Tag Archives: review

Peake Performance

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th September, 2018

 

This new play by Maxine Peake documents the true story of four members of Women Against Pit Closures and their occupation of Parkside Colliery in the 1990s.  Peake’s writing clearly shows the influence of the late, great Victoria Wood with whom Peake worked in dinnerladies:  the down-to-earth Northern humour, the bathetic domestic notes, and above all the warmth and humanity of people in adverse conditions.

Kate Anthony is Anne, determined and a bit scatty – it emerges she is the wife of a certain A. Scargill esq, and here the play offers insights into what life was like for his Mrs and their daughter.  Anthony is superb, balancing Anne’s drive with her more humorous moments.

Jane Hazlegrove, formerly of Casualty, is great fun as the brash, earthy Dot, who suffers from claustrophobia – but that doesn’t stop her from descending thousands of feet below the ground.  Joining Dot with the crasser remarks and brash observations is Danielle Henry as Lesley.  This is a very funny play.

Special mention goes to Lucy Tuck, recruited only a couple of days ago to take over the role of Elaine due to the indisposition of the originally cast actor.  Tuck comes on with a script but it’s mainly as a safety net; her performance is almost there as is the chemistry with the rest of the cast.  Quite an achievement – give her to the end of the week and you won’t see the join!

Male roles are played by Conor Glean as sympathetic and easy-on-the-eye miner Michael – a scene in which he and the women share imaginary ecstasy pills is hilarious – and John Elkington gives us villainy-embodied in the form of pit manager Ramsey and also Des the tour guide, and James, a miner who seems to be from another era…

Miners past and present, played by an ensemble of community volunteers, haunt the stage during scene transitions, evoking the industry that has come and gone.  Georgia Lowe’s design is a good fit for the arena set-up of the New Vic, where the darkness adds to the impression of being deep underground.  The pounding, industrial house music used to cover changes is a refreshing change from the colliery brass bands we might expect!

Director Bryony Shanahan paces the humour effectively and brings out the personal-is-political aspects of Peake’s fine script.  Peake raises issues, social and political, many of which have not been consigned to the past.

A highly entertaining and powerful piece that reminds us to stand up for what we believe, to protest those who ride roughshod over us, that it is the protest that matters, the being counted, rather than the result.  If we’re going down, it’s better to go down fighting.  A losing battle is still a battle although I’d like to think there is hope for success.

RET-QUEENS-OF-THE-COAL-AGE-L-R-Jane-Hazlegrove-Dot-Conor-Glean-Michael-image-Keith-Pattison

Going underground: Jane Hazledine and Conor Glean (Photo: Keith Pattison)

 

Advertisements

Steps in the right direction

THE 39 STEPS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 8th September, 2018

 

Of all the incarnations of John Buchan’s novel of 1915, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation is my favourite – perhaps it’s because the world has moved on and the stiff-upper-lip hero is hard to take seriously anymore.  I have lost count of the number of productions I have seen yet it is still with excitement that I approach this one in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.

The space is dominated by Keith Harris’s set, which consists mainly of a mini proscenium arch with curtain and a rostrum.  This comes in useful for scenes set in the London Palladium and later in a Scottish hall, but most of the time it pushes the action downstage and so close to the audience it feels cramped.  The rest of the scenery is conjured from judicious use of some simple settle-type benches, which create an armchair, a box at the theatre, a bed and so on as the story demands.  There is a portable window, which is used for laughs, but no portable door – a missed opportunity, there.

The cast of four is very strong.  Leading is a dapper David Baldwin as urbane twit and action figure, Richard Hannay.  He is pitch perfect and, in this intimate space, you can see Hannay’s cogs working behind his eyes.  As his three leading ladies, Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, Molly Wood is also strong – her ‘Cherman’ accent is particularly good, but she needs to ensure that Pamela’s best line (I’m not surprised you’re an orphan) is not lost among her wracking sobs.

