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Pees and Queues

URINETOWN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 27th May, 2018

 

It’s no secret that Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s Urinetown is my favourite musical of all time.  Set in a near future, where water is so scarce even going to the toilet is regulated and controlled – and costly, with the laws enforced by a police force very much in the pay of the corporation.  The poor, of course, get the worst of it, scrabbling for coins and queuing for hours for the ‘privilege to pee’.  Transgressors are swiftly despatched to Urinetown, from whose bourn no traveller returns.  Whenever there’s a production in the offing, I meet the news with a mixture of excitement and dread – excitement to get the chance to see it again, and dread in case the producing company make a hash of it.  In the case of the Crescent Theatre, I am able to cast aside the dread entirely as soon as it begins.

Brendan Stanley is our narrator, the show’s heavy, Officer Lockstock.  His exchanges with Little Sally (Charlotte Upton) provide most of the show’s Brechtian, fourth-wall-breaking moments, for this is a musical about musicals as much as it is a musical about Urinetown.  Kotis’s witty book for the show constantly reminds us, in case we’re in any danger of forgetting, that we’re watching artifice at work.  This provides a lot of laughs but the show also has something important to say – but I’ll come to that.

Stanley and Upton are excellent and are soon joined by the chorus of downtrodden, bladder-distressed townsfolk, drab in their boiler suits and headscarves.  Accompanied by a tight band, under the musical direction of Gary Spruce, the chorus numbers are sung beautifully – I’ve never heard them better.  And I start to get chills…

Leading the cast and leading the rebellion is Nicholas Brady as Bobby Strong.  Brady sings powerfully and expressively in a West End worthy performance; as his love interest and daughter of the bad guy, Hope Cladwell, Laura Poyner is sheer perfection, with a robust soprano voice and flawless comic timing in her Judy Garland-like characterisation.  Hope and Bobby’s duet gives me shivers.  Helen Parsons is outstanding as Penelope Pennywise, wide-eyed manager of the local toilets, and Mark Horne is suitably, casually callous as the villainous capitalist (is there another kind?) Caldwell B Cladwell.  There is strong support from absolutely everyone else, including Paul Forrest’s Officer Barrel and Wanda Raven as Bobby’s mother.

Director Alan K Marshall does brilliantly with his large company within the close confines of the Ron Barber Studio, cramming the show with quick-fire ideas, for example a makeshift pieta, complete with halo, and having the chorus sport nightmarish sacks on their heads to signify their move to the mythical Urinetown.  Tiffany Cawthorne’s choreography accentuates the quirkiness of Hollmann’s musically rich and diverse score, and it’s all played out on Keith Harris’s dark and dingy, graffiti-strewn set, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly!) splashed with yellow spots!  James Booth’s lighting design is a thing of beauty in itself.  The production values of this show are of the highest order.

And what does the show have to say to us, apart from giving us fantastic entertainment?  Our way of life is unsustainable – we’ve heard this before and we know it but it’s worth hearing again.  The show also points out the folly and madness of handing over vital public services to money-grabbing corporations (you know, like what the Tories are doing with our NHS).  It all rings ever-so-relevant.  How many times do the rail and power companies hike up their prices, with the promised improvements in services never materialising?  Every bloody time, that’s how many.

An outstanding piece of theatre – the Crescent has set the bar exceedingly high for whatever musical they tackle next time.

urinetown

Making a splash: Laura Poyner and Nicholas Brady with the cast of Urinetown (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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Pros and Cons

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 24th May, 2018

 

This production comes to Birmingham from Nottingham Playhouse, working with Ramps On The Moon – casting deaf and disabled actors and tailoring the performance for hearing impaired audiences.  Rather than having an interpreter at the side of the stage, signing for everyone, the signing occurs as part of the action: convicts, eavesdropping on the dialogue, sign it to each other… Also, screens display surtitles, scrolling the script as it occurs.  So well is the signing incorporated, it becomes part of the choreography of the piece.

