Tag Archives: review

Glowing Colours

THE COLOR PURPLE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th July, 2019

 

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of 1982 was brought to the silver screen three years later by Steven Spielberg.  Now it arrives on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage in a brand new production of the Tony award-winning musical, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  It’s a landmark production: the first co-production between the Hippodrome and Leicester’s Curve theatre and, for the first time out, it sets the bar impossibly high.

The ticket gives a heads-up that the show ‘contains themes of Rape, Abuse, Incest, Overt Racism and Sexism’ and you wonder how depressed you’re going to be by the curtain call.  It is surprising how many laughs there are in it!  Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the story tells of the terrible tribulations of Celie (T’Shan Williams) whose wicked stepfather impregnates her twice and takes her newborns away.  Celie is palmed off to abusive widower ‘Mister’ (Ako Mitchell) to serve as wife, mother to his kids, and general dogsbody – little better than a slave, in effect.  Adding to the pain is forced separation from beloved sister Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) and that’s just the start of Celie’s troubles…

The entire cast excels.  The score is gospel- soul- and jazz-infused, punctuated by some show-stopping numbers.  T’Shan Williams is astonishing, bringing the house down with her solos, without being overly melodramatic in her dramatic scenes.  Her Celie has dignity to make the size of her heart and the indomitability of her spirit.  There are some crowd-pleasing moments of defiance that elicit electrified responses from the audience.  Danielle Fiamanya is warm and passionate as Nettie, and there’s a performance that threatens to steal the show from Karen Mavundukure as the ferocious but hilarious Sofia.  Joanna Francis brings glamour and a touch of the Blues as itinerant singer Shug Avery, and there is humour courtesy of Simon-Anthony Roden’s henpecked Harpo, the perfect contrast to the domineering, bullying male figures of Mister and Pa.  Perola Congo adds to the fun as would-be singer Squeak.

Delroy Brown is perfectly monstrous as the tyrannical stepfather, while Ako Mitchell’s Mister goes through a transformation that demonstrates that old attitudes and behaviours are not written in stone.  There is hope and the possibility of redemption.

Alex Lowde’s walled set with its pair of doll’s-house openings allows a swift and slick change of locations, with superbly realised costumes assisting the passage of the years.  Director Tinuke Craig leavens the dark themes of Walker’s tale with humour, exuberance and vitality, making us care about these characters from the off.  The emotional resolution jerks tears from every eye in the house.   One of the most heart-warming and uplifting theatrical experiences I have had the pleasure to experience.  By the time I leave the building, my hands are the colour red.   Magnificent!

The Color Purple_Karen Mavundukure (Sofia)_Photography by Manuel Harlan

A rare moment of quiet for Karen Mavundukure as Sofia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 

 

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Flooded with Meaning

ROSMERSHOLM

Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Saturday 13th July, 2019

 

Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play is flooded with pertinence.  Never mind nineteenth century Norway, many of the lines come across as direct commentary on the state of our nation today, eliciting wry laughter from the audience.  Ibsen-Macmillan make satirical quips, mainly through the mouthpiece of Kroll, a conservative, while sending up that character too.  The public, we are told, vote for feelings not for facts – which accounts for the current mess we’re mired in.

As with all Ibsen, it’s the characters’ personal problems that bring about their downfall.  Dark events in their past always surface and take their toll.  In this one, it’s a year since the suicide (by drowning) of John Rosmer’s wife.  Rae Smith’s elegant, stately set bears the marks of flood damage caused by her body clogging the watermill, the stains as much as a spectre as the memory of the act itself.  Proceedings are beautifully lit by Neil Austin, with daylight starkly streaming through the windows, and lamplight dimly glowing on the murky ancestral portraits that glare down on events.

