Tag Archives: Roxana Silbert

Having a Nose Around

EDMOND DE BERGERAC

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2019

 

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the greatest historical romance dramas ever written.  Most people will be familiar with the title character and his big nose and perhaps also with the idea of him providing words of love for another man to woo the woman they both love.  This play by Alexis Michalik (in an ebullient translation by Jeremy Sams) tells the story of that play’s making.  We follow the early career of poet Edmond Rostand, his flops and his writer’s block, until he finds inspiration in the form of Jeanne, who happens to be the girlfriend of Rostand’s mate Leo.  To add to the triangle, Rostand is married…

Michalik builds in elements that directly influence Rostand in the creation of his masterpiece, so the action closely mirrors the great work that is to come.  Which is fun – we’re not here for historical accuracy!

As the writer-under-pressure, the delicately-featured Freddie Fox is excellent.  Caught up in a whirl of romantic intrigue and theatrical creativity, Fox dashes around, getting more and more frazzled and then, when inspiration strikes, he bubbles over with enthusiasm.  Of course, there is more to the writing process than this, but we’re not here for verisimilitude!

Fox is supported by a fine ensemble, with featured roles from Robin Morrissey as fit but dim Leo (the model for Cyrano’s Christian) and Gina Bramhill as Rostand’s muse Jeanne (the model for Cyrano’s Roxanne).   Jodie Lawrence is a lot of fun as a fruity-voiced Sarah Bernhardt, among other roles, while Henry Goodman is magnificent as celebrated actor Coquelin (the first to play the role of Cyrano).  Harry Kershaw is hilarious as Coquelin’s son – it takes skill to act badly! And Chizzy Akudolu swans around like a true diva as Maria, slated to be the first Roxanne.  Delroy Atkinson’s Monsieur Honore is immensely appealing – it is he who is the model for Cyrano – and I enjoy Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor as a pair of unsavoury backers.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is a theatre within the theatre, a stage upon the stage.  This is a theatrical piece about a piece of theatre.  Director Roxana Silbert heightens the farcical aspects of the situation as well as the more dramatic moments, delivering a highly effective piece of storytelling, and that is what we’re here for!  While this is a lot of fun and is excellently presented, it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Rostand’s great work, but then, it doesn’t have to.

We might leave knowing more about Rostand than when we came in, but above all this amusing night at the theatre makes us want to see Cyrano again.

Freddie Fox (Edmond) in Edmond de Bergerac_credit Graeme Braidwood

Fantastic Mr Freddie Fox and Delroy Atkinson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Body of Evidence

Amédée

Birmingham REP, Tuesday 28th February, 2017

 

Eugene Ionesco’s absurd play from 1954 gets an update in this adaptation from Sean Foley, with topical references like ‘zero hours’ and ‘will of the people’.  It remains, however, curiously old-fashioned.  Like an extended skit, it brings us the story of Amédée, a failed playwright, and his wife Madeleine, a switchboard operator.  It emerges that these two are housebound, imprisoned by a secret they have shared for fifteen years.  The nature of that secret is revealed to us in glimpses: there is a dead body in their bedroom and it is growing, taking over the tiny flat.  The corpse brings with it an infestation of mushrooms and, of course, puts increasing strain on the marriage.  Nothing is fully explained; it is left to us to piece together what sense we can from the crumbs thrown our way.  What is clear is the toll the situation is taking on the couple – the stresses of being full-time carers, the guilt of a murder concealed…

I warm to Trevor Fox as the self-centred, ‘suffering’ writer, while Josie Lawrence’s long-suffering Madeleine makes an impact from the off.  The pair fire barbs at each other and sometimes expose their suffering.  Absurd though the situation may be, the emotions expressed – and the black humour – come across as authentic.  There are hints of a dark world outside their window, adding to the claustrophobia.

Director Roxana Silbert cranks up the pace, adding to the comic delivery.  Ti Green’s set shows a kind of ordered clutter – the ever-growing body is as hilarious as the sprouting mushrooms are sinister.  Dyfan Jones’s sound design complements the weirder moments and Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting washes the action in dramatic hues.

In the final scene, with the secret/corpse out in the open, Amédée finds a great weight has been lifted, and the anchor that has tethered him to his wife and to mundane matters is no longer keeping him down…

Funny, to be sure, intriguing – in places – the production reminds us how much British comedy owes to European influences.  Ionesco was Romanian but his work shows the sparks that lit the flame for the likes of Monty Python, Reeves and Mortimer, and The League of Gentlemen.

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Up against it: Josie Lawrence and Trevor Fox (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


Gogol box

THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 23rd March, 2016

 

Nikolai Gogol’s comedy, a satire of Czarist Russia, is brought to exuberant life in this sparkling adaptation by David Harrower.  Director Roxana Silbert has gathered the most inclusive company I’ve ever seen: disabled and non-disabled actors, sign language users and interpreters, all appear side-by-side in this fast-moving, frenetic and farcical story of misunderstanding and mistaken identity.   Everyone is in costume and a character in their own right, rather than segregating interpreters in a spotlight at the side of the stage.  In fact, the expressive nature of signing lends itself very well to the heightened, exaggerated style of comic performance needed to keep Gogol’s balloons in the air.

Much of the show’s comic energy comes from one man.  David Carlyle is the manic Mayor of the little town expecting a visit from a government official.  Carlyle must be knackered by the interval – he’s certainly exhausting to watch and very, very funny.  His wife and daughter (Kiruna Stamell and Francesca Mills respectively) match him in terms of larger-than-life characterisations.  Stamell’s pretentious use of French words and phrases is a delight, as is Mills’s immature frustration.  Stephen Collins and Rachel Denning form a funny, Little and Large double act as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky careering around the stage with a flair for physical comedy.  Sophie Stone amuses as the less-than-honest Postmaster and I particularly like Michael Keane’s starving servant Osip, whose master, the conniving opportunist Khlestakov is marvellously portrayed by Robin Morrissey.  Gogol lets us in on the joke from the off, allowing us to see Khlestakov’s cogs turning.  Jean St Clair’s Judge Lyapkin-Tyapkin is elegantly expressive and none-the-less funny – In fact, the entire company is unflagging in its efforts to maintain the show’s fast pace.  The laughs keep coming.

Ti Green’s skeletal set serves as all locations.  Much fun is made with the revolving door and I love the running joke of the lift with its muzak and prerecorded voice.  Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting adds to the humour, with some sharp changes to highlight the characters’ frantic asides.

Years ago I saw a production of this play that fell completely flat.  I am pleased to say this smart and snappy show has exorcised the ghost of that failure.  The playing is broad but detailed – Silbert overlooks nothing in order to wring as many laughs as possible from the situation, the script and her hard-working, talented cast.

The play exposes human foibles in all ranks of society.  Man is essentially corruptible, Gogol points out, putting us all in the same box.  Surely it can’t be relevant to us today.  Can it?  I rather believe it is.

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Master and servant: Robin Morrissey and Michael Keane (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Anita and Me & I

ANITA AND ME

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th October 2015

 

Meera Syal’s partially autobiographical novel comes to the stage via this lively adaptation by Tanika Gupta. It’s the 1970s and Meena is growing up in a Black Country village; she’s already fed up with the demands of family life and so the chance to strike up a friendship with local ne’er-do-well Anita proves irresistible. There is more than a hint of Blood Brothers to it.

Bob Bailey’s set of terraced houses and discarded tyres is the backdrop for this working-class community, a tight-knit group who by and large have welcomed Meena’s family. When a new motorway threatens to run through the heart of the village, tensions break out. It doesn’t help that the official from the council is Punjabi. Racism, depicted early on as the comedy of ignorance, turns nasty and Meena at last sees Anita for what she is.

Mandeep Dhillon shines as Meena, carrying the show as the moody but imaginative teen, sulking and stamping around. Dhillon makes Meena endearing nevertheless.   Her rendition of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at a family gathering is a hoot. Jalleh Alizadeh is the pretty but ugly Anita, endowing her with enough of a spark that we hope Meena will help lift her out of her background.

Janice Connolly lends strong support as neighbour Mrs Worrall, and Amy Booth-Steel is twice the value as Anita’s grotesque mother and do-gooding shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod, whose true colours are revealed late in the piece. Joseph Drake convinces as tearaway Sam, disaffected by lack of opportunity, to the point of violence and Nazi salutes.   Ameet Chana and Ayesha Dharker are excellent as Meena’s parents – some characters are more rounded than others, which is fine, because we are seeing everything through Meena’s eyes.

There is much to enjoy – the 1970s references, the clash of cultures and some very funny lines. I can’t quite swallow how beautiful they keep saying the village is, given the Coronation Street stylings of the set, but this is more than a period piece, alas. The protests of the locals against the new motorway that is ‘inevitable’ have echoes in the ill-advised HS2 railway, working class youth are still disaffected, and the rise of racist nastiness is with us all over again – you can bet Mrs Ormerod is a UKIP voter these days.  The production’s fusion of cultures gives a positive message about Britain – a Bhangra rendition of My Old Man’s A Dustman goes down a treat.

Director Roxana Silbert delivers on the fun, the tension and above all the heart of this story of friendship and family. The whole cast exudes energy and fun but the evening belongs to Mandeep Dhillon in a star turn as a girl forced to grow up.

Bostin.

Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Mandeep Dhillon and Jalleh Alizadeh (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Royal Pain

THE KING’S SPEECH

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th February, 2015

 

David Seidler’s play became more widely known – globally, in fact – through its Oscar-winning film adaptation. Add to that the ever-popular Jason Donovan in the cast and you have quite a seat-filler on your hands.

It’s almost a history play, in the Shakespearean sense. We see the trials and tribulations of those who rule. Functioning as a chorus, Winston Churchill (Nicholas Blane) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Martin Lang) keep the historical details and no small amount of Royal gossip coming.

But at its heart, it is the story of the friendship between two men who are, almost literally, poles apart. Raymond Coulthard, who has always looked regal, is stammering Bertie, driven to seek the assistance of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Jason Donovan). The best scenes are when these two are alone together, negotiating through their prickly relationship both a friendship and a means to save the credibility of a monarchy under pressure.

Coulthard is sublime – his is the more challenging role – and, regardless of one’s views of the monarchy as an institution – you can’t help rooting for him. Donovan inhabits his role as the bluff Australian, who doesn’t give a stuff for protocol and convention, and it’s a revelatory performance. He seems totally at home and natural, in contrast with Coulthard’s repressed and vulnerable Prince. Logue’s auditions for Shakespearean roles are terrible – but Donovan keeps their mannered delivery within the realms of believability.

Both men are supported by their wives. Claire Lams is cool-headed but caring as Bertie’s Mrs (mother to our present Queen), withering in her putdowns. The splendid Katy Stephens is Logue’s Sheila, Myrtle, adding more Aussie drawl among the cut-glass accents. Bertie’s brother David, who becomes Edward VIII, is very much the villain of the piece – not because of his anti-Semitism and his fraternisation with Nazis, but because his affair with an American divorcee threatens to undermine the Establishment. Jamie Hinde plays him as a nasty, hedonistic piece of work. All our sympathies are skewed towards Bertie, the victim of bullying and mockery by David and also their father, George V (William Hoyland).

Tom Piper’s set is all wooden panels – the floorboards radiate in a sunburst, bringing to mind a 1930s wireless – but gradually reveals its secrets and its versatility as the action unfolds. Director Roxana Silbert uses the flexibility of the set to the hilt, keeping the action continuous, with transitions flowing from one scene to the next, like a musical. But it is her handling of the ups and downs, the peaks and troughs of the central relationship of the two men that shows attention to detail and an ear for contrast and an eye for timing.

The show is a triumph for all concerned. Even if you’ve seen the film, I defy you not to be royally entertained throughout and then, right at the end, moved by the simple declaration of gratitude and friendship, and a breach of protocol on Bertie’s part: he removes his glove to shake Logue by the hand. In those closing seconds, we see how far he has come. Logue has not only taught him how to speak in public, he has turned a Prince into a man.

Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)


Men, Mice, Dogs and Rabbits…

OF MICE AND MEN

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th October, 2014

The REP’s resident artistic director Roxana Silbert delivers a knockout production of John Steinbeck’s classic tragedy of lowly men. She has assembled a strong ensemble of players and draws from them powerful performances in a somewhat lyrical, naturalistic way in a stylised setting. This mixture of emotional truth and having the mechanics of the theatre in view all along works tremendously well, thanks to Liz Ascroft’s design and Simon Bond’s lighting but mainly, of course, due to the stellar company of actors.

Michael Legge is long-suffering, neurotic George, travelling across Depression-riddled America with companion Lennie, who is more of a hindrance than a help. As Lennie spoils things for George every step of the way and George displays his deep-rooted annoyance, you wonder why he stays with the big galoot. But as we meet other characters and their loneliness is painfully laid bare, we realise it is loneliness that binds George to liability Lennie. Even the nearest town is called Soledad (loneliness in Spanish).

Norman Bowman is striking as macho but warm-hearted Slim, while Ciaran O’Brien makes hothead Curley volatile and dangerous, a victim of small-man syndrome if ever there was one. James Hayes is heartbreaking as old timer Candy, evoking strong emotions as he carries a bit of old sack, fashioned to represent his elderly dog, and Dave Fishley brings both dignity and anguish to crippled Crooks. Lorna Nickson-Brown is trouble on legs as Curley’s otherwise unnamed wife (apart from ‘tart’) – They all come across as very real, although they are cogs that Steinbeck winds ever tighter so the tragic climax becomes inexorable and inevitable. The American Dream is unattainable, he says, but it’s what keeps people going in times of extreme hardship. One wonders what the British equivalent is, during this period of austerity. Vera Lynn, perhaps, promising blue birds over Dover’s white cliffs…?

The central relationship between George and Lennie is the keystone of the entire piece. Silbert brings their contrasting aspects into sharp focus. Michael Legge is superb as crotchety George, but Benjamin Dilloway’s Lennie is an outstanding piece of character work. His Lennie amuses, touches and frightens us, all within a range of seconds, and back again.  He is a not-so gentle giant who should not be allowed in a petting zoo.

Even if you know the story, this production cranks up the tension, making the brief flashes of humour and the briefer glimpses of hope of a better life all the more poignant. Intense, gripping and devastating, this Of Mice And Men resonates with humanity unloved and the tragedy of unrealisable dreams.

Rabbit rabbit rabbit.  Michael Legge and Benjamin Dilloway Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Rabbit rabbit rabbit. Michael Legge and Benjamin Dilloway
Photo: Ellie Kurtz


Relative Values

KHANDAN – family

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Tuesday 27th May, 2014

 

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play is set in the home of an Indian family in Birmingham.  At the heart and head of the family, formidable matriarch Jeeto (Sudha Bhuchar) clings to a dream of going ‘home’ to a vista of green fields, viewed from the ancestral verandah.  To this end she pushes son Pal (Rez Kempton) to keep the family shop established by her late husband open on Christmas Day, but Pal has other ideas.  He wants to sell the shop and set up his own business, a care home for elderly Asians in a refurbished pub.  Pal’s wife Liz (Lauren Crace) has been assimilated into the family and is more than happy to adopt the traditional role of the daughter-in-law as live-in domestic help, while Pal’s spirited sister Cookie (Zita Sattar) regrets having married and raised children, as she was expected to.  When cousin Reema arrives from India with her own views of independence and fending for herself, the family tensions that have been simmering like the ever-present pan of ‘chai’ boil over.

It’s an involving play, keeping on the right side of soap opera and melodrama, acted and presented naturalistically.  Director Roxana Silbert handles the events that put strain on family ties by keeping things simple and straightforward, allowing the characters to spark off each other.  The script is very much a conventional one and does not need gimmicks or flashy transitions to dress it up.

Jamie Varton’s set has the audience as three of the walls of the house, giving an intimate setting complete with running tap water and a working gas hob, grounding the play in the realness of its subject matter.

The cast is excellent with Bhuchar and Sattar standing out as mother and daughter with contrasting temperaments.  Kempton and Crace also do well in their scenes of marital strife with the latter especially touching as the white girl who left her own family behind for love.  Neil D’Souza is good fun as Cookie’s hapless husband, Major, ostensibly a bit of a prat until Pal’s plans go awry, and Preeya Kaludas impresses with her portrayal of Reema’s decline from idealism to destitution.

The spectre (or should that be ‘spirit’?) of alcohol looms large in the family’s past and present, and the notion of Pal trying to establish an Asian care home in an old English pub symbolises the difficulties of trying to graft two cultures together to make something new…

There are some very funny lines, many of which come from salon owner Cookie who is not opening on New Year’s Day because ‘ you can’t do a Brazilian with a hangover.’  There is also a lot of heart and no shortage of tension in this story of family dynamics and the clash between ambition and tradition.  You may not understand the odd word or line of Punjabi with which the dialogue is peppered, but you don’t need to.  The universal truths of human relationships speak loud and clear.

Dramatically, Khandan is old-fashioned and sturdy but above all it’s an engaging and satisfying evening’s entertainment.

 

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Mother knows best! Sudha Bhuchar and Rez Kempton (photo: Robert Day)