Tag Archives: Simon King

All binge, no cringe

BLACKADDER II

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th June, 2021

My heart sinks a little when I hear theatre companies are tackling this kind of thing, more so when it’s a well-beloved series like Blackadder II – Will the production be no more than a patchy impression of the show, where the cast, no matter how good they may be, cannot possibly hope to emulate the iconic performances of the television stars?  And why should I drag myself out when the show is easily watchable at home?  (I’m not a fan of tribute bands, either!)

That being said, director Kevin Middleton, aware of the pitfalls, tackles the material with aplomb, making full use of a range of projected backcloths (cod-Elizabethan etchings designed by Colin Judges) thereby enabling almost instantaneous scene-changes (with a giddying effect) allowing the action to flow much as it would on the telly.  Middleton also restricts the set to furniture that can be wheeled on and off in seconds, and so there is an old-school, Shakespearean aspect to the staging, married with modern-day technology.  It gives the production its own style, and it works extremely well.

The task for the actors is meeting audience expectations and imbuing the well-loved characters with something of themselves.  As Edmund Blackadder, the most sarcastic man in Elizabethan England, Shaun Hartman channels rather than impersonates Rowan Atkinson, in a role that was tailor-made for Atkinson, and is note-perfect in his sardonic intonation, skilfully managing the verbal fireworks and dazzling hyperbole of his lines.  Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s script shines through, reminding us this is their best work, collectively and as solo writers.

Hartman is supported by a talented cast, notably a lively Katie Goldhawk as the spoilt and girlish Queen Elizabeth whose cruelty is never far beneath the surface.  Mark Shaun Walsh is an undiluted delight as Sir Percy Percy, making the role his own with high-camp imbecility and physical comedy.  The greatest departure from the TV version comes in Brian Wilson’s Lord Melchett, dispensing with the bombast of Stephen Fry’s portrayal in favour of a more understated interpretation.  It works very well, providing contrast with the excesses of the others.  Karen Leadbetter is brain-dead fun as Nursie, also appearing as Edmond’s formidable puritanical aunt – an excellent opportunity to display her range!  Becky Johnson is appealing as Kate/Bob in the show’s best episode, where Shakespearean transvestism drives the plot; and I also enjoyed Simon King’s monstrous Bishop of Bath & Wells and his charade-playing Spanish torturer.  Daniel Parker brings a Brummie edge to his Baldrick, demonstrating flawless comic timing in his reactions, while Paul Forrest’s villainous Prince Ludwig mangles the English language to hilarious effect.  Joe Palmer’s Lord Flashheart starts big and keeps growing, assisted by a ludicrous fright wig—The wigs and beards are hilarious, too.  Coupled with the backdrops, they give the show a cartoonish aspect.  As ever at the Crescent, the costumes (by Rose Snape and Stewart Snape) are superb and production values are high.

Special mention goes to the irrepressible Nick Doran, singing the theme song between episodes, including a bespoke version that starts the show, reminding us to switch off our phones etc.

There are some gloriously funny moments, expertly handled, culminating in a raucous rendition of a bawdy song at the end of the third episode.  This is when you realise they’ve pulled it off.  They’ve paid homage to one of the greatest TV shows of all time and made it their own, and it’s wildly entertaining and extremely funny.

Because each of the four episodes recreated here is self-contained, there is nothing in the way of character development and no through storyline.  The sitcom format demands that everything is reset to the status quo.  And so, it’s exactly like binge-watching a series.  After three episodes on the trot, Netflix asks if you’re still watching.  By the time we get to the fourth one, I have had my fill.  Consistently enjoyable though this production is, you can have too much of a good thing.

****

Blackadder (Shaun Hartman), Percy (Mark Shaun Walsh), and Baldrick (Daniel Parker) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

Nazi Piece of Work

COLLABORATION

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019

 

Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance.  Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist.  All goes well.  The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.

The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.

Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast.  Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war).  Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault.   At other times, the action is a little stiff.  When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging.  I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.

There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph.  As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.

Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception.  Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.

The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold.  It never ends well.

A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.

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Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Fast Love

ROMEO AND JULIET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018

 

Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst.  The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot.  Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace.  Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families.  A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.

The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well.  When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set.  The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…

Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline.  His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest.  Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices.  She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.

Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer.  It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part.  Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text.  It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle.  Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.

Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone.  Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.

Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them.  As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.

The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design.  In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama.  The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!

Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience.  At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead.  Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger.  I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally.  This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.

Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.

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Tangled web! Romeo (Samuel Wilson) and Juliet (Charlotte Upton) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 


Love Bites

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th January, 2018

 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King.  The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further.  Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.

Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence.  In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production.  A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.

There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.

Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him.  The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’.  Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow.  Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan.  Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.

But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body.  Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun.  Her violence is as credible as it is merciless.  Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence.  It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience.  It’s also the sweetest horror story going.

A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.

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Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Party Piece

THE GREAT GATSBY

Crescent Theatre, Saturday 10th September, 2017

 

The Crescent’s new season gets off to a fine start with this adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel.  Stephen Sharkey’s script retains the timbre of Fitzgerald’s prose, mainly in the mouth of our narrator Nick Carraway (John O’Neill).  Through Nick’s eyes we visit the partygoing rich of the Twenties, a carefree elite who drink and dance every night away.  By sheer coincidence, Nick happens to be renting a property next to the massive mansion of the titular Gatsby, who happens to be an old flame of Nick’s cousin, Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan… Gatsby urges Nick to organise a reunion, an event from which tragedy springs.

John O’Neill is a serviceable narrator, handling Fitzgerald’s heady words in a matter-of-fact way.  As Gatsby, Guy Houston exudes a suave and easy charm; along with Nick we come to understand the man and his motivations.  Colette Nooney’s Daisy is coolly laconic while Laura Poyner’s fiery Myrtle injects passion into the piece.  Mark Fletcher’s Tom Buchanan has an air of Clark Gable to him.  Kimberley Bradshaw seems perfectly at home in the era as famous golfer, Jordan Baker.  All the main players are in fine form, in fact, with strong support from character parts: Jason Timmington’s Treves, for example, and Simon King’s Wolfsheim, who brings a flavour New York into this rarefied atmosphere.  James Browning’s George Wilson is a fine characterisation but he needs to lift his head more so we see more than the top of his flat cap.

The play saves all its action until the end as the consequences of the characters’ behaviour burst to the fore.  We are amused by these people but kept at a distance from them – in the end, we have only warmed to Nick and Gatsby – and so Fitzgerald’s critique of the in-crowd sinks in its teeth.  This is the empty hedonism of Made In Chelsea with dramatic bite.

As ever, production values at the Crescent are strong.  The art deco arches that represent Gatsby’s gaff, with their artificially organic elegance, evoke the period as soon as we see them.  Keith Harris’s set flows swiftly from each location to the next – there are a lot of scenes and changes are enhanced by Jake Hotchin and Tom Buckby’s lighting design, especially the beautiful work on the cyclorama.   Stewart Snape’s costumes fulfil our expectations of the era – Gatsby’s outfits are particularly snazzy – and Jo Thackwray’s choreography gives us all the Charleston moves and black bottoms we could wish for.  If I had to nit-pick, I would say at times the music playback needs to be a touch louder, and a crucial sound effect – a car crash – needs to have more impact.  It is the turning point of the story, after all.

Director Colin Judges keeps a steady pace, allowing moments of humour to surface like bubbles in champagne.  Stylish and elegant, this is a great Gatsby.

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John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


The Truth Comes Out

THE LARAMIE PROJECT

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th May, 2017

 

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 sent shockwaves across the USA and around the world.  A tipping point had been reached, it seemed and, although it took a while, law was passed to protect minorities from hate crime.

At the time, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming several times, interviewing local people of a variety of walks of life and with a range of views on the murder.  Those interviews form the basis for this play, using verbatim the words of the Laramie people.

Almost twenty years later, this new production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio demonstrates the piece has lost none of its power and, sadly, none of its relevance.  It’s a play about its own making.  Actors play actors from the theatre company along with the people they interview and the whole piece is structured around the murder – before, during and its aftermath, covering a year in the life of Laramie.  It’s a compelling piece of work and this production certainly does it great service.

The cast of ten populates the space with police, neighbours, family members, the clergy – over 60 roles, all aided by the costume designs of Pat Brown and Vera Dean: we see who these people are in an instant, before they speak for themselves.  I cannot assign roles to particular actors (I’m sure to get it wrong) so, as the programme does, I shall just list them: Kassie Duke, Juliet Ibberson, Simon King, Sean McCarthy, Judy O’Dowd, Liz Plumpton, Ben Pountney, Phil Rea, John Whittell, and Sam Wilson.  They all rise to the challenges of the piece, delivering varied and rounded characterisations as well as the emotional punch of key scenes.

There is an especially chilling and repulsive portrayal of hate-mongering, Bible-brandisher Fred Phelps – all the more sickening because you realise bastards like him are still around, spouting their bilious nonsense and disrupting funerals of gay people.

Rod Natkiel does a remarkable job of directing the action on his minimalist stage – each monologue and exchange is delivered differently.  There is nothing samey or static in the presentation; we have a lot to listen to but he keeps us engaged and, even though we know the outcome, gripped as the story is pieced together.  Natkiel also uses specially shot video clips – news bulletins, mainly – which add to the verity of this docudrama, as well as upping the Americana factor.  I have to say the accents are uniformly strong.

A play about hatred but there are also the more positive aspects of humanity in evidence: humour, warmth and compassion, to name but three.

As societies across the world, from the USA to Chechnya take backwards strides in their treatment of gay people, the grisly death of Matthew Shepard is back to haunt us and ask us what kind of society do we want to be.

Compelling and a shining example of the high quality of work produced at the Crescent.

laramie