Tag Archives: The REP Birmingham

Train of Events

ONE UNDER

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 20th November, 2019

 

Winsome Pinnock’s 2005 play gets a reworking in this touring production from Graeae Theatre Company and the Theatre Royal Plymouth.  Nella’s friend Cyrus, who does odd jobs around her house, was the driver of the train that killed her adopted son, Sonny, when he jumped from the platform.  Cyrus is seeking atonement and also answers.  He tries to piece together Sonny’s final days, looking for clues.  Sonny’s sister Zoe recognises him from the inquest and warns him off…

Pinnock reveals the action on a fractured timeline, which adds to the intrigue.  This is not so much a who- as a WHYdunit.  The more we discover, the more we realise we can never truly know what’s going on in someone’s mind.  We meet Sonny in flashbacks: are the fantasies he uses to entertain Christine from the launderette merely banter, or do they stem from paranoid delusion?  Ultimately, we are left with questions and an absence of resolution – but to me, this is harder hitting and more thought-provoking.

Amit Sharma directs a taut quintet with an assured hand.  Pinnock’s naturalistic dialogue is given room to elucidate and obfuscate, even though the setting (a neat, abstract multi-purpose space, designed by Amelia Jane Hankin) is stylised and undefined.  What comes across is the humanity of all involved – and there are some very powerful moments indeed.

Stanley J Browne gains our empathy at once as the traumatised train driver, trying to get a handle on things.  Shenagh Govan shines as den-mother Nella, as does Clare-Louise English as Christine, the woman upon whom Sonny lavishes attention and a load of money.  Evlyne Oyedokun is utterly credible as the daughter looking out for her mum’s interests, and Reece Pantry’s Sonny almost has me in tears – until I’m made to question whether his mental episode is just a joke, as Sonny claims…

In a play where nothing is fully explained only implied or hinted at, the audience is called upon to use their intelligence – we all love a mystery.  But this piece points out, quite starkly, that life isn’t like a whodunit.  Sometimes, you never find an answer, and sometimes love isn’t enough.

Intriguing, bewildering, moving and tragic, this is a piece that will stay with you long after the cast take their well-earned bows.

one under

Reece Pantry and Stanley J Browne (Photo: Patrick Baldwin)


Coming Out in the Wash

MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th November, 2019

 

The ground-breaking film from 1985 comes to the stage in this adaptation of his own screenplay by Hanif Kureishi.  It’s a story of personal identity versus culture, of being yourself at the expense of fitting in, or surrendering to tradition and expectation at the expense of happiness and fulfilment.

It’s a stylish production, all silver and glitterballs.  Even the fascist graffiti is in striking dayglo colours.  Snatches of Pet Shop Boys tunes, some new, some classics, help with the 80s feel, but we never hear enough of them, sometimes only a few bars to cover transitions.

Omar Malik is Omar, a mild-mannered Muslim who works his way up through his uncle Nasser’s businesses until he becomes manager of his own launderette.  He’s a likeable chap with a nice line in sarcasm – unlike Hareet Deol’s Salim, an aggressive wide-boy drug dealer in an oversized pink suit.  Omar encounters old school crony Johnny (Jonny Fines) and offers him a job.  The banter between the two barely veils the homoerotic attraction between them.  Fines does a good job of portraying Johnny’s break from his skinhead background.  He wants to better himself and, as uncle Nasser would say, improvement comes from business.  Omar’s dad, by contrast, thinks self-improvement comes from education.  But this is Thatcher’s Britain, and Nasser, a Pakistani businessman, can flourish in this environment.

As Nasser, Kammy Darweish is particularly strong.  At first, we see him as a comic figure, avuncular in fact, but we soon see the hypocrisy of the man: he keeps a mistress on the side while expecting his daughter to submit to traditional values.  The mistress, by the way, is played by the mighty Cathy Tyson, with hair as big as the 80s.  Tyson is unrecognisable when she doubles as Cherry, Salim’s bespectacled wife.

