Tag Archives: Thomas Pickles

Plenty to Treasure

TREASURE ISLAND

The REP, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd December, 2016

 

A favourite book of mine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate adventure is brought to the stage in this adaptation by Bryony Lavery, which remains on the whole true to the original – in spirit as well as plot – while adding a fresh spin: Jim Lad is a girl.  She behaves like the heroic boy of the original but proudly defies the gender norms of the age – and why not?  There were female pirates aplenty (most notably Ann Bonney and Mary Reade) – the point is it’s the story that matters and not what the characters may or may not have in their breeches.  Similarly, Doctor Livesey is here a woman, which may be stretching a point historically, but levels the playing field somewhat in this male-dominated story.  Director Phillip Breen sets his production on the stage of an old theatre.  Trappings of stage and of ship are equally in evidence.  We are left in no doubt this is storytelling, and in keeping with the season, principal boys are fair game!

Breen and Lavery make no concessions to the family audience.  This is a dangerous, violent world, bloody and frightening – perhaps not suitable for pre-school children but anyone else should find it gripping, tense, and atmospheric.  There is a darkness to the production as much as the tale and it’s all the better for it.

Sarah Middleton is a plucky, heroic Jim with a sweet singing voice and boundless energy.  Michael Hodgson’s sinister Long John Silver stalks around, redolent with menace and treachery.  Does he really care for Jim or is it all part of his nefarious plotting?  The ambiguity keeps us guessing, although Lavery changes Silver’s fate and so robs him and his relationship with Jim of some of its complexity.   Tonderai Munyeyu is great fun as the dunderhead Squire Trelawney, while Sian Howard provides the perfect counterpoint as the level-headed Doctor.  Dan Poole’s Black Dog and Andrew Langtree’s Blind Pew are genuinely scary.  Dave Fishley appears in two broadly contrasting roles: his Billy Bones is marvellously evocative, a swashbuckling, larger-than-life pirate, while his Gray is hilariously the opposite.  Man of the match for me though is Thomas Pickles’s unhinged Ben Gunn, quarrelling with himself in a manner that is funny, alarming and endearing all at the same time.  Marooning someone is surely the pirates’ cruellest punishment.

Dyfan Jones’s compositions enhance the atmosphere.  The songs and shanties sound in keeping with the genre and period, just as Mark Bailey’s design is grubbily theatrical and reminiscent of the glorious illustrations you find in old editions of the novel.  Fight scenes (by Renny Krupinski) are fast and furious, fun when they need to be.  When even the parrot puppet (operated by Suzanne Nixon) can pluck out your eyes, you know this is not some cosy panto – That is not to say there is not humour, there is, but this arises from character rather than the imposition of artificial situations and routines.

A top-notch family show then, perhaps unsuitable for the very young, but if it’s a rollicking, superbly presented adventure you’re after this holiday season, you need to set sail for the REP and get on board with this excellent production.

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Aar, Jim Lass. Michael Hodgson as Long John Silver and Sarah Middleton as Jim (Photo: Pete Le May)

 

 

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A Bird in the Hand

KES

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 17th September, 2013

Sarah Brigham directs her first production for the phoenix-like Derby Theatre, choosing for her debut Lawrence Till’s adaptation of Barry Hines’s famous novel, A Kestrel For A Knave.  If this show is an indication of the quality of work we can expect, I may as well set up residence in the auditorium.

Simple staging creates the world of Billy Casper.  Bits of rooms, shops and his school fly in and out, while a tight ensemble formed from professional actors and kids recruited from the community, perform the characters who taunt, bully and torment poor Billy at every turn.  Barney George’s design evokes the period – who could forget the geometric patterns of a 1960s school curtain? – with hints at pitheads and poverty.  Projections show us the countryside that abuts the town – at one point, giant stalks of wheat dwarf the characters, symbolically reminding us of the power and supremacy of nature.  Ivan Stott’s music supports the moods and the action with a cinematic quality.

Billy hasn’t much going for him.  He escapes into dramatic reconstructions of Desperate Dan comics.  He nicks from the shopkeeper who employs him as a paperboy.  He is bullied relentlessly by older brother Jud (a brutish Jimmy Fairhurst), blunted by the hardship of his working life down t’pit.  Mother (Samantha Seagar) is ineffectual – Nowadays you’d hope social services would swoop down on them like a – well, like a hawk.

At school he faces aggression from John Holt-Roberts as MacDowall, and disdain from Thomas Pickles as Tibbut.  Pickles gives us an electrifying monologue about wellies and tadpoles, enchanting us as much as his classmates.  It is remarkable how well the cast gels together – apart from the most obvious differences in height and age, they operate as a convincing entity, populated by individual characterisations.

