Tag Archives: New Vic Theatre

Public Parts

THE KARAOKE THEATRE COMPANY

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th October, 2016

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s new piece (his 80th!) is something of a departure while remaining very Ayckbourn in flavour.  Ostensibly, we are in the hands of an improv troupe who treat us to several skits in various genres, calling upon us to provide sound effects en masse, with the occasional brave individual selected for greater things…

There are two words to strike fear into the heart of a British theatregoer: audience participation.  Despite the cast’s assurances that we only have to take part as much as we would like to – or we can ‘sit there and sulk’ all night, you never lose the feeling that you might be called upon at any moment for ritualised embarrassment.  But of course, it’s great fun to see others getting up – and there is no shortage of willing participants.  Naturally, the volunteers cannot match the skills of the professionals and so the cast work hard to ad lib and joke in order to cover the inevitable shortcomings.  There are shades of The Generation Game and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

As for the skits, we get a very Ayckbournesque farce about a plumber and suspected infidelity, with a string of coarse innuendos; there is a Nordic Noir dumb show dubbed by audience members haltingly reading lines from scripts; a period drama of sibling rivalry – this is performed twice with an audience member standing-in for one of the roles; and a Victorian Gothic horror that gives the cast more to play with.  The material, deliberately shoddy, us by-the-by.  We are too intent on watching for our next cue to mimic birdsong or stamp our feet to take it in properly.   The grand finale is a conjuring trick, Find The Lady, writ large with huge cabinets.

There is much to enjoy and plenty of laughs but the set-ups can take a long time for little payoff.  All the way through, I’m waiting for the twist, for the reveal that this is all a spoof, a send-up of those gung ho theatre groups of little merit, for the hand of the dramatist to reveal itself once and for all, but it never comes.

Taken at face value, it’s an amusing night out and the energy of the performers just about keeps us interested and on their side.  A bit of fun but, unusually for Ayckbourn, there’s no bite behind the laughs.

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Downright shabby (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 

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Dramatic Devices

HENCEFORWARD

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th October, 2016

 

Almost thirty years old, Alan Ayckbourn’s vision of a dystopian near-future is still bang on the money.  In some ways, technology has almost caught up with the world of the play, with touchscreen tablets and face-time video messaging, and our fascination with robots continues to this day in TV shows like Humans and WestWorld.  (Not forgetting, of course, that we owe the word ‘robot’ to a 1920 play by Karel Čapek).  Science fiction not only predicts future tech but also warns us about it.  Here, the technology, not so different from our own, is recognisably frustrating with its glitches and flaws.  Meanwhile, the world outside is becoming increasingly violent, with thugs ruling the streets.  With homophobic and racist attacks on the rise today, this nightmarish world doesn’t seem too far-fetched in post-Brexit Britain.

Composer Julian, unable to work since his wife departed with their daughter, hires actress Zoe to masquerade as a life partner.  The aim is to convince both wife and an official that Julian is able to provide suitable care for his daughter and thereby gain access to his child.  When the actress doesn’t work out, Julian has to rethink his plan, adapting an android to play the role… And so the scene is set for some wonderfully farcical shenanigans and, due to the genius of Ayckbourn’s writing, some heartfelt emotional outpourings.

Bill Champion’s Julian is a broken man, who awakes from his reclusiveness through his meeting with Laura Matthews’s effervescent and ditzy Zoe.  That he gets what he wants – the composition of new music – but in doing so, loses everything, is genuinely tragic.  Matthews is an irresistibly lively presence and equally compelling in the second act when she plays the remodelled robot – played in the first act by Jacqueline King, who elicits both chuckles and chills as the wonky automated nanny.  King later appears as Julian’s estranged wife – the play is an excellent showcase for female talent.  Daughter Geain (Jessie Hart) also displays a duality – the play touches on gender roles and social conditioning.  Like the robot, we are programmed to behave and respond in certain ways.   There is also some excellent character work from Russell Dixon as wet-lettuce official Mervyn, and Ayckbourn, with his director’s hat on, orchestrates the comedy, the dramatic irony and the tension like a master.  Which, of course, he is.

It’s a play about how technology dehumanises us, getting in the way of our interactions, blocking rather than liberating our communications.

It’s also very, very funny.

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Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews and Russell Dixon (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Parton is such sweet sorrow

THE KITCHEN SINK

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 29th September, 2016

 

One advantage the New Vic has when it comes to naturalistic works is the intimacy afforded by the in-the-round setting.  The audience becomes all four walls of the room, and these walls have ears (and eyes too) to witness what transpires within this family’s home.  Bronia Housman’s set looks lived-in while giving the action room to breathe.  The kitchen/dining room is surrounded by thousands of milk bottle tops – Dad Martin is a milkman: his home is built on the fruits of his labours.

We meet Mum, Kath, (an excellent Emma Gregory) a warm-hearted, loving, funny woman, a problem-solver and supportive mother.  There is a warmth emanating from Gregory’s characterisation, even when she’s not saying a word.  Kath is the heart of this home and the production.  Her husband (Jason Furnival) is less optimistic, less open to change, in a thoroughly realistic depiction of an embittered working-class man, striving to survive the prevailing economic climate.  His business is suffering because of the rise of Tesco and his float is on its last legs.  Meanwhile, daughter Sophie (Alice Proctor) ‘helps out’ having lost her own job when Woolworth’s closed down.

