Tag Archives: The Old Rep

Girls Just Wanna Kill Pigs


The Old Rep, Birmingham, Thursday 26th April, 2018


It can be difficult, when your class of students is entirely female, to find suitable material for performance.  Director Jade Allen tackles this problem by taking a play she wants to put on and giving the characters a gender swap.  And so William Golding’s all-male story (via Nigel Williams’s adaptation) is given a twist – a plane-load of schoolgirls crashes onto a deserted island – rather than having the actresses play as male (which would have been interesting in itself).

It works.  Mostly.  Some of the time I can’t escape the idea that this is St Trinian’s doing Castaway but there are some excellently-realised moments that deliver the power of the original tale.  It begins with a stylised movement sequence as the girls are jolted through air turbulence before the crash itself – and then the screaming starts!  This should be used sparingly, I think, otherwise proceedings take on the air of a Justin Bieber concert.

Emily Taylor warms into her role as elected leader ‘Raffy’, while her rival Jack (Hennesha George) has her moments too – some of them snide, some of them menacing.  Anyone who has taught secondary school will tell you, you are never more than a couple of steps away from savagery – and there is plenty of schoolgirl bitching and bullying to go around here.

Emma Hackett and Emma Howes make strong impressions as twins Erin and Sam, although their completion of each other’s sentences could do with speeding up.  Megan Davies adds a touch of humour as Marie, goofing around, while Sophie Keeble’s Rowena is a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  Amani Khan makes a convincing enough oddball as Simone, while Beth Townsend’s Piggy, the voice of civilisation, has impassioned moments – Piggy’s fate is cleverly staged.  In fact, it is during the stylised moments that this production really hits the heights.  Although the dance at the feast is not primal enough, being too controlled, too choreographed, it leads to one of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on stage, as the girls turn on ‘the beast’ in a frenzy of which the Bacchae would be proud.

Even though the action is somewhat cramped and the energy levels sag a couple of times, this makes for an interesting experiment and while it didn’t get me thinking about the thin veneer of civilisation (you know, the one that cracks as soon as you see something you disagree with on the internet) but of notions of casting in the theatre, and how relevant is a character’s gender to a piece?


boa lord


Rat’s Tale


The Old Rep, Birmingham, Saturday 2nd March, 2013


Philip Pullman’s enchanting story is brought to life in this adaptation for the stage by Teresa Ludovico, who also directs.  The story has a fairytale feel and there are also elements of Oliver Twist and Pinocchio.  It begins when a peaceful evening of sharing stories from the newspaper (Bob and Joan reminded me of a West Indian Meg and Petey in Pinter’s The Birthday Party) is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a boy, dressed as a footman.  The boy has a peculiar type of amnesia.  He can only claim “I was a rat!” and knows nothing of table manners or the wide world in general.  The old couple consult a range of authorities: legal, medical, educational, before deciding they will adopt the strange boy for themselves.  Except it is too late.  Trouble at school means the boy, now named Roger, goes on the run.  The media – namely a newspaper called the Daily Scourge – stirs up public opinion against him, and before long people are in fear of the ‘monster’ among them.  Roger falls in with the wrong sorts (circus folk and criminals) and is captured and put on trial for his life.

It’s fast-moving, inventive fun with the emphasis on the agility and versatility of the performers, who dash around and move like a commedia dell’arte troupe, using grotesque masks and mime to enhance their physicalisation of a range of characters.   Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle are endearing as the caring old married couple, not too old to have a snowball fight when the mood takes them.  Christopher Dingli amuses as the bureaucratic stickler in City Hall, Dodger Phillips is a grotesque dame as ringmaster’s wife Mrs Tapscrew, complete with a frock that resembles the big top; and Jack Jones is hilarious as Mrs Cribbins.  This is not a show about subtlety and is all the better for it.  TJ Holmes’s Philosopher Royal brings a touch of the Absurd, rather like Alice’s Caterpillar with his musings and pronouncements.  Menace comes from Joey Hickman’s burglar Billy.

There is no scenery: spaces are delineated by lighting.  High chairs are wheeled on and off for characters of high status.  The cast mime most of the props while helpful hands appear from the wings to provide sound effects.  It all seems simple but it’s inventive and above all, theatrical.  David Watson’s English version of the script has more than a hint of satire to it.  As well as the overtly topical lines about the horsemeat scandal, there is a timely nudge to the brouhaha about the media’s portrayal of a ‘plastic princess’ (to borrow Hilary Mantel’s words) – the Princess Aurelia is a puppet, a disembodied manikin’s head with gloves and shoes!   It’s a witty script; a scene in the sewers gives a cheeky nod to Les Mis – there is as much to entertain the adults in the audience as the kids.

Luigi Spezzacatene’s costumes add to the fairytale-cum-Dickensian feel.  The police are flamboyantly Ruritanian. Even the police dog gets an extravagant uniform.  The rats are simply portrayed through movement but their flashlight eyes lend them an air of otherness.

The undoubted star of the piece is Fox Jackson-Keen as ex-rat Roger.  A charming portrayal of an innocent abroad in a wicked world on one hand; on the other, a dazzling display of dance and gymnastic, acrobatic ability.  His ‘circus act’s tops the show.

The happy ending is satisfying but so understated it lacks emotional punch;  nevertheless you will be hard-pressed to find a more energetically entertaining family show currently on the circuit.

Roger (Fox Jackson-Keen) is put through his paces by nasty circus owner Tapscrew (Christopher Dingli)

Roger (Fox Jackson-Keen) is put through his paces by nasty circus owner Tapscrew (Christopher Dingli)

Wood for the Trees

The Old Rep, Birmingham, Friday 31st August, 2012

Opening night/preview performance reviewed.

Created for the World Shakespeare Festival, this piece “based on texts by William Shakespeare” is a bit of a curate’s egg. Uneven in tone and quality, it gradually becomes more rewarding as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts.

It begins in a clinically white space, dominated by a tree standing on a box. At once, I thought of Waiting For Godot. Cast members wander on to the stage and peer at it as though it’s some kind of art installation in a gallery. The arrival of musician Maika Makovski begins the show proper. Beautiful, with a voice to match, Makovski provides the accompaniment to most of the action, with moments in the spotlight for her songs. My initial reaction was she’s the best thing about this show, which is a bit like a live-action music video. Or a ninety-minute trailer for an arthouse movie.

The cast step forward and speak lines from Shakespeare, mostly from scenes set in forests. And so there is quite a bit of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Taken out of context, and with the cast not interacting, it’s all a bit odd and you wonder what the point is.

When they start to interact, it is as though the language they speak separates them. But this is not important. At this moment they are happy to be alive. They tear around the stage, round and round the tree, with the exuberance of children. They divest themselves of their grown-up clothes and cavort and gambol. Oh, just shoot me, I thought.

The child’s play leads to dressing up, which, in Shakespearean tradition, leads to cross-dressing. Christopher Simpson makes a stunning woman – think Phillip Schofield dressed as Cher. Katy Stephens, in Simpson’s suit, looks clownish in her bowler hat, a tie around her waist doubling as belt and phallus. These children discover their sexuality and events begin to take a darker turn.

The turning point is George Costigan’s performance of Jacques’s Seven Ages of Man speech. The speech is allowed to flow and to retain its meaning. It is a moment of clarity, and amusingly done, ending with the starkness of “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything.” This throws everyone into an existential crisis (as if I wasn’t already having one of my own) and suddenly it all goes a bit Lord of the Flies. A dog puppet is stabbed repeatedly and pinned to the pros arch. A woman is stapled to the wall, her knickers pulled down to her ankles, and raped in the mouth by the tie-phallus. All is discordant. The cast attack the box in the centre, pulling tons of soil all over the place. And so we move from Godot, to Beckett’s Happy Days. At once I felt pity for the stage managers who have to clean up this mess. And I half expected them to unearth Billie Whitelaw.

The cast become isolated in their own anguish. They perpetrate atrocities on themselves and each other. A woman performs an abortion on herself, standing over a bucket. Another wraps her own head in polythene. A son believes he has killed his father, and vice versa. The happy innocence of the opening scenes has been lost forever, and this violation is also represented on a larger scale with the destruction of the ordered and natural environment.
Roser Cami, her knickers up again but her breasts revealed, soiled with, um, soil, speaks passionately and movingly. In Catalan. Subtitles are provided at either side of the stage, scrolling the dialogue throughout the play but this only adds to the problems of focus. You can read the subtitles or you can watch the stage. You can’t do both.

It is all very bleak. Josep Maria Pou pulls out a reel-to-reel tape recorder on which he records and replays snatches of dialogue. This is a bit Krapp, I thought. He puts a gun in his gob and blows his brains out. Everyone is damaged, defiled and desolate.

And then there’s an epilogue. Everyone cheers up. They attach red balloons to the tree and speak lines that are meant to show us that life need not be as bad as all that. I could have done without that. I think the piece would be more powerful to end with the desolation and destruction.

Only having seen the whole thing can I guess at what it was about. Much is lost in the experience because there’s a lot happening all at once. And it was all too Beckettian for my liking. Director Calixto Bieito is obviously a big fan. But it does go to show that Shakespeare contains some very dark thoughts indeed. Given room to breathe, it is his words that give this disjointed piece its power.

P M Tension

The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 18th July, 2012

This impressive show from the Young Rep Company is an entertaining and thought-provoking hour performed by an energetic and enthusiastic cast of, well, not quite, thousands, but there does seem to be a lot of them.
The show sets out its stall with the opening choral number: “Elections, Conservatives, Elections, Liberal Democrats, Electing posh prats.”

Inspired by the real-life incident when a nine-year-old wrote to the PM about the closure of libraries, only to get fobbed off by some letter-opener, Jennifer Tuckett’s enjoyable script has a group of frustrated and concerned teenagers snatch the PM and force him to sit in their den with a pillowcase on his head – a welcome device that frees the actor from trying to look like the brute and renders him silent throughout his captivity. Led by narrator Lucy (Hannah Kelly) the kids reveal their individual concerns and the impact this arrogant and short-sighted government has had and will have on their young lives. It’s not just the threats to the library service. There’s the ending of the EMA, lack of opportunity for them and their parents forcing them out of applying for university places… These points emerge between the exuberant rendition of songs old and new. There’s a version of the Katy Perry number, here played quite wistfully as If I Were Prime Minister and there’s a constant refrain of “Elections, elections, it’s all in our control” as a reminder to us all – all though at times it seems bitterly ironic.

The simplistic fantasy –the PM is easily snatched and so, later when he proves unsurprisingly useless, is the Queen, also pillowcased – addresses issues complex and straightforward. Why isn’t Politics taught in schools? Lack of political knowledge among the young does not equate to lack of concern.

When Her Majesty proves powerless, the kid kidnappers are visited by Justin Bieber because, they wink satirically, a celebrity will be able to sort things out. Well, well, Justin Bieber as a force for good! A neat portrayal by Thomas Goodall makes the point that there are role models out there for the young, although what actual influence they wield in the corridors of power is dubious at best.

News reports reveal that the Police are closing in – but before long, they give up and new figureheads are put in place. Nick Clegg is made PM – eliciting the biggest groan of the night.

Among the large cast, several of the performers stand out. James (Connor Doyle) carries most of the singing, and performs with presence and assurance. Franklyn O’Connor is good fun as Michael, desperate to have a family; and Grace Barrington has her moments as Sarah – lovely guitar playing too. The ensemble works smoothly and of course, some have more affinity for the stage than others, but it is pleasing to see them all working so well together and keeping the energy levels high. I can’t mention all the supporting players because there wasn’t time to catch all of their names, but I did notice Oscar Turner (as Sean and a corgi) and Connor Jones (as Francisco and second corgi). The whole thing is held together by Hannah Kelly as narrator and lead activist Lucy, a confident and nuanced performance, played with heart and humour.

The piece works as a revue and as a bit of agit-prop lite, urging the young (and everyone else) to become involved by writing letters, staging protests. I (and I left my youth behind – I miss him) found it quite empowering. They had me at “electing posh prats.”

The real-life ham-faced chancer should be tied up and made to watch this piece, although I fear that would be a treat rather than a punishment. And kidnapping’s too good for him! Bit of politics, my name’s not Ben Elton, goodnight.