Paul Clarkson’s headmaster Gryce is a delicious tyrant, exposing the brutality of the education system, and the lack of provision for boys like Casper, serving as a warning that a return to so-called ‘traditional values’ is not going to work.  I also loved Andrew Westfield as the pompous PE teacher, another representative of an institution that cannot support Casper’s needs.

The show belongs to Sam Jackson.  His portrayal of Billy is heartfelt and heartbreaking.  With his youthful energy and almost elfin, Peter Pan-like features, he utterly convinces as a 15 year old urchin.  He brings a physicality to the role, not just in his comic-book dramatisations but also in Billy’s moments of stillness.  Billy’s enthusiasm for and expert knowledge of training the kestrel he rescued surprises teacher Mr Farthing (a sympathetic John Elkington).  No one is a write-off, the play says.  Even someone like Billy Casper has potential for beauty, creativity and can make a contribution. There is hope for us all and it is a tragedy if that potential is not nurtured and encouraged to flourish.

Very cleverly, the production works on an allegorical level.  Sarah Brigham has selected this particular play to tell us that there is hope for theatre in Derby, despite its chequered past.  If Kes is anything to go by, Derby Theatre will soar very high indeed.

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John Elkington and Sam Jackson (Photo: Robert Day)


A Basket of Laughs

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2012


Legend has it that this play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I who was eager to see more of lovable rogue Falstaff. Whatever the play’s provenance, director Phillip Breen brings it right up-to-date and delivers an evening of non-stop laughter, setting the action in an Ayckbournesque world of anoraks, rugby matches, folding chairs and picnic coolers. It fits Shakespeare’s most farcical comedy very well and yet again proves, to me at any rate, the mastery of the playwright in every genre.

The titular wives, Mistress Ford (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Mistress Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel) each receive love-letters from Falstaff. They recognise at once he is on the make and plot to humiliate him mercilessly. They make a formidable double act, with Gilbreath’s sensuality and Le Touzel’s more regimented approach. As their schemes come to fruition, and we, in on the joke, laugh along with them, they are merry indeed.

Other plotters are not as adept or as successful. Ford himself (John Ramm) dons a disguise and hires Falstaff to test his wife’s fidelity. It’s a hilarious, sit-com turn from Ramm, complete with dodgy wig and bombastic seething. Though he isn’t cuckolded by his merry wife, he is certainly held up for ridicule for his unreasonably suspicious nature. When he realises what an absolute, misguided fool he has been, he bursts into tears in a manner that is equally hilarious. There is very little sentimentality in this production. Thank goodness.

Anita Dobson dazzles as go-between Mistress Quickly. Dressed like Sybil Fawlty, she charms with her word play and clearly character and actress alike are enjoying themselves immensely.

There is strong support from a host of actors in the subplot about Ford’s daughter’s three suitors. Calum Finlay amuses as the ninny Slender; Bart David Soroczynski struts and frets as the French Doctor Caius, mangling English and swishing his fencing foil. This is Allo, Allo with better dialogue. Contrasting performances, both very funny.

David Sterne is an energetic Shallow, Thomas Pickles an engaging Simple but without doubt the evening belongs to Desmond Barrit’s Sir John Falstaff. From his first entrance in a chequered tweed suit, through his disguise as the Fat Woman of Brentford and his adventures with a laundry basket, to his final, antlered humiliation in the forest, this is a master class in comedic acting, making the most of his padded physicality as well as the excessive nature of the character. You can’t help loving him.

Naomi Sheldon has poise as teenage daughter Anne, keeping her on the right side of headstrong, and Paapa Essiedu charms as her handsome suitor Fenton.

Breen doesn’t miss a trick. The attention to detail wrings the humour from every moment. I particularly enjoyed the drunkard Bardolph (Stephen Harper)- the energy of the show doesn’t let the pace slacken for a second. There are some riotous moments of action but it is the comic playing of the cast (too numerous to mention them all individually) that keeps things ticking and sometimes sprinting along. Max Jones’s set design allows transitions that flow like a musical, seamlessly taking us from the pub to the rugby field to the Fords’ living room and so on.

The fifth act contains the final humiliation of Sir John. It’s a sort of parody of a masque that would have been all the rage back in the day. Here it’s updated with some hilarious costumes. It’s a play about practical jokes and the cruelty involved. Sir John pays for his confidence tricks but so too do the tricksters. Their machinations to marry Anne off to their preferred suitor come to nought. And it serves them right.

A delightful production on every level, this will get you merry on a cold winter’s night. If we have Good Queen Bess to thank for this play, I am very grateful indeed. Royal Command Performances have gone downhill, I fear, since her day.