Tag Archives: review

Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Stunning

OUT OF THIS WORLD

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 25th April, 2017

 

Mark Murphy’s latest piece for V-Tol pulls out all the stops in terms of theatricality – in fact, when it begins, I feel bombarded and disoriented by the barrage of light and sound, the tirade of disjointed lines of dialogue and all the rushing around rearranging the chairs.  This is purely intentional of course, but it takes me a while to take the piece in other than in via its form.  But gradually, the content emerges, explaining the choices made for the means of presentation.

We gather that our protagonist Ellen (Sarah Swire) is a famous musician, five weeks married to Anthony (Scott Hoatson) but something is very, very wrong – if the doctor and nurse and the clinical setting are anything to go by.  The fragmented nature of the action – complete with surreal moments – suggest that everything is happening in Ellen’s mind.  She even steps forward to break the fourth wall and tell us this.  Even we are projections in her story.

I warm to Ellen as she goes through her own rabbit-hole of a nightmare, complete with Lewis Carroll-esque exchanges with officious receptionists.  Sequences repeat and distort as we piece together what happened to Ellen and Anthony.  It culminates in the show’s most powerful scene, when all the stage technology takes a backseat, and husband and wife say their final farewell.  It’s heartbreaking.

And so, what begins as a dazzling, confusing circus of video, music, and high-wire flying, becomes a beautiful, sometimes harrowing, sometimes touching, sometimes funny, sometimes absurd, love story.  A tale of loss and grief – and survival.

Yet if it is all in Ellen’s comatose mind, I can’t grasp why there’s a scene in which she is not present: the doctor explaining to her brother-in-law about the car accident that shatters their lives.  Perhaps she could have floated overhead, like an eavesdropping Peter Pan, in an out-of-body experience…

Murphy certainly puts us through it, browbeating us with theatrical assault and then engaging us through the piecemeal resolution of what the hell is going on, and then hitting us right in the feels.  A remarkable piece that rewards those who have the patience to get through the initial ambush on the senses.  Marvellous.  It’s not often a show’s title is its own review.

murphy

 


Jumprov Jumps Off

JUMPROV Press Launch

The Wellington, Birmingham, Wednesday 19th April, 2017

 

Up on the second floor of this majestic old pub, a select and invited assembly are treated to an hour of hilarity, courtesy of Sunny Dhap and his newly-formed, BAME improvisation troupe, JUMPROV.  The purpose of the evening is to launch the group in advance of their first full show next month, and if what I saw is anything to go by, it promises to be a riot of inventive and witty sketches, seeming pulled out of thin air.

Many of the ‘games’ are familiar to anyone who has ever seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? or has participated in acting classes, but the familiarity with some of the format makes us feel like we know where we are with this unknown quantity.  There’s the Alphabet one, where each line of scene must begin with the subsequent letter, the hands one where actors stand behind others and become their hands – you know the deal.  And they take suggestions from the audience, of course – we are invited to shout out ideas or submit them on slips of paper which are then fed into dialogue as surprises.

Nothing fazes anyone – the team work like a well-oiled machine, sharing the kind of strong rapport necessary to keep the enterprise from falling flat on its face – and they’re all so damned likeable we even enjoy the responses that don’t quite spark (these are few in comparison with the moments that hit the mark).

Dhap is a genial host and a witty participant – there is nothing that is thrown at the others that he won’t do himself.  The others (David Jackson, Adaya Henry, Marius Turner, Chantal Erraoui, Jay Droch, and Jade Samuels) are just as quick-witted and versatile.  Moments that stay with me are a couple on a date on a farm, a game of Blind Date with Theresa May as a contestant, and an extended game in a supermarket where the quick-thinking and skilful characterisations come to the fore.  Of course, if you see the show, you will get something completely different; such is the nature of improvised comedy.  Tonight is a preview of what’s to come and is fast-moving and snappy.  I would like to see one or two extended sketches, where situations and stories are allowed to develop – perhaps in the full show there will be time for this.

What makes Jumprov different is also what gives them an edge over other improv groups: their diversity.  They are liberated from the awkwardness of so-called political correctness and are free to represent characters from racial backgrounds, characters that are based on truth and experience rather than stereotype.  In a predominantly white sphere, Jumprov is a fresh approach, able to bring something closer to life in multi-cultural Birmingham and, by extension, the UK as a whole.

Best line of the night comes from Asian actor Jay Droch: “About as welcome as a ham sandwich in a mosque.”  It’s well-timed and, in context, delightful, and we, the audience, feel ‘permitted’ to laugh rather than express discomfort or even outrage, had the line come from a Caucasian mouth.

A wonderful evening in the company of talented entertainers; I look forward to supporting them at future shows.

