Tag Archives: Theresa Heskins

Winter Wonderland

THE SNOW QUEEN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 26th November, 2016

 

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is given the Theresa Heskins treatment in this beautiful new version that continues the New Vic’s impeccable tradition of superlative Christmas entertainment.  Heskins’s adaptation improves on the original, in my opinion, by giving the Snow Queen a backstory.  We understand why she is the way she is by seeing how she became the bogeyman, a legend used to frighten children.  The play begins with a sweet courtship scene between the awkward Soren Sorenson (a sweetly clumsy and tongue-tied Oliver Mawdsley) and Karen, the object of his affection.  They skate around the issue – literally: the cast wear inline roller skates to glide around – and come to an understanding, only to have tragedy strike, putting their romance on ice.

Polly Lister gives a chilling performance as the icy, mournful ghost.  Everything about her is striking, the voice especially.  Once again, we are treated to a magnificent score by genius composer James Atherton, and Lister’s voice is the strongest of the night.  Her scenes with Kai (Luke Murphy) are reminiscent of Edmund and the White Witch of Narnia, and there are echoes of other tales, other myths: Summer’s garden, on which Gerda becomes trapped, is like Circe’s island, and the three puzzles Kai must solve remind me of icy Turandot’s riddles with their one-word answers.

Natasha Davidson is an appealing heroine/narrator as the plucky yet bookish Gerda.  Books form the scenic elements here, great slabs like ice floes.  There is a running theme that storybooks are at least as valuable as factual ones.  The Dickensian, Gove-like education meted out by Schoolteacher (Rachael Garnett) is not enough to get children through life and its problems.  Creative thought is vital to our survival.

It’s a stunningly beautiful show, visually, thanks to Laura Clarkson’s set (the stage floor is especially important to the story), Lis Evans colourful Danish-Victorian chic costumes, and Daniella Beattie’s magical lighting design; and aurally, courtesy of Atherton’s evocative compositions, played on stage by the talented actor-musicians.

The splendid leads are supported by equally strong ensemble members.  Matthew Ganley’s Bitzer, for example, and Rachel Dawson’s Robbergirl, help to populate Gerda’s account with engaging characters.  Heskins’s direction includes her trademark ‘distance fighting’, a kind of non-contact violence that is expressive, effective and fun, and there are also stand-out sequences, like the toboggan race, the flight of the Snow Queen, and a stunning backwards scene – Heskins puts the performer at the heart of her stage effects.  She gives the design and tech teams challenges (which they meet, no question) but she is essentially an actors’ director and, above all that, a consummate storyteller.

Ultimately heart-warming, this is the perfect entertainment for a chilly winter’s night.  You leave the theatre feeling cosy and warm.  It’s the simple, uncomplicated things of life that make you feel good, especially at this time of year – I suppose this is the hygge that’s all the rage these days, something that Hans Christian Andersen knew all about.

new-vic-theatre_the-snow-queen_image-by-andrew-billington_2

Frozen assets: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen (Photo: Andrew Billington)

Advertisements

With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

pan in scarlet

Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

 


Ballroom Glitz

KISS ME QUICKSTEP

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 10th March, 2016

 

Amanda Whittington’s new play is already proving popular.  People flock to the New Vic because of the subject matter: a ballroom dancing competition.  They come for the dancing but they stay for the humour and warmth of the characters.  The story follows the fortunes of three couples.  Samantha is a jaded champion, disaffected and drunk – much to the chagrin of her snake-hipped partner Lee.  Nancy is a bright-eyed optimist; having met Luka, a Russian dancer online, she has her father fly him over to partner her for the competition.  Meanwhile, married couple, Justin and Jodie Atherton, are facing money troubles and a run of bad luck.  She is neurotic, he has a gammy knee…  Most of the action takes place backstage – the compere (TV’s Alison Hammond) is a disembodied voice, divine intervention interrupting the rows and rehearsals.

In the rehearsal scenes, we glimpse the anatomy of the dances – this is thrilling in itself – but when the dance numbers come they are truly uplifting.  It’s so much more impressive than watching it on the telly!  Beverley Edmunds’s choreography is spot on, and it’s also dramatised to fit the action – There’s a slow-motion sequence that shows in an expressionistic way how Samantha is alienated by the whole shebang.  The cast is augmented by a talented troupe from the local community, adding to the scale of the enterprise.  The Blackpool ballroom is economically evoked by Dawn Allsop’s design and Daniella Beattie’s versatile lighting.