Tom Burke strikes a plaintive note as widower John Rosmer.  Having lost his faith, he is torn between opposing factions in the upcoming general election, both of which see his pastorhood (if that’s a word) as a vindication of their stance… Burke shows strength in his grief, even if his Hamlet-like indecisiveness causes him to waiver and dither.  Rosmer is clearly in the thrall of his late wife’s best mate and erstwhile nurse, Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young woman, clawing her way up from nothing and asserting both her independence and her will.  As Rebecca, Hayley Atwell is a Marvel (pun intended).  The former Agent Carter from the Captain America films gives a sparky performance – we like her immediately, and when the Truth comes to light, and she makes impassioned defences of her questionable actions, we admire her, even if we don’t agree with her.  It’s easy to see how Rosmer is enchanted.

Giles Terera is nothing short of superb as sardonic Governor Kroll.  Assured to the point of smarminess, he makes witty observations that mask his ruthlessness and objectionable politics.  There is sterling support from Lucy Briers as housekeeper Mrs Helseth, and Peter Wight puts in a memorable turn as bedraggled radical Ulrik Brendel, more like a homeless Michael Foot than a Jeremy Corbyn.  Finally, Jake Fairdbrother’s tabloid newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard makes a brief but effective appearance.  The play has no love for newspaper owners nor those who believe what they read in the papers – again, the prescience of the piece is uncanny.  Or perhaps it’s just dismaying to note that society has not moved on in a century, people have not improved – and it’s the same the whole world over.

A stunning production with more laughs than you might expect, culminating in personal tragedy, the net having tightened around the characters until they feel they have no other option.  The final moment is brilliantly realised.  Perhaps director Ian Rickson is also addressing global issues here.  Unless we radically change our ways, we will very soon find ourselves in deep water.

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Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 


Class Struggle

EDUCATING RITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 8th July, 2019

 

Almost forty years after its first production, Willy Russell’s acerbic two-hander is doing the rounds again, and it’s a pleasure to reconnect with the story of hairdresser Rita as she pursues her academic aspirations in order to better herself and improve her lot.  The tutor assigned to her by the Open University is jaded lecturer and functioning alcoholic Frank, who overcomes his reluctance and forms a bond with his persistent and unconventional new student.

We laugh at Rita’s gaffes, as we meet her through Frank’s eyes – the play credits us with a modicum of literary knowledge – and we see, also through Frank’s eyes, how education changes the bright but awkward young woman into a confident, knowledgeable scholar.  Frank thinks he has created a monster, Frankenstein-style – but what Rita has done is break the mould of her working-class upbringing.  By aspiring to something other than material gain and a ‘good night out’ down the pub, Rita has changed her life.  She now has something she never had before: choices.

As Frank, Stephen Tompkinson does a flawless job, dripping with bitterness and sarcasm.  Jessica Johnson’s Rita has impeccable comic timing, although her accent can wander around the Mersey estuary (and sometimes across the Irish Sea).  There is nothing to say that Rita has to be from Russell’s hometown of Liverpool; she could spring from any working-class community.

The star of the show is Willy Russell, and it’s great to be reminded of the richness of his writing. There is much more to the play than the snappy jokes and the developing relationship and mutual respect between tutor and student.  There is social commentary about the rigidity of the class system and the perceived need to maintain the boundaries that define who people are.  Rita battles against the prevailing working-class attitude that art, books, the opera and so on are ‘not for us’, but once the genie is out of the bottle, she is unable to go back to pub singalongs and settling down with her lot.

Director Max Roberts navigates Rita’s mercurial mood changes: one minute she’s mouthing off, making wise cracks, and the next she’s revealing some home truth; Roberts keeps his cast of two busy.  Both characters are somewhat histrionic in their own way so there is no danger of things becoming static.  Patrick Connellan’s set, with books everywhere, encapsulates dishevelled academia (representing Frank himself) with Rita as an agent of change, for herself and for her unwilling tutor.  Neither of their lives will be quite the same again.

There are plenty of laughs, and even a couple of touching moments.  The message is not heavy-handed, but I wonder how relevant it is today.  And then I think of the obstacles placed in the path of working-class people that hinder their access to higher education, some of which come from the working-class mindset itself, and I think, yes, the play still has currency.

A modern classic, finely presented, this play will make you laugh and make you think.

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Jessica Johnson and Stephen Tompkinson


Table Talk

THIS HAPPY BREED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th July, 2019

 

Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time.  We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time.  In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.

At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life.  Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly.  Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint.  The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).

As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi.  Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter.  Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part.  Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.

It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.

Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production.  The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move.  It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change.  Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.

The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at.  Progress isn’t always a good thing.

A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.

happy breed

Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood


Dreamy

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd July, 2019

 

The only problem with this show, the first collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is its brevity.  Having start out as a 20-minute piece for a school assembly, the running time has been expanded by the addition of new songs in order to reach a more conventional length for a night out at the theatre.  Some of the additions add little more than repetition.  We get previews of songs before they appear in the storyline.  We get reprises and reprises.  Joseph’s coat begins to feel like a padded jacket.

But beneath the padding, there is the kernel of brilliance.  Rice’s witty lyrics and Lloyd Webber’s score of many colours are at their finest here.  Name another Lloyd Webber show that has such a range of melodies.  Answers on a postcard, please.

The show hinges on its leading man and here, in Jaymi Hensley, it has one of the best I’ve seen.   Hensley’s vocals are richly textured and infused with emotion.  His Close Every Door is breath-taking – it’s the show’s best number and, mercifully, is not reprised to death.  Hensley’s acting matches the quality of his singing.  He is expressive and funny, his reactions fleshing out the part: some Josephs can be arrogant and smug; Hensley combines strength with vulnerability.  He also looks great in the loincloth.

As the narrator, Trina Hill is at her best when belting out, rock-star style.  At times she is swamped by the action and you wonder where her voice is coming from.  Andrew Geater’s Pharaoh replicates Elvis’s intonations – to the point of losing a little clarity.  Even Joseph has to ask him to repeat himself.  Geater pulls it off through energy and commitment.  (At the time of the original production, Elvis was very much still in the building, and the show pastiched popular music genres of the day.  Now its references may be dated, and its satire diminished but it’s still a lot of fun.)

Henry Metcalfe is not only a dignified Jacob and an elegant Potiphar, he also choreographed the production.  With new moves by Gary Lloyd, the dancing is slick, sharp and funny too.  The pas de deux in Those Canaan Days is as impressive as it is anachronistic.  Mrs Potiphar (Amber Kennedy) is a glamorous cougar, stalking her prey.  It’s the anachronisms that make the show endearing and somehow timeless.  The French ballad, the cowboy song, the calypso.  This show is bonkers.  Some might say post-modern.

Among the lyrical and musical wittiness, the power of the story comes through.  The reunion scenes have the power to move – director Bill Kenwright wisely includes moments of silence as events impact on the characters, and Hensley’s Any Dream Will Do, when it is performed in the context of the story, is a tear-jerker.

This production does the material justice, with a superlative ensemble of brothers, wives, and a highly disciplined children’s choir.  But it’s Hensley’s star that shines brightest.

Dreamy.

Jaymi Hensley (Joseph) - Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - UK Tour (096_96A0754) - Pamela Raith Photography

Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)


A Load of Ballads

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 2nd July, 2019

 

First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 as a piece of pub theatre, David Grieg’s engaging play gets a production on a grander scale at the New Vic.  It begins as a meeting of academics at a conference about folk ballads and, as everyone speaks in rhyming couplets, there is a heightened sense to the narrative.  We meet our heroine, the bookish, strait-laced Prudencia (Suni La) fighting her corner against pretentious naysayers and revisionists.  We meet Colin (Matthew McVarish) blokey and annoying.  We meet a host of characters as the ensemble of four populate the increasingly rowdy and drunken conference.  It’s funny stuff and the humour is engendered and enhanced by the writing.  The rhymes are sophisticated and witty; director Anna Marsland is at pains to retain the patterns of naturalistic speech without glossing over the rhymes.  Grieg makes great use of enjambment and assonance and other things I barely remember from A Level English Lit.

