Tag Archives: theatre

Christmas Comes Early

NATIVITY! The Musical

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th October, 2017


It’s too early to think about Christmas, I mutter as I take my seat, along with other curmudgeonly thoughts.   Surely this production is ill-timed, we haven’t had Hallowe’en or Guy Fawkes yet… blah blah.

And then it begins.  A bright and brash opening number with people dressed as elves and reindeer and there’s even a singing, dancing Christmas tree… but before I can utter so much as a ‘Bah, humbug!’ the infectious spirit of the show takes over and I find I can settle back and enjoy it.

It’s the tale of rival schools, vying for a five-star review in the local paper for their annual nativity show.  The private school (aka the villains) led by Andy Brady as Mr Shakespeare go to all sorts of distasteful lengths, culminating in a rock opera about King Herod.  The good guys, bottom of the league Saint Bernadette’s, underdog written all over them, have a reluctant director in the form of Mr Maddens (Daniel Boys) and his irrepressible idiot of a teaching assistant, Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin).  A rumour goes around that a Hollywood producer (Maddens’s ex, Jennifer) is coming to see the show, and things rapidly spiral out of control.

Daniel Boys is excellent as the somewhat downtrodden Maddens, giving enough of a flavour of Martin Freeman to satisfy the expectations of fans of the film, while making the part his own.  Simon Lipkin is irresistible as Poppy – you’d punch him in real life, but on stage he is our narrator, our clown, and our emotional temperature gauge.  Andy Brady is clearly enjoying himself as the preposterous Mr Shakespeare and Jemma Churchill’s beleaguered head teacher, Mrs Bevan, combines passion for the job with humour and heart.  I enjoy the acidic observations of critic Patrick Burns (Jamie Chapman).  Sarah Earnshaw’s searing vocals as lost love Jennifer are a welcome counterpoint to the wall of sound coming from the kids.

The kids.  The RSC has a lot to answer for.  Its production of Matilda set the bar staggeringly high for what we expect from children on the professional stage.  And this lot deliver – outstandingly so.  Working as an ensemble or in solo moments, they all demonstrate commitment and talent.  Director Debbie Isitt (who also wrote and co-composed the show) must have the patience of a schoolful of primary teachers!  The stage is vibrant with energy and charm, sailing on the right side of mawkishness and sentimentality.

Laugh out loud funny and bursting with life, Nativity! manages to warm the heart of even this old grinch.  It’s one present you’ll be glad to open early.

Nativity The MusicalPhoto Credit: The Other Richard

Simon Lipkin (Photo: Richard Davenport)



Editorial: Tweet Seats

I love the theatre. I love Twitter. Put the two together and what could be better?

Well, toothpaste and orange juice spring to mind.

There is a worrying trend at the moment of theatres thinking it is a good idea to allow ‘tweet seats’ in their auditoriums. I’ve seen places as prestigious as the Royal Opera House and the Birmingham Hippodrome put forward this idea and I can only think it is a wrong move.

First of all, using your mobile phone during a performance is an insult to the performers. You cannot possibly be giving their work your full attention and therefore you cannot possibly be in a position to comment, making anything you might be bursting to say in a tweet invalid.

Second, you will be a nuisance to other audience members. Never mind proposed ‘light-reducing seats’, you will be seen. Also pity the poor ushers trying to police mobile phone use in the rest of the audience. Theatres have worked hard to minimise disruption from mobile phones – to allow usage in any capacity is backwards.

Thirdly, the tweeters themselves are missing out. We’ve all tweeted along with television shows – in some cases Twitter enhances certain types of programmes and televised events – but live theatre is different. If you’re tweeting, you’re not in the moment. You’re not giving the show the chance to absorb you and transport you. And therefore – I repeat – anything you tweet cannot be worth reading.

Twitter is great fun but it’s also a stealer of time and attention. You might think of a perfect, pithy comment that just can’t wait until the interval but then you will get replies. You will be distracted by other tweets that appear on your timeline: pictures of kittens in pith helmets, for example.

I am against tweeting during live theatre – in case you haven’t worked that out by now.

