Tag Archives: Roger Cunningham

Steps in the right direction

THE 39 STEPS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 8th September, 2018

 

Of all the incarnations of John Buchan’s novel of 1915, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation is my favourite – perhaps it’s because the world has moved on and the stiff-upper-lip hero is hard to take seriously anymore.  I have lost count of the number of productions I have seen yet it is still with excitement that I approach this one in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.

The space is dominated by Keith Harris’s set, which consists mainly of a mini proscenium arch with curtain and a rostrum.  This comes in useful for scenes set in the London Palladium and later in a Scottish hall, but most of the time it pushes the action downstage and so close to the audience it feels cramped.  The rest of the scenery is conjured from judicious use of some simple settle-type benches, which create an armchair, a box at the theatre, a bed and so on as the story demands.  There is a portable window, which is used for laughs, but no portable door – a missed opportunity, there.

The cast of four is very strong.  Leading is a dapper David Baldwin as urbane twit and action figure, Richard Hannay.  He is pitch perfect and, in this intimate space, you can see Hannay’s cogs working behind his eyes.  As his three leading ladies, Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, Molly Wood is also strong – her ‘Cherman’ accent is particularly good, but she needs to ensure that Pamela’s best line (I’m not surprised you’re an orphan) is not lost among her wracking sobs.

Everyone else is played by a couple of ‘Clowns’, both of whom prove their versatility.  Katie Goldhawk’s Scottish characters come across especially well, while Niall Higgins’s nefarious Professor and his wacky Scottish landlady are hilarious.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Mounga elicits wonderful characterisations across the board, and her staging gives rise to plenty of titters.  In her hands, Barlow’s script is consistently amusing but I get the feeling we are being short-changed when it comes to the play’s set pieces: the escape from the train, for example.  Much fun is had with the party behind the closed-door bit, but the wild wind outside Margaret’s cottage is another opportunity overlooked.  The sound effect is there, courtesy of Roger Cunningham, but it doesn’t affect the action.  More could be made of the actors’ physicality to get locations across.  Further steps could be taken.

There is plenty to enjoy here, but I come away thinking the creative envelope could be pushed a little further to give us moments of inventiveness to dazzle and delight and take our breath away.

39 steps crescent

Strangers on a train: Katie Goldhawk, Niall Higgins and a bemused David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

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Spell Trouble

MACBETH

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st October, 2017

 

Karen Leadbetter’s strong production takes us to feudal Japan rather than medieval Scotland.  The witches are like vengeful spirits from horror films – in fact, they become increasingly eerie as the action unfolds.  There is more to them than their doll-like exterior.  Dewi Johnson’s excellently researched costumes evoke period and place.  It is a pity then that the approach is not consistent.  Jarring elements, like Fleance’s flashlight and the occasional handgun, are at odds with the rest of the aesthetic.  Plus, if Macbeth has access to firearms, why bother fighting with sticks and knives?

I quite like gender blind casting – here, Duncan’s Scotland boasts an equal opportunities army and Malcolm and Donalbain are referred to as his daughters.  Fine, but when Malcolm spouts about becoming King, language gets in our way.  Perhaps the gender neutral ‘Ruler’ might suit better.

These quibbles aside, this is an accessible and effective production where most of the ideas work very well.

Michael Barry’s Duncan is a joy to behold, combining a regal air with strength and benevolence; it is a pleasure to hear him speak the verse and breathe life into the words.  Naomi Jacobs’s wild-haired Lady Macbeth has her share of moments.  She doesn’t seem far from madness from the off and is utterly credible.  Personally, for her sleepwalking scene, I would have isolated her totally rather than surround her with the witches.  But that’s just me.

Charlie Woolhead’s Macbeth and Liam Richards’s Banquo at first come across more like schoolteachers or office managers than top notch warriors but by the time Woolhead gets to “If it were done, when tis done…” he has warmed up.  His handling of the soliloquies is particularly good – Macbeth’s unravelling sanity and his final defiance against the forces that have deceived him show us the man he must have been on the battlefield.  The murder of Banquo is handled well, thanks to fight choreography from Tom Jordan, Sam Behan and Gwill Milton, but the slaughter of Macduff’s Mrs and sprogs is disappointing as they are herded off stage at gunpoint.  I’m not (all that) bloodthirsty but we need to be shocked by butchery at this point to show us how low Macbeth will go.

Among the hard-working and competent company, a few stand out.  Khari Moore’s Ross looks at home in this world and sets the right tone.  It seems everyone gets to hug him – I start to feel left out!  Brendan Stanley works hard to make the Porter scene funny – Shakespeare’s knock-knock jokes are barely comprehensible to today’s casual listener but Stanley gets more than a few laughs out of us.  Matthew Cullane makes a strong impression as the Bleeding Captain, spouting exposition at the start, and also as the doctor later on.  Leadbetter’s cast sound like they understand what they’re saying which is a great help to the audience.

Christopher Dover makes a strong Macduff, towering over the rest and his grief seems heartfelt.  Liz Plumpton’s Malcolm speaks with clarity and in earnest but is perhaps a little too sure of herself.  I get the feeling she could sort out Macbeth with a stern telling-off.

Kevin Middleton’s lighting keeps things murky for the most part; the atmosphere is augmented by some eerie sound effects from Roger Cunningham, although I question a couple of choices for music cues: the witches’ dance seems at odds with the rest of the show.

Overall though, the production demonstrates that Shakespeare’s bloody thriller still has power to grip.  Well worth seeing, the show weaves a spell of its own.  The final image (SPOILER ALERT!!) of the witches and their familiars holding the traitor’s head and then looking directly at the audience packs a wallop.

A golden rule of theatre is if you have guns on stage, you better use them.  I suppose in this Japanese-influence production, it’s merely a show gun…  I’ll add another rule: the creepy laughter of children is more chilling if used sparingly.

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You need hands… Charlie Woolhead as Macbeth (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Men of Letters

NOT ABOUT HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd April, 2017

 

It seems there were a lot of poets sent to fight the Bosch in the First World War.  We seem to hear a lot about them in any case.  Stephen Macdonald’s play deals with the friendship struck up between two of them, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland, where they are convalescing with nervous disorders.  Sassoon narrates the story from fifteen years after the end of the war and Macdonald wisely uses verbatim lines taken from the correspondence between the two friends so what we get is a dramatic reconstruction of scenes – Owen’s poetry is called into service to give us glimpses of life in the trenches and, especially in the second act, the men exchange anecdotes of the horrors they have witnessed.  But this is not a war story; it’s more of a repressed love story, a bromance we’d call it these days, as the men dance around their feelings for each other while braving the worst of circumstances.

George Bandy is a somewhat deadpan Wilfred Owen; without overdoing the stammer, he gets over the poet’s nervousness and awkward shyness – and there are also moments when his passionate outcries blaze as strongly as any words the poet penned.  As Siegfried Sassoon, Andrew Smith gives a masterly performance, perfectly at home in his character’s skin and affectations.  Sassoon is a likeable if slightly pompous fellow and his knack for understatement is especially poignant.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Moonga keeps this wordy, rather slow-moving tale engaging with changes of pace.  The set by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris provides a stark backdrop of silhouetted barricades against a changing sky, along with real world touches to ground the characters at their desks.  Mike Duxbury’s lighting and Roger Cunningham’s sound design enhance the nightmares of the men, with flashes and sounds of the war that haunts them both.  But it is the presence of the two actors that hooks us in – Smith’s effortless Sassoon will stay with me for a long time.

A timely production that reminds us that in Owen we lost a formidable talent, and far too many lives in a senseless and misguided conflict.

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Leaving Sassoon? Andrew Smith and George Bandy