Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

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.

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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

 


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.

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