Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

Merry (Christmas) Men

ROBIN HOOD

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th December, 2022

You might think the intimate performance space at Stratford’s Attic Theatre would be too restrictive to stage a pantomime.  Well, you’d be reckoning without the genius of Tread The Boards’ resident writer-director John Robert Partridge.  He puts the focus on his cast of six to deliver all the conventions of the art form, supported by the tech crew, and quite frankly, we are too busy laughing to miss grand-scale spectacular scenes which other, larger venues can accommodate.  Partridge frames the story how we would expect: a fairy in a pink spot, the villain in a green… but because it’s Robin Hood, we don’t know precisely what the plot will entail, unlike the more well-worn pantomimes, and this adds freshness to the production.

Opening the show and winning us over instantly is Florence Sherratt as fabulous Fairy Fabulous, friendly and funny, contrasting sharply with Joshua Chandos’s marvellously wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.   Chandos is darkly camp and never short of hilarious – and he has the best hair.

Emily Tietz’s Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, with her movie-star looks and a valiant spirit; while Dan Grooms’s Robin may be a long time coming but is definitely worth the wait.  For all his posing, posturing, and knee-slapping, it is Robin who must be rescued from the Sheriff’s clutches by Marian and the others.

Those others: Silly Willy – Dominic Selvey is a lovable buffoon with an indefatigable supply of quick-fire one-liners.  When he gets three volunteer children from the audience for a rendition of Music Man, he’s on a steep learning curve!   Playing Willy’s mother, Dame Tuck, is Pete Meredith, a consummate panto dame, cheeky bordering on bawdy, and sporting a range of eye-wateringly garish outfits as the show goes on.

The songs are mainly lifted from Disney, with a touch of ABBA; there’s a wonderful send-up of the Bryan Adams mega-hit, Everything I Do I Do For You, and an exciting climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff while Dame Tuck belts out her best Bonnie Tyler.

Adam Clarke’s set design comprises a stylised forest backdrop complete with a real tree trunk, the branches of which stretch across the ceiling.  The set is rendered multi-purpose by Kat Murray’s lighting and the dialogue, proving you don’t need elaborate scenery to evoke location and atmosphere.

There’s plenty of audience participation.  This reviewer was picked on to be Dame Tuck’s ‘boyfriend’ and it could have been worse!  I think I got off lightly…

A riotous, fun-filled evening and an affordable seasonal treat.  As a measure of every panto, I glance around at the nearby children in the audience to see if they’re enthralled.  And tonight they’re lapping it up.

Magical.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Full of beans: Dominic Selvey gives us his Silly Willy, with Pete Meredith’s Dame Tuck behind

(Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)


Squirrel Away!

IVY TILLER: VICAR’S DAUGHTER, SQUIRREL KILLER

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th October, 2022

Long ago, white Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the natives with diseases.  Centuries later, the grey squirrels returned the favour by coming to the UK and doing the same to our native reds.  There is a movement now to ‘control’ the grey population, a kind of ethnic cleansing for squirrels.

This new comedy by Bea Roberts, currently playing in the RSC’s underused Other Place studio theatre, seems as though it was tailor-made for comedian Daisy May Cooper, with a very strong feel of the BBC sitcom This Country about it. Cooper does not appear, but her spirit is evoked by the superb Jenny Rainsford in the title role.

Ivy is something of an eco-warrior, hunting and killing the invasive grey squirrels in order that the native reds may flourish.  This activity gives Ivy a sense of purpose and self-importance, because in no other arena is she afforded these feelings: her teacher training is down the drain, her father is cold and distant, treating her like a skivvy… And so squirrel-hunting has replaced caring for her late mother, and here is something she can control, a ‘disease’ she can eradicate.  Fresh out of jail, cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan) comes to visit.  Ivy picks up where they left off, wallowing in childhood nostalgia.

This is not really a play about conservation.  It’s more to do with grief – or to be precise, not grieving.  Ivy is unable to move on from the loss of her mother, so when even the squirrel-killing dries up and her team is disbanded, she has nowhere to turn.  She tries to cling to her eco-warrior role and keep it going, but it is slipping from her grasp.

This very funny piece turns out to have been a tragedy, after all.

Rainsford and McMullan make a fine double act, and they are supported by a fine quartet.  I really enjoy Alex Bhat as Reece, Ivy’s comrade-in-arms who is in love with her; Tim Treloar as local landowner Tig and other roles; Anna Andresen as a beleaguered headteacher; and Jade Ogugua as a primary school teacher – her clashes with Rainsford are excellently played.

