Tag Archives: theatre review

G&S = Good and Silly


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 24th June, 2014

The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company is in residence at the Grand this week, kicking off their three-production stay with Pirates. Having recently seen a marvellous all-male HMS Pinafore, I wondered how a production that plays it ‘straight’ so to speak, would keep me engaged – I have seen G&S shows in the past in which you can’t see the good for the twee.

Fear not: we are in safe hands. Director John Savournin pitches the tone exactly right. The thing is, with G&S, you’re not supposed to take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean performance standards may drop. Savournin lets the humour of the material shine through and he and choreographer Damian Czarnecki give his excellent company plenty of comic business to enhance the scenes. Only a little of it seems a bit laboured but the show moves along with such brio, you quickly find yourself laughing out loud (genuinely!) at something else.

The director himself appears as the dashing Pirate King, setting the tone for the high levels of camp that will follow. Towering over his pirate crew – camp as Christmas to a man – Savournin’s stature reminds me of John Cleese, which in turn reminds me how much the Pythons owe to G&S for their own comic songs. Anyway, the plot concerns pirate apprentice Frederic (Nick Allen) who finds himself free to leave having come of age, to pursue a career of pursuing pirates. Once ashore he meets Mabel (Elinor Moran) – with her entrance, all vocal fireworks and coloratura in a spoof of showy sopranos, the show reaches dazzling new heights of silliness and quality. Richard Gauntlett is the very model of a modern Major-General Stanley, easily the campest in the land.

There is strong support in the form of some great character acting and singing from Sylvia Clarke as Ruth and Bruce Graham as a lugubrious and timid Sergeant of Police. The chorus work, whether it’s the pirates, Mabel’s many sisters, the Keystone Kop style police or even a bunch of squirrel puppets, is detailed and funny.

It may seem like inconsequential fluff but you can revel in the silly, quintessential Britishness of it all. If you’re not an opera buff, G&S are definitely a gateway drug to lead you to the hard stuff. If you are, there is much to enjoy here as the conventions and tropes of opera proper are sent up mercilessly, while the piece retains an integrity and charm of its own. And there is a surprising moment that brings you back to earth: the ladies are flitting around on the beach, with some excellent parasol work, and they sing, “Though the moments quickly die, Greet them gaily as they fly” a bittersweet admonishment to us all to gather those rosebuds while we may. We are all mortal, remember.

I cannot wait for the next two shows later this week.


John Savournin and Sylvia Clarke up to no good

Let’s Twist Again


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 18th June, 2014


Donald F. East’s 1969 “murder thriller” is revived by director Ian Dickens as part of his summer season this year. The period setting is reproduced effectively by the detailed set and the Burt Bacharach tracks that cover the transitions – these are fun and light, in contrast with the treatment of the material. Dickens handles the dynamics of the scenes well (the play begins with a row between husband and wife) but the overall tone could do with leavening. The characters all have something repellent about them and elicit no sympathy whatsoever, discussing and indeed carrying out infidelity, blackmail and murder – their monstrousness could be offset by a lighter touch to bring out the dark humour of East’s script.

A bit heavy on the exposition in the early scenes, the plot zigzags from twist to turn, with the upper hand switching from character to character in an impressive and entertaining way, but again, the overwrought dialogue would be more palatable if the cast were to have more fun with it.

Paul Lavers is Clive, out of love with his second and much younger wife Moira (Carly Nickson), who at the outset is an annoying, whining, self-absorbed woman – you are soon hoping she will be the victim. Moira is having it off with Clive’s business partner Philip (Peter Amory) who is blackmailing Clive for control of their company.

Enter Bridget Lambert, purporting to be Clive’s first wife Jane, and the action really takes off. Lavers is good as sarcastic Clive and you warm to Nickson as Moira as her character gets in deeper and deeper with the shenanigans. Amory does a good turn as the gruff and vain Philip and there is strong support from Lambert as the conniving fourth wheel.  The play reveals itself to be almost as twisty-turny as something like Sleuth or Death Trap – the production just needs to lighten up and it would be a cracking black comedy.



