Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th July 2022
Bruce Norris’s award-winning piece is a play of two halves. Set in the same house, acts one and two are fifty years apart, with two sets of characters. We begin in 1959, and Russ and Bev are packing up to move out. There is a kind of cosy sit-com banter between them, but soon a thread of darkness is revealed. Their lives have been blighted by tragedy: their son, home from the Korean war, and unable to live with the atrocities he committed, has killed himself. Concerned parties gather: the local clergyman, the local busybody… they’ve got wind that the buyers are ‘coloured’… Whoops, there go the property values.
What starts as amusing becomes savagely funny. Director Stewart Snape gets the rises and falls, the crescendos and clashes pitch perfect, enabling his excellent cast to shine. The mighty Colin Simmonds makes the naturalism seem effortless as mild-mannered Russ, who is provoked to explosive invective, in a well-judged portrayal. He is strongly supported by Liz Plumpton’s excitable Bev, while James David Knapp is exquisitely monstrous as the racist busybody trying to put a stop to the sale, and Paul Forrest is delightfully irritating as the dog-collared Jim. Conducting herself with supreme dignity is Shemeica Rawlins as the housemaid, Francine, with Papa Anoh Yentumi making a strong impression as her husband Albert.
Fifty years later (what a long interval that was!) and the tables have turned. A young white couple wish to demolish the house, now dilapidated and covered in graffiti, in a bid to gentrify the area, despite objections voiced by people who have grown up there during the intervening decades. There are parallels to be made with white people taking over the land and property of others, I suppose, but the discourse in this second half is not as clear cut as the first. The characters are preoccupied with language, particularly when someone (James David Knapp again, as a different, equally monstrous character!) cracks an inappropriate joke. Thus, the topic shifts more to what is considered offensive and who is ‘allowed’ to be offended, before a final coda takes us back to the 50s, and the doomed son writing his suicide note, a reminder that people do much worse things to each other than make jokes, but also that such jokes are also a form of violence and oppression.
It’s an electrifying evening of theatre. The play provokes more than it answers, which is how it should be, in my view, and there is a lot of fun to be had seeing the cast play roles diametrically opposed to their first-act personas. Grace Cheadle’s ‘woke’ Lindsey couldn’t be further from the insipid Betsy from act one! There are echoes in the script, turns of phrase, lines of argument, that reoccur, suggesting that people haven’t, society hasn’t, changed. Which is a depressing thought, but it’s delivered in a hugely entertaining way by a company of actors of the highest quality.
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd April 2022
Michael Barry sets his Much Ado in the Regency period, like the popular series on Netflix. For the most part, it’s an excellent fit, with the exterior manners and elegance a suitable setting for Shakespeare’s wittiest rom-com. This is Bridgerton in looks and feel, but with an infinitely better script! Barry’s set design has two plastered columns framing the upstage area, the bases of which have cracked to reveal the brickwork beneath, representing the truth beneath the surface. It’s a clever detail.
The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis gives us his Benedick, complete with mutton-chops and poufy hair. He is Mr Darcy, an upright romantic hero with a quick wit and a big heart. Hobbis does an admirable job and you can’t help falling for him. Naomi Jacobs’s Beatrice has the acid tongue and merry wit down pat, but she’s a little too loud for the studio setting, delivering all her lines at full volume – sometimes going up to 11. A bit more variance and she’d be perfect.
Andrew Elkington makes for a posing, preening Claudio, all righteous indignation in the pivotal church scene, and thoroughly detestable afterwards, until his redemption, of course; a pretty face masking his petulance and objectionable self-righteousness. Spot on! Also great is Papa Yentumi as Don Pedro, the fun-loving prince, at ease with his high status and game for a laugh. As his bastard brother, Tom Lowde gives us a volatile Don John, but he needs not to race through some of his lines so we can enjoy his evil nature all the more.
Man of the match for my money is Mark Payne as Leonato, effortlessly convincing throughout, and electrifyingly emotional in that church scene.
Suzie King’s Hero contrasts sweetly with the acerbic Beatrice, and there is solid support from Skye Witney as Antonia, Jessica Terry as Margaret, Colette Nooney as Ursula, and James Browning as the villainous Borachio.