In something of a casting coup, Gordon Warnecke, who played Omar in the film, is back as Omar’s ailing Dad, who represents the weakened nature of socialism in this country – then as it is now.  Warnecke combines vulnerability with a certain sprightliness.

Kureishi’s writing combines profanity with lyricism and there are some great lines, but while I enjoy the social commentary and the innuendos, I don’t engage emotionally with the characters, although I do cheer on Nicole Jebeli as Tania, the daughter of Nasser, striking out for her independence.  Paddy Daly’s bovver boy Genghis is a shouty lampoon, banging on about Saint George and white pride, using the same kind of empty-headed slogans we hear from Brexiteers today.

There is chemistry between the two male leads.  Fines is certainly not without cocky charm – but it’s more about titillation than passion, and I’m dismayed to hear gasps from the audience when the two of them kiss.  Each other.  On the lips.  But that’s what the play points out: society hasn’t changed that much since the 1980s.  The evils presented here are still with us, like extra-stubborn stains.  What progress we have made seems to be slipping away.

While I appreciate the talent of everyone involved and the adeptness of the adaptation, I find I’m a little underwhelmed by the whole.  I want to be more invested in the love story but  I’m afraid it’s a bit wishy-washy.

laundrette

Johnny Fines and Omar Malik (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


Rebels With A Cause

REBEL MUSIC

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2019

 

The new piece from playwright Robin French charts the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement, itself a response to the surge of far-right groups in Britain in the late 1970s.  The play focuses on the friendship of Denise, a mixed race girl with an absentee Jamaican father, and Trudi, a white girl whose brother shows National Front tendencies… Together the girls discover the great music being produced in Birmingham and the West Midlands at the time, with politics shaping their experiences and their development.

I have to say it’s a lot more fun than my description might lead you to believe.  French’s script sizzles with humour and is laced with nostalgic details that give the play an air of authenticity, and his words are brought to exuberant life by the energetic and excellent cast of three.  Lauren Foster’s Denise, an innocent, has a sharp learning curve when it comes to the overt racism of everyday life, be it off-colour jokes or violent assaults, or even Eric Clapton ranting racist remarks at the Birmingham Odeon.  She learns how to handle herself, how to stand up for what is right, and develops and matures, shaped rather than held back by her experiences.  Trudi, on the other hand, in a tirelessly perky performance by Hannah Millward, is torn between her friendship and loyalty to her brother, Dudley.

The third member of the cast, playing Denise’s dad and activist Andrew is the superb Nathan Queeley-Dennis who has a powerful singing voice that handles a range of styles.  All three narrate the action, dropping in and out of supporting roles with ease.  Andrew’s account of a RAR march in London is both poetic and evocative, demonstrating the power of French’s wonderful writing.  Director Alex Brown keeps the action cracking along at a fair pace, and this is supported by the inclusion of popular songs from the time, with the lyrics altered to fit the story – and so we get the nostalgia factor of a jukebox musical but none of the awkward shoehorning in of the songs for the sake of it.  It’s great to hear some classics revisited, from ELO to The Specials and even Sham 69.

There’s a bit of audience involvement in which we are invited to join in with some reggae moves – we’re all a bit sluggish on this miserable Monday evening but we give it a go.  I expect that later in the week, there’ll be more of a party atmosphere.

All the way through, I’m spotting parallels with current events: racists in power, idiots blaming immigrants for the country’s economic woes; and so to some extent the play doesn’t need its final scene, where the action leaps forward to the present and we see how far Denise has come, and how much Trudi is entrenched in her old ways and how the country is revisiting aspects of the past it would be better off leaving behind.

Relevant, relatable and right-on, Rebel Music is irresistibly entertaining and elucidating, a celebration of Birmingham’s multi-cultural identity and heritage and a stark reminder of what happens when the nastier elements of society rear their ugly heads.

I loved it.

Lauren Foster_Denise, Nathan Queeley-Dennis_Andrew, Hannah Millward_Trudi_Rebel Music_credit Graeme Braidwood

Today’s Specials: Lauren Foster, Nathan Queeley-Dennis, and Hannah Millward (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Wizard!

IAN McKELLEN on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and YOU

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 21st June, 2019

 

It begins with a reading from The Lord of the Rings; you know the bit, where Gandalf faces down the Balrog on that narrow subterranean bridge so that the rest of the Fellowship can get away.  McKellen treats us to a vivid piece of storytelling – the first of the night – the battered paperback merely a prop.  He has it by heart and puts his heart into it.  It’s spellbinding stuff and I’m almost sorry that he doesn’t do the entire saga!

Gandalf is the role that brought one of our finest actors to global attention but, as McKellen reminds us, his career has been long and varied.  The first half of this retrospective brims with anecdotes, from film and theatre, of his early life in Bolton – a three-year-old McKellen visiting Manchester’s Palace Theatre proves fateful, when a production of Peter Pan alerts the young boy to the magic of the stage…

From a huge cardboard trunk, plastered with stickers from theatres this tour has already visited, McKellen takes out souvenirs, prompts for each anecdote.  A young man is beckoned from the audience to try out Glamdring, Gandalf’s renowned sword.  At other times, McKellen is keen to include us, en masse, because of our shared love of the theatre.  Audience members murmur in nostalgic recognition as he throws out names of actors, many of whom are long since gone.  The REP itself merits special mention for its history and influence on many a career.  The story of receiving his knighthood is played out with delicious comedic skill.  A real treat is to get a glimpse of his Twankey, as he recalls his time in pantomime at the Old Vic.

Using only the warmth of his personality and, of course, that marvellous voice, McKellen has us in the palm of his hand.  There are no video clips, no projections, just the objects from the trunk.  The stories often come with punchlines, delivered with exquisite timing;  the readings, of works by T S Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, are captivating, electrifying.  The story of how, after many years, McKellen came out, driven to it by Section 28, is inspiring and heartening.

The second half is devoted to Shakespeare.  McKellen unpacks stacks of books from his trunk and invites us to name all 37 of the plays.  Each title comes with an anecdote, an interesting titbit, or a performance of a key scene.  Hamlet and Macbeth get especial attention with lengthy extracts, but it is the eulogy from Cymbeline (Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun) that is especially powerful.  It’s an absolute treat and again I am almost disappointed he doesn’t recite the complete works!

Designed to commemorate the actor’s 80th birthday, this tour is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in the presence of a national treasure.  It’s a privilege to hear him perform, entertaining to listen to that wicked sense of humour, and a joy to see him in action.

A thoroughly lovely evening, joyous, poignant and life-affirming.  We need more positive forces like Sir Ian in these benighted times.  We need more nights at the theatre to bind and unite us during these dark days of division.

sir ian


The Daddy of Them All

THE LIFE I LEAD

The Studio, Birmingham REP, Monday 11th March, 2019

 

For many of us, the actor David Tomlinson is firmly rooted in childhood memories of beloved films.  Most famous as the cold and stuffy Mr Banks in Mary Poppins and as the eccentric would-be magician in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Tomlinson represented a certain type of Englishness: gentlemanly, well-spoken, emotionally stifled but ultimately lovable.  This new comedy written by James Kettle invokes the spirit of the man, recounting anecdotes of his professional and personal life.

Miles Jupp IS David Tomlinson in this one-man vehicle for his talents.  At certain times, Matthew England’s lighting strikes Jupp just the right way and Tomlinson’s features seems to emerge, (even after he has peeled off the false moustache) and Jupp’s performance gets the intonation and attitude spot on, you’d think he was being possessed by the late actor himself.

In an endearing, charming manner, with a turn of phrase of which P G  Wodehouse would be proud, Tomlinson tells us stories that amuse, surprise, shock and touch us, as the case may be.  We learn of his dealings with Walt Disney, the tragedy that befell his first wife and her children, his opinion of Julie Andrews, and, chiefly, we hear stories of his father, the irascible, intractable C. S. T. whom Jupp inhabits in caricature.  It turns out Tomlinson père carried a dark secret, a reason for his lifelong detachment from his son.  Later, when he has sons of his own, Tomlinson finds himself distanced from his third boy, who is misdiagnosed as deaf but is later found to be autistic.

Fatherhood forms the backbone of this life story: Tomlinson’s father, his own experiences as a father, and that quintessential father-figure, Mr Banks.  It makes you think of your own father, whatever he was like, and it’s something of a relief to learn that Tomlinson was exactly what you’d hope, with no skeletons in his past, no wrong-doing or shenanigans are brought to light to tarnish the image of this lovely man.

Directors Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell keep Jupp on the move, using lighting and sound to signify changes in time and place.  Played out on a gorgeous stage set by Lee Newby, a kind of drawing-room in the sky, this production features a captivating performance from Jupp, and is exactly how it appears: heavenly.

The Life I Lead - Miles Jupp 5 - cPiers Foley

Miles Jupp as David Tomlinson (Photo: Piers Foley)

 


Remains to be seen

THE LOVELY BONES

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 31st October, 2018

 

Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel is brought to the stage in this compelling adaptation by Bryony Lavery.   Essentially, it’s a ghost story, but one that is told from the ghost’s point of view.  Our narrator is Susie Salmon, the 13-year-old victim of rape and murder at the hands of her neighbour Mr Harvey.  What keeps young Susie bound to the Earth is her determination to bring the identity of her killer to light, her need to have her body found, and her refusal to accept death before she has really lived

Charlotte Beaumont dominates as the energetic, indomitable Susie in a lively and irresistible portrayal.  Susie’s anger, confusion, frustration and especially her humour all shine through.  As the story develops, we feel the loss of this innocent, lovely girl.  Beaumont is supported by a strong ensemble to tell the story, several of them doubling up roles.

As Susie’s parents, Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle tackle the difficult emotions of losing a child, and the scenes in which Mom, but especially Dad, reminisce and ‘see’ Susie are particularly effective.  Ayoola Smart grows up before our eyes as Susie’s little sister, Lindsey.  Karan Gill is sweet as Susie’s would-be boyfriend Ray Singh and also very funny as Holiday, the family’s dog.  Bhawna Bhawsar contrasts the authoritative role of Franny, Susie’s after-life guide, with the blasé weariness of Ray’s mother, Ruana.  Pete Ashmore convinces as Detective Fenerman, and I particularly like Natasha Cottriall’s goth girl Ruth and Susan Bovell’s sardonic grandmother, Lynn.   But it’s Keith Dunphy’s creepy Mr Harvey, disturbing in his ordinariness, who is my man of the match.

Lavery’s script is infused with dark humour, alleviating the tension and the grimness of the subject matter.  Director Melly Still keeps the staging deceptively simple: the rape-murder is narrated by Susie while off-stage voices provide the soundtrack.  As ever, what is suggested is more powerful than what is shown.  The set, by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, is little more than a rectangle drawn on the floor, but the mirrored background affords us dual viewpoints of the action, as though we’re seeing two dimensions: Susie’s ghostly one, and the real world in which life goes on without her.  This mirror gives some striking imagery: Ray and Susie rolling around on the floor become figures in flight.  Emily Mytton’s eerie puppetry – the dresses of other victims – add to the ghostliness and horror, while Matt Haskins’s lighting and Helen Skiera’s sound frequently assault us, flaring up and blaring out, as though to remind us of the wrongness of Susie’s fate, as well as to jar Susie against the confines of her ghostly presence.

It all adds to up to a highly powerful piece of storytelling, funny, emotional, sickening, terrifying and moving.  The show manages to chill, break, and warm your heart.   An absolute must-see.

The Lovely Bones  1.9.18Credit : Sheila Burnett

Innocence and guilt: Charlotte Beaumont and Keith Dunphy (Photo: Sheila Burnett)


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)