Tag Archives: review

Nice Hooters

HOOT OWL – Master of Disguise

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st February, 2018

 

It is not uncommon for successful children’s picture books to make the transition to the stage.  The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt are just two examples.  Now, Proon Productions bring us Sean Taylor’s owl-arious story, to wit Hoot Owl; adapter-performers Ellis Creez and Rebecca Hallworth flesh out the plot (they have to, or the show would be over in ten minutes!) to create an hour of entertainment, framing Taylor’s original account of the protagonist’s quest for food with an over-arcing plot: Hoot Owl must prove his predatory prowess if he is to join the ranks of the Parliament of Owls.

There are several charming songs, penned by Creez and Hallworth and arranged by Mark Rowson, so there are plenty of opportunities for us to sing, clap, and wave our arms along with the cast.  In fact, my only quibble with this thoroughly enjoyable production is that sometimes the backing tracks are a little too high in the mix, drowning out the witty and sophisticated (and funny) lyrics.  The cast are both miked up but they could do with belting a bit more to get the songs across to the greatest effect.

As the eponymous owl, Creez reveals his comedic biases with shameless tributes to the likes of Frankie Howerd, in his audience address – the put-downs of some of the grown-ups are funny without being mean-spirited; there is a Benny Hill-type chase around the auditorium, although with only two in the cast, it is more the spirit of the idea that amuses (There is much for the grown-ups and for the parents of the grown-ups to enjoy here, as Creez’s old-school comic stylings work like a dream).  Creez is also a nifty magician; as mentioned earlier, he just needs a bit more power in his singing voice to attain perfection.

Playing all the other roles, including operating an impressive pair of hooters – I’m referring to the owl puppets, made by Craig Denston – Rebecca Hallworth proves her versatility.  Her Rabbit gets every on their feet and her pigeon-headed Elvis Presley invocation is a showstopper.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Elvis.  With a pigeon’s head.

The script is packed with one-liners and cleverly, the writers sneak in facts about the animal characters Hoot Owl encounters.  There is a bit of a message about self-belief, without getting all moralistic or gooey about it, but above all, the show is a bonkers bit of fun.  Wisely, the original book forms the spine of the story and shapes the action, culminating in Hoot Owl’s final disguise as an Italian waiter, stalking a pizza, the only prey he can manage to catch.  Here, an audience member is called upon to appear as a customer and read lines from a menu, in true Generation Game fashion.

The set by Kevin Hallworth and the animations by Kian Adams are informed by Jean Jullien’s illustrations in the book, although the show has plenty of pantomime elements to it (a couple of child volunteers are enlisted to wave pompoms as Hoot Owl’s hootleaders) and one scene, in which Hoot Owl, disguised as a ewe, attracts the attentions of a randy ram, hearkens back to the earliest days of Comedy.    Hoot Owl – Master of Disguise is not only a celebration of the book but a fresh take on the traditional theatrics that have had us laughing for millennia.

There is something for everyone here.  You’d be a to-wit to miss it.

hoot owl

Hoot Owl (Ellis Creez) petitions Parliament

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See The Elephant

ELEPHANT

The Door, the REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th February, 2018

 

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s brand-new play is a gripping domestic drama, concerning a British-Asian family and a dark secret.  Daughter Amy (Raagni Sharma) is looking forward to a going-away party to give her a good send off for a new job in New York.  Arriving in the family home for the party is Amy’s estranged Auntie, Vira (Sukh Ojla).  Blunt, outspoken and unconventional, Vira sets the cat among the proverbials and what has been buried or glossed over for years comes rushing to the surface.  It seems that dad Barry (Ezra Faroque Khan) is not the hard-working, reliable pilau of the community everyone believes him to be.  Vira knows different.  Her sister, Deesh (Yasmin Wilde) won’t face the truth and risk losing her standing in the community along with the cushy life she has been able to give Amy and Amy’s oddball brother Bill (Farshad Rokey).

