Tag Archives: Tessa Walker

Spot On


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017


Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year.  Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution.  Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint.  Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.

Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own.  Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness.  Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world.  Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations.  Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.

Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention.  Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her.  Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!

Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood.  Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat.  But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side.  The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.

Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings.   A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.

James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.

All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years.  It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) (3)

Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Lashing Out


The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 6th September, 2017


Dougie (Jonathan Watson) is gathering family members to celebrate his 50th birthday – he has an agenda, a presentation to make.  The venue is his ex-wife’s house and Dougie is welcomed by her second husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) who is a bit of a liberal and a smoothie with a penchant for artisanal ale.  Running tech support for his uncle is Aaron (Michael Abubakar), Dougie’s mixed-race nephew. Completing the party are the ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and the daughter she shares with Dougie, Molly (Joanne Thomson).    The nature of these relationships emerges along with the purpose of Dougie’s presentation…  He has received an email from an organisation that seeks reparation for the evils of the slave trade – it turns out Dougie is a descendant of a sugar-beet millionaire and slave master.  Prompted by white-man’s guilt and his milestone birthday, Dougie wants to do some good in the world, and has come to ask Arlene to sign over Molly’s college fund.

This production in partnership with Traverse Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland provides a powerful 90 minutes of drama, laced with barbed humour and performed by a strong cast of five who each get their moments to shine, thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s taut and thought-provoking script.   Jonathan Watson is great as the volatile Dougie, contrasting nicely with Richard Conlon’s smooth-talking Lorenzo.  Louise Ludgate impresses as the sarcastic, impassioned Arlene, who has good reason to be cynical and short-tempered where Dougie is concerned, while Joanne Thomson’s Molly goes on a journey of discovery as secrets from the past are wrenched to the fore.  Michael Abubakar’s outbursts as Aaron add intensity to proceedings.

Director Tessa Walker draws us into the play’s discourse first with the amusing naturalism of a comedy of manners, and keeps us hooked with seething animosity, spoken and unsaid.  We suspect from the start the email is some kind of scam but the argument it provokes (that the world we live in is built on the atrocities perpetrated by slavers) is potent – although we don’t agree with Dougie’s means to redress ancient evils.

When the true nature of the scam comes to light, we see that the evils that need redressing aren’t so evil, as Aaron learns the truth about his father’s absence.

Darkly comic and provocative, the piece is in danger of letting its argument overpower our attachment to the characters – it’s one of those where you admire the performers but detest the dramatis personae.  A good advertisement for family gatherings, it is not!  And it shows us that racism, unlike the slave trade, is not a thing of the past.

A slanging match with bite and substance, The Whip Hand stirs up big themes in a domestic setting.  The personal is political and there is nothing more personal nor political than the bitter quarrels of family members.

15. Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)



Folk Tale


The REP Studio, Birmingham, Tuesday 19th April, 2016


Tom Wells’s new play is about folk – as in people and as in the traditional music they share.  It’s about traditions surviving through generations – not just music but belief, here typified by Winnie’s constant appeals to saints to assist her in all walks of life, including playing the spoons.

Winnie is a nun, straight out of Father Ted.  Nuns are ‘for comedy’ she states and she certainly gives us that.  Hard-drinking, smoking, and foul-mouthed, she knows how to have a rip-roaring time to let off steam, singing folk songs with her lifelong friend Stephen on a Friday night.  Their revelry is interrupted when a brick comes through the window.  Winnie confronts the vandal only to find it’s fifteen-year old Kayleigh.  To Stephen’s (and our) incredulity, she invites the girl in to join the party.

And so begins a friendship between the two women, and a gradual thawing from the taciturn Stephen.  Winnie, in the face of medical advice, continues with the fags and the booze until her wild ways catch up with her, while Kayleigh has to come to terms with the prospect of being a single teen mom, and Stephen has a revelation of his own to make.  It’s a charming, funny script, peppered with sweet and haunting music, as Stephen tutors Kayleigh to toot.

Connie Walker is a real live-wire as the energetic Winnie, showing us warmth and heart beneath the surface.  She is irresistible in her good nature and is the driving force of the action.  Patrick Bridgman is perhaps a little too quiet as the reticent Stephen but he gets across how deep still waters can run, and Chloe Harris’s awkward and damaged Kayleigh blossoms before our eyes – her confidence and self-esteem growing in tandem with her proficiency on the penny whistle.

Director Tessa Walker marshals the three very different energies of the trio, contrasting moments of hilarity with poignancy.  Folk music, here a metaphor for humanity, transcends time, gender and sexuality.  Our commonalities will enable us to get along despite our differences in character and circumstance.  It’s a heart-warming message, subtly presented.

A conventional piece but none the less satisfying because of it, Folk is an enjoyable, life-affirming piece that doesn’t sugar-coat its take on life.

Patrick Bridgman_Stephen, Connie Walker_Winnie, Chloe Harris_Kayleigh in Folk_credit Graeme Braidwood

The folk of Folk: Patrick Bridgman, Connie Walker and Chloe Harris (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Mountains and Molehills


The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 2nd March, 2015


It’s not every day you get invited to see a play written by a polar bear… Imagine my embarrassment when I realised that Polarbear is the pseudonym of writer Steven Camden! But even so, I’m always keen to see new work from new playwrights.

Camden’s debut piece is a three-hander about three ordinary lads from Smethwick. We spend a weekend in their company on a camping trip to Snowdonia. The trip is a goodbye adventure because one of their number, Luke (Lawrence Walker) is leaving for Leeds University on the following Monday. It’s a one-last good time story, and so a bittersweet vein runs through it.

Ostensibly, Luke is our narrator – although this task is shared almost equally among all three. It’s quick-fire stuff. The writing and the delivery have the brio of a Berkoff, albeit in Brummie accents. The actors bat the story around between them like a ball they’re trying to keep in the air. It’s very funny. Director Tessa Walker keeps that ball bouncing from hand to hand, but at times it does need to slow down just a little. Some clarity is sacrificed on the altar of speed.

Among the bickering and banter, there is a lyrical quality to the writing (again bringing Berkoff to mind) and throughout the boys’ misadventures, encounters and arguments (both heartfelt and petty), we are drawn in, by the characters and by the performers. It’s hard to say who I like more, the fictional creations or the actors bringing them to such entertaining life. Their inevitable parting at the end is poignant without being mawkish. They are to begin the next, as yet, unwritten chapters of their lives. The trio is split, never to be the same again. And that’s very sad – but part of growing up.

Lawrence Walker is very strong as undergraduate Luke, but then so are the other two. Sam Cole’s Tommy and Waleed Akhtar’s Zia come across as rounded characters, and all three actors drop into other characters with skill and ease. Akhtar’s comic timing impresses the most – we can believe Zia’s ambition of becoming a stand-up comedian.

The staging is simple – a red stepladder suggests the tent and a small ramp covered in fake grass is both the car and the Welsh countryside. Simon Bond’s lighting adds atmosphere, picking the actors out in camp firelight, as they embark on a bit of primeval dancing, helping us to paint the scenery described by the characters in our heads.

The play is a portrayal and a celebration of friendship but on another level, beneath the surface, the split of these three (one white, one Asian and one mixed-race) hints at coming divisions in society. As a microcosm for Smethwick, or indeed the UK as a whole, the three friends have rubbed along nicely for years, despite or perhaps because of their differences. It is sobering to think of them going their separate ways and something very special being lost.

Back Down is an exuberant and effective debut. I look forward to Polarbear’s next piece – like a Sealion waiting to be thrown a fish…

Waleed Akhtar (Zia), Sam Cole (Tommy) and Lawrence Walker (Luke) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Waleed Akhtar (Zia), Sam Cole (Tommy) and Lawrence Walker (Luke) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Let’s Go Round Again


The Door, Birmingham REP, Thursday 15th May 2014

The Number 11 is a bus that takes a circular route around outer Birmingham and is the setting for Rachel De-Lahey’s new piece – well, the people who use the bus or live on the route, which forms a metaphor for their lives and perhaps all our lives.

The play kicks off with an explosive monologue as loud-mouthed Malachi brags into his phone in a bid to impress a girl sitting a few seats away.  It’s a barrage of street talk and energy but Malachi’s swagger bubble is bursyt when during the ‘call’ his phone rings.  It’s his mum, assigning domestic chores.  It’s a hilarious reversal, played to the hilt by the likeable Toyin Kinch.  As the story progresses and his friendship with Demi (a striking Danusia Samal) develops, we see Malachi has a certain charm and sweet nature underneath the street talk and the posturing.

Scenes on the bus are interwoven with scenes in the home of elderly Phyllis (Janice McKenzie) who is a martyr to her dodgy hip and bad back.  Phyllis’s world view is limited, shaped by her experience and disability but it doesn’t stop her giving daughter Angela (Sarah Manners) a hard time when she returns to Phyllis for refuge from the violent partner who decorated her face with bruises.  The relationship between mother and daughter is far from easy, providing a neat contrast to the humorous scenes on board the 11.  Tensions simmer and boil over in some powerfully emotional moments between the two women.  Director Tessa Walker handles the changes of mood and pace effectively as De-Lahey’s script reveals what exactly is at stake.

It’s about patterns of behaviour, thinking in circles, living in a rut.  Repeating mistakes and passing those mistakes onto the next generation.  Will Demi be able to break the cycle?  Are all men bastards?

Circles is an engaging and entertaining 65 minutes with some blistering performances from this excellent cast.  While it has very much a local flavour (the Brummie accent lends itself easily to comedy), the subject matter could play anywhere: abusive relationships, domestic violence and victimhood (which is a word I have just coined!)

Catch it if you can.


Toyin Kinch (Malachi) and Danusia Samal (Demi). Photo: Graeme Braidwood

Kinder Surprises


The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th December, 2013

In this engaging and entertaining piece of storytelling, writer and performer Bernadette Russell recounts what happened when, as a reaction to the London riots of 2011, she decided to counteract the barrage of bad news and negativity propagated by the media by embarking on the (perhaps foolhardy) plan to perform an act of kindness to a stranger – a different stranger! – every day for a year.  These acts of kindness include leaving a pound coin on a seat on the tube, surprising someone with a bunch of flowers, taping a box of cigarettes to a wall with a sign saying “Smoke these” (dubious, that one) and giving someone a copy of 50 Shades (tantamount to cruelty in my view).  Some are simple (paying a smile or compliment); others are more elaborate and expensive.

How this plan came about, how it was achieved and received, form the bulk of this personal lecture.  Photographs and video clips illustrate key points.  Pop music and even a Star Wars theme accompany some of the more grandiose speeches.  She even whips out a ukulele at one point to strum out a Billy Bragg instrumental to underscore some images.  At no point does it come across as didactic or evangelical.  There is no hard sell to recruit us to do the same.

And yet… so charming, self-deprecating and downright funny is Russell’s persona, you can’t help admiring her and wanting to emulate her endeavours in some way.

She is supported by co-writer Gareth Brierley, who sits behind a table voicing characters she encountered and representing each one by holding up an appropriate style of shoe.  It’s a simple but effective device.  The table soon becomes crowded with these tokens, hinting at the scale of the enterprise.  Brierley also throws shapes in a contemporary dance number that steals the limelight from a montage of photos we are invited to look at on a screen.

Director Tessa Walker keeps things moving to keep us focussed.  Facts and figures are delivered in a wide variety of ways and there are changes in tone and mood to keep us interested.

It’s a very amusing, touching and thought-provoking 70 minutes that might just change your life.

A little bit.


If you can’t get to a performance and would like to find out more, follow @betterussell on Twitter or have a butcher’s at http://www.366daysofkindness.com

Lacking in Spirit


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2013


Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Dickens’s seasonal classic emphasises its own theatricality.  A chorus of spirits in Victorian garb – grubby and dark, unlike the picturesque variety you find on Christmas cards – decide to influence the affairs of mortals (a bit like the gods in Clash of the Titans) and they focus their endeavours on one Ebenezer Scrooge, the epitome of anti-Christmas feeling and misanthropy.  The spirits wheel on lampposts, doors and so on, calling for special effects to manipulate each scene.  In a way, this allows director Tessa Walker to be rather inventive and, neatly and cleverly, to convey scene changes and depict the more fantastical elements of the tale.

The trouble is this approach robs the story of spookiness and surprise.

Standing in as Scrooge, Jo Servi does a nice line in wide-eyed double-takes, and pent-up aggression to anyone who bids him a merry Christmas.  As the spirits show him the past and present, traces of old emotions leak out from his tight-lipped callousness – it’s not so much a change in the man as a rekindling of what is already there, what is in all of us to begin with: our common humanity.   Scrooge’s reawakening is a release of suppressed emotion and Servi carries it off well enough with a sprightly song-and dance number.

Marc Akinfolarin’s Jacob Marley intones a stark warning in a beautiful bass voice and there is a lot of energy provided by Roddy Peters as the antithesis to Scrooge, the permanently cheerful nephew Fred.

Jason Carr’s score is very reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, weaving in snatches of traditional carols in a rather discordant way.  As Scrooge thaws, the numbers become more melodic and somewhat more memorable.

Ti Green’s set – all bricks and floorboards with a false proscenium arch upstage – echoes the theatricality of the approach and suggests the dingy London streets.  I like the fact that it doesn’t change in line with Scrooge’s change of heart.  It’s the people, now all colourful and happy, that decorate this environment with Christmas cheer.

The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is an enormous rod puppet, a griffin spreading its tattered wings like a skeletal vulture.  It’s a striking image but it’s a cumbersome process getting it on and off and it lacks the humanity of the previous spectral visitors.  It’s like the carcass of a Christmas bird picked clean, a sign of austere times to come.  It’s handled very expressively but, like the rest of the production, it’s a little too pedestrian to ignite the imagination or elicit an emotional response.

The openly artificial approach, efficient and clever though it may be, doesn’t give us a single “how did they do that?” moment to surprise us or fill us with wonder.  Instead we get a workable, workday version of the well-known story, performed by a likeable and proficient company, but lacking in that special ingredient to touch us and warm our hearts.