Tag Archives: The REP Birmingham

Going off the Handel

THE MESSIAH

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018

 

Writer Patrick Barlow is the genius behind the hilarious hit adaptation of The 39 Steps, a show that never fails to tickle the funny bone.   Here, his first play from 1983, gets a wash-and-brush-up in a perky revival – Barlow also directs, bringing in up-to-date topical references.  The nature of his early work as the driving force of the ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is very much in evidence, as a pair of inept but well-meaning actors attempt to stage the biggest of stories: the birth of Jesus, using little more than a chair or two to stand on and the odd bit of costume to run around in.

Hugh Dennis is Maurice Rose – the Barlow figure of the two – whose grandiose ideas outstrip his capabilities.  It’s not much of a stretch for Dennis, a widely recognised face from TV comedy, but this is the kind of thing at which he excels.  The delivery and timing are impeccable.  He is supported by John Marquez as Ronald Bream, an enthusiastic but clueless sidekick, who gets most of the laughs up against Dennis’s straight man.  The pair is augmented by the addition of a special guest, Mrs Leonara Fflyte, a snooty opera singer who punctuates the story with unaccompanied singing.  I would find it funnier if she were a Florence Foster Jenkins figure rather than the pitch-perfect Lesley Garrett – then, later, when the team actually achieves a moment of beauty, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ would come as a powerful surprise… But that’s just me.

Garrett proves herself a good sport, donning robes and headwear and a comedy beard and tearing around the stage as one of the Three Wise Men, pursuing the Star, and, of course, the singing is sublime – quite at odds with the ridiculousness of the action.

Barlow’s script is peppered with malapropisms, anachronisms and word play – it’s the kind of thing Radio Four churns out.  There is even a Morecambe & Wise moment, as Dennis and Marquez back up Garrett, in much the same way that Eric & Ernie would ‘support’ Shirley Bassey.  It’s funny stuff but there is nothing we haven’t seen before and in the genre of theatre-done-badly, the pinnacle has been attained by The Play That Goes Wrong.  This is a smaller-scale affair that lacks big surprises.

For all that, it’s an amusing piece, quintessentially English in its humour, that mocks the storytelling rather than the story (the religious will not be offended).  Your ribs will be tickled but you won’t split your sides.

Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose & John Marquez as Ronald Bream_credit Robert Day (4)

Not the Messiah, they’re two very silly men. Hugh Dennis and John Marquez (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

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Crime Pays Off

THE COMEDY ABOUT A BANK ROBBERY

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 29th August, 2018

 

Mischief Theatre, the group behind the phenomenally successful The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, is back with this piece in which everything goes right.  Set in 1950s America, there is a B-movie aesthetic to this tale of a diamond heist from a bank in Minneapolis.  Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields cram their script with quickfire corny jokes – the opening scene in a prison cell sets the bar low (or high, depending on your point of view) from the start.  But such is the conviction of the cast, with their energised, larger-than-life delivery, they get away with even the most groan-worthy lines.

It’s a conventional farce in many respects.  Old-fashioned – and that fashion being the commedia dell’arte with stock characters and ludicrous situations, that develop and grow to the point of absurdity.  There is plenty of double-talk of which the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello would be proud.  A lengthy scene in an apartment with a fold-up bed is breath-taking in its complexity.  Later, a scene in the bank with the manager and two imposters outdoes everything that has come earlier for sheer silliness.  A scene in which the back wall becomes the floor, while the robbers crawl through air vents, is hilariously inventive – theatricality is used as another dimension to the sight gags.