Proctor is superb – we come to understand her as the play goes on and her of her boyfriend and also the judge of her jujitsu exam, in a subtle revelation that is touching.  Tom Wells’s writing makes us care about these people from the off.  Dan Parr is also great as Sophie’s awkward but good-natured plumber boyfriend Pete.  Tongue-tied and sweet, he endears himself to us immediately – and makes us laugh a lot, too.

Completing the family is the likeable Steven Roberts as son Billy, sensitive and artistic with a passion for Dolly Parton.  Billy is heading for art college in London and it is refreshing to see a play in which the gay character’s sexuality is not the issue.  It just is what it is.  Roberts is a mass of youthful energy, and teenage attitude, and Wells’s writing convinces.  The family rings true; there is a lot of love in this house.  I defy you not to care about them.

Director Zoe Waterman handles the humour expertly.  No beat is missed and yet the dialogue comes across as natural, the laughs organic rather than set-ups.  Even the moments of broad comedy (due mostly to the eponymous sink) come within the bounds of plausibility.  Waterman gets the tone exactly right throughout.  She has her cast continue to act during scene transitions (underscored by Ms Parton’s biggest hits). It all makes for an entertaining evening – it’s an absolute pleasure to spy on these people and have our funny bones tickled and our heartstrings tugged.

This is the “hard-working family” we hear so much about, large as life and before our very eyes, trampled beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of big business.  The play makes its points subtly, through the personal lives of the characters and their relationships.

A flawless production, heart-warming and hilarious.  We see the characters’ dreams go down the drain but they have plenty of love on tap.

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Hello, Dolly. Emma Gregory and Steven Roberts (Photo: Geraint Lewis)


With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

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Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

 


Dancing up a Storm

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 5th July, 2016

 

Sometimes, human beings get it right and create a piece of perfection that stands in contrast to the countless ways we have screwed up on this planet.  Such a piece is the flawless 1952 film, Singin’ in the Rain.  You only have to watch it to have your faith in our species renewed.

I’ve seen stage adaptations before and while the quality of the performers has been unquestionable, I always come away with a ‘Why bother?’ look on my face.

Not so the case with this new production, on which the New Vic has collaborated with Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and the Salisbury Playhouse.  This is feel-good theatre to the max.  There is the added bonus of the New Vic’s in-the-round setting; we are in the rain along with the cast – some of us more than others (bright yellow ponchos are provided!).  There is an intimacy here the proscenium arch cannot deliver.  Ciaran Bagnall’s stylised set is basically a circle, above which art deco screens play the movies the characters make.  Around the circle, cast members play instruments, providing the score and the accompaniment to whomever is singing at the time.  They’re a versatile bunch and under Richard Reeday’s musical direction, form a tight ensemble with an authentic Roaring Twenties sound.

Matthew Croke absolutely dazzles as movie idol Don Lockwood – the Gene Kelly role.  He has the dreamboat good looks, the rich crooning voice and, of course, the moves.  I could watch him all night.  When the iconic title song comes at the end of the first act, it’s perfect.  Croke glides and splashes around and the front few rows get a soaking – it’s equally elegant, beautiful and uproariously funny.  What we lose in scenic devices, we gain in good old slapstick!

Christian Edwards makes Cosmo, the wacky friend (the Donald O’Connor role) his own, with an energised performance that keeps on the right side of charming.  Eleanor Brown is a striking Kathy (the Debbie Reynolds role), with clarity and purity in her vocals, and a sober contrast to Sarah Vezmar’s deliciously monstrous Lina Lamont, the egotistic villain of the piece with a voice like fingernails down a Brooklyn blackboard.  Vezmar almost steals the show but for the stellar quality of handsome hoofer Croke, whose performance is truly phenomenal.

There is not a weak link in the whole shebang.  Philip Starnier amuses as movie producer R. F. Simpson; Helen Power sparkles as professional gossip Dora Bailey; cast members come and go in a range of roles, adding to the fun, the atmosphere and, above all, the music.  The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, some of which predate even the film by decades, sound fresh – Reeday’s arrangements bring out the romance as well as the fun.  Within a tight performance space, Sian Williams’s choreography emulates Gene Kelly’s, managing to be scaled down without being cramped.  The auditorium fills with talent and its genuinely thrilling to be present, to be so close to such an accomplished company.  Stardust sprinkles on us all, even more than the water.

Director Elizabeth Newman gives us another look at the charm of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay, wisely keeping her cast from aping the stars of the film.  The show both meets and exceeds expectations, due to its focus on theatricality rather than the fool’s errand of trying to reproduce cinematic perfection.

As refreshing as a summer shower, this production brings undiluted joy.  My only regret is that it wasn’t raining when I left the theatre; I really wanted to splash about in puddles for myself.  In these dark and uncertain times, we must seize our pleasures where we may, however simple, and life-affirming shows like this have never been more welcome.

