Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023
Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s. We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them. This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example. It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.
Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker. (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)
All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills. Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair. To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.
There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues. The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles. Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.
The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 17th November, 2022
Young couple Liz and JP are engaged to be married. To raise funds for their nuptials, they decide to create something exciting for their YouTube channel, something that will go viral and bring in the big bucks. Unlike most ‘influencers’ I’ve come across, this pair are an appealing couple of characters and we’re happy to go along with them when they opt for spending the night at an abandoned children’s home…
So begins a superb night of theatre, with the intimate black-box space of the Blue Orange pulling out all the stops to generate suspense and tension, using practical effects to shock and surprise and to get us jumping out of our seats. The action is enhanced by video footage, for scenic reasons and to develop the plot, as JP stumbles across VT of a creepy doctor conducting interviews with his juvenile charges. Alex Johnson’s set grounds us in reality, while his lighting design highlights the weird happenings. Dan Clarkson’s sound design punches up the scarier moments. Sights and sounds come at us from all quarters, keeping us on edge throughout.
Saul Bache makes JP an amiable extrovert, providing a rich vein of humour between the scares. Stephanie Simpson’s Liv is more level-headed (until things start to unravel, that is!) and the two spark off each other nicely. Thom Stafford (no relation) is wonderfully menacing as twisted Doctor Harding, whether he’s on screen or making a more personal appearance.
The script by James Williams and Alexandra Whiteley (who both also direct) is bang up-to-date, proving that ghost stories don’t have to be Victorian, using present-day vernacular and technology to create a thrill-ride of a play that puts the audience in the thick of the action. Ashley Walsh’s original compositions add to the horror movie atmosphere, and there’s a haunting version of You Are My Sunshine in a minor key that is wonderfully unsettling. Horror fans will recognise tropes from cinema, but they’re just as (if not more) effective done live before our very eyes.
The story covers a lot of ground: mystery, supernatural occurrences, psychological terror, buried memories coming to the surface… and does so effectively in a comparatively short running time. It’s an antidote to all the premature Christmas cheer out there, a perfect chiller for a wintry evening.
The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 4th May, 2018
If Thomas Hardy upped sticks and moved north to Cumbria (or Cumberland, as it was known then) the chances are he would have come up with something very like Melvyn Bragg’s family saga about farm-workers and miners near Cockermouth. There is plenty of Hardyesque bonhomie among the lower orders, strife from the owners, plus most crucially, a love triangle.
Ian Page is John, the eponymous hired man, newlywed to Emily (Jenne Rhys-Williams). Page has a striking tenor voice and comes into his own later in the story with a plaintive song about his son. Rhys-Williams, as female lead, bears the emotional brunt of the story, singing the gamut of feelings in a moving portrayal. The couple is supported by lively turns from Anya McCutcheon as daughter May, and Will Page as stubborn son Harry.
Thom Stafford (no relation) is eminently likeable as John’s hedonistic brother Isaac, contrasting nicely with Gavin Whichello’s Seth, the other, more principled brother, trying to stir up interest in a miners’ union.
The rest of the ensemble get their moments too. There is pleasing character work from Julian Bissell as the landowner and other roles; Ralph Toppin-Mackenzie as a vicar; Iona Cameron’s Sally gets a lovely duet with Emily about prospective lovers…
Mark Shaun Walsh is magnificent as the handsome, caddish Jackson Pennington, brimming with emotional intensity and vocal power. His scenes with Rhys-Williams are electrifying, his characterisation so engaging, we care about the character’s fate, despite his transgressions.
Director Kirsteen Stafford (no relation either) works her ensemble of 12 hard and to great effect. Group scenes are handled well and there are moments of brilliance: a slow-motion fight between John and Jackson while Emily emotes through song is particularly well realised (with fight direction by Thom Stafford).
Howard Goodall’s rich, stirring and moving score is performed by just two musicians. Musical director Chris Davis and Maddy Evans sound like more than two, delivering all the colours of the music, achieving great variety in tone within a unifying piano-and-violin based sound. The ensemble singing is beautiful where it needs to be, and rousing and atmospheric as the story demands. Chris Lamb’s emblematic set evokes farm fences, pubs, the trenches… in an economic but versatile design.
It’s an involving, melodramatic piece with some good tunes, excellently presented, managing to be both intimate and epic in scale. We get the sense of family and marital strife (universals) against the backdrop of a changing world – oh yes, the First World War rears its ugly and unnecessary head too, changing lives and circumstances forever. It’s very moving too – expect to come away with wet cheeks!