Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

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

 

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A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018

 

Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

thumbnail_Dennis & Mrs Swabb

Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)


Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018

 

Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage.  It’s massive and no easy task.  The thing is strung up by its  hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance.  Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production.  Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.

The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.

The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence.  How dare she choose her own husband?!  And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will.  As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves.  They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go.  But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café.  His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.

Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding.  The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace.  Gradually, Gough’s tones take over.  It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.

The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half.  Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all.  The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet.  They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff.  I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!

As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis.  Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late.  He’s the most interesting character of the lot.  While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.

At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.

malfi

Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Hugo Faster

LES MISERABLES – School Edition

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th March, 2018

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company’s young division tackle the ‘schools version’ of the renowned Boubil & Schonberg musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel – a story that is grimmer than an omnibus edition of EastEnders.  All the scenes and songs are here but the running time is abridged by about half an hour.  It’s an ambitious project but the stripped-down setting works rather well, giving the space entirely to the youthful performers.  Director Judi Walton is to be commended for the discipline and commitment she has instilled in her multitudinous chorus, who get on and off quickly and efficiently and sing really well – and as though they mean it.

There is much to relish from the principal characters.  I’ll reel off some highlights:  Florence Cain’s expressive Fantine displays emotional depth – her ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a knockout.  Elisea Cooper’s Eponine, feeling the pangs of unrequited love, is also strong.  Marius (a fresh-faced Tristan Barford) is excellent – by the time we get to ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’, he can do no wrong in my eyes. Mollie Dibb’s Cosette hits piercing high notes with apparent ease, while Rachel McDonnell’s Madame Thernadier is a just about perfectly pitched piece of musical theatre character acting.  As her husband, Monsieur Thernadier, John Luke Goodman shows promise but needs to ensure his energy levels are consistent throughout his delivery, rather than throwing away some of the gags.  Nathan Woolley makes a rousing Enjolras, while Samuel Littell’s cocky, Cockney Gavroche could put the Artful Dodger to shame.

Heading the cast as bread thief Jan Valjean, Isaac Aston has some powerful moments, ultimately bringing the house down with ‘Bring Him Home’.

All in all, this production is impressively performed but where I have an issue is the speed of it all.  We rattle through the show at a rate of knots; perhaps musical director Sam Young is worried that the pubs might be shut before it’s finished.  The result is that many moments are robbed of their impact.  There is more to musical theatre than hitting the notes and getting the words out.  The characters need time to emote, to think, to react.  Here, they barely get chance to breathe.  And so, for example, Alexander Fox’s Javert is denied his menace and his anguish as he races through his pieces; the death of Eponine also happens too fast… It’s a pity we skip over the surface of the songs when this talented mob of youngsters clearly has the potential for greater emotional depth.

cosette-colour

 


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.

hoot owl

Hoot Owl (Ellis Creez) petitions Parliament


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.

Prima-Donna