Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

Crowning Achievement

TAMBURLAINE

The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018

 

Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

Tamburlaine production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_258815

Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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Windsor Takes All

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 17th August, 2018

 

Fiona Laird’s joyous staging of Shakespeare’s farcical comedy turns out to be the funniest RSC production of the Bard in a long while.  Blending the Tudor with contemporary Essex (familiar from so-called reality television), the design manages to be both traditional and fresh (the skeletal Tudor buildings are everything!), yielding delightful costume choices, designed from scratch by Lez Brotherston.  Check out Mistress Ford’s high collar and skinny-fit trousers in the illustration below.  This aesthetic enables David Troughton’s Sir John Falstaff to sport a John Bull waistcoat over a pair of baggy slops – with an ever-present, priapic codpiece.  Later, his anyone-for-tennis garb highlights how old-fashioned his brand of lechery is; he is an interloper in this glamorous suburbia, and the women, complete with TOWIE accents and dress sense, are empowered totally.  The play is an antidote to the problematic sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew.

Troughton’s Falstaff is everything you could want in the Fat Knight, brought low by his appetites – which is a staple of comedy: to mock Man for his baser desires.  Ruling the roost, running rings around Falstaff and tying him in Windsor knots are Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.  Their machinations belie the Essex stereotype of the dim-witted glamourpuss unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Their attire may be in dubious taste but their characters and antics are to be admired. Cordingly and Lacey are clearly having a great time – and this enjoyment transfers to the audience.

Indeed, the watchword of the production is Fun.  We know the plot is convoluted nonsense but we are able to take such delight in this retelling, thanks in no small part to the comedic skills of a talented ensemble.  Jonathan Cullen’s French doctor Caius would put Inspecteur Clouseau to shame with his mangling of the English language and his histrionic carryings-on; Vince Leigh’s Ford dons a ridiculous nose-and-glasses disguise, along with a compare-the-meerkat accent.  Subtle, it ain’t, but it works magnificently.  David Acton is also a hoot as Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, while Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly and Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter (all big hair and leopard print) are hilarious creations.  Tom Padley is spot on as thick-as-a-brick Slender, more than a little reminiscent of ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex in his delivery; Karen Fishwick’s Ann Page is all duck-face pouts into her smartphone and teenage surliness. Tim Samuels is nasally officious as Shallow, the Justice of the Peace, while Josh Finan makes an impression as Falstaff’s rugby-shirted follower, Nym.

The playing is as broad as the accents and Laird imbues the show with a knockabout style that suits the age-old comedic conventions of the piece, mixed with some present-day references to keep things fresh.  The traditional laundry basket is supplanted by a big pink wheelie bin, and it works brilliantly.  Surely, even the most stuck-in-the-mud purist would chuckle.  Similarly, an action sequence in which Falstaff, disguised as the Fat Witch of Brentwood, is roundly chased off the premises, is a moment of chaotic, cartoonish bliss.  His parting shot, a quote from Dick Emery, reminds us how out-of-synch he is with this world.

I would like more to be made of the spooking of Falstaff in the final act; the scene seems to be over too quickly but, for the rest of it, the pacing is impeccable, and Laird’s attention to detailed comic business is superb.  She has also graced the production with an original score of her own composition, blending period flavours with contemporary beats and sit-com stylings.  It is delicious.

A wildly entertaining romp, triumphantly hilarious, this is a Merry Wives to savour.

The Merry Wives of Windsor production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_258364

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in Lex Brotherston’s fabulous costumes (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Sex Toy Story

SEX CELLS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 19th July, 2018

 

You would think a play set in a call centre of a company that sells sex toys, marital aids and other assorted paraphernalia would be fertile ground for laughter.  Sadly, Anna Longoretti’s flaccid script is fatally flawed in the first act; what the four women who take the calls are selling is almost irrelevant.  It may as well be household insurance.  Longoretti doesn’t give us time to enjoy the context and enjoy the characters before she switches gear and the women’s personal lives enter the equation.  I suppose I’m saying we need more foreplay to get us into the mood.

Unfortunately, Olivia Jane Parker directs moments of humour and moments of pathos at the same pitch.  The comedy needs to be played broader in order to contrast with the emotional scenes.  And so, the first act limps along and we learn about the women’s problems: one wants a child at all costs; another is snowed under by the five kids she has; a third has a loveless marriage and an estranged grown-up son; while the fourth is a party girl, flitting between men.  Meanwhile, their ineffectual manager bumbles around.  I can barely raise a smile.

Fortunately, the second act is a good deal tighter and is played with more energy.  Although two of the subplots (overwhelmed mum, party girl) don’t really go anywhere, the play has something to say about motherhood, expectations and disappointments.  Plus, they mess around with the stock: dildos, rubber tits, blow-up dolls and the like, like they should have done from the off.

Lucinda Toomey is the strongest of the bunch as longsuffering Lily, armoured with barbed humour, who awakens from the decades-long depression of her married life and seeks to forge a meaningful bond with her alienated son.  Karen Welsh is suitably histrionic as the highly-strung Sylvie (who is French for some reason) while Stephanie Surrey pulls all the right faces as harassed mum-of-five Janice.  Ally Gibson’s party-hearty Tiffany seems natural – despite the ill-advised rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate on an ever-so-convenient ukulele.  Philip Hickson flounders and fumbles as the weak-as-dishwater boss.  It’s a shame his declaration of affection is not given more welly.  He needs fire and not just cake in his belly.