Moments of Madness


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th June, 2014


Susan (Meg Fraser) is living a middle-class nightmare. The love has gone from her marriage to vicar Gerald (Richard Conlon), her son hasn’t spoken to her since he joined some kind of sect in Hemel Hempstead, and her sister-in-law is slowly poisoning them all with her atrocious cooking. When she wakes from a bump on the head, Susan gets to sample a different life, with an idyllic family, sexy husband (Andrew Wincott) and grounds to an estate that goes on for miles… Susan is increasingly confused: which is real?

Marilyn Imrie directs Alan Ayckbourn’s comic drama so that Susan’s confusion doesn’t translate to our enjoyment. We see hallucinated characters react to Susan’s real life family, and it’s gloriously funny. Thanks to a powerhouse of a central performance from Meg Fraser, Susan’s tragedy is also apparent. The blending of real and hallucinated is supported by Ti Green’s impressive set, which houses Susan’s real garden in a dreamlike landscape of tree trunks and a suspended box on which projections are made and in which characters from Susan’s imagination appear, along with some atmospheric music composed by Pippa Murphy.

Fraser is supported by a strong ensemble. Richard Conlon makes a fine comedy vicar and infuriating husband, while Neil McKinven as the doctor, bridges the gap between the real and the imagined. Irene Macdougall is good value as sister-in-law Muriel, and Scott Hoatson brings sensitivity to selfish son Rick.

In Ayckbourn’s assured hands, the sitcom-ness of Susan’s home life is transformed into a tragic-comedy of a woman’s decline into mental illness. It’s Fraser’s performance that dominates and impresses in a production that never falls short of entertaining – as Susan’s mental state unravels, the more we feel for her.

A co-production between the REP and Dundee Rep Ensemble, Woman in Mind continues the Birmingham theatres run of excellent productions, and demonstrates yet again why Ayckbourn is one of our most important playwrights.



Into The Valley


Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 11th June, 2014


Alarm bells are always set ringing whenever I see in the programme that the director (in this case the legendary Peter Brook) has written a ‘statement of intent’. I’m a firm believer in the idea of a play speaking for itself and so, joke’s on you Mr Brook, I haven’t read your statement.

With my internal pretentiousness-ahoy klaxon about to go off big time, I settle in my seat and wait for the show to begin…

Codirected by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, this Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production is set in what is by and large an empty space (of course, this being a Peter Brook) with only a few chairs scattered around, a small table, a coat stand… But mainly, there is as little as possible. Three actors and two musicians occupy this space; it begins with each actor taking a turn in a spot of storytelling – something about Persia – but this is only a prelude to the play proper. In this minimalist setting, a naturalistic story unfolds, with narration and sometimes direct audience address. It’s the story of Mrs Costas, a woman with a prodigious memory. She undergoes tests for some scientists and becomes a successful novelty act performer, a la Derren Brown – sort of – but there are problems. She finds she is unable to forget any of the trivial information she memorises for her act. Show business is not the answer – who knew?

As Mrs Costas, the remarkable Kathryn Hunter reconfirms why I hold her in high regard; it’s a much less physical role than, say, Kafka’s Monkey, but no less captivating. She is a magnetic stage presence. Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill play the scientists, Costas’s boss, her agent and so on in a manner that appears effortless, moving from character to character, location to location with clarity and style. Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori provide an atmospheric musical underscore that enhances the story, filling the empty space with aural colours – this is a play about synaesthesia, after all! – It’s a play about the human mind and the nature of memory and it’s a thoroughly absorbing and involving, small scale piece with big themes – once you get past the opening moments, that is. And it’s funny and accessible with a positive disposition towards human nature.



Happy Days is here again


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th June, 2014


People have fond memories of the hit TV show of thirty years ago.  Every week millions tuned in to see the wholesome adventures of the Cunningham family and their friends in a somewhat idealised Milwaukee of 1959.  This new musical brings back the characters and indeed the original creator and writer of the show, Garry Marshall.  It’s all fairly innocuous but with a sprinkling of double entendres that would have sailed over my head when I was a young viewer.

Tom Rogers’s set is shaped like a jukebox of the period, with foldaway flats to create different locations quickly and efficiently.  Most of the action takes place at Arnold’s diner with its chequerboard floor and iconic signage.  This hub of the community is under threat of demolition because of plot reasons and so everyone rallies around to stage fund-raising events (a dance contest, a wrestling match) to save it.

