Tag Archives: Toby Olié

Conservation Piece

RUNNING WILD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 8th June, 2017

 

Michael Morpurgo’s animal stories (think War Horse, think Butterfly Lion) have become prime fodder for theatre aimed at children, but don’t let that mislead you.  The stories tackle grown-up issues and major themes, and this touring production of Running Wild is an excellent case in point.

Nine-year-old Lily’s dad is killed in the Iraq war.  She travels with her mother to Indonesia, where mum is drowned by a tsunami but Lily is saved by the actions of her elephant friend Oona.  Together, girl and elephant live in the rain forest until their Jungle Book lives are interrupted by orangutan poachers.  As if themes of loss and grief aren’t enough, the story packs in themes of conservation, animal protection and consumerism, as Lily goes through an eye-opening, eye-watering journey, a learning experience which is enough to radicalise anyone to vote for the Green Party and join every wildlife charity going.

In this performance, Annika Whiston makes an assured Lily, who finds her place in this cruel world of natural disaster and mankind’s folly.  She is supported by an ensemble that includes Kazeem Tosin Amore as her dear old dad, Balvinder Sopal as mum, and RSC veteran Liz Crowther as Lily’s determined grandmother.  There is likable support from Stephen Hoo in a range of roles and Corinna Powlesland as Dr Geraldine.  Jack Sandle’s Australian baddie, Mr Anthony, exudes the evils of callous capitalism.

But the show belongs to the breath-taking puppets of Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié.  It takes four skilful puppeteers to animate Oona and how quickly one forgets they are there in plain sight.  Oona is life-sized and appears to be breathing, thinking and, yes, farting.  Others too knock your eyes out: a beautiful tiger, a shoal of fish, a vicious crocodile lurking in the undergrowth.  I have seen Olié’s work before – the man is a god, giving life to inanimate forms.  Give him every award going.

Paul Wills’s set is a jungle of junk, comprised of broken bits of furniture, recycling wood to make the trees.  Cleverly, it also suggests we are making a rubbish tip of our world.  Directors Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks pull no punches in telling this hard-hitting story, and carry it off with theatrical sophistication and flair: the tsunami scene is stylishly presented, for example, and the murder of a group of orangutans is brutal and upsetting.  Walt Disney kept the shooting of Bambi’s mother off-screen; here, adaptor Samuel Adamson puts it centre stage and the impact is devastating.

No cute and cuddly kiddies’ tale, Running Wild is an action-packed, eventful story that engages its target audience thoroughly.  The emotional impact is undeniable but I wonder how many members of the school parties that fill the auditorium will go home and demand a boycott of products that contain palm oil.  Perhaps it falls to the grown-ups that accompany them to take this necessary step.

Curiously, the story doesn’t make a connection between the cruel treatment and exploitation of animals in the wild with the fate of those who live on Lily’s grandmother’s farm.  That apart, this is quite the Greenest show I’ve seen and I can’t applaud it enough.

Liz-Crowther-in-the-role-of-Grandma-with-Oona_credit-Dan-Tsantilis-399x600

Oona and Nana – Liz Crowther (Photo: Dan Tsantilis)

 

 

Advertisements

Quest for Laughs

DON QUIXOTE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 13th April, 2016

 

Not only did Shakespeare pop his clogs 400 years ago this year but so did Cervantes, author of the original novel on which this play – and modern fiction! – is based.  To commemorate the Spaniard’s deathiversary the RSC has mounted this fiery steed of a production, a new adaptation by James Fenton.

Elderly and infirm, Don Quixote decides to put in to practice what has been his lifetime’s study, namely the chivalric code of the knights of old.  It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, it appears.  Off he goes, from adventure to adventure, but when reality clashes with his ideals, we are amused but he is undaunted; his code of conduct will not allow him to complain or be deterred by setbacks.  And so the will of the old man gradually begins to impose itself on the world – in particular his upholstered squire, Sancho Panza.  The story becomes a lesson in how to handle those with dementia, meeting them in their misperceptions – up to a point.

It is riotously funny and performed with theatrical brio, you have no option but to enjoy it from the off.  As Sancho Panza, Rufus Hound warms us up with a bit of ad lib banter – this is not so much audience participation as audience involvement.  Willingly, we follow Sancho and his knight on their journey, buying into the artifice of the conventions in play and relishing the inventiveness of the enterprise as well as the gusto of the performers.  Hound is practically perfect for this.

As the unsinkable Quixote, David Threlfall gives a Lear-worthy portrayal, in a physically demanding role – he gets beaten repeatedly, snatched up into the air by the sails of a windmill, and generally runs around in an apparently tireless fashion.  Above all though – and I don’t just mean when he’s on the windmill – he engages us with the old man’s world-view.  How romantic and exciting the mundane becomes through his eyes, when two flocks of sheep become opposing armies and when windmills become marauding giants.

The rest of the cast dash around in multiple roles.  Richard Leeming makes an impression as a dozy boy servant (and later as Quixote’s horse); Nicholas Lumley delights as the Priest appropriating mucky literature; Gabriel Fleary gives a hilarious turn as the Biscayan, strutting and fretting before a fight; Natey Jones’s sowgelder, Timothy Speyer and Will Bliss as barbers… Everyone gets their turn.  I could append the cast list and have done with it.

There are songs throughout, plenty of Spanish guitar, to add flavour.  The period comes across through the costumes – there is very little in the way of set apart from what the cast brings on and takes off.  Inventive use is made of trapdoors throughout.  Johanna Town’s lighting gives us Spanish sunshine as well as evoking the changing locations and moods of this episodic narrative.  Angus Jackson’s direction keeps the action flowing at speed, with more reflective moments during which his two leading men are nothing short of a joy to behold.

