Tag Archives: Oliver J Hembrough

Toad Away!

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012


Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.

First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.

The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.

The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?

The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.

The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.

There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.

Wind-in-the-Willows

Advertisements

Humble reviewer goes legit

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 18th May, 2012

Stoke on Trent’s local paper, The Sentinel, invited me to review the opening night of the new production at the wonderful New Vic theatre. I know! Get me!

Here’s how my review turned out.


Local Heroes

WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 7th April, 2012

 

Carrying on and celebrating the New Vic’s tradition of social documentary dramas with a strong local (North Staffordshire) identity, comes this new piece by writer Alecky Blythe and director Theresa Heskins.

The set is a stark, almost lunar, landscape.  Mounds of nutty slack and broken china house television sets.  The area’s industrial past has been superseded in this day and age.  The Potteries are now home to rife unemployment – people who stay at home and watch the telly.  I have to confess my heart sank a little when I realised the show is based around an X Factor type talent show – often the recourse of unimaginative GCSE drama groups – but my initial misgivings were quickly washed away by the style and execution of the piece.

The words spoken by the cast are all verbatim.  The people who entered the 2010 “Stoke’s Top Talent” contest provide all the dialogue in its naturalistic, often hilarious, glory.  But further to that, the production goes a step further.  The actors are wired with earpieces.  Recordings of the real people speaking the lines are played to them and the actors deliver those lines with the same inflection and intonation as close to the original speaker as possible.  The actor is the mouthpiece for the person.  While this is a peculiar way of working for the performers, isolated as they are from the atmosphere in the auditorium, it pays dividends for the audience.  As characters emerge then come and go, and we follow their experiences in the audition process, the warmth and humanity of these people shine through.

I couldn’t help thinking of Creature Comforts.

The humour, unconscious on the part of the speaker in some cases, is delightful.  “My girlfriend’s 24,” boasts a 19 year old contestant, “and she’s only got two kids.”

“Jonathan Wilkes” hosts the heats, but this contest is not about the glorification of the judges.  Neither is it about holding up the contestants to ridicule.  What comes to the fore is how important this competition is to the people of Stoke on Trent, now there is nothing else to offer them hope of bettering themselves.  The prize money of £1,000 and the chance to appear in professional panto for a month may seem small beer compared to the large-scale televised talent shows – but the contestants recognise it has a start, as a chance, a leg-up.  They go back, year after year, to try again, and they take it seriously.

You couldn’t get more of a local flavour if you sat through the show stuffing yourself with oatcakes.  But the show is much more than a local show for local people.  As an outsider to the region, I saw the national relevance of the play.  Stoke-on-Trent  becomes a microcosm for the whole country.  The obsession for these talent contests.  The death of industry.  The lack of opportunity compared to the wealth of talent and ambition.  It’s all there.  This is a state-of-the-nation piece, documenting a moment in time.  It is a celebration of the human spirit in bleak and trying times.

Theresa Heskins has collected an impressive ensemble of actors who slip in and out of a range of characters to populate the show.  Samuel Hargreaves plays 14 year old Sam, the eventual winner.  His talent and ambition are nicely counterpointed by the bathos of the slightly camp Northern bathos of his family.  The show ends with his rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” by local boy done good, Robbie Williams.  The song takes on extra significance.  The boy is at the outset of his career.  We are not told what’s become of him in the two years since his pantomime appearance.

One of my favourite actors on the planet, Michael Hugo is superb as slightly thuggish, skinhead Mark, struggling with all manner of problems and trying to stay out of trouble so he will be accepted by another means of escape from his surroundings, the armed forces.

Oliver J Hembrough evokes rather than impersonates local star-maker Jonathan Wilkes but really excels as the father in musical duo, “Lad ‘N’ Dad” – guitar, bongos and “Yummy Yummy Yummy”.

Andrew Pollard is heart-breaking as gentle charity-shop worker Graeme who can’t face the pressure of the audition process then regrets not going through with it.  Alan Bennett could write an entire show based on this man alone.

Mona Goodwin’s Kerry (runner-up in the final) displays the excitement and nervous energy and not forgetting the talent.  You really feel for her when she doesn’t win (and I knew the outcome beforehand, having seen the panto two years ago!).  Peter Temple’s pensioner Norman is finally taking his chances after a lifetime of hard work.  “Where have I been all my life?” he asks himself.  It is the line that gives the show its title, and a poignant moment about roads not taken.  Rebecca Brewer depicts a range of roles, adding to the likeability and general warmth. Angela Bain switches from middle-aged mum to ten year old little brother at the change of a shirt – the entire company proves its versatility. That is not to say this is a whitewash.  Human fallibility and the darker aspects of society are all here too.

Everyone comes out of this very well but really the show is a testament to the people of Stoke and a mirror showing what’s happening all over post-industrial Britain.  It’s more uplifting and relevant than anything Simon Cowell sticks his fingers in.

Image