Tag Archives: Theresa Heskins

Girl Powers

THE WORST WITCH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 24th April, 2019

 

Long before Harry Potter emerged from his cupboard and went off to Hogwarts, Mildred Hubble attended Miss Cackle’s witching academy in a series of books by Jill Murphy.  The books were adapted for television decades ago, and now they come to the stage in this brand-new version by Emma Reeves.  Here we meet Mildred, her classmates and members of staff as they stage a play about Mildred’s arrival at the academy.  The play-within-a-play format permits the cast to explore theatricality to represent the magic spells and uncanny events.  Rather than high-tech special effects, the show depends on the creativity of the director and the physicality of the actors to pull off magical moments, like invisibility, a flying broomstick display, and a host of other spells. Dramaturgy rather than thaumaturgy.

When the director is the hugely inventive Theresa Heskins you know you’re in safe hands and there will be surprises in store.  Heskins includes some of her hallmarks (if you’ve seen any of her productions at the New Vic, you’ll recognise the ‘flying’ papers) to bring the story to wonderful life.  The show works on (at least) two levels, with the adventure conjured up before our very eyes, and also the joy-bringing display of theatrical invention.  Reeve’s bright script updates Murphy’s novels and I revel in the sideswipes at a certain boy wizard and his school (“We don’t have an evil house; that would be silly”) Honestly, the show is an unadulterated pleasure.

Leading the company as clumsy Mildred is Danielle Bird, instantly appealing, a heroine with whom we can identify, as she attends witching school by mistake and struggles to fit in.  She is supported by Rebecca Killick as bff Maud and hindered by the machinations of snobby bully Ethel (a deliciously hateful Rosie Abraham).  Most amusing though – in fact, downright hilarious – is Consuela Rolle as disruptive newcomer Enid, bringing urban realness to the partay, witches.

Rachel Heaton gives a masterclass in simmering contempt as the hard-faced Miss Hardbroom – making it all the more exquisite when she experiences the effects of a hilarity potion.  Molly-Grace Cutler is great fun as chanting teacher Miss Bat, also playing piano, guitar and cello for the show’s musical numbers, alongside Meg Forgan’s bass-playing Fenella and Megan Leigh Mason’s broomstick teacher/guitarist-percussionist… The band stays onstage throughout, and Luke Potter’s original score is rich with catchy tunes – the choral singing is beautiful, and solo numbers are belted out with expression, energy and humour, not least by the mighty Polly Lister, doubling as Miss Cackle and her evil twin, sometimes appearing as both characters at once.  Lister gives a towering performance, larger-than-life, exuding menace and eliciting mirth.  It’s a marvel to behold.

Simon Daw’s skeletal set, delineating the tottering towers of the academy, provides the perfect framework for the story.  We see the outline and imagine the building, just as we see a stylised action and picture the event being depicted.  Our imaginations and our intellects are engaged simultaneously, but most of all, we’re having a right good laugh.

Enchanting.

Worst Witch98 - credit Manuel Harlan

Charming! Danielle Bird and Rachel Heaton

 

 

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Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

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In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Warm and Fuzzy

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 24th November, 2018

 

This brand-new adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel is written by the New Vic’s genius-in-residence, Theresa Heskins, and is directed by Peter Leslie Wild.  It bears all the hallmarks of a great New Vic Christmas show, with the Workshop and technical crew all flexing their creative muscles to translate fantastic worlds onto the stage.  And so, Laura Willstead’s set has painted branches, like illustrations, and sprigs of greenery draped all around.  Tree trunks made of cloth descend from above, like roots probing into soil, to create the Wild Woods… while Lis Evans’s Edwardian costumes give us the pre-WWI period while emphasising the anthropomorphism of Grahame’s characters; ears on hats and tails protruding from trouser seats are all that differentiate species.

With original music by Matt Baker, performed by the cast, the story unfolds, beginning with Alicia McKenzie’s inquisitive Mole setting off on adventure.  She encounters Richard Keightley’s dapper Ratty and their voyage in his boat is positively lovely, with Daniella Beattie’s lighting and projections creating a captivating illusion.  Emma Manton’s Badger, younger and more female than is traditional, is schoolma’am-ish and forthright, but it’s Matthew Burns’s long-suffering Horse who delights the most.  Burns later appears as a cheerfully macabre Jailer, when Rob Witcomb’s ebullient Toad falls foul of the Law.

This Toad is sweet-natured despite his manic obsessions.  Witcomb makes him more of an Ed Balls figure than a Boris Johnson, while Kieran Buckeridge’s villainous Fox is more exploitative and, yes, more than a bit scary.  Even scarier is Sophia Hatfield’s strident Mrs Otter; you would not like to tangle with her.