The icing on this delightful cake comes in the form of babies, sheep, and a lion, from puppet-master Toby Olie and Laura Cubitt.  Irresistible.

There are moments when a Pythonesque sensibility comes to the fore, and we venture into Holy Grail territory but then you have to remember how influential Cervantes is.  The windmill has turned full circle.

An unadulterated pleasure from start to finish, this new Don Quixote is the must-see of the RSC’s current season.

Don Quixote RSC

David Threlfall and Rufus Hound (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 


A Good Night With Mister Tom

GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 9th April, 2013

David Wood’s adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s classic children’s novel is a spell-binding piece of theatre that tugs at the heartstrings without descending into mawkish sentimentality.  Director Angus Jackson tells the tale naturalistically but in a stylised setting.  Scenery is sparse – for the Dorset scenes, there is little more than a raised platform with the odd doorway and items of furniture –this platform also serves as the stage for the amdram productions the children enjoy.  For the London scenes in the second half, the platform lifts up to become the oppressive dinginess of the slum home little Willy shares with his religious crackpot mother.  The action flows from place to place as easy as turning pages in a storybook.

The plot concerns the evacuation of children to the countryside just before the outbreak of the Second World War, back in the days when strangers were trusted as a matter of course with nary a whiff of a CRB check.  And so, weedy urchin William (Arthur Gledhill-Franks) is placed with grizzled old curmudgeon Mister Tom (Oliver Ford Davies) and a relationship develops between the two that, through the course of the action, heals the wounds they both suffered before they met.  The boy has livid bruises from his mother’s belt.  The old man has been a recluse for decades since his wife died giving birth to a son that also didn’t survive.

It’s a very touching story and an utterly charming production.  This reviewer confesses to having to wipe his eyes several times throughout the evening.  The ensemble, doubling on adult and child roles in places (in a Blue Remembered Hills kind of way) keep the action going, creating atmosphere and character quickly and economically.  A standout is Joseph Holgate as theatrical extrovert Zach who helps bring Will out of his shell, and also Aoife McMahon as the villain of the piece (not counting the offstage Hitler, of course) who berates and beats her ‘Willy’ in the guise of religious correction.  She is a Catherine Tate monster, an East End version of the mother in Carrie but a tragic figure nevertheless.

Oliver Ford Davies’s Tom Oakley is a likeable old grump, even-tempered and guarded.  His thaw is glacial, and his matter-of-factness is all the more touching.  As William, Arthur Gledhill Franks is almost unbearably vulnerable.  His growth into a confident and affectionate member of the community, after some of the most horrific abuse imaginable, is a delight to behold.

There is a real danger that the puppets might upstage the actors.  Beautiful birds, a twitchy squirrel and above all, a wonderful Border Collie, add to the storybook feel but they are also played absolutely straight.   You soon forget operator Elisa de Grey’s continual presence behind Sammy the dog and instantly fall in love with the animal itself.  Somehow the balance is maintained and the puppets enhance the performance rather than stealing the show.  My hat is off to puppet master Toby Olié for his wonderful creations.

This is a perfect piece of theatre for all the family.  Nothing is sugar-coated but somehow it manages to be very sweet indeed.

Oliver Ford Davies, Sammy the dog and the almost invisible Elisa de Grey

Oliver Ford Davies, Sammy the dog and the almost invisible Elisa de Grey


It’s a puppet!

WAR HORSE Press Launch

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th January, 2013

 

I saw the West End production of this marvellous show not long back and today I had the chance to get up close but not personal with the star of the piece, Joey the titular war horse.

It was a strange moment.  There I was, in the Hippodrome’s bar, sitting among journalists and bloggers and what-have-you.  We had been welcomed by Stuart Griffiths, the Hippodrome’s chief executive, and we had seen a stirring video, a trailer for the touring show.  We were being addressed by Toby Olié, associate puppetry director, when in came Joey, trotting happily to meet us.

Joey is a puppet.  There is no denying it.  You can see the puppeteers.  You can see the cane and aluminium framework he is made of.  But he is life-sized.  He moves and behaves like a real horse.  He breathes!  In fact he does everything but blink and poo on the carpet.  It is astonishing to behold.  The artistry of the puppeteers makes him life-like and naturalistic.  Given that the show is built around a puppet as its central character, something very special is required, if the audience is to have an emotional investment in the story.  This isn’t Punch & Judy, Sooty and Sweep, or even The Muppet Show.

Toby explained how Joey was constructed by South African outfit, Handspring Puppet Company, and how the three puppeteers share physical and emotional aspects of Joey’s performance.  One operates the head, the second the heart, and the third the hind.  It turns out you can be a professional horse’s ass without being a member of the cabinet.

We followed Joey outside for a photo-opportunity.  Passersby marvelled at him as he – well, I won’t say posed.  There is nothing anthropomorphic about Joey.  He behaves as an equine should.

Having seen the show, it was a treat to get to see the puppet up close and to learn about what goes into his operation.  Not only is the form of the show remarkable, the content is also powerful stuff.   There is a reason why it’s now in its sixth year.

It is encouraging to see shows of this magnitude touring the country, and indeed other countries.  You don’t have to go down to London to see everything.

War Horse comes to Birmingham in October.  You can check out where else it’s playing here.  I can’t wait to see it again.  It delivers an experience that Spielberg’s film version doesn’t quite manage to pull off.

JOEY