Tag Archives: Paul Hunter

Double Double

WISE CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 3rd April, 2019

 

On the occasion of their 75th birthday, twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance receive an invitation to the 100th birthday party of their strange and estranged father, Melchior Hazard, a feted actor of the old school.  As the twins get ready, they recount the story of their family.  It’s a tale of the theatre, of absentee fathers, of choosing a family…

With this adaptation of the Angela Carter novel, Emma Rice makes a welcome return to form and to the stage, appearing as Nora Chance alongside Gareth Snook’s Dora. The pair are well-suited, and so are the other pairs of actors who portray the twins at earlier points in their lives and dancing careers.  Members of the beret-sporting chorus step forward and assume the roles of Melchior and his twin Peregrine, and the action flows fluidly through the stages of the story.  Fluidity is key, here; gender fluidity and colour fluidity in the casting, which adds to the theatricality of the telling and detracts nothing from the spellbinding charm of the enterprise.

Paul Hunter (the older Melchior) is a hoot as end-of-the-pier comic, Gorgeous George; the show has a definite whiff of seaside postcard and music hall vulgarity – which makes it all the more glorious.  Long-time Rice collaborator, Mike Shepherd (the older Peregrine) also features as a deadpan stagehand, but it’s Katy Owen’s Grandma Chance, waddling about in a body suit who garners the most laughs from the more outre material.

Melissa James and Omari Douglas portray the twins at the height of their careers, getting to know the ways of the world and men.  The dancing is lively and also elegant throughout, thanks to Etta Murfitt’s choreography, and the music, supplied by an onstage trio (augmented by cast members) is sublime, with Ian Ross’s original compositions nestled side-by-side with classics like “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”.

Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones bring juvenile energy to the twins as young girls, and Patrycja Kujawska is a dignified presence as the Lady Atalanta.  I also enjoy Sam Archer’s Young Peregrine and Ankur Bahl’s posturing Young Melchior.

The whole production has Emma Rice stamped all over it.  This is a Kneehigh show in everything but name.  The fun, the storytelling, the music, the puppetry, the romanticism, the wisdom… It’s all here to be savoured.

A magical, captivating piece that tickles the ribs and touches the heart.  It’s a wise critic who knows something special when he sees it.

ST102058

Doublet-trouble: Melissa James and Omari Douglas. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

 

 

Advertisements

“This great stage of fools”

MY PERFECT MIND

The DOOR, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 4th November, 2014 

In real life, actor Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke while rehearsing to play King Lear in New Zealand.  Not the most humorous subject for a play, you might think, but this new production from Told By An Idiot is gloriously funny and not shy of revelling in silliness.

A two-hander it features Petherbridge himself as himself and Paul Hunter as everyone else, making use of unconvincing wigs and even worse accents.  Utilising some traditional mechanics of stagecraft (a thunder sheet, a wind drum, a trap door) the play evokes not only scenes from Lear but Petherbridge’s theatrical and personal memories,  There are some cheerfully unsubtle plugs for his autobiography (available in the foyer!) and some frame-breaking asides that enhance the artificiality and theatricality of the piece.  Events are not played out chronologically but a picture builds of the actor’s life and experiences.  Petherbridge is both vulnerable and commanding while Hunter has never been better – he is a mass of comic energy from his Cherman achsunt to his wicked personation of Laurence Olivier.

It’s almost non-stop larks but there is also a thread of mortality running through it.  Like Shakespeare’s great work, the play is about frailty and the deterioration of the mind but, unlike the eponymous king, Petherbridge is a survivor.  He has recovered not only to tell his story but to crawl around under the stage and generally chuck himself around a bit.  This autobiography speaks to us all: a stroke need not be the end of one’s personality, identity or indeed one’s active life.  Director Kathryn Hunter handles the energy and the abrupt changes of time and location with the skill of a plate-spinner.

Gloriously silly, often touching but never less than intelligent, My Perfect Mind is one of those rare and remarkable pieces of theatre you never want to end.

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge engage in some admirable fooling

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge engage in some admirable fooling


In Your Face!

NEVER TRY THIS AT HOME

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 3rd March, 2014 

Told By An Idiot and writer Carl Grose’s new play takes an affectionate if irreverent look at the bygone golden age of Saturday morning television for children.  The play takes the format of a retrospective TV programme, “Looking Back (Together)” which dredges up long-cancelled series Shushi (basically TISWAS by another name)  The series was pulled, host Niall Ashdown explains, following the live transmission of some disturbing content – our interest is piqued.  As well as actors in 70s clobber running around spouting silly catchphrases, there is drama here, a dark undercurrent – some of it due to the relationships of the characters and a lot of it stemming from the ethos of the era.  And so, the show’s only female (the always marvellous Petra Massey of Spymonkey renown) is the butt of a lot of the jokes and subject to physical abuse and harassment at the end of a rubber mallet.  Okorie Chukwu plays an ardent fan, invariably picked to be put in the stocks and pelted with pies, his name repeatedly mangled and mocked.  (The cast use their real names but I hope not their real personalities!)

