Tag Archives: Newcastle under Lyme

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!

New-Vic-Theatre_Astleys-Astounding-Adventures_image-by-Clara-Lou-Photography_11-1170x780

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

Advertisements

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.

Christine-Mackie-Shuna-Snow-and-Isabel-Ford-1170x780

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.

The-cast-of-Treasure-Island-at-the-New-VicJPG

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.

New-Vic-Theatre_Taking-Steps_image-by-Tony-Bartholomew_1

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.

Anna

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

 


The Best Laid Plans…

DIAL M FOR MURDER

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 3rd May, 2017

 

I have seen several productions of Frederick Knott’s masterpiece over the years but never in-the-round, so it’s intriguing to see how a story in which doors and windows are so important is staged with neither of these features…

The short answer is: brilliantly.

Lis Evans’s design gives us the London flat of Tony and Sheila Wendice, complete with floor plan showing us where the doors and French windows are, like an architect’s plan.  The flat is an island set on a sea of street maps, to give us the Maida Vale setting, while stylish furniture evokes the 1950s period.   Rather than have his actors mime the opening and closing of the non-existent doors, director Peter Leslie Wild opts for lighting changes and sound effects – the added bonus is we see characters arriving at the flat before they ring the doorbell, increasing the dramatic irony, and also exposing the workings of Knott’s taut plot – it’s like watching an exquisitely made clock with its cogs in full view.

Nicole Bartlett is a rather cool Sheila in the Grace Kelly mode, elegant and vulnerable.  Daniel Easton is a likeable Max – her one-time boyfriend – and Paul Brendan is a workmanlike Inspector Hubbard, teasing out the complexities of the crime.  But it is William Ellis’s Tony, the mastermind of the murder plot, who captivates, weaving his web of intrigue and drawing us in – even if we know what’s coming.  Rob Heanley’s Lesgate is the heavy, coerced into doing the dirty deed, completing a flawless ensemble.

Daniella Beattie’s lighting adds to the atmosphere, although things are a little too hazy at the start, as if the peasouper in the streets has invaded the flat.  James Earl-Davis’s sound has plenty to do to give us the sense of the flat, accompanying the action with appropriate sound effects, but there is also something disconcerting in the air, keeping us on edge.

There is something incredibly satisfying in seeing Tony scheme his detailed scheme, topped only by seeing how it is foiled, brought down by a similar attention to detail.  Much of it comes from Knott’s superlative writing, of course, but this production’s skilful handling of some wordy scenes along with tense moments of action and suspense, delivers all the thrills in all the right places.

Dial-M-for-Murder-A-New-Vic-Production.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-_31B8469

Plan for murder – Lis Evans’s set design for Dial M For Murder (Photo: Mark Douet)

 

 


Winning by a Nose

CYRANO

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

 

The New Vic has teamed up with Northern Broadsides for this new version of the classic romance by Edmond Rostand.  Writer Deborah McAndrew cleverly keeps the play as a verse drama – it’s not just rhyming couplets and doggerel; it’s a technical achievement in itself, let alone its faithfulness to the original while having an altogether fresh feel.  It’s her best work yet.

Director Conrad Nelson blends naturalism with more heightened moments – the changes in pace and tone of each act are handled to perfection.  We laugh, we love, we cry – in all the right places.  Nelson has also composed the score, performed by the ensemble of actor-musicians, that adds to the period feel and the emotional impact of each act.  Led for the most part by Michael Hugo’s Ligniere, the music casts its spell as much as the story and the characters.  Hugo is such an appealing presence as the minstrel – I also enjoy his ham actor Monfleury, heckled off the stage by the eponymous Cyrano.

Christian Edwards in the title role is outstanding – and I don’t just mean his massive conk.  He is everything you could wish for in a Cyrano de Bergerac.  Swaggering, witty, charming, brave and selfless.  Edwards plays it with panache, literally and figuratively.  He is supported by a team of excellent players: Sharon Singh is an elegant Roxane, headstrong and independent – worthy of Cyrano’s devotion.  Adam Barlow is the handsome but dim Christian, the third point of the love triangle – he contrasts nicely with Cyrano’s erudition and we can’t help but see how sweet he is.  Andy Cryer’s De Guiche changes our opinion – we see there’s more to him than the figure lampooned by Ligniere.  Paul Barnhill’s poetic pastry-purveyor Ragueneau, Perry Moore’s prancing ponce Valvert, Jessica Dyas’s sardonic Mrs Ragueneau, Francesca Mills’s busybody Sister Martha, all help to populate the story with a wide range of characters, different facets of humanity – Rostand has respect for all walks of life and yet he makes Cyrano seem more human than all of us.  Especially touching is Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, his heart breaking to see Cyrano’s decline.

Lis Evans’s design is stylish – the stage floor is beautiful – and the New Vic’s costume department has pulled out all the stops for the 17th century setting.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting emulates the soft glow of the chandeliers with the occasional shaft of brightness – like Cyrano’s wit, enlivening the gloom.

Cyrano’s panache tickles the funny bone before plunging into your heart.  I know it’s only February but already I think I might have seen the show of the year.

cyrano

“You don’t have to put on the red light…” Cyrano (Christian Edwards) and Roxane (Sharon Singh)  Photo: Steve Bould