Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

Nice Hooters

HOOT OWL – Master of Disguise

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st February, 2018

 

It is not uncommon for successful children’s picture books to make the transition to the stage.  The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt are just two examples.  Now, Proon Productions bring us Sean Taylor’s owl-arious story, to wit Hoot Owl; adapter-performers Ellis Creez and Rebecca Hallworth flesh out the plot (they have to, or the show would be over in ten minutes!) to create an hour of entertainment, framing Taylor’s original account of the protagonist’s quest for food with an over-arcing plot: Hoot Owl must prove his predatory prowess if he is to join the ranks of the Parliament of Owls.

There are several charming songs, penned by Creez and Hallworth and arranged by Mark Rowson, so there are plenty of opportunities for us to sing, clap, and wave our arms along with the cast.  In fact, my only quibble with this thoroughly enjoyable production is that sometimes the backing tracks are a little too high in the mix, drowning out the witty and sophisticated (and funny) lyrics.  The cast are both miked up but they could do with belting a bit more to get the songs across to the greatest effect.

As the eponymous owl, Creez reveals his comedic biases with shameless tributes to the likes of Frankie Howerd, in his audience address – the put-downs of some of the grown-ups are funny without being mean-spirited; there is a Benny Hill-type chase around the auditorium, although with only two in the cast, it is more the spirit of the idea that amuses (There is much for the grown-ups and for the parents of the grown-ups to enjoy here, as Creez’s old-school comic stylings work like a dream).  Creez is also a nifty magician; as mentioned earlier, he just needs a bit more power in his singing voice to attain perfection.

Playing all the other roles, including operating an impressive pair of hooters – I’m referring to the owl puppets, made by Craig Denston – Rebecca Hallworth proves her versatility.  Her Rabbit gets every on their feet and her pigeon-headed Elvis Presley invocation is a showstopper.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Elvis.  With a pigeon’s head.

The script is packed with one-liners and cleverly, the writers sneak in facts about the animal characters Hoot Owl encounters.  There is a bit of a message about self-belief, without getting all moralistic or gooey about it, but above all, the show is a bonkers bit of fun.  Wisely, the original book forms the spine of the story and shapes the action, culminating in Hoot Owl’s final disguise as an Italian waiter, stalking a pizza, the only prey he can manage to catch.  Here, an audience member is called upon to appear as a customer and read lines from a menu, in true Generation Game fashion.

The set by Kevin Hallworth and the animations by Kian Adams are informed by Jean Jullien’s illustrations in the book, although the show has plenty of pantomime elements to it (a couple of child volunteers are enlisted to wave pompoms as Hoot Owl’s hootleaders) and one scene, in which Hoot Owl, disguised as a ewe, attracts the attentions of a randy ram, hearkens back to the earliest days of Comedy.    Hoot Owl – Master of Disguise is not only a celebration of the book but a fresh take on the traditional theatrics that have had us laughing for millennia.

There is something for everyone here.  You’d be a to-wit to miss it.

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Hoot Owl (Ellis Creez) petitions Parliament

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Stuff and Nonsense

THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

 

Eugene Ionesco’s work is a staple of any self-respecting Drama course, but the Romanian-French playwright is hardly a household name.  Which is a pity, considering the influence his absurdist style had on the works of Monty Python and the like.  In fact, much of what we find in Ionesco is now deemed ‘Pythonesque’.   Ionesco holds up social convention as something bizarre.  His dialogue is full of nonsense and non sequiturs, repetitions and random outpourings – and this play is a prime example.

Mrs Smith (Emma Beasley) enthuses about lunch while her husband (Thomas Hodge) tuts and grunts behind a newspaper.  She declares her affinity for all things English – including mayonnaise.  Hearing such remarks in today’s England, I can’t help finding resonance with the nonsense of the Brexit vote.  Almost everything we consume is imported from elsewhere.  The play is vibrant with significance, it turns out.

Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes) arrives late for dinner and are admonished.  This couple struggle to recollect the circumstances of their acquaintance – even though it transpires they travel on the same train, live in the same street, the same flat, it turns out they are not who they think they are… This is a puzzling little sketch, beautifully performed by the pair, and expertly built to a crescendo by director Steve Farr.

The Maid (Claire Bradwell) is the only character to address us directly, breaking the frame, and is the most artificial of the bunch, flipping from hysterical laughter to wracking sobs in a flash.  Bradwell radiates impudence and fun, to the exasperation of the waspish Emma Beasley and the boorish Tom Purchase-Rathbone.  The company is completed by Barry Purchase-Rathbone’s Fire Chief, who is touting for business.  He regales the group with rambling, pointless anecdotes and impenetrable fables, and his deadpan delivery is hilarious.

The whole group play things dead straight and speak what can be meaningless strings of words with conviction, and so the dialogue sounds as though we ought to understand it.  Scenes are broken up and interrupted by a lighting change and the chimes of a clock, during which the characters tip back their heads, close their eyes and open their mouths, before getting on with their lives.  These interludes symbolise how our lives are governed by time, by natural processes, by convention.  Above all, these surreal episodes remind us what we are watching is stylised and artificial – just as the manners and etiquette of society are stylised and artificial.