Liam Jeavons brings a dangerous edge to the silliness as lead robber Mitch Ruscitti, his efforts forever punctured by David Coomber’s campily dramatic and incredibly thick Neil Cooper.  Damian Lynch is pitch perfect as the gruff bank manager, Robin Freeboys, and Killian Macardie gets more than sufficiently wound-up as stressed FBI officer Randal Shuck.  Jon Trenchard is on the receiving end of most of the slapstick violence, in his role as hapless perma-intern Warren Slax, while Ashley Tucker’s Ruth Monaghan (in this performance) delivers most of the sublime singing that covers the scene transitions.  At the heart of the piece is the love story between the bank manager’s grifter daughter, Caprice (a marvellously funny Julia Frith) and Seán Carey’s petty crook and con artist Sam.  Theirs is a romance of intensely silly situational comedy, but we end up rooting for them all the same.  Oh, and George Hannigan plays Everyone Else – including a solo scene in which he miraculously depicts a fight between three of Caprice’s suitors.

David Farley’s set is both stylish and functional, swiftly changing locations while being solid enough to allow extremes of physical comedy.  David Howe’s lighting heightens the heist-movie feel – there’s a scene underwater that is just beautiful to see.

An unadulterated joy, this is a comedy with plenty for everyone.  The pace never flags so we never lose interest (that’s a banking joke) and then, remarkably, the odd moment of actual drama breaks to the surface – and you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.  The sillier it gets, the more we marvel at the cleverness of the show’s creators, and the seemingly tireless energy of this remarkable ensemble, who rise to the demands of each moment.

I urge you to get a ticket to one of the funniest shows you will ever see – whatever price you pay is a steal.  And it would be a crime to miss it, etc…

Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, Seán Carey. Photo Robert Day

Making a withdrawal: Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, and Seán Carey (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 


Pros and Cons

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 24th May, 2018

 

This production comes to Birmingham from Nottingham Playhouse, working with Ramps On The Moon – casting deaf and disabled actors and tailoring the performance for hearing impaired audiences.  Rather than having an interpreter at the side of the stage, signing for everyone, the signing occurs as part of the action: convicts, eavesdropping on the dialogue, sign it to each other… Also, screens display surtitles, scrolling the script as it occurs.  So well is the signing incorporated, it becomes part of the choreography of the piece.

The play, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, tells of a colony of convicts, transported to Australia to serve their sentences in exile.  The militia that guard them are brutal and cruel but the leader, Governor Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis) is of the view that criminals can and should be reformed.  He consents to the rehearsal and staging of a play, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, much to the consternation of his men.  As if the situation was not already a powder keg, waiting for a match.  Charged with directing the production is Second Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) who finds his patience tested and his emotions engaged.  Also among the redcoats (although this is no holiday camp!) is Colin Connor as the aggressively alliterative Major Ross, Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as the expressively inarticulate Captain Campbell, and Dave Fishley as Captain Collins.  Excellent among this strong team is Garry Robson’s Harry Brewer, whose relationship with one of the convict women goes beyond the usual exploitation. The men argue the nature of their work, some favouring punishment over rehabilitation – a question that rages still today.

The prostitutes and convicts we meet are a lively bunch, to say the least.  Caroline Parker is a hoot as the coarse Meg Long; Sapphire Joy is appealing as Mary Brenham; and Gbemisola Ikulemo is superb as the formidable Liz Morden.  Tom Dawse makes a likeable Wisehammer, and Will Lewis an amusing Arscott – there are plenty of laughs in the rehearsal scenes, as Lt Clark struggles with melodramatic posturing, reluctant servants, and Liz Morden’s fierce and rapid delivery.  Fifi Garfield’s Dabby Bryant and Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling Smith are wonderfully expressive in their silence, their expressions and attitudes unmistakable.  Gradually, the civilising power of the theatre takes hold, but can the cast members escape the rope of hangman ‘Ketch’ Freeman (a sympathetic Fergus Rattigan) long enough to perform the play?

Fiona Buffini directs Timberlake Wertenbaker’s funny and incisive piece with verve.  The worst excesses of the guards are kept offstage (this is a comedy, after all – as Clark keeps telling his ragtag company) and production values are high.  Neil Murray’s evocative set is bathed in Mark Jonathan’s luscious lighting – added to which, it’s a warm night in the Rep’s auditorium, giving us a real feel for the place!  If the play is about the humanity of those regarded as ‘lower’ and ‘lesser’ by society, the production is a prod, for those who need it, that deaf and disabled performers and technical crew and what they bring to the table is also of value.

There is a haunting, dignified appearance by Milton Lopes as an Aboriginal Australian; the effect of colonisation of his land is devastating.  Britain’s disregard for other cultures is nothing new, of course.

An engaging, entertaining evening and a relevant revival.

Nottingham Playhouse

Dabby (Fifi Garfield) and Liz (Gbemisola Ikumela) discuss the finer points of Farquhar’s elegant comedy

 


Labour in Vain

THIS HOUSE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th April, 2018

 

This hit production from the National Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre/Headlong comes to this town and reminds this reviewer of its brilliance.  James Graham’s script, dealing with the behind-the-scenes, Machiavellian machinations of the Chief Whips of both main parties, mines a rich seam of humour.  It is the 1970s and Labour has a minority government.  All the stops have to be pulled out to win over the ‘odds and sods’ to vote on the government’s side.

It’s a macho – or rather, blokeish world of hard drinking, hard swearing immaturity, where tradition is held in awe but nothing more so than the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’.  The opposing sides wind each other up, one-upmanship is king and fair play hardly gets a look-in.  It’s a chess game on a massive scale, with the Chief Whips sniping at each other like rival head prefects.

Martin Marquez is excellent as tough-talking Labour whip, Bob Mellish, with William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins as the perfect sneering foil over on the Tory side.  Graham characterises both sides in broad terms: the Labour lot are beer-swilling, down-to-earth working class men with ‘real jobs’ in their backgrounds; the Tories are privileged, entitled snobs.  Tony Turner’s Michael Cox remains decent in his desperation, while on the other side, Harry Kershaw’s member for Chelmsford makes a prissy and hilarious impression.  There is a running joke about apologising for swearing in front of that rare creature, a female MP – Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor soon proves she can give as good as she gets, and there is a delicious turn from Louise Ludgate as the member for Coventry South West, silently doling out the cash to pay a fine.

Labour’s Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and his oppo Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) share a mutual if grudging respect for each other and each other’s methods in a relationship that encapsulates the cut-and-thrust of party politics at that time.  Meanwhile, off-stage, rises the spectre of evil that will poison politics for decades, like Voldemort gradually taking physical form, as the member for Finchley, unseen, climbs the ranks to Tory party leader, ultimately becoming prime minister.  As the lights fade, an extract from Thatcher’s inaugural speech brings the fun and games to a chilling end…

Director Jeremy Herrin maintains a cracking pace, keeping the barbed remarks and the fur flying, eliciting energetic performances from his ensemble.  A live band keeps the energy levels up, with short and long bursts to cover transitions or to underscore the more stylised sequences depicting the arcane rituals of the House.

It’s a hilarious piece, a satirical cartoon of a show recounting a remarkable time in British politics, but be aware: the current mob who occupy This House for real are not playing for laughs.

THIS HOUSE

Best of frenemies: James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon (Photo: Johan Persson)


Pinkie Blinder

BRIGHTON ROCK

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th April, 2018

 

This new production from Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal rocks into town with an irresistible swagger.  Composer Hannah Peel’s score is designed to quicken the heartbeat, the drum-heavy arrangements tribal and exciting like jungle drums.  Our jungle is the criminal underworld of 1950s Brighton, where rival gangs of protectionists rule the streets.

Leading one such gang is Pinkie – a perky performance by Jacob James Beswick.  His Pinkie is cocksure, tough and volatile, who sees his youth (aged 17) as no handicap.  In fact, his lack of years is a plus: he can’t be hanged for his crimes.  He also has a cavalier attitude to eternal damnation – planning to play the Catholic get-out-of-Hell-free card by repenting in the last minute of his life.  Superstition is a recurring theme, be it church-going or dabbling with a Ouija board.

Brighton Rock 2018 Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie..

Pinkie promise: Jacob James Beswick (Photo: Karl Andrew Photography)

Sarah Middleton is the perfect contrast to Pinkie in every way as Rose, the girl whose affections Pinkie waylays in order to stop her from going to the cops with what she knows.  Rose is blinded, not by the vitriol Pinkie waves in her face, but by his attentions, proving herself fiercely loyal albeit misguided.  A tight ensemble plays the supporting roles, notable among them is the versatile Angela Bain, as Spicer, a priest, and others.  Jennifer Jackson, appearing as the ultra-cool rival boss Colleoni, is responsible for the stylised movements – the violence is savagely choreographed – and Jackson performs a sinuous bit of expressive jazz dancing to accompany the turmoil of the lead characters.

Dominating the action is Ida, seeking justice for a murdered beau.  Gloria Onitiri is thoroughly magnificent.  Funny, determined, passionate and with a dirty laugh, she also treats us to her rich singing voice in a couple of cool torch songs.

The show is ineffably cool in the way that bad boys are cool.  But we are definitely on Ida’s side, as the moral compass of the story.

Director Esther Richardson keeps things slick and sharp as a razor, employing the ensemble as stagehands to keep the action continuous and the transitions seamless.  Bryony Lavery’s splendid adaptation of the Graham Greene novel delivers the feel of the era, the argot of the underworld, while Sara Perks’s all-purpose set evokes Brighton Pier chief among the other locations.  There is a Kneehigh feel to proceedings with the stylisation, the onstage musicians and so on – and there’s nothing wrong in that.  Quite the contrary!

Gripping, entertaining and inventively presented, this is one stick of rock that has QUALITY running all the way through it.

Brighton Rock 2018 Gloria Onitiri as Ida

The mighty Gloria Onitiri as Ida (Photo: Karl Andre Photography)

 


Nice Try

UP ‘N’ UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 12th March, 2018

 

John Godber’s 1984 comedy is doing the rounds in this new revival by Fingersmiths, a company that incorporates deaf actors and British Sign Language into plays.  Having seen their Frozen (not the Disney one!) a while back and knowing how effective their approach is with a drama, I was interested to see how they’d manage something lighter.  BSL, a visual language, with its gestures and exaggerated facial expressions lends itself very well to comedy, it turns out.  There is one point when it’s purely signed and I can’t follow it – a clever way of demonstrating what it must be like for the deaf when there are no signs or captions.

The plot is nothing groundbreaking: a ragbag team of underdogs strive toward a common goal.  In this one, it’s a pub rugby team struggling to win against the odds.  It’s all because of a rash wager made by Arthur (Wayne Norman).  He bets his house, but the terms of the bet are reduced to three grand.  And so, the stakes aren’t all that high, the jeopardy isn’t that perilous… In the event, it’s not the plot that keeps me interested.  The production is a triumph of form over content as the sign language is supplemented with surtitles and voice-overs, each cleverly and wittily included.  That Arthur can’t speak BSL adds another obstacle to his challenge, and leads to some cringeworthy moments as he persists in raising his voice in order to communicate!

The team is comprised of Frank (Matty Gurney), Steve (Stephen Collins), Tony (Nadeem Islam), and Phil (Adam Bassett).  Each of them is, shall I say, a lovely mover, skilled at heightened expressions, working with clarity and precision.  I was concerned my ignorance of both rugby and sign language would be a barrier to my enjoyment.  I needn’t have worried.  Collins warms into his role nicely, demonstrating excellent comic timing.  Islam is graceful – in a cartoony way.  Bassett performs a dream sequence, a piece of dumb show to a voice-over, that is highly effective, and Gurney, the largest of the group, is both an imposing presence and a subtle one.  Each man brings something to the ensemble and they all get loads of laughs.

The only female in the cast is Hazel (Tanya Vital) the ‘grown-up’ recruited to get these man-children into shape.  Vital also operates as a narrator, starting us off with a prologue and linking scenes with descriptive passages.  Godber’s writing is pseudo-Shakespearean here, elevating the humble pub team to heroic proportions.  Maybe.  Vital’s vitality is the lynchpin of the performance, our touchstone in this esoteric world.

As ostensible villain of the piece, Reg, William Elliott completes the cast, also providing sports commentary.  Added together, this is a tight ensemble.  While the play is now old hat – especially where its sexual politics are concerned – this fresh approach keeps us hooked.  I find myself more interested in the way it is done, rather than what the characters are doing.  Where it works best is the climactic match, cleverly staged: a nifty bit of costume design means the cast can play both teams at the same time.  Director Jeni Draper pulls all the elements together for a pleasing denouement, but I don’t feel the production gets beyond its novelty value to make us care for the characters and their ups and downs (or should that be ‘unders’?)

T Vital with UnU cast

Tanya Vital leading the cast (L-R Wayne Norman, Matty Gurney, Nadeem Islam, Stephen Collins, and Adam Bassett)


Play to Win

THE WINSLOW BOY

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd January, 2018

 

Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece loses none of its powers in this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.  What begins as a charming observation of Edwardian family life soon develops into a drama with far-reaching implications, as the entire nation follows the case of Ronnie Winslow and his struggle to clear his name following a wrongful accusation of the theft of a five-bob postal order.  Or rather, it’s his father’s struggle: only 14 when it all kicks off, Ronnie is able to get on with his life, secure in his father’s love and support.

As the titular Boy, Misha Butler is an instantly appealing presence, fresh-faced and oozing vulnerability.  As his father, Aden Gillett is old-school paternal: his word is law, but he’s also clearly very much a man who loves his family.  We witness Pa Winslow’s physical decline, his resolve wobble as much as his gammy leg, but his belief in his boy never falters, despite the hardship the expenses of pursuing the case inflict on the family. It’s a masterful performance at the heart of this piece.   Tessa Peake-Jones as Ma Winslow is old-school maternal, responding emotionally rather than rationally: it’s a family to which we’d like to belong – especially with chirpy maid Violet (Soo Drouet) fetching and carrying.  Drouet manages to bring more to this rather stock character.

Theo Bamber’s Dickie, the elder son, is a livewire, a voice of dissent and a nifty dancer!  But it is the sister, Catherine (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who draws most of our attention.  A suffragiste, she is her father’s daughter, forthright and not shy of voicing her opinions, even willing to make sacrifices in her love-life for the cause of clearing Ronnie… Her intended is no great loss anyway; stuffed shirt John (a dapper William Belchambers) lacks the independence of spirit that makes Catherine stand out so markedly.

There is a magnificent turn from Timothy Watson as the superstar barrister hired to fight the case, Sir Robert Morton.  His cross-examination of Ronnie makes for an electrifying scene and his scenes with Catherine are delicious, as they skirt around a whiff of romance.

Kavanaugh directs with a light touch and the cast rattle through Rattigan’s somewhat wordy dialogue at speed, so the witty remarks and emotional exchanges fizz and spark.  It’s an unerringly entertaining piece.  The Winslows taking on the establishment is a David v Goliath campaign but the far-reaching implications I mentioned earlier have remarkable resonance with us today, a hundred years after the time in which the play is set.  Lines about the ‘desperatism of Whitehall’ encroaching on our freedoms could refer to the woeful Brexit negotiations, for example, and with ‘the despotism of bureaucracy’, Rattigan could be describing the Department of Work and Pensions!  And the figure of Catherine could represent the Time’s Up movement as women continue to fight for equality and respect.

More than a comedy (although it is very funny), this is social commentary that hooks us in with likeable characters, an intriguing situation, and bags of tension and suspense.  A flawless production and a real treat.

winslow

Aden Gillett looks on as Misha Butler is grilled by Timothy Watson