Jumprov’s first full show will be at The Old Joint Stock Theatre, 4 Temple Row, Birmingham B2 5NY on Thursday 4th May, 2017 at 8pm.  Tickets are £10 plus booking fee and available from jumprov.com – Advisory note: Over 18s only.

jumpov_flyerdesignv4front


Kinky Roots

SUNNY AFTERNOON

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 18th April, 2017

 

You might think that the Kinks’ lead man Ray Davies had spent his entire life writing this musical; his songs have always had an autobiographical quality and so they support perfectly this telling of his rise to fame, if not fortune.  And it’s astonishing how many I, never a devout fan, know of the songs.  Their sound has a rougher edge to the Beatles’, making them more akin to the Rolling Stones, but both of these mega-groups cast the Kinks into something of a shadow.  This musical goes a long way to renewing admiration for Davies and his talents as a songsmith.

Ryan O’Donnell takes centre stage as Ray, a sensitive young man who ‘thinks in songs’, clings to his artistic integrity and does the decent thing by marrying the young girl he knocks up while on tour in Bradford.  O’Donnell is both powerful and vulnerable as the gifted Ray, a grounded contrast to younger, cockier brother Dave – an energetic performance from Mark Newnham – who takes full advantage of the rock-and-roll lifestyle suddenly on offer.  Newnham brings a touch of punk attitude, underlining the idea that the Kinks were ahead of their time.  Joseph Richardson is also remarkable as drummer Robert Wace – the musical talents of the entire cast are beyond dispute – and Garmon Rhys is equally great as deadpan guitarist Pete Quaife, unsure about his future in the band.

The highlights keep coming.  There is a Lionel Bart feel to some of the numbers with the whole cast joining in.  Dedicated Follower of Fashion is a lot of fun involving tailors’ dummies.  Miriam Buether’s design and Adam Cooper’s choreography combine to create a vibrant 60s atmosphere, not seen since the last Austin Powers movie.  Duets between O’Donnell and Lisa Wright as wife Rasa are sweet and touching – Wright sings I Go To Sleep as a solo so full of yearning it gets you right in the feels.

Unlike other stories of this ilk, it is not drink or drugs that gets in the way.  Rather, the band is bogged down by legal wrangles and exploitation by a management team – it’s a refreshing change; like their music, the story of the Kinks does not follow the cliched pattern.

Joe Penhall’s book is funny and banterous – if I can use such a horrible word.  Director Edward Hall keeps the action slick, the storytelling sharp, and the music infectious and irresistible.  This wholly enjoyable show culminates in the all-time classic Waterloo Sunset, the finest testament to Davies’s talent, cementing his place in the history of popular music.

Superb entertainment, Sunny Afternoon provides an enjoyable evening.  It’s one production where you definitely wouldn’t want them to iron the Kinks out!

kinks kevin cummins

Ryan O’Donnell and Mark Newnham as Ray and Dave Davies (Photo: Kevin Cummins)

 

 


One Man, Two Governments

THE HYPOCRITE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th April, 2017

 

Working in collaboration with Hull Truck Theatre, the RSC brings us this new play from writer Richard Bean – of One Man, Two Guvnors renown.  It’s the eve of the Civil War and the country is already divided.  In Beverley, Sir John Hotham is torn.  Should he support the King or Parliament?  He flipflops between sides, playing each against the other, until his equivocations overtake him and he is arrested and – well, spoiler alert: the play begins with his execution.  Knowing Hotham’s fate from the off removes suspense but his path to the chopping block is a twisted and entertaining one.

As the double-dealing Hotham, Mark Addy gives a star turn, brimming with Northern bluster and human failings, like a Tory jumping ship from Leave to Remain and back again.  This is One Man, Two Guvnors in period costume.  Caroline Quentin is his cooler-headed wife (the latest in a long line) but nonetheless funny.  Sarah Middleton is a scream as their daughter, Frances, a giddy, histrionic young girl tearing around and even rolling into the laps of the front row.  In contrast, her brother Durand (Pierro Niel-Mee) is straight-laced and academic – until his own ardour is aroused, of course.  Canny servant Connie (Laura Elsworthy) and decrepit old pantaloon Drudge (an unrecognisable Danielle Bird) complete the household, embodying dry wit and physical clowning respectively.

There is a double act of young suitors in the shape of James, Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) and Prince Rupert of the Rhein (Rowan Polonski) who, for reasons of plot, dress as lady fishmongers.  Both Metcalfe and Polonski are appealing presences and very funny.  Also good fun is Ben Goffe as King Charles himself, mounted on a hobby horse – Goffe also makes an impression as the ghostly figure of a young girl murdered for breaking a vase.