The whole enterprise is played with exuberance by the talented ensemble.  Their choral singing is enough to melt your heart.  Peter Leslie Wild’s direction keeps things moving, and very much in the New Vic in-house style, with cast members holding up shelves, car wheels and so on, to keep the scenery flowing.  The sequence involving the train is breath-takingly executed, a remarkable piece of physical theatre.

Heskins tweaks the ending a little to give us a timely nudge in these dark days of austerity and isolationism.  Wealth is better shared, Toad demonstrates, better when it’s put to use creating opportunities for the marginalised.  It’s subtly done, augmenting the heart-warming feelings the show has engendered from the start.

Cosy, charming and consistently amusing, this is a family show that makes you feel as warm and fuzzy as the woodland creatures it portrays.

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A car getting toad. Rob Witcomb, poop poop!


Oatcakes and Circuses

ASTLEY’S ASTOUNDING ADVENTURES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th July, 2018

 

When pressed to come up with names from the history of circus, you might recall worthies such as Billy Smart or Mary Chipperfield.  You probably won’t even know of the father of it all, the inventor of the modern circus, one Philip Astley, an innovative impresario and equestrian performer.  Now, this brand-new production staged in his home town brings this unsung hero firmly into the limelight.  We learn that he was a military man who fought in the Seven Years War – the redcoat of his uniform inspires the traditional attire of the ringmaster – and his riding school, based on marshland in Lambeth, like him, was snubbed by the nobility whose patronage he craved.  Dubbed ‘the major with the funny voice’ Astley doesn’t fit in, he’s a solecism made flesh, until inspiration strikes, and he draws together pre-existing elements (horse-riding tricks, clowns, musicians) and invents the standard for the circus ring (still in use today…)

Frazer Flintham’s snappy script leavens the historical detail with sharply comedic, sometimes saucy, dialogue, delivered with verve by a superlative ensemble.  Irrepressible clown Michael Hugo narrates – when he’s not engaged in hilarious business – and the entire enterprise crackles with fun.

Nicholas Richardson plays Astley as a swaggering, handsome figure.  Beneath the posturing is a man driven by his heart, and his heart is in the right place.  He’s also very, very funny.  He is matched by Danielle Bird as love interest Patty Jones, a spirited, driven young woman who becomes Astley’s rock and life-partner.  Their romance is decidedly unsentimental but is encapsulated in an aerial acrobatic sequence high above the stage and without a safety net, providing one of the truly jaw-dropping moments of the night.

An accident befell the mighty Andrew Pollard, causing him to break his foot the day before the dress rehearsal last week.  A swift piece of re-blocking has him sitting among the audience with his injured extremity raised, as per doctor’s orders, but this is not enough to dampen his performance.  He gives us a range of comic characters via a variety of hats and wigs – his George III is a scream, reminding us of the present Duke of Edinburgh.  Pollard’s marginalisation is only physical; his contribution remains at the heart of this production and it befits his high-status roles (the King, Colonel West) to have them apart from the main action.

Jason Eddy declaims and postures as Astley’s treacherous rival, Charles Hughes, while Nickolia King-N’Da impresses as Astley’s talented but rebellious son, John, who doesn’t wish to be saddled with horse-riding tricks for the rest of his days.  Luke Murphy does a star turn as Billy the Little Military Horse, in a hilarious scene of audience involvement.  Gareth Cassidy is also great fun as Astley’s BFF Alfie, while Oliver Mawdsley lends splendid support as Bert.  The cast is augmented by a quartet of circus performers who tumble and juggle and brandish fire around, bringing the thrills of the circus to this already-entertaining show.

Director Theresa Heskins brings her hallmarks to bear (non-contact combat, letters thrown across the stage…) and they work like a dream.  There is also a wealth of inventiveness that heighten the theatricality of the piece and add to the humour: walking across the marshland, for example; judicious use of ladies’ fans…)  How do you stage trick-riding when you have no horses?  Cleverly, is the answer.

There is also much that is deeply traditional, from the clowning to the carnival barking, but it is married with amusing anachronisms and contemporary references, making this just as much a play of the now as it is of the then.  Co-director Vicki Amedume ensures the action looks and feels like it belongs in a circus.

James Atherton’s original music is suitably circussy and melodramatic, providing the perfect accompaniment to the daring of the acts and the perfect underscore to the twists of Astley’s fortune.   The New Vic Workshop has outdone itself with the props: bicycles converted into fairground horses are wonderful to behold, and Lis Evans’s costumes keep the 18th century to the fore.

I come away having laughed a lot and having been charmed by the story, thrilled by the acts, and above all with a sense of injustice.  Surely Astley, the progenitor of an entire form of popular entertainment, deserves a more permanent monument than this excellent but ephemeral entertainment?

Meanwhile, this is the New Vic doing what it does best, and I cannot recommend this wonderful show highly enough.

Astounding!

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Linked in: Jason Eddy and Nicholas Richardson (Photo: Clara Lou Photography)


Pleasure Voyage

TREASURE ISLAND

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 25th November, 2017

 

With this new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic adventure, Theresa Heskins plots a course for another big Christmas hit.  Setting her version firmly in the North West, there is a host of Merseyside accents here – a change from the now-cliched West Country aarrs we immediately associate with the genre!  Our hero is plucky Gem Hawkins (a plucky Nisa Cole) who has to disguise herself as a cabin boy, having stowed away on board a ship bound for the titular island.  Cole is a ball of energy, likeable and expressive, and our guide through this dangerous, exciting world.

Another change is that Doctor Livesey is also female (Ellen Chivers) but if the TARDIS can have one, why not the Hispaniola?

Into the sleepy coastal pub where Jem works with her mother (a forceful Jessica Dyas) comes a stranger – in the book he’s Billy Bones, here he’s Captain Flint (Richard Costello), bringing with him intrigue, mystery and action but also electric guitars! Suddenly, James Atherton’s score is alive with heavy rock!  It’s a surprise and a welcome one.  Atherton can write in any style, it seems, and this deliberate period-smashing inclusion heightens the energy levels and the theatricality of the storytelling.  Heskins directs with customary wit and invention (Flint polishing off plate after plate of eggs and bacon is a delight!) and everything is in service of the narrative.  However, it does feel at times that the narrative loses momentum and needs crank-starting every now and then as the next iconic moment appears on the horizon.

The production is rich with gems: Andy Burse’s Squire Trelawney is a hugely enjoyable, upper-class buffoon; Lauryn Redding’s Darby McGraw is in great voice and is the most menacing of the pirates (female pirates are well-documented); William Pennington is a sweetly mad Ben Gunn – and he plays a mean xylophone; and Gareth Cassidy’s Red Dog is amusing in his intensity and attempts at subterfuge.

Tom Peters’s Long John Silver lacks the impact or charisma of Costello’s Flint, and it takes quite a while for the character to come alive.  His first scene requires him to sit, static, an approach which provides contrast to all the action we’ve seen so far, but denies him a big introduction.  We need to engage with him in order to be taken in.  Stevenson makes him a morally ambiguous figure and his relationship with Jim/Gem is key.

Certain moments are perfect.  A dance of tropical birds, fleshed out by members of the Young Company and accompanied by Atherton’s rousingly tropical score, is a delight for eye and ear.  The scene with Gem and agile baddie Israel Hands (Leon Scott) in the ship’s rigging is the best scene of the piece: tense and expertly executed.  The pirates’ song that opens the second act.  James Atherton’s score as a whole.  The New Vic’s production team: Lis Evans’s costumes, Daniella Beattie’s lighting, Alex Day’s sound… as ever, production values are high, from the big ideas (the wooden frame that lowers to represent the ship) to the smallest detail (the puppet parrot is elegantly performed (by Jessica Dyas).

There is a wealth of good ideas here, enough to get us through the patchy (eye-patchy?) bits when the dramatic thrust of the plot is becalmed.

Funny, thrilling and inventive, this is one worth setting sail for.

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The show is rigged! Nisa Cole leads a cast of pirates

 


World Class

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th October, 2017

 

An absolute treat to be able to catch this New Vic production for the third time – but what can one say that has not already been said?  I’ll probably repeat many of the plaudits of my previous reviews but here goes:

The hit show has a new lease of life with this lengthy tour.  Originally produced in-the-round, this is a chance to see the action re-directed for end-on stages and, for the most part, it’s a great fit.  With a new set by Lis Evans – all suitcases, packing trunks and umbrellas – a versatile space is created, with an ancient map as a backdrop.  Warwick Arts Centre’s Butterworth Hall is perhaps a bit cavernous, denying us the intimacy of the New Vic’s cosy arena – the regular theatre space is undergoing refurbishment at present – but the cast work hard to get the show across.

All over again I am struck with wonder.  James Atherton’s original score is the beating heart of the production, evoking sense of place and also the passage of time, as well as underscoring the action and the emotional beats of the story.  Andrew Pollard’s stately but silly Phileas Fogg; a Frenchman’s satirical view of the Englishman abroad: eccentric, entitled but ultimately decent.  I wonder if Jules Verne were writing today if his portrait would be less endearing, as we seem to have become a baffling, stubborn joke to the rest of the world.  Kirsten Foster’s beautiful and elegant Mrs Aouda – the subtlety with which she has an effect on Fogg, awakening his emotions is a heart-warming delight.  This is a Fogg to admire rather than to mock.