Repetition of phrases, that become slogans, does not imbue them with meaning.  And so, “She’s a true blue Englishwoman” spoken in a loop reminds me of “Brexit means Brexit”.  Vague remarks about British decency and fair play are bandied around as if there is consensus on what these things are, or that they exist.  The play ends as it began, with the opening lines of dialogue, except the Smiths have been usurped by the Martins, who now refer to themselves as the Smiths, and on the nonsense goes…

On the surface, this is a very funny production of a difficult script, with an excellent cast breathing life and emotion into nonsense.  Beneath the surface, the play couldn’t be timelier as a snapshot of the nonsense of living in Britain today.

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Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018

 

Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings.  In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm.  It’s like binge-watching a TV series.

For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop.  There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound.  “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government.  The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.

Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato.  Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius.  It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.

Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too.  There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.

The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.

The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all.  Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action.  Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.

Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out.  The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime.  Et tu, Brexit?

Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined.  When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become.  Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One.  In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian.   Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).

Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking.  On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off.  On the other, it makes me wish they would.

It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing.  Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame.  All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.

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Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)


Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

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E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017

 

Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker.  This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume.  It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.

As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one.  Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else.  Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion.  Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.

Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede.  Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna.  I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.

Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging.  Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand.  Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings.  It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.

Above all, the show is a lot of fun.  Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.

The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries.  Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?

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Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)


Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th October, 2017

 

Angus Jackson’s new production opens with a riot – carried out by a colour-coordinated mob; they must have all read the memo – firmly establishing the contemporary setting (if the pre-show forklift truck stashing bags of corn out of public reach isn’t enough of a pointer!).  Divisions in society are clearly marked through clothing.  The plebs are all hoodies and tracky bottoms, the ruling elite all dinner jackets and dickie bows.  It is a polarised society of the chavs and the chav-nots.  Somewhere between the two are the Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird) who seem uncomfortable in their position and in their clothing – power-dressed to impress – Martina Laird especially, tottering in her high heels as the Tribunes seek to establish their power.

The cast is also divided into those who can handle the wordy verse and those in whose gobs it falls flat and lifeless.  Veteran actor Paul Jesson shows us how it’s done as the elder patrician Menenius – the rhythms of the verse come across as natural and, above all, the meaning is always intelligible.  As Volumnia, the protagonist’s mum, Haydn Gwynne (at first dressed more for a Noel Coward) brings elegance and intensity – and also humour.  The same can be said for the ever-excellent James Corrigan’s Aufidius, who has a kind of Joker/Batman thing going on with Coriolanus.  They hate each other with such passion they can’t leave each other alone.

In the title role and making his RSC debut is Sope Dirisu.  He certainly looks the part and is especially striking when drenched in the blood of the vanquished.  Vocally, he doesn’t quite get it across – until, that is, Coriolanus is banished from Rome (because of Reasons, albeit petty ones) and here Dirisu rises to the demands of the scene, demonstrating why he got the part in the first place.  Also enjoyable is his reduction to petulant teen when his mum orders him about.

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Right to bare arms! Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Charles Aitken comes a close second to Corrigan in my view as the consul Cominius, proving he can deliver the verse in a range of contexts, whether in a declamatory style in public oration, or in more personal, off-duty moments.  The excellent Hannah Morrish is criminally underused as Coriolanus’s Mrs, forever pushed aside by his devotion to his mother.

It is also a production of two halves.  The first is hard going but after the interval, everything seems to click into place and the play flies along to its violent conclusion.  There’s plenty of blood in evidence but only one on-stage death – guess whose! – graphically and symbolically involving a chain.  The hand-to-hand skirmishes (kudos to fight director Terry King) are far more effective than the running around, slapping swords together.  There are no guns, it appears, and precious little technology (apart from the forklift!)

Of course, we look for parallels in our society: the risk of giving the public what they want, regardless of the consequences; the ruling class so arrogant and assured of their position and so out of touch with the populace; mistrust of those who claim to be carrying out the will of the people; and the people denying they ever wanted what they voted for…  There is a neat line that could be about self-appointed political commentators on Twitter: “They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know what goes on in the Capitol”.   LOL.

On the whole, I think the second half saves the show and because of it, we forgive the hard slog of the first.  Coriolanus as a character is hard to empathise with, mainly because he rarely tells us what’s going on in his head.  This is a production that tries hard to get us to understand him but I think the modern dress set against the rather alien power systems are a mismatch that keeps us from fully appreciating this brand of political manoeuvring.  Paradoxically, ancient Romans dressed as ancient Romans and doing what ancient Romans do may have been more accessible!

Coriolanus

Is that a dagger in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? James Corrigan as Aufidius (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Awesome Foursome

QUARTET

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017

 

Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians.  Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix.  The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.  Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.

Will three become four in order to perform a quartet?  Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?

These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…

The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings.  The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time.  The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament.  Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil.  Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes.  Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty.  We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.

Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left.  Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast.  Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.

“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight.  This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.

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