Tag Archives: Tom Piper

Oh What a Lovely Show!

MISS LITTLEWOOD

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.

Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche.  Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene.  The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography.  There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling.  Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life.  The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.

She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage).  Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years.  This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed.  Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.

There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production.  Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another.  Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.

Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller.  Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.

Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did.  Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag.  The show is relentlessly charming.  Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline.  The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.

For me, the star is the show’s creator.  Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish.  The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim.  It’s magnificent.

An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.

Miss Littlewood production photographs_ 2018 _2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis_253490

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


Bostin’ Austen

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th November, 2017

 

Not the Donald Trump story but Jane Austen’s finest and funniest novel, brought to the stage in this touring production by Regent’s Park Theatre, in a sparkling adaptation by Simon Reade.

Reade captures the wit of the dialogue and the spirit of each character, and director Deborah Bruce includes moments of broader comedy, as well as linking scenes with stylised sequences that evoke both period, character and storytelling.  Choreography plays a huge part in creating atmosphere and adding to the fun, courtesy of movement director Sian Williams and beautiful, haunting music composed by Lillian Henley.  The characters, dressed by Tom Piper, inhabit the elegant revolving set (designed by Max Jones) – decorative railings and sweeping staircases serve for all locations, aided by Tina Machugh’s expressive lighting.  Production values are high and the excellent cast lives up to them.

Felicity Montagu is in superb form as Mrs Bennet, desperate to marry off her five daughters to whomever crosses their path.  Matthew Kelly is equally delightful as her long-suffering husband and the indulgent father of his brood.  Of the girls, Hollie Edwin certainly looks the part as the pretty one, Jane, and Mari Izzard bounces around as the spirited one, Lydia.  Of course, it is Elizabeth who is our focus, winningly played by Tafline Steen, tempering Elizabeth’s headstrong nature with charm and humour.  Benjamin Dilloway towers over proceedings as a sour-faced but handsome Mr Darcy and it’s not long before we are willing the pair to get together, in this quintessential rom-com.

There is strong support from Steven Meo as the insufferable parson Mr Collins and Daniel Abbott is a suitably dashing and roguish Mr Wickham.  Dona Croll impresses as the haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh, a forerunner of Lady Bracknell, and I also like Kirsty Rider’s snobbish Miss Caroline.

Elizabeth and Darcy may be the stars but it is the double-act of Montagu and Kelly, two seasoned performers with exquisite comic timing, that have the star quality among this comparatively young and inexperienced ensemble.  Mr and Mrs Bennet are a joy to behold.

Delivered with a lightness of touch, this is an utterly charming evening at the theatre, a refreshing retelling of the classic tale.  Austen seems as fresh and funny as she ever was and her wry observations of human nature, albeit in a rarefied and bygone milieu, still delight and ring true.

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Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly stealing the show (Photo: Johan Persson)


A Way With The Fairies

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A Play For The Nation

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 16th June, 2016

 

As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare’s 400th death-iversary, The RSC has undertaken the unenviable and colossal task of staging a production of his popular comedy and touring it around the country – but that’s only the half of it.  At each stop, the so-called ‘rude mechanicals’ are being played by hand-picked troupes of amateur performers.  A big chance for them and a big gamble for the RSC.  Add to this, dozens of children from local primary schools… Luckily, no one handles child performers like the RSC – you only have to think of Matilda to know this is going to work brilliantly.

If this afternoon’s performance is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off in spades.  It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘The Nonentities’ from Kidderminster taking the stage among world class professionals, and holding their own.  But I’ll come back to them in a bit…

Among the pros – a delightful ensemble that, under Erica Whyman’s direction, make familiar lines sound fresh and funny – we get a female Puck (Lucy Ellinson) a kind of cross-dressing music hall figure, like Vesta Tilley.  Ellinson is both knowing and clownish in this setting: we’re in a disused theatre, it looks like, during wartime.  Tom Piper’s design gives us bare floorboards and footlights.  The forest has not a speck of green but rather the red of the Curtain.  Chu Omambala’s Oberon, the fairy king, is stylish in his white suit, bringing a jazzy element to proceedings, in contrast with Ayesha Dharker’s exotic Titania, in blood red sari.  Omambala and Dharker are deadly serious – these are not fairies of whimsy, however petty their squabble may seem.

The other ruling couple, Theseus (Sam Redford) and Hippolyta (Laura Harding) stride around like genial aristocracy.  It is the younger members of the cast that bring life to the scenes in Athens.  Mercy Ojelade is a fiery Hermia, her passion born of pain and injustice, while Laura Riseborough’s Helena also expresses the pain of unrequited love in a highly sympathetic characterisation.  Chris Nayak’s Demetrius is a pompous prig, so it’s enjoyable to see him go to the other extreme in the name of love, but it’s Jack Holden’s delightful school prefect of a Lysander that gets the most laughs and touches the heart.  It is the freshest interpretation of this character I have seen.  Scenes in which the young men vie for Helena, to Hermia’s dismay and fury, are superbly done, using physicality as well as Shakespeare’s barrage of insults to great comic effect.

But back to those mechanicals.  Chris Clarke is spot on as overbearing bully Bottom – and you can’t help liking his ridiculous declamations.  Sue Downing’s Peter Quince is assertive enough to stage-manage Bottom’s ego, and Andrew Bingham’s shy Snug makes for an adorably shy and cowardly lion.  Of course, the West Midlands accent gives them a head start when it comes to comic value, but here it is the playing that gets the laughs and endears them to us.  Alex Powell’s Flute blossoms as a performer so we he comes to give his Thisbe (or Thiz-bay, as they would have it) we see how far he has come.  The performance that is the culmination of their efforts is absolutely joyous.  It is surely Shakespeare’s funniest scene and here it is expertly executed.  The affection we feel for the mechanicals succeeding in their task is echoed by the admiration we have for this company who rise to the challenge, hold their own, and pull it off with aplomb.