The action sequences still astound.  The long-distance fighting allows for cartoonish excesses without physical contact, and the running gag of flying banknotes and passports does not get old.  Director Theresa Hawkins has created a classic piece of comic theatre, rich with physicality and also theatricality.  Sound effects, especially, are brought into play to heighten the atmosphere and augment the fun.  The timing is super-impeccable.  It is like watching the intricate workings of an exquisite clock as the indefatigable ensemble dart around, setting and striking scenes, creating illusion and impression as well as over a hundred characters.  This is a show that uses great stores of imagination to get our imaginations working.  We readily buy into the swaying ship’s rails and tilting furniture and there is hilarious interplay between the world of the play and the world of the performance, with audience members enlisted to perpetuate the effects.

And it is absolutely wonderful to see a new audience fall in love with the marvellous Michael Hugo.  His Passepartout sees him at his most energetic, physically versatile and most lovable.  Hugo is a living cartoon and seems to defy the limits of the human body and I suspect he may be a CGI character, projected somehow onto the stage…

The other players lend strong support: Pushpinder Chani’s Mr Naido, Matthew Ganley’s Colonel Proctor, Joey Parsad’s Miss Singh, all rushing about and coming and going to keep us on the move from country to country.  Dennis Herdman’s nominal villain, the meddling Inspector Fix is an excellent foil for Hugo’s sweetly decent and naïve Passepartout.  Herdman is also larger-than-life in his actions and reactions – we almost feel for Fix in his failures.

Above all, the story retains its charm.  A frivolous wager reveals the best of human qualities: selflessness and determination among them.

On the road for more than 80 days, this ongoing tour is your chance to experience one of the finest productions I have ever seen.  Breath-taking in both its invention and execution, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a superlative piece of theatre.

Review ends.  If I have repeated myself, I am not sorry.  I am consulting my gazetteer to see when I can catch it again.

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Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo be trippin’

 

 

 

 

 


Let’s Go Round Again

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 29th June, 2017

 

First produced in 2013, this eye-popping show gets a well-deserved revival with the added plus that, like its protagonist, it’s going on tour.  The New Vic is its in-the-round spawning ground so I’ll be interested to see how this largely visual show fares in an end-on setting – but that’s a consideration for another time.

Jules Verne’s time-honoured story is, we must remember, a satire of the English by a Frenchman.  His hero, Phileas Fogg is the quintessential eccentric, a stickler and unfailingly polite.  Embodied by the marvellous Andrew Pollard, he is also very funny.  Pollard can express so much with stillness – it’s all in his stature; the turn of the head, the jut of the chin, can say so much.  He is partnered once again by rubber man Michael Hugo, a Roger Rabbit of an actor, pulling off superhuman feats of physical comedy.  Hugo’s Passepartout is an endearing fellow, with a mischievous schoolboy twinkle and a Charlie Chaplin expressiveness.  You can’t help but love him.

They are joined on their journey by dozens of characters, all adeptly and economically presented by a hard-working and skilful team.  Pushpinder Chani charms as Mr Naidu, Simi Egbejumi-David thrills with his acrobatics, and Joey Parsad delights in a range of 21 roles!

The pair are pursued by the misguided, hapless Inspector Fix whose frustration and despair are hilariously portrayed by Dennis Herdman, shouldering most of the tension of the piece as Fix fails repeatedly to get his man.  Matthew Ganley is striking as the gun-toting American general.  Kirsten Foster brings elegance as rescued widow Mrs Aouda – Laura Eason’s adaptation saves the emotional moments for the very end of the tale in a touching, convention-defying proposal scene.

Scenes of the finest physical comedy you will ever see – a punch-up in a temple, a martial arts showdown – are underscored by James Atherton’s miraculous music: all the scenery is in his score, as drama and pacing are coloured by international sounds and rhythms.  It’s as thrilling and effective as any action movie soundtrack and as important a part of the show as any of the cast.  Lis Evans’s design, all maps and bulky suitcases, allows for rapid changes of costume and location, while making us feel included and along for the ride.  And what a ride it is!

Sleight of hand, quick changes, slow motion and a host of other theatrical tricks and conventions are brought to the mix by genius director Theresa Heskins.  No detail is overlooked and it seems to me this time around, the sound effects have been punched up for added comic effect.  The timing is impeccable.  In fact, every aspect of the production is impeccable.  It all runs with the mathematical precision Phileas Fogg espouses, yet it comes across as fresh and funny and full of heart.

Seeing it in 2017 adds a piquancy no one could have foreseen.  Fogg gets his way by throwing large sums of money around – all right, he doesn’t go as far as bribing the DUP but you can see where I’m going with this.  At least it’s his own money, I suppose!  And freedom of movement is not an issue!

On the road for the next seven months, the show is visiting venues up and down the country, so you have no excuse.  If it’s theatrical invention, humour and imagination you’re seeking, this signature production from the New Vic is a safe bet.

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Hold on to your hat! Andrew Pollard (standing), Pushpinder Chani, Michael Hugo and Dennis Herdman