Famously, little is known of Shakespeare the man, although we actually know more about him than other playwrights of the time. The gaps in our knowledge are taken as an open invitation to screenwriters, novelists, and everyone else to invent whatever they like to make their own version of him. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman chose to straightwash the bard in their screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1998 film – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day is widely recognised as having been written for a man. The screenplay takes plot points from Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night, with the idea that these life events inspired the plays, when in truth Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of pre-existing stories. Not that this matters if we take this version at face value. Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the screenplay holds true to the spirit of the film, and there’s a lot of fun to be had recognising versions of famous quotes. Even if you’re not well-versed (ha) in the Works, there is much to enjoy in this historical rom-com.
What strikes you first off in this sumptuous production is the set, which evokes the Globe Theatre and serves well for other locations. Milling around pre-show the cast give us previews of their costumes. As ever the costume department at the Crescent goes all out. This is a fabulous-looking show; Rosemary Snape and her team should be commended.
Oliver Jones is a handsome and endearing Will Shakespeare, managing to be both cerebral and bumbling. Alisdair Hunt makes an impression as his rival-mentor-friend Kit Marlowe. The notion that Marlowe fed Will some of his best lines under a balcony is more akin to Cyrano de Bergerac!
Bethany Gilbert absolutely shines as Viola de Lesseps who disguises herself as a boy in order to secure a role on the stage. Her delivery of the verse is second-to-none, although the play misses the opportunity to make the most of Will’s apparent attraction to someone of the same sex, as in Twelfth Night, say.
The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis is, have a guess, excellent as ever in his portrayal of harried theatre manager Henslowe, with superb timing and a performance that is just the right side of Carry On. The mighty James David Knapp absolutely storms it as the larger-than-life actor Ned Alleyn, while Joe Palmer is suitably entitled and horrible as villain of the piece, Wessex.
Also great are Mark Thompson as the bullish financier Fennyman who taps into his artistic side when he lands the role of the apothecary; Phil Rea as a deliciously bombastic Burbage; and Pat Dixon-Dale as Viola’s long-suffering Nurse. Jaz Davison’s imperious Queen Elizabeth is not without nuance.
There are many pleasing moments from supporting players: Charles Hubbard as boy-actor Sam; Dylan Guiney-Bailey as a bloodthirsty Webster; Niall Higgins as the Nurse within the play; Simon King as a riverboat cabbie…
A taut consort of musicians and vocalists provide period music to underscore the action and to cover transitions, and it all sounds perfectly lovely under Gary Spruce’s musical direction. There are a few moments when the music almost drowns the dialogue – luckily Mark Thompson is often around to tell them to shut up!
Director Michael Barry keeps the action well-focussed on an often busy stage – the period choreography is charming and doesn’t get in the way of the action. Keith Harris’s gorgeous set is backed by beautiful scenic projections, with Kaz Luckins’s fight direction adding authenticity as well as excitement.
A fine and funny fabrication that demonstrates the high quality production values on which the Crescent prides itself. All in all, an evening of excellent entertainment.
Before Alan Turing became a household name some fifty years after his early death, Hugh Whitemore wrote this play which went a long way to establishing the computing pioneer as one of the most important figures of the Second World War. Turing’s work in cracking the code of the Germans’ Enigma machine played a major part in our defeat of the Nazis – we have a lot to thank him for.
The timeline of the play is not in chronological order. It is up to the audience to decode the order of events to build up a picture of Turing’s life story. Director Liz Plumpton keeps the staging simple, allowing clues from the script to inform us which decade we’re in. She is blessed with a superlative cast, who keep us riveted throughout. The intimacy of the in-the-round setting puts us right in the action as we eavesdrop on Turing and the people in encounters at work and at play.
Making his debut at the Crescent, Jack Hobbis is stunningly good in the lead role. Hardly ever offstage, he is utterly convincing, inhabiting the character with nuance, animation and total conviction. This Turing is eminently likeable, for all his eccentricities, quirks and directness. I suggest the Crescent treat Hobbis the way Turing treated his tea mug: chain him to a radiator so he can never leave the building! I have seen lesser performances win all sorts of awards.
The mighty Brendan Stanley is thoroughly credible as no-nonsense detective Mick Ross, and Phil Rea is also on excellent form as Turing’s Bletchley Park boss, Dilwyn Knox, a humorous cove, decidedly old-school. Angela Daniels, as Turing’s mother, adds depth to her characterisation as the action unfolds, while Sanjeev Mistry makes a strong impression as Turing’s fateful bit of rough, Ron Miller. Amy Thompson combines sweetness with efficiency as female boffin Pat Green, and Tony Daniels has a pleasing cameo as top-secret brass, John Smith. Young actor Louis Clare appeals as Turing’s schooldays chum, Chris Morcom and later dazzles as Greek trick, Nikos, spouting the language like a native – an impressive feat on its own but Clare imbues Nikos with a remarkable presence as he listens to Turing’s babbling.
