Tag Archives: review

Puppet Masters

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 12th January, 2020

 

For their tour this winter, the remarkable Oddsocks turn to Carlo Collodi’s classic for children about a sentient puppet who longs to be a real grown-up.  Written and directed by Andy Barrow, this adaptation is fairly faithful to the source material while remaining an undeniably Oddsocks production.  Puppets are a key ingredient of every Oddsocks show.  With this story, they take centre stage.  As ever, there is the comical inventiveness, the slapstick, the wit and overt theatricality – something for everyone.  Adults will revel in the meticulously ramshackle production values and the arch humour, while children become so engaged with the story-telling they shout out, almost involuntarily, advice to the protagonist.  I have seen many, many Oddsocks shows, and they’ve all been fun, but this is the one that has proved most absorbing for youngsters.  Perhaps they identify with Pinocchio’s struggle to become a moral being and a productive member of society.

In the title role, Freya Sharp gives a far from wooden performance.  Her Pinocchio is a naughty boy, bursting with energy and cheeky charm.  Sharp brings clownish physicality to the role, especially early on when Pinocchio is finding his feet.

Andy Barrow appears as Pinocchio’s maker, Geoff Petto (the ‘off’ has dropped off), looking like Einstein’s grandfather but able to match Sharp in terms of physicality.  With only four in his cast, Barrow has to appear in many other roles, including the con-artist Fox and a big-bellied impresario, gloriously named Andrew Floyd Mackintosh.

Jeannie Dickinson is excellent as the Fairy, the con-artist Cat, and I love her Harlequin’s rendition of Puppet On A String.  Danny Hetherington is equally great, appearing as the Cricket, the Policeman, and naughty boy Lampwick – among other roles.  The episodic nature of the plot demands quick changes and versatility from everyone involved.

There are many scene changes, with a set that opens up, revolves and transforms before our very eyes and while we wait – but these transitions are part of the deal, part of the fun.  We may have seen the old two-lengths-of-blue-fabric-form-a-seascape shtick before, but I guarantee you won’t have seen a giant white shark like this one this side of Steven Spielberg!  There are some hilariously gruesome (yet still suitable for kids) special effects, like when Pinocchio falls asleep too close to the fire; and the nose-growing effect made my ribs ache.

Vanessa Anderson’s costumes are another hugely enjoyable part of proceedings, instantly conveying character and encapsulating the Oddsocks spirit of silliness.

Barrow keeps the bonkers nature of Collodi’s story, while tempering the darker aspects and the moralising.  The result is a highly satisfying piece for all the family.  This is theatre at its most fun, in terms of form and content, which is what Oddsocks is all about.

pinocchio-perf-image-5

Toy story: Andy Barrow and Freya Sharp

 


Phantom Menace

GHOST STORIES

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2020

 

Scary shows are rarely done live, and even more rarely, done successfully.  You think of The Woman in Black which continues to put the willies up audiences in the West End decades after it opened – and that’s about it.  Until the advent of this production at the Lyric Hammersmith, which went on to have a decent run and is now embarking on its first national tour.  Written by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, this is an anthology of tales, curated by Professor Goodman (an excellent Joshua Higgott), who in a kind of lecture or TED talk, seeks to debunk the supernatural.  Because there’s a rational explanation for everything.  Isn’t there?

I am under strict instruction not to reveal any of the show’s secrets so I will skate over the subject matter by saying only this.  Each story is completely different and is narrated by a different character, ranging from Paul Hawkyard’s down-to-earth Tony Matthews, to Gus Gordon’s more agitated Simon Rifkind, and to Richard Sutton’s boorish, braggart, Mike Priddle.

What I will tell you is you are in for ninety minutes of suspense, shocks and scares.  I saw the original production at the Lyric; there are more laughs than I remember, some of them the nervous kind, but the script is richly laced with humour, calculated to relieve the tension.  It’s beautifully written; the stories unfold in such a way that they play on your imagination, and the staging of each one is exquisite.  Everyday activities take on an aspect of suspense.  The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary…

Technically the show is a marvel of darkness (James Farncombe’s lighting design excels in what it doesn’t reveal as much as what it illuminates) with an unsettling sound design by Nick Manning.  There are jump-scares, sudden loud noises, eerie silences… every trope you might expect, and an almost relentless sense of dread.  You spend a lot of the time dreading what might happen and when things happen, wondering how they do it.  Everything is achieved with impeccable timing and it works brilliantly.

