Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo’s novel is brought to life in this effective adaptation by Simon Reade and Nottingham Playhouse. It’s the story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, and their nigh-on idyllic childhood in pre-war Devon. Throughout the course of one night of sentry duty in the trenches, Private Tommo Peaceful narrates his life story up to this moment, the action slickly transitioning into flashbacks with the wave of an army blanket and a lighting change. The story flows seamlessly and moves on a quite a lick, but there’s still plenty of time for us to engage with the characters and their tribulations.
War takes the brothers to France, where they encounter all the usual tropes of WWI drama: the trenches, the rats, the lice, the unreasonable officers, the futility, the waste of life… Everything except a war poet, in fact. The scenes here contrast sharply with the comparative rosiness of life at home, delivered with a sense of urgency: Tommo must get his story told before morning comes. We find out why in a devastating denouement.
As Tommo, Daniel Rainford is splendid, never leaving the stage. We see him grow up before our eyes, as he and Charlie fall for the same girl, disrespect the pompous lord of the manor, and generally form the fraternal bond that will see them through to the end. Tom Kanji makes a strong impression as the older brother, while Liyah Summers is sweet and appealing as their shared love object. Emma Manton is both tough and sympathetic as the mother, bringing up the boys on her own and striving to keep the roof over their heads. Robert Evans as the older brother with learning difficulties shows us the prejudices of the age, but surely the hardest working and most versatile member of the cast is John Dougall, appearing in the widest range of roles from the ill-fated father, to the vicar, the great aunt, and various military men.
It’s an engaging story, if a little cliched. Director Elle While keeps things flowing, with sudden changes of mood and location jarring us out of the present and into the past and back again. It’s a children’s story so we are spared the worst excesses of conditions, with the horrors of war only hinted at rather than depicted. What comes through very strongly is the injustice of the treatment of so-called ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors.
Matt Haskins’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound design enhance the storytelling, which is played out on Lucy Sierra’s remarkable set that conveys both homeland and war zone at the same time – thin branches curling in the air are also the barbed wire of the battlefield; mounds of sandbags suggest the rolling landscape…
This is a high-quality production reminding us of the huge waste of the First World War, and sadly, there are parallels with the world today, as Ukrainian men are recruited to defend their country against invaders, and once again thousands of lives are being lost on European soil.
This production comes to Birmingham from Nottingham Playhouse, working with Ramps On The Moon – casting deaf and disabled actors and tailoring the performance for hearing impaired audiences. Rather than having an interpreter at the side of the stage, signing for everyone, the signing occurs as part of the action: convicts, eavesdropping on the dialogue, sign it to each other… Also, screens display surtitles, scrolling the script as it occurs. So well is the signing incorporated, it becomes part of the choreography of the piece.
The play, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, tells of a colony of convicts, transported to Australia to serve their sentences in exile. The militia that guard them are brutal and cruel but the leader, Governor Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis) is of the view that criminals can and should be reformed. He consents to the rehearsal and staging of a play, Farquhar’s The RecruitingOfficer, much to the consternation of his men. As if the situation was not already a powder keg, waiting for a match. Charged with directing the production is Second Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) who finds his patience tested and his emotions engaged. Also among the redcoats (although this is no holiday camp!) is Colin Connor as the aggressively alliterative Major Ross, Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as the expressively inarticulate Captain Campbell, and Dave Fishley as Captain Collins. Excellent among this strong team is Garry Robson’s Harry Brewer, whose relationship with one of the convict women goes beyond the usual exploitation. The men argue the nature of their work, some favouring punishment over rehabilitation – a question that rages still today.
The prostitutes and convicts we meet are a lively bunch, to say the least. Caroline Parker is a hoot as the coarse Meg Long; Sapphire Joy is appealing as Mary Brenham; and Gbemisola Ikulemo is superb as the formidable Liz Morden. Tom Dawse makes a likeable Wisehammer, and Will Lewis an amusing Arscott – there are plenty of laughs in the rehearsal scenes, as Lt Clark struggles with melodramatic posturing, reluctant servants, and Liz Morden’s fierce and rapid delivery. Fifi Garfield’s Dabby Bryant and Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling Smith are wonderfully expressive in their silence, their expressions and attitudes unmistakable. Gradually, the civilising power of the theatre takes hold, but can the cast members escape the rope of hangman ‘Ketch’ Freeman (a sympathetic Fergus Rattigan) long enough to perform the play?
Fiona Buffini directs Timberlake Wertenbaker’s funny and incisive piece with verve. The worst excesses of the guards are kept offstage (this is a comedy, after all – as Clark keeps telling his ragtag company) and production values are high. Neil Murray’s evocative set is bathed in Mark Jonathan’s luscious lighting – added to which, it’s a warm night in the Rep’s auditorium, giving us a real feel for the place! If the play is about the humanity of those regarded as ‘lower’ and ‘lesser’ by society, the production is a prod, for those who need it, that deaf and disabled performers and technical crew and what they bring to the table is also of value.
There is a haunting, dignified appearance by Milton Lopes as an Aboriginal Australian; the effect of colonisation of his land is devastating. Britain’s disregard for other cultures is nothing new, of course.
An engaging, entertaining evening and a relevant revival.
Dabby (Fifi Garfield) and Liz (Gbemisola Ikumela) discuss the finer points of Farquhar’s elegant comedy
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 19th June, 2013
I have limited knowledge of the television programme. I know James Bolam is in it and that’s about it, but on arrival at the theatre, I found myself surrounded by young aficionados, ardent viewers all, who were able to call out names of characters who had yet to appear on stage. It was a bit like wandering into a meeting of some kind of cult.
To get around the absence of the original actors, the cast announce they are going to pretend to be the characters. They grab bits of costume and props from their dressing-up box and it’s on with the show. It’s a lively, bouncy, colourful affair with jolly, tuneful songs and a likeable cast who keep energy levels high.
Set in the idyllic Sunnysands – a place where everyone is cheerful without being overbearing about it – this is the story of Jason Mason and his grandpa, who possesses a special flat cap that enables him to shrink to pocket size. On the telly, special effects of this kind are a doddle but I was interested to see how they would achieve this change of scale live on stage. The solution is a series of puppets of decreasing size and some clever sleight of hand. This is a production that translates the television show to the stage with no short changes or lazy video tricks. The enthusiastic young audience (and me too) are treated to a purely theatrical experience – how refreshing for those little kids to experience something live and not on screen.
The show uses the conventions of theatre, including some audience involvement (i.e. shouting out) borrowed from pantomime. Things can get pretty loud. Of course, the characters are never going to be in any serious jeopardy and nothing really bad is going to happen. There is an ongoing mystery of valuable objects going missing and half of the cast end up stranded on Bongle Island, but you can bet your life Grandpa is going to save the day.
It’s a thoroughly charming piece, amusing rather than laugh out loud funny. Of the many songs, the one about the Bongle Birds stuck in my mind. The energetic company of six keep things moving, sharing the puppetry and sometimes doubling up their roles. Javan Hughes makes a likeable Jason Mason, with Lizzie Franks as his mum and also his eccentric Great Aunt Loretta, whose culinary inventions could give Heston Blumenthal a run for his menu. Sam Worboys is a rather young Dad, as well as a dotty Mr Mentor the Inventor and cycling enthusiast Mr Liker Biker. Dale Superville is great fun and has great fun as Horatio, a banker who longs to be a pirate. Insert your own satirical comment here. Ebony Feare veers sweetly from young girl as Jason’s sister to grown woman as Miss Smiley. Finally, Robin Simpson plays the man-sized Grandpa and also a toy shop owner with some comic form of dyspraxia the kids all seemed to adore, Mr Whoops.
This cheerful production worked its magic on the kids – it’s a show for them rather than a family audience, but as a so-called grown-up I found much to enjoy in the form of the piece and the exuberance of the performers. Created by Nottingham Playhouse and touring all over the country, this is an excellent summer treat.
Grandpa in My Pocket? I was pleased to see it.
Jason Mason (Javan Hughes) gives flight to his imagination
I’ve never been a fan of Bertie Brecht’s plays. The ideas and theatrical theories he propounded, yes, but I always felt these have been handled better by other practitioners.
This one is billed as one of his more accessible efforts. It is certainly straightforward: the rise of Hitler told through a parallel story, the rise of a Chicago gangster in the 1930s, muscling in on the city’s lucrative trade in cauliflowers. Events in Arturo Ui’s life mirror those in Adolf’s. The programme kindly provides a chart listing which character represents whom. Scenes on stage are interspersed with captions on an overhead electronic screen, the kind that on the motorway advises you not to nod off and which lanes are closed today. The captions declare what Hitler was up to at the time. The comparison couldn’t be clearer, except for the fact that Ui is fictional and Hitler, unfortunately, was not. The main objective of the play is to satirise Hitler. This is not exactly the topicality you get in Mock The Week! That the theatre sees fit to provide a wealth of background material, supporting talks and lectures suggests that a certain amount of historical knowledge is required for the audience member to get the best from the play. (The production was sponsored by the University of Nottingham, and there was a lot of students in the house, but I think theatre should be more than a teaching aid.)
It begins well. The Verfremdungseffekte are put to good use. The actors’ faces are whitened out and painted like faded clowns. The Chicago accents are broad (a little too broad in some cases for my Dudleian ears to make out what they were saying). Movement and gesture are stylised and synchronised. The effect is initially comic and engaging. Pieces of scenery and stage furniture are in view throughout. The cyclorama is a gigantic video screen on which scenic images are projected. The argot of the characters is that of the Jimmy Cagney type of film, but we are not allowed to forget for an instant that the story, although seen through the prism of a genre, is taken from reality.
Ian Bartholomew plays Ui as a nifty little mover, prone to expansive gestures and outbursts of violence. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator did this all with more elegance, pipping Bertie Brecht to the satirical post. In the funniest scene, Ui is coached in posture, movement and public speaking by an effete Shakespearean actor (William Hoyland) who has Ui quasi-goose-stepping across the stage and animating his parroting of the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech with a range of gestures all too familiar from wartime newsreels.