The volatile family dynamics are at first humorous, as they chuck barbed remarks around like confetti, but as their attention turns to darker topics, the barbs wound, and old scars are torn open, in the kind of way families tear chunks out of the ones they love.  It’s compelling stuff.  Bhatti’s script is richly written, with plenty of funny one-liners (“It doesn’t matter if he’s gay – there’s one on EastEnders”) with Wilde delivering the bitterest throwaway gags with perfect comic timing.  Each member of the family gets at least one outburst: Rokey’s Bill comes to startling life when he loses his cool; Sharma’s Amy shows she is more than the self-absorbed teenager she at first appears; and Khan’s Barry, who has gone through the motions of atonement, fleshes out the character so we at least see where he is coming from – even though nothing he can say can justify his actions.  As Vira, Ojla is also the title character – ‘Elephant’ is her nickname.  She also embodies That Which Must Not Be Spoken Of, but she is determined that everyone acknowledges and deals with the elephant she brings to the room.  This elephant cannot and will not forget.  It is a brash but dignified portrayal of anguish and long-suffering.

Director Lucy Morrison has the action play out on a bare stage with very little in the way of props.  This means it falls to the actors to create a credible atmosphere of family life.  Above their heads hangs a stylised roof, symbolising the home and also what has been hanging over them all these years.

Entertaining, compelling and powerful, this is an Elephant I’ll never forget.

Yasmin Wilde as Deesh_credit Ellie Kurttz

Yasmin Wilde as Deesh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Louder Than Words

#JESUIS

Patrick Centre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 15th February, 2018

 

Everything has a hashtag these days, doesn’t it?  We all remember the #JeSuisCharlie one used as a show of solidarity after the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris.  But other atrocities don’t receive the coverage on social, or any other media.  The idea behind this new dance production is that other atrocities are being perpetrated and the people caught up in them also exist, they can also proclaim “Je suis” (I am.  I exist)

Director-choreographer Aakash Odedra has put together a troupe of dancers whose initial brief was to portray what life is like in present-day Turkey, but the show developed into something less specific yet more universal.  Rather than particulars, we get types.  A man in a long, military coat, moves jerkily, making weird angles.  He is the oppressor, it transpires, preying on the rest of the ensemble, often singling one member out, male or female, and putting his hand over their mouth and dragging them away, like a lion picking off individuals from the herd.  To a soundtrack of sound effects: sirens, feedback, electric humming, the action plays out, becoming more frenetic, more distorted when loud music is added to the mix.

The ensemble, faced with a microphone, fall over each other for their chance to speak out – until the Man comes. Between blackouts, we glimpse striking tableaux, some of them Caravaggio would be proud of.  Imprisoned in narrow strips of light, they shake wildly.  They are wrapped in lengths of cling film, robbing them of individuality, dehumanising them.  To sound effects of the sea, they crawl, washed up on the beach, dead – we have all seen images of refugees who have met this fate, especially their children.

The show is a kaleidoscope of imagery and sound.  Some of it is abstract and you get a general feel for what’s going on.  Much of it is more directly recognisable.  All of it is powerful.

I don’t think ‘exhilarating’ is the word I want here, but I am certainly invigorated in a way by the energy of the performers.  Involving disturbing material translated into movement, this piece is not only a demonstration of what Dance can do but also a reminder of what is going on, what people are doing to each other in the world today.  Gripping, inventive and pertinent, #JeSuis engages us intellectually and emotionally.  Admirable.

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Stuff and Nonsense

THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

 

Eugene Ionesco’s work is a staple of any self-respecting Drama course, but the Romanian-French playwright is hardly a household name.  Which is a pity, considering the influence his absurdist style had on the works of Monty Python and the like.  In fact, much of what we find in Ionesco is now deemed ‘Pythonesque’.   Ionesco holds up social convention as something bizarre.  His dialogue is full of nonsense and non sequiturs, repetitions and random outpourings – and this play is a prime example.