Switch the phones off and BE PRESENT. Don’t deny yourself the uniqueness of live experience.

pith helmet pussy

A Slow Day In Naples


Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 23rd August, 2011


Eduardo de Filippo’s play from 1960 is presented in a new version by Mike Poulton, he of several successful adaptations for the RSC (Canterbury Tales, Morte d’Arthur) but here the tone is vastly different.  This is a drawing-room comedy with a twist. The house belongs to Mafioso boss, Ian McKellan, a sentimental old cove who administers his own brand of summary justice to the people who come to him with petty grievances.  Imagine Judge Judy with a handgun.


The central performance is what holds the piece together.  McKellan’s Don Antonio is a multi-faceted but not complex figure with his own sense of morality.  He rules his district of Naples with only the occasional hint of menace.  He rarely has to put his foot down.   Always a thrill to see Gandalf the Grey aka Magneto treading the boards, and I have had the pleasure of seeing his King Lear and his Estragon in Waiting For Godot.  This role, alas, does not rank with those two.  The acting style, falling short of full on ‘Allo ‘Allo! silliness,  results in very English characters who occasionally, when moved, adopt a more Italian inflection and Italian hand gestures.  Mercifully, no one says “Mamma mia!”


The fault is in the source material. The main action takes a long time to get going.  There are pacing issues in the first and third acts. There are too many extraneous characters going nowhere. The elegant Cherie Lunghi is criminally underused as Don Antonio’s wife.  She is merely a cipher to reinforce his power. It was good to see Oliver Cotton as the dignified baker, standing up to McKellan.  Their scene in the second act is the tour de force of the evening.


Don Antonio keeps returning to the idea that a man is not a man unless he rights his mistakes.  A mortal wound forces him to put this maxim into practice.  Slowly bleeding to death, he sets up a dinner party, manipulating the outcome of events so that his district will be able to return to a more conventional morality and code of conduct.  Only at the last moment it all looks set to be derailed.  Don Antonio’s personal physician and “friend” of 35 years, threatens to scupper this utopian ideal by assuming Don Antonio’s place and inciting a vendetta that will destroy everyone in a bloodbath.  De Filippo ends the play at this moment: will the Doctor make his move? Will someone shoot him before he can? Will Don Antonio’s last wish be enacted?  That is the most engaging and interesting moment in the whole piece.  A pity we had to wade through two and a half hours to get to it.


The play felt like Chekhov but without the bleakness to embitter the humour.  I remained ambivalent towards the protagonist, even after his back story was revealed.  He needed to be more overtly evil earlier on to make his volte face the more effective. There is no sense of urgency as time and blood run out. The large cast needs culling – too many add nothing to the plot. Pity the actor who appears at the start but then has to wait around for the curtain call.

Keeping It In The Family


The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Tuesday 2nd August, 2011


One of Pinter’s finest and most typically Pinteresque plays, The Homecoming as performed here by the RSC is a lesson in how to do Pinter properly.  Not that this is anything akin to a dry lecture, the like of which I was wont to give, make no mistake, this is a thoroughly entertaining evening at the theatre.

Pinter gives us little by way of exposition. Rather we are invited to find out for ourselves, like looking at a family photo album in a fog.  Aspects of their history and their present situation come in and out of focus and the audience pieces together its own interpretation.  As the situation unfolds and details are revealed or, as often happens, are hinted at, the thinking behind the design concept for this production becomes apparent.  Head of the household Max is a former butcher.  He is a volatile, sentimental bully who carries his walking stick more as a weapon and symbol of his authority than as an aid to mobility.  His house is all deep reds and browns, the colours of dried blood.  His armchair, his seat of power, is the most vivid scarlet.  From here he issues edicts and spouts monologues of embittered reminiscence, keeping his three sons and his brother in line.  He is a tyrant.

