Tag Archives: Stoke on Trent

Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

Anna

Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)

 


Snow Right

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Sunday 22nd December, 2013

 

There are three reasons I travel to Stoke every year for the pantomime at the Regent.  The first is Jonathan Wilkes, the local lad made good (never mind Robbie Whatsisname).  He headlines (this year as ‘Muddles’) and from the reception he gets on his first entrance, it is clear they adore him here.  It’s easy to see why, considering his cheeky persona, boyish good looks and pop-star singing voice.  He also co-directs and over the years has developed into something of a leading light in pantomime.   He may be playing to his home audience but, speaking as an ‘outsider’, I think  he’d be a crowd-pleaser in any theatre.

Reason number two is Wilkes’s co-director and partner-in-panto, the ebullient Christian Patterson.  More often than not, Patterson is in the cross-dressing role but in this show, there is nothing like a dame.  This time he is Herman, henchman to the Wicked Queen.  He is clearly a master of the genre and seeks to make his co-stars corpse through unexpected deviations and improvisations.  In a lesser performer this might come across as self-indulgent but Patterson pitches it exactly right so that we are always in on his jokes and have as much fun as he’s having.

The third reason is the script by panto-god Eric Potts.  In command of the form, Potts crams the dialogue with quick-fire gags, good and bad.  He sticks to the plot but is skilful enough to incorporate a few surprises to keep things fresh.  In this version, he dispenses with the usual scene of the dwarfs returning to the cottage to find the fugitive princess asleep on their beds.  Instead, they rescue her from a zombie attack to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  It’s bonkers but it works.  Potts knows not to make too many changes; the iconic scene in which Snow White accepts the poisoned apple gets the kiddies screaming.  As it should.

The humour is never far from the toilet.  This is unpretentious fare although the skills on display are deceptively sophisticated.  It takes a lot of hard work to make something appear so joyously shambolic.

Potts brings Snow White to the fore.  Played to the hilt by the winsome Katie Elin-Salt, she interacts with the audience and, at the denouement, is assertive in the face of the wicked Queen (a deliciously evil Debbie Chapman).  There is strong support from Jamie Tyler’s Prince and Phil Holden as dwarf leader, Prof.  But the show is stolen by an adorable turn from Paddy Holden as the silent Loopy.

This version allows the title characters plenty of stage time –it’s remarkable how in others they can be marginalised.  My top tip to you is if the poster for the panto doesn’t feature the eponymous characters, watch out!

It may not have the biggest budget but this Snow White is rich in fun and heart, successfully blending traditional elements with contemporary references.  I will definitely be back next year.

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Stoked!

CINDERELLA

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 3rd January, 2013

A few months ago, I attended the final of Stoke’s Top Talent, a local contest for local people.  The winner, Carrie-Ann Williams, won a part in the pantomime.  Not just a walk-on and five minutes in the spotlight but a fully integrated role.  And so, there she is, opening the show as the Fairy Godmother, speaking in thankless rhyming couplets and wafting her wand about.  Although still studying, Williams fits into the cast of professionals seamlessly.  She gets to extend her acting experience, when the Fairy Godmother goes in disguise as an old beggar woman, searching for firewood, but, of course, she is also allowed to do what she does best and show us why she, rightfully won the talent contest.  She closes the first act with her rendition of Nessun Dorma; this is no less incongruous than some of the pop songs we are subjected to, and, when the flying horse lifts Cinderella’s carriage out of the dry ice and the aria surges to its climax, it is truly spine-tingling.  It is heartening to see the contest organisers following through on their promise.

The panto belongs to Jonathan Wilkes, local hero.  He co-directs as well as dominating the action as Buttons; camp and cheeky bordering on puerile, Wilkes is an energetic presence, thoroughly at home in this genre and, indeed, this venue.  He can do no wrong with this crowd and it is easy to see why.  Tall, good-looking with a pleasant, old school pop-singer voice, Wilkes rules the roost.

He is supported by his co-director Christian Patterson as ugly sister Stacey – these two are clearly on the same wavelength and are enjoying themselves as much as the audience – and Torchwood’s Kai Owen as Nessa, Stacey’s equally obnoxious sibling.  As you’d expect the costumes and the banter are outrageous.  There is an emphasis on toilet humour and physical comedy, peppered with local namedropping and pop culture references.  It’s knockabout fun, perhaps slapdash on the surface, but Wilkes and Patterson know exactly what they’re doing.

Eric Potts’s script focuses on the comedy.  The jokes are quick fire and relentless, old, new, borrowed and blue, but Potts is also an advocate of the traditional pantomime routines, and so we get “Who’s in first” and “Busy Bee, Busy Bee” – the first a dazzling example of cross-talk, the second hilarious slapstick that still works brilliantly.

Rebecca Lisewski’s Cinderella is confidant rather than hard-done by, with a strong singing voice.  Her duets with Jonathan Bremner’s dashing Prince Charming blend their voices well, although I found the choice of Katy Perry’s Firework a little jarring. I guess I’ve never felt like a plastic bag.

