Tag Archives: Ron Barber Studio

Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)


Stable Relationship

EQUUS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 30th June, 2018

 

The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production.  Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.

The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night.  Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny.  Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on.  Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.

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Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)

Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others.  Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life.  An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…

Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child.  Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.

Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses.  As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness.  John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks.  The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.

The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship.  The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself.  Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes.  John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.

This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.

In a word: blinding.

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Something out of Nothing

NOTHING

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 11th February, 2018

 

Lulu Raczka’s play from 2014 is all talk and no action.  The ‘nothing’ of the title is exactly what happens.  And that is the point.  The cast of eight sit among the audience; each has a story to tell, a monologue to get off his or her chest, and the actors pipe up, not in turn exactly, but when the moment feels right, and so there can be several stories being told concurrently.  It’s a bit like flipping channels and amusing collisions arise, as if the speakers are responding to each other, at times.  I understand the ebb and flow of the monologues changes at every performance and so each performance is truly unique.

Today, Oscar Street kicks off with his story of how his obsession with tattoos led him to follow a young man onto a bus on which he later became a public hero.  He is ‘interrupted’ by Sam Wilson, a troubled chap who traces his sexual confusion to an assault he suffered at the age of eleven.  Next, Emma Friend pipes up, in a scandalously delightful account of shitting on the doorsteps of those who cross her.  We hear from Shaun Hartman’s film enthusiast, struggling to help a friend with depression; from Alexis Meshida, craving graphic vengeance for the rape of her best friend; from Rose Pardo Roques who claims to have achieved nothing, and has dreams and fantasies rather than ambitions; from Varinder Singh Dhinsa whose experience at a humdrum house party leads to an horrific encounter; and from Abigail Westwood, an avid porn watcher who is not at ease with her proclivities…  The characters speak frankly (do they ever!!) in ways that people rarely do in reality.  There is a confessional air to the piece and it reminds me very much of the writing of Steven Berkoff in the depictions of sex and violence and sexual violence.

There is humour and tension in the air – we don’t know who might speak up next: it could be our neighbour or anyone across the rows.  We listen, we laugh, we wince, and it feels as though anyone of us could have a story to tell.

Director Andrew Cowie elicits assured and effective performances from every member of his young cast, each one as credible as the last (or the next).  In a way, the cast direct themselves, deciding when to chip in and when to keep shtum during the performance, but they are clearly well-trained in getting across the truth of their characters’ tales.

An unusual piece of theatre, superbly and simply presented, Nothing is a snapshot of modern society, our fears, our hang-ups, our solipsistic world-views… and this production further cements the reputation of the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio as a venue for challenging, rewarding work.

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Window on the World

SKYLIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th September, 2017

 

David Hare’s 1995 play gets a well-deserved revival in this robust production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.  Set in the dowdy North London flat of Maths teacher Kyra Hollis (Alice Kennedy) it reveals the story of her past affair with restaurateur and self-made millionaire, Tom (Graeme Braidwood) through reminiscence and recollection as the protagonists are reunited after a separation of three years – during which time Tom’s wife has died.  Guilty feelings abound.  As a friend of the family, Kyra is also missed by Tom’s son Edward (Jacob Williams) who regards her as a big sister.  Edward turns up out of the blue because his dad has become ‘unbearable’, and so begins an eventful night for Kyra…

As the youthful, mercurial Edward, Jacob Williams is a delight, veering between sweet and gauche with ease in a lively performance.   Williams, whose appearances dovetail the main action, makes a lasting impression.

Alice Kennedy’s Kyra is mature (compared with Edward!) but also vulnerable.  We glimpse her classroom manner from time to time and in plain sight is her passion for her vocation, her desire to give the help so desperately needed by society’s most downtrodden.  There is strength here and also nuance.

Much the same can be said for Graeme Braidwood’s Tom.  Opinionated and objectionable, he is also a character of passion.  Yes, we may find his views abhorrent, the way he treats people as objects, but he comes across as a credible figure, thanks to Braidwood’s performance and of course to David Hare’s excellent writing.

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Graeme Braidwood as Tom and Alice Kennedy as Kyra (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

As much a personal ding-dong as a political slanging match, the play emphasises the humanity of its arguments. The characters are rounded, contradictory  and fleshed out beings not mere ciphers to illustrate a point.

Director Mark Payne maintains a level of energy throughout in this emotionally charged drama that is richly laced with humour.  Braidwood’s delivery of Tom’s embittered barbs is impeccable and Williams’s Edward is amusingly observed and endearingly depicted – at least he is able to kick-start his relationship with Kyra again.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are high. Keith Harris’s detailed set with its old furniture and working hob (the smell of onions cooking in real time gets me salivating!) and the props (courtesy of Andrew Lowrie, Ben Pountney and Georgina Evans) show nothing has been overlooked, down to the graffiti on the covers of the exercise books waiting to be marked.

Beautifully played and well paced, this is an engaging, grown-up portrait of relationships as well as a heartfelt discourse on the state of our divided nation.  Surely the divide is wider now, 22 years later – what a depressing thought! – pushing the relevance levels of Skylight through the roof  (I couldn’t resist!).

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Jacob Williams as Edward (Photo: Hannah Kelly)

 

 


Made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 28th January, 2017

 

Nick Dear’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel that spawned modern science fiction will be familiar to many from the landmark National Theatre production directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cumberdick Bendibatch.   Here, in the Ron Barber studio, the show is inevitably scaled down but director Jenny Thurston ensures the play loses none of its power.

At the heart of the show is a towering performance from Andrew Cowie as the Creature.  From his ‘birth’, we see his cognitive development – he becomes an inquisitive toddler before our very eyes.  Nick Dear keeps the Creature at the centre of the story and so we empathise with him rather than fear him.  The Creature is the outsider, the ‘different’, hated for his appearance – his only recourse is to take revenge on the society that shuns him, and the creator who abandoned him.

James David Knapp is excellent as Victor Frankenstein, uptight and twitchy – he becomes unravelled as though he is the one held together by stitches.  His scenes with Cowie are electrifying – even if you know the story.  The tension is palpable.

The two main players are supported by a tight ensemble who come and go in all the other roles.  Charlotte Ireland makes an appealing Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée; there is some amusing character work from Tom Silverton and Richard Constable as a pair of Scottish graverobbers; Paul Harris’s kindly blind man, Bethany Wyde’s cheeky Clarice, Charlotte Upton’s sweet William, Rosa Pardo Roques’s earnest Agatha, Sam Wilson’s devoted Felix – all populate the story with the best and worst of humanity.  It is very telling how they are all united, even the decent, hard-working ones, in their rejection of the Other.

Thurston delivers the macabre humour, the shocks and the tension but above all the thought-provoking aspects of Shelley’s novel: the nature of Man, the pursuit of scientific discovery, the genie out of the bottle…

There are puppets, rabbits and dogs and so on (designed and made like children’s toys, by Jenny Thurston and Richard Constable), which observe much of the action, reminders of Nature, but echoing Victor’s unnatural creation.  They are for the most part highly effective, but I think the birds could be handled with a little more finesse.  Faye Rowse’s economical set serves the locations well – a table piled with sacks suggests a snowy mountain range, and illustrative projections remind us we are watching a story from a book.  The costumes, as ever at the Crescent, are superb.  Pat Brown and Vera Dean capture the period and, as the Creature’s intellect develops, the clothes he wears change too, civilising him – on the outside, at least.

Chris Briggs’s lighting creates atmosphere, patches of enlightenment in the murk, and the inclusion of snatches of music by Messiaen underscores the action with discord.  It all adds up to a Gothic setting for Shelley’s fable, framed by the device of a group of nervous lantern-bearers opening the book and, at the end, slamming it shut.  We must be careful where we shine our light, the production says.

All in all, this is unquestionably the most powerful production I have yet to see at the Crescent, superbly presented and performed, thrilling, moving, funny and heart-rending.  Andrew Cowie’s magnificent Creature will haunt me for a long time to come.

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Play For Today

FOR SERVICES RENDERED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th September, 2015

 

Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play didn’t go down well when it was first produced. It was too close to home for post-war Britain, where people preferred to see theatre as an escape from the daily struggles of a broken nation. The play recognises the prevailing trend: some of the characters troupe on in tennis whites, carrying racquets, but though amusing, this is far from one of those silly, lightweight comedies.

The show begins with Sydney, a veteran, blinded during the Great War, in a startling depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Tom Inman gives an astonishing performance and director Rod Natkiel bombards us with everything the Ron Barber Studio has to offer in terms of lighting and sound. It’s quite an opening.

