Tag Archives: The REP Birmingham

Street Life

LA STRADA

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 8th May, 2017

 

A young girl from a poor family is sold by her mother to an itinerant circus strongman.  He is a brute who beats his new assistant until, gradually, her own talents emerge.  Together they join a circus but rivalry with another performer leads to tragedy…

That’s the plot in a nutshell.  Based on the Oscar-winning Fellini film, this touring production is a slick and stylised slice of storytelling.  It begins in a style reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre, with a chorus and a lone actor working in unison but as the story unfolds the show develops into a piece that could have come from Emma Rice’s back catalogue.  The performance style screams ‘Kneehigh’, with its onstage musicians underscoring the action, the movement sequences and the mythic quality of the narrative.  This is not a bad thing, being a Kneehigh tribute act – the plot and performers are engaging and the original music (by Benji Bower) infuses the whole affair with melancholy as well as Italian colour.

Audrey Brisson is excellent as the young Gelsomina, a deadpan little thing, Chaplinesque in her portrayal.  Stuart Goodwin’s bluff and brutish Zampano, a man led by his appetites, is an imposing figure but human rather than monstrous.  Bart Soroczynski amazes as the Fool, playing a mean accordion while riding a unicycle.

The whole ensemble switches from symbolic action to direct characterisations so seamlessly you don’t see the changes of costume happen – director Sally Cookson keeps us tightly focussed on the main action and makes the most of clever ideas with which to tell the story: a spot of rain is cleverly depicted, and slow-motion action highlights key moments.  It’s a romanticised, nostalgic view of life on the road and poverty yet at its heart is the humanity of the characters.

The entire piece is beautifully theatrical, bittersweet and touching, an intricate music box that fascinates and delights.

Highly recommended.

Audrey Brisson_Gelsomina_ Credit Robert Day

Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina (Photo: Robert Day)


Old School

TO SIR, WITH LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 27th April, 2017

E.R. Braithwaite’s classic, autobiographical story of his post-war teaching experiences in an inner-city school is best known to us from the Sidney Poitier film. Here, Ayub Khan-Din adapts the original book for this period piece that seems starkly relevant to today. Issues of discipline in schools, a curriculum that does not meet the needs of the students or prepare them for the real world… Costumes and popular music aside, this play could be a contemporary piece – and I say that with more than a touch of dismay: the racial prejudice portrayed on stage is rearing its ugly head with renewed vigour in a Britain that has forgotten why we fought the War in the first place.

Philip Morris makes a dignified Braithwaite, stumbling into teaching almost against his will.  He is tasked with bringing civilisation to the natives, who are restless – to put it mildly.  Morris is a strong presence, bringing out the character’s wry humour as well as his growing passion for the job.  Andrew Pollard lights up the stage as ahead-of-his-time, liberal headteacher, Mr Florian; a warm and wise embodiment of educational ideals, but not without his cringeworthy moments, such as his participation in the school dance!  Polly Lister dresses down as chirpy, down-to-earth Miss Clintridge, delivering most of the humour of the piece, looking like Victoria Wood in a sketch but sounding like Mrs Overall.  Jessica Watts adds elegance as Braithwaite’s love interest, Miss Blanchard, while Matt Crosby’s cynical Mr Weston is a more characterisation than he first appears.  It seems Braithwaite humanises everyone, and not just the kids.

Among the kids, who are all rather good, Eden Peppercorn stands out as the outspoken Monica Page, Elijah McDowell as Seales, Alice McGowan as smitten Pamela Dare… Charlie Mills excels as surly troublemaker Denham, whose journey to civilised behaviour is the longest but also the most touching.  The world is a better place, the play reminds us, when everyone treats everyone with respect.

The story has become a template for a genre: teacher tames tough kids and everyone learns a lesson, but Braithwaite’s story remains the best, revealing its warmth without resorting to sentimentality.  Co-directed by Gwenda Hughes and Tom Saunders, this production gives members of the Young Rep the opportunity to work alongside adult professionals.  Age and size apart, there is little between them to mark the difference.

Philip Morris as Rick Braithwaite & Charlie Mills as Denhan_c Graeme Braidwood

Philip Morris and Charlie Mills seeing eye-to-eye (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Magic Moments

WINNIE AND WILBUR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017

 

The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.

Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson).  She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example.  The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect.  A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight.  Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.

Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.

Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal.  Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner.  Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.

She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble.  Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy.  Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home.  Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma.  The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes.  The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.

I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.

Sophie Russell (Winnie), Ben Thompson (Wilbur) and Ed Thorpe

Sophie Russell and Ben Thompson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Body of Evidence

Amédée

Birmingham REP, Tuesday 28th February, 2017

 

Eugene Ionesco’s absurd play from 1954 gets an update in this adaptation from Sean Foley, with topical references like ‘zero hours’ and ‘will of the people’.  It remains, however, curiously old-fashioned.  Like an extended skit, it brings us the story of Amédée, a failed playwright, and his wife Madeleine, a switchboard operator.  It emerges that these two are housebound, imprisoned by a secret they have shared for fifteen years.  The nature of that secret is revealed to us in glimpses: there is a dead body in their bedroom and it is growing, taking over the tiny flat.  The corpse brings with it an infestation of mushrooms and, of course, puts increasing strain on the marriage.  Nothing is fully explained; it is left to us to piece together what sense we can from the crumbs thrown our way.  What is clear is the toll the situation is taking on the couple – the stresses of being full-time carers, the guilt of a murder concealed…

I warm to Trevor Fox as the self-centred, ‘suffering’ writer, while Josie Lawrence’s long-suffering Madeleine makes an impact from the off.  The pair fire barbs at each other and sometimes expose their suffering.  Absurd though the situation may be, the emotions expressed – and the black humour – come across as authentic.  There are hints of a dark world outside their window, adding to the claustrophobia.

Director Roxana Silbert cranks up the pace, adding to the comic delivery.  Ti Green’s set shows a kind of ordered clutter – the ever-growing body is as hilarious as the sprouting mushrooms are sinister.  Dyfan Jones’s sound design complements the weirder moments and Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting washes the action in dramatic hues.

In the final scene, with the secret/corpse out in the open, Amédée finds a great weight has been lifted, and the anchor that has tethered him to his wife and to mundane matters is no longer keeping him down…

Funny, to be sure, intriguing – in places – the production reminds us how much British comedy owes to European influences.  Ionesco was Romanian but his work shows the sparks that lit the flame for the likes of Monty Python, Reeves and Mortimer, and The League of Gentlemen.

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Up against it: Josie Lawrence and Trevor Fox (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 


Best of a Bard Bunch

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY (ABRIDGED)

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 14th February, 2017

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is back.  Building on the success of earlier, brilliant shows (The Complete Works, The Bible) this time the premise is the discovery of a manuscript – beneath a car park in Leicester, of course – of Shakespeare’s first attempt at dramatic endeavour.  It turns out old Will had all his ideas at once and bunged them all in one play.  So begins a mash-up of Will’s most famous lines, scenes and characters.  If you’re a Shakespeare nerd, you’re in for a good time.

Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s (and Shakespeare’s) script is clever, bordering on genius, throwing out such wonderful clashes as Dromio and Juliet, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, King Lear and the Three Witches… hijacking lines out of context, or rather giving them new context as befits the skit.  It makes you realise how many recurring ideas Shakespeare had.

If you’re not a Shakespeare nerd, you may be somewhat bewildered, but I think there’s enough daftness and comic invention to keep you laughing.  References to contemporary culture abound: Beyonce, for example, and a High-Street purveyor of baked goods that rhymes with legs.  The show posits a theory that Walt Disney is a latter-day Shakespeare – but, if you’re not a Disney nerd either, you might not catch all the jokes.

The cast of three work apparently tirelessly to keep the pace fast and the laughs coming.  Joseph Maudsley’s little mermaid Ariel is a joy, James Percy makes a formidable Lady Macbeth, and Michael Pearson’s ukulele-strumming Richard III is a scream – but much of the fun comes from the quick changes and the surprising juxtapositions of characters and speeches.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a ‘merry war’ between Ariel and Puck, using their magic to interfere with characters’ lives.  It takes the Bard himself to appear as deus ex machina to sort it all out at the end.  The first act climaxes in a slapstick tempest, with audience participation – it is this kind of daftness everyone can enjoy.  Director Austin Tichenor doesn’t let the action stagnate and I wonder if a smaller, more intimate venue might assist with audience engagement – it would certainly save the cast a lot of running around; they have to cover a lot of ground to maintain the pace.

It is part of the company’s ‘brand’ to perform with American accents.  Somehow this makes their handling of the material crasser but no less clever.  You may not appreciate all the in-jokes and literary allusions but you cannot fail to admire the energy of this smartass show, performed by a trio of exquisite comic players.

Shakespear_Designs_6.indd


Hostel Environment

LOVE

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st February, 2017

 

Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, this highly naturalistic piece transforms the REP’s studio space into the communal area of a grubby hostel, supposedly temporary accommodation for those who, for one reason or another, have no home to go to.  We meet Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) a Muslim woman who keeps herself to herself for the most part; Colin (Nick Holder) who cares for his elderly, incontinent mother Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall); in the room next door is a family, evicted due to sudden rent hikes.  There is dad Dean (Luke Clarke), his two kids and his new, pregnant partner, Emma (Janet Etuk).  Late arrival from Syria, Adnan (Ammar Haj Ahmad) finds it difficult to interact with his new neighbours…

The play provides a snapshot of life in these terrible conditions.  Yes, they have hot water and a roof over their heads (complete with dirty skylights), and a toilet they have to share, and there are people in the world who have things much worse.  But this is Britain in 2017 and people are trapped in this purgatory by unnecessarily draconian benefit sanctions and a lack of housing stock.  At times, it’s a gruelling watch.

It’s also funny and moving.  The resilience of the human spirit, the bonds of relationships – sorely tested by circumstance – shine through.  The characters struggle to retain their dignity and their morale while a faceless, careless bureaucracy continues to pile on the pressure.

The cast are, without exception, pitch perfect as they shuffle around.  Natasha Jenkins’s set replicates the setting perfectly, and the blurring of where stage ends and audience begins makes us part of the action, silent observers of the dramas unfolding before us.  This is happening in our space, our country, and we cannot help but feel compassion for these downtrodden and dispossessed souls.

Zeldin’s direction keeps the pace natural.  The piece reeks of authenticity.  That we don’t learn the characters’ ultimate fates maintains the sense of never-ending struggle.

An important, eye-opening and heartrending play that Iain Duncan Smith should be made to watch over and over so that he realises what he has wrought.

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Anna Calder-Marshall

 

 

 


Terrible with Names

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2017

 

Adapted from the hit French play by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patelliere, this is a scathing comedy based on a staple of middle-class theatre: the dinner party.  Husband and wife Peter and Elizabeth are expecting Elizabeth’s brother, Vincent and his pregnant partner Anna to share a Moroccan buffet.  Completing the party is Elizabeth’s best friend, Carl, a camp trombonist.  With Vincent as a narrator, supplying both prologue and epilogue, our views of the others are very much coloured by his acidic disdain, and the scene is set for a banterful evening during which characters say the kinds of things that only close friends and siblings can say to each other behind closed doors.  We very much enjoy the barbs and pot shots, as well as the savaging of middle-class pretensions (double-barrelled surnames as a sop to equality, ridiculous forenames – Peter and Elizabeth’s offspring are saddled with ‘Gooseberry’ and ‘Apollinaire’!)

It all kicks off when Vincent (Nigel Harmon) announces his unborn son will be named Adolf.  Cue an explosive discourse about morality and freedom of expression.  Here the play touches on many of the same points as comedian Richard Herring’s show ‘Hitler Moustache’ – but this argument is only for starters.  Other revelations are to come that rock the quintet to the core.

Harmon is in excellent form as the roguish Vincent, sadistically winding people up.  Jamie Glover’s Peter, adopting the moral high ground, gets a lot of stick, as does Carl (Raymond Coulthard).  Olivia Poulet is classy as the pregnant Anna, while Sarah Hadland out-middle classes the lot with her menu and preoccupations.  Hadland delivers the show-stopping speech of the night, when Elizabeth finally blows her top, in a masterly display of temper-loss.

Each member of this tight ensemble gets their moments to shine, but it is the embittered scenes of Vincent and Peter at loggerheads that carry the biggest frissons.  Director and adaptor Jeremy Sams handles the crescendos of the arguments and the conversational pace of the discussions so that it feels we are eavesdropping on the neighbours.  We enjoy being mocked, we trendy lefties, and pride ourselves on being big enough to take it – and I’ve just made myself sick!  These people are like us, the audience, the play admonishes, and we must not let our middle-class sensibilities get in the way of what is truly important: those close relationships that are both fragile and resilient at the same time.

In the same vein as Yasmin Reza’s God of Carnage, this play delivers an endless stream of laughter through a prism of sharp social satire, expertly performed by a top-notch cast of comedic actors.

nigel-harman-as-vincent-with-jamie-glover_peter-raymond-coulthard_carl

Jamie Glover, Raymond Coulthard and Nigel Harman (Photo: Robert Day)