Tag Archives: Philip Franks

Flare-ups with Flair

FLARE PATH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 4th November, 2015

 

The Original Theatre Company is back on the road, following up their excellent Three Men in a Boat and the superlative Birdsong with this new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play. As ever, production values are high and while this one isn’t as funny as the former or as emotionally powerful as the latter, it flies high on its own merits.

Set in a Lincolnshire hotel it charts the comings and goings of several couples, the male partners of which are in the RAF and are called out on a mission. Waiting for news of their fate adds to the tension in their relationships. It’s a bit ‘terribly, terribly, darling’ being very much of its time but what makes it extra interesting is that neither the characters nor the playwright know when or how the war will be over. We, the audience, know the outcome (spoiler: we won) – the play must have felt very current when it was first produced. And it’s a bit of a morale booster: personal sacrifice for the greater good, kind of thing.

Hayley Grindle’s set combines period stylings with the genius idea of taking away the walls of the hotel. There is a window, upstage and central, surrounded by a vast expanse of sky – the sky is of the utmost importance to the characters, being airmen and airmen’s wives.

Out of the blue comes matinee idol Peter Kyle (Leon Ockenden being suitably charming and debonair) and it turns out he’s as old flame one of the wives, actress Patricia (Olivia Hallinan bringing 1940s glamour); he’s flaring up again and she is forced to choose between her passion for Peter and her duty to heroic husband Teddy (Alastair Whatley in superb form). It’s a choice between a man who plays heroes and one who actually is one. And yet it is Teddy who is in awe of Peter – but then we often set movie stars on pedestals and undervalue our servicemen. Whatley is awfully good, especially when Teddy’s stiff upper lip gives way after a traumatic flight back to base.

But then the entire cast is high calibre. Affable and endearing Philip Franks is affable and endearing as avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson. Simon Darwen and Shvorne Marks are the Millers from London – both capture the essence of period Cockney without descending into caricature, and there is some excellent character work from Stephanie Jacob as irascible hotel manager Mrs Oakes. Adam Best amuses as Polish Officer Skriczevinsky, nagged by his wife to improve his English – there are touching moments when it looks like he won’t be coming back, powerfully handled by Siobhan O’Kelly reacting to a letter read by Leon Ockenden. I also enjoyed James Cooney as chirpy barman Percy who always seems to know more than the airmen.

We never see a plane but we hear them all right courtesy of Dominic Bilkey’s sound design bringing them close: there is a sense of menace to think that might be a German bomber overhead (especially since I’m sitting in Coventry!).  Director Justin Audibert gets the tone spot on, evoking period and place while still keeping the characters relatable rather than pastiching them beyond our ability to sympathise.

The whole thing smacks of British understatement and emotion kept reined in by humour and making the best of it. Rattigan’s writing is still accessible – the play has hardly dated despite its specificity – and this production satisfies on all levels. Another winner from The Original Theatre Company, dripping in quality and entertainment value and carried off with flair..

Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)

Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)


Doctored Heckles and Mistimed Jibes

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 28th January, 2013

 

Forty years old, Richard O’Brien’s camp cult favourite is touring in a new production directed by Christopher Luscombe.  Fans and devotees need not fear: all the elements are intact; the show has merely been tweaked and titivated to keep it fresh.

Many in the audience see it as an excuse to dress up and unleash their inner Frank N Furter.  Many a time and oft have I donned my Riff Raff outfit and I am almost regretting I didn’t make the effort on this occasion.  Dressing up is not vital to enjoying the show but it does add an extra frisson of fun, making the performance more of an event.

Sadly, in this age of health and safety, a lot of the traditional audience participation is now verboten.  Gone are the days of water pistols, packets of chips, decks of cards and even slices of toast.  What remains are the responses, a litany of abuse, whenever certain characters are named (Brad – “Asshole!”, Janet – “Slut!”, Dr Scott – “Sieg Heil!”) and heckling the cast with lines, some of them rehearsed and a few of them extemporised.  You can have too much of this, with the same loud-mouthed windbags running the same jokes into the ground.  For example, the first reference to Jimmy Savile was oblique and well-judged.  The second was crass and unfunny.  It is a skilful heckler who knows when to hold his tongue and when the moment for jibes has passed.

But enough of the audience.

Squeaky clean young Americans Brad (Ben “Jesus” Forster) and Janet (Roxanna “Emmerdale” Pallett) are travelling home from a friend’s wedding when the breakdown of their car causes them to take refuge from a storm in a nearby gothic castle.  This is the premise of many an old horror film – it has to be remembered the show is a satire of 1950s B movies.  Many of the references in songs and dialogue are of movies and movie stars no longer current in the popular imagination.  The castle is brimful with weirdos, and is the home of mad scientist Frank N Furter, who turns out to be a sweet (and gorgeous) transvestite, played with relish, poise and glamour by Oliver Thornton, who brings something of Jane Russell to his portrayal, if I might refer to an olde-time movie goddess.  Easily the best set of gams on display. He allows Brad and Janet to witness the culmination of his latest experiment, the creation of the perfect man.  He ends up with Rocky Horror, played here by Britain’s Got Factor’s Rhydian who has transformed himself into something of a beefcake.  Imagine Bob Downe crossed with Stretch Armstrong.

Presiding over the action is the Narrator, usually a thankless task, but here Philip Franks is perfect as the voice of authority, allowing the audience their fun and deflecting heckles and personal insults with wit and aplomb.  His is perhaps the most subtle performance and yet thoroughly in tune with the spirit of the piece.  Both Forster and Pallett are excellent as the white bread kids on a journey of sexual awakening, and Thornton’s Frank N Furter will stick in my memory for a long time.

Abigail Jaye (Magenta) and Ceris Hine (Columbia) are in fine form as Frank N Furter’s servants but for me the cream of this crop was Kristian Lavercombe as Riff Raff.  His rock star voice soared above everyone else’s and while he evoked Richard O’Brien in sound and appearance, he was still able to make the part his own.

The show itself reminded me of its delights: the score is tuneful, the dialogue deliberately cheesy, and the message goes beyond the spoofing of genre movies of a bygone era.  That message is to give yourself over to absolute pleasure.  But only for the moment.  It is a celebration of diversity and self-expression, although the feather boas and suspenders have become clichés.

The downbeat resolution is always sobering, I find – until the cast return for a curtain call and a couple of reprises to get us all on our feet and time-warping.  An exhilarating evening that demonstrates that entertainment is best left to the professionals and not the loudmouths who don’t know when enough is enough.

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