Mrs Smith (Emma Beasley) enthuses about lunch while her husband (Thomas Hodge) tuts and grunts behind a newspaper.  She declares her affinity for all things English – including mayonnaise.  Hearing such remarks in today’s England, I can’t help finding resonance with the nonsense of the Brexit vote.  Almost everything we consume is imported from elsewhere.  The play is vibrant with significance, it turns out.

Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes) arrives late for dinner and are admonished.  This couple struggle to recollect the circumstances of their acquaintance – even though it transpires they travel on the same train, live in the same street, the same flat, it turns out they are not who they think they are… This is a puzzling little sketch, beautifully performed by the pair, and expertly built to a crescendo by director Steve Farr.

The Maid (Claire Bradwell) is the only character to address us directly, breaking the frame, and is the most artificial of the bunch, flipping from hysterical laughter to wracking sobs in a flash.  Bradwell radiates impudence and fun, to the exasperation of the waspish Emma Beasley and the boorish Tom Purchase-Rathbone.  The company is completed by Barry Purchase-Rathbone’s Fire Chief, who is touting for business.  He regales the group with rambling, pointless anecdotes and impenetrable fables, and his deadpan delivery is hilarious.

The whole group play things dead straight and speak what can be meaningless strings of words with conviction, and so the dialogue sounds as though we ought to understand it.  Scenes are broken up and interrupted by a lighting change and the chimes of a clock, during which the characters tip back their heads, close their eyes and open their mouths, before getting on with their lives.  These interludes symbolise how our lives are governed by time, by natural processes, by convention.  Above all, these surreal episodes remind us what we are watching is stylised and artificial – just as the manners and etiquette of society are stylised and artificial.

Repetition of phrases, that become slogans, does not imbue them with meaning.  And so, “She’s a true blue Englishwoman” spoken in a loop reminds me of “Brexit means Brexit”.  Vague remarks about British decency and fair play are bandied around as if there is consensus on what these things are, or that they exist.  The play ends as it began, with the opening lines of dialogue, except the Smiths have been usurped by the Martins, who now refer to themselves as the Smiths, and on the nonsense goes…

On the surface, this is a very funny production of a difficult script, with an excellent cast breathing life and emotion into nonsense.  Beneath the surface, the play couldn’t be timelier as a snapshot of the nonsense of living in Britain today.

Prima-Donna


Something out of Nothing

NOTHING

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 11th February, 2018

 

Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action.  The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens.  And that is the point.  The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently.  It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times.  I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.

Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero.  He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven.  Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her.  We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities…  The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality.  There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.

There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows.  We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.

Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next).  In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.

An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.

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Who’s The Daddy?

MAMMA MIA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 7th February, 2018

 

The mother (the Mamma) of all jukebox musicals arrives in Wolverhampton as part of its bid for world domination.  Regular readers will know my views on jukebox musicals but where this one has an advantage is the back catalogue it raids for its score is one of the richest seams of pop music ever written.  Songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are one of the greatest partnerships of all time and their work is part of the fabric of popular culture.

It’s a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it’s great to hear the songs again; on the other, the songs are so familiar it is difficult to appreciate the context into which they have been thrust.  And so, some songs are shown in a new light (The Name of the Game) while others are rendered meaningless.  Some songs are simply too ‘big’ – most are stories in themselves and feel diminished, shoehorned into the storyline.

Ah, the storyline.  It reminds me of Shirley Conran’s blockbuster, Lace, (Which one of you four bitches is my mother?) but here a young girl seeks a father from three candidates.  She invites them to her wedding in the hope of recognising her dad right away.  It’s this little mystery that motivates the return of the three men, now middle-aged, and their reunion with their former flame, the girl’s mother Donna, who used to sing in some kind of glam rock vocal group.  Spoiler: the identity of the dad isn’t revealed, in a wishy-washy copout.  Now, if one of the guys had been a complete and utter shit, then we would have had some tension.  There would have been some stakes in the unfolding drama.

But everyone’s nice.  Everyone’s an extrovert.  Everyone’s funny.  Everyone is basically the same character.  And it all takes place on a Greek island, flooded with sunshine, and so the Scandinavian introspection and melancholy of the lyrics is mostly swamped.