Amy Barnes keeps Samantha together, through her drunken denials to her liberation, bringing warmth to what could be a diva of a role.  Ed White incorporates Lee’s drive and determination, and is a lovely mover.  Hannah Edwards, a New Vic favourite, brings sweetness to Nancy and also the guts to stand up at last to her overbearing, self-appointed coach of a father (Jack Lord, both affable and menacing).  Also returning to the New Vic is Isaac Stanmore (formerly Robin Hood and Dracula here!) as the Russian dancer and rent-a-Gleb Luka, thrilled to be in Blackpool – for more reasons than one, it turns out.  Stanmore is an engaging presence – technically superb in the dancing (they all are, it has to be said) and exuding both strength and vulnerability – We want him to succeed.  Abigail Moore’s Jodie is tightly wound (and very funny) but as soon as the compere calls her to the dance floor she becomes the consummate performer, supported perfectly by Matt Crosby as husband Justin.  Their big dance number brings the house down and this is because we are invested in them as characters.

It’s a conventional play, deftly handled by resident director Theresa Heskins, who puts the humanity of the characters in the spotlight and allows the script’s metaphors and meaning to work on the audience almost subliminally.  Dance = life, and it’s what you bring to the floor that counts.

Kiss-Me-Quickstep-New-Vic-Theatre-C-Andrew-Billington-

Jack Lord, Hannah Edwards and Isaac Stanmore

 

 


Theatrical Gold – part two

HOARD FESTIVAL (2nd Visit)

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Thursday 16th July, 2015

 

An eagerly anticipated return visit to the New Vic to catch more of the excellent festival of work inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard. Before the double bill in the main house, I catch another couple of ‘table plays’ in the bar.

In Hwaet! by Tom Wells, Elizabeth Elvin plays a woman in cod-Anglo Saxon garb, a mother preparing a surprise party for her daughter who is leaving to study archaeology at university. It’s an amusing monologue – the woman has a very funny turn of phrase – but running through it is a rich vein of emotion that is ever-present in Elvin’s eyes, behind the smiles and the laughter. Lovely stuff.

Sara Pascoe’s Hoarder features a young Anglo Saxon widow who monitors squirrels so she can dig up the nuts that hide away. She is a bit squirrel-like herself and she seeks the stash of gold her late husband buried – she even asks a couple of people around the table to open their bags or empty their pockets. It’s an energised performance from Gwawr Loader, tightly wound and delivered with conviction. Fab.

On to the main double bill.

UNEARTHED by Theresa Heskins

The New Vic’s resident director Theresa Heskins appears (here portrayed by Bryonie Pritchard) to explain how she put the play together. She interviewed a range of people connected with the discovery and then edited their words together to create the narrative. And so the actors speak verbatim words of real-life people. The style mixes naturalism with documentary elements. Pritchard withdraws, substituting us, the audience, as Theresa; the characters now address us, as narrators. This is a fascinating account of an endlessly fascinating story. We meet Terry whose metal detector found the treasure (David Nellist in bluff, amusing tones) and the museum experts whose minds were blown away when he took it to them. Also included is famous TV historian Michael Wood (invoked by the wonderful Adam Morris) who speculates about the nature and the origins of the find. It cracks along at a fair pace; names are projected on the floor to help us keep track of who is whom and images of some of the pieces appear and spread across the stage. There isn’t much in terms of on-stage action but that’s not the point. The documentary style engages us and holds us throughout. As facts and opinions are unearthed, our imagination is stimulated and our sense of wonder activated. Pure gold.

THE GIFT by Jemma Kennedy

This is a story of an Anglo Saxon community thrown into conflict by the return of the menfolk from battle. They bring with them a bag of gold from the recent convert to Christianity, their King. He wants to enlist them to help build a cathedral at Lichfield. The men are up for it; the women not so much. In this society, the women have equal say in decisions and ownership of property – but it’s no egalitarian utopia: they keep bondsmen and slaves to do their bidding.