Caitlin McLeod’s direction hones the comedic playing to the hilt, wisely allowing dumbshow sequences to cover transitions, to give us physical comedy to complement Roberts’s dazzling script.

One of the aspects I most admire about this production is it credits the audience with the intelligence to piece together characters’ histories, to divine why they are the way they are.  We meet Ivy and her milieu as observers – the distance helps us to laugh – but it is our recognition of the characters’ humanity that fills in the blanks.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

On manoeuvres: Adam Bhat and Jenny Rainsford. Photo by The Other Richard (c) RSC

Man-made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2022

Back in 1818, young Mary Shelley invented the science fiction genre with her gothic novel that deals with those little things like creation, life and death.  By creating life and thereby usurping God, Victor Frankenstein then shirks his responsibilities as a creator.  His creation, unguided, has to find his own way in the world.  Thus, the Creature represents the human condition, floundering while God insists on being an absentee father.

This new adaptation by Catherine Prout hits all the right plot points, even with a scaled-down cast of characters.  The rather verbose dialogue is true to the style of the Shelley original and does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to conveying a sense of the period.

Dan Grooms is an impassioned if youthful Victor, adept at showing signs of high distress both physically and emotionally.  I wonder if his pre-recorded narration would be better done live as he potters around in his laboratory.

He is more than matched by his Creature, in a towering performance from Alastair Oakley, who is imposing and innocent, ferocious and frightening, while also being pitiful.  It’s a remarkable portrayal.

This central pair is supported by a versatile ensemble.  The mighty Robert Moore is charming as Victor’s BFF Henry, and brings a touch of humour as farmer Felix; Matilda Bott is devastating as the wrongly-accused Justine; Phil Leach brings gravitas as Victor’s dad, and warmth as blind De Lacey; Joshua Chandos impresses as Captain Waldman to whom Victor unfolds his tale; while Lily Bennett does a bang-up job of making too-good-to-be-true Elizabeth sympathetic rather than soppy.

Adrian Daniel’s set has something of a steampunk aesthetic, all ropes and chains, dials and switches.  Lit by Kat Murray, it becomes a versatile and atmospheric setting for the play’s many locations.

As ever, director John-Robert Partridge makes the most of the Attic’s intimate space.  Characters roam around in blackout, menacing the front row.  Sudden screams and loud noises keep us on edge, as the gruesome tale weaves its fascinating spell.  Even the scene changes are eerily done.  It all flows smoothly and creepily – apart from some teething troubles with a recalcitrant table top that threaten to hold up the action!  With today’s matinee being only the second performance of the run, I’m sure these minor problems will soon be ironed out.

Production values are high – special shout out to Sue Kent’s make-up work on the Creature – proving that with the right treatment, the familiar fable still has the power to intrigue, provoke and shock.

Like Victor’s Creature, this spellbinding show is extremely well put together.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Dan Grooms as Victor Frankenstein (Photo: Charlie Budd)

Dynamic Duo

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th September 2022

Following last year’s rip-roaring Hound of the Baskervilles, Tread the Boards theatre company is back with this anthology of Holmes’s adventures.  Back as the detective duo is the excellent pairing of Robert Moore as Sherlock and John-Robert Partridge as Dr Watson.  Moore is in peril of becoming my favourite Holmes: he has the attitude, the humour, the intensity, and the heroism all down to perfection, with Partridge’s Watson and intelligent padawan and emotional barometer for the action.

The four stories in this exquisite adaptation are A Scandal in Bohemia, The Speckled Band, The Dancing Men, and The Final Problem, but the script avoids an episode structure by providing a throughline courtesy of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty – Stephen Hardcastle in a suitably sinister portrayal.

Matilda Bott delights as a chirpy Mrs Hudson.  Leo Garrick impresses as an aggressive Doctor Roylett, while Stephanie Miles makes a spirited Irene Adler.  The supporting players get to demonstrate their versatility by doubling roles; the leading men get to demonstrate theirs by adopting disguises.

Partridge also directs, getting the tone of the piece spot on.  The intimate space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street flat where all the action unfolds.  Judicious use of lighting and sound effects suggests the other locations – Elliott Wallis’s superb music-and-sound design goes a long way to creating the atmosphere and a sense of time and place.

The script, by Robert Moore himself, wisely adheres to Conan Doyle, delivering everything we expect from and love about the most famous consulting detective.

There are plenty more stories that could be staged in this manner and I really hope a Tread The Boards Sherlock Holmes show becomes an annual treat.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Moore, please! Robert Moore as Sherlock Holmes (Pic: Andrew Maguire Photography)

Dick Moves

RICHARD III

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022

Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece.  Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots.  Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures.  This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off.  From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting.  It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching.  The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered.  The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.

