Tag Archives: Sophia Nomvete

Funny Money

BILLIONAIRE BOY The Musical 

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th February, 2019

 

The children’s books of David Walliams have filled the gap left by Roald Dahl.  They are child-centred stories, with outlandish events and grotesque characters – usually the adults, save for one or two sympathetically presented ones.  Billionaire Boy the Musical  fits this mould exactly, telling the story of young Joe Spud, son of toilet-paper innovator Len, one of the richest men in the world.  For all his riches, Joe is unhappy.  He wants friends and so opts to go to the local comprehensive to make some.  It’s not long, of course, before his money gets in the way.

As Joe, Ryan Heenan is an appealing figure, boyish and with a superb singing voice that suits the rock and pop sensibilities of the score.  The songs (by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler, with lyrics by Jon Brittain) are without exception catchy, with witty lyrics and in a range of styles.  Dean Nolan is great as the crass nouveau riche Len but seems to have the most fun as a disgusting dinner lady (imagine Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull let loose in a school kitchen!) Bringing out Len’s paternal side is the mighty Sophia Nomvete as Gwen, the Mum of Joe’s new friend Bob.  Nomvete has remarkable presence, whether she’s narrating, playing Gwen, or a more exaggerated character like the school teacher.

Lem Knights is great fun as Bob, bringing physical humour and also sensitivity to the role, while Eleanor Kane’s Lauren is cute and energetic without being too girly.  Jared Leathwood and Natalie Morgan gurn and growl as school bullies, the Grubbs. (Cast members also play musical instruments, augmenting the upstage band)

Special mention to Avita Jay, doubling as Len’s gold-digging model girlfriend Sapphire Stone and as shopkeeper Raj (a staple of Walliams’s books) working the audience and doing a lot of the frame-breaking.  This is a show that establishes a rapport with the audience without going full-on panto.  We are included in everything and somehow the overt theatricality of the piece draws us in rather than alienating us in a Brechtian fashion.

It’s a funny and engaging production.  Director Luke Sheppard keeps everything lively so when the moments of pathos come, they are all the more touching.  There’s a wealth of talent at work here in a show rich with comedy, infectious tunes and a moral, which is perhaps obvious but is not hammered home.

Working with Nuffield Southampton Theatres, the Belgrade has struck it rich with this vibrant new musical.  I loved every minute.

Ryan Heenan & Lem Knights as Joe & Bob in Billionaire Boy the Musical - credit Manuel Harlan

Golden boys Ryan Heenan as Joe and Lem Knights as Bob (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Oh What a Lovely Show!

MISS LITTLEWOOD

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.

Miss Littlewood production photographs_ 2018 _2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis_253490

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


Rome About

VICE VERSA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017

 

Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.

Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world.  In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites.  First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping.  Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance.  He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.

Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave.  This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth.  Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.

Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and  Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.

Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night.  Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!

There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style.  Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).

Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms.  Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit.  It’s not the plots we come for but the playing.  And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.

Vice Versa

Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)


Narnia Business

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th November, 2015

 

The REP’s Christmas offering this year pulls out all the stops in terms of production values in order to bring C S Lewis’s classic novel to the stage in this adaptation by Adrian Mitchell. It looks and sounds great. Jamie Vartan’s set has layers that strip away: the real world of the Pevensie siblings is rather two-dimensional but once they step through the eponymous wardrobe, they find themselves in the 3D land of Narnia. The snow-laden landscape looks beautiful under Colin Grenfell’s lights, and with original music by Shaun Davey played live under the baton of MD Neil MacDonald, there is much to appreciate. Narnia’s weird inhabitants (some of them are animals, some are anthropomorphic animals, and some are mythical creatures) are brought to life by some expressive and delightful puppets and some inventive costume designs, inspired no doubt by The Lion King. The transitions between the two worlds, where time moves differently, are stylishly done.

And so technically and artistically, the show is very strong.

The casting too is great. Allison McKenzie doubles as the stern housekeeper and the White Witch, self-appointed Queen of Narnia. She struts around melodramatically and the most incredible vocal sounds come out of her in moments of duress. She’s an enjoyable baddie, a despotic diva. Thomas Aldridge and Sophia Nomvete bring humour (and tons of exposition) as Mr and Mrs Beaver, while Jo Servi is a likeable Mr Tumnus the faun.

The four children are led by handsome Michael Lanni as eldest brother Peter, striving to be grown-up but still childlike at times. Leonie Elliott is solid as sensible Susan, James Thackeray is a suitably surly and self-serving Edmund, and Emilie Fleming brings out the naivety and innocence of youngest sister Lucy. It’s never easy to have adults playing children alongside other adults, but these four pull it off rather credibly.

My problem is with the material. C S Lewis’s heavy-handed allegory has never sat well with me, and Aslan the lion (an impressive, beautifully articulated, three-man puppet that reminds me of War Horse) is unbearably pompous.

Narnia is full of contradictions. They have tea and toast but don’t know what a wardrobe or a spare room are. How they source their Turkish delight is another mystery. But these are quibbles compared to the main plot itself. The children are helped by the Beavers, a funny, friendly couple who turn out to be religious nutters. How quickly the kids are indoctrinated into their cult of Aslan! And then Father Christmas himself rocks up and arms them with weapons for their holy war against the oppressor, the White Witch. The sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan – the most blatant part of the allegory – should be the most powerful part of the story, but by then I’m past caring. It’s all too po-faced and self-important to engage me. Ah, says the Witch, there’s some deep magic rules that mean I can do this. Oh, says Aslan, what she doesn’t know is there’s some deeper magic rules which mean I can do this. Oh, give over, I think, giving up trying to suspend my disbelief.

The play needs to be a little less earnest and to lighten up a lot. It’s all a bit worthy for my tastes to be involving – A pity because the talent on stage and the creativity behind the scenes demonstrate that excellence is well within reach.

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Closet cases: White Witch Allison McKenzie confronts Aslan with a plot twist. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)