As well as triggering nostalgia for my younger days, the play is very funny, often in that post-modern way of holding up something we (now) regard as offensive, and we laugh, ironically or not as the case may be.  There is also some fun poked at those who pick apart social mores of the past and get offended on behalf of others.  One scene in particular involves a buck-toothed Korean butler and an astounding portrayal of a black woman that takes your breath away (with laughter rather than outrage).  Petra Massey’s vocal skills and comic timing are matched, if not exceeded by her physical comedy.

This is silliness of the highest order, at times exhilarating, at others uncomfortable, but never short of hilarious.  Stephen Harper is Shushi’s lead presenter, cynically going through the motions.  Ged Simmons is the show’s producer, pushing the boundaries.  In a delicious scene, the two phone-in to prank call rival show, Wake Up And Smell The Sunshine, hosted by Petra Massey in a Noel Edmonds beard; the Dionysian excesses of TISWAS pitted against the staid Apollonian order of Swap Shop.  There is a just about perfect Cheggers-a-like by Dudley Rees, who also gives us a cracker of a Frank Carson.  Many of the nods and nudges will be lost on those in the audience with the misfortune of being born too late to have seen these programmes but nevertheless the skits are still extremely funny.

One by one, Niall Ashdown interviews those involved in Shushi, inviting them to look back (together).  These interviews give the play structure but they are also daft and satirical in themselves.  This kind of nostalgic programme over-dramatises the trivial and (“Coming up next week, another crazy gang: the Khmer Rouge!”) trivialises the serious.  Niall Ashdown is more than the show’s straight man or anchor.  He is the contact with the audience, fielding heckles and warming us up.  That the people in the front seats are issued plastic ponchos gives you an idea of how the custard pies and the buckets of water fly around.  One particular pie fight in slow motion is a thing of beauty.   That the scenes are linked with blasts of Eve of Destruction suggests we are witnessing a civilisation in decline.

The play ends with a riotous celebration, an orgy of flan-flinging in a fast-moving sequence of clips from the series: Nobby’s Tool Time, Kick A Vicar… It’s the funniest 90 minutes I’ve enjoyed in a long time.  Whatever your age or experience of TISWAS, this is a joyous piece of theatre, performed by skilful clowns and directed to heights of brilliance by Paul Hunter.  It is an evening of unalloyed bliss.  I bloody loved it.

Image


Moliere, mo’ problems

TARTUFFE

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 6th November, 2013

 

We are accustomed to seeing productions of Shakespeare in modern-day (or other) dress so why then is Moliere so hard to get right?  I suppose some of the problems come from watching the plays in translation.  In this new production of Tartuffe, Chris Campbell goes for a more-or-less translation, with English idioms and vernacular thrown in.  What you are left with is a manner of speaking that is non-naturalistic but is not verse either.  It hovers somewhere in-between the two and that is the trouble with this production in a nutshell.

There is a lack of consistency in the performance style.  Some of the cast revel in the chance to perform in a heightened, comedic manner, and when these moments are developed unfettered, they are a joy. Paul Hunter’s Orgon, head of the house, warms up – by the second half he is unstoppable.  He is supported by Sian Brooke as his canny wife Elmire and Calum Finlay as his daughter’s betrothed Valere.  These three get the unreality right.  Others are not up to speed.  Ayesha Antoine is spirited as cheeky maid Dorine (although her costume baffles with its incongruity) but I would have liked her to be a little less well-spoken.  There are Birmingham twangs bubbling under the surface throughout – why not go the whole hog and have the maid come from Dudley?  Dinita Gohil displays some neat comic reactions as Orgon’s daughter Mariane (and perhaps the production hints at the ongoing issue of forced marriages) and Ashley Kumar gives some commanding histrionics as the righteous Damis.   There is an absolutely bonkers turn from Janice Connolly as Mrs Pernelle who keeps a dog in a basket but barks herself – she opens the show and should set the tone.  Sadly, the show doesn’t match or maintain her energy and commitment.

There is quite a build-up and delay before Tartuffe himself appears.  Moliere knew what he was doing.  He wants the audience to be in no doubt that this is a cozener, a Machiavel, and an arch-manipulator.  Mark Williams’s interpretation is therefore a surprise.  His Tartuffe is played straight.  Soft-spoken and self-effacing, there are no knowing asides.  It’s an interesting approach but at odds with the rest of the production.  Above all, it’s not particularly funny.  We need to see Tartuffe’s cogs working.  We need to revel in his manipulations of these ninnies and we need to rejoice in his eventual downfall.  Williams plays it all low-key and on an even keel.  It’s a real disappointment.  We get a vacuum at the heart of the play rather than a forceful, artful dodgy dealer.  I didn’t like his costume either, a kind of smock and Jesus boots affair.  Perhaps something along the lines of a televangelist would have signalled his hypocrisy better.

