Tag Archives: The REP Birmingham

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

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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)

 

 


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)