Jemma Churchill impresses as the formidable matriarchal Wilda, determined to stick to their own ways and values, contrasted sharply with the meek Welsh girl, their slave Cain (Gwawr Loader). David Semark wears the garb and his chieftain’s attitude as though he was born to them, while brash,blokish Beorn (David Kirkbride) shows us lad culture stretches across the centuries. Romayne Andrews is appealing as young man Teon, who is sweet on the slave girl, and Johnson Willis adds to his portrayal of Dudda the bondsman with some sweet lyre-playing. Paula James is ‘wise woman’ Rowena, who interprets dreams and conducts rituals (they are a superstitious bunch) but the rot of Christianity is spreading, infecting hearts and minds, even within this very tribe.

It’s a story of the end of a world. Kennedy’s script has an air of authenticity about it and the production benefits from Lis Evans’s design work in terms of the set and the costumes. Gemma Fairlie’s direction keeps proceedings clear, but the piece seems a little too earnest to me. When Teon elopes with Cain and marries her in a Christian ceremony, she is merely swapping one kind of slavery for another: the new religion diminishes the status of women in society – we’re still working through the consequences.

There is still plenty more going on at the New Vic that I haven’t seen. Like the treasure of the hoard itself, or Anglo Saxon society, I can only glimpse tantalising parts with my understanding incomplete, and the whole thing unknowable.

Unearthed

David Nellist as Terry, the world’s luckiest detectorist


Theatrical Gold

HOARD

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th July, 2015

 

The discovery of buried treasure now known as the Staffordshire Hoard is a fascinating story on its own but the ever-ambitious New Vic Theatre has gone further, unearthing a wealth of creativity and imagination in this festival inspired by the find.

There’s such a lot going on: exhibitions, installations, drama – there’s a dozen five-minute treats called ‘table plays’, where actors mingle in the bar (nothing innovative there!) and address small audiences with monologues and storytelling.  I caught four of the twelve, each one a distinctive jewel.  In Half A Horse by Isy Suttie, a woman (Paula James) searches for her lover who has left her with half of a horse-brooch as a token. It’s funny, down-to-earth and sweet.  In The Foreigner by Lydia Adetunji, Suzanne Ahmet speaks a garnet’s point of view, recounting its ‘life story’ in a beautiful piece of writing, magnetically performed.  David Semark and Johnson Willis perform a potted Beowulf but it’s getting too rowdy in the bar as playgoers continue to arrive.  There’s no such problem with Out of the Dark: The Hoard Speaks, which takes place in an alcove behind a curtain.  A cast of three (David Crellin, Perry Moore and Adam Morris) pore over runic symbols, their faces lit from below by candles.  It’s mesmerising and intimate – the rich words by Alan Garner of Owl Service and Brisingamen fame.  This one turns out to be my favourite (of the four I’ve seen); it’s like going back in time.

To the main business of the evening and the first of a double bill of plays.

THE THRONE by Frazer Flintham

The New Vic’s resident genius Theresa Heskins directs this present-day comedy, set in a Staffordshire pub.  Landlord Sid (David Crellin) and best customer Cliff (David Nellist) play a practical joke on upper class Gordon (Adam Morris), a bit of a smoothie who claims to be a ‘ghost receiver’.  He has a global following on the internet.  The prank misfires and Gordon looks to be made even wealthier by what he finds buried in a field.

It’s a lot of fun, thanks to a likeable script that has more bathos than a Victoria Wood special, and the affectionate depiction of the characters.  David Crellin is spot on as the affable landlord; Gwawr Loader makes a chirpy barmaid, and Elizabeth Elvin is monstrously funny as pretentious and catty Pam.  There is amusing support from Perry Moore as a local news reporter with a dicky tummy.

Cliff has worked in the local toilet factory for 25 years and it falls to him to make the play’s key point: it’s not kings or trinkets that matter, it’s the working men and women who put the king on the throne, who crafted the jewels and fine objects.  Without the working class, the upper class would be nowhere.  It’s a powerful moment without labouring the point.

As Gordon, Adam Morris smarms and charms it up, playing to (web)camera.  It’s traditional stuff: the lower orders making fun of the toffs, and it’s perfectly pitched and highly entertaining.

