Tag Archives: Nikolai Foster

Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017

 

Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.

The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core.  Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there.  The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation.  What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing.  Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams.  The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society.  And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.

Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom.  Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed.  Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.

Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare.  The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….

Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire.  The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce.  Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment.  That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.

A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.

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Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


Wilde Thing

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 14th September, 2016

 

“We live in a world of surfaces,” says Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece that holds a mirror up to society.  Designer Isla Shaw takes this at face value and gives us a set that is all mirrored surfaces.  It’s opulent and bright, and a nifty idea, but rather than draw us in, suggesting that the play is showing us ourselves, I find it distracting to see the actors reflected from all sides.

There seems to be a desire to give the piece – over a century old – a contemporary feel.  This is entirely unnecessary; the lines are as fresh and funny as ever.  Rather than blasting out electro-dance music, director Nikolai Foster should allow the play to speak for itself, and let it remind us how contemporary it feels without these jarring trappings.  Poor Gwendolen (Martha Mackintosh) has to wear a period dress lacking a front from the knees down.  It’s entirely out of keeping and I find myself questioning the design choices rather than listening to the dialogue.  Fela Lufadeju’s John Worthing fares a little better: one of his suits makes him look like a bus conductor and his mourning clothes are a little too steampunk.

Apart from these disturbing elements, this is a highly enjoyable production, especially when the genius of Wilde is allowed to come to the fore.  Handsome Edward Franklin seems most at home as the hedonistic Algernon, while Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is as formidable and imperious as you could hope.  There is some neat character acting from Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble and Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism, and I like Sharan Phull’s youthful energy as Cecily Cardew.  Darren Bennett gives us two markedly different butlers; I’ve never seen a Merriman so camp. Some of the timing needs sharpening – the bitchy scene between the two young girls could be more arch – but on the whole, the cast deliver Wilde’s often convoluted sentences very well.  They also, at times, need to ride the laughs a little better so that follow-up ripostes are not lost to us.

The delights of Wilde’s contrivances still tickle us.  This seemingly trivial play is rich with social commentary and satire, and the revelations at the denouement are still breathtakingly silly.  This production for the most part is a lovely confection; there are just one or two things I would leave on the side of my plate.

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Edward Franklin and Sharan Phull (Photo: Tom Wren)

 

 

 


Three Sisters

THE MEMORY OF WATER

New Vic Theatre, Friday 7th March, 2014

 

The New Vic’s revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is a beautifully presented, tightly acted production.  The sharpness of the writing has the characters throwing wit and sarcasm at each other – sometimes the barbed comments hit home and open cans of worms.

Three sisters of different ages and temperaments gather at their recently deceased mother’s house for the funeral.  Mum herself is still knocking around, appearing to middle daughter Mary in fantasy/dream/memory sequences full of recriminations and accusations.  Having a ghost in a play is as old as drama itself, of course, but the focus here is not on the apparition but the lingering pain of memory and things unspoken or old ground trodden over repeatedly.  As dead woman Vi, Lynn Farleigh cuts an elegant figure and is far from the aloof and distant figure Mary remembers.  The play has a theme of the unreliability of memory running through it like words through a stick of seaside rock – Mary is even a doctor with a patient suffering from trauma-induced amnesia, to strengthen this motif.  Each daughter remembers a different childhood, although none of them is accurate.  They trigger memories in each other but they are unsure who had the starring role in each misremembered incident.

It’s a very funny play.  As eldest and most bitter sister Teresa, Mary-Jo Randle is a mixture of strength and fragility, both of which are exacerbated by her intake of whisky. She is hilarious and compelling.  Caroline Langrishe is Mary, who speaks ‘properly’ as befits her profession, combining an authoritative tone with vulnerability.  She snipes defensively – her affair with married man Mike (Paul Opacic) comes under more strain with the impending funeral.  Langrishe, especially in her scenes with mother’s ghost, is excellent – but then, this is an excellent cast. Director Nikolai Foster gets multi-faceted performances from them and handles their contrasts and contradictions expertly.

Amanda Ryan is a treat as uninhibited youngest sister Catherine, prone to too much retail therapy, pot-smoking and continental boyfriends.  She brings her sisters down to her level and they become like three children bickering, or having a laugh dressing up in their mother’s frocks.  The men (Mary’s boyfriend and Teresa’s husband) are secondary figures but each has his moment.  Steven Pinder is first-rate as long-suffering Frank, bemused most of the time, until he reaches the end of his tether, and Paul Opacic does well to convince as attractive but unlikable two-timing Mike.

It all takes place on an attractive set by designer takis, atmospherically lit by Ben Cracknell, surrounded by snow and frost.  The coldness of the outside world is kept at bay by the warmth of family ties and the heat of family conflict.

Entertaining and emotive, The Memory of Water shows yet again the high quality of the work being produced at the New Vic.  Well worth the journey every time.

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Kitchen Sink Drama

THE DISHWASHERS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th February, 2014

 

David Essex used to be a dish.  Now he’s washing them in the REP’s new production of Morris Panych’s hit play, set in the washing-up room deep in the bowels of a swish restaurant.

Into Essex’s domain comes new boy Emmett (Nik Makaram, late of Emmerdale) who used to enjoy the posh nosh and the good life himself.  Emmett is scornful of his new boss’s meditations and resents and rejects his reduced circumstances as a lowly dishwasher.  Dressler (Essex) is having none of it.  For him dishwashing is duty, job satisfaction and purpose.  He is prone to flights of philosophical musing – The play is not a slice-of-life but a means through which we reflect on our own lives, places in society and the nature of the human condition.   The naturalism of the dialogue is distorted by lyrical passages.  Dressler refers to glasses as ‘translucent chalices’ at one point – just one example of when the writing gets a bit pretentious.

Also working in the kitchen is ‘lifer’ Moss (Andrew Jarvis) a decrepit old man marked for death and the chop.  He clings to life as long as he still has his job and is prone to random and demented outbursts as he loses yet another marble.  It reminds me of the Beckett play except these guys aren’t so much as Waiting for Godot as washing-up for him.

David Essex is commanding as washer-upper-in-chief Dressler, a character I find ultimately to be repugnant with his grandiloquence and small ambition.  Nik Makarem is strong as the new boy whose learning curve turns out to be a full circle but for me the most compelling performance comes from Andrew Jarvis as raddled old Moss.

Director Nikolai Foster handles the play’s rich vein of dark humour well (there’s lots to make you laugh or smile wryly) but in the end it’s a dispiriting experience.  “All there is: work, death; the rest is a detour,” opines Dressler.  Trying to effect change in this unjust society is futile.

Excellently performed and presented though it may be (Matthew Wright’s detailed set is stunning) The Dishwashers parades lots of ideas but lacks the scale and scope of another play it reminded me of, Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen.  It feels at times like there’s too much on its plate.

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