Bean populates his five-act comedy with stock characters, making a farce of historical events and peppering the dialogue with sharp relevance.  Hypocrites who seek to further their own ends at the expense of integrity – they should meet Hotham’s fate!   The religious and the spiritual also come in for a lambasting.  The puritanical Pelham (Neil D’Souza) and the hedonist Saltmarsh (Matt Sutton) are held up as excessive figures – the comedy arises from the exposure of weakness and appetites common to humans and both celebrates and mocks our foibles.

Director Phillip Breen pays attention to fine detail as well as broad comic playing.  At times the action is chaotic – or seemingly so, as choreographed chases and fights break out.  The acts are separated by rousing songs (by Grant Olding) performed live and on stage.  Phill Ward is in excellent voice with his stirring agit-prop anthems that bring to mind the songs of recent folk-rock group The Levellers.

The show is consistently funny in a theatrically traditional way but it is more than a farcical reconstruction; it speaks to us directly.  We are today in a divided country.  We are caught up in epoch-changing political events – we can only hope that, unlike Hotham, we don’t lose our heads about it.

Hypocrite pete le may

Mark Addy as Hotham (Photo: Pete Le May)

 


Bubbling Over

THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 6th April, 2017

 

A co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East, this new version of Kirsten Childs’s appealing musical froths with effervescence, like champagne.  But, as our protagonist demonstrates, there’s a nasty undertone to life and all she can do is to move on to the next frothy moment.   Viveca “Call me Bubbly” Stanton spends her life trying to be liked.  We see her go from childhood dreams of being a world-famous dancer and being white to trying to fit in with flower power and the growing black consciousness, to auditioning for Broadway roles, and so on, all before she at last fulfils the promise of the show’s title and quits trying to blend in and be herself.

The first act is set in L.A. and begins when a very young Bubbly (a perky Karis Jack) learns of the deaths of four young girls in Alabama, bombed while they were at church.  It’s a scarring moment – and motivates Bubbly’s ‘chameleon’ nature.  She doesn’t want the same fate to befall her.  Karis Jack is a mass of energy, with a sweet voice and broad smile – you can’t help liking her; Bubbly’s delusions, dreams and ambitions are her shields against the racial intolerance and hate crimes in her world.  The second act follows Bubbly to New York City where the role is taken over by Sophia Mackay, who belts out her more soulful numbers.  Both actors are immensely talented, vocally and comedically.  And so we get two leading ladies for the price of one, which can’t be bad.

The score is irresistible – there’s not a duff number in it.  Musically, it’s a lot like Hair with a touch of Little Shop of Horrors.  Mykal Rand’s choreography evokes each decade of Bubbly’s story as much as Rosa Maggiora’s costumes.  Childs’s lyrics sparkle with wit and her book tends to keep matters light – this is musical theatre, after all.  Hairspray deals with civil rights issues more directly – here we see the individual’s response – in NYC, Bubbly faces discrimination more directly and, until her metaphoric skin-shedding, adapts to accommodate it, cranking up the stereotype in order to be accepted.

Trevor A. Toussaint as Bubbly’s Daddy has a deep rich voice I could listen to all night, while Sharon Wattis as Bubbly’s more pragmatic Mommy shares a searing duet with her daughter that gives rise to chills.  Llandyll Gove amuses as a fairytale prince and as dippy hippy Cosmic Rainbow.  Jessica Pardoe is striking as Bubbly’s childhood doll (white, of course!) Chitty Chatty, and later as a succession of dance teachers.  Shelley Williams almost stops the show dispensing Granny’s Advice, a rousing, gospel-like number, and Jay Marsh’s Gregory shows incredible vocal range. The orchestrations by musical director Jordan Li-Smith convince with their authentic sounds across the timespan of the story.

It’s a hugely enjoyable piece with plenty of laughs and toe-tapping songs.  It also has something to say to us in this benighted age, by showing us the psychological devastation of racism on a child.  Growing up black in a white world has much in common with growing up queer in a straight one (that’s a dissertation for someone else to write!) – we see the consequences of prejudice and hate, blighting Bubbly’s life before she’s started to live it.  The show doesn’t browbeat us with its message but is nonetheless powerful for its apparent lightness.

bubbly

Karis Jack

 


Magic Moments

WINNIE AND WILBUR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017

 

The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.

Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson).  She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example.  The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect.  A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight.  Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.

Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.

Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal.  Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner.  Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.

She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble.  Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy.  Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home.  Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma.  The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes.  The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.

I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.

Sophie Russell (Winnie), Ben Thompson (Wilbur) and Ed Thorpe

Sophie Russell and Ben Thompson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)