The play, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, tells of a colony of convicts, transported to Australia to serve their sentences in exile.  The militia that guard them are brutal and cruel but the leader, Governor Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis) is of the view that criminals can and should be reformed.  He consents to the rehearsal and staging of a play, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, much to the consternation of his men.  As if the situation was not already a powder keg, waiting for a match.  Charged with directing the production is Second Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) who finds his patience tested and his emotions engaged.  Also among the redcoats (although this is no holiday camp!) is Colin Connor as the aggressively alliterative Major Ross, Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as the expressively inarticulate Captain Campbell, and Dave Fishley as Captain Collins.  Excellent among this strong team is Garry Robson’s Harry Brewer, whose relationship with one of the convict women goes beyond the usual exploitation. The men argue the nature of their work, some favouring punishment over rehabilitation – a question that rages still today.

The prostitutes and convicts we meet are a lively bunch, to say the least.  Caroline Parker is a hoot as the coarse Meg Long; Sapphire Joy is appealing as Mary Brenham; and Gbemisola Ikulemo is superb as the formidable Liz Morden.  Tom Dawse makes a likeable Wisehammer, and Will Lewis an amusing Arscott – there are plenty of laughs in the rehearsal scenes, as Lt Clark struggles with melodramatic posturing, reluctant servants, and Liz Morden’s fierce and rapid delivery.  Fifi Garfield’s Dabby Bryant and Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling Smith are wonderfully expressive in their silence, their expressions and attitudes unmistakable.  Gradually, the civilising power of the theatre takes hold, but can the cast members escape the rope of hangman ‘Ketch’ Freeman (a sympathetic Fergus Rattigan) long enough to perform the play?

Fiona Buffini directs Timberlake Wertenbaker’s funny and incisive piece with verve.  The worst excesses of the guards are kept offstage (this is a comedy, after all – as Clark keeps telling his ragtag company) and production values are high.  Neil Murray’s evocative set is bathed in Mark Jonathan’s luscious lighting – added to which, it’s a warm night in the Rep’s auditorium, giving us a real feel for the place!  If the play is about the humanity of those regarded as ‘lower’ and ‘lesser’ by society, the production is a prod, for those who need it, that deaf and disabled performers and technical crew and what they bring to the table is also of value.

There is a haunting, dignified appearance by Milton Lopes as an Aboriginal Australian; the effect of colonisation of his land is devastating.  Britain’s disregard for other cultures is nothing new, of course.

An engaging, entertaining evening and a relevant revival.

Nottingham Playhouse

Dabby (Fifi Garfield) and Liz (Gbemisola Ikumela) discuss the finer points of Farquhar’s elegant comedy

 


Canvas Opinions

ART

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018

 

When Serge splashes out 200 grand on a white painting, it becomes a bone of contention and causes a rift between him and his two best friends, Marc and Yvan.  Or rather, it brings to the surface, resentments and feelings hitherto buried, and the 25-year friendship is in danger of exploding.  This welcome revival of Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic production reminds us of how funny Yazmina Reza’s script is, through the prism of Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation.  And so, these three middle-aged Frenchmen and their triangular association becomes a searing statement about the nature of friendship, more than a commentary on contemporary art.

Nigel Havers has never been better, in my view, than he is here as the urbane but uptight Serge.  He is matched by a magnificent Denis Lawson as the scathing, cynical Marc, and an absolutely brilliant Stephen Tompkinson as the emotional, put-upon Yvan.  Tompkinson gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations that is as hilarious as it is long.  In fact, the comic timing of all three is impeccable and it is a joy to see these old hands, excelling at their craft.

Mark Thompson’s sparse but stately set serves as the friends’ apartments, suggesting also a gallery space with its bare walls and low furniture, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with its shadows of a Venetian blind, suggests the supposed surface of Serge’s precious painting.  Snappy asides from the characters are demarcated by sharp lighting changes, accompanied by the jazz-informed tones of Gary Yershon’s ultra-cool music.

It’s a breath-taking hour and a half, of bitter backbiting and savage rejoinders.  An act of selflessness on the part of Serge salvages the trio – they will live to squabble another day – and furthermore, Marc is brought to his own understanding of what the painting signifies.

Like an actor on a stage, the painter covering a canvas is transient.  Serge’s white canvas reminds us we are all figures moving through a space, and then we are gone.  It’s a real punch in the gut from a show that has already made our sides ache with laughter.

Superb.

