Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018
It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time. Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation. The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’. Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns. Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it. In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.
Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock. His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown. Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work. This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.
Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves. Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better. And I start to get chills…
Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong. Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation. Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers. Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell. There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.
Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown. Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots! James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself. The production values of this show are of the highest order.
And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment? Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again. The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS). It all rings ever-so-relevant. How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising? Every bloody time, that’s how many.
An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.
Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Leave a comment | tags: Alan K Marshall, Birmingham, Brendan Stanley, Charlotte Upton, Crescent Theatre, Gary Spruce, Greg Kotis, Helen Parsons, James Booth, Keith Harris, Laura Poyner, Mark Hollmann, Mark Horne, musical, Nicholas Brady, Paul Forrest, review, Tiffany Cawthorne, Urinetown, Wanda Raven | posted in Theatre Review
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 9th December, 2016
Every year I see at least one show based on the quintessential Christmas story, some of them better than others. I am happy to report this new adaptation by Alan K Marshall is definitely one of the better ones. Making judicious use of Dickens’s words, the script captures the spirit of the book, which, at heart, is a ghost story as much as it is social commentary. The story of the redemption of one man still has the power to move, when handled properly, and, sad to relate, the indictment of society and its treatment of the poor and needy is all too relevant almost 200 years later.
Andrew Lowrie delivers Scrooge’s grumpiness, his sour humour and his fear, as the miser goes on his spiritual journey. His delirious joy in the final scenes is marvellous – Scrooge has rocketed to the other end of the spectrum. Other standout performances include Nicholas Brady, a handsome and convivial Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; Chris Collett as Jacob Marley – in one of the show’s scariest moments, he makes a dramatic entrance; and Tony Daniels’s Bob Cratchit grieving over Tiny Tim is heartrending. Standout scenes include the opportunists selling off Scrooge’s effects, played to perfection by Charwoman (Catherine Kelly – who also gives a lively performance as Fred’s Mrs), Laundress (Judy O’Dowd) and Old Joe (Ivor Williams); and the entrances of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Bob Martin) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are impressive – Production values are high; the team have gone all-out to make the most of their resources to create some ‘wow’ moments.
Kenny Holmes’s lighting design is especially effective, ranging from dim pools of Victorian candlelight to the more dazzling special effects that give the supernatural events such impact. Dan O’Neill’s set serves as exterior and interior for all the scenes, complemented by fly-ins and roll-ins. The action is continuous and fluid. Alan K Marshall, directing his own script, wisely uses action for storytelling as much as Dickens’s words – wordless moments are equally as revealing of character as lines of dialogue. He handles crowd scenes well and delivers a couple of surprises along the way. Ghostly animation, projected across the walls, adds to the atmosphere.
Jennet Marshall and Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on, depicting the period as well as a kind of Christmas-card Victoriana, as characters’ colourful outfits contrast with Scrooge’s dour appearance and the general darkness of the age.
Music in the form of classical arrangements of carols works better in some scenes than others. At times, I find it too grandiose for the on-stage action: the dance at the Fezziwigs’, for example, could do with being lighter and sparer, more folksy. A moment when a voice offstage sings The First Noel unaccompanied while the grieving Cratchits traipse across the scene is all the more powerful, demonstrating that sometimes less is more.
Overall this is a stately production with some strong ideas that make it a fresh but faithful version of a story that still speaks to us today. A warning against hardening our hearts against our fellow man and also of the dangers of ignorance could not be more timely in this small-minded, inward-looking, ‘post-truth’ age.
Bah, humbug! Bob Cratchit (Tony Daniels) and Scrooge (Andrew Lowrie) Photo: Graeme Braidwood
Leave a comment | tags: A Christmas Carol, Alan K Marshall, Andrew Lowrie, Bob Martin, Catherine Kelly, Charles Dickens, Chris Collett, Crescent Theatre Birmingham, Dan O'Neill, Ivor Williams, Jennet Marshall, Judy O'Dowd, Kenny Holmes, Nicholas Brady, review, Stewart Snape, Tony Daniels | posted in Theatre Review