Tag Archives: review

Naked Ambition

CALENDAR GIRLS – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 28th May, 2019

 

First came the calendar, then the film, then the play, and now this musical version.  Original writer Tim Firth has teamed up with Gary ‘Take That’ Barlow to rehash the true story of a group of women whose charity calendar turned heads and raked in the dosh thirty years ago.

If this piece is anything to go by, the Yorkshire village of Knapley is inhabited by a homogenous bunch of deadpan Northern charmers, the women are almost uniformly blonde and the cuddly men are interchangeable.  It’s a bit Stepford Wives, but funny.  There are so many characters it takes a while to get a handle on who they all are.

When Annie’s husband’s cancer treatment fails to save him from the disease, her mates at the local Women’s Institute rally in support.  Best mate Chris (Rebecca Storm) comes up with the idea of a nude calendar – in the best possible taste, of course – and some of the women require more persuasion than others.  It’s a long time coming but the best scene of the night is the taking of the photographs, posed with some carefully placed props: plates of cakes, balls of knitting, all the accoutrements of the WI.  While other scenes are mildly amusing, the photo-shoot is the highlight and brings the house down.  It’s a moment of rejoicing, as the women celebrate body positivity and have a reet good laugh while they do it.  It’s like The Full Monty without the social commentary or the economic imperative.

Sarah Jane Buckley heads the ensemble as the eventually-widowed Annie, a more staid counterpart to her best mate Ruth.  Single parent Sue Devaney has the best singing voice but the Christmas Carol medley she has to belt out is a let-down: it’s just unfunny.  Lesley Joseph is in her element as retired schoolteacher Jessie, supposedly respectable but game for a laugh when the crunch comes.  Lisa Maxwell is suitably cocksure as the surgically enhanced Celia, and Danny Howker has some very funny moments as inexperienced teenager Danny – it’s a strong cast without exception but all the while I’m thinking they would be better served in the straight play version.

Barlow’s songs are serviceable but hardly memorable.  Rather than adding depth to the piece, what they bring is length.  Firth’s script aspires to but doesn’t quite reach the genius of the late, lamented Victoria Wood, using the bathos of domestic details to bring out the emotions of particular moments.  Contemplating her husband’s death, Annie wonders who’ll take her to Tesco and argue about margarines with her.

The heart-warming story survives this treatment, and is still a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but (producers, take note) not every bloody film needs to be turned into a musical.

Calender Girls Tour

The Cast

 

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Two Piece

DUET FOR ONE

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 17th May, 2019

 

Brand-new company, Aspect Theatre is doing the rounds with their production of Tom Kempinski’s acclaimed piece about a concert violinist who consults a psychiatrist when she is stricken with multiple sclerosis and is forced to change her life in all manner of ways.  What could be timelier in Mental Health Awareness Week?  The play consists of six scenes, each a different session.  He, Dr Feldmann, is constant and unchanging; she, Stephanie Abrahams, runs the gamut from bitterness, anger, sarcasm, resentment…

It’s a showcase for both actors.  As Stephanie, Katherine Parker-Jones gives us the arrogance and the sneering sarcasm, and yet somehow manages to evince our sympathies for this rarefied creature, when the defensive facades fall away, and we are allowed to see the human being brought low by this debilitating disease.  Parker-Jones delivers lengthy monologues with truth and conviction, and while we laugh at her barbed remarks, we are ultimately moved by her predicament.  Martin Bourne gives his Feldmann a gentle cadence rather than a strong Cherman accent, and the portrayal is all the better for it.  He has to do a lot of listening-acting, maintaining professional detachment – when he finally flips his lid and puts Stephanie in her place, it may be a shock tactic on the psychiatrist’s behalf, but it’s an electrifying moment, to be sure.

The peril of this piece is that with one character confined to a wheelchair and the other taking notes behind his clipboard, proceedings can become too static.  Director Marc W Dugmore avoids this problem in the close confines of the Attic Theatre, where it feels like we are in the consulting room alongside the characters.  The intimacy means Dugmore can bring out the contrasts between the characters and between the sessions with subtlety and with broader moves, as the piece’s mood swings between comedy and tragedy.  I’m not a fan, though, of the slow fade to spotlight whenever Stephanie launches into her longer speeches; I want to see Feldmann’s impassive expression and perhaps some betrayal of a reaction.

A straightforward, high quality production of a powerful piece.  I’m looking forward to Aspect Theatre’s next show already.

Duet For One-056

Martin Bourne and Katherine Parker-Jones (Photo: David Jones)


Picture Imperfect

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 11th May, 2019

 

Tilted Wig Productions bring this new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel to the stage, courtesy of Sean Aydon, who also directs.  It’s a stylish affair, with a set by Sarah Beaton that suggests Victorian grandeur left to rot.  Beauty in decay is an emblem throughout this tale of handsome young Dorian who, wishing to retain the beauty captured in his portrait, makes a wish… As time goes by, it is the painting that shows signs of age, cruelty and dissipation, while the subject himself is unchanged.  Dorian takes to covering his painting, only to display ‘poor traits’ in his conduct.

Gavin Fowler begins as a sweet, appealing Dorian, subtly hardening his characterisation as his hedonistic pursuits increase his sociopathy. Dorian models himself on his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, played by Jonathan Wrather (evil Pierce off of Emmerdale).  Wrather is marvellous in the role, lazily debonair and louche, the aphorisms dripping from his lips.  Aydon’s script fizzes with Wildean wit, and Wrather has the perfect delivery.  In contrast is Daniel Goode as Basil the artist.  Here Aydon brings Wilde’s homoerotic undertones closer to the surface, although nothing is explicit.

Jonathan-Wrather-Lord-Henry

Rather good! Jonathan Wrather as Lord Henry

Kate Dobson is a lively Sybil Vane, the actress who captures Dorian’s fancy, and she shares a funny scene with Samuel Townsend’s Romeo, where Sybil misses her cues.  I adored Phoebe Pryce’s pragmatic Lady Victoria Wotton, inured to her wayward husband’s shenanigans.  Adele James makes a strong impression as Ellen Campbell, ensnared in Dorian’s web.

Beneath the humour and the urbane epigrams, there is an undercurrent of dread and foreboding, accentuated by Jon McLeod’s music and sound design.  The peeling walls and general dinginess aid the idea that beauty is transient and decay is inevitable.  As they seek pleasure in whatever form, the characters are overshadowed by impending mortality.  For a story that concerns the passage of time, this production is curiously timeless in his setting: there are nods to the story’s Victorian origins, in the costumes, but then there are also dresses and slacks that are out of period, and Basil’s plastic bottles of white spirit, let alone the polythene sheet Dorian makes use of, American Psycho style.  Some of these anachronisms jar, others seem to fit, but nothing dilutes the overall tone of the production.

Dorian’s decadence is stylised, with choreography by Jo Meredith and a few masks and electropop beats.  It’s all rather classy so when a murder happens, it’s all the more visceral.

All in all, it’s a gripping version, although I did find it slows a little as it heads towards the climax.  A little more intensity in those final encounters would not go amiss.  I love the way the dreaded painting was handled.  Like Wilde, Aydon leaves it to our imaginations, and imagined horrors and imagined depravities are invariably more effective than depicted ones.

Dorian

Look at his face; it’s a picture! Gavin Fowler as Dorian Gray

 


Dropping the Soap

SUMMER STREET

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 10th May, 2019

 

Four actors from a defunct Australian soap opera are reunited for a commemorative special in which they are to play all the parts (“Nobody will notice”).  Their week of rehearsals will culminate in a live broadcast.  There is a lot at stake.

That’s the premise of Andrew Norris’s bonzer new musical, which satirises the sunny optimism of the shows that dominated television in the 1990s.  The rehearsal scenes are hilarious, sending up the exposition-heavy dialogue, the public service information, and the outlandish plots.  But Norris intersperses them with glimpses into the actors’ lives.  We see the effects of being killed off and being unable to escape your typecasting.  The show is much more than silly satire; there is substance here in the melodrama of the actors’ real lives.

