Tag Archives: Polly Lister

Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Winter Wonderland

THE SNOW QUEEN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 26th November, 2016

 

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is given the Theresa Heskins treatment in this beautiful new version that continues the New Vic’s impeccable tradition of superlative Christmas entertainment.  Heskins’s adaptation improves on the original, in my opinion, by giving the Snow Queen a backstory.  We understand why she is the way she is by seeing how she became the bogeyman, a legend used to frighten children.  The play begins with a sweet courtship scene between the awkward Soren Sorenson (a sweetly clumsy and tongue-tied Oliver Mawdsley) and Karen, the object of his affection.  They skate around the issue – literally: the cast wear inline roller skates to glide around – and come to an understanding, only to have tragedy strike, putting their romance on ice.

Polly Lister gives a chilling performance as the icy, mournful ghost.  Everything about her is striking, the voice especially.  Once again, we are treated to a magnificent score by genius composer James Atherton, and Lister’s voice is the strongest of the night.  Her scenes with Kai (Luke Murphy) are reminiscent of Edmund and the White Witch of Narnia, and there are echoes of other tales, other myths: Summer’s garden, on which Gerda becomes trapped, is like Circe’s island, and the three puzzles Kai must solve remind me of icy Turandot’s riddles with their one-word answers.

Natasha Davidson is an appealing heroine/narrator as the plucky yet bookish Gerda.  Books form the scenic elements here, great slabs like ice floes.  There is a running theme that storybooks are at least as valuable as factual ones.  The Dickensian, Gove-like education meted out by Schoolteacher (Rachael Garnett) is not enough to get children through life and its problems.  Creative thought is vital to our survival.

It’s a stunningly beautiful show, visually, thanks to Laura Clarkson’s set (the stage floor is especially important to the story), Lis Evans colourful Danish-Victorian chic costumes, and Daniella Beattie’s magical lighting design; and aurally, courtesy of Atherton’s evocative compositions, played on stage by the talented actor-musicians.

The splendid leads are supported by equally strong ensemble members.  Matthew Ganley’s Bitzer, for example, and Rachel Dawson’s Robbergirl, help to populate Gerda’s account with engaging characters.  Heskins’s direction includes her trademark ‘distance fighting’, a kind of non-contact violence that is expressive, effective and fun, and there are also stand-out sequences, like the toboggan race, the flight of the Snow Queen, and a stunning backwards scene – Heskins puts the performer at the heart of her stage effects.  She gives the design and tech teams challenges (which they meet, no question) but she is essentially an actors’ director and, above all that, a consummate storyteller.

Ultimately heart-warming, this is the perfect entertainment for a chilly winter’s night.  You leave the theatre feeling cosy and warm.  It’s the simple, uncomplicated things of life that make you feel good, especially at this time of year – I suppose this is the hygge that’s all the rage these days, something that Hans Christian Andersen knew all about.

new-vic-theatre_the-snow-queen_image-by-andrew-billington_2

Frozen assets: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Having It Large

THE BORROWERS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 29th November, 2014

 

Artistic Director Theresa Heskins is not shy of setting herself challenges. Following last year’s triumphant 101 Dalmatians, she has raided the bookshelf of childhood once again, turning her attention and invention to Mary Norton’s classic novels – a story I remember dimly but fondly from back when I was *this tall*.

It begins with Pod (Nicholas Tizzard) dropping in, like a spider, or like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. He is ‘borrowing’, a euphemism for stealing items to take back to his little family under the floorboards. Within minutes, the conventions of the production are laid bare. Ingenious dual-staging using puppetry and miniatures shows us, like a split-screen, both the ‘human bean’ sized world and the Borrowers’ scaled-up home. Heskins’s imaginative staging is more than ably supported by the work of the theatre’s own workshop. Laura Clarkson’s set is the star of the show, and with every scene there is a more marvellous prop. A cheese grater is greater than a bed; an enormous boot splits open so we may see the family in their new home… They are ousted from their big house by the villainous and horrible Mrs Driver – a larger than life performance from Polly Lister, summoning a cat and a rat-catcher to rid the house of people she regards as vermin.

And here is where the show points out something I as a little boy did not realise. There are parallels here with the treatment of the Jews prior to and during the Second World War. The Borrowers’ neighbours and relatives are all gone but no one is sure where. Are they still alive? Have they been eaten? The point is underscored, literally, by an original score by musical director James Atherton, who uses more than a hint of ‘Jewishness’ in the music, played live by the composer himself, with the accompaniment of various cast members.

The story puts us very much on the side of the underdog and the oppressed. The best side to be on given the current political climate. It’s a chilling reminder and, sadly, one that is still needed in this time of increasing intolerance and inequality. The Borrowers represent anyone on the fringes of society, the dispossessed and the disappeared. One can all too easily imagine a post-UKIP, apocalyptic society where ‘others’ are hounded out of their homes.

But hey, don’t let that bring you down. This is a highly enjoyable fantasy adventure that evokes a sense of wonder in terms of content and form. At the heart of the ensemble is Vanessa Schofield’s Arrietty, a wide-eyed and inquisitive young girl, who yearns to see the world beyond the floorboards. Schofield embodies youthful enthusiasm and curiosity – no more so than when she teams up with Spiller, an almost feral Borrower, played by man of rubber, the always excellent Michael Hugo. Tizzard’s pragmatic Pod is married to Homily (Shelley Atkinson) who provides many of the laughs with her ‘kvetching’, you might call it. What comes across is the humanity of these tiny characters, the love and warmth of the family unit, striving to survive and to stay together despite terrible hardships and grave danger: there is a tense encounter with a humongous bird, for example, and when you see the tiny puppets walking across the vast expanse of the open stage, you see how vulnerable they are and how, like animals, they spend most of their lives in a state of fear and the struggle for survival – and you wonder how you yourself might cope if all the comforts and trappings of civilisation, hearth and home were stripped away.

Thought-provoking, thrilling and heart-warming, The Borrowers is a timely assertion of the humanity we have in common with everyone in society. And that’s a Christmas message I can get behind.

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty


Well Spotted

THE 101 DALMATIANS

The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2013

 

The festive season of family fare gets off to a cracking start with this non-seasonal story from the New Vic’s artistic director Theresa Heskins.  Her adaptation of Dodie Smith’s classic children’s novel is a stylish, charming and inventive piece with plenty for all ages to enjoy.

Set in the 1950s, the cut of Lis Evans’s costumes is clean and sharp in bright colours or, of course, vibrant white with black spots.  The cast is paired off into dogs and their human pets.  They lindy hop (I believe it’s called) in a joyous opening number.

What takes the dog biscuit is the jazz-informed score by James Atherton, performed by the man himself, and various cast members when they’re not wagging their tails or holding up props as human fixtures and fittings.  The music is irresistible, the heartbeat of the performance, playing under scenes like a particularly cool and hep film soundtrack, and then coming to the fore for the songs, the best of which are belted out by Polly Lister’s Cruella De Vil.   Atherton’s score is the sumptuous icing on the top of a very big cake.

Playing the lead, as well as wearing one, is Oliver Mawdsley as the energetic Pongo.  He and Perdita (Hannah Edwards) form an appealing and amusing pair, casting asides over their shoulders, commenting on the strange behaviour of the humans.  When their large litter of little puppies is stolen, they em-bark on a quest to retrieve them and the production goes all out for invention and surprise.  The ‘twilight barking’ uses dogs cropping up through trapdoors and speaking in a range of regional accents to convey the distance the message is spread.  The question in my mind, if not everyone else’s, is how is Theresa Heskins going to show us the full complement of Dalmatians?

Well, she does.  A troupe of local children, dog-eared (so to speak) and tailed represent some of the puppies but they are also puppeteers operating many more.  That’s fair enough but then the ideas keep coming – any single one of which would have been more than adequate.  Theresa Heskins has access to an inexhaustible well of invention, it seems.

Polly Lister stalks and declaims (and even drives a marvellous customised car) around the stage.  Her insatiable lust for fur and animal skins marks her out as the villain – Dodie Smith must have been among the first to criticise the fur-fashion industry.

Pashcale Straiton is very funny as Nanny, producing newborn pups from about her person and I would have liked to have seen more of Cruella’s comedy henchmen, Anthony Hunt and Andy Cryer as the Baddun brothers. Matt Connor and Sophie Scott are suitably perky and bright as human couple, the Dearlys – they emphasise the Englishness of this production, reclaiming the story from Disney’s England-through-American-eyes cartoon.

With its anthropomorphism of the dogs and even the hat-racks and table lamps, the show hints at a darker story.  It’s not only a matter of animal cruelty and exploitation, it’s about man’s inhumanity to other humans too. Written post-war, the novel is an archetypal rescue-and-escape story.  It’s Maria and the Captain leading the Von Trapp family away from the Nazis.  Cruella’s Hell Hall is a concentration camp in which the prisoners will be violently exterminated and skinned, their hides put to use – I shivered when I saw a cast member holding up a lampshade.

This is not an overt metaphor but it’s there if you look for it.  What you get at the New Vic is a superb evening’s entertainment, funny and touching.  It’s enchanting in both form and content and will no doubt knock spots off the competition.

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Here, boy! Cruella (Polly Lister) eyes up her next handbag.


Recipe for Hilarity

COOKING WITH ELVIS

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 30th April, 2013

Derby Theatre puts itself on the theatrical map with this production of Lea Hall’s raucous black comedy, the theatre’s first home-produced show.  The venue has a history of excellence in its produced work (I remember some superb Sondheims, astonishing Ayckbourns, and a gem of a Treasure Island) but with the recent chequered past now firmly behind it, the place will go from strength to strength if the quality of this production is anything to go by.

The action takes place in a suburban house, gloriously depicted in Hayley Grindle’s two-storey set: a living room and kitchen with stairs leading up to a landing and a teenager’s bedroom.  The teenager is Jill, our narrator and scene-announcer for the evening.  Played with verve by Laura Elsworthy, Jill is a 14 year-old with an interest in cookery that borders on obsession.  She despairs of her English teacher mother, who glams herself up and brings home strange men to satisfy her sexual needs.  Polly Lister is ‘Mam’, a plain-speaking bully, masking her guilt and vulnerability with mouthing-off and heavy drinking.   The strange man she brings home at the start of the play is Stuart (Adam Barlow) who works in a cake factory.  Within seconds she has ordered him to strip to his underpants – this is no subtle comedy of manners, but an in-your-face sex comedy with graphic scenes and colourful language.  It is absolutely hilarious.

Why does Mam bring these creatures home?  The answer is painfully present in the shape of her paralysed husband.  Brain-damaged in a car accident, Dad can do nothing for himself, and has to be brought on and (nudge, wink) brought off.  It’s a sobering portrayal from Jack Lord but then – and this lifts the piece out of the macabre – Dad has a nifty line in Elvis Presley impersonation.   He springs from his chair to link and underscore scenes with songs of The King in a range of impressive outfits.  Jack Lord is nothing short of sublime.

Mark Babych pitches the tone just right and directs his excellent quartet to keep energy levels high and the characterisations just short of caricature.  This kind of farcical, rather outré plot requires a broad style of playing, but also we have to accept and go along with these characters for the ride or else it would just descend into prurience and bad taste.   Adam Barlow’s Stuart is sweet – for a drip – and he becomes both predator and prey as he worms his way under the table (well, on top of it!); Polly Lister is fierce and brittle, but the evening belongs to Laura Elsworthy as the young girl who goes through a rite of passage in less than ideal circumstances, guiding us from scene to scene and setting the tone for the entire piece.

The play is a kind of mash-up of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle in terms of content and delivery, and yet has a charm of its own.  Beyond the foul language and the sex on the dining table, there is real heart to the piece, and a mother and daughter who both experience a healing.  Life’s not about the tragedies, Jill concludes, it’s about the tiny moments that keep us going in the dark, the smiles.

By the curtain call, you will be grinning and clapping along to Jack Lord’s closing number.  You may even be on your feet and joining in the party.  It is shows of this calibre that keep us going in the dark.

Polly Lister gets to grips with Adam Barlow

Polly Lister gets to grips with Adam Barlow