LARKSONG by Chris Bush

Set in the hoard’s Anglo-Saxon past, this piece is less immediately accessible.  There is a clash of styles at work here.  There is choric speaking where the language is lyrical and alliterative, much like Anglo-Saxon verse and there is some very (perhaps too) modern dialogue that doesn’t quite go with the period setting.  The play would seem less fractured if it picked one style and ran with it.

It tells the story of a group who appropriate a load of valuables but don’t know what to do with it.  It seems their every option will trigger conflict and bloodshed.  It’s an interesting look at how the hoard might have come to be where it ended up but where it works best for me is with its reflections on an earlier bygone era.  The end of the Roman civilisation plunged Europe into the dark ages, a kind of post-apocalyptic society, it seems.

As Lark, Crystal Condie sings beautifully and there is some pleasing interplay between the characters who are all named after creatures.  Romayne Andrews is Mouse, Johnson Willis is Mole, a goldsmith, and Perry Moore is Weasel – I can’t help thinking of Wind in the Willows.   What comes across is that although circumstances have changed, people essentially have not – and I think that’s the point of this festival as a whole. It’s not about the treasures, it’s about people and history and mortality.  Larksong, directed by Gemma Fairlie, has some striking moments rather than being uniformly brilliant throughout.

I’m looking forward to going back to the New Vic soon and seeing some more.

Pictured are cast members Adam Morris as Gordon and Bryonie Pritchard as Peggy (middle) surrounded by cast looking at hoard.

Pictured are cast members Adam Morris as Gordon and Bryonie Pritchard as Peggy (middle) surrounded by cast looking at hoard.

 

 


Sounds Horrible

DRACULA

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th March, 2015

 

Director Theresa Heskins has adapted the Bram Stoker novel fairly faithfully for this brand new production – most of the main characters are here and all the key scenes but what lifts this version above and beyond the main pre-existing others is…well, everything.

The stage is darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not only does this lend a creepy atmosphere but it focusses our hearing. Sound is brought to the fore in the form of sound effects, performed live by the cast – we’ve all seen footage of radio drama being recorded or sound effects being added to a film soundtrack. At first, as the effects support the mime of the actors, you look up to their workbenches to see how the sounds are produced, but after a while, you let that go as the action draws you in. Sound designers James Earl-Davis and Alex Day are certainly inventive and undeniably ‘effect’-ive. Also, the eerie music and atonal soundscapes of brilliant composer James Atherton create an unsettling mood, as evocative as they are unnerving.

An excellent Isaac Stanmore is a lively Jonathan Harker, arriving at Castle Dracula, and our narrator. Light and dark create doorways – as with radio drama, the scenery is left to our imagination. Daniella Beattie’s lighting is precise and sharp, using chiaroscuro like an Old Master to illuminate or keep in shadow. With horror, it’s not so much what is shown as what remains hidden. And what we don’t see, we hear. That sound may really be a fork plunging into half a cabbage or whatever, but to our engaged imaginations, it is something much, much worse.

From his first entrance, Jack Klaff’s Dracula casts a long shadow – just as the character does over the rest of the proceedings. He stalks around the stage at a steady pace, intoning his lines without melodrama. That famous line about the “children of the night” is absolutely chilling here – Heskins has successfully avoided all notions of the camp and the kitsch. The well-worn story comes across as something entirely fresh. Klaff, with his snow-white hair and his exotic vocal tones embodies menace. His three brides (Hazel Lam, Sophie Morris, and Rebecca Rennison) bring Gothic eroticism in their seduction of Jonathan Harker, shinning up lengths of rope and silk and contorting themselves in mid-air. It’s rather spectacular but the work of ‘aerial director’ Vicki Amedume really packs a visual punch in the second act, when Dracula, now younger and revitalised and Jonathan Charles, hovers over Mina’s bed, slowly swooping down to her in hypnotic silence. Absolutely stunning.

Charles also moves with inhuman grace – his Dracula is not like us at all, and more animalistic than Klaff’s elder statesman.

Jasmine Blackborow is Lucy, full of girlish verve until the Count sinks his fangs into her. Her transformation into an undead wraith is superbly realised and so is her execution with a stake to the heart. Here sound and visuals combine in a moment of sheer horror. And yet there is nary a flash of fang or a drop of blood – Heskins keeps those details in our minds, and there’s nowhere scarier than one’s one mind.