Everyone else is played by a couple of ‘Clowns’, both of whom prove their versatility.  Katie Goldhawk’s Scottish characters come across especially well, while Niall Higgins’s nefarious Professor and his wacky Scottish landlady are hilarious.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Mounga elicits wonderful characterisations across the board, and her staging gives rise to plenty of titters.  In her hands, Barlow’s script is consistently amusing but I get the feeling we are being short-changed when it comes to the play’s set pieces: the escape from the train, for example.  Much fun is had with the party behind the closed-door bit, but the wild wind outside Margaret’s cottage is another opportunity overlooked.  The sound effect is there, courtesy of Roger Cunningham, but it doesn’t affect the action.  More could be made of the actors’ physicality to get locations across.  Further steps could be taken.

There is plenty to enjoy here, but I come away thinking the creative envelope could be pushed a little further to give us moments of inventiveness to dazzle and delight and take our breath away.

39 steps crescent

Strangers on a train: Katie Goldhawk, Niall Higgins and a bemused David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Quartet with strings

FOUR PLAY

The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th September, 2018

 

Jake Brunger’s play from 2016 is a fresh and funny four-hander about relationships and commitment, particularly among gay men.  Rafe and Pete, seven years in, are itching to broaden their experience, only ever having been with each other.  They recruit Michael, a friend from Facebook, for an evening with each of them.  There are rules: Michael’s partner Andrew must not find out, being chief among them.  Of course, anyone who has seen Gremlins knows that as soon as rules are mentioned they are going to be broken…. Michael tells Andrew from the off…

This comedy of manners gets off to a hilarious start as the nervous Rafe and the taciturn Pete meet Michael to make the proposition.  Conor Nolan is superb as the adorably awkward, sweet but slightly twattish Rafe, with flawless timing and sensitivity.  He is utterly credible from the start.  Dominic Thompson’s Pete is initially a man of few words; it emerges that it is Pete who initiated the idea to spice up their sex lives, Rafe is going along with it for the sake of peace.  Thompson imbues Pete with an animalistic intensity.  Beyond the smart trousers and bottles of prosecco, Pete is a seething mass of passion.  Thompson is an actor of charismatic presence in all he does, and he brings out Pete’s softer, more romantic side too.

Tom Silverton retains a measure of detachment and elegant aloofness as Michael, the recruit, who is apparently able to separate sex from emotion.  It is only when the situation reaches breaking point that he expresses his true feelings – never mind can of worms, these are electric eels bursting out.  The archness and bitchiness of Andrew (Tye Harris) masks vulnerability and low self-esteem, as he clings to Michael despite the ‘rules’ of their open relationship.  Harris’s outbursts are powerful, revealing the true Andrew beneath the campness.

All four members of this quartet turn in a compelling, rounded performance.  The comedy of manners develops into searing emotional scenes.  Director Tracey Street manages the tonal changes splendidly.  The minimalist setting gives focus to the actors in this intimate space – which is all this piece requires.  In fact, as soon as props come in, we get wine sloshed around, glasses get broken… Street contrasts the overall naturalism of the performance with a stylised, contemporary-dance-like sequence to represent Pete and Michael having sex.  It’s a beautiful moment – for us, to appreciate the movement skills of Thompson and Silverton – but ugly in what it means for the characters we have come to care about.

Brunger’s writing is dazzlingly good.  The play suggests that open relationships may not necessarily be all that open, that monogamy might not be that monogamous, that there is indeed more than one way to have a relationship, but as long as those involved want different things, there will always be tension and the potential for breaking-up.  And perhaps sex cannot be entirely detached from emotion after all.

Entertainment of the highest quality, this production is thoroughly engaging, funny and touching.  I adored it.

four play

Awesome foursome: Tom Silverton, Tye Harris, Dominic Thompson, and Conor Nolan


Flash back

FLASHDANCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th September, 2018

 

I have vague memories of the film from 1983, with its story of a lady welder who dances in a nightclub and dreams of attending a posh dance academy.  The theme song, of course (and the video that went with it) are burned into the popular consciousness.  Here, original screenplay writer Tom Hedley adapts the piece for the stage, with the addition of original songs by Robert Cary and Robbie Roth.  Also included are key songs from the film (I Love Rock and Roll, Maniac, Gloria…) which, if I’m honest, knock the new material into a cocked hat.

