Tag Archives: Rachel Kavanaugh

Play to Win

THE WINSLOW BOY

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd January, 2018

 

Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece loses none of its powers in this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.  What begins as a charming observation of Edwardian family life soon develops into a drama with far-reaching implications, as the entire nation follows the case of Ronnie Winslow and his struggle to clear his name following a wrongful accusation of the theft of a five-bob postal order.  Or rather, it’s his father’s struggle: only 14 when it all kicks off, Ronnie is able to get on with his life, secure in his father’s love and support.

As the titular Boy, Misha Butler is an instantly appealing presence, fresh-faced and oozing vulnerability.  As his father, Aden Gillett is old-school paternal: his word is law, but he’s also clearly very much a man who loves his family.  We witness Pa Winslow’s physical decline, his resolve wobble as much as his gammy leg, but his belief in his boy never falters, despite the hardship the expenses of pursuing the case inflict on the family. It’s a masterful performance at the heart of this piece.   Tessa Peake-Jones as Ma Winslow is old-school maternal, responding emotionally rather than rationally: it’s a family to which we’d like to belong – especially with chirpy maid Violet (Soo Drouet) fetching and carrying.  Drouet manages to bring more to this rather stock character.

Theo Bamber’s Dickie, the elder son, is a livewire, a voice of dissent and a nifty dancer!  But it is the sister, Catherine (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who draws most of our attention.  A suffragiste, she is her father’s daughter, forthright and not shy of voicing her opinions, even willing to make sacrifices in her love-life for the cause of clearing Ronnie… Her intended is no great loss anyway; stuffed shirt John (a dapper William Belchambers) lacks the independence of spirit that makes Catherine stand out so markedly.

There is a magnificent turn from Timothy Watson as the superstar barrister hired to fight the case, Sir Robert Morton.  His cross-examination of Ronnie makes for an electrifying scene and his scenes with Catherine are delicious, as they skirt around a whiff of romance.

Kavanaugh directs with a light touch and the cast rattle through Rattigan’s somewhat wordy dialogue at speed, so the witty remarks and emotional exchanges fizz and spark.  It’s an unerringly entertaining piece.  The Winslows taking on the establishment is a David v Goliath campaign but the far-reaching implications I mentioned earlier have remarkable resonance with us today, a hundred years after the time in which the play is set.  Lines about the ‘desperatism of Whitehall’ encroaching on our freedoms could refer to the woeful Brexit negotiations, for example, and with ‘the despotism of bureaucracy’, Rattigan could be describing the Department of Work and Pensions!  And the figure of Catherine could represent the Time’s Up movement as women continue to fight for equality and respect.

More than a comedy (although it is very funny), this is social commentary that hooks us in with likeable characters, an intriguing situation, and bags of tension and suspense.  A flawless production and a real treat.

winslow

Aden Gillett looks on as Misha Butler is grilled by Timothy Watson

Advertisements

Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

A-Christmas-Carol-production-photos_-2017_2017_Photo-by-Manuel-Harlan-_c_-RSC_236186

E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Agent and a Scholar

SINGLE SPIES

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 18th February, 2016

 A double -bill of Alan Bennett plays concerning two of the men exposed as spies for the Soviet Union. Based on real people and true-life events, the plays differ from the typical Bennett fare of maudlin Northerners and their bathos, and give us an evening of sparkling dialogue and barbed language, but little in the way of plot.

An Englishman Abroad

It’s Moscow, 1958, and actress Coral Browne (Belinda Lang) is in town, performing in Hamlet. A chance encounter with the English exile Guy Burgess (Nicholas Farrell) leads to her visiting him in his less than luxurious apartment, where she is importuned to measure him for a new suit. Lang is marvellous as the brassy Browne and Farrell evokes sympathy as the vain but slovenly Burgess – Am I supposed to feel sorry for him, I wonder? They’re certainly both very charming, thanks to Bennett’s dialogue. It’s a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain from which we learn the Soviet Union was dull and dreary, a kind of open prison for the traitor who misses London so much. Apart from their discourse, very little takes place. There is a brief musical interlude with Burgess on the pianola, accompanied by his young boyfriend Tolya (an appealing David Young) on the balalaika. What we take from it is the evocation of a bygone age in a foreign land as well as the enjoyment of seeing such larger-than-life characters exquisitely portrayed by impeccable actors.

A Question of Attribution

It’s London in the late 1960s. Here we meet ‘fifth man’ Anthony Blunt (David Robb), years before his exposure. Dramatic irony abounds because we know what’s coming. Blunt is questioned on a regular basis by Chubb (Nicholas Farrell) who has granted Blunt immunity but not anonymity for helping with enquiries. These scenes are interwoven with Blunt at work as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – there is a painting, said to be by Titian, that reveals a third figure beneath the varnish. Further investigation by X-ray reveals traces of a fourth and even a fifth man… The parallel is clever, the metaphor perfect. Robb is a twinkling yet dignified Blunt. His discourses on Art History are fascinating and arch but it is Bennett’s intelligence that we are admiring. Robb is a charismatic presence – we don’t get to the root of Blunt’s sympathies with Communism (the man professes to hate the public!) but we are captivated by him. Belinda Lang does a delightful turn as the Queen and we can’t help wondering how much the real one is like this in her unguarded (pun intended) moments.   David Young appears as a student of Blunt’s and I also enjoy Joseph Prowen as Colin the security guard who knows more about the paintings than the student! Bennett puts words in Colin’s mouth that makes us feel that art appreciation is within the reach of all of us – which, of course, it is.

Rachel Kavanaugh directs with a light touch, giving us an enjoyable couple of hours that tease us with history and nostalgia. Peter McKintosh’s imposing set suggests Whitehall, Moscow, the Courtauld Institute and the Palace, with only slight rearrangements of the furniture. It is a treat to see actors of such presence and skill deliver erudite and amusing writing. The plays sparkle like champagne but lack the kick of home-distilled vodka.

'Single Spies' Play by Alen Bennett. Touring Production

‘To be perfectly Blunt – David Robb (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 

 


Oh, What A Beautiful Show!

OKLAHOMA!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 30th June, 2015

 

Having seen this production earlier in the tour, it was an absolute treat to be given the chance to see it again. I loved everything about it the first time and my love is renewed and redoubled to catch it a second time.

The material, of course, is sublime. Richard Rodgers’s melodic score, Oscar Hammerstein II’s witty book and lyrics, blend to create sumptuous entertainment, and this high quality production from Music & Lyrics and Northampton’s Derngate Theatre serves this classic supremely well.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh evokes both period and place, sending up, like Hammerstein does, the charmingly parochial attitudes (cf Kansas City) creating a community with its own moral values. She brings out the humour of the script and has her superlative company play it with heart as big as all outdoors.

Unofficial matriarch Aunt Eller rules the roost in a stonking performance by Belinda Lang, hard-boiled with a soft centre. Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is feisty and bold, with a sweet but powerful singing voice. From the off, Laurey bickers with cowboy Curly – in a homespun Beatrice and Benedick way – and we know they are made for each other. As for Curly – well – you fall in love with Ashley Day as soon as his voice announces, clear as bell, what kind of morning it is. Day has the matinee idol good looks, the irreverent attitude, heart-on-his-sleeve, good humour. He sings like an angel in a cowboy hat.

A rival for Laurey’s affections, although a non-starter, is live-in farm hand Jud Fry – a towering performance from Nic Greenshields. His operatic bass blends well with Curly’s tenor for the ironic duet, Pore Jud Is Daid.   He is a barely contained mass of menace, a dark presence in this otherwise idyllic land. Kavanaugh balances the comedy with tension: Pore Jud is volatile enough to explode at any second.

Gary Wilmot is in his element as itinerant peddler Ali Hakim, delivering more than ribbons and other fripperies on his rounds. Wilmot’s comic timing is flawless – the jokes and business still play fresh. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie, a girl of distractable virtue, is a belter, in terms of selling her big number I Cain’t Say No, and in characterisation. It’s a dream of a cast, supported by an excellent chorus, including great character work from Kara Lane as Gertie Cummings and Simon Anthony, appearing in this performance as Will Parker.

During the interval I hear some purist complaining that the cylindrical hay bales with and on which the cowboys dance come from a later, mechanised age. “They should be haystacks!” he moans, balefully.  I think he’s looking for something to criticise and is clutching at straws.  I’d rather sacrifice agricultural accuracy for theatrical expediency: Drew McOnie’s spectacular and exuberant  choreography would miss those bales terribly.

If you can overlook the hay issue, and most people seem able to, this is a truly wonderful production of a masterpiece, the pinnacle of its genre. Sometimes humanity gets things right and produces a perfect classic. Mozart did it with Don Giovanni, Walt Disney did it with Pinocchio. And Rodgers and Hammerstein did it with Oklahoma! This is popular art that speaks to us on many levels, through solid storytelling and life-affirming values.

The tour has just six weeks left to run. I urge you to catch it if you can.

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Better than OK!

OKLAHOMA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 4th March, 2015

 

This revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical is just about flawless. From the moment the overture begins, you know you’re in for a good time as we’re reminded of the wealth of good tunes that lies ahead. The curtain rises on Francis O’Connor’s rather monochromatic set, all horizontal planks like a big ol’ barn. In fact, instead of the great outdoors and wide open spaces, the set boxes the characters in. They have a restricted world view, out there in the sticks – as evidenced in the song “Kansas City” where even the most basic advancements in technology and infrastructure are greeted as marvels of the modern age. Colour is brought to the production by O’Connor’s evocative costumes and by some beautiful lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

Populating this set is an energetic and lively chorus just brimming with yee-hah spirit. Drew McOnie’s choreography is in keeping with the period (early 1900s), the place (the wild frontier) and seems fresh and original, all at once.

Belinda Lang is Aunt Eller, a crotchety matriarch (all the other females seem to be nubile young women) with a no-nonsense approach and a dry sense of humour. She embodies the pioneer spirit, hard-working, wise and willing to embrace change and challenge. Lang is magnificent in this less-than-glamorous role.

Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is sweet and spunky – her bickering scenes and duets with Curly are highlights – of a show that is almost all highlights! Lucy May Barker as the promiscuous Ado Annie delivers a flawless rendition of “I Cain’t Say No!” – her characterisation is both naïve and calculating. James O’Connell is her beau Will Parker, an appealing hunk and an excellent dancer. Their troubled romance is a counterpoint to the main plot, the relationship between Laurey, Curly and brooding farmhand Jud Fry.

As Fry, Nic Greenshields is all menace, using his stature and build to terrify us, keeping his outbursts of temper to a minimum. He also has a resounding baritone voice – a worthy villain! Scenes in Jud’s smoke house of porn are exceptionally creepy.

Big name casting for this tour is veteran star Gary Wilmot who is ideally cast as itinerant pedlar Ali Hakim. Wilmot has Hakim’s sardonic humour down pat and, of course, can deliver a show tune apparently effortlessly. Value for money, indeed.

But for me, the show is all about Curly. Here, Ashley Day is perfect. Tall, handsome, with a voice to make you swoon, he balances Curly’s cocky humour and his all-out decency. You can’t help falling for him.  In fact, I’d better change the subject or people will say I’m in love.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh delivers comedy and drama, allowing the tones of Rodgers’s score to inform the show’s moods and Hammerstein’s delightful lyrics to come to the fore. There is genuine tension in the climactic knife fight (directed by Christopher D Hunt) – even if you know the outcome already.

This top-quality show has it all, and you can’t help leaving the theatre with a grin on your face and warmth in your heart. This touring production reminds us why the show is a classic – staged and performed by exuberant, irresistible talent.

Short and Curly - Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Short and Curly – Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)