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Wise Cracks

VULVARINE: A New Musical 

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Thursday 21st March, 2019

 

They’re back!  Fat Rascal Theatre, who gave us Beauty & The Beast – a Musical Parody, the funniest show of last year, bring their new comedy musical to town, and it’s a cracker!

It’s an origin story: we witness the transformation of humble tax-office worker Bryony Buckle into a superhero for our time.  With High Wycombe serving as Metropolis or Gotham City, the fast-paced fun involves an evil plan to rid the town (and then, the world!) of gender equality.  Bryony, like other women, is injected by the local doctor, but on her way home, a well-timed bolt of lightning endows her with supernatural powers: strength, flight, the ability to talk with her cat… Dubbed ‘Vulvarine’ Bryony and her workmate Poppy, uncover the plot of the evil Mansplainer and many comic-book capers ensue.

In the title role, Allie Munro is an absolute hoot as the bespectacled and gauche Bryony learns to have confidence in her newfound abilities.  Katie Wells lends enthusiastic, nerdy support as sidekick Poppy, while Robyn Grant’s mad scientist Mansplainer is a grotesque super-villain, all but chewing the scenery.  Jamie Mawson is great as Lois Lane-figure Orson Bloom, awkwardly trying to establish a relationship with Bryony and distracted by the more assertive Vulvarine; and there is a hilarious turn from Steffan Rizzi as Sonya, wife to the villain.  Where Grant goes gloriously over the top in her gender-swapped role, Rizzi is more subtle in his, creating an amusing portrayal without caricature or parody and yet is still very funny.

Grant also wrote the book, giving it a satirical edge and plenty of good old British smut and double entendres.  The songs, composed by James Ringer-Beck with witty lyrics by Daniel Foxx and Grant, are tuneful, adhering to musical theatre convention with a lightness of touch and some fun choreography by Jed Berry.  This is a show that makes a virtue of its small scale production: the special effects are hilariously low-budget (like the hairdryer that enhances Vulvarine’s flying) and there is a lot of humour to be derived from the knockabout staging and the relentless energy of the five talented performers.

The show makes its points without being preachy.  Feminism can be funny and also self-deprecating, it turns out.  The whole thing is infused with irresistible charm and silliness with an undercurrent of being very clever indeed.  Robyn Grant is some kind of genius, I think, and not the evil kind.

Having a female superhero is no less effective, no less daft, than having male ones.  Given the recent outcry from man-babies over the gender-swapping of Captain Marvel, this show could not be timelier.

Super!

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Allie Munro as Bryony Buckle with Elton the cat (Robyn Grant has a hand in him too!)

 

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Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

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Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)

 

 


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.

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


Ideas Above Her Station

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 18th March, 2019

 

Paula Hawkins’s smash hit novel comes to the stage in this effective adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel.  Our protagonist is Rachel, a woman whose life has gone off the rails since her divorce from Tom.  She hits the bottle and commutes to London, her journey taking her past her former house.  She makes up lives for the people she sees, especially a young couple she calls Jess and Jason.  Except Jess is really Megan and Megan has gone missing… and Rachel has drink-induced gaps in her memory…

As ramshackle Rachel, Samantha Womack is superb, stumbling through the mystery like a drunken (and much younger) Miss Marple, conducting her own investigation just as the cops are investigating her.  Rachel is on stage throughout, so we only get to find out what she finds out.  Womack manages to arouse our sympathy for this broken woman and she is also rather funny.

Oliver Farnworth is also strong as Megan’s buff and bluff husband Scott, whose fits of rage make him a suspect.  John Dougall is highly enjoyable as Detective Inspector Gaskill, and there is a good supporting cast: namely, Naeem Hayat’s shady therapist Kamal, Adam Jackson-Smith as Rachel’s smarmy ex-husband Tom, and especially Lowenna Melrose as Tom’s second wife, Anna – her exchanges with Womack are bitter fun.  Kirsty Oswald comes and goes as missing Megan; she gets her moment in the spotlight, recounting the harrowing history of her baby in a particularly affecting scene.

Director Anthony Banks keeps the action fluid; the scene transitions run more smoothly than any rail service, with James Cotterill’s pieces of scenery sliding in and out and across, their motion bringing to mind railway carriages – or perhaps I’ve just been commuting too long myself.  Jack Knowles’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s projections suggest the passing trains as well as heightening moments of tension.  Banks brings all of these elements together to give us a taut, twisty thriller that retains the flavour of the book and improves on the film adaptation.

As well as a whodunnit, it’s a play about the abuse of women by men – but don’t let that put you off.  Compelling and intriguing, this touring production is well worth getting on board for.