Hughes is supported by a superlative company.  In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene.  Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed.  Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.

Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals.  The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings.  These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed.  The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation.  The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.

Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events:  the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free.  Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

He came to slay: Arthur Hughes as Richard III
(Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC)

Well?

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 7th August, 2022

Everyone knows the title of Shakespeare’s late comedy (characters even say it as part of their dialogue) but fewer people are familiar with the story it tells.  The play isn’t performed as often as Much Ado, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, so every new production has a head start in delivering something fresh.

Basically, young Helena takes a fancy to Bertram, who rejects her.  She does a favour for the King of France (as you do) and he grants her a wish.  Her wish is to marry Bertram.  Bertram runs away to war because that is preferable to an unwanted marriage, apparently.  Helena goes after him, finds the girl he’s got his eye on and colludes with her to swap places so that Bertram will have sex with Helena after all, unwittingly and without consent.

In some respects, Helena can be regarded as something of a feminist figure, a woman who knows what she wants and goes all out to get it.  Trouble is, she behaves like a man to do this.  Since comedy was invented, male characters have done what Helena does, the exception being that the female object of pursuit enjoys the chase, making only token protestations.  Imagine Sid James going after Barbara Windsor and you get my point.  But when the tables are turned, and it’s a woman taking the lead, it’s uncomfortable somehow.

At this performance, the role of Helena is played by Jessica Layde, and she does a good job, although in later scenes, when Helena is pretending to be a pilgrim, more could be made of the character’s duplicity.  Deception is a big theme of the piece, after all.  Benjamin Westerby is pitch perfect as the cocky but emotionally immature Bertram, while Jamie Wilkes steals the show as the cowardly braggart Parolles.  We like him instantly, as a stock character, an archetype that predates Shakespeare by centuries, but when he is mock-kidnapped and mock-tortured by his soldier buddies, and spills his guts, being even more careless with military secrets than Donald Trump, things change.  The moment when Parolles strips himself to his underpants, rolling around the stage, divested of all pretence is, along with the very final few seconds, the most striking point of the production.

Funlola Olufunwa brings a confident and easy nobility to the elegant Countess, and I could watch Micah Balfour all night.  Bruce Alexander as the King of France and Simon Coates as LaFew show how it should be done, demonstrating vocal strength and mastery of the text that is not quite there with some of the less experienced members of the cast.

Director Blanche McIntyre is keen to point out that her production is set in the here and now.  Projections flash up the date, along with news reports, social media posts (mostly illegible) and selfies; I’m not sure they add much to proceedings other than crying out ‘Look!  How relevant we are!’, when really what is interesting and contemporary about the piece is the reversal of gender behaviour, with Helena as a predatory figure.  In the light of the #MeToo movement, there is much to explore here.

All’s Well is a play of moments rather than a cohesive whole.  This production delivers the highlights superbly but doesn’t really get to grips with the lesser parts.

☆ ☆ ☆

Call that a knife? Jamie Wilkes as Parolles
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Ooh, you are lawful…

LEGALLY BLONDE – The Musical

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May 2022

Stratford Musical Theatre Company turn their talented hands to the musical adaptation of the well-known Reese Witherspoon comedy film, in a vibrant production at the Play House, a venue that is more suited to bands and stand-up comedians.  And so the staging tonight is minimal, leaving the floor free for the large chorus to occupy – director Georgie Wood has drilled her cast to maximum efficiency for getting things on and getting things off again, so the piece runs like clockwork.

It’s the story of Elle Woods who, dumped by her egotistic boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hot pink and hot pursuit, as though getting a law degree will win the chump back… Elle is faced with prejudice because of her looks and demeanour but she overcomes obstacles to prove she is top of the class, and hey, you don’t need a man to make you happy… The show’s message seems to be about not judging books by their covers and breaking down stereotypes, which is a pertinent point to make: to be one’s authentic self.  Why then, does writer Heather Hach tarnish the piece with homophobic representations of LGBTQ+ people, who don’t get a chance to demonstrate they are more than the effeminate, posing, skipping fairies we are subjected to here?  Signs, I think, of the material exceeding its show-by date.  I cringe throughout the song Gay Or European which goes against the positive stereotype-busting message of the rest of it.

Leading the cast as the titular blonde Elle Woods, Vanessa Gravestock delivers an engaging, impressive performance, balancing the dumb-blonde looks with Elle’s innate intelligence.  She’s an appealing presence with the star quality required by the role.