It’s a conventional three-act play set in the family room of the Ardsleys. Rather than a plotline, Maugham gives us several. It’s a bit like watching an omnibus edition of a soap opera you’ve never seen before. Each character has his or her own problem – giving the more than competent company plenty to sink their teeth into.

John Sugden is utterly convincing as patriarch Leonard, clinging to a stiff-upper-lip philosophy despite his family (and by extension, society as a whole) unravelling under his very nose. Jo Thackwray is his Mrs, Charlotte, a bit less stiff in the upper lip department, but confused by the new ‘rules’ of society. “I’m pre-War,” she says, as (SPOILER) she is confronted with news of a terrible illness. These two are strong presences in all their scenes and they are ably supported by younger members of the cast – in particular Liz Plumpton, who is rather good as Eva, losing her marbles in scenes of table-flipping and chess-piece losing. Oli Davis, as troubled former sailor Collie, walks a tightrope between repressed emotion and emotional outburst in perhaps the tensest performance of the lot, while Andrea Stephenson’s stoical but brittle Ethel also makes an impression. Ethel is married, regrettably, to boorish drunkard and struggling farmer Howard (John O’Neill in a turn that is part-comic, part-monstrous), and Eleanor O’Brien makes her mark as the trouser-wearing young woman Lois, embarking on scandalous behaviour.  John Whittell brings assurance and authority to his role as Doctor Prentice.  Ivor Williams is good value as ageing philanderer and Paul Daniels look-a-like, Wilfred, while Pat Dixon threatens to steal every scene she’s in as his overbearing wife, Gwen.

The cast handles the sometimes outdated dialogue with an easy naturalism, hitting the punchlines and the dramatic punches equally successfully. Period is economically evoked by a few items of furniture and objets, and credit must go to Pat Brown and Vera Dean for their work with wardrobe, giving each character a range of outfits to suit both era and personality.

Of course, the play was not written as a period piece but has become one. Then it was commenting on contemporary issues – matters that are still very much with us today. The lot of ex-servicemen struggling to make a living, notions of assisted suicide, class distinctions, and the terrible waste of every war, and the jingoism that goes along with it. In the most impassioned speech of the piece, Sydney says people were “dupes of the incompetent fools who run the nations”. Bad news, Sydney: they’re still in charge.

It’s an excellent production, an easy watch, its issues accessible and its drama enjoyable, with some striking moments along the way.

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Oldie But Goodie

THE GRANDMOTHER

Ron Barber Studio, Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st July, 2015

 

It starts in a bathroom where Dad (Simon Chinery) is in the tub, trying to relax. Mum (Sue Elise) barges in and accuses him of hiding from his mother who is visiting the family for Christmas. Which is exactly what he is doing. In comes their son (Nicholas Tuck – who also writes and directs) with problems of his own. And so the scene is set for what you think is going to be a play about being saddled with elderly relatives, or dementia, or something like that. But there is a twist: Granny’s presence is merely the catalyst for forcing the other family members into a tight spot where other problems come to the surface.

It’s a very funny script – taking a situation you can see on soap operas any day of the week and seeing it through a fresh pair of eyes. The humour is savage at times, tinged with bitterness and sarcasm as the members of the family tear verbal chunks from each other. Moments of drama, too, are handled well.

As the Father, Simon Chinery takes a couple of minutes to warm up (must be cold in that tub) and Mother, Sue Elise, loses a little energy a couple of times, but when they are in full flight, they are excellent, supported by a strong script from young writer Nicholas Tuck – who himself gives an impassioned performance as the troubled Son.

We first meet the titular Grandmother in a monologue between the two acts. Wanda Raven is spot on in her rambling, halting speech – we see exactly what the family have been complaining about. She is as tedious as we have been led to believe and very, very funny. Her comic timing cannot be faulted in the second scene at the Christmas dinner table twelve months on. Here we meet Marie the Girlfriend, in a performance of simmering tension from Emma Doran.   The dramatic tension boils over, splitting the family, and the comic barbs keep coming.

It’s an old-fashioned play but comes across as a refreshing take on well-worn situations. Clearly, Nicholas Tuck is a talented young man, who knows how to structure scenes, motivate characters and carry off a well-placed one-liner. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

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