TGOTT 11 Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack Photo by Manuel Harlan

Oliver Farnworth and Samantha Womack (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


The Daddy of Them All

THE LIFE I LEAD

The Studio, Birmingham REP, Monday 11th March, 2019

 

For many of us, the actor David Tomlinson is firmly rooted in childhood memories of beloved films.  Most famous as the cold and stuffy Mr Banks in Mary Poppins and as the eccentric would-be magician in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Tomlinson represented a certain type of Englishness: gentlemanly, well-spoken, emotionally stifled but ultimately lovable.  This new comedy written by James Kettle invokes the spirit of the man, recounting anecdotes of his professional and personal life.

Miles Jupp IS David Tomlinson in this one-man vehicle for his talents.  At certain times, Matthew England’s lighting strikes Jupp just the right way and Tomlinson’s features seems to emerge, (even after he has peeled off the false moustache) and Jupp’s performance gets the intonation and attitude spot on, you’d think he was being possessed by the late actor himself.

In an endearing, charming manner, with a turn of phrase of which P G  Wodehouse would be proud, Tomlinson tells us stories that amuse, surprise, shock and touch us, as the case may be.  We learn of his dealings with Walt Disney, the tragedy that befell his first wife and her children, his opinion of Julie Andrews, and, chiefly, we hear stories of his father, the irascible, intractable C. S. T. whom Jupp inhabits in caricature.  It turns out Tomlinson père carried a dark secret, a reason for his lifelong detachment from his son.  Later, when he has sons of his own, Tomlinson finds himself distanced from his third boy, who is misdiagnosed as deaf but is later found to be autistic.

Fatherhood forms the backbone of this life story: Tomlinson’s father, his own experiences as a father, and that quintessential father-figure, Mr Banks.  It makes you think of your own father, whatever he was like, and it’s something of a relief to learn that Tomlinson was exactly what you’d hope, with no skeletons in his past, no wrong-doing or shenanigans are brought to light to tarnish the image of this lovely man.

Directors Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell keep Jupp on the move, using lighting and sound to signify changes in time and place.  Played out on a gorgeous stage set by Lee Newby, a kind of drawing-room in the sky, this production features a captivating performance from Jupp, and is exactly how it appears: heavenly.

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Miles Jupp as David Tomlinson (Photo: Piers Foley)

 


Yes, Queen!

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 8th March, 2019

 

Loosely inspired by English history, this story of one of the favourites of Queen Elizabeth begins with an overture that includes a sinewy rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’, quite anachronistically, before building up to a frenetic series of crashing chords; conductor Carlo Rizzo throws himself around energetically.  It’s an exhilarating opening.

Elizabeth loves Roberto, but Roberto loves Sara, wife to his best mate, the Duke of Nottingham.  Roberto stands accused of treason but Elizabeth offers him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  He can go free if he names her rival for his affections.  Roberto would rather die than put Sara in the frame.  There’s some business with love tokens (a ring from Elizabeth, a scarf from Sara) and the Duke of Nottingham rumbles what’s going on…

Director Alessandro Talevi eschews the grandeur of the Elizabethan court and sets this love quadrangle in a dark world of shadows and screens.  Elizabeth keeps a spider in a tank – perhaps this signifies her treatment of Roberto, keeping him as an exotic pet but one that can bite… Later, it emerges that it is she who is the spider, as she careers around in a chariot like a giant robotic arachnid.  Talevi brings surprises to the melodrama.  The bald queen stalking around on mechanical legs while her favourite languishes in prison, caught in scarlet strands – his entanglement in the web of Elizabeth’s emotions.

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Elisabetta (Joyce El-Khoury) Photo: Bill Cooper

Joyce El-Khoury is magnificent as the tyrannical queen, giving us the regal power of the monarch and the volatile emotions of the woman.  She commands the attention whenever she is on – not just because she is a splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise monochromatic setting.  Also strong is Justina Gringyte as the noble, distressed Sara, fighting her feelings for Barry Banks’s robust Roberto.  Roland Wood’s passionate Duke, pleading for the life of his friend is lovely stuff.

The marvellous WNO chorus have their moment in the spotlight with a solemn, hymn-like piece, while the orchestra play Donizetti’s stirring score with verve and beauty.  Madeleine Boyd’s design work owes more to the 19th than the 16th century, with a touch of Vivienne Westwood and Jules Verne thrown in.  It’s all very stylish, a world with its own rules rather than any attempt at historical reconstruction.

This is a striking, powerful production with a tour de force performance by El-Khoury at its heart.

Majestic.

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Roberto Devereux (Barry Banks) gets caught up in red tape (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 


Bells and Whistle

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019

 

I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago.  Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings.  The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.

In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess.  From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun.  The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince.  Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.

Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno.  In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.

Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night.  Her second, most famous aria brings the house down.  Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite.  While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them.  Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.

Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina.  Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.

This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction.  What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.

Inevitably, the star is Mozart.  His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love.  The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)