New Vic stalwart Ali Watt’s Dr Seward has an emotive outburst, while John O’Mahony’s Professor Van Helsing maintains a sort of calm urgency. Sarah Schoenbeck’s Mina, ostensibly the damsel in distress, has an inner strength and an appeal that goes beyond her character’s function in the plot. Indeed, the whole ensemble is top notch – even the unseen Renfield, played (vocally) to the hilt by Conrad Nelson. Scenes are interspersed with recorded snatches of the lunatic’s case, as a counterpoint to the main action, a scientific examination to contrast with the supernatural events as they unfold. Unfortunately there is no pay-off for Renfield – the extracts don’t really go anywhere.

Tables and beds, formed of black blocks, rise and sink into the stage floor, the trap doors yawning like graves… There are many things about this production, both in form and in content, that will stay with me for a long time. Heskins has triumphed yet again in this departure from her usual style and has created a piece that is truly memorable, creepy and above all, beautiful.

Jack Klaff

Jack Klaff


Having It Large

THE BORROWERS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 29th November, 2014

 

Artistic Director Theresa Heskins is not shy of setting herself challenges. Following last year’s triumphant 101 Dalmatians, she has raided the bookshelf of childhood once again, turning her attention and invention to Mary Norton’s classic novels – a story I remember dimly but fondly from back when I was *this tall*.

It begins with Pod (Nicholas Tizzard) dropping in, like a spider, or like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. He is ‘borrowing’, a euphemism for stealing items to take back to his little family under the floorboards. Within minutes, the conventions of the production are laid bare. Ingenious dual-staging using puppetry and miniatures shows us, like a split-screen, both the ‘human bean’ sized world and the Borrowers’ scaled-up home. Heskins’s imaginative staging is more than ably supported by the work of the theatre’s own workshop. Laura Clarkson’s set is the star of the show, and with every scene there is a more marvellous prop. A cheese grater is greater than a bed; an enormous boot splits open so we may see the family in their new home… They are ousted from their big house by the villainous and horrible Mrs Driver – a larger than life performance from Polly Lister, summoning a cat and a rat-catcher to rid the house of people she regards as vermin.

And here is where the show points out something I as a little boy did not realise. There are parallels here with the treatment of the Jews prior to and during the Second World War. The Borrowers’ neighbours and relatives are all gone but no one is sure where. Are they still alive? Have they been eaten? The point is underscored, literally, by an original score by musical director James Atherton, who uses more than a hint of ‘Jewishness’ in the music, played live by the composer himself, with the accompaniment of various cast members.

The story puts us very much on the side of the underdog and the oppressed. The best side to be on given the current political climate. It’s a chilling reminder and, sadly, one that is still needed in this time of increasing intolerance and inequality. The Borrowers represent anyone on the fringes of society, the dispossessed and the disappeared. One can all too easily imagine a post-UKIP, apocalyptic society where ‘others’ are hounded out of their homes.

But hey, don’t let that bring you down. This is a highly enjoyable fantasy adventure that evokes a sense of wonder in terms of content and form. At the heart of the ensemble is Vanessa Schofield’s Arrietty, a wide-eyed and inquisitive young girl, who yearns to see the world beyond the floorboards. Schofield embodies youthful enthusiasm and curiosity – no more so than when she teams up with Spiller, an almost feral Borrower, played by man of rubber, the always excellent Michael Hugo. Tizzard’s pragmatic Pod is married to Homily (Shelley Atkinson) who provides many of the laughs with her ‘kvetching’, you might call it. What comes across is the humanity of these tiny characters, the love and warmth of the family unit, striving to survive and to stay together despite terrible hardships and grave danger: there is a tense encounter with a humongous bird, for example, and when you see the tiny puppets walking across the vast expanse of the open stage, you see how vulnerable they are and how, like animals, they spend most of their lives in a state of fear and the struggle for survival – and you wonder how you yourself might cope if all the comforts and trappings of civilisation, hearth and home were stripped away.

Thought-provoking, thrilling and heart-warming, The Borrowers is a timely assertion of the humanity we have in common with everyone in society. And that’s a Christmas message I can get behind.

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty