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
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 11th September, 2012
One of the things I’ve always liked about The Tempest is that it seems to start in the middle of the story. The titular storm that brings a particular group of people to a particular island is the turning point in their fate, as the wronged and usurped Prospero exerts his influence on the natural world. This means the opening scenes are heavy with back-story, but it’s all about setting things up before the final confrontation and moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Like the bear in The Winter’s Tale, how the opening scene will be staged is always eagerly anticipated. David Farr’s production, part of the RSC’s ‘shipwreck trilogy’ uses the same diagonal planks, the decking of a ship, to fill the performance space (and indeed the same cast) as Twelfth Night and the Comedy of Errors. Prospero’s isle is rather drab and monochromatic. His ‘cell’ is a Perspex box and it is in here that the tempest happens. Sitting at her schooldesk, Miranda (Emily Taafe) listens with growing fascination to the voices of the passengers and crew while behind her, in the Perspex box of her imagination, we see the scene played out within those cramped confines. It’s a neat idea but hardly spectacular.
The Perspex box has things in common with the TARDIS – it can transport characters – and the holodeck on the USS Enterprise – it can show things – but I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Schofield’s game show. Can you beat The Cube?
Prospero (Jonathan Slinger) stalks around in a stained suit and buttoned-up shirt. And so does his spirit slave Ariel (Sandy Grierson in a hypnotic performance) – a kind of Mini Me, who happens to be taller than the original. I liked this identification of slave and master and of course, off comes the jacket at the end when Ariel is awarded his freedom at last. Trouble is, I could neither warm to this Prospero nor marvel at his powers. There is something about Slinger’s characterisation that prevents this. Technically he is an excellent actor but I just wasn’t getting it.
Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wears a suit that is little more than a collection of tatters. A dust cloud arises whenever he moves and he has an enjoyable manner of cursing and swearing. His supposed ‘misshapenness’ is nothing other than his different ethnicity, bringing to the fore the play’s themes of imperialism and colonialism. Caliban is quite right to be aggrieved, in modern eyes, but perhaps to the Jacobean viewer, he would come across as the ungrateful savage. Why is his usurpation acceptable but not Prospero’s? (I’m loving the chance to say ‘usurpation’ and I may well do so again before this review is finished).
Solomon Israel’s Ferdinand brings the first note of physical humour to the play. His arrival is a breath of fresh air and his interactions with Taafe’s Miranda are delightful. When he is enchained by Prospero, the slavery theme is starkly with us – I don’t think this was an unconscious side effect of the ‘colour-blind’ approach to casting.
The always-enjoyable Felix Hayes gives an endearingly dim Trinculo and Bruce Mackinnon’s Stephano gives a drunken satire of the imperialist. Their scenes with Hlehel’s Caliban liven up this production.
The second half has more oomph. At last we see Prospero calling up the special effects department to do his bidding. We get flashes and bangs and dry ice and bubbles. The isle has become a magical place at last. As Prospero realises that forgiveness is his best option, he becomes less the stern plantation owner and nasty schoolteacher and more the sentimental father and big-hearted brother, accessing all parts of his humanity and choosing tbe better ones. Slinger wins you over by the end.
I liked Nicholas Day’s dignified Gonzalo but I don’t see why Sebastian (Kirsty Bushell) was made a female character but referred to as male most of the time. Her Sebastian is sardonic and cool, a counterpoint to the blustering of the rest of the party.
There are some great touches: I liked Caliban carrying firewood like Christ bearing the cross, and the Caravaggioesque freezes when Sebastian and Antonio are about to carry out their violent usurpation (there you go) of Alonso.
Perhaps it’s my fault for wanting more enchantment but, like drying out after a downpour, I came to like this production a lot by the end and found it ultimately moving.
Leave a comment | tags: Amer Hlehel, Bruce Mackinnon, Caliban, David Farr, Emily Taafe, Felix Hayes, Jonathan Slinger, Kirsty Bushell, Miranda, Nicholas Day, Prospero, review, RSC, Sandy Grierson, shipwreck trilogy, Solomon Israel, The Tempest, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review