An unadulterated delight.

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Chris Nayak and Jack Holden restrain Mercy Ojelade – just about (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

 


Laughs For Laughs

LOVE FOR LOVE

The Swan theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th November, 2015

 

The plot of William Congreve’s comedy of 1694 is almost incidental in this exuberant, vibrant new production, directed by Selina Cadell. What takes precedence is the presentation. The show revels in its own theatricality from start to finish. What, in Brecht, would work to alienate us, here engages us. The very artificiality of it all infuses the ‘world’ of the play. It’s a right old giggle.

Tom Turner’s Valentine, the romantic lead, is languidly camp, until his ‘mad’ scenes when he is manically camp. There is an assurance here in the comic playing. In fact, the entire company play their parts like virtuoso performers: the timing, the reactions, the archness of it all, operate like well-oiled clockwork animating an intricate machine whose sole purpose is to delight. Carl Prekopp makes an energetic Jeremy, Valentine’s servant, Robert Cavanah is an urbane Scandal, while Jonathan Broadbent’s Tattle is a flamboyant, pouting fop. There is no one in this play who is not funny. Nicholas Le Prevost as Valentine’s unreasonable father Sir Sampson is marvellously embittered.  Daniel Easton’s bumptious Ben, Valentine’s sailor brother, is a hoot (There is some spirited choreography of a sailors’ hornpipe by Stuart Sweeting.)  As Congreve’s play is influenced by stock character types, so Selina Cadell’s production is informed by the workings and business of the Commedia dell’Arte.

As Angelica, Justine Mitchell displays some excellent melodramatic posturing, which she punctures in her asides – the audience, especially the front rows, is very much included, as prop holders, costume minders, and butts of pointed remarks. Jenny Rainsford’s Miss Prue is broadly played, in contrast to Angelica’s cultured poise. Congreve provides a wealth of funny roles for women. Hermione Gulliford plays the scheming Mrs Foresight to the hilt. It is one of those pieces where we deplore the characters while revelling in their transgressions and admiring the hell out of the actors.

An underused Michael Fenton-Stevens bears the brunt of the satirical jibes against the legal profession, while Michael Thomas’s superstitious Foresight represents an attack on those credulous enough to give credence to astrology. We can still recognise these targets from society today.

Rosalind Ebbutt’s vivacious costumes and Tom Piper’s toy theatre set convey the period and add considerably to the fun. There is a consort of musicians in a corner, underscoring the silliness, and sound effects and props contribute running jokes. It all makes for relentless fun – so much so that by the end, when all the plots have been resolved, we are not touched by the denouement.   There is so much laughter here there is no room for sentiment and that is perhaps this production’s only shortcoming, yet there is a moment of stunning beauty thanks to the countertenor singing of Jonathan Christie.

I have a lot of love for Love For Love.

Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)


Royal Pain

THE KING’S SPEECH

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th February, 2015

 

David Seidler’s play became more widely known – globally, in fact – through its Oscar-winning film adaptation. Add to that the ever-popular Jason Donovan in the cast and you have quite a seat-filler on your hands.

It’s almost a history play, in the Shakespearean sense. We see the trials and tribulations of those who rule. Functioning as a chorus, Winston Churchill (Nicholas Blane) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Martin Lang) keep the historical details and no small amount of Royal gossip coming.

But at its heart, it is the story of the friendship between two men who are, almost literally, poles apart. Raymond Coulthard, who has always looked regal, is stammering Bertie, driven to seek the assistance of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Jason Donovan). The best scenes are when these two are alone together, negotiating through their prickly relationship both a friendship and a means to save the credibility of a monarchy under pressure.

Coulthard is sublime – his is the more challenging role – and, regardless of one’s views of the monarchy as an institution – you can’t help rooting for him. Donovan inhabits his role as the bluff Australian, who doesn’t give a stuff for protocol and convention, and it’s a revelatory performance. He seems totally at home and natural, in contrast with Coulthard’s repressed and vulnerable Prince. Logue’s auditions for Shakespearean roles are terrible – but Donovan keeps their mannered delivery within the realms of believability.

Both men are supported by their wives. Claire Lams is cool-headed but caring as Bertie’s Mrs (mother to our present Queen), withering in her putdowns. The splendid Katy Stephens is Logue’s Sheila, Myrtle, adding more Aussie drawl among the cut-glass accents. Bertie’s brother David, who becomes Edward VIII, is very much the villain of the piece – not because of his anti-Semitism and his fraternisation with Nazis, but because his affair with an American divorcee threatens to undermine the Establishment. Jamie Hinde plays him as a nasty, hedonistic piece of work. All our sympathies are skewed towards Bertie, the victim of bullying and mockery by David and also their father, George V (William Hoyland).

Tom Piper’s set is all wooden panels – the floorboards radiate in a sunburst, bringing to mind a 1930s wireless – but gradually reveals its secrets and its versatility as the action unfolds. Director Roxana Silbert uses the flexibility of the set to the hilt, keeping the action continuous, with transitions flowing from one scene to the next, like a musical. But it is her handling of the ups and downs, the peaks and troughs of the central relationship of the two men that shows attention to detail and an ear for contrast and an eye for timing.

The show is a triumph for all concerned. Even if you’ve seen the film, I defy you not to be royally entertained throughout and then, right at the end, moved by the simple declaration of gratitude and friendship, and a breach of protocol on Bertie’s part: he removes his glove to shake Logue by the hand. In those closing seconds, we see how far he has come. Logue has not only taught him how to speak in public, he has turned a Prince into a man.

Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)