Upstage is the house’s hallway with staircase and front door. A row of leather coats hang like carcasses on actual meat hooks, calling to mind Max’s previous occupation but also symbolising how much he has his hooks into his family.  For all their arguments and complaints, his sons show no intention of leaving, even though they are each financially capable.  In fact, the eldest son returns to the fold, giving us the homecoming of the title, bringing his wife of six years (they have been married for six years, I mean. She is not a child!).  The arrival of this newcomer is the spanner in the works.  She is a cool customer and very easily and accurately gets the measure of her brothers-in-law.  She accepts their offer of a flat near Greek Street, where she will earn her keep a couple of hours a night. In fact she takes charge of the negotiations, from Max’s throne.  Her husband, reluctant at first to leave without her, is drawn back in to the family’s skewed sense of loyalty and morality, and appears quite happy to leave her behind. He returns to his own three sons, (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeats the pattern of his own childhood with them.)

Max, dethroned, suffers a debilitating stroke and is left to scrabble around on the dry blood carpet.  The old order has been usurped. Ruth nestles the head of youngest brother-in-law Joey in her lap.  Her new pimp, Lenny, looks on, while his father’s cries go unheeded.  The play is as old as am I but retains the power to amuse and to shock.  The Swan Theatre’s thrust stage afforded me full view of faces in the audience opposite, and they were laughing out loud and gasping, flinching and grinning at every turn at these Londoners at each other’s throats. This is how EastEnders should have been!

Ruth is wife, mother and whore but also she is now Queen.  Played with haughtiness and knowingness by Aislin McGuckin, she is the perfect counterpoint to the hot-headed men.  Jonathan Slinger as effeminate but violent pimp Lenny gives a measured performance that I preferred to his expectorating declamations as Macbeth, and Richard Riddell gives sturdy support as would-be pugilist Joey, managing to appear both little-boy-lost and brooding Neanderthal at the same time. But the night belongs to diminutive actor Nicholas Woodeson who gives a towering performance in flat cap and cardigan as the despotic Max.

“A dream and fruitless vision…”


Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Monday 1st August, 2011


Transporting The Merchant of Venice to modern day Las Vegas worked very well, but on this occasion, updating the setting of the court of Theseus and the forest of Athens is not as successful.  Duke Theseus resides in a stark and empty warehouse of a palace, all dirty, white-washed bricks and industrial staircases. The only concession to luxury is white leather Chesterfield furniture.  His courtiers wear sharp suits and narrow ties, his sulky queen a fur coat over her cocktail dress.  We are in 1960s gangland, although the accents make it more Guy Ritchie than Brat Pack.   This is all well and good as far as it goes but when the scene shifts to the woods and the fairies appear, the design concept for this production is a real let-down.  Rather than a race of other-worldly, ethereal beings, Oberon’s people resemble nothing more than a troupe of Performing Arts students earnestly giving their all in the end of term show.  A bit of chiffon and some contemporary dance doesn’t cut it with me. Puck has lost his playfulness and has become a bland, head prefect in an overall coated with neckties.  He is like someone at the office party who dons a paper hat as a substitute for personality.

Among the human characters there is some excellent comic playing, most notably from the consistently excellent Alex Hassell as Demetrius and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena. But, as I invariably find with this play, the show belongs to the rude mechanicals, and this production boasts a wonderful bunch. Marc Wootton (TV’s Shirley Ghostman) is an ebullient Bottom but he is more than matched by Christopher Godwin as Quince and Felix Hayes as Snug.  Again, the design element lets them down. Rather than trees, children’s chairs are suspended from the ceiling.  The rivals in love have a pillow fight but their costumes become muddier rather than coated in feathers or kapok. I found the design concept got in the way of both play and players.  It doesn’t really gel or make sense.

I’m not going to make the lazy quip: “A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare more like!” because I like to feel I’m above that and there is much to delight in this production, but I left the RST thinking “What a shame,” and “What fools these designers be!”

The Admirable New Vic


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Saturday 30th July, 2011


The New Vic’s triumphant Summer Rep season came to an end with the final performance of J M Barrie’s comedy of manners, a play that proves he could delight adults as effectively as he did children with Peter Pan (“did children” sounds wrong now that I look at it. Let me make it clear I’m not suggesting JM had any of MJ’s alleged tendencies – legal minefield this blogging lark, ain’t it?).

The play, first produced in 1901, is remarkably fresh and pertinent.  Its politics make for a piquant satire of today, now our backward-thinking leaders wish to return us to nineteenth century “values”.  Barrie “pooh-poohs” ( to use a phrase from the play) notions of Equality, an idea given lip-service by Lord Loam, and uses the device of stranding his characters on a desert island to demonstrate that a natural leader will inevitably emerge.  Ability and character define the leader, not privilege, wealth or circumstance of birth.  Crichton, a butler who could give Jeeves a run for his money, soon takes over.  He becomes a benevolent despot and everyone is happy to serve him.  The flighty young ladies become valued contributors.  The men apply themselves to the common good.  They all benefit from Crichton’s inventiveness – the island’s resources are put to clever and ecological use.

When, after two years, rescue comes, the old order is swiftly restored, and we feel the injustice of this more keenly than the characters.  Back in England, a cover-up in the form of a published account of their ordeal, marginalises Crichton and glorifies through falsehood the heroics of the upper class.  Perhaps most admirable about Crichton is his unwillingness to resume his former life.  The true nature of his “betters” has been revealed.  He hands in his notice and goes to run a pub on the Harrow Road, where he can again be master of all he surveys.   This move from servant to small businessman is in direct opposition to Lord Loam’s avowal to shed his liberal outlook and join the Tories.  Equality is off the agenda.   Crichton will work hard for success and wealth. Loam, nothing more than an amusing buffoon, seeks to cling to his position by reinforcing the status quo.

Can’t help longing for a Crichton to come along and unseat the self-serving millionaires we are lumbered with…

The company is a tight ensemble, having bonded over the past few months in the staging of four very diverse plays, clearly enjoyed themselves.  Director Theresa Heskins has gathered a fine bunch of character actors, among them the marvellous and indefatigable Michael Hugo and, blast from my TV viewing past, Paul “P C Penrose” Greenwood.  Really the entire cast deserves praise and applause until one’s elbows bleed.  So too does the design team, not least for the Act Three set: the communal hut on the desert island, and the octagonal table that transforms into a natural stone staircase.   The New Vic always makes the most of its in-the-round structure and I look forward to the new season as an impatient child waits for Christmas (when Michael Hugo will return to play the Mad Hatter).  Yippee!

P.S. Geek fact: The robot butler off of Red Dwarf was named Kryten because of this play.

Victorian Mellow Drama


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.  Saturday 23rd July, 2011


Being all ignorant and shiz, I arrived at the theatre never having read the Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins.  I knew it existed and I know that Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical based on it. Something involving Michael Crawford in a fat suit and some pet white mice, I seem to recall.

Turns out, in this instance, ignorance, if not bliss, was preferable. This stage adaptation is all about the plot, plot, plot, plot, plot so if you know what’s coming, there’s not much else to keep you interested.  Characterisations are skin deep – some are a little flat – and here I think the producers missed a trick.  They should have cranked up the melodrama, exaggerated the acting style to recapture the barnstorming, scenery-chewing declamatory stomping and posturing of the days before naturalism.  It would have been weird at first but we would have attuned to it before long, and the production could have been lifted from a passable piece of storytelling to an energetic and more overtly theatrical  event.

The sensational plot would bear a more outré presentation.  Its convoluted machinations, comings and goings and carryings-on bear all the hallmarks of Victorian melodrama, an early forerunner to the soap operas of today.  The long-suffering heroine is blonde.  The bad guy is dark with facial hair – he was played by Peter Amory, formerly Chris Tate off of Emmerdale Farm.  There were moments when I thought he was really going to snarl his way through half the furniture, but it never happened.  Everyone was playing it safe.   A previous incarnation of The Doctor, the mighty Colin Baker, only really got to grips with Count Fosco when his malevolence comes to the fore in the third act.  Yes, that’s right, there were three acts.  Someone should have told those members of the audience who didn’t buy a programme.  At the end of Act Two some of them left.  The woman next to me turned to me and said, “That was a bit different.”  Perhaps inured to artsy-fartsy, open-ended resolutions, these people thought that genuinely was the end.  If they knew their Victorian melodrama they would know there was more to come.  Virtue must win out and the blonde people must triumph.

I would have directed it differently is the sum of what I’m saying.