The songs are stonkers.  Disillusioned Angie, now working at a fish counter, sings the searing ‘Take the Knife’ bringing the show’s first dark moment.  Brock and Marlene belt out a smashing duet, ”Don’t Give Up” – the soap was a musical serial, a genius idea, ripe with comic potential.  There’s a brilliantly catchy parody, “Lucky Plucky Me” that infects my mind for the rest of the evening.  The highlight though is “Chains Around My Heart” in which Bobbi (the amazing Sarah-Louise Young) treats us to a dazzling display of vocal dexterity while parodying pretentious pop videos and earnest oversinging.  The number, quite rightly, brings the house down.

Young is hilarious as budding lesbian-mechanic Bobbi, and she is matched by Myke Cotton’s Brock (with mullet attached to his cap!).   Simon Snashall plays the father figures and the doctor – a deathbed scene is painfully funny – while Julie Clare is practically perfect as veteran soap actress Steph, who plays the soap’s busybody Mrs Mingle, and star-crossed lover Marlene.

Special mention goes to Pogo, the soap’s canine superstar, who makes a vital contribution to the plot!

The laughs keep coming but I get the sense of an underlying affection for the material that inspired the mockery.  There is also commentary here about the changes in televisual fare reflecting a loss of innocence and optimism in society, as the sunshine soaps have been usurped by so-called reality TV.

Thoroughly exhilarating, this show, like the serials it sends up, ought to run and run indefinitely!  With book, music, lyrics and direction all coming from the same man, Andrew Norris is some kind of genius, I reckon.

I loved it.

summer street

Mullet over: Myke Cotton as Brock

 


Splendid!

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th May, 2019

 

Khaled Hosseini’s novel comes to the stage in this engrossing adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma.  Set in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, this is the story of two women who are married to the same man.  Sharing hardship and mistreatment, the two women form a bond that lasts for years, leading to one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s a gripping tale, superbly told.  Sarma’s script brings out humour and warmth in horrendous circumstances as bombs drop on Kabul and the Taliban takes control.

The production hinges on the central performances of the two women.  Sujaya Dasgupta is instantly appealing as young Laila, driven by tragedy to marry the man who rescues her from the rubble of her family home.  Laila is primarily a victim of circumstance and oppression, but she has an indomitable spirit.  Dasgupta brings her to life without sentimentality; we are with her all the way.  Also great is Amina Zia as the initially resentful Mariam, regarding Laila as a threat but warming to her as events unfold.

Pal Aron is perfectly villainous as the tyrannical Rasheed, while Waleed Akhtar cuts a sympathetic figure as Tariq, Laila’s young love.  We meet Tariq in flashbacks, with Akhtar and Dasgupta displaying youthful vigour and innocence.  There is solid support from Shala Byx as Aziza and Munir Khairdin in a range of roles.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set is a rocky landscape, serving as all the story’s locations – the characters are forever stuck between rocks and hard places!

This is a fitting swan song for the REP’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, before she leaves Birmingham for pastures new.  Thoroughly involving, this is an excellent piece of storytelling, casting light onto a part of the world we don’t hear much about.  The play emphasises the humanity of the characters – of all the characters, even the loathsome Rasheed! – and we see just how ordinary and relatable they are, even in the face of extreme events.  The story could be played out in other countries (Syria, for example) to remind us that behind the statistics and the headlines, these are real people’s lives and experiences.

A wonderful piece of theatre, powerful, pertinent and captivating.  Splendid, in fact.

splendid

Sujaya Dasgupta as Laila and Amina Zia as Mariam (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Great Scott!

JASON DONOVAN: Amazing Midlife Crisis Tour

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Wednesday 8th May, 2019

 

I remember a Jason Donovan gig at the NEC at the height of his teenybop fame.  I remember standing and watching over a sea of screaming tweens, with the heads of parents dotted here and there, bobbing like buoys.   Tonight, thirty years later (bloody hell) the mums are out in force and there’s no sign of a kid in sight.    As Donovan has grown and developed from teen idol/soap superstud so his audience has matured.  The show is not a concert but a retrospective natter about Donovan’s life and career, prompted by reaching his 50th birthday last year, and he proves himself an engaging raconteur, regaling us with anecdote after anecdote, all of them laced with down-to-Earth Aussie humour and swearing.

He speaks of his early life as only child to a famous single parent, his early forays into television before his big break in sunshine soap Neighbours, culminating in the iconic wedding of Scott and Charlene.  We are shown brief clips, but it’s enough to get the nostalgia gland working.

There’s his pop career, his relationship with Kylie, the diversification into musical theatre.  I have fond memories of him in his loin cloth, playing Lloyd Webber’s Joseph at the London Palladium.  Sigh…

There’s Priscilla, the ‘Jungle’, Strictly…

Donovan speaks frankly about the highs and the lows of finding fame so young.  The cocaine (highs, which are lows, I suppose).  He suffers from a throat problem that means he has botox injections in his neck every few months.  We can hear the croakiness – luckily, his singing voice is unaffected and, he quips, he now has the best-looking neck in showbusiness!

He is joined on stage by guitarist Marcus Bonfanti and we are treated to acoustic renditions of a couple of his biggest hits.  We sing along and it’s a lovely communion.

There’s a Q and A to round things off.  Audience members have jotted questions on postcards and he reads them out and answers them with good humour.  Most of them involve propositions (and no, I refrained from adding my plea to the pile!); I suspect a couple of them are staged, providing funny call-backs to earlier stories.

What comes across most of all is openness, warmth and a complete lack of pretension.  Jason Donovan may not have reached the Hollywood heights of Neighbours co-star Guy Pearce or the apotheosis of Kylie Minogue, but he reminds us tonight of how ingrained he is into popular culture.  It’s touching to hear him speak about his wife and kids.  It’s also moving to reflect on the passage of time, how life has affected him, how it has affected us, in the decades that have passed since he first pointed out there are too many broken hearts in the world.

Ah, Jason, you didn’t break my heart but you certainly touched it.

Donovan


Camptastic!

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 3rd May, 2019

 

Charles Ludlam’s camp classic is more well-known in the USA than on this side of the pond.  A two-hander that parodies Victorian melodrama, Gothic romances, and creaky old horror films, this is a chance for a pair of actors to showcase their versatility and, equally importantly, their quick-change skills.  Lady Enid, second wife to Lord Edgar, pries into the history of the family estate of Mandacrest.  She unearths a tale of vampires, werewolves and Egyptology, while beyond the French windows, a wolf preys on lambs, spreading terror…

Stuart Horobin is great as stuffy Lord Edgar, more tweed than man, clinging to the memories of his late first wife.  Horobin throws himself into his roles with gusto: Edgar conjuring a long-dead Egyptian queen, for example; or as dour housekeeper Jane, serving up huge dollops of exposition.

He is joined by Darren Haywood, his match in wide-eyed histrionics.  Haywood is a hoot as stable man Nicodemus, stumping around on a ‘wooden’ leg, and he’s magnificent as the lip-quivering Lady Enid.  His appearance as the reincarnated mummy is a highlight – in fact, whenever he’s on stage, which is most of the time, he delivers, in a consistently funny performance that is a real treat to behold.

Both actors handle the florid verbiage Ludlam liberally doles out with conviction.  The dialogue paraphrases the likes of Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe and is riddled with daftness and peppered with some choice double entendres – I could always do with more of these.  Ludlam’s script comes across as somewhat patchy but director Simon Ravenhill keeps the laughs coming with some delicious bits of comic business.  Nicodemus screwing his wooden leg back on, for example, or the hilariously pedestrian werewolf transformation scene.

In the end, it’s the playing not the material that proves the more entertaining.  Not so much Hammer, as Sledgehammer Horror, this is a case of the high quality of the production compensating for any weakness in the script, making for a hugely entertaining evening that deserves to be seen by greater numbers.

irma vep

Darren Haywood in a publicity shot