 

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Raining supreme: Matthew Croke splashes out

 

 

 


Getting Wood

TALENT

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 28th May, 2016

 

This production of Victoria Wood’s 1978 play could not be more timely.  Planned before the playwright’s surprising and early death, it now serves as a testament to her brilliance – there is an inevitable memorial air to proceedings, but not in a dour or overt way.  The writer seems very much present; this was an early piece but the style is there: the one-liners, the bathos, the pop culture references (Norman Vaughan, anyone?) along with the witty songs, wherein pain is dressed up in clever rhymes and namedropping of high street brands.

As Maureen, Claire Greenway channels Wood at the paino.  Without attempting an impression, she evokes Wood’s delivery, the timing, the smiles, the eye rolls, while delivering the lyrics as well as Wood’s ornate accompaniments.  I could listen to this all day – but there is much more to the show.

Maureen is accompanying, in a non-musical sense, her friend Julie (Tala Gouveia) to a talent contest in a seedy club.  We go backstage with them to watch Julie prepare, which involves knocking back the Babychams, chain-smoking, and peeing in a hat.  Gouveia is marvellous – her comic timing is spot on, but there is also vulnerability there: her phone call to her no-good boyfriend perhaps reveals more to us than it does to her, and when her history comes to light with club organist Mel (Adam Buchanan), we learn why she wants to escape what her life has become.  Her chance to grasp fame is a way out.  But, not really.

Buchanan is great in his double roles as Mel and the sleazy Compere.  This is the 1970s and sexual harassment is as easy to come by as a raspberry Mivvi.  Mirroring the two women is a double act of male friends, George and Arthur.  George (Brendan Charleson) is an object study in old-school clubland entertainment, in his green jacket and Tony Curtis haircut gone white.  He styles himself as a ‘comedy magician’ and has enlisted as his lovely assistant, Arthur (the sublime Andrew Pollard).  The pair treat us to some vaudeville shenanigans, singing and dancing and some conjuring tricks with scarves and flowers.  It’s a joy to behold them.

The play’s darker side – the exploitation of women in showbiz – is present beneath the surface.  Wood makes her point subtly – above all, she wants to give us a good time.  Which she does, in spades, and it feels like one last time.  The final number has a Sondheimesque feel as, paraphrasing Cabaret, it urges us not to be alone in our rooms but to get out there and enjoy what life has to offer.

An immaculate production, a bittersweet experience, and a fitting tribute to one of this country’s greatest comedy talents, Talent reminds us what we have lost and how lucky we were to have her at all.

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Claire Greenway and Tala Gouveia (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Talking Shop

DIANA OF DOBSON’S

New Vic Theatre, Saturday 7th May, 2016

 

Written in 1908 by Cicely Hamilton, this forward-thinking piece is given a lively revival by the team at the New Vic.  It begins in the dormitory of Dobson’s store, where the shop girls are getting ready for bed.  One of them, the rebellious Diana (Mariam Haque) decries their lot and the starvation wages they are forced to accept.  She’s a firebrand and ahead of her time.  But then she gets news of a surprise inheritance – things turn a bit Spend, Spend, Spend when she decides to blow the lot during a month of living entirely for pleasure.   She winds up at a posh hotel in Switzerland where she is accepted among the toffs, as long as she gives the impression that there is plenty of moolah in her coffers.

With music hall songs interpolated between scenes, Abbey Wright’s likable production creates an Edwardian feel – not least due to Lis Evans’s design work with costume and set.  There is a chirpiness that runs through the show – from Rosie Abraham’s perky Miss Jay, to Kate Cook’s bright-eyed and grasping Mrs Cantelupe.  It has an authentic feel – the songs really help convey the sense of period.  I particularly enjoyed Brendan Charleson’s nouveau riche Jabez, Anne Lacey’s Mrs Whyte-Frazer (along with a couple of other roles that demonstrate versatility) and the sterling support from Susannah Van Den Berg, Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Claire Greenway.  Adam Buchanan shines as well-to-do wastrel Victor, who learns what is truly valuable in this life, and the superlative Andrew Pollard shows us all how it’s done with a delicious song to close the first half, a kind of Sweet Transvestite meets The Lumberjack Song, through the prism of the Edwardian Music Hall.  Absolutely delightful.  Pollard also displays his strengths as a character actor with a warm portrayal of a bobby on the beat.

Unfortunately, the fun and engagement engendered by the songs is not always present in the action.  I find myself interested in the social commentary and the politics rather than affected by Diana’s exploits or her plight.  I think it’s because the leading lady sounds like she comes from another time – she’s a bit too 21st century in her tone and plays it all on the same level.  A bit more light and shade, and a bit more sparkle and pluck might make us fall in love with her a little bit.  Instead, I find I just don’t care.

Yes, the play still – unfortunately – has much to say to us today in these times of the so-called living wage and the slavery of ‘work fare’ but what I come away from it with is an admiration for the ensemble and a rekindled appreciation of the songs of the day.

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Rosie Abraham (left) and Mariam Haque (centre)