Jennet Marshall’s costumes do most of the period work for the production, evoking the era superbly, while Kristan Webb’s lighting design stylishly takes us from place to place and time to time. The final moment, of Turing with his poisoned apple, will stay with me a long time.
A superlative production that is both humorous and gripping; another jewel in the Crescent’s sparkling crown. We learn a good deal about the tragic genius, who has become a hero-martyr type, a figurehead for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I wonder if the Alan Turing Law, passed as recently as 2017, pardoning all those cautioned or convicted of homosexual acts, would bear his name if he hadn’t saved us all from fascism, or whether the long-overdue law would have been passed at all.
Genius! The brilliant Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th May, 2017
The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 sent shockwaves across the USA and around the world. A tipping point had been reached, it seemed and, although it took a while, law was passed to protect minorities from hate crime.
At the time, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming several times, interviewing local people of a variety of walks of life and with a range of views on the murder. Those interviews form the basis for this play, using verbatim the words of the Laramie people.
Almost twenty years later, this new production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio demonstrates the piece has lost none of its power and, sadly, none of its relevance. It’s a play about its own making. Actors play actors from the theatre company along with the people they interview and the whole piece is structured around the murder – before, during and its aftermath, covering a year in the life of Laramie. It’s a compelling piece of work and this production certainly does it great service.
The cast of ten populates the space with police, neighbours, family members, the clergy – over 60 roles, all aided by the costume designs of Pat Brown and Vera Dean: we see who these people are in an instant, before they speak for themselves. I cannot assign roles to particular actors (I’m sure to get it wrong) so, as the programme does, I shall just list them: Kassie Duke, Juliet Ibberson, Simon King, Sean McCarthy, Judy O’Dowd, Liz Plumpton, Ben Pountney, Phil Rea, John Whittell, and Sam Wilson. They all rise to the challenges of the piece, delivering varied and rounded characterisations as well as the emotional punch of key scenes.
There is an especially chilling and repulsive portrayal of hate-mongering, Bible-brandisher Fred Phelps – all the more sickening because you realise bastards like him are still around, spouting their bilious nonsense and disrupting funerals of gay people.
Rod Natkiel does a remarkable job of directing the action on his minimalist stage – each monologue and exchange is delivered differently. There is nothing samey or static in the presentation; we have a lot to listen to but he keeps us engaged and, even though we know the outcome, gripped as the story is pieced together. Natkiel also uses specially shot video clips – news bulletins, mainly – which add to the verity of this docudrama, as well as upping the Americana factor. I have to say the accents are uniformly strong.
A play about hatred but there are also the more positive aspects of humanity in evidence: humour, warmth and compassion, to name but three.
As societies across the world, from the USA to Chechnya take backwards strides in their treatment of gay people, the grisly death of Matthew Shepard is back to haunt us and ask us what kind of society do we want to be.
Compelling and a shining example of the high quality of work produced at the Crescent.
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th January 2014
Patrick Marber’s award-winning comedy is resurrected in the Ron Barber Studio by a talented all-male cast under the astute direction of Andrew Smith. Set in a restaurant, the action involves the anticipation of a weekly poker school before, in the third act, the poker school itself takes place.
Marber’s script is very funny and allows the actors to build credible and rounded characterisations. There is Mark Grady as rough-and-ready cook Sweeney, anxious to keep some money aside to spend on his daughter; Frankie (James David Knapp) dreams of travelling to Las Vegas and hitting the big time on the tables; joker in the pack Mugsy (an excellent Mark Payne) seeks funding for his own restaurant, a public toilet conversion that doesn’t sound very palatable; and boss man Stephen the restaurateur (Dave Hill). Added to this bunch is Stephen’s troubled son, gambling addict Carl (Andrew Elkington) and the quietly menacing Ash (Phil Rea) to whom Carl owes several grand.
Andrew Smith keeps the banter tearing along, managing crescendos and silences like a maestro. Some of the rapid-fire cross-cutting between kitchen and restaurant needs a little bit of tightening but this was only the second performance of the run so I expect that will be sorted – This is a slick, well-oiled production with something of the atmosphere of Mojo currently in the West End and, yes, something of the high quality of that show too.
Hill and Elkington have the most emotional moments as father and son, negotiating their relationship over sums of cash borrowed or given. Hill is rather touching in his portrayal, playing his cards close to his chest, you might say. Elkington too is very strong in his selfish outbursts. Grady and Knapp provide comedy and pathos – we see how far these men are steeped in their gambling pursuits, and Rea, the ostensible villain of the piece, does a nice line in understated as well as unequivocal threat. But for me the energy of the performance stems mainly from Mark Payne’s characterisation of the hapless dreamer Mugsy. We take delight and have pity in his ups and downs. It’s a detailed and effective study in comic playing. Sonia Chopra’s set is flexible in its economy – the stairs painted like playing cards are a nice touch – and nothing gets in the way of the cast,
Cards on the table time: if you’re looking for a couple of hours’ worth of excellent, enjoyable drama, Dealer’s Choice is very much a safe bet.