Prudencia sets out in the snow to find a B&B… An encounter with a character from her beloved ballads changes things forever.  ‘Nick’ (David Fairs) is all the more sinister because of his normalcy.  He is in fact the Devil, come to take Prudencia to Hell.

It’s a play of two halves.  After the verse of the first half, the second is mainly in prose.  It gets a bit meta as Prudencia tries to use verse to assert power and make her escape.

Suni La makes Prudencia an appealing figure, who loosens up as the action unfolds.   For her, Hell is a transformative experience.  David Fairs is superb as the satanic Nick, funny, charming and formidable – scary at times.  Matthew McVarish is great fun as the drunken Colin, the unwitting hero, and there is sterling support from Eleanor House as a moustachioed professor and Alice Blundell as a plaintive Woman.   All the cast play musical instruments and sing, keeping the pub flavour of the entertainment going.

E. M. Parry’s design has books suspended like bunting – the books are integral to the storytelling, with illuminated pop-up versions displaying locations. Marsland uses books as stepping-stones to help Prudencia along her journey, which is symbolic as well as visually satisfying. Daniella Beattie’s lighting and charming projections enhance the storytelling nature of the piece.  All levels of the auditorium are put to use, so while we don’t get the intimacy of a pub theatre, we are surrounded by the action as well as being part of it.

Irresistibly engaging, beautifully presented, and ultimately life-affirming, this unusual yet accessible play is a delight from start to finish.  And who doesn’t enjoy a bit of Kylie? (And no, it’s not Better The Devil You Know)

Fiendishly good.

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Suni La as Prudencia Hart (Photo: Andrew Billington)

 


Cliff Tops

CLIFF RICHARD: Diamond Encore 2019

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Monday 1st July, 2019

 

Sir Cliff reprises his show from last year, commemorating sixty years in The Business, in this open-air concert set among the beautiful buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, where the burger bars and portaloos look woefully out of place, yet the rainbow flag seems apt, bringing a splash of colour to the grey edifices.

The set is comprised of hit songs from each of Richard’s six decades, with a change of jacket for each era, each one snazzier than the last.  Move It, the first rock and roll record by a British artist retains a raw power – and Richard is still in great voice and is still able to move it.  It’s as if the years drop away when he’s on stage.  From where I’m sitting, he’s a tiny figure on the distant stage but he can’t half shift himself.  Huge video screens flanking the stage afford close-ups and, when the stage lighting hits him in a certain way, he’s still the handsome heartthrob of yesteryear with cheekbones that go on for days.

In the 60s section, it’s Summer Holiday that really gets everyone singing along, as well as Living Doll – a song changed forever by his Comic Relief collaboration with The Young Ones.  And, of course, the song that gave the comedians their name, is still splendid.

When it comes to the 70s, there’s Devil Woman which is perfectly rendered here, but as a cover, Sir Cliff doesn’t opt for any glam, disco or punk hit from the decade.  Instead, he gives us a haunting rendition of the Art Garfunkel number from Watership Down, composer Mike Batt’s wistful contemplation of death, Bright Eyes.   The songs are linked by funny stories: Cliff is both falsely immodest and self-deprecating.  He takes a swig from a plastic bottle, grimaces and complains to someone in the wings, “This is water!”

Miss You Nights is just beautiful and Wired For Sound goes down excellently well but it’s a shame his hundredth single (“I release one a year”) is a bit of a dud.  Renowned for his religious bent, Richard keeps the sermonising to a bare minimum with From A Distance – tonight is more about the party.  New song Rise Up obliquely refers to surviving the recent hard times he was unnecessarily subjected to by an ill-advised broadcast of a police raid on his home.  Again, Sir Cliff keeps things light: we are here to enjoy ourselves, and the die-hard, dyed-hair fans are out in force.

The evening comes to an end with his biggest hit, We Don’t Talk Anymore.  A phenomenon in British pop culture, Sir Cliff shows no signs of retiring, even with his 80th birthday looming this October and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him play live after being a presence in my life since my childhood.  As showbiz veterans go, he tops the lot.

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