The set combines the call centre with a ‘break-out’ space, the manager’s office and the warehouse, with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere as though health and safety regulations mean little to this company – I hesitate to call it a ‘firm’.

The second act shows us the potential of the premise and of the cast, but what should be a real buzz from curtain up disappoints like pound-shop batteries or an inflatable companion with a slow puncture.  A let-down.

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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)


Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

Romeo and Juliet production photos_ 2018._2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC_248980

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 


Blissful

HAY FEVER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th June, 2018

 

Noel Coward’s 1924 play is perhaps best described as a ‘comedy of bad manners’.  Set in the country retreat of the Bliss family, it depicts what transpires one weekend when each member of the family decides to invite a guest to stay.  In terms of plot, that’s about it – the play lacks the depth and development of Coward’s later works, but the beastly behaviour of the Blisses provides such fun, we don’t seem to care about the script’s narrative shortcomings.

Ruling the roost as former actress Judith Bliss is Lesley Wilcox, serving up the ham in hefty slabs – but all without breaking character.  Judith has quit the stage but has never stopped acting; she spends her days in the throes of melodramatic hyperbole.  Wilcox is a monstrous joy to behold.

Following in their mother’s footsteps are waspish daughter Sorel (Zoe Mortimer in fine form) and dapper son Simon, played by Josh Whitehouse-Gardner, who is perfectly cast.  Of all the company, it is he who gives the best clipped, Cowardian delivery.  As the father, David Bliss, Roger Harding warms into the role and is soon hurling himself into histrionics along with the rest of his brood.

The hapless guests include Vivien Tomlinson, good fun as a kind of prototype ‘cougar’ figure, Myra Arundel; Paul Tomlinson as Richard, delivering a nice line in awkwardness; Thomas Hodge flounders around agreeably as nice-but-dim Sandy; while India Willes’s Jackie is a study in social anxiety and shyness.

Judith’s thunder is almost stolen by her maid of all work, Clara, played by Shirley Allwork, in a hilarious piece of character work in perfect contrast with all the posh nobs she has to serve.

Director Colin Lewis Edwards gets the pacing of the rows and arguments spot on, and the funniest scene comes when our hosts attempt to entertain their motley guests with an abortive parlour game.

Special mention must go to Bel Derrington and Graham Robson for their elegantly detailed and substantial set, contained within the confines of the Bear Pit’s intimate performance space.

Coward is a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde and a forerunner of Edward Albee, and this high quality, classy production delivers the goods.  What does the play have to say to us today, 90-odd years since it first appeared?  Perhaps it’s that the ‘elite’ are still riding roughshod over the rest of us, callous and careless in their conceited conduct.  Or perhaps it’s just that impoliteness and rudeness remain terribly funny – as long as someone else is on the receiving end.

SamAllard_TBP_HayFever_Dress_140618_-061

Lesley Wilcox as Judith Bliss (Photo: Sam Allard)

 


Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018

 

Patrick Barlow’s affectionate spoof draws more from the Hitchcock film version than the John Buchan original novel – and indeed, his script is peppered with direct nods to Hitchcock’s filmography for those in the know.  Director Nicky Cox’s ambitious production is an excellent fit for the Bear Pit’s intimate space; her set design maximises the performance area with a raised level, including judicious use of a screen for projections that both identify the location and bridge the scenes of on-stage action.  Cox works her cast of just four hard; this is a show where the hand of the director is clearly visible, especially during inventive moments like a chase on the roof of a train, and an aeroplane conjured up from a propeller and a ladder.  Also clearly in evidence is the wit of the writer: Barlow’s wordplay spoofs the stilted dialogue with the addition of extra-silliness.

But, of course, it is the actors who draw our admiration the most readily.  Tony Homer is perfectly cast as the protagonist Richard Hannay, tall, slender, his old-fashioned matinee idol looks enhanced by his neat moustache.  Homer proves adept at facial expressions, especially the world-weariness and the self-congratulatory wink, and he uses his pipe to great effect.  I would say he could emphasise Hannay’s R.P. and his stuffy manner to make the most of the character’s ridiculousness, but that’s a quibble, and I don’t wish to detract from his wildly enjoyable portrayal.

Carol Roache reappears as Hannay’s love interests, from a German femme fatale (What is German for femme fatale?) to a crofter’s wife and Pamela, a terribly English young woman who finds herself handcuffed to our hero to great comic effect.  Roache pitches each role perfectly: larger-than-life but never going over-the-top.  That indulgence is permitted to the remaining two cast members, Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner, who play (tirelessly, it seems) everyone else.  This versatile pair undergo the quickest of quick changes, their characterisations becoming broader and broader, in some breathtakingly silly moments.  Danks-Smith is hilarious as a crofter and the landlady of a hotel; while Ganner excels as the evil professor and the twitchy hotel landlord, to name but four of their many roles.

There are a few first night glitches: a wayward moustache and a runaway pen – but the cast handle these mishaps with aplomb, and it all adds to the fun.  A couple of times, the pace could be quicker – especially during a couple of scene changes – but I’m sure things will sharpen up as the show’s run gets into its stride.

All in all, this is comedy heaven, an excellent opportunity to exercise your laughing muscles for a couple of hours and, generally, the moments when we’re not laughing are times when we’re just marvelling at the brilliance of it all.

tony as hannay

Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay