Tag Archives: The Alexandra Theatre

Happy Slappers

BAND OF GOLD

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2020

 

Kay Mellor’s hit series (which I must confess to never having watched) comes to the stage in this new adaptation.  Retaining its 1990s setting, the story puts sex workers at the forefront of the action, making them the protagonists rather than incidental characters.  We meet Carol (tart with a heart) on the game to provide for her daughter, who was sired by her copper of an ex-boyfriend; there’s Anita (hooker with a cooker) who rents out the flat her fancy man keeps her in for working girls to use); and then there’s Rose (slut with guts) who rules The Lane…

The plot kicks off when newly-separated Gina (Sacha Parkinson) finds selling cosmetics door-to-door is not bringing in enough dosh to pay off the evil loan shark (a menacing Joe Mallalieu) who keeps turning up.  So, with little in the way of soul-searching or agonising, she decides to go on the game – it’s preferable to getting back with her aggressive and abusive husband (a convincingly volatile Kieron Richardson – Ste off of Hollyoaks).  At first, things go well for Gina…

A murder mystery emerges, and with all the male characters being disagreeable, to put it mildly, there’s no shortage of suspects.  Enter Carol’s ex, Inspector Newall (Shayne Ward) back from exile in Wolverhampton, of all places.  Ward is underused – it’s the girls who get to the bottom of things, so to speak.  The show has quite a large cast but there’s not enough time to give them more than fleeting appearances.

As tough-talking Rose, Gaynor Faye (off of Emmerdale) is good value and she is matched by Emma Osman’s plain-speaking Carol and, at this performance, Virginia Byron’s increasingly desperate Anita.  There is strong support from Olwen May as Gina’s mother Joyce, along with Mark Sheals as George, and Andrew Dunn (you know, him from Dinnerladies) as Councillor Barraclough.

The play touches on subjects like women’s empowerment versus their exploitation, the corruption of businesses and local government, the dangers of working the streets… but there is not enough time to examine any of these things in depth.  The shortness of the scenes underlines the show’s origins as television drama.   Mellor packs a lot in at the expense of resonance.  Nevertheless, the show is instantly engaging and there is a rich vein of bluff Northern humour running through it along with some cracking lines (“He’s got a face like a fart in a trance”).  It may be a bit drama-by-numbers, but it’s effortlessly watchable, entertaining fare, although the significance of the title continues to elude me.

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Kieron Richardson and Gaynor Faye (Photo: Ant Robling)

 


Brolly Good Show

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd August, 2019

 

Once a year, the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham city centre becomes a nurturing ground for young talent with its Stage Experience scheme.  This year the production is the stage musical version of the sublime Hollywood movie musical – it’s a big ask and, as ever, the young performers do more than acquit themselves.  It’s staggering to think how much they achieve in so brief a rehearsal period; it’s thanks to director-choreographer Pollyann Tanner who waves a theatrical wand (or cracks a theatrical whip!) to marshal her company of one hundred and one performers into shape.  Every single one of them performs with commitment, energy and discipline.  Unfortunately, there is no space to list them all here.

Leading the cast is Ben Tanner as silent-movie star Don Lockwood, who shows very quickly he can croon and hoof impressively, bringing warmth to the role.  As his best buddy Cosmo, Sam Rogers has a kind of manic humour that hits more than it misses, while Isabella Kibble is spot on as love interest Kathy Selden, even though it takes me a while to get used to Kathy as a blonde.  When these three get together to perform Good Morning, all the elements align to make this number the highlight of the show for me – it’s just about perfect.

Jessica Walton shines as the villainous Lina Lamont, complete with tortuous accent and monstrous ego, and there is fine support from Thom Lambert as Roscoe Dexter and Jarrad Heath as studio boss R. F. Simpson – although he could do with greying up a little to distinguish him from the other young males.

As we have come to expect, the production/chorus numbers, though densely populated, are beautifully sung.  Special mention goes to Jack Smyth for his assured vocals in Beautiful Girl.  While there is much to marvel at in the organisation and execution of a production of this scale (the costume demands alone are mind-boggling), the show is also a lot of fun and enjoyable in itself.  The specially filmed clips of the silent movies are hilarious, and the title song, with its obligatory rainfall, makes quite a splash.

On the whole, the accents are fine and the pacing works very well.  There are occasions when the dialogue could be crisper, but it would be churlish of me to hold this against them.  Yet again Stage Experience has produced dazzling results, has given a multitude of young people invaluable experience onstage and off, and above all, has given the audience an evening of quality entertainment.

Singin' in the Rain

Gene puddle: Ben Tanner as Don Lockwood (Photo: Sam Bagnall)

 

 

 

 


French Kissing

AMELIE The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 22nd July, 2019

 

Based on the acclaimed French film of 2001, this new musical (and English) version with its romanticised vision of Paris is in Birmingham this week.  Although the story includes historical details (mainly concerning the Princess of Wales) this Paris is a highly stylised, mythical place, where anything (including singing goldfish and giant fig men) can and does happen.  Our protagonist is Amélie, a young woman whose sheltered upbringing has made it nigh on impossible to form a loving relationship with a bloke.  She devotes her life to helping others anonymously and it all goes rather well until handsome Nino enters the mix…

Madeleine Girling’s elegantly versatile two-tier set is the backdrop for the action: a ticket office serves as a confessional, the pianos become café display cabinets, and so on, with Amélie repeatedly ascending to her flat on the upper level, Mary Poppins-like with the aid of a lampshade.  The stage is populated by the other characters – the cast all double roles and play musical instruments, to the extent that at some points the main action is crowded out by the hustle and bustle of the musicians.  It all sounds great, the playing and the singing are fine, I just wish some of them would clear off every once in a while to give the story more space, and to give certain scenes sharper focus.

In the title role, Audrey Brisson gives a phenomenal performance, augmenting Amélie ’s otherness with her physicality.  Movements and gestures are sharp and precise, her timing is immaculate, and her singing is strong and sweet.  Her native French accent is not as pronounced as the phoney French accents of the  rest of the cast; I would have preferred English accents, like a dubbed version of the film – the musical arrangements and the art deco scenery are more than enough to ground the story in Parisienne colour.

Danny Mac is perfectly dreamy as Nino.  Mac is steadily becoming one of our most dependable musical theatre stars.  His singing has warmth and range, and he makes a charismatic figure, but there are a few moments when the accent intrudes a little.

The main action of the story takes a while to get going: the first act is heavy with back-story and exposition, and so this lightweight story with folk-tale elements suffers from a running time that feels overlong, and while I find the staging inventive and charming on the whole, director Michael Fentiman keeps his stage too busy for me to engage with the action completely.  There is a strong Emma Rice feel to the proceedings with the onstage actor-musicians and the delightful puppetry, yet the show’s most powerful moment takes place in complete silence.

A confection of a show, where the whimsicality of the story is offset by the wistfulness of the score, Amélie the Musical is perhaps not for all tastes.  I find it a little cluttered but its heart is definitely in the right place.

Pamela Raith Photography

Charming: Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac (Pamela Raith Photography)


Life of the Party

ABIGAIL’S PARTY

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st January, 2019

 

Mike Leigh’s classic TV play gets a new lease of life in this new touring production directed by Sarah Esdaile.  The first thing that strikes you is Janet Bird’s impressive set, all suburban 1970s with the perspective raked just enough to engender a slight sense of claustrophobia.  The action takes place solely in the living room of Beverly and Laurence, and like the neighbours who gather there for a spot of social drinking, we can be forgiven if we feel like we’re caged in with wild animals.

Jodie Prenger absolutely rules the roost as the monstrous bully Beverly, in a splendidly performed characterisation of bad behaviour dressed up as good manners.  That’s what this piece is, a comedy of manners with some very black humour indeed.   Prenger is magnificent, eyes shooting daggers – mainly at her tightly wound, hard-working husband Laurence (Daniel Casey) – and she very much makes the part her own rather than trying to recreate Alison Steadman’s original incarnation.

Vicky Binns is great value as the tactless Angela, a kind of acolyte for Beverly, while Calum Callaghan’s monosyllabic Tony is brimming with pent-up aggression.  Completing the quintet is Rose Keegan as the meek and uncomfortable Sue, almost stealing the show, in my view.  By the way, the titular party and the eponymous Abigail are both off-stage in Sue’s house.  Sarah Esdaile gets the most out of this skilful ensemble and paces the exchanges to perfection while maintaining a kind of heightened naturalism.

It’s a very funny piece.  Originally, it was a comment on contemporary society; nowadays, it’s a period piece and there is the laughter of nostalgia as certain brand names crop up.  The attitudes, of course, are still very much with us.  What’s the betting Laurence and Beverly would vote Leave?  This is very much a character-driven piece, dealing with the dynamics and inherent tensions of relationships as well as the sheer awfulness of social niceties.

A high-quality production, where everything from performances to costumes to soundtrack is all spot on.  A real treat to see a classic presented so excellently, so hilariously.  It’s great fun to witness such carryings-on, but Leigh is also holding up a mirror: there is plenty for each of us to recognise in ourselves here, if we’d dare to admit it.

I dare: I’m very much a Sue.

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Jodie Prenger as Beverly

 


Rock Your Socks Off

ROCK OF AGES

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018

 

As ever, I approach this jukebox musical with trepidation.  Will it be the same sort of flimsy plot with old songs shoehorned in just for the sake of it?  Will I sit there for two hours asking myself what’s the point?

All my fears were allayed within minutes.  It turns out Rock of Ages is an absolute beaut of a show, hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  Set in mid-to-late 1980s on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, this is a world of big hair and ripped jeans, where ‘rock’ is a verb and middle fingers are firmly jabbed upwards.  At no point are we invited to take any of it seriously.  The fourth wall is well and truly demolished and the script is peppered with theatrical gags, celebrating the artifice of the enterprise.

Our narrator is Lonny, performed by an irresistibly likeable Lucas Rush, camp, crass and hilarious.  Lonny works as a ‘sound guy’ in the Bourbon Room, a club owned by ageing rocker Dennis (an unrecognisable Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy).  Rush and Kennedy make an excellent pairing: their rendition of I Can’t Fight This Feeling is a comic highlight of a show that has many such moments.

Leading man Drew, a wannabe rocker, is played by Luke Walsh, whose voice is absolutely searing.  The only thing missing is a good head of big hair for him to bang when the need arises.  Leading lady Sherrie, a wannabe actor who has a harder time of it than Drew (but this reflects the sexual politics of the era, I suppose) is played by Danielle Hope, combining strength and vulnerability.  Her voice has Pat Benatar qualities and her rendition of More Than Words gives shivers.

The course of Drew’s love doesn’t run smooth, of course, and he is disheartened when Sherrie, believing Drew isn’t interested, becomes entangled with rock superstar Stacee Jaxx – a toweringly funny portrayal from the mighty Sam Ferriday.  His Jaxx is all ego and charisma; Ferriday is lithe and sinuous and hilarious in his physicality.  His voice is superb.  I find myself falling for this long-haired, white-suited monster.

Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy bring broad comedy as a pair of German property developers, the villains of the piece who make ‘Allo Allo’ seem subtle.  Carthy also proves himself a nifty mover in some surprising dance moments.  Rhiannon Chesterman is consistently bonkers as activist Regina, while the phenomenal Zoe Birkett is a strong contender for the show’s vocal crown as stripclub-owner Justice.

The book, by Chris D’Arienzo, keeps the jokes flowing along with a plethora of 80s soft rock hits, and I am surprised whenever, among the knockabout fun, moments of beauty arise: Every Rose Has Its Thorn stirs the blood.  The music is provided by a brilliant onstage band under the aegis of musical director Barney Ashworth, and there is energetic pastiche choreography by Nick Wilson and Ryan-Lee Seager (who also direct) and of course we are all up on our feet by the end – how could you not be?  How could you not adore this crazy cavalcade?  You must be made of rock.

I leave the theatre exhilarated – and relieved they didn’t kill the mood with the title song!

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Hair today: Lucas Rush as Lonny