Tag Archives: Newcastle under Lyme

Warm and Fuzzy

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 24th November, 2018

 

This brand-new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is written by the New Vic’s genius-in-residence, Theresa Heskins, and is directed by Peter Leslie Wild.  It bears all the hallmarks of a great New Vic Christmas show, with the Workshop and technical crew all flexing their creative muscles to translate fantastic worlds onto the stage.  And so, Laura Willstead’s set has painted branches, like illustrations, and sprigs of greenery draped all around.  Tree trunks made of cloth descend from above, like roots probing into soil, to create the Wild Woods… while Lis Evans’s Edwardian costumes give us the pre-WWI period while emphasising the anthropomorphism of Grahame’s characters; ears on hats and tails protruding from trouser seats are all that differentiate species.

With original music by Matt Baker, performed by the cast, the story unfolds, beginning with Alicia McKenzie’s inquisitive Mole setting off on adventure.  She encounters Richard Keightley’s dapper Ratty and their voyage in his boat is positively lovely, with Daniella Beattie’s lighting and projections creating a captivating illusion.  Emma Manton’s Badger, younger and more female than is traditional, is schoolma’am-ish and forthright, but it’s Matthew Burns’s long-suffering Horse who delights the most.  Burns later appears as a cheerfully macabre Jailer, when Rob Witcomb’s ebullient Toad falls foul of the Law.

This Toad is sweet-natured despite his manic obsessions.  Witcomb makes him more of an Ed Balls figure than a Boris Johnson, while Kieran Buckeridge’s villainous Fox is more exploitative and, yes, more than a bit scary.  Even scarier is Sophia Hatfield’s strident Mrs Otter; you would not like to tangle with her.

The whole enterprise is played with exuberance by the talented ensemble.  Their choral singing is enough to melt your heart.  Peter Leslie Wild’s direction keeps things moving, and very much in the New Vic in-house style, with cast members holding up shelves, car wheels and so on, to keep the scenery flowing.  The sequence involving the train is breath-takingly executed, a remarkable piece of physical theatre.

Heskins tweaks the ending a little to give us a timely nudge in these dark days of austerity and isolationism.  Wealth is better shared, Toad demonstrates, better when it’s put to use creating opportunities for the marginalised.  It’s subtly done, augmenting the heart-warming feelings the show has engendered from the start.

Cosy, charming and consistently amusing, this is a family show that makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the woodland creatures it portrays.

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A car getting toad. Rob Witcomb, poop poop!

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Peake Performance

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th September, 2018

 

This new play by Maxine Peake documents the true story of four members of Women Against Pit Closures and their occupation of Parkside Colliery in the 1990s.  Peake’s writing clearly shows the influence of the late, great Victoria Wood with whom Peake worked in dinnerladies:  the down-to-earth Northern humour, the bathetic domestic notes, and above all the warmth and humanity of people in adverse conditions.

Kate Anthony is Anne, determined and a bit scatty – it emerges she is the wife of a certain A. Scargill esq, and here the play offers insights into what life was like for his Mrs and their daughter.  Anthony is superb, balancing Anne’s drive with her more humorous moments.

Jane Hazlegrove, formerly of Casualty, is great fun as the brash, earthy Dot, who suffers from claustrophobia – but that doesn’t stop her from descending thousands of feet below the ground.  Joining Dot with the crasser remarks and brash observations is Danielle Henry as Lesley.  This is a very funny play.

Special mention goes to Lucy Tuck, recruited only a couple of days ago to take over the role of Elaine due to the indisposition of the originally cast actor.  Tuck comes on with a script but it’s mainly as a safety net; her performance is almost there as is the chemistry with the rest of the cast.  Quite an achievement – give her to the end of the week and you won’t see the join!

Male roles are played by Conor Glean as sympathetic and easy-on-the-eye miner Michael – a scene in which he and the women share imaginary ecstasy pills is hilarious – and John Elkington gives us villainy-embodied in the form of pit manager Ramsey and also Des the tour guide, and James, a miner who seems to be from another era…

Miners past and present, played by an ensemble of community volunteers, haunt the stage during scene transitions, evoking the industry that has come and gone.  Georgia Lowe’s design is a good fit for the arena set-up of the New Vic, where the darkness adds to the impression of being deep underground.  The pounding, industrial house music used to cover changes is a refreshing change from the colliery brass bands we might expect!

Director Bryony Shanahan paces the humour effectively and brings out the personal-is-political aspects of Peake’s fine script.  Peake raises issues, social and political, many of which have not been consigned to the past.

A highly entertaining and powerful piece that reminds us to stand up for what we believe, to protest those who ride roughshod over us, that it is the protest that matters, the being counted, rather than the result.  If we’re going down, it’s better to go down fighting.  A losing battle is still a battle although I’d like to think there is hope for success.

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Going underground: Jane Hazledine and Conor Glean (Photo: Keith Pattison)

 


Oatcakes and Circuses

ASTLEY’S ASTOUNDING ADVENTURES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th July, 2018

 

When pressed to come up with names from the history of circus, you might recall worthies such as Billy Smart or Mary Chipperfield.  You probably won’t even know of the father of it all, the inventor of the modern circus, one Philip Astley, an innovative impresario and equestrian performer.  Now, this brand-new production staged in his home town brings this unsung hero firmly into the limelight.  We learn that he was a military man who fought in the Seven Years War – the redcoat of his uniform inspires the traditional attire of the ringmaster – and his riding school, based on marshland in Lambeth, like him, was snubbed by the nobility whose patronage he craved.  Dubbed ‘the major with the funny voice’ Astley doesn’t fit in, he’s a solecism made flesh, until inspiration strikes, and he draws together pre-existing elements (horse-riding tricks, clowns, musicians) and invents the standard for the circus ring (still in use today…)

Frazer Flintham’s snappy script leavens the historical detail with sharply comedic, sometimes saucy, dialogue, delivered with verve by a superlative ensemble.  Irrepressible clown Michael Hugo narrates – when he’s not engaged in hilarious business – and the entire enterprise crackles with fun.

Nicholas Richardson plays Astley as a swaggering, handsome figure.  Beneath the posturing is a man driven by his heart, and his heart is in the right place.  He’s also very, very funny.  He is matched by Danielle Bird as love interest Patty Jones, a spirited, driven young woman who becomes Astley’s rock and life-partner.  Their romance is decidedly unsentimental but is encapsulated in an aerial acrobatic sequence high above the stage and without a safety net, providing one of the truly jaw-dropping moments of the night.

An accident befell the mighty Andrew Pollard, causing him to break his foot the day before the dress rehearsal last week.  A swift piece of re-blocking has him sitting among the audience with his injured extremity raised, as per doctor’s orders, but this is not enough to dampen his performance.  He gives us a range of comic characters via a variety of hats and wigs – his George III is a scream, reminding us of the present Duke of Edinburgh.  Pollard’s marginalisation is only physical; his contribution remains at the heart of this production and it befits his high-status roles (the King, Colonel West) to have them apart from the main action.

Jason Eddy declaims and postures as Astley’s treacherous rival, Charles Hughes, while Nickolia King-N’Da impresses as Astley’s talented but rebellious son, John, who doesn’t wish to be saddled with horse-riding tricks for the rest of his days.  Luke Murphy does a star turn as Billy the Little Military Horse, in a hilarious scene of audience involvement.  Gareth Cassidy is also great fun as Astley’s BFF Alfie, while Oliver Mawdsley lends splendid support as Bert.  The cast is augmented by a quartet of circus performers who tumble and juggle and brandish fire around, bringing the thrills of the circus to this already-entertaining show.

Director Theresa Heskins brings her hallmarks to bear (non-contact combat, letters thrown across the stage…) and they work like a dream.  There is also a wealth of inventiveness that heighten the theatricality of the piece and add to the humour: walking across the marshland, for example; judicious use of ladies’ fans…)  How do you stage trick-riding when you have no horses?  Cleverly, is the answer.

There is also much that is deeply traditional, from the clowning to the carnival barking, but it is married with amusing anachronisms and contemporary references, making this just as much a play of the now as it is of the then.  Co-director Vicki Amedume ensures the action looks and feels like it belongs in a circus.

James Atherton’s original music is suitably circussy and melodramatic, providing the perfect accompaniment to the daring of the acts and the perfect underscore to the twists of Astley’s fortune.   The New Vic Workshop has outdone itself with the props: bicycles converted into fairground horses are wonderful to behold, and Lis Evans’s costumes keep the 18th century to the fore.

I come away having laughed a lot and having been charmed by the story, thrilled by the acts, and above all with a sense of injustice.  Surely Astley, the progenitor of an entire form of popular entertainment, deserves a more permanent monument than this excellent but ephemeral entertainment?

Meanwhile, this is the New Vic doing what it does best, and I cannot recommend this wonderful show highly enough.

Astounding!

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Linked in: Jason Eddy and Nicholas Richardson (Photo: Clara Lou Photography)


Whisky Business

WHISKY GALORE

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018

 

Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.

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Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)


Pleasure Voyage

TREASURE ISLAND

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 25th November, 2017

 

With this new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure, Theresa Heskins plots a course for another big Christmas hit.  Setting her version firmly in the North West, there is a host of Merseyside accents here – a change from the now-cliched West Country aarrs we immediately associate with the genre!  Our hero is plucky Gem Hawkins (a plucky Nisa Cole) who has to disguise herself as a cabin boy, having stowed away on board a ship bound for the titular island.  Cole is a ball of energy, likeable and expressive, and our guide through this dangerous, exciting world.

Another change is that Doctor Livesey is also female (Ellen Chivers) but if the TARDIS can have one, why not the Hispaniola?

Into the sleepy coastal pub where Jem works with her mother (a forceful Jessica Dyas) comes a stranger – in the book he’s Billy Bones, here he’s Captain Flint (Richard Costello), bringing with him intrigue, mystery and action but also electric guitars! Suddenly, James Atherton’s score is alive with heavy rock!  It’s a surprise and a welcome one.  Atherton can write in any style, it seems, and this deliberate period-smashing inclusion heightens the energy levels and the theatricality of the storytelling.  Heskins directs with customary wit and invention (Flint polishing off plate after plate of eggs and bacon is a delight!) and everything is in service of the narrative.  However, it does feel at times that the narrative loses momentum and needs crank-starting every now and then as the next iconic moment appears on the horizon.

The production is rich with gems: Andy Burse’s Squire Trelawney is a hugely enjoyable, upper-class buffoon; Lauryn Redding’s Darby McGraw is in great voice and is the most menacing of the pirates (female pirates are well-documented); William Pennington is a sweetly mad Ben Gunn – and he plays a mean xylophone; and Gareth Cassidy’s Red Dog is amusing in his intensity and attempts at subterfuge.

Tom Peters’s Long John Silver lacks the impact or charisma of Costello’s Flint, and it takes quite a while for the character to come alive.  His first scene requires him to sit, static, an approach which provides contrast to all the action we’ve seen so far, but denies him a big introduction.  We need to engage with him in order to be taken in.  Stevenson makes him a morally ambiguous figure and his relationship with Jim/Gem is key.

Certain moments are perfect.  A dance of tropical birds, fleshed out by members of the Young Company and accompanied by Atherton’s rousingly tropical score, is a delight for eye and ear.  The scene with Gem and agile baddie Israel Hands (Leon Scott) in the ship’s rigging is the best scene of the piece: tense and expertly executed.  The pirates’ song that opens the second act.  James Atherton’s score as a whole.  The New Vic’s production team: Lis Evans’s costumes, Daniella Beattie’s lighting, Alex Day’s sound… as ever, production values are high, from the big ideas (the wooden frame that lowers to represent the ship) to the smallest detail (the puppet parrot is elegantly performed (by Jessica Dyas).

There is a wealth of good ideas here, enough to get us through the patchy (eye-patchy?) bits when the dramatic thrust of the plot is becalmed.

Funny, thrilling and inventive, this is one worth setting sail for.

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The show is rigged! Nisa Cole leads a cast of pirates

 


Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 


Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

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Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)