ART 2

Picture this: Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson (Photo: Matt Crockett)


Whisky Business

WHISKY GALORE

New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 16th May, 2018

 

Based on true events, which were subsequently novelised by Compton Mackenzie, this adaptation by Philip Goulding arrives at the New Vic via Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre.  It bears the hallmarks of what could potentially be a hilarious show.

Framed as a play-within-a-play, the set-up is a fictional theatre group, the Pallas Players, are to stage the story of two remote islands where a dearth of whisky, due to the War, turns into a glut when a ship carrying thousands of bottles runs aground.  The group is all-female, presumably because in 1943, all the men are off warring. The cast of seven will play all the parts, islanders and outsiders alike, led by Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby, our narrator (among other roles). This framing device is a well-worn one.  The hapless troupe in The Play That Goes Wrong springs immediately to mind, and the mighty Oddsocks employ the same convention for all of their productions of Shakespeare and other classics.  Even Brecht uses it, when a load of factory workers present The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  And so, we are on familiar ground.

The performance style is akin to the wildly funny The 39 Steps where a cast of only four do everything.  Perhaps seven is too many to maintain the necessary madcap pace and to keep the sense of heightened theatricality constant.  Larger-than-life characterisations, quick changes and smart ideas for the staging ought to add up to a whole that is funnier than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, the overall effect is patchy.  This kind of approach works best with scenes that involve action (Waggett’s car and the cut-out sheep, for example)  Director Mark Babych’s staging ideas amuse but do not blow us away with their inventiveness.  We have seen it all before and in places (such as some of the staged ‘mistakes’) it comes across as a bit tired.

The cast, though, is indefatigable.  There is much to enjoy in the playing: the stuffy posturing of pompous Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Isabel Ford) brings to mind the likes of Kenneth Connor and Arthur Lowe; Shuna Snow as young Sergeant Major Fred Odd gives a convincing portrayal – you could easily imagine Fred swaggering into the Queen Vic; but the scenes that really come alive are those that feature Christine Mackie as the fierce Mrs Campbell, mother to the timid George (Lila Clements).  Mackie is a real hoot as this formidable woman, keeping to the right side of caricature.  Joey Parsad has her moments as pub landlord Roderick, among other appearances, and Alicia McKenzie is great fun as Waggett’s wife Dolly.  There is a running joke: cast members share the role of the brazen and coquettish Annag, and also that of Paddy the Waggetts’ dog.  There is a lot of coming and going but it needs speeding up in places, and I don’t think the re-blocking of the action for the New Vic’s in-the-round arena always works.

And so, I’m afraid what should be heart-warming and intoxicating as any dram of the good stuff, turns out to be in need of a splash of soda to liven things up.

Christine-Mackie-Shuna-Snow-and-Isabel-Ford-1170x780

Shuna Snow as Fred, Isabel Ford as Waggett, and Christine Mackie as Paddy the dog (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)


Sex and Violins

THE STRING QUARTET’S GUIDE TO SEX AND ANXIETY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th May, 2018

 

This new piece from director-creator Calixto Bieito is an exploration of mental illness and sexuality, taking its text from a range of writers, most notably Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621.  In fact, the show begins with an extract from that worthy work, delivered by Miltos Yerolemou, one of the four actors who will appear tonight.  While he orates, the other cast members arrange wooden chairs and set up musical stands, moving slowly and in silence.  The Heath Quartet comes on – they play movements from Ligeti’s second string quartet between monologues; the music is disquieting, unsettling, troubling, underscoring the mental anguishes of the four characters.  Lots of pizzicato, lots of squirling high-pitched strings like you get in horror films.

Yerolemou narrates an account of receiving oral sex from an anonymous woman – we assume prostitute.  Later, Mairead McKinley speaks of giving head to her husband; she is anxious about her technique and reveals she ‘practices in secret’.  Whether we are meant to infer some connection between the two is unclear…  It’s graphic stuff but doesn’t shock those of us who’ve enjoyed the occasional Berkoff.

Nick Harris brings a note of humour to proceedings listing all the pharmaceuticals, the therapies (conventional and alternative) and the alcoholic drinks he has tried to assuage his anxiety.  He discloses he has mastered the art of appearing calm, anxious that people will discover his anxiety – and it’s a salient point: it’s not all sobbing and curling up in a foetal position.  We never know what other people are battling with internally.