Strictly’s Joanne Clifton leads the energetic company as Alex, dancing up a storm and taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase her other talents, acting and singing – the latter being rather good indeed.  Love interest comes in the form of a1’s Ben Adams as the boss’s pretty-boy son, Nick.  While Clifton’s vocals lean more toward musical theatre, Adams’s sweet and strong pop stylings work well in their duets.

Among the hard-working cast, stand-outs include Sia Dauda as Kiki, with big hair and a voice to match (it’s a shame she’s not put to use more) and Carol Ball as Alex’s mentor and benefactor, Hannah.  Matt Concannon makes an impression as the ostensible villain of the piece, sleazy club proprietor, CC, while Hollie-Ann Lowe has her moments as feisty-but-tragic Gloria.

The cast is great, the staging of the musical numbers with choreography by Matt Cole is fine, but it’s the dramatic scenes that require attention.  In some places, the pace of the dialogue needs to be snappier and, on the whole, scenes lack dynamics; director Hannah Chissick ought to apply a musical ear to the spoken words so that moments of drama can build and flow and reach a crescendo.

Apart from all that, the material is not to my taste.  A more interesting story might be of a classical ballerina trying to make it as a welder.  In the world of this piece, Alex is a skilled welder and nobody bats an eye (and why should they?) but the only other options for women seem to be working in clubs, performing suggestive routines, and parading around for the male gaze.  No wonder Alex wants to escape these dated sexual politics.

Despite Clifton’s sterling, tireless efforts, I’m not engaged by Alex’s tribulations.  I applaud the performance but I don’t enjoy the piece.  Oh well.

And I’m still wondering what became of her co-workers, like Rhodri Watkins’s Andy, facing redundancy and hardship.  The story seems to forget about them…

Flashdance, the musical. Kings Theatre, Glasgow. 5th August 2017

Joanne Clifton cools off after another blisteringly hot routine


Crowning Achievement

TAMBURLAINE

The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018

 

Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

Tamburlaine production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_258815

Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Crime Pays Off

THE COMEDY ABOUT A BANK ROBBERY

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 29th August, 2018

 

Mischief Theatre, the group behind the phenomenally successful The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, is back with this piece in which everything goes right.  Set in 1950s America, there is a B-movie aesthetic to this tale of a diamond heist from a bank in Minneapolis.  Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields cram their script with quickfire corny jokes – the opening scene in a prison cell sets the bar low (or high, depending on your point of view) from the start.  But such is the conviction of the cast, with their energised, larger-than-life delivery, they get away with even the most groan-worthy lines.

It’s a conventional farce in many respects.  Old-fashioned – and that fashion being the commedia dell’arte with stock characters and ludicrous situations, that develop and grow to the point of absurdity.  There is plenty of double-talk of which the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello would be proud.  A lengthy scene in an apartment with a fold-up bed is breath-taking in its complexity.  Later, a scene in the bank with the manager and two imposters outdoes everything that has come earlier for sheer silliness.  A scene in which the back wall becomes the floor, while the robbers crawl through air vents, is hilariously inventive – theatricality is used as another dimension to the sight gags.

Liam Jeavons brings a dangerous edge to the silliness as lead robber Mitch Ruscitti, his efforts forever punctured by David Coomber’s campily dramatic and incredibly thick Neil Cooper.  Damian Lynch is pitch perfect as the gruff bank manager, Robin Freeboys, and Killian Macardie gets more than sufficiently wound-up as stressed FBI officer Randal Shuck.  Jon Trenchard is on the receiving end of most of the slapstick violence, in his role as hapless perma-intern Warren Slax, while Ashley Tucker’s Ruth Monaghan (in this performance) delivers most of the sublime singing that covers the scene transitions.  At the heart of the piece is the love story between the bank manager’s grifter daughter, Caprice (a marvellously funny Julia Frith) and Seán Carey’s petty crook and con artist Sam.  Theirs is a romance of intensely silly situational comedy, but we end up rooting for them all the same.  Oh, and George Hannigan plays Everyone Else – including a solo scene in which he miraculously depicts a fight between three of Caprice’s suitors.

