Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

Dress To Impress

THE BOY IN THE DRESS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019

 

I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant.  This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).

This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people.  His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals.  Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress.  Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.

Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles.  Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on.  A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance.  He will knock your frocks off.

The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time.  It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.

Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son.  Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across).  Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John.  Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).

The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work.  Take that, Gary Barlow!  Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today.  Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast.  Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.

It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress.  “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James.  You go, girl!

A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too.  And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Boy in the Dress production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_299317

Masterful: Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC copyright

 

 


Small but perfectly formed

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 14th December, 2019

 

Stratford’s intimate Attic theatre may not seem a suitable venue for pantomime but clearly Tread The Boards Theatre Company, returning for their tenth Christmas show, know how to make it work.  What we lose in scale and spectacle is more than compensated for by closeness and directness.  Director Jennifer Rigby delivers all the crucial elements for a traditional show; the reach-out-and-touch properties of the space add a personal touch.  We are all in it, inescapably, and the proximity of the actors adds to the fun and to our admiration of their talents.

John-Robert Partridge’s script gives the cast of seven plenty to do.  Annaliese Morgan makes an appealing and fun Fairy Beansprout, brandishing a leek for some reason instead of a wand.  Contrasting perfectly with her sweetness, is the sneering Danny Teitge as the Giant’s menacing henchman, Fleshcreep, in a detailed, hilarious performance that accentuates the comedy of the role.  Jack Scott-Walker is suitably heroic as Jack, and his duet with the Princess (Nicolette Morgan) demonstrates his fine singing voice.  The Princess is spirited and fun-loving, definitely not one of those royals who keeps herself aloof.

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A Fleshcreep to make your skin crawl: Danny Teitge (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

Marc Alden-Taylor quickly establishes himself as a favourite, swiftly befriending the audience and enlisting us into his ‘gang’ in a skilful portrayal of Simple Simon.  The comic timing is spot on and his rapport with the audience, especially the children, is hugely enjoyable.  There is energetic support from Linden Iliffe as a perky Lord Chamberlain, but the icing on this Christmas cake comes in the form of Pete Meredith’s superlative Dame Trot.  Naughty but never vulgar, Meredith is a hoot with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of garish gowns and colourful wigs that complement his characterisation perfectly.

There are amusing scenes with Daisy the Cow (appearing as herself) and the Giant is heard but never seen – in fact it is here, that there’s a slight issue: the sound mix makes the Giant a bit hard to understand when he has prolonged dialogue, but the actions and reactions of the cast mean that we still get the gist of what he’s booming on about.

There are plenty of jokes and lots of well-worn routines: a bit of It’s-Behind-You with a prowling ghost, some silliness in a schoolroom scene, a breakneck rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas, a hilarious, if extraneous, balloon ballet that elicits belly laughs… and there is also excitement with an impressive bout of swordfighting between Jack and Fleshcreep, all the more thrilling at such close quarters.  Running business with a bag of sweets keeps us actively engaged, but more could be made of the water pistols given to young audience members to ward characters off particular areas of the stage.

A highlight for me is a brand-new original song, composed by the excellent musical director Elliott Wallis and sung by Danny Teitge (with support from Daisy the Cow).  Teitge’s delivery and Wallis’s skill make the number sound as if it has been lifted from a Broadway show.  It fits perfectly the character and the context and is performed exquisitely.

In fact, the cast sells all the musical numbers well, with lively pop choreography by Catherine Prout, and when they all sing together it’s fantastic.  The energy never flags in this fine, fun production that proves you don’t need grand spectacle and expensive effects to enchant and entertain.

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Daisy the Cow (herself) and Jack (Jack Scott-Walker) in a mooving scene (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

 

 

 


Julie, Madly, Deeply

AFTER MISS JULIE

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th November, 2019

 

Aspect Theatre’s follow-up to the excellent Duet for One is this play by Patrick Marber from 2003, which is based on Strindberg’s 1888 drama.  The action is transposed to an English country house in 1945, when post-war Britain is heady from the landslide victory of the Labour Party (aka ‘the good old days’!)  Rather than join her father in London, Miss Julie stays at home to party with the servants.  She has designs in particular on John, her father’s chauffeur, who is loosely engaged to Christine, the cook.  The scene is set for a triangular battle of wills.

Katherine Parker-Jones is excellent as the eponymous Julie, giving a complex characterisation.  Here is Julie’s fragility and haughtiness, her vulnerability and pain, her self-loathing and her imperiousness – all at the mercy of her baser desires.  She is both predator and prey.

As the object of Julie’s attentions, John Lines makes chauffeur John a man torn between duty and desire, between propriety and possibility.   He is tantalised by the prospect of a new life in New York, liberated from the rigidity of the class system, all the while despising what Julie represents and yet desiring her as a woman.  This pair are messed up, I’m telling you!

By contrast, Lizzie Crow as Christine the plain-speaking cook, knows her mind and her place and has a more pragmatic approach.  Crow’s silences speak volumes – it’s a compelling performance – and when she lets rip, it is to take the moral high ground (albeit somewhat hypocritically).

Director Marc Dugmore establishes and maintains an intimately naturalistic feel – a good fit for the snug space at the Attic, and Patrick Marber’s writing touches on the symbolism that is indicative of the material’s Scandinavian origins.  The fate of a pet bird, for example, represents the deflowering of Miss Julie.

The long table that dominates Katherine Parker-Jones’s set design represents the class system: it is used properly by the servants, but Julie breaks conventions and sits on it, even serves herself up on it at one point.  There is a lot to unpack here, raising the stakes beyond that of a three-handed domestic spat.

It’s a gripping 75 minutes of top-quality drama that asks us to examine that which we perhaps cannot escape or avoid: our place in the class system and our own animalistic nature.

A splendid production that manages to be both classy and sordid at the same time!

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Drama is served: Katherine Parker-Jones and John Lines

 


Nursing a Grudge

SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019

 

Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father.  The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot.  It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked.  The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father.  Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister…  So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder.  More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow.  The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy.  A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.

Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout.  It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.

Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next.  As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.

Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer.  Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect.  The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns.  This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.

There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther.  Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.

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The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)

 


A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)


Wolf at the Door

CROOKED DANCES

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th June, 2019

 

This captivating new work from playwright Robin French tells the story of ambitious journalist Katy and cocky photographer Nick as they travel across France to interview a reclusive concert pianist in her country retreat.  It starts as a comedy, sparkling with social commentary and feels very ‘now’.  Director Elizabeth Freestone has the actors facing front as the characters ride on the Eurostar, affording us a kind of split screen view – a simple idea that effectively exposes character.  This is a production brimming with ideas, some more simple than others, but most of them are brilliantly effective.

At the retreat, a cottage in the woods, things are not what they seem.  The pianist is cagey, abrupt and mercurial.  French draws us into the mystery, offering metaphysical speculations before bringing us to the edge of our seats with shocks and surprises.  Freestone handles these gear changes splendidly, marrying the naturalism of her actors with video effects and the otherworldly music of Erik Satie.

Jeany Spark is spot on as the driven journalist, snooping around in drawers and handbags at every opportunity.  We both like and dislike her at the same time; above all, we understand her.  Olly Mott is a real treat as laddish photographer Nick, complete with that modern London accent that has cropped up in recent years.  It’s a very funny performance but played with utter credibility.

Ben Onwukwe charms as long-suffering manager Denis, a faithful retainer and exasperated host.  But the show belongs to Ruth Lass and her portrayal of the enigmatic pianist Silvia de Zingaro.  Forthright and formidable, she weaves a spell, playing Satie live on the set’s grand piano and recounting the composer’s strange personal history.  Suddenly we are in horror movie territory, isolated in the woods, with wolves on the prowl… Here French leads us up the garden path somewhat: Satie dabbled in the occult and so does Silvia.  Something happens and this snappy comedy flips into a provocative chiller.  Our intellectual response to the material becomes a more emotional, visceral one.

An engaging, entertaining and exciting new work expertly executed.  I was enthralled.

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Ruth Lass (Photo: Ellie Kurtz (c) RSC)