Tag Archives: Ruari Murchison

A Winter’s Tale


The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th January, 2014

A staple of seasonal television fare for decades, Raymond Briggs’s story first appeared as a wordless graphic novel before being animated as a silent film.  This stage adaptation returning to the REP is also wordless and it’s refreshing to see a play performed in dumb show.  Emphasis is on visual storytelling but the importance of Howard Blake’s beautiful score cannot be overlooked, underscoring and describing the action.  This is quality music, performed by hard-working musicians who play continuously throughout the entire show.  Musical director David Quigley and his band are the heartbeat of the production, the mood ring of the action.  You would have a lovely time if you were to close your eyes and just listen.

But if you do that, your eyes will be missing a treat.  Ruari Murchison’s set frames the action in concentric arches, giving the impression of a snow globe, that magical object from childhood – and this show is no less charming than one of those.  The story, for those unaware, is of a young boy who builds a snowman to stand guard in the garden.  Like Frankenstein, the boy finds his creation comes to life and he teaches him about the world around him, in a tour of the house that takes in the television, the electric fire and the freezer.  The snowman reciprocates by taking the boy to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas.

As the boy young Joe Sheridan is a delight: expressive, graceful and apparently tireless.  The Snowman himself is played by Martin Fenton and Edward Stevens (one dances, one flies) but it is with this character that I take a bit of an issue, due to his make-up.  I couldn’t warm to him, you might say.  In the storybook and the animated film, the Snowman’s face is a sphere, simply drawn.  The changing of a couple of lines expresses his changing emotions and thought processes.  On stage however, the face doesn’t change.  The smile is a Joker’s grimace – all expression is done through gesture and body language – and I found him more than a little sinister.  Before he comes to life, he stands stock still while a group of carol singers perform. Like a fluffy Michael Myers from the Halloween films.   When he moves and clowns around, he’s like an albino Ronald McDonald – this is not good if you suffer from coulrophobia.

Putting fear of clowns aside, overall this is a charming experience.  The second half is more dancey, more balletic, with two-legged reindeer and a host of snowmen of varying racial and cultural stereotypes.  There is a spiky Jack Frost (Daniel James Greenaway) in ballet tights and with more than a hint of the Judder Man to him. He is the nominal baddie but poses no real threat in this wintry idyll.

The most surreal moment of the entire piece is when a human-sized pineapple, coconut and banana come dancing out of the fridge.  The banana is sporting sunglasses and I tried to think why.  I imagine it’s to make him look marginally less phallic.

There is humour and enchantment here for all ages, although younger audience members will find it most entrancing.  It’s an excellent way of easing kids towards the medium of ballet and also a lesson in transience and mortality – without being too, ahem, slushy.


Winter wonderland including penguins at the North Pole but who am I to quibble?

Big Babies


Derby Theatre, Tuesday 25th June, 2013

I have nostalgic memories about Dennis Potter’s play, which was originally written for television.  The piece itself, since adapted for the stage, is riddled with nostalgia as a cast of adult actors run around, representing a group of children during the Second World War.   The theatrical device of having grown-ups play children later surfaced in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers but I think Potter did it first.

There are similarities with Lord of the Flies in that there are no adult characters and we see the children interacting on their own terms: their negotiating of relationships and status within the pecking order, their adherence to perceived rules, their sudden cruelties, and their imaginative play.   This is childhood back in the days when children actually went out to play, before they started being ferried everywhere by their parents, before paranoia about paedophiles and so on clouded everyone’s judgment, before the internet isolated everyone at home… I’m not so old I can remember the War but I do remember being allowed out.

Christopher Price is Peter, a bit of a bully and admired by all.  He embodies the physicality of the boy perfectly as well as the psychological processes.  David Nellist’s Willie is more sensitive – when he’s not running around pretending to be an aeroplane.  Joanna Holden’s Audrey has a lust for violence, urging her friend to give the doll a smack to shut it up.  She is a resilient girl, epitomising the shifting loyalties and the power struggles within this societal group. Her friend Angela (Tilly Gaunt) is prettier and more ‘girly’ – the pair form an effective double act. Phil Cheadle’s John challenges Peter’s status and a fight breaks out, a proper childish scuffle, rough and tumble of a skirmish – the boys reach detente soon afterwards.  James Bolt’s Raymond is a stammerer and therefore a target for mockery but it is Adrian Grove’s Donald who is the outsider.  A lonely boy, pining for his missing-in-action father, Donald has a penchant for arson, which leads to tragedy.

The children realise they have to make-believe they had nothing to do with Donald’s demise.  They have to use their play-acting to keep them out of serious trouble.  This is the moment when innocence is lost and adulthood beckons.  Childhood is not sweeties and games, Potter tells us, but rather the training ground for the harshness and deceits that will inevitably come our way.

Ruari Murchison’s set is simple and effective.  A curving slope evokes landscape and a tall stepladder represents the barn.  Coupled with Colin Grenfell’s lighting, the set transports us to locations in an impressionistic way but it is the excellent cast that truly make this production outstanding.  Director Psyche Stott has prepared them superbly well and delivers all the shifts in mood and tone seamlessly.  The energy of childhood and the tensions of their relationships bounce off the stage.  I came away feeling wistful for my own childhood although perhaps it could be said I remain an adult-sized person who behaves like a child.


Yes, Medea

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th November, 2012

Writer and director Mike Bartlett has brought Euripides’s millennia-old play bang up-to-date in this engaging and sometimes startling new version. The setting is a new-build suburb of detached houses in an unspecified British town. Friends and neighbours rally around divorcee Medea on the eve of her ex’s marriage to his dolly bird bride. An acute bout of sniping and low-level bitchery from friend (Amelia Lowdell) and neighbour (Lu Corfield) gives us quite a build-up before the eponymous protagonist herself descends the staircase of the doll’s house set.

Medea is unlike the other women. She is wild of hair and eye, and appears to be on the manic end of a bipolar scale. She exudes bitterness through the medium of sarcasm and we begin to appreciate how deeply the split from her husband has damaged her. That’s the set-up, at least. As the action unfolds, we learn there is more to Medea than a bad case of depression…

The landlord turns up – he’s the dolly bird’s father and he wants Medea out of the house pronto (Christopher Ettridge in a performance that would be at home in a Pinter play) and then the husband (Adam Levy) puts in an appearance, trying to be civil only to be greeted with recriminations (that lead to reminiscences and then to goodbye sex).

It seems that Medea is over the worst. There is a ray of hope with a potential new life in her male neighbour’s Spanish villa. She seems ready to make a clean break and start again…

Except Euripides and the ancient story aren’t going to let that happen. This is the calm before the storm. We may have dispensed with some of the classical theatrical conventions (the chorus, the masks) but Bartlett is wise to demonstrate that some of the old ways are still the most effective. The horror and violence happen off-stage and have to be recounted in dramatic monologues, allowing the audience to create the scenes in their imaginations. Suddenly this middle-class suburban backwater is home to shocking murder, born of vengeance and retribution. We see it in the headlines all too often: divorced parent kills the kids to spite the ex, but the play touches us deeper than this topical relevance. It is about our darkest desires to make those who wrong us pay. We are drawn to Medea because of her humour, her situation and her brittle strength (thanks to an electrifying performance by the marvellous Rachael Stirling). We side with her at first. But as her mind deteriorates we are shown this is not the way to go. The ending, on the rooftop, is cathartic for us as the audience – the tension has been released for us, but Medea is left with the agony of an existential prayer to a god who will not help her.

Ruari Murchison’s design brings to mind A Doll’s House in more ways than one, while remaining faithful to what we know of the way the Greeks presented things, with most of the action taking place in the street in front of the house. Mike Bartlett’s script is snappy and darkly funny. There are interludes of dumb show between scenes (replacing choral odes) underscored with music. We see Medea cooking dinner and plunging her hand into a pot of boiling water; in another, she puts her son to bed and has to return to his room to smash the game console he insists on playing through the night… It’s a stylish and effective way to keep the action flowing and reveal more about Medea’s mental state.

It’s a gripping, entertaining piece that, like Medea’s blade, cuts deep. Older than the hills, it feels entirely contemporary.