Even on second viewing, the show loses none of its power to grip, to thrill and to entertain.  It’s a funfair ride, a visceral and intellectual experience, addressing dark aspects of the human psyche.  It’s a pleasure to be manipulated in this way. The show is a testament to the power and unique properties of live theatre.  You won’t get frissons like this by watching the movie version on your phone.

5668_26_GS_Birmingham_1080x1080[1]

 

 

 


Slick and Slack

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 23rd December 2019

 

If you like your pantomimes to come with lashings of glitz, glamour and spectacle, you come to the Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza – and you won’t be disappointed.   This production, originally staged at the London Palladium last Christmas, stints on nothing as it aims to impress.  The key ingredient for a pantomime to work is its cast and here too, we are not sold short.

The show opens with the Magnificent Seven, the dwarfs, who provide the customary exposition in rhyming couplets.  They handle the verse well and have a big impact – it’s a shame then that they disappear from proceedings for quite a while.  And I feel they could be featured more, in comedy routines – they don’t appear to be lacking in talent.

Joe McElderry is the Spirit of the Mirror, a kind of good fairy; he reminds us how great an entertainer he is and, wisely, director Michael Harrison makes good use of him for musical numbers.  McElderry is paired with handsome Prince Harry of Harborne, rising star Jac Yarrow – their voices fit well together, Yarrow’s musical theatre tones blending with McElderry’s pop star vocals.  They are a duo to be reckoned with.  Yarrow is suitably dashing in princely garb but, like many of the characters, has to play the straight man to comic turn ‘Muddles’ a kind of Buttons character, played by the Hippodrome’s resident panto star, Matt Slack.

Slack, returning for his 120th year – oh, wait, am I confusing it with the theatre’s birthday celebrations? –  has an appreciative fan base in Birmingham, and he has plenty of opportunity to showcase his skills: his impressions, his physicality, his daftness, all of which have an underlying wit and intelligence.  Slack is great at what he does, (although I can find him a little overbearing at times), and his shtick invariably goes down well.  There is nothing slack about his professionalism.

Slack’s brilliance comes at a price.  Consummate pantomime dame Andrew Ryan is underused.  Rather than a comic turn in her own right, his Nanny Annie is a sidekick for Muddles’s shenanigans.  Similarly, delightfully deadpan Doreen Tipton is restricted to being part of the troupe and is not given her moment to shine with a song or a monologue or recitation.

Faye Brooks exudes sweetness as the titular princess.  She sings sweetly too – there is a plot twist that works brilliantly, giving her character more oomph.

But for me the undisputed star of the show is the mighty Lesley Joseph as the wicked Queen Dragonella.  A seasoned pro, Joseph pitches the role perfectly, so we find her villainy delectable and her diva-esque ravings high camp.  She is not above making a laughing-stock of herself and she looks fabulous.  The best panto villain I’ve seen this year.

Everything about the show says quality.  The dancers, the costumes, the beautiful set… Britain’s Got Talent’s urban dance act, Flawless crop up as the palace guards, bringing slick moves and also a sense of humour.  Of course, Matt Slack gets in on the act – and it’s one of the show’s funniest and most impressive moments.

All in all, this slick production is as entertaining as you could wish.  All the right ingredients are there – it’s just that some of them are overpowered by the flavour of others.

