Tag Archives: Rebecca Brewer

Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

39 steps

In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)

Advertisements

A Shaw Thing

WIDOWERS’ HOUSES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th June, 2013

 

In a break from her in-house style, the New Vic’s resident director, Theresa Heskins helms this subversive piece from George Bernard Shaw.  It is an entertaining and thought-provoking demonstration of her versatility.

It begins as an amusing comedy of manners – a young Englishman abroad with his friend, encounters a young woman and after much stammering in a Hugh Grant vein, asks her father for her hand in marriage.  And then the trouble starts.  It comes to light that Daddy is Sartorius, a self-made man, whose fortune comes from ill-gotten gains.  In short, he is a slum landlord, screwing every farthing he can out of his desperate tenants.  Nowadays he’d be trousering huge amounts of housing benefit, while publicly railing against the high cost of welfare. The source of Sartorius’s wealth gives rise to qualms in the young man.  He (Trench) has been living comfortably enough on his annual income and informs his fiancée that two can live as cheaply as one… And then the source of Trench’s income is revealed…

By the time we reach the third of three acts we have been drawn into this world, largely by dint of charming, spirited and nuanced performances by the excellent company of actors. The true colours of the characters are on show, and they are not very attractive.  Blanche (the excellent Rebecca Brewer) declares how she hates the poor in an outburst that is as heartfelt as it is distasteful.  As Lickcheese (great name!) the rent collector with a conscience, the lively Leigh Symonds gives us a contrasting accent to all the posh voices but he, like Trench after him, quells his qualms when his own pocket is affected.  Mark Donald is both endearing and infuriating as Trench, learning the true nature of the world and casting his ideals aside. He portrays the character’s awakening very effectively; you want him to make a stand against the injustice he has stumbled upon but, of course, he can and will not. He is Nick Clegg, finding himself in bed with vipers and then cosying up with them. Andonis James Anthony is superb as snobbish arbiter of good taste, Cokane, a kind of referee to the proceedings as the argument unfolds, but ruling the roost is William Ilkley’s Sartorius.  The characterisation oozes power and self-assurance.  A look or a gesture speaks volumes.  This is his world and you’re in no danger of forgetting it.

Beautifully designed by Michael Holt, the production boasts an ingenious set that is impressionistic in its depiction of locations ranging from a Germanic hostelry to rooms in Sartorius’s house, and subtle in its symbolic reminder that these people are living on top of the poor.  The costumes are sumptuous, complementing the performances to evoke the late Victorian period.  Some social mores have moved on since then but, sad to relate, some attitudes prevail.

This is the uncomfortable truth of the play:  Conscience and empathy are swept aside by selfish concerns.  It’s not just about protecting one’s interests; it’s about exploiting one’s position for personal gain.  Today, 120 years after the play’s premiere, it is sickening to realise that both sides of the House of Commons are still riddled with people like Sartorius and Trench.

widowers houses

 


Humble reviewer goes legit

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 18th May, 2012

Stoke on Trent’s local paper, The Sentinel, invited me to review the opening night of the new production at the wonderful New Vic theatre. I know! Get me!

Here’s how my review turned out.


Local Heroes

WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 7th April, 2012

 

Carrying on and celebrating the New Vic’s tradition of social documentary dramas with a strong local (North Staffordshire) identity, comes this new piece by writer Alecky Blythe and director Theresa Heskins.

The set is a stark, almost lunar, landscape.  Mounds of nutty slack and broken china house television sets.  The area’s industrial past has been superseded in this day and age.  The Potteries are now home to rife unemployment – people who stay at home and watch the telly.  I have to confess my heart sank a little when I realised the show is based around an X Factor type talent show – often the recourse of unimaginative GCSE drama groups – but my initial misgivings were quickly washed away by the style and execution of the piece.

The words spoken by the cast are all verbatim.  The people who entered the 2010 “Stoke’s Top Talent” contest provide all the dialogue in its naturalistic, often hilarious, glory.  But further to that, the production goes a step further.  The actors are wired with earpieces.  Recordings of the real people speaking the lines are played to them and the actors deliver those lines with the same inflection and intonation as close to the original speaker as possible.  The actor is the mouthpiece for the person.  While this is a peculiar way of working for the performers, isolated as they are from the atmosphere in the auditorium, it pays dividends for the audience.  As characters emerge then come and go, and we follow their experiences in the audition process, the warmth and humanity of these people shine through.

I couldn’t help thinking of Creature Comforts.

The humour, unconscious on the part of the speaker in some cases, is delightful.  “My girlfriend’s 24,” boasts a 19 year old contestant, “and she’s only got two kids.”

“Jonathan Wilkes” hosts the heats, but this contest is not about the glorification of the judges.  Neither is it about holding up the contestants to ridicule.  What comes to the fore is how important this competition is to the people of Stoke on Trent, now there is nothing else to offer them hope of bettering themselves.  The prize money of £1,000 and the chance to appear in professional panto for a month may seem small beer compared to the large-scale televised talent shows – but the contestants recognise it has a start, as a chance, a leg-up.  They go back, year after year, to try again, and they take it seriously.

You couldn’t get more of a local flavour if you sat through the show stuffing yourself with oatcakes.  But the show is much more than a local show for local people.  As an outsider to the region, I saw the national relevance of the play.  Stoke-on-Trent  becomes a microcosm for the whole country.  The obsession for these talent contests.  The death of industry.  The lack of opportunity compared to the wealth of talent and ambition.  It’s all there.  This is a state-of-the-nation piece, documenting a moment in time.  It is a celebration of the human spirit in bleak and trying times.

Theresa Heskins has collected an impressive ensemble of actors who slip in and out of a range of characters to populate the show.  Samuel Hargreaves plays 14 year old Sam, the eventual winner.  His talent and ambition are nicely counterpointed by the bathos of the slightly camp Northern bathos of his family.  The show ends with his rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” by local boy done good, Robbie Williams.  The song takes on extra significance.  The boy is at the outset of his career.  We are not told what’s become of him in the two years since his pantomime appearance.

One of my favourite actors on the planet, Michael Hugo is superb as slightly thuggish, skinhead Mark, struggling with all manner of problems and trying to stay out of trouble so he will be accepted by another means of escape from his surroundings, the armed forces.

Oliver J Hembrough evokes rather than impersonates local star-maker Jonathan Wilkes but really excels as the father in musical duo, “Lad ‘N’ Dad” – guitar, bongos and “Yummy Yummy Yummy”.

Andrew Pollard is heart-breaking as gentle charity-shop worker Graeme who can’t face the pressure of the audition process then regrets not going through with it.  Alan Bennett could write an entire show based on this man alone.

Mona Goodwin’s Kerry (runner-up in the final) displays the excitement and nervous energy and not forgetting the talent.  You really feel for her when she doesn’t win (and I knew the outcome beforehand, having seen the panto two years ago!).  Peter Temple’s pensioner Norman is finally taking his chances after a lifetime of hard work.  “Where have I been all my life?” he asks himself.  It is the line that gives the show its title, and a poignant moment about roads not taken.  Rebecca Brewer depicts a range of roles, adding to the likeability and general warmth. Angela Bain switches from middle-aged mum to ten year old little brother at the change of a shirt – the entire company proves its versatility. That is not to say this is a whitewash.  Human fallibility and the darker aspects of society are all here too.

Everyone comes out of this very well but really the show is a testament to the people of Stoke and a mirror showing what’s happening all over post-industrial Britain.  It’s more uplifting and relevant than anything Simon Cowell sticks his fingers in.

Image