About half an hour in, we first hear from Cathy Tyson, in what is the strongest section of the piece.  She recounts a kind of modern-day folk tale about the killing of a child in a road traffic accident.  Tyson’s storytelling is compelling and ultimately moving, as it emerges she is the child’s mother from the tale, and the events must have taken place years – decades – ago.

Annemarie Bulla’s set is deceptively simple, giving a concert hall aesthetic of blond floorboards and stacks of chairs.  These stacks advance and retreat, almost imperceptibly, before crashing to the floor.  And that’s when we realise why this production is staged in the Rep’s main house rather than the studio.

Meanwhile, the Heath Quartet switch to Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, and this is where I run into a problem.  The Ligeti worked as incidental music and an underscore.  The Beethoven is too exquisite and the playing of it is divine.  I am transported by the music and neglect to pay attention to what the actors might be up to.

Interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes bleak, and sometimes gripping, this Guide gives us examples of suffering but offers little in the way of guidance.  The Anatomy of Melancholy advises us (Be Not Idle; Be Not Solitary) but Bieito keeps his actors largely separate, with very little in the way of interaction.  That said, the simple action of the application of lipstick suggests that even a trauma that has bedevilled someone for decades, can be overcome.

thumbnail_The company_The String Quartets Guide_copyright Robert Day

The Heath Quartet and, from left to right, Cathy Tyson, Miltos Yerolemou, Mairead McKinley, and Nick Harris (Photo: Robert Day)


Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK.  I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers.  In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape!  They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!

Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment.  There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home.  John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing.  He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper.  Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin.  Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him.  Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.

They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script.  A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death.  And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.

It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented.  Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.

There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues.  The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.

heroes

Dave Hill, Brian Wilson and John Whittell (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018

 

Patrick Barlow’s affectionate spoof draws more from the Hitchcock film version than the John Buchan original novel – and indeed, his script is peppered with direct nods to Hitchcock’s filmography for those in the know.  Director Nicky Cox’s ambitious production is an excellent fit for the Bear Pit’s intimate space; her set design maximises the performance area with a raised level, including judicious use of a screen for projections that both identify the location and bridge the scenes of on-stage action.  Cox works her cast of just four hard; this is a show where the hand of the director is clearly visible, especially during inventive moments like a chase on the roof of a train, and an aeroplane conjured up from a propeller and a ladder.  Also clearly in evidence is the wit of the writer: Barlow’s wordplay spoofs the stilted dialogue with the addition of extra-silliness.

But, of course, it is the actors who draw our admiration the most readily.  Tony Homer is perfectly cast as the protagonist Richard Hannay, tall, slender, his old-fashioned matinee idol looks enhanced by his neat moustache.  Homer proves adept at facial expressions, especially the world-weariness and the self-congratulatory wink, and he uses his pipe to great effect.  I would say he could emphasise Hannay’s R.P. and his stuffy manner to make the most of the character’s ridiculousness, but that’s a quibble, and I don’t wish to detract from his wildly enjoyable portrayal.

Carol Roache reappears as Hannay’s love interests, from a German femme fatale (What is German for femme fatale?) to a crofter’s wife and Pamela, a terribly English young woman who finds herself handcuffed to our hero to great comic effect.  Roache pitches each role perfectly: larger-than-life but never going over-the-top.  That indulgence is permitted to the remaining two cast members, Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner, who play (tirelessly, it seems) everyone else.  This versatile pair undergo the quickest of quick changes, their characterisations becoming broader and broader, in some breathtakingly silly moments.  Danks-Smith is hilarious as a crofter and the landlady of a hotel; while Ganner excels as the evil professor and the twitchy hotel landlord, to name but four of their many roles.

There are a few first night glitches: a wayward moustache and a runaway pen – but the cast handle these mishaps with aplomb, and it all adds to the fun.  A couple of times, the pace could be quicker – especially during a couple of scene changes – but I’m sure things will sharpen up as the show’s run gets into its stride.

All in all, this is comedy heaven, an excellent opportunity to exercise your laughing muscles for a couple of hours and, generally, the moments when we’re not laughing are times when we’re just marvelling at the brilliance of it all.

tony as hannay

Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay