Tag Archives: The REP Birmingham

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.

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

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Plenty to Treasure

TREASURE ISLAND

The REP, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd December, 2016

 

A favourite book of mine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate adventure is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Bryony Lavery, which remains on the whole true to the original – in spirit as well as plot – while adding a fresh spin: Jim Lad is a girl.  She behaves like the heroic boy of the original but proudly defies the gender norms of the age – and why not?  There were female pirates aplenty (most notably Ann Bonney and Mary Reade) – the point is it’s the story that matters and not what the characters may or may not have in their breeches.  Similarly, Doctor Livesey is here a woman, which may be stretching a point historically, but levels the playing field somewhat in this male-dominated story.  Director Phillip Breen sets his production on the stage of an old theatre.  Trappings of stage and of ship are equally in evidence.  We are left in no doubt this is storytelling, and in keeping with the season, principal boys are fair game!

Breen and Lavery make no concessions to the family audience.  This is a dangerous, violent world, bloody and frightening – perhaps not suitable for pre-school children but anyone else should find it gripping, tense, and atmospheric.  There is a darkness to the production as much as the tale and it’s all the better for it.

Sarah Middleton is a plucky, heroic Jim with a sweet singing voice and boundless energy.  Michael Hodgson’s sinister Long John Silver stalks around, redolent with menace and treachery.  Does he really care for Jim or is it all part of his nefarious plotting?  The ambiguity keeps us guessing, although Lavery changes Silver’s fate and so robs him and his relationship with Jim of some of its complexity.   Tonderai Munyeyu is great fun as the dunderhead Squire Trelawney, while Sian Howard provides the perfect counterpoint as the level-headed Doctor.  Dan Poole’s Black Dog and Andrew Langtree’s Blind Pew are genuinely scary.  Dave Fishley appears in two broadly contrasting roles: his Billy Bones is marvellously evocative, a swashbuckling, larger-than-life pirate, while his Gray is hilariously the opposite.  Man of the match for me though is Thomas Pickles’s unhinged Ben Gunn, quarrelling with himself in a manner that is funny, alarming and endearing all at the same time.  Marooning someone is surely the pirates’ cruellest punishment.

Dyfan Jones’s compositions enhance the atmosphere.  The songs and shanties sound in keeping with the genre and period, just as Mark Bailey’s design is grubbily theatrical and reminiscent of the glorious illustrations you find in old editions of the novel.  Fight scenes (by Renny Krupinski) are fast and furious, fun when they need to be.  When even the parrot puppet (operated by Suzanne Nixon) can pluck out your eyes, you know this is not some cosy panto – That is not to say there is not humour, there is, but this arises from character rather than the imposition of artificial situations and routines.

A top-notch family show then, perhaps unsuitable for the very young, but if it’s a rollicking, superbly presented adventure you’re after this holiday season, you need to set sail for the REP and get on board with this excellent production.

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Aar, Jim Lass. Michael Hodgson as Long John Silver and Sarah Middleton as Jim (Photo: Pete Le May)

 

 


Wilde Thing

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 14th September, 2016

 

“We live in a world of surfaces,” says Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece that holds a mirror up to society.  Designer Isla Shaw takes this at face value and gives us a set that is all mirrored surfaces.  It’s opulent and bright, and a nifty idea, but rather than draw us in, suggesting that the play is showing us ourselves, I find it distracting to see the actors reflected from all sides.

There seems to be a desire to give the piece – over a century old – a contemporary feel.  This is entirely unnecessary; the lines are as fresh and funny as ever.  Rather than blasting out electro-dance music, director Nikolai Foster should allow the play to speak for itself, and let it remind us how contemporary it feels without these jarring trappings.  Poor Gwendolen (Martha Mackintosh) has to wear a period dress lacking a front from the knees down.  It’s entirely out of keeping and I find myself questioning the design choices rather than listening to the dialogue.  Fela Lufadeju’s John Worthing fares a little better: one of his suits makes him look like a bus conductor and his mourning clothes are a little too steampunk.

Apart from these disturbing elements, this is a highly enjoyable production, especially when the genius of Wilde is allowed to come to the fore.  Handsome Edward Franklin seems most at home as the hedonistic Algernon, while Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is as formidable and imperious as you could hope.  There is some neat character acting from Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble and Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism, and I like Sharan Phull’s youthful energy as Cecily Cardew.  Darren Bennett gives us two markedly different butlers; I’ve never seen a Merriman so camp. Some of the timing needs sharpening – the bitchy scene between the two young girls could be more arch – but on the whole, the cast deliver Wilde’s often convoluted sentences very well.  They also, at times, need to ride the laughs a little better so that follow-up ripostes are not lost to us.

The delights of Wilde’s contrivances still tickle us.  This seemingly trivial play is rich with social commentary and satire, and the revelations at the denouement are still breathtakingly silly.  This production for the most part is a lovely confection; there are just one or two things I would leave on the side of my plate.

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Edward Franklin and Sharan Phull (Photo: Tom Wren)

 

 

 


Processed Meat

BEYOND CARING

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th June, 2016

 

The stage in the main house becomes its own auditorium for this intimate production.  Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, through devising with the company, this is a highly naturalistic piece, to the extent that the actors don’t project their voices.  You really have to listen – with Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design providing a ceaseless rumble of offstage machinery, and the harsh tube lighting (Marc Williams), it makes for an atmosphere where concentration is demanded, as well as getting across the sense of place.

And what a place it is.  We are in a back room at a sausage factory.  Three women are recruited as cleaning staff, joining Phil, the permanent employee.  The women are on zero hours contracts,  and each of them is desperate in her own way.  Aggressive Scouser Becky (Victoria Moseley) needs to travel to see her daughter; quiet Susan (Kristin Hutchinson) is clearly struggling – the loss of a pound coin in a vending machine is devastating – and she needs somewhere to sleep; upbeat Grace (Janet Etuk) is working despite crippling rheumatoid arthritis, because her benefits have been stopped – she is ‘fit for work’ apparently.

You’d think it would be relentlessly bleak.  Instead it’s darkly funny and beautifully observed.  Humanity springs eternal: we learn that Phil (James Doherty) enjoys cooking and made his own costume for the staff fancy dress party.  The characters bond and clash; they unite against their common enemy, Ian (Luke Clarke) a prick of a supervisor, who claims to be ‘spiritual’ but is really full of bollocks.  A scene in which he takes Susan through a bullshit staff evaluation is hilarious and horrifying in equal measure.

Missing a rubber glove and a wheel from her mop bucket, Susan becomes more desperate, Grace deteriorates, Becky lashes out and reaches out in animalistic need.  Gentle Phil tries to record a birthday message for his estranged daughter… Every moment, either funny or sobering, is compelling to watch.

Ian piles on the pressure, bullying them into extra shifts, dismissing their concerns about late payment… It’s an eye-opening portrayal of the lot of the low-paid and exploited, an almost Dickensian exposure.

The excellent cast play with such credibility it is as though we are eavesdropping on their shifts.  There is an authenticity to the piece that makes it hard-hitting; you almost forget that scenes are shaped and orchestrated to have maximum impact.  The illusion of surface reality is so strong you disregard the unseen hands that have put the show together.

We empathise with and have respect for the characters as the play reminds us that they are people too.  Relevant, powerful, amusing and emotive, Beyond Caring is a piece to be experienced and remembered in the debate over the rights of employees, and agency workers in particular, who are treated no better than the meat processed by the machinery they have to clean.

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James Doherty (Phil), Janet Etuk (Grace) and Luke Clarke (Ian) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Lessons in Love

SHADOWLANDS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st May, 2016

 

Jack (aka C. S. Lewis to you and me) is a confirmed bachelor, a middle-aged don lecturing at Oxford about pain and suffering being God’s way of showing us he loves us.  Something along those lines, anyway.  The lecture, which opens the show, brings to mind the old saw, “Those who can’t, teach”.  Indeed, it’s not long before old Jack learns the harsh lesson that experience is vastly different from theory, or indeed theology.  Into his stuffy male world amid the hallowed halls of academia, comes American Joy Gresham.  They correspond by post initially until she suggests they meet for tea.  A friendship is engendered, which develops into something more, bringing Jack into real contact with the pain and suffering he has been banging on about.

This touring show by the excellent Birdsong Productions is supremely enjoyable.   William Nicholson’s charming and witty script is brought to sparkling life; director Alastair Whatley knows when to temper the British reserve of the characters with glimpses of emotion.  Often, the understated moments are the most striking.

Stephen Boxer makes Jack a likeable figure, as we watch him thaw and take tentative steps toward expressing his feelings, gradually winkled out of his shell.  We urge him on and it is touching to see the progress he makes.  Amanda Ryan as Joy is the chalk to his cheese, but their differences are mainly on the surface.  She is very much his intellectual equal, someone to stir him out of his stagnation.  The dialogue sparks between them and, perhaps surprisingly, the laughs keep coming despite some difficult subject matter.  Even with a terminal illness, she is funny.  The humour binds the couple and endears them to us.

Denis Lill, for me, almost steals the show as Jack’s lovably gruff brother Warnie.  British reserve has rarely been more eloquent.  Simon Shackleton also makes a strong impression as boorish Professor Riley, offering an atheistic counterpoint to Jack’s faith, while Shannon Rewcroft dons schoolboy blazer and short trousers for a convincing portrayal of Joy’s eight-year-old son.

It’s an entertaining, amusing and absorbing tale of love and loss, superbly presented.  Poignant without mawkishness or sentimentality, it shows us that Romeo and Juliet are not the only star-cross’d lovers that can break our hearts and, while it’s based on a couple from real life, shows us the universals in their story, examining notions of pain, suffering and what we mean by ‘love’.

Powerful stuff.

Denis Lill as Major W.H. Lewis and Stephen Boxer as C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands. Credit Jack Ladenburg

Tea for two: Denis Lill and Stephen Boxer (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)


Clear Lear

KING LEAR

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th May, 2016

 

Direct from Manchester’s Royal Exchange, this production of Lear jets into Birmingham.  It’s a satisfyingly traditional affair; the setting is the Dark Ages, the stage a stone circle.  Huge structures tower around it.  Signe Beckmann’s design is both evocative and versatile; the circular acting space serves as royal palace and blasted heath.  The costumes too convey the period.  We are in Game of Thrones territory and the characters behave badly accordingly.

Don Warrington makes a stately entrance as the eponymous monarch, in Jon Snow furs, but it’s soon apparent that he has already lost a marble or two, with his irrational game for the throne.  Whichever of his three daughters loves him best, will get the largest share of the kingdom.  It’s a lesson for all those with kids – don’t give them their inheritance while you’re still alive; they will only treat you abominably!  Warrington is powerful as the king losing his faculties and he is at his best, not when he is howling with grief, but in the quieter moments of clarity and self-awareness.  That really hits home.  Nowadays, if a playwright wants to write a piece about dementia, there is plenty of research material and you can probably get funding too; Shakespeare works purely from observation and I wonder who it was that he observed in order to depict the condition so accurately…

Philip Whitchurch is magnificent as the Earl of Gloucester – his journey is as devastating as Lear’s.  The blinding scene is a shocking slice of Grand Guignol, deliciously gruesome – director Michael Buffong should use that energy and ‘attack’ in other scenes; the pacing is somewhat pedestrian at times, making me long for judicious cuts – of the text, I mean, not the cast!

Fraser Ayres makes an enjoyable villain as the bastard Edmund and I also like Thomas Coombes’s rather flamboyant Oswald.  The Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) seems a little too sorrowful right from the off – he first appears as Matt Lucas in a Robert Smith wig – even his best japes are tinged with sadness.  He ends up like a bedraggled Miriam Margolyes – before his disappearance from the action.  Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley are suitably nasty as evil bitches Goneril and Regan, while Norman Bowman’s Cornwall lends a Scottish lilt to the dialogue.  You wouldn’t want to endure the hospitality of any of them.

Alfred Enoch throws himself around as Edgar, disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, Wil Johnson’s Kent is suitably noble, and there is strong support from the likes of Sarah Quist and Sam Glen in ensemble parts.  Atmosphere is created in abundance by Johanna Town’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s sound design – distorted winds underscore turbulent thoughts.

On the whole, it’s an admirable production, a clear and straightforward handling of the tragedy that does not rely on gimmicks.  Excellently presented, it does however lack a certain something, a certain spark, to keep you gripped for its three-and-a-half hours.

Don Warrington (King Lear) Photo Jonathan Keenan (1)

Don Warrington (Photo: Jonathan Keenan)


Four’s Company

INVINCIBLE

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 18th May, 2016

 

If Alan Ayckbourn ever took amphetamines he might come up with a play like Torben Betts’s Invincible.  While Ayckbourn lets his middle-class monsters reveal themselves through the action, those written by Betts arrive on stage raging and ranting at each other.  We see them for what they are right away.

Idealist couple Oliver and Emily have moved from London to be among ‘real people’ oop North, in a self-serving, patronising way.  She is worse than he is in her adherence to her principles, almost to the point of militancy.  Her left-wing views, most of them not abhorrent in themselves, are savagely satirised.  She is the hard-nosed ideologue, and he is the weak streak of piss, hopelessly socially awkward.  To further their ends, they have invited the local couple from next door around for the evening.  Their evening soon descends into a nightmarish comedy of manners that makes us cringe and laugh in equal measure.  Alan is an overweight, overbearing football bore; wife Dawn is something of a trophy, stunning looking even after having ‘knocked out’ three children.

But there is much more to this play than social satire and slanging matches.  Betts sets up the characters as laughing stocks and we laugh at them over and over, but then cleverly he shows us the pain behind each of their facades.  We learn why Oliver and Emily don’t drink, why her abstract painting is about grief… We glimpse Alan’s insecurity and Dawn’s fears for her soldier son.  And so we move from laughing at them to feeling for them – the play reminds us that beyond our judgmental preconceptions of people, everyone has their own private pain.

Emily Bowker is both fearsome and devastatingly vulnerable as firebrand Emily, while Alastair Whatley proves he is perfect for Whitehall fodder or middle-class sitcom.  Graeme Brooks’s Alan is hilariously boring and surprisingly sensitive, while Kerry Bennett’s glamorous Dawn falls apart before our very eyes.

Christopher Harper’s direction maintains a breakneck speed.  This is a loud and brash production that knocks the wind out of you with the savagery of its humour and the emotional intensity of the characters’ circumstances, superbly portrayed by a remarkable quartet.

Hilarious and devastating, Invincible is another jewel in the crown of The Original Theatre Company, best known for powerful productions of historical drama.  It is great to see them branching out into contemporary comedy.

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When worlds collide: Alastair Whatley and Graeme Brooks