8-Snow White 11

Yass, Queen! Lesley Joseph rules as Queen Dragonella (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 


Tudor Twosome

TALE TRAIL to the Prince and The Pauper

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 21st December 2019

 

While the New Vic’s big Christmas production plays in the main house, tucked away around the back of the theatre, in the Stephen Joseph Studio, is a little gem of a show, a companion piece to the main event.  Aimed at pre-schoolers and their adults, this is a two-handed version of the Mark Twain classic.  First, we meet Tom Canty (Benedict Shaw) in his hovel.  Shaw immediately establishes a rapport with the young audience, eliciting our sympathy from the off.  Tom tells us of his hunger and invites us to imagine what we would eat if we were princes.  We move from the hovel to a street outside the palace – this is a promenade piece, with the Stephen Joseph Studio divided into four of the story’s key locations.  It’s up to us to find somewhere to sit; I find myself on the floor more often than not, but it’s a great vantage point to watch the kids get involved.  And get involved they do.  This lot don’t need much inviting, and the actors have to gauge when to respond and when to press on with the story, without ignoring or upsetting anyone.  It’s a fine line.

Tom encounters Prince Edward (Perry Moore) and the pair agree to see how the other half lives by swapping clothes and situations for a day.  Moore is great as the snooty but likeable prince.  It is when he appears as the snootier, less likable Lord Chamberlain that he is able to fire off his wittiest retorts.  We move through the palace garden to the palace itself, a lavishly decorated room with Tudor portraits and plenty of shiny bric-a-brac.  In his guise as the prince, Tom exhorts us to gather knickknacks to donate to a poor man so he can buy food.  “We still have plenty left,” he points out to the flabbergasted Chamberlain.

There are plenty of opportunities for interaction without resorting to pantomime shout-outs in this charming, funny and touching piece of theatrical storytelling, and there is much to enjoy even if your preschool days are far behind you.   Running at about fifty minutes, it’s a delicious, heart-warming treat to savour.

The piece draws on the innate kindness of small children and makes me wonder what happens to people that makes them lose this precious quality.  The message of social justice and equality may be simplified and simplistic but at heart it’s still a good one.   “We all need to share so we can all have enough,” concludes Tom Canty and it’s a message that is not just for Christmas but for life.

tale trail p and p

Prince Perry Moore and Pauper Benedict Shaw

 

 


Serving Fish

UNFORTUNATE – The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

The Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 17th December 2019

 

Fat Rascal are back in town with another hilarious new musical.  Following up their hit show Vulvarine and previous Disney parody, a gender-swapped Beauty and the Beast, they turn their merciless attention to another animated classic, Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Our protagonist is the film’s antagonist, the sea witch herself.  In a Wicked kind of way, the script by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx, gives the villain a back story, and we see the other characters through the prism of her bitterness.  The story then takes us through an extremely funny piss-take of the film.  If you have detailed knowledge of the original work, (as I have) you will appreciate the comic business at play, as moments, some large and some small, are recreated and held up for mockery.

Robyn Grant herself appears as Ursula, looking fabulous in her tentacled frock.  There is more than a hint of Katherine Hepburn to her drawling, high camp performance and the glint never leaves her blue-shadowed eyes.  A liaison with Triton, back when he was a prince, leads to her banishment in the dark waters, but the couple’s mutual attraction never fades.  Triton, now king of the ocean, seeks the sea witch’s help with his wayward daughter, the incredibly thick, Essex-toned Ariel (a brilliant characterisation by Katie Wells).  Ariel falls for upper-class twit of a human, Prince Eric, a dimwit with a silver spoon in his mouth and a flute in his pocket.  Jamie Mawson is terrific as the Prince – the playing is as broad as the humour, but the show is not without its sophistications.

Allie Munro chunters and nags as the crab Sebastian – presented here as Oirish rather than Caribbean, delivering one of the highlights of the score, ‘Under The Waves’.  Later, Sebastian sings about the importance of gaining consent before you kiss the girl – an important message served up in a fun way.  Fat Rascal never lecture but there are lessons for us in all their works.  Steffan Rizzi is in great voice as Triton and everyone is involved in operating some puppet fish and other creatures for additional silliness.  At times it seems like there is more than just five actors in the company.

The film references come as fast as the jokes.  The lyrics, also by Grant and Foxx, are witty and, like the dialogue, are peppered with perfectly placed profanities.  The tunes, by Tim Gilvin, stay just the right side of plagiarism, sending up the Disney hits as well as including some fine showtunes.

It’s light-hearted, filthy fun that will change the way you look at a dinglehopper for good.  Scramble to get a ticket; to miss this marvellously funny work of genius would be, well, unfortunate.

DL2019MattCawrey_hr-431

Squids in! Robyn Grant as Ursula (Photo: Matt Cawrey)

 

 


Dress To Impress

THE BOY IN THE DRESS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019

 

I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant.  This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).

This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people.  His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals.  Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress.  Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.

Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles.  Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on.  A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance.  He will knock your frocks off.

The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time.  It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.

Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son.  Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across).  Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John.  Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).

The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work.  Take that, Gary Barlow!  Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today.  Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast.  Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.

It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress.  “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James.  You go, girl!

A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too.  And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Boy in the Dress production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_299317

Masterful: Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC copyright

 

 


Small but perfectly formed

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 14th December, 2019

 

Stratford’s intimate Attic theatre may not seem a suitable venue for pantomime but clearly Tread The Boards Theatre Company, returning for their tenth Christmas show, know how to make it work.  What we lose in scale and spectacle is more than compensated for by closeness and directness.  Director Jennifer Rigby delivers all the crucial elements for a traditional show; the reach-out-and-touch properties of the space add a personal touch.  We are all in it, inescapably, and the proximity of the actors adds to the fun and to our admiration of their talents.

John-Robert Partridge’s script gives the cast of seven plenty to do.  Annaliese Morgan makes an appealing and fun Fairy Beansprout, brandishing a leek for some reason instead of a wand.  Contrasting perfectly with her sweetness, is the sneering Danny Teitge as the Giant’s menacing henchman, Fleshcreep, in a detailed, hilarious performance that accentuates the comedy of the role.  Jack Scott-Walker is suitably heroic as Jack, and his duet with the Princess (Nicolette Morgan) demonstrates his fine singing voice.  The Princess is spirited and fun-loving, definitely not one of those royals who keeps herself aloof.

fleshcreep

A Fleshcreep to make your skin crawl: Danny Teitge (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

Marc Alden-Taylor quickly establishes himself as a favourite, swiftly befriending the audience and enlisting us into his ‘gang’ in a skilful portrayal of Simple Simon.  The comic timing is spot on and his rapport with the audience, especially the children, is hugely enjoyable.  There is energetic support from Linden Iliffe as a perky Lord Chamberlain, but the icing on this Christmas cake comes in the form of Pete Meredith’s superlative Dame Trot.  Naughty but never vulgar, Meredith is a hoot with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of garish gowns and colourful wigs that complement his characterisation perfectly.

There are amusing scenes with Daisy the Cow (appearing as herself) and the Giant is heard but never seen – in fact it is here, that there’s a slight issue: the sound mix makes the Giant a bit hard to understand when he has prolonged dialogue, but the actions and reactions of the cast mean that we still get the gist of what he’s booming on about.

There are plenty of jokes and lots of well-worn routines: a bit of It’s-Behind-You with a prowling ghost, some silliness in a schoolroom scene, a breakneck rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas, a hilarious, if extraneous, balloon ballet that elicits belly laughs… and there is also excitement with an impressive bout of swordfighting between Jack and Fleshcreep, all the more thrilling at such close quarters.  Running business with a bag of sweets keeps us actively engaged, but more could be made of the water pistols given to young audience members to ward characters off particular areas of the stage.

A highlight for me is a brand-new original song, composed by the excellent musical director Elliott Wallis and sung by Danny Teitge (with support from Daisy the Cow).  Teitge’s delivery and Wallis’s skill make the number sound as if it has been lifted from a Broadway show.  It fits perfectly the character and the context and is performed exquisitely.

In fact, the cast sells all the musical numbers well, with lively pop choreography by Catherine Prout, and when they all sing together it’s fantastic.  The energy never flags in this fine, fun production that proves you don’t need grand spectacle and expensive effects to enchant and entertain.

jack and daisy

Daisy the Cow (herself) and Jack (Jack Scott-Walker) in a mooving scene (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)