Roxana Silbert directs, supplying some funny comic business but doesn’t give us enough fizz and fireworks to keep the balloon in the air.  The tone of the piece is too patchy and uneven.  We cannot buy into this heightened world because we only witness it piecemeal.  The characters’ preoccupations with piety (as opposed to contemporary issues of pie-eating) seem removed from us.  Period costume would have added distance but somehow have brought us into their world – at least the picture would have been a unified one.  Also, the violent abuse of the maid, however slapstick and cartoony, doesn’t sit well in this partially contemporary, partially timeless realm, with its mickey-taking of Wolverhampton and references to parking costs near the theatre.  Ideas, amusing in isolation, jar with each other in juxtaposition, like trying to piece together a picture from at least two different jigsaw puzzles.

Liz Ashcroft’s set is a thing of beauty, representing the interior and the exterior of Orgon’s house, with French furniture and Fragonard paintings.  Trouble is it is indicative of the problem with the production.  It is neither one thing nor another.

What should be a dazzling display is a damp squib.  What should be a box of delights turns out to be a mixed bag.

Image

On reflection, we need to see more of the man in the mirror. Mark Williams in a publicity shot for TARTUFFE.


Toys’ Story

THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th December, 2012

The RSC’s Christmas family show this year is Tamsin Oglesby’s adaptation of Russell Hoban’s 1968 novel for children.   Hoban, I have found, is an acquired taste – and one which I have yet to acquire.  Presented on stage before my very eyes, the similarities with the works of Samuel Beckett are plain to see – and, guess what, I’ve never really taken to Beckett either.

Angela Davies’s set is magnificent; its circles and holes and suspended cotton reels and so on, suggest all at once the cosmos, the cogs and components of clockwork, and also gives us a sense of scale.  The toy and animal characters are the size of human actors, of course – their microcosm is a representation of our world, our society.

It begins with the clockwork toys, the titular Mouse and his Child waking up – or becoming aware – in a toy shop.  Right away we are plunged into Beckettian questions of existence.  The absurdist nature of life soon becomes apparent and runs through the entire piece.  As I said earlier, I’m not a Beckett fan.  We get glimpses of Vladimir and Estragon, and Pozzo and Lucky, for example – even the supporting chorus members are dressed as tramps.

But the material is also familiar in other ways.  I couldn’t stop thinking about A. I. (Artificial Intelligence) in which the constructed character seeks validation and recognition as a living being in his own right – which is itself derivative of Pinocchio.  Indeed, the Mouse and the Child are forced to perform, much as the little wooden boy had to for Stromboli.  In this instance, it’s within a rather avant garde theatre company run by two crows and a parrot, who in turn brought to mind the Crummles from Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby... There is something Dickensian too about the milieu in which the protagonists find themselves.  The baddie, Michael Hodgson as Manny the Rat, has more than a hint of Fagin about him as he despatches his band of rats to steal and scavenge bits and bobs.  The Mouse and the Child long to be self-winding just as Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy.  It’s all a metaphor for growing up and being independent, but also having free will as living beings.

The costumes are inconsistent in their effectiveness.  I couldn’t tell what some of the characters were meant to be; had it not been for the captioning for the deaf, I may never have known that the two cloaked figures with Merseyside accents were supposed to be hawks, but on the whole the production is a visual delight – and an aural one too, thanks to the marvellous musicians who remain on stage and complement the action with cartoon-like sound effects.

I particularly liked Carla Mendonca as the graceful, dignified maternal figure, an elephant on roller skates, and Daniel Ryan as the Mouse makes a warm-hearted Dad.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t warm to Bettrys Jones as the Child.  I found the characterisation too shouty and too strident.  There needs to be moments of cuteness and vulnerability.  Long before the end, I found I didn’t care what happened to him.  David Charles is likeable as a kind of new age hippy weirdo frog, who prophecises doom and success in equal measure, complete with 1960s psychedelic effects. Julia Innocenti provides a neat comic turn as Ralphie, a rat unhindered by his lack of intelligence, and the entire company clowns around energetically.  There is a fight scene to evict the baddies from the doll’s house (like routing the weasels from Toad Hall) that is an orgy of cartoon violence and very funny. Paul Hunter’s direction gives us moments of inventiveness and humour in a scattergun approach.  Not all the gags hit the mark but those that do keep you interested.

Michael Hodgson dominates as the quirky Manny who is cured of his evil compulsions when his plan to burn everyone to death backfires and results in a dose of electro-shock therapy.  This is just one of the many moments of darkness in the piece.  It’s no cute and cuddly adventure and it certainly isn’t twee.  I just wasn’t won over by the material, despite the talent, energy and creativity that went into the performance.

Michael Hodgson (Manny)