Lucy May Barker is an appealing Sophie, Donna’s bastard daughter, while Helen Hobson’s Donna (who looks better when she gets out of her Rod, Jane & Freddie dungarees) has the big sings.  She can’t quite pull off the full Agnetha, opting to sing-speak some lines.  As her old chums and backing singers, Rebecca Seale is a lot of fun as Rosie and the elegant, leggy Emma Clifford makes a striking impression as Tanya – a kind of Patsy Stone figure, without the nihilism.

Catherine Johnson’s book keeps things frothy.  We are amused by the antics of these people rather than touched by their plight (such as it is).  Other than as a spectacle, and a chance to sing and clap along, the whole thing is emotionally uninvolving.  Only Slipping Through My Fingers tugs at the heartstrings.

Perhaps I’m missing the point.  It is more fun than I’m perhaps suggesting, and I especially enjoy the staging of the earlier numbers, where choreographer Anthony Van Laast adds a touch of humour (their heads appearing in doorways, for example).  Curiously, the chorus disappear to be replaced by disembodied back-up vocals.

If you want undemanding, feel-good fun, and a chance to revisit some fantastic songs, this is for you.  After all, “Without a song or a dance, what are we?”

mamma mia

Helen Hobson and Lucy May Barker (Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)


Close Encounters of the Brief Kind

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th February, 2018

 

Emma Rice’s adaptation of the Noel Coward script makes a triumphant return to the REPa decade since its first incarnation.  Trimmed down to a jam-packed 90 minutes, this new production is a roller-coaster of theatrical invention and charm.  The illicit, irresistible romance of central couple Alec and Laura plays out in a crazy, stylised world in which the other (working class) characters act as a kind of chorus, their own uncomplicated love lives contrasting with the restraint and guilt of the protagonists.  It strikes me, this time around, how much the elements play a part in the telling of this story: air, fire and water are particularly prevalent, in the wind that blows through the station, and water in the waves of emotion that wash over the scenes… A fire is present and the earth, is represented I suppose, by the stacks of coal to one side.  The most elemental force in play though is Love.

Jim Sturgeon is every inch the English gent as Dr Alec Harvey, going against type to express his feelings.  He is matched by guilt-ridden Isabel Pollen’s Laura.  It’s all ‘teddibly, teddibly’ in its stuffiness but the emotions come up fresh and relatable.  They are surrounded by supporting players (sometimes, physically supporting!) with old-fashioned accents – the show strongly presents a bygone age: the romance of steam locomotion, when brandy was thruppence a glass, when middle class morals defined action… Propriety has given way to political correctness in society – and this is not a bad thing, but this quaintly English piece (English in its humour, its tea-drinking) is deliberately skewed away from the naturalistic.  The world was never like this, so don’t get too nostalgic for what didn’t exist.

Beverly Rudd absolutely shines as café girl Beryl, among other roles, and Lucy Thackeray’s Mrs Baggott is a remarkable characterisation and no mistake.  Dean Nolan, who also doubles as Laura’s becardiganed husband, is a lot of fun as railway worker Albert, while Jos Slovick’s Stanley leads the singing, his voice at odds with his silly hat.

This being a Kneehigh show, there is live music almost throughout, played by the cast and a complement of musicians.  A few Noel Coward numbers are included, because it’s not just about the brilliance of Emma Rice, you know.  The production reminds us of Rice’s skills and insights as a director.  There is much playful sophistication behind her ideas: Alec and Laura swooning in love, rising on chandeliers, the splash of water as they each tumble into a river, the puppet children being beastly to each other… The show bursts with ideas we appreciate on an emotional as well as analytical level.  The form delivers the content in a symbolic, stylised manner enabling us to engage emotionally, rather than keep us distant through theatrical alienation.

Exhilarating entertainment that reminds us why we fell in love with theatre in the first place, this is an all-too brief encounter with brilliance and a ride you don’t want to miss.

 

Isabel Pollen (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec)

Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon getting a bit carried away