I’m afraid though the Dogberry scenes don’t quite come off. Ben Pugh could make more of the constable’s bombast, building him up more so he can deflate further. There are more laughs to be gained here. The Watch scenes seem clumsily staged. Perhaps there were council tax cutbacks in Messina at the time, but surely they could stretch to at least a third Watchman.
There is lovely music, all piano and strings, by Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon, but there at times when it is intrusive, detracting from the action rather than supporting it.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the phenomenal Costume Department at the Crescent goes all out to create beautiful and accurate clothes to suit the world of the production. Designer Jennet Marshall has excelled herself here, and credit is due to her team: Carolyn Bourne, Anne Hignell, Stewart Snape, Rose Snape, and Pat Brown, for the stunning array of uniforms, posh frocks and tailored coats on display.
A great-looking production that hits most of its marks, featuring some excellent performances by its leads.
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.
Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time. We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time. In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.
At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life. Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly. Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint. The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).
As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi. Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter. Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part. Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.
It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.
Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production. The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move. It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change. Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.
The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at. Progress isn’t always a good thing.
A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.
Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood
Eric Idle’s musical parody of Arthurian legend speaks of a leader who will rise from chaos to unite a divided country… We couldn’t half do with King Arthur today! I doubt such a leader will spring from the current Tory leadership contest.
This lavish production at the Crescent is directed by Keith Harris, bringing together all the technical elements of the production and marrying them to an outstanding cast, with the result being a hugely impressive, massively enjoyable visit to the theatre. They really have pulled out all the stops with this one. Colin Judges’s splendid set of castle walls, towers and trees has just the right amount of storybook illustration to it, while Stewart Snape’s costume designs remain true to the period (when they need to) and introduce glamorously anachronistic specimens (when they don’t): the Camelot presented here has more in common with Las Vegas than Medieval England! There is also an appearance by a magnificent wooden rabbit. Of course there is.
Joe Harper heads the cast as King Arthur, imperious, regal and daft in equal measures. He has a fine singing voice too – in fact, when the knights all sing together, the quality enriches the material. Idle’s songs are pastiches, sometimes simplistic in structure, but the chorus at the Crescent still delivers the goods. The musicians, under the baton of Gary Spruce add pizzazz and texture to the score. Beautiful.
The female lead is Tiffany Cawthorne’s Lady of the Lake, with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks that doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the over-singers and belters of musical theatre and elsewhere. Cawthorne is also a delightful comic player and doesn’t miss a trick.
Among the knights there is plenty to relish: Mark Horne’s camp Sir Robin, Paul Forrest’s heroic Lancelot (who has a surprise for us later on that is deliciously realised), and Nick Owenford’s Marxist-peasant-turned-loyal-knight Dennis Galahad. I always have a soft spot for the faithful manservant Patsy, and here Brendan Stanley does not disappoint in a masterclass of a portrayal that demonstrates how supporting roles can make a mark. Brilliant.
There are so many highlights, so many hilarious throwaway moments, I can’t mention them all, but I have to bring attention to Katie Goldhawk’s defiant posturing as the stubborn Black Knight, Jack Kirby’s Hibernian enchanter, Tim, Luke Plimmer’s Not Dead Fred, and Dave Rodgers as a taunting French soldier.
For me, the funniest scene is between Herbert (Nick Doran) and his father (Toby Davis), with a couple of dim-witted guards and a daring rescue by Lancelot. Doran plays the gayness of the role without mockery or stereotype and his Herbert is all the more endearing because of it.
You don’t have to be a Monty Python aficionado to be royally entertained. For those of us that are, it’s fun to identify where Eric Idle nicked the ideas from. Only the other day I was bemoaning the fad for adapting every bloody film into stage musicals – this is one of the best ones, not least because it makes fun of the theatrical form as much as sending up the content.
Director Keith Harris gets the tone spot on and for almost all of it, the required energy levels are there to carry it off. This is a real tonic of a production, joyous, silly and glorious – now, if only I could stop whistling THAT SONG from The Life Of Brian…
Brendan Stanley and Joe Harper (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production. Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.
The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night. Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny. Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on. Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.
Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)
Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others. Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life. An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…
Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child. Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.
Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses. As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness. John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks. The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.
The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship. The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself. Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes. John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.
This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.
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.
John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
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.
Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
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.
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.
Bah, humbug! Bob Cratchit (Tony Daniels) and Scrooge (Andrew Lowrie) Photo: Graeme Braidwood