Tag Archives: Patrick Connellan

Class Struggle

EDUCATING RITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019

 

Almost forty years after its first production, Willy Russell’s acerbic two-hander is doing the rounds again, and it’s a pleasure to reconnect with the story of hairdresser Rita as she pursues her academic aspirations in order to better herself and improve her lot.  The tutor assigned to her by the Open University is jaded lecturer and functioning alcoholic Frank, who overcomes his reluctance and forms a bond with his persistent and unconventional new student.

We laugh at Rita’s gaffes, as we meet her through Frank’s eyes – the play credits us with a modicum of literary knowledge – and we see, also through Frank’s eyes, how education changes the bright but awkward young woman into a confident, knowledgeable scholar.  Frank thinks he has created a monster, Frankenstein-style – but what Rita has done is break the mould of her working-class upbringing.  By aspiring to something other than material gain and a ‘good night out’ down the pub, Rita has changed her life.  She now has something she never had before: choices.

As Frank, Stephen Tompkinson does a flawless job, dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  Jessica Johnson’s Rita has impeccable comic timing, although her accent can wander around the Mersey estuary (and sometimes across the Irish Sea).  There is nothing to say that Rita has to be from Russell’s hometown of Liverpool; she could spring from any working-class community.

The star of the show is Willy Russell, and it’s great to be reminded of the richness of his writing. There is much more to the play than the snappy jokes and the developing relationship and mutual respect between tutor and student.  There is social commentary about the rigidity of the class system and the perceived need to maintain the boundaries that define who people are.  Rita battles against the prevailing working-class attitude that art, books, the opera and so on are ‘not for us’, but once the genie is out of the bottle, she is unable to go back to pub singalongs and settling down with her lot.

Director Max Roberts navigates Rita’s mercurial mood changes: one minute she’s mouthing off, making wise cracks, and the next she’s revealing some home truth; Roberts keeps his cast of two busy.  Both characters are somewhat histrionic in their own way so there is no danger of things becoming static.  Patrick Connellan’s set, with books everywhere, encapsulates dishevelled academia (representing Frank himself) with Rita as an agent of change, for herself and for her unwilling tutor.  Neither of their lives will be quite the same again.

There are plenty of laughs, and even a couple of touching moments.  The message is not heavy-handed, but I wonder how relevant it is today.  And then I think of the obstacles placed in the path of working-class people that hinder their access to higher education, some of which come from the working-class mindset itself, and I think, yes, the play still has currency.

A modern classic, finely presented, this play will make you laugh and make you think.

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Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson

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Singing with The Enemy

WE’LL LIVE AND DIE IN THESE TOWNS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd October, 2018

 

Geoff Thompson’s new musical takes its score from the debut album of Coventry band, The Enemy.  Not being familiar with the group or their work, I am able to take the show at face-value, without the jolts of recognition that usually come with jukebox musicals.  Mamma Mia! this ain’t!   Telling the story of front man Argy’s struggle with a sudden, paralysing attack of stage fright on the day of his big homecoming gig, this turns out to be a thoughtful, poignant piece, as Argy embarks on an odyssey to face people from his past life in obscurity and come to terms with issues that have been plaguing him all along.

Thompson’s dialogue has a lyrical quality, which elevates the exchanges, adding to the mystical nature of Argy’s quest for enlightenment.  The show is structured mainly around two-handed scenes, with each person Argy encounters bringing up a different facet of our protagonist’s past.

Quinn Patrick is excellent as Argy’s ailing brother, a lapsed poet, in a bittersweet scene – Patrick later doubles as a comedy vicar for the show’s most spiritual scene.  Julie Mullins (formerly of Neighbours) provides strong support in a couple of roles, making me think how well suited she’d be for the role of Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers… while Steven Serlin makes a strong impression as Argy’s manager and later as former friend, Owl, complete with a creditable Brummie accent.  Mark Turnbull shines as a bearded busker, with the look of the late Chas Hodges and a voice similar to Tom Jones, and Molly-Grace Cutler is suitably bitter and resentful as Argy’s alcoholic sister.  Meg Forgan also steps out of the backing band to portray Megan, thrilled to be namechecked in one of Argy’s songs.

But it is the central performance from Tom Milner as the troubled troubadour that keeps us hooked, in a sensitive, rounded and powerful portrayal, with searing vocals and a charismatic presence.  We sort of know all along Argy’s going to get his act together, but Milner takes us with him on Argy’s journey so that when the gig finally comes it’s a moment of exhilarating release.

It’s all played out on the stylised urban landscape of Patrick Connellan’s concrete block set, backed by projections of local streets and buildings.  Director Hamish Glen balances the humour and the poignancy of each scene; the show is bittersweet but never maudlin.

There are a couple of scenes that could do with trimming in terms of getting their point across but on the whole, this is an intelligent, grown-up piece with a strong, melodic score that proves irresistible by the end.  The onstage band is tight, the cast members uniformly brilliant, making for a thought-provoking and ultimately moving experience.  Argy’s journey seems deeply personal but Thompson’s writing speaks to the artist he believes to reside in each of us.

Electrifying.

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The Enemy within: Argy (Tom Milner) battles his demons (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Something is Rocking in the State of Denmark

ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th September, 2016

 

The title might lead you to expect a jukebox musical but writer-director Bob Eaton’s new piece is all-new, all-original.  Well, up to a point: the plot is lifted from Hamlet and some of the tunes are Ludwig Van B’s.  Eaton also draws on Shakespeare for iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, which give the show a heightened theatricality and also provide the opportunity for some literary gags.  This is Return to the Forbidden Planet meets That’ll Be The Day.   Eaton’s tunes pastiche classic rock and roll hits.  Performed by a talented ensemble of actor-musicians, the songs have an authentic sound and, unlike some jukebox musicals, the songs develop rather than interrupt the plot.

It’s also very funny.

It’s Britain and it’s 1956 and Michael Fletcher is Johnny Hamlet, returning from national service in the RAF to attend his father’s funeral.  His father’s ghost keeps appearing, driving the young man around the bend with his demands for revenge.  Matthew Devitt is in excellent form as the murdered man and he plays a mean guitar – often at the same time.  Young Hamlet adopts a leather jacket and D.A. hairdo as he goes off the rails, while Ophelia (Chloe Edwards-Wood) rebels against her straitlaced father Polonius (Steven Markwick).  Oliver Beamish’s affable Claud reminds me of Boycie at times – and you question if this character could stoop to murdering his brother… Georgina Field’s Gertrude is an energetically common, gorblimey Londoner, bringing a touch of music hall to her songs.   Meanwhile, Larry (Laertes) is dropping hints about his own emotional trials (the handsome Joseph Eaton-Kent, cutting quite a dash); and Niall Kerrigan brings a lot of fun to his role as Teddy boy/wide boy Waltzer.

Patrick Connellan’s set evokes a 1950s dance hall, enhanced by the backdrops of Arnim Friess’s video designs.  Choreography by Beverley Norris-Edmunds adds to the period setting, although for the most part, the cast are playing instruments while moving, acting and singing.

It’s an engaging, amusing show that proves irresistible, tickling the funny bone and setting the toes tapping.  Eaton tempers the nostalgic appeal with touches of social commentary: those who long to return to Britain as it was in the 1950s would do well to be reminded of the unhealthy aspects of the era, from the prevalence of smoking (it was good for you back then!) and the law against homosexuality, to name but two.  Also, “everything was in black and white and there was no Radio 1” – Every cloud!

This is a feel-good Hamlet, if you can imagine such a thing.  On reflection, I wonder if a different title might suit it better: we expect to hear the titular song but it never comes, although what we do get is more than good enough.

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Michael Fletcher as Johnny Hamlet (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 

 


Dodgy Lodgers

THE LADYKILLERS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 14th April, 2015

 

Working in collaboration with Hull Truck, the New Vic stages this new production of the West End hit adaptation of the much-loved Ealing comedy film. Having seen both the film and the original tour, I was intrigued to see how they would stage this rather housebound story where doors and windows are very important, in the round.

The answer is: brilliantly. Patrick Connellan’s set works on different levels, so to speak. Mrs Wilberforce’s cluttered house is represented by platforms, seemingly held up by stacks of books and suitcases. The upstairs room she leases to a lodger is higher up – with a suggestion of the window and the roof and railway tracks beyond. Doors are stunted, sawn-off affairs that delineate the boundaries of one space and another and the furniture keeps us in post-war London. A flight of stairs is formed from treads that look like suitcases, adding to the cluttered look but also heightens the setting so that the farcical aspects of the plot are accentuated. Radio announcers and telephone callers pop up out of the floor. We are at a remove from reality and it works very well.

Anna Kirke is marvellous as sprightly old biddy Mrs Wilberforce, a seemingly frail and delicate and not to mention dotty character, forever bothering the police with paranoid tales of Nazis in the newsagents. Timothy Speyer’s Constable is a slice of old England and helps set the tone for the rest of the piece, although Graham Linehan’s adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay has a more modern line in gags. Speyer also appears as Mrs Tromleyton, along with a host of old ladies, not all of them female and not all of them clean-shaven. It’s a Pythonesque moment, again underlining the Britishness of the humour.

Andy Gillies is superb as One Round, a heavy who is endearingly thick. But there is menace in his physicality. Matthew Rixon, by contrast, is Major Courtney, an old-school English gent type with a fondness for frocks, in a delicious performance of suppressed camp. Matt Sutton brings energy as pill-popping Teddy Boy Harry Robinson, and the marvellous Michael Hugo brings darkness as vicious Romanian killer Louis. Hugo is deadpan for the most part, looking like Eddie Munster or Nosferatu at times and his emotional outbursts are perfectly pitched for both humour and threat.

But the night belongs to Andrew Pollard as leader of the pack, Professor Marcus, with a crazy haircut and a scarf Tom Baker’s Doctor would kill for. Pollard’s characterisation fills the stage with erudition, false good manners, and a camp sensibility. His pretensions eventually prove to be his downfall as in the second act, events take a much darker turn. Director Mark Babych handles the changes of tone expertly even though sometimes the action seems a little cramped. The crazy set becomes a hell of passing trains with their noise and their steam, and a real sense of nastiness comes into play. Suddenly the comedy is very black indeed.

The Ladykillers is an enjoyable romp with an edge of menace. It’s nostalgic and yet fresh, thanks to a very funny script, played to a tee by an ensemble of all-round excellence. The message is clearly that crime doesn’t pay, but I would urge you to beg, borrow or, yes, even steal a ticket if you have to.

Pictured left to right: Anna Kirke as Mrs Louisa Wilberforce, Andy Gillies as One-Round, Matthew Rixon as Major Courtney, Michael Hugo as Louis Harvey, Andrew Pollard as Professor Marcus and Matt Sutton as Harry Robinson during rehersals at the New Vic Theatre Photo: The Sentinel

Pictured left to right: Anna Kirke as Mrs Louisa Wilberforce, Andy Gillies as One-Round, Matthew Rixon as Major Courtney, Michael Hugo as Louis Harvey, Andrew Pollard as Professor Marcus and Matt Sutton as Harry Robinson during rehersals at the New Vic Theatre
Photo: The Sentinel