The gang’s all here:  perky Richie Cunningham (Scott Waugh), his friends class clown Ralph Malph (Andrew Waldron) and Potsie Weber (Jason Winter) – in keeping with US television tradition, they all look far too old to be at high school.

Star of the show is Ben Freeman (off of Emmerdale) as cult figure Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, channelling Henry Winkler’s classic moves and catchphrases.  Freeman brings a certain charisma to this Don Juan in a leather jacket, who talks to his motorbike as if it’s his horse, this chick-magnet, this lone cool guy in a community of squares.  He has a good singing voice too.

As does former Sugababe Heidi Range as Fonzie’s ex, Pinky Tuscadero – although she speaks her dialogue like a curious hybrid of Bette Davies and Foxy Cleopatra.

Cheryl Baker IS Marion Cunningham, looking and sounding the part in a revelation of a performance.  I could have done without the Bucks Fizz references – I was already enjoying her doing something unrelated to her Eurovision success. As her husband Howard, the show’s cosy father figure, James Paterson evokes shades of Tom Bosley, while making the role his own.

It’s frothy fun with some hilarious lines and some corny jokes, but it’s let down somewhat by the weakness of the score.  Music and lyrics are by the otherwise great Paul Williams but this is a long way from his best work.  The songs lack the wit and catchiness of scores such as Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors, although they are well staged and choreographed by director Andrew Wright.

The energetic cast throw themselves into the musical numbers but you really just want them to get on with the comedy.  Nominal villains the Malachi Brothers, two annoying show-offs are not written the way I would have chosen in order to inject some conflict into the story.  Henry Davis and Sam Robinson work hard to sell these characters to us but you tire of them rather quickly.

Under  Greg Arrowsmith’s musical direction, the live band sounds great – not least the splendid brass playing of Greg Nicholas and Matt Parry.  The show just needs better tunes to carry us between reprises of the TV theme song.

There is dramatic irony aplenty as characters mis-predict the future (No one will ever want to watch people baking on television) and some hints at the changes that women’s role in society will undergo, even if this is undermined by independent woman Pinky’s aspirations to own a nice kitchen

All in all Happy Days is an enjoyable couple of hours, the material elevated by the hard work and talent of all those involved in the performance.


A dream of a Dream


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 4th June, 2014


Propeller’s first visit to Birmingham brings a double bill of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and, the show I saw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, giving the people of our second city the chance to see this all-male troupe bring their inventive and accessible takes on classic plays. Edward Hall is surely the most reliable director of Shakespeare – I have yet to see one of his takes on Will’s plays that I didn’t enjoy or admire. Here, he dresses his cast as street performers, pallid clowns or saltimbanques. They don bits of costume to identify them as main characters or otherwise blend into the chorus, flitting and running around in a swarm of activity. The aesthetic never obscures the action and the verse is spoken with clarity and emotion – I defy anyone to fail to be charmed and transported by the production. It’s also very funny.

Matthew McPherson is a pouting, petulant Hermia (and also doubles as Snug the Joiner) contrasting splendidly with Dan Wheeler’s taller and heartfelt Helena. There is a fantastically funny brawl between these two, helped and hindered by their bewitched boyfriends, Demetrius (Arthur Wilson) and Lysander (Richard Pepper). This scene was the comic highlight of the evening for me, outshining the Pyramus & Thisbe interlude, which I feel is a little too manic and overdone – However there is much to enjoy in Chris Myles’s Bottom. James Tucker is an elegant and haughty ‘proud Titania’ and Will Featherstone rounds out his Hippolyta, making her a character rather than an ornament for Theseus (an excellent Dominic Gerrard). The female roles are never impersonations or drag acts; the actors evoke femininity with gestures and attitude, while keeping their maleness apparent.

Joseph Chance is a merry, balletic puck in striped red and white tights and frilly tutu, while Darrell Brockis’s Oberon is the master magician in sparkling cloak, while David Acton’s impassioned Egeus memorably establishes the conflict that triggers the rest of the plot.

It’s a prouction that uses theatricality to bring out the magical aspects of the story, but the tricks and gimmicks are all in service of the script, proving yet again that Propeller is the go-to company for intelligent, effective interpretations that actually work as entertainment.