Other highlights (because she’s blonde!) include Christopher Dobson as the tough-talking Professor, effortlessly exuding his dominance and high status;  Casey McKernan amuses as Elle’s cocksure ex Warner; Ian Meikle endears himself as mild-mannered love interest Emmett; Katie Merrygold is stonkingly good as Elle’s new BFF, Paulette Buonufonte; and Oliver Payne makes a scene-stealing appearance as delivery man Kyle.

It doesn’t matter what the cast does though, because any time a dog is brought on, it immediately upstages everyone else!  And I can’t help wondering if the situation is stressful for the animals.

The chorus is great, filling the space with energy and performing Julie Bedlow-Howard’s lively choreography.  In particular, a cheerleading number is splendid.

The singing too is all the more impressive when you realise the singers can’t see musical director James Suckling and the band, who are walled up behind the backdrop!

Unfortunately, there are missed lighting and sound cues, and this is not opening night where you can excuse a few hitches.  Microphone coverage is patchy.  It feels like the show could have done with at least one more technical rehearsal to make these elements of the production as sharp as the rest of it.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In the pink! Vanessa Gravestock front and centre as Elle Woods (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)

Fete Accompli

CONFUSIONS

The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 5th May 2022

This collection of five short pieces by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn was first produced in 1974 – a fact which informs Jacquie Campbell’s costume choices for tonight’s show, subtly suggesting the period, when the piece is suited to anywhen. 

We begin with four park benches on which random individuals are taking their ease — or trying to.  What develops is a string of monologues as each individual seeks to escape the stranger who insists on talking to them.  It’s funny, with each stranger having their own individual voice, but it underlines the main theme of the piece (indeed of all five pieces): desperation born of loneliness.  Ayckbourn can write a funny line sure enough, but he is also an acute observer of the human condition.

Of the strangers, a couple of standouts are Kevin Hand’s Arthur and Margot McCleary’s Doreen.  Director David Mears avoids things becoming static by keeping people moving from bench to bench (this also helps with the in-the-round staging).  It’s like musical chairs without the music.  The cast perform with a sort of heightened naturalism.  Every character however bizarre or mundane their situation – rings true.

Next up is Lucy, a woman left too much alone with her children.  She has lost the ability to converse with adults, so when the couple next door pop round to check up on her, hilarity ensues.  Zoe Mortimer is great as the steely-eyed, assertive mother, and she is matched by Charlotte Froud’s timid Rosemary, with Barry Purchase-Rathbone providing contrast as Rosemary’s bluff husband Terry – until he is put in his place!  It’s very funny to see the adults revert to childhood, but the piece touches on darkness based on psychological truth.

The director himself appears in the next one, as Harry, Lucy’s absentee husband, a boorish, sleazy sales rep who thinks he’s God’s gift, trying to cop off with Jemima Davis’s longsuffering Paula.  Mears gives a cringeworthy performance as the desperate lothario — one of Ayckbourn’s finest middle-class monsters — and we can only sympathise with Paula as she fails to get away.  Rescue arrives in the form of her best friend Bernice, in a coolly forthright portrayal by Kristiyana Petkova.

Next we’re in a restaurant where two separate couples have issues to discuss.  We eavesdrop on their conversations as the waiter goes from table to table, valiantly trying to do his job.  As the waiter, Elliot Gear is a delight, reacting, interjecting, and keeping busy, all with a strained professional demeanour.  A star turn.

Finally, we move to the tea tent at a dreadful village fete.  Trouble with the p.a. system leads to an inadvertent broadcast that destroys a relationship.  With hilarious consequences.  David Mears appears again as Gosforth, the busybody organising the event, showing his versatility with another of Ayckbourn’s monsters.  Lily Skinner’s Milly is tightly wound, becoming increasingly frantic as the situation deteriorates.  Jane Grafton brings a strong whiff of Christine Hamilton to her portrayal of Councillor Emily Pearce, making her eventual humiliation all the more delicious.  Justin Osborne is a hoot as the emotionally immature boy scout leader whose life comes crashing down, and David Gresham adds value as a stock character comedy vicar.  Events descend into organised chaos, with the cast working superbly to convey the urgent desperation and the slapstick of the moment.  I would prefer a bigger bang with the electrics go awry, but that’s just me.

All in all, a splendid evening of entertainment and almost non-stop laughter.  Mears gets the tone just right and his talented cast (wish I had room to mention them all) deliver the goods in this showcase of their abilities.  If the Bear Pit is to stage any more Ayckbourn, I would like to see them tackle one of his later, more experimental shows.  Shows like Confusions are bread-and-butter to them.  I want cake!

