The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018
Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.
Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche. Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene. The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography. There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling. Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life. The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.
She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage). Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years. This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed. Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.
There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production. Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another. Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.
Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller. Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.
Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did. Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag. The show is relentlessly charming. Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline. The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.
For me, the star is the show’s creator. Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish. The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim. It’s magnificent.
An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.
Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)
Leave a comment | tags: Amanda Hadingue, Aretha Ayeh, Barbara Windsor, Clare Burt, Dawn Hope, Emily Johnstone, Erica Whyman, Gregg Barnett, Joan Littlewood, Miss Littlewood, RSC, Sam Kenyon, Sandy Foster, Solomon Israel, Sophia Nomvete, Stratford upon Avon, Tam Williams, The Swan Theatre, Tom Piper | posted in Review, Theatre Review
THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018
Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies. The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her. She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages. Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont. Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.
There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries. This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before. The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.
Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going. At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat. It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested. Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.
Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.
That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Leave a comment | tags: Colin Richmond, Emily Johnstone, Grant Olding, Jo Davies, Leo Wringer, Mary Pix, RSC, Sadie Shimmin, Sandy Foster, Solomon Israel, Sophie Stanton, Stratford upon Avon, Swan Theatre, Tam Williams, The Beau Defeated, The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, Will Brown | posted in Theatre Review
THE SHOEMAKER’S HOLIDAY
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 23rd December, 2014
Thomas Dekker’s 1599 comedy makes for an entertaining alternative to traditional festive fare. A prologue, staged with wit and brio, states that the play is ‘naught but mirth’ and right from the off, you know you’re in for a good time.
However, there is more to the piece than funny caricature and satirical humour. There are also poignant, touching moments and high drama. Poor Jane (Hedydd Dylan) seems to be a role comprised almost entirely of tears and heartbreak. Husband Ralph is sent off to war and is later presumed dead. He (Daniel Boyd) returns, crippled and disfigured, in time to prevent Jane’s marriage to slimeball Hammon (Jamie Wilkes).
At the heart of the show is a sparkling performance from David Troughton, exuding goodwill and bonhomie as shoemaker and social climber Simon Eyre, accompanied by his grotesque wife Margery – an hilarious turn from Vivien Parry, evoking the best of Julie Walters.
Joel MacCormack is the spirited and likeable cheeky chappie, Firk, bringing energy to his scenes. Josh O’Connor’s young Lacy is also good fun, disguised as a Dutchman, in a credible comic performance, light years away from the mock-the-foreigner excesses of Allo Allo. I loved the quiet strength of Michael Hodgson’s Hodge – the decency of the working man wrapped up in some neat touches of physical comedy.
There is a wealth of bawdy humour – even a flatulent character revelling in the name of Cicely Bumtrinket – but even in their vulgarity, we are drawn to the characters’ humanity. The play celebrates the lower orders rather than holding them up for ridicule and censure
Sandy Foster’s Sybil is a force to be reckoned with – indeed this could be said of the entire company. The stage is alive with energy. Young boy William Watson looks perfectly at home with his elders – I doubt anyone gets better performances from child actors than the RSC.
Director Phillip Breen handles the subplots with the dexterity of a master chef keeping several pots on the boil at once and I think the clarity of the production and its language owes a great deal to designer Max Jones. Somehow the period costumes (all of them fabulous) convey the world of the play and assist our understanding in a way you don’t get when productions are translated to anachronistic times and other places.
Jack Holden’s King is more than a deus ex machina who shows up to bring resolution. Holden makes a striking impression in a fully realised characterisation that is both funny and elegant, and he barely has to flex a regal muscle to remind us who is in charge in a chilling display of power.
Enjoy your days off and celebrate while you can, the play says. There are forces out there that govern the way the lives of ordinary people turn out in order to further their own interests.
Success at ‘last’ – David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)
Leave a comment | tags: comedy, Daniel Boyd, David Troughton, Hedydd Dylan, Jack Holden, Jamie Wilkes, Joel MacCormack, Josh O'Connor, Max Jones, Michael Hodgson, Phillip Breen, review, RSC, Sandy Foster, Stratford upon Avon, The Shoemaker's Holiday, The Swan, Thomas Dekker, Vivien Parry, William Watson | posted in Theatre Review