A Slow Death


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton,Tuesday 3rd June, 2014


Written in the 1940s and set in the 19th century, this play by Edward Percy and Reginald Denham tells of retired actress Leonora Fiske who shares her lonely marshland home with stony-faced housekeeper and confidante Ellen Creed (Erin Geraghty).  The pair are glamorous chalk and drab and dour cheese but they rub along together nicely enough until Ellen arranges for her two aged and emotionally immature sisters for an extended visit.  The old kooks are as tiresome to the audience as they are to Miss Fiske and so we understand why she wants rid of them and sharpish.   Familial devotion gets the better of the housekeeper’s loyalty and a murder is committed.  The second half of this over-long piece is concerned with bringing the murder to light.

It’s not without its moments.  There are some amusing lines of dialogue and some members of the audience gasped audibly a number of times.  It’s just that the play takes a long time to get where it’s going – and that’s not very far.

As faded chorine, Miss Fiske, Shirley Ann Field still cuts an elegant figure, speaking with her distinctive “lived-in” voice.  Being the start of the tour, I expect the lines will settle in and the whole thing will pick up its pace.  Erin Geraghty is suitably stern as the treacherous housekeeper, and Karen Ford and Sylvia Carson do a good job as the irritating old dears, little girls in old women’s bodies.

The show really comes to life whenever Lucy the maid (Melissa Clements) and cocky geezer Albert Feather (Christopher Hogben) are on stage.  These two bring energy to their characters and their scenes, lifting us out of the doldrums.

Gradually, the drama takes hold but director Ian Dickens needs to do something about the handling of the murder that ends the first half.  A quicker blackout would be more effective and I’m not sure about the pre-recorded, protracted scream as the curtain falls.  Also, it is laughably obvious that the cast are not actually playing the on-stage piano; if it were angled differently, this could be masked to avoid our cringes and derision.

Ian Marston’s set adds to the atmosphere and period feel but this slow-burner needs an accelerant to ignite our interest earlier on.  A big hit in its day, it may be time for Ladies in Retirement to be put out to grass. 


Murder Most Fun


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 31st May, 2014


Written by an anonymous hand or hands, this play from 1592 receives a lively revival by the RSC. Played without an interval, it’s a black comedy in which a woman and her lover plot to murder the eponymous Arden, who himself is pestered by petitions from peasants about some land he has inherited. The plans go awry in a series of comic exploits until the action turns, on a knife point you might say, and a brutal, bloody murder takes place. The culprits fail to cover their tracks and are brought to summary and unequivocal justice. It’s a sobering conclusion to a wicked little romp, and we are reminded that our baser impulses may lead to dire consequences.

The setting is modern – or very recent – day. The costumes are just a little out-of-date: patterned tracksuits, and anoraks, windbreaker jackets… The ordinariness of the dress belies the extraordinary actions of the characters, suggesting that we are all in danger of giving way to sins and criminality. The costumes add a great deal to the humour of this piece, underpinning some larger-than-life performances.

As Alice Arden, Sharon Small is a scream, bringing cartoon villainy and barmaid chic to her portrayal. Ian Redford plods around as doomed husband Arden, and Keir Charles, with his Miami Vice sleeves and diamante ear-ring, is in excellent form as Alice’s lover Mosby. Jay Simpson and the mighty Tony Jayawardena are darkly hilarious as hired hitmen Black Will and Shakebag, while Christopher Middleton is chilling as Clarke, a painter with a penchant for poisonings.

Polly Findlay’s direction keeps the energy levels high and uses scenic effects like fog and snow to enhance the chaos and confusion. It’s a fast-moving, laugh-out-loud thriller that is ultimately a morality tale, and although you leave the theatre with an unpleasant aftertaste (those Elizabethans didn’t mess about when it came to crime and punishment) on the whole you feel like you’ve been royally entertained.

Chinese lucky waving cats will never be the same again.

Sharon Small

Sharon Small





Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 29th May, 2014


Ivan Williamson’s new adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story does not skimp on adventure and incident. The cast of just five work hard to populate the stage with a host of characters – For the most part this works very well; there are just a couple of times when additional hats and/or wigs would have come in handy.