David Farley’s set is both stylish and functional, swiftly changing locations while being solid enough to allow extremes of physical comedy.  David Howe’s lighting heightens the heist-movie feel – there’s a scene underwater that is just beautiful to see.

An unadulterated joy, this is a comedy with plenty for everyone.  The pace never flags so we never lose interest (that’s a banking joke) and then, remarkably, the odd moment of actual drama breaks to the surface – and you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.  The sillier it gets, the more we marvel at the cleverness of the show’s creators, and the seemingly tireless energy of this remarkable ensemble, who rise to the demands of each moment.

I urge you to get a ticket to one of the funniest shows you will ever see – whatever price you pay is a steal.  And it would be a crime to miss it, etc…

Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, Seán Carey. Photo Robert Day

Making a withdrawal: Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, and Seán Carey (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 


Party On!

Stage Experience: BOOGIE NIGHTS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd August, 2018

 

Every summer about a hundred young people flock to Birmingham and just a fortnight later, they’re performing to packed houses.  It’s the Alex’s annual Stage Experience project, a highlight of the theatre’s calendar.  Previous shows include 42nd Street, Footloose, and West Side Story.  This year the choice is Boogie Nights, a jukebox musical of 1970s hits with a plot so shallow it makes Dreamboats & Petticoats seem like The Cherry Orchard.   This is Saturday Night Fever lite, with characters living for their nights out at the local nightclub, and there’s a party atmosphere long before the performance begins with cast members in the aisles encouraging the audience to get up and dance.

The miracle worker, as ever, is the indefatigable Pollyann Tanner who directs and choreographs her huge cast of youngsters with an assured hand.  It can’t be easy managing such a troupe but the enthusiasm of every member shines through – this lot clearly don’t need cattle-prods to get them to cooperate!  I can’t list them all, so forgive me, chorus, for focussing on the main players.

Leading the cast is Elliot Gooch as Roddy, our narrator.  Gooch has presence and a twinkle in his eye, but Roddy is written in such a way, we can’t be charmed by his throwaway sexism and his selfishness.  Gooch works hard to sell the character to us, but ultimately Roddy is an obnoxious plonker.  As Roddy’s long-term girlfriend Debs, Isabella Kibble positively shines in a flawless performance.  She can handle the London-ish accent superbly and sings like a dream.  Furthermore, she brings credibility to the part and is the emotional centre of the piece.  Kibble is supported by Melissa Huband as best friend Trish, who also sings well and displays spot-on comic timing.

Grace Williams also makes a strong impression as night-club singer Lorraine.  Her duet with Debs (No More Tears/Enough is Enough) is a definite highlight.

Among a colourful array of Seventies costumes, Gibsa Bah looks marvellous as Spencer, strutting on huge platforms with an afro like a black cloud over his head, whose chauvinistic attitudes remind us that the period was not just great pop music and big collars.  Thomas Parkinson adds humour as Roddy’s mate Terry, while handsome Jonah Sercombe has the best male singing voice of the lot – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more from him – but I would advise him not to rush his dialogue, and please, someone get him a wig to hide his on-fleek 2018 hairdo!  There is an excellent performance from Liam Huband as Roddy’s Elvis-worshipping father, Eamon – a strong characterisation, Eamon gets most of the best lines (even if Jon Conway’s script strings together as many old jokes as old songs).

The songs keep coming (and coming) along with gratuitous period references to crank up the nostalgia factor.  A tight ensemble led by Musical Director Chris Newton provides a great sound, and you can’t resist the energy coming off the stage.  More of a party than a play, this show’s delights come from seeing young people giving it their all, rather than getting their teeth into a meatier piece of musical theatre.

boogie