Tag Archives: theatre review

Who’s The Daddy?

THE FATHER

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd May, 2016

 

Florian Zeller’s hit play comes to Brum in this sharp translation by Christopher Hampton.  It begins as a seemingly naturalistic portrayal of forgetful old man Andre (Kenneth Cranham) being visited by his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew).  But then, disjoints appear.  Contradictions arise.  Who is the man who appears?  Anne’s husband?  Someone else?  And that woman?  Is she a new nurse?  Or Andre’s other daughter?  Lines of dialogue repeat and reoccur in different scenes.  Meanwhile, subtly, the set is becoming barer – items of furniture, and Andre’s possessions, are disappearing, as his mind submits to encroaching dementia.  The transitions add to the sense of confusion, plunging us into blackouts while disrupted music blares.  Like Andre, we very soon don’t know who is who and what’s going on.

Of course, it’s only a glimpse into what it might be like to experience Andre’s confusion, terror and grief.  As audience, we can piece together what is happening in a way that the ailing Andre cannot.  It leads us to a devastating, heart-breaking final scene, powerfully played by Cranham, who is utterly convincing as the good-natured charmer, trying to keep his grip and fearing what is happening to him.  A stunning portrayal.

He is supported by a striking cast, who show us the effects of dementia on others and also the sometimes shocking treatment of sufferers.  Amanda Drew delivers a monologue about strangling her father, to give them both some sense of peace.  It is emotive stuff, to be sure, but there is humour, due to the surviving remnants of Andre’s fading personality.

Director James Macdonald keeps us on our toes as we try to sift through the changing situations and Andre’s deterioration – sometimes the scenes are very short and we are soon plunging into darkness again.  Miriam Buether’s design – Andre’s increasingly impersonal surroundings – and Guy Hoare’s cool (in the sense of cold) lighting add to the starkness.

Gripping, moving and, ultimately, bleak, The Father could well be the most powerful piece of theatre to be seen this year.

2_Kenneth Cranham in The Father_c Simon Annand

Pyjamas but no party: Kenneth Cranham (Photo: Simon Annand)

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A Dark Night

TWELFTH NIGHT

The Attic, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th September 2014

 

Shakespeare’s bittersweet rom-com is given a fresh injection of darkness in this touring production by PurpleCoat. The setting is present day – judging by the pulsating dance music and the designs of the beach towels that form the backdrop. Illyria is party central but there are two flies in the ointment. The first is lovelorn Duke Orsino: self-indulgent and selfish, he is a man in love who considers no one else’s passions but his own. The second is the Lady Olivia whose prolonged mourning for her dead father and brother keeps her from the world. These two speak with Liverpool accents, in an interesting reversal of class (their servants are much posher!). In some cases, the accent brings out the naturalism of the script but in others it jars a little. There are moments when the accent brings a note of bathos. There is much to laugh at with this pair. I warmed to Daniel Carmichael’s Duke and Rhea Little’s Olivia, like a WAG, has some deliciously funny moments.

Caitlin Clough is a strong Viola, clever and sometimes vulnerable. Stewart McDonald’s masterly Malvolio is funny and oddly sympathetic; he suffers distress at the hands of practical jokers – it is during the Sir Topaz scene that the play turns dark: the practical joke has gone sour. Even instigator Toby Belch cannot stomach it. Sir Toby is played by director Karl Falconer; by the end he is a broken man. His excesses have got the better of him and he totters around with an Ozzy Osborne frailness. Lee Burnitt’s Feste is rather intense for a jester but his music brings out the melancholy aspects of the play. The main players are strongly supported by Thomas Whittaker (Fabian and Valentine) and Jack Spencer makes an impression as Curio and Viola’s misplaced brother Sebastian.

Strongest of this young cast are Sam Liu’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is part Kenneth Williams, part Charles Hawtrey and part Bertie Wooster, and Natasha Ryan as the scheming Maria. Between them, these two could perform a Carry On film.

There are dips in the energy and while most of the comic business works a treat, there is the odd moment of over-egging the pudding. In this small venue, the broader playing shows up weaknesses in the more naturalistic moments. Problems with the lighting mean often characters are standing in shadow – If they were in for a longer run than just this one performance, I would call these teething problems. I question the interpolation of a “Fuck this!” and Olivia telling Sir Andrew to piss off; they seem too out-of-keeping with the rest of the tone to be funny.

On the whole though, this is an invigorating romp with a touching denouement and a nasty aftertaste, and reminds me why I love the play so much.1TwelfthNight_ForWebsite


Bringing Home The Bacon

FOOTLOOSE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 21st August, 2014

Familiar from the 1980s Kevin Bacon film, this is the story of Ren whose mother moves him from Chicago to the backwater town of Beaumont, where public dancing is banned by the town council, headed by a closed-minded but charismatic clergyman. Teenage rebellion is not far away, with newcomer Ren as the catalyst.

The New Alexandra’s STAGE EXPERIENCE project is an ambitious undertaking. A cast of 120 (that’s one hundred and twenty) youngsters flock on and off, every one of them giving their utmost. Director/choreographer Pollyann Tanner handles crowds with aplomb and also gets excellent performances from her main players, never for one second losing focus. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Matthew Russell leads the cast as Ren –an assured and skilful performance from this talented fifteen year old. Yes, that’s right: he’s only fifteen. He sings, dances and skips rope all at the same time without slipping a step, missing a note or stopping for breath. Great things must be ahead for this young man.

He is supported by a strong troupe of players. Molly Hope Williams (Ren’s mom) and Aneira Evans (Minister’s wife Vi) give their roles maturity and depth, and can certainly belt out the musical numbers when appropriate. Another belter is Georgia Anderson as preacher’s daughter Ariel (odd that he didn’t give her a Biblical name!), rebellious and misunderstood. Her “Holding Out For A Hero” is a rousing production number.

Outstanding is Nicole Appleby as fast-talking Rusty – she reminds me of Linda Lewis (oops, my age is showing) and her rendition of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” is a highlight. Callum Connolly’s Willard is a splendid study in character acting, consistent, engaging and rounded. His big number “Mama Says” is a divine moment, slickly interpreted and executed – I have seen professional productions that fall miles short of this quality.

Man of the match for me though is Mark Stuart Walsh as the Reverend. His rich, deep singing voice has power and subtlety, and his characterisation brings warmth and vulnerability to what is essentially the villain’s role.

It’s an exhilarating production; the energy just pours off the stage. I have only one quibble and that’s with the sound – With a stage full of kids singing their heads off, the vocals just drop in the mix and the band overpowers them. This means that some of the big moments are diluted.

When it is revealed that the show has been put together in less than a fortnight, you realise it is more towering an achievement than you first imagined. Everyone else in the business may as well just retire.

Matthew Russell (centre) as Ren

Matthew Russell (centre) as Ren


A Visit to the Gents

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 14th August, 2014

One of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and – guess what – it’s very funny. The script effervesces with word play and there are some good groanworthy gags to boot. The cast in Simon Godwin’s easy-going production handle the convoluted verbal sparring apparently effortlessly, and comic set-pieces (monologues and a double act) are played to the hilt with expert timing.

Michael Marcus is a dashing, upright Valentine, a likeable young man leaving home to make his way in the throbbing metropolis that is Milan. He’s a decent cove so we’re on his side when he plots to steal away Silvia, the object of his affection, from her lofty accommodation with the aid of a rope ladder. The plan goes awry and Val finds himself banished. Meanwhile, his BFF Proteus (an excellent Mark Arends) is sent to join him, parting with such sweet sorrow from his girlfriend Julia (Pearl Chanda). As soon as he claps eyes on Silvia, Proteus changes his affections and sets out to have the girl to himself by whatever means.

He’s a villain, driven by love, a selfish kind of love. You wonder why Julia bothers to come after him, disguised as a boy.

In this play Shakespeare sets out his stall for comedies to come. The best ideas here are reimagined in later works: Julia as a page, delivers letters to Silvia (c.f. Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night); a comic routine detailing the virtues and vices of a milkmaid chimes with Dromio’s spherical woman in Comedy of Errors… The lovers’ tribulations come to a head in the wild, lawless world of a forest… (Midsummer Night’s Dream). In this respect, this fun and enjoyable production would serve as an excellent introduction to Shakespeare.

Roger Morlidge (Launce) and Martin Bassindale’s Speed are the clown roles, intercutting the main action with comic business that never gets in the way of the inherent humour of the text. The former’s dog, Crab, (an adorably scruffy ‘Mossup’) inevitably steals every scene in which he appears.

Pearl Chanda is an appealing Julia, supported by perky, sometimes downright bawdy maid Lucetta (an energetic Leigh Quinn). Sarah Macrae is elegant and chic as the beautiful Silvia – the costumes (Italian, 1950s-60s) look their best on her. Jonny Glynn’s Duke of Milan brings gravitas and cunning – his surprise exclamation of ‘Booyah’ intimates that we are not meant to take him too seriously. The mighty Youssef Kerkour appears in a brief cameo as Sir Eglamour, but one of the undoubted highlights is prat-on-the-make Turio’s rendition of the song Who Is Silvia? – Nicholas Gerard-Martin brings the house down in a superbly realised moment.

Also handled very well is the play’s problematic ending – perhaps it’s only problematic to our cynical postmodern eyes – as Valentine forgives Proteus for all his wrongdoing. I found the reconciliation rather touching.

The RSC has a hit with this seldom-performed treat. Visually beautiful, with some lovely live music (by Michael Bruce) this stylish and accessible production hits all the right notes in all the right places.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona production photos_2014_Stratford - Royal Shakespeare Theatre_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_2G0V-141

Valentine (Michael Marcus) and Speed (Martin Bassindale)


Norsing Around

NORSESOME

mac, Birmingham, Friday 25th July, 2014

 

People have at least a nodding acquaintance with Norse mythology – be it from the names we give to the days of the week, to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, or of course, the comics and CGI-laden films of the MARVEL adaptations. This production by Temple Theatre reminds me why it’s my favourite mythology, rich as it is in adventure and magical happenings.

Devised by the company and scripted by Paul O’Mahony (who also performs) and Mike Tweddle (who also directs), it is a 90-minute romp through the stories, a dazzling display of physical comedy, performed by three energetic and versatile actors on an almost bare stage.  

They are dressed like ordinary people of today – the gods have very human foibles as well as superpowers; the actors don hats and neckties and so on, to signal the rapid changes between characters. The whole of Asgard is represented, each god delineated by an alteration to stance and demeanour. There’s a lot of running around but Tweddle’s direction keeps the action perfectly clear; there is no confusion about who’s doing whom at any moment.

Keep an eye out for the magnificent Troels Hagen Findsen as Odin, holding court – while Paul O’Mahony and Leon Scott tear around as gods and goddesses, often exchanging dialogue with themselves. O’Mahony’s Loki is how I imagine the trickster to be, rather than the snooty posturing ponce we’ve seen in recent blockbuster films, and Scott’s Thor is a marvellously hilarious characterisation. Such is the skill of the actors, I feel bad for not mentioning other characters, as if I’m missing someone out!

It’s fast-moving in terms of action and plot, and thanks to a tight and witty script, peppered with original songs (by O’Mahony and Rob Castell) never flags for a second. Phill Ward’s sound design enhances the imaginative use of mime, physical theatre, voice, gesture, and (yay!) puppets is marvellously entertaining and although this is a very humorous take, the stories themselves are not buggered about with. There are moments –just little touches – of high drama too, as the global consequence of these often bonkers events are considered. There is a pertinence here, a relevance to current events in our world of men and monsters. The most important thing in the world is peace, says Odin.

You can’t argue with that.

norsesome


This Night’s the Night!

TWELFTH NIGHT

mac, Birmingham, Saturday 12th July, 2014

 

“If music be the food of love, play on,” Count Orsino utters the famous first line. The onstage band launches into Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug and suddenly Orsino’s white suit and black tie make sense. “That strain again,” he interrupts his rendition, “it has a dying fall.”

There, in a nutshell, you have the essence of this production. Pop music (and plenty of it) is blended with Shakespeare’s text. Sometimes the gear change jars but for the most part, the transitions are seamless – it’s almost as if Old Bill had wanted to write a modern jukebox musical all along.  Every song is a happy surprise, adding to the action rather than interrupting it. Nowhere else will you get Viola belting out Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and a petulant, strutting Malvolio with a humongous quiff giving us his best Morrissey.   I tremble to imagine the music clearance bill for this production.

Yes, Oddsocks is back. This is their 25th anniversary tour and I’m proud to say I’ve been a devotee for most of that period. Director Andy Barrow never seems to be short on ideas and his Twelfth Night ranks up there with my favourites.

Rebecca Little is a hoot as a diminutive Viola, running around with a stepladder, in her presumed dead brother’s Robert Palmer suit. Much is made of the height difference between her and her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian – the magnificent Dom Gee-Burch who also gives us a Feste the Clown as a kind of Russell Brand figure.

The mighty Andrew McGillan’s Sir Toby Belch is an ageing rocker in patched denim, a hair band around his Hair Band wig. It’s a revelation of a characterisation. The drunkenness and hedonism are presented in a way that is entirely relatable to everyone in the audience; this has been Barrow’s approach for a quarter of a century: making Shakespeare accessible and above all enjoyable to people of all ages and academic achievement. Barrow is some sort of theatrical alchemist, mixing very British silliness with Shakespeare’s speech patterns and poetry. The text always survives the Barrow treatment and plenty of Shakespeare’s original jokes go down very well.

Louisa Farrant is a beautiful, gawky Olivia – Miranda Hart could learn a lot from her delivery. As always, Barrow has put together a cast of consummate comedy performers, and there is such warmth and goodwill generated by this excellent ensemble, it’s no wonder people keep coming back to Oddsocks for a fun night out.

Barrow himself is the prissy, sneering Malvolio, giving a master class in verbal and physical humour. His cross-gartered scene is, literally, a revelation.

Joseph Maudsley steals the show in my opinion doubling as a suave Orsino and a prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Orsino’s barely repressed attraction to Viola in disguise as a man gives us the most hilarious running joke of the night – Little too, as Viola or as Maria a Cockney maid who would not be out of place drinking with Kat Slater in the Queen Vic, is another jewel in this production’s crown.

It’s a unique, fast and funny take on Shakespeare’s rather melancholic rom-com from a theatre company at the height of their game.

Arrive early if you can – at some venues there is an extra treat before the show begins: a set from Outsider (Felix Mackenzie-Barrow and Lucy Varney), an upcoming and talented musical duo performing their own material, that eases us in rather nicely before the silliness explodes onto the stage.

 

Andy Barrow. Heaven knows he's Malvolio now.

Andy Barrow. Heaven knows he’s Malvolio now.


Well Wicked

WICKED

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 10th July, 2014

 

Author Gregory Maguire’s prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a dark and sensuous novel, here translated to the stage by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book). It’s a fluffier affair that races through events but is not without its darker side. The inhabitants of Oz are shown to be easily swayed by colour prejudice and fear, like UKIP voters. Their propensity for scapegoating the evils of their society involves an actual goat who, like other animals must not be allowed to teach the children, and must be denied their voice. The show looks back at the rise of Nazi Germany but is also a rather chilling depiction of the current rise of the far right in Europe.

The story tells of Elphaba, a girl who soon learns it’s not easy being green, but despite that develops into an engaging character – we take her to our hearts even though we have been told from the get-go she is to become the Wicked Witch of the West, and we will have a right old ding-dong when she is dead at last. Elphaba gets into a loathing-at-first-sight relationship with perky, popular girl Glinda (Gah-linda!) when she enrols at Shiz University – a kind of Hogwarts, or Oz-warts, I suppose. The pair’s mutual hatred turns to respect and a lasting friendship that is touching to behold. As the standby Elphaba, Jemma Alexander gives a powerhouse of a performance, but it is Emily Tierney’s Glinda who delights and amuses in her every scene. She’s an airhead and hilariously so, but Elphaba brings out the best and the worst in her – this is as much her story as the green-skinned witch’s. As circumstances conspire against her and public opinion is manipulated by lies and propaganda, Elphaba becomes an outlaw and a figure of fear, Glinda too goes up in the world, even channelling Eva Peron on her way to becoming the ‘good’ fairy we recognise from the classic film.

It’s a spectacular presentation of a storybook world – the fairy-tale gothic of the sets and costume gives us a world that is like our own but not so. The humanity of the characters is recognisable and relatable, and the script cleverly includes in-jokes and references to the original source material. It’s also an origins story – we see how the friends of Dorothy get to be how they are, although Dorothy herself is marginalised. Holzman’s script is witty and fun – it’s a pity Schwarz’s score is patchy at best. The songs are hardly memorable – they serve a purpose within the plot as it unfolds with only the glimmer of an occasional refrain you might hum on the way out. The cast do their best to belt out the numbers and keep the energy levels high.

There is appealing support from George Ure as heartbroken Boq, and Liam Doyle as swaggering Prince Charming, Fiyero. Marilyn Cutts is strong as Madame Morrible, who looks like Barbara Cartland but has the cold black heart of Theresa May. Dale Rapley’s Wizard is the only one to speak in an American accent – the shyster from Kansas – in this very British-sounding production.

Unlike Maguire’s novel, it’s family fare – although there are some nasty moments. It’s more Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. This grown-up fairy-tale has emotional and political resonance but above all it’s an enjoyable spectacle – it is so good to see shows of this scale and quality here in the Midlands.

 

Emily Tierney proves popular as Gah-linda

Emily Tierney proves popular as Gah-linda