The V-effects and the stylised movement peter out after a while and such things as the video projection become part of the stagecraft (for example when Nick Moss appears as Roma’s ghost) rather than jolting us back to consideration of the ethics and politicking of the situation. The second act lacks the spirit of the first – the play becomes like a student essay that keeps making the same point in order to fill out the word count or, in this case, the running time.
Only at the end when the final caption rolls across the screen does the direct relevance of the play to today hit home. It is chilling: a rhyme celebrates the eventual downfall of the “beast” and gives a stark warning that “The womb from which he sprang is in heat again.”
Often described as a “comedy of manners” Noel Coward’s 1930 play resonates differently these days, I wager. The plot concerns the coincidental encounter of a divorced couple – they happen to have booked adjacent hotel suites for their honeymoons with new spouses. It soon becomes clear their first marriage was a volatile and passionate experience and that there is unfinished business and continuation of feeling still between them.
So, they abandon their new partners on their wedding night and bugger off to a bijou flat in Paris. So far, so charming. The dialogue is witty, snappy even, and peppered with “dahlings” and “teddibly, teddibly soddy” and leading man Rupert Wyckham’s performance has more than a hint of Noel Coward about it (and sometimes a touch of Simon Callow – it’s not an entirely consistent delivery).
In the flat, the reunited couple establish a safe word to call a halt when proceedings are getting out of hand, but even this isn’t enough to stop violence from breaking out. The violence is dealt with a comic touch – a gramophone record is smashed over his head, they tip each other over the backs of sofas, and so on – but in this day and age, awareness of domestic violence, alcohol-related abuse, and mutually abusive relationships brings the darker edge of the drama to the fore.
The subsequent coffee klatch when the abandoned partners turn up in Paris is therefore more starkly contrasted: we have seen the violence beneath the urbanity and civility. Elyot and Amanda are koi carp and shouldn’t get tanked up together, but they are unable to survive apart. The play ends with their new spouses getting into a right old ding-dong with each other – their passion, previously unseen and presumed missing, has been ignited at last. Elyot and Amanda tiptoe from the room, leaving their new exes to each other and their new-found love-hate relationship.
As fiery Amanda, Janie Dee achieves a balance between assertiveness and vulnerability, ably contrasted with Victoria Yeates’s Sibyl, who uses her toothy grin to charming and ditzy effect. The men aren’t quite as strong – Coward’s dialogue seems a little too stilted in their mouths. Director Giles Croft keeps the pace moving – the moments of silence after the safe word has been uttered are especially well done.
The play is a vote for passion and all its destructive qualities. Knowing what we do of the private life of Coward, this was very brave.
The stage adaptation of a children’s novel by Little Britain’s David Walliams has, like the book, more than a whiff of Roald Dahl about it. The book’s illustrations and the show’s publicity materials boast artwork by Dahl’s distinctive illustrator, Quentin Blake, and on first glance, the story has many Dahlian aspects, but I came away not with a smell in my nose, but with a taste in my mouth – as when one bites into a pie that is all pastry and no filling.
A story which centres on the relationship between a lonely 12 year old girl and a homeless man, Mr Stink throws up a few questions, some of them about our society, but there is something questionable about its central message: encouraging children to befriend a tramp who will then sort out your family’s woes. The eponymous tramp in this case is a well-spoken, ingratiating fellow, with vowels as rounded as his belly – there is no sign of super strength lager, drug addiction, mental illness or CRB check about him. He confronts his new friend’s bully with stern words and a belch in the face. He takes a bath in her mother’s ornamental pond. He is as full of fun as he is of fleas. Our heroine, Chloe, also has a friendship with the local newsagent, whose jokes are as out-of-date as the range of confectionery he purveys. I am worried about Chloe.
Chloe’s mother has pretensions of being elected as a right wing candidate in the local elections. Here the show touches on topical themes, caricaturising a certain type of middle class, Little Englander (as opposed to Little Britain). Rest assured she gets her come-uppance: after an embarrassing appearance on Question Time, her character does a volte face and resolves to be a better wife and mother.
With order restored, Mr Stink, like Shane in the old western, bids farewell. The show is in danger of lurching into sentimentalism at this point but because the characters are so broadly drawn and the emotions on the surface, it doesn’t quite get there. And that is the problem with the show as a whole. It doesn’t quite get there. “What are you laughing at?” asks the Duchess, Mr Stink’s puppet dog, to someone on the front row. No one in the auditorium had made a sound. More laughs are needed, especially in the first half – we are not revolted enough by Mr Stink neither is he all that endearing. It is as though the script has been sanitised by an overkill of Oust! The scratch-and-sniff booklet, in lieu of a programme, is good fun, an effective gimmick in a show poor in jokes and slapstick. The children in the audience watched and listened, seizing on the rare instances of physical comedy. It was the business of scratching off each new smell that gave rise to the biggest reactions. The whole show should have been that much fun.
The cast works hard, with puppets to handle and multiple characters to portray, and their energy keeps things moving along. The songs tend to slow things down again but the transforming doll-house style set and the lively characterisations make this a watchable, if ultimately bland, production.