Narrated by a grown-up David Balfour (Jamie Laird, commanding our attention) we see his younger self thrust into a world of treachery, betrayal and derring-do, through which he has to find his way and discover his own courage and strength of character. Director Anna Fox employs a range of theatrical techniques to support the actors in their storytelling. For example, there is a graceful sequence of physical theatre when Davie is shipwrecked and has to swim his way to the surface. Effective use is made of puppetry (thanks to consultant Alan Bird) in which objects are animated to constitute the people they represent, e.g. a ship’s wheel and coils of rope become a ferryman.   It’s imaginative work and like the best narrative theatre, engages the imagination of the audience to picture what is not (or cannot) be staged.

Simon Weir is splendid as dandified Jacobite rebel Alan Breck who forges an alliance with our young hero that becomes a fast friendship. It’s not quite Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins but there is an understanding between them that is rather touching.

Strong support comes from Christopher Anderton as evil uncle Ebenezer and Lesley Cook in a range of roles including the appropriately named Ransome, who pays a terrible price. Jamie Laird nips in and out of characters and narration but it’s so well-paced you’re always clear who he is at any given moment.

As young Davie, Stewart McChene is an appealing, sympathetic and boyish protagonist. Even though we know he survives to tell the tale and grows up to be Jamie Laird, you become engrossed in his adventures and hope he comes to no harm.  I was with him all the way.

Richard Evans’s set is clever and versatile but at times it seems like it could do with a bigger space in which to move.

The energy and commitment of the cast – including some rousing renditions of auld Scottish hits of centuries ago – keep us going through some of the wordier passages as the characters take sides in the fight for the hearts and minds of Scotland. Perhaps Cameron and Salmond should break into swordplay rather than holding a comparatively dull and bloodless referendum…


In safe hands: Sell a Door’s excellent production

Relative Values

KHANDAN – family

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Tuesday 27th May, 2014


Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play is set in the home of an Indian family in Birmingham.  At the heart and head of the family, formidable matriarch Jeeto (Sudha Bhuchar) clings to a dream of going ‘home’ to a vista of green fields, viewed from the ancestral verandah.  To this end she pushes son Pal (Rez Kempton) to keep the family shop established by her late husband open on Christmas Day, but Pal has other ideas.  He wants to sell the shop and set up his own business, a care home for elderly Asians in a refurbished pub.  Pal’s wife Liz (Lauren Crace) has been assimilated into the family and is more than happy to adopt the traditional role of the daughter-in-law as live-in domestic help, while Pal’s spirited sister Cookie (Zita Sattar) regrets having married and raised children, as she was expected to.  When cousin Reema arrives from India with her own views of independence and fending for herself, the family tensions that have been simmering like the ever-present pan of ‘chai’ boil over.

It’s an involving play, keeping on the right side of soap opera and melodrama, acted and presented naturalistically.  Director Roxana Silbert handles the events that put strain on family ties by keeping things simple and straightforward, allowing the characters to spark off each other.  The script is very much a conventional one and does not need gimmicks or flashy transitions to dress it up.

Jamie Varton’s set has the audience as three of the walls of the house, giving an intimate setting complete with running tap water and a working gas hob, grounding the play in the realness of its subject matter.

The cast is excellent with Bhuchar and Sattar standing out as mother and daughter with contrasting temperaments.  Kempton and Crace also do well in their scenes of marital strife with the latter especially touching as the white girl who left her own family behind for love.  Neil D’Souza is good fun as Cookie’s hapless husband, Major, ostensibly a bit of a prat until Pal’s plans go awry, and Preeya Kaludas impresses with her portrayal of Reema’s decline from idealism to destitution.

The spectre (or should that be ‘spirit’?) of alcohol looms large in the family’s past and present, and the notion of Pal trying to establish an Asian care home in an old English pub symbolises the difficulties of trying to graft two cultures together to make something new…

There are some very funny lines, many of which come from salon owner Cookie who is not opening on New Year’s Day because ‘ you can’t do a Brazilian with a hangover.’  There is also a lot of heart and no shortage of tension in this story of family dynamics and the clash between ambition and tradition.  You may not understand the odd word or line of Punjabi with which the dialogue is peppered, but you don’t need to.  The universal truths of human relationships speak loud and clear.

Dramatically, Khandan is old-fashioned and sturdy but above all it’s an engaging and satisfying evening’s entertainment.



Mother knows best! Sudha Bhuchar and Rez Kempton (photo: Robert Day)