Jamie Tyler’s Dandini is an enthusiastic, upper-class twit, mugging and girning like a cartoon character, keeping the energy levels high in scenes that are basically exposition and Ian Redford’s Baron Hardup is a bumbling drunkard, ably supporting the shenanigans – he could be given more to do.

The show is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, managing to be up-to-date and traditional at the same time.  Of all I have seen this season, this panto has the strongest local feel, which is encouraging to see in a venue that is part of a national chain.  Wilkes, Patterson and Potts deliver the goods and pack the house.  The management must be stoked.

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Local Heroes

WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 7th April, 2012

 

Carrying on and celebrating the New Vic’s tradition of social documentary dramas with a strong local (North Staffordshire) identity, comes this new piece by writer Alecky Blythe and director Theresa Heskins.

The set is a stark, almost lunar, landscape.  Mounds of nutty slack and broken china house television sets.  The area’s industrial past has been superseded in this day and age.  The Potteries are now home to rife unemployment – people who stay at home and watch the telly.  I have to confess my heart sank a little when I realised the show is based around an X Factor type talent show – often the recourse of unimaginative GCSE drama groups – but my initial misgivings were quickly washed away by the style and execution of the piece.

The words spoken by the cast are all verbatim.  The people who entered the 2010 “Stoke’s Top Talent” contest provide all the dialogue in its naturalistic, often hilarious, glory.  But further to that, the production goes a step further.  The actors are wired with earpieces.  Recordings of the real people speaking the lines are played to them and the actors deliver those lines with the same inflection and intonation as close to the original speaker as possible.  The actor is the mouthpiece for the person.  While this is a peculiar way of working for the performers, isolated as they are from the atmosphere in the auditorium, it pays dividends for the audience.  As characters emerge then come and go, and we follow their experiences in the audition process, the warmth and humanity of these people shine through.

I couldn’t help thinking of Creature Comforts.

The humour, unconscious on the part of the speaker in some cases, is delightful.  “My girlfriend’s 24,” boasts a 19 year old contestant, “and she’s only got two kids.”

“Jonathan Wilkes” hosts the heats, but this contest is not about the glorification of the judges.  Neither is it about holding up the contestants to ridicule.  What comes to the fore is how important this competition is to the people of Stoke on Trent, now there is nothing else to offer them hope of bettering themselves.  The prize money of £1,000 and the chance to appear in professional panto for a month may seem small beer compared to the large-scale televised talent shows – but the contestants recognise it has a start, as a chance, a leg-up.  They go back, year after year, to try again, and they take it seriously.

You couldn’t get more of a local flavour if you sat through the show stuffing yourself with oatcakes.  But the show is much more than a local show for local people.  As an outsider to the region, I saw the national relevance of the play.  Stoke-on-Trent  becomes a microcosm for the whole country.  The obsession for these talent contests.  The death of industry.  The lack of opportunity compared to the wealth of talent and ambition.  It’s all there.  This is a state-of-the-nation piece, documenting a moment in time.  It is a celebration of the human spirit in bleak and trying times.

Theresa Heskins has collected an impressive ensemble of actors who slip in and out of a range of characters to populate the show.  Samuel Hargreaves plays 14 year old Sam, the eventual winner.  His talent and ambition are nicely counterpointed by the bathos of the slightly camp Northern bathos of his family.  The show ends with his rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” by local boy done good, Robbie Williams.  The song takes on extra significance.  The boy is at the outset of his career.  We are not told what’s become of him in the two years since his pantomime appearance.

One of my favourite actors on the planet, Michael Hugo is superb as slightly thuggish, skinhead Mark, struggling with all manner of problems and trying to stay out of trouble so he will be accepted by another means of escape from his surroundings, the armed forces.

Oliver J Hembrough evokes rather than impersonates local star-maker Jonathan Wilkes but really excels as the father in musical duo, “Lad ‘N’ Dad” – guitar, bongos and “Yummy Yummy Yummy”.

Andrew Pollard is heart-breaking as gentle charity-shop worker Graeme who can’t face the pressure of the audition process then regrets not going through with it.  Alan Bennett could write an entire show based on this man alone.

Mona Goodwin’s Kerry (runner-up in the final) displays the excitement and nervous energy and not forgetting the talent.  You really feel for her when she doesn’t win (and I knew the outcome beforehand, having seen the panto two years ago!).  Peter Temple’s pensioner Norman is finally taking his chances after a lifetime of hard work.  “Where have I been all my life?” he asks himself.  It is the line that gives the show its title, and a poignant moment about roads not taken.  Rebecca Brewer depicts a range of roles, adding to the likeability and general warmth. Angela Bain switches from middle-aged mum to ten year old little brother at the change of a shirt – the entire company proves its versatility. That is not to say this is a whitewash.  Human fallibility and the darker aspects of society are all here too.

Everyone comes out of this very well but really the show is a testament to the people of Stoke and a mirror showing what’s happening all over post-industrial Britain.  It’s more uplifting and relevant than anything Simon Cowell sticks his fingers in.

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