more heightened this time round – and the situation is contrived for maximum tension: a mixed bag of guests arrive at a newly-opened, remote guest house, find themselves snowed in and cut off, while the radio gives word of a murderer at large… It’s a kind of cosy chiller, if that’s not an oxymoron.  A bit of old cheese that can still entrap an audience.

Nick Barclay and Anna Andresen are likable enough as the proprietors, Giles and Mollie Ralston.  He treads the thin line between decent cove and out-and-out boor; she is spirited and keen and, above all, domesticated.  Christie gives us three types of female here: the pleasant, obliging Mrs Ralston, the formidable battle-ax Mrs Boyle (Sarah Whitlock getting her teeth into the role) and unconventional modern girl, Miss Casewell (Amy Downham) who flouts decency by wearing trousers.

Oliver Gully gives an energised performance as camp extrovert (read: homosexual) Christopher Wren and does more than scream his way through the part.  Gully also manages to evoke sympathy as he alludes to the rough treatment he has received because of who he is.  That homosexuality is regarded as a mental aberration by the like of Mrs Boyle is an attitude I hope is consigned to the past…

Tony Boncza’s Major Metcalf is a fine spot of character acting.  Also, Gregory Cox as the ‘unexpected foreigner’ Mr Paravicini pulls out all the stops in an outlandish depiction, falling short of actually chewing the scenery.  Lewis Collier’s Sgt Trotter gets the tone right but sometimes his accent muddies his diction and we lose some of his lines.

It adds up to a lot of fun.  Director Ian Watt-Smith brings out more laughs than you might expect – especially during the first half before the murderer makes a move.  Christie keeps us suspecting everyone in turn before the moment of revelation.

I suppose the show’s enduring appeal is that it’s a throwback to an England that never really existed (the Shangri-La that Brexit voters seem to hanker for) and I’d like to think it’s something of a museum piece and the xenophobic and anti-gay sentiments expressed are all behind us now… If only!!

Dramatically, the play still works and this is a solid, well-mounted production that is reliably entertaining.  See it if you haven’t already.  If you have, it’s worth a second look, although perhaps not a third.

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A scream! Oliver Gully as Christopher Wren (Photo: Liza Maria Dawson)