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Spot On

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017

 

Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year.  Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution.  Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint.  Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.

Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own.  Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness.  Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world.  Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations.  Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.

Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention.  Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her.  Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!

Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood.  Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat.  But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side.  The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.

Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings.   A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.

James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.

All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years.  It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Changing faces and facing changes

MADE UP

The Door, the REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th May, 2016

 

Stan’s Café continues to be one of the most creative and surprising theatre companies – in Birmingham, at least!  Each show is different and, in this respect, their latest offering is no different – if you see what I mean.

Set in Winnebago on a film set, we meet make-up artist Sue (Alexis Tuttle) and upcoming movie star Kate (Emily Holyoake) and follow their relationship by eavesdropping on their conversations.  While they talk, Sue applies make-up to Kate – instead of a mirror, Kate’s face is projected large on the back wall.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch an artist at work – the piece is co-devised by the cast alongside make-up artist Andrew Whiteoak.  Tuttle has evidently been well schooled.  A relationship develops between the two women, the kind of short-lived but intimate relationship that occurs in showbiz, when people come together but only for the duration of a project.  It is also the kind of relationship familiar from trips to the hairdresser, for example.  We tend to open up to people who approach our heads and faces with sharp objects.

Sudden changes in Simon Bond’s lighting signal changes of conversation.  The play keeps us on our toes as Sue and Kate become other people in each other’s lives: Kate takes a phone call from her mother, her agent… Sue speaks to her estranged daughter…  Gradually, a fractured picture emerges, a piecemeal portrait of each woman’s life, and so, while there is no overt plot, we do chart what their lives are like, personally and professionally, beyond the confines of the Winnebago.  The Winnebago itself is delineated by a framework, an illuminated outline that brings to mind the lightbulbs around a dressing-room mirror – a brilliant idea simply and effectively realised by designer Harry Trow.  The lights add glitz and also warmth to proceedings.

Director James Yarker keeps the performances naturalistic, almost down-played in some instances; we are credited with intelligence enough to work out which conversation we are earwigging at any given moment.  This channel-flicking or radio-tuning effect makes the piece disjointed but ultimately enables it to deliver its most poignant moment, when Sue receives an award for her contribution.

Both actors deliver, with Tuttle being the most obviously versatile, although Holyoake’s role is differently impressive, being confined to the chair as she is, having to signal her range of characters from the neck up, her face writ large behind her.  Which says something about the differences between stage and screen acting, I suppose.

The play puts in the spotlight moments that usually happen off-screen.  The faces Sue applies to Kate, the faces Kate is forced to adopt in her private life, when getting papped, for example.  Subtly, rather than overtly, it suggests we should think about the masks we wear and for what reasons.  A bit of a slow-burner, Made Up’s whole is more than the sum of its parts.  What it lacks in direct punch, it delivers in gentle and amusing discourse.

Alexis Tuttle as Sue and Emily Holyoake as Kate in Made Up_c Graeme Braidwood

Movie trailer: Alexis Tuttle and Emily Holyoake in the Winnebago (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Mountains and Molehills

BACK DOWN

The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 2nd March, 2015

 

It’s not every day you get invited to see a play written by a polar bear… Imagine my embarrassment when I realised that Polarbear is the pseudonym of writer Steven Camden! But even so, I’m always keen to see new work from new playwrights.

Camden’s debut piece is a three-hander about three ordinary lads from Smethwick. We spend a weekend in their company on a camping trip to Snowdonia. The trip is a goodbye adventure because one of their number, Luke (Lawrence Walker) is leaving for Leeds University on the following Monday. It’s a one-last good time story, and so a bittersweet vein runs through it.

Ostensibly, Luke is our narrator – although this task is shared almost equally among all three. It’s quick-fire stuff. The writing and the delivery have the brio of a Berkoff, albeit in Brummie accents. The actors bat the story around between them like a ball they’re trying to keep in the air. It’s very funny. Director Tessa Walker keeps that ball bouncing from hand to hand, but at times it does need to slow down just a little. Some clarity is sacrificed on the altar of speed.

Among the bickering and banter, there is a lyrical quality to the writing (again bringing Berkoff to mind) and throughout the boys’ misadventures, encounters and arguments (both heartfelt and petty), we are drawn in, by the characters and by the performers. It’s hard to say who I like more, the fictional creations or the actors bringing them to such entertaining life. Their inevitable parting at the end is poignant without being mawkish. They are to begin the next, as yet, unwritten chapters of their lives. The trio is split, never to be the same again. And that’s very sad – but part of growing up.

Lawrence Walker is very strong as undergraduate Luke, but then so are the other two. Sam Cole’s Tommy and Waleed Akhtar’s Zia come across as rounded characters, and all three actors drop into other characters with skill and ease. Akhtar’s comic timing impresses the most – we can believe Zia’s ambition of becoming a stand-up comedian.

The staging is simple – a red stepladder suggests the tent and a small ramp covered in fake grass is both the car and the Welsh countryside. Simon Bond’s lighting adds atmosphere, picking the actors out in camp firelight, as they embark on a bit of primeval dancing, helping us to paint the scenery described by the characters in our heads.

The play is a portrayal and a celebration of friendship but on another level, beneath the surface, the split of these three (one white, one Asian and one mixed-race) hints at coming divisions in society. As a microcosm for Smethwick, or indeed the UK as a whole, the three friends have rubbed along nicely for years, despite or perhaps because of their differences. It is sobering to think of them going their separate ways and something very special being lost.

Back Down is an exuberant and effective debut. I look forward to Polarbear’s next piece – like a Sealion waiting to be thrown a fish…

Waleed Akhtar (Zia), Sam Cole (Tommy) and Lawrence Walker (Luke) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Waleed Akhtar (Zia), Sam Cole (Tommy) and Lawrence Walker (Luke) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


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