☆☆☆☆☆

More tea, Vicar? David Gresham. David Mears, Lily Skinner, Justin Osborne. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Merry Wives of Wakanda

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th February 2022

This new production of theatre’s greatest rom-com boasts an ‘afro-futuristic’ setting – obviously influenced by Marvel’s Black Panther film!  As a world unto itself, this ‘Messina’ works very well.  Jemima Robinson’s set design is simple but exotic, futuristic and  yet retro.  I especially like the little illuminated bulbous plants that border the stage, and the geometric shapes that predominate the setting.  This Messina is a bright and colourful place – which is supported by Melissa Simon-Hartman’s glorious costumes with their strong, solid hues and striking silhouettes, marrying African elements with sci-fi kitsch, in an eye-popping cavalcade of outfits.  This is a great-looking show.

It also sounds phenomenal, with original music by Femi Temowo, played live by an octet of musicians, including some luscious brass.  The jazz/funk/soul/old school R&B-infused score is irresistible and, mercifully, no one raps.  Which makes a refreshing change.  Album release, please!!

Director Roy Alexander Weise makes the script more accessible to a modern audience by updating some of the more archaic vocabulary.  Most of the substitutions hit their mark and get the point across, although uptight purists might squirm.

A strong ensemble cast populates the story of deception and fake news, but any Much Ado is only as good as its Beatrice and Benedick.  In the role of Beatrice, the witty wise-cracker, is Akiya Henry, giving a star turn in comedic acting.  Her word play is razor sharp and it’s matched by her physical comedy.  Henry’s energy is equalled by Luke Wilson as witty wise-cracker Benedick.  Wilson exudes warmth in his portrayal; this Benedick is not only a funny man but a good man too, someone you’d like to know and drink with,

Don Pedro is presented here as Don Pedra, a princess.  The pedant in me wants to scream ‘Shouldn’t that be Donna Pedra?’ but I don’t, because I don’t want to be ejected.  The gender swap allows for a bit of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, which works very well, and Ann Ogbomo is marvellous in the role, embodying a spirit of fun and of (misguided) indignation.

Mohammed Mansaray’s Claudio really comes to life in the church scene, rising to his big moment.  It’s hard not to dislike Claudio in subsequent scenes but Mansaray wins us back when he shows Claudio’s devastation upon hearing the consequences of his actions.

Which brings me to Hero, played by Taya Ming, who invests the role with feistiness and fire, reminding us that Hero is a close relative of Beatrice and not the simpering good girl that she is sometimes shown to be.

Kevin N Golding’s Leonato is just about perfect.  Golding calls at all the stops on the character’s emotional journey and nails every one.  Even though he looks like a Time Lord in a disco wig, he has tears springing to my cynical old eyes more than once.

Also enjoyable are Karen Henthorn’s pompous, Northern Dogberry and the Watch, whose bumbling and malapropisms contrast nicely with the erudite banter of their social ‘betters’.  Here the costumes are their most sci-fi comic book, adding to the fun.

As the villain of the piece, Don John the Bastard, Micah Balfour is deliciously anti-social in this party atmosphere.  Balfour relishes the nastiness and vindictiveness, and therefore so do we.  If only his snazzy boots didn’t squeak so much when he walks!

This is an exuberant, heart-warming, rib-tickling, tear-jerking production of a play that demonstrates that the writer bloody knew what he was doing.  Moments of high (and sometimes low) comedy flip and become intense scenes of powerful drama and, like the plotters in the story, Shakespeare makes us fall in love with Beatrice and Benedick.  Weise’s direction does a bang-up job of delivering these tonal changes effectively, to create a supremely entertaining piece that packs an emotional wallop or two.

One of the reasons I love Much Ado so much is because it reveals something about the playwright’s character, the unknowable Mr Shakespeare who is absent from his other works.  The play shows that without doubt Old Bill was a very witty fellow.  You can’t write Beatrice and Benedick if you don’t possess their sense of humour.  He must have a been a right hoot at parties.

☆☆☆☆☆

Much Afro About Nothing: Mohammed Mansaray, Kevin N Golding, and Taya Ming.
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Elephant in the Room

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021

It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…

Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage.  A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.

Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes.  Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work.  It’s a stonking characterisation.

The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm.  The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow.  There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us.  It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.

Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection.  Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range.  You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.

With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.

It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.

Beautiful.

★★★★★

Trunk Call: Peter (Jack Wolfe) visits the Elephant. Photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC