Tag Archives: Stewart Snape

Let’s Twist Again

OLIVER!

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017

 

There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.

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Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Stockinged Feat

BLUE STOCKINGS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th March, 2017

 

Originally produced at the Globe in 2013, Jessica Swale’s drama charts an academic year in the life of a group of female students at Cambridge’s Girton college.  It’s 1896 and the ladies are there on sufferance, rather than suffrage – their studies will get them nowhere and they are struggling to be awarded the right to graduate.  The fight mirrors the wider campaign for the Vote, and, if the male characters of this piece are anything to go by, they are not a good advertisement for the gender.  The sexism is overt, laid on with a trowel, neatly dividing the cast into heroines and villains.  Where the line is blurred is when female characters such as Miss Welsh decries her Suffragette sisters, and lecturer Mr Banks sides with the ladies.

Colette Nooney is striking as Miss Welsh, imperious and determined, while Jacob Williams’s Banks is a perfect piece of characterisation, from the look to the smallest mannerisms.  They look the part because yet again Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on.

The Crescent’s Youth Theatre has amassed a strong ensemble, led by Jessica Shannon as Tess, in a remarkably nuanced performance that endears the character to us from the off.  She is supported by Neve Ricketts’s well-travelled Carolyn, Jessica Williams’s forthright Celia, and Charlotte Upton’s Maeve – who has a powerful moment when fetched home by her yokel brother Billy (Tate Wellings).  Holly Mourbey is effective as Miss Blake and there is humour from Laila Abbuq as Minnie the maid.  Jessica Potter makes an impression as strict chaperone Miss Bott.

Of the men, a right bunch of pompous prigs, Julian Southall stands out as Edwards – especially when drunk – and Laurenc Kurbiba makes a suave, caddish Ralph.  Villain of the piece is Charlie McCullum-Cartwright as Lloyd – one can easily imagine the Bullingdon Club adopting him as a mascot.  Jack Purcell-Burrows shines as the decent, gentlemanly Will, but on the whole, we wince, cringe and flinch at the abhorrent attitudes on display.  A dying breed?  I would like to think so.

James David Knapp directs with an assured hand, providing crescendos of high drama among the rituals and routines of college life.  The humour is well-timed and, for the most part, the cast handle the heightened language and stuffy accents with aplomb.  Keith Harris’s attractive set of Gothic arches divided by bookshelves serves to represent both the interior and exterior of the college, while Chris Briggs’s lighting adds to the sense of location and the atmosphere.

A challenging play well-presented, this production of Blue Stockings has legs.

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Like The Dickens

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Crescent Theatre,  Birmingham, Friday 9th December, 2016

 

Every year I see at least one show based on the quintessential Christmas story, some of them better than others.  I am happy to report this new adaptation by Alan K Marshall is definitely one of the better ones.  Making judicious use of Dickens’s words, the script captures the spirit of the book, which, at heart, is a ghost story as much as it is social commentary.  The story of the redemption of one man still has the power to move, when handled properly, and, sad to relate, the indictment of society and its treatment of the poor and needy is all too relevant almost 200 years later.

Andrew Lowrie delivers Scrooge’s grumpiness, his sour humour and his fear, as the miser goes on his spiritual journey.  His delirious joy in the final scenes is marvellous – Scrooge has rocketed to the other end of the spectrum.  Other standout performances include Nicholas Brady, a handsome and convivial Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; Chris Collett as Jacob Marley – in one of the show’s scariest moments, he makes a dramatic entrance; and Tony Daniels’s Bob Cratchit grieving over Tiny Tim is heartrending.  Standout scenes include the opportunists selling off Scrooge’s effects, played to perfection by Charwoman (Catherine Kelly – who also gives a lively performance as Fred’s Mrs), Laundress (Judy O’Dowd) and Old Joe (Ivor Williams); and the entrances of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Bob Martin) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are impressive – Production values are high; the team have gone all-out to make the most of their resources to create some ‘wow’ moments.

Kenny Holmes’s lighting design is especially effective, ranging from dim pools of Victorian candlelight to the more dazzling special effects that give the supernatural events such impact.  Dan O’Neill’s set serves as exterior and interior for all the scenes, complemented by fly-ins and roll-ins.  The action is continuous and fluid.  Alan K Marshall, directing his own script, wisely uses action for storytelling as much as Dickens’s words – wordless moments are equally as revealing of character as lines of dialogue.  He handles crowd scenes well and delivers a couple of surprises along the way.   Ghostly animation, projected across the walls, adds to the atmosphere.

Jennet Marshall and Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on, depicting the period as well as a kind of Christmas-card Victoriana, as characters’ colourful outfits contrast with Scrooge’s dour appearance and the general darkness of the age.

Music in the form of classical arrangements of carols works better in some scenes than others.  At times, I find it too grandiose for the on-stage action: the dance at the Fezziwigs’, for example, could do with being lighter and sparer, more folksy.  A moment when a voice offstage sings The First Noel unaccompanied while the grieving Cratchits traipse across the scene is all the more powerful, demonstrating that sometimes less is more.

Overall this is a stately production with some strong ideas that make it a fresh but faithful version of a story that still speaks to us today.  A warning against hardening our hearts against our fellow man and also of the dangers of ignorance could not be more timely in this small-minded, inward-looking, ‘post-truth’ age.

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Bah, humbug! Bob Cratchit (Tony Daniels) and Scrooge (Andrew Lowrie) Photo: Graeme Braidwood

 

 

 


Constant – in parts

THE CONSTANT WIFE

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th October, 2013

 

Somerset Maugham’s 1926 comedy is brought to sparkling life in Jaz Davison’s lively production.  It tells the story of Constance, the titular wife, whose husband has been having a long-standing affair with one of her best friends.  Everyone around Constance strives to hide the ugly truth from her but, it turns out, she has known all along.  Constance is nobody’s fool.  Red faces all around.  But it is what happens next that takes this comedy of manners into Ibsen territory.  More assured than Ibsen’s Nora, Maugham’s Constance not only turns the tables on her unfaithful spouse but carves out a niche for herself, claiming that the economic independence she has earned for herself is the key to opening up the rest of her life.  She is no more bound to her husband by financial need than she is to convention and, some might say, propriety.

It’s a great-looking production, played in-the-round in the theatre’s Ron Barber Studio with a detailed but unfussy set designed by James Rowland, and a parade of 1920s fashions from costume designer Stewart Snape.  The women are especially well-dressed with fur stoles draped over their shoulders like roadkill – reminders that the play has become a period piece, and that some aspects of society have changed considerably since it first opened.

As Constance, Liz Plumpton cuts an elegant figure.  At first she is a little too imperious and not playful enough but she warms up and becomes delightful, her delivery matching the wit of her dialogue.   The characters fire off Widean epigrams like champagne corks – some of the cast handle this mannered way of speaking with great ease.  Particularly impressive is Jo Hill as Barbara, and Danielle Spittle’s Martha improves as the action unfolds.  Plumpton is ably supported by Roger Saunders as old suitor Bernard and Kate Campbell as treacherous Marie-Louise, but it is her moments with husband John that really stand out.  Colin Simmonds’s performance is a delight from start to finish as the smarmy philanderer in a beautifully detailed and executed characterisation.  And very, very funny.

Jaz Davison’s direction has some stylish touches (like the use of butler James Smith for the transitions) but a little lighter handling of the earlier moments would get the performance fizzing along from the get-go.  It’s a soufflé on which the oven door has been opened too soon, but the cast rally and aerate the confection as soon as they settle in.  From that point on The Constant Wife becomes consistently funny.

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