Tag Archives: Vera Dean

Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)

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Working Wonders

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December, 2018

 

Director James David Knapp brings his own adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic to the stage in this ponderous production.  This is an Alice who wonders about things rather than at them, as she is presented with riddles and cod philosophies from almost all the strange characters she encounters.

Ruth Waterson, making her Crescent debut, gives an assured performance as Alice, playing her as a serious, thoughtful child.  She comes to life when she joins in with the other characters: the caucus race, for example, and the Lobster Quadrille.  If Alice, our guide through this weird land, is so serious, the characters she encounters should be weirder, crazier, but they’re a bit po-faced too.

There is a lot to enjoy from the large cast.  Marcus Clarke’s Dodo shakes his tail-feathers and has a mad spark in his eye; later, his King of Hearts is delightfully dotty – he could do with a crown, though.  Erin Hooton’s twitchy White Rabbit, John Paul Conway’s snooty Knave, Niall Higgins’s Mock Turtle… Standing out is Molly Wood’s Duchess, a bedraggled eccentric, convincingly bonkers.  Jordan Bird’s Mad Hatter makes an arch, camp double act with Carl Foster’s March Hare, along with a fearsome French Dormouse (Ella-Louise McMullan) keeping them in check.  There is a delicious portrayal of the mad Queen of Hearts by Alice Macklin, capricious, volatile, tyrannical, truly psychopathic, and bringing a lot of oomph to the second act.  But I think I enjoy most of all the trio of gorblimey gardeners, played by Amelia Hall, William Stait and Ronnie Kelly.

James David Knapp provides a new twist in the tale.  It’s not easy bringing Carroll’s plotless novel to the stage to make a coherent piece, but Knapp provides a through-line – the material is on his side, with the disclaimer that not everything has to make sense.  He has clearly drilled his ensemble of children very well – every one of them is in step and focussed, which is no mean feat.

The costume department has excelled itself.  The designs of Dyjak Malgorzata combine what we expect of the characters with some innovative ideas, with the assistance of Vera Dean and Pat Brown to craft these wonderful creations.

The show works best during its absurd moments, rather than when Alice is being exhorted from all corners to ‘grow up’ – when she is clearly the most mature character on stage.   The production values, the talent, the ideas are all there.  All it needs, overall, is to lighten up, to – as Alice’s draconian mother is reminded to do – let its hair down.

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Off her head: Alice Macklin as the Queen of Hearts (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Boss Play

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

 

Richard Bean’s hit comedy is served up with gusto by director Mark Payne and his energetic ensemble.  Set in Brighton in 1963, this is a world of gangsters, scrap metal merchants and lawyers, where the height of sophistication is ‘a pub that does food’.

Leading the cast as the hapless Francis Henshall is Damien Dickens, who puts his own stamp on the role, making it less James Corden and more Adrian Chiles.  Dickens has the unenviable task of beating himself up, which he manages with aplomb, and I warm to him as the performance progresses.  He could do with some padding to make more sense of the references to the character’s bulk.

Naomi Jacobs is absolutely perfect as Rachel Crabbe in disguise as her late twin brother Roscoe, and she is matched in brilliance by Shaun Hartman as her love interest, Stanley Stubbins.  This pair are Henshall’s two guvnors and it is from the contrivances of the plot that keep the bosses separate that most of the farce arises.

Graeme Braidwood convinces as patriarch Charlie ‘the Duck’; Hannah Bollard is pitch perfect as Henshall’s love interest Dolly in an arch and assured performance, while Jason Timmington’s declamatory actor Alan Dingle is also enormous value.  Lara Sprosen’s Pauline is winningly dim.  There is strong support from John O’Neill as Lloyd Boateng, Jordan Bird as Gareth, and Brian Wilson as Harry, but the show is almost stolen from the leads by a brutally slapstick performance from Jacob Williams as doddering octogenarian Alfie who bears the brunt of the comic violence.

The set, by Megan Kirwin and Keith Harris, is stylish and functional without being fussy so the cast has plenty of room to run around in.  Vera Dean’s costumes evoke the era effectively – although Harry Dangle’s sleeves could do with turning up!

Payne paces the action to maximise comic effect.  The asides are delivered with pinpoint timing and Bean’s hilarious script, brimming with brilliant lines, is given the energy and punch it needs to make it work.

A splendid production that is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, proving there is still plenty of mileage in long-established comic tropes (the play is based on an 18th century Italian piece) and demonstrating yet again the wealth of talent on and off the stage at the Crescent.  I had a boss time.

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Damien Dickens and Jacob Williams fail the audition for Help The Aged (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Love Bites

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th January, 2018

 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is the most Stephen King-like book I’ve read that isn’t by Stephen King.  The film version that followed is a masterpiece in understatement and now this stage adaptation by Jack Thorne streamlines the story even further.  Several characters and scenes are completely excised, allowing the central relationship to come to the fore.

Director Liz Plumpton gets the tone exactly right, from the stilted naturalism of the dialogue to the shocking moments of violence.  In fact, horror aside, this is a very subtle production.  A snow-laden setting is suggested as walk-ons toss handfuls of snowflakes over their heads in an establishing montage; costumes (by Pat Brown and Vera Dean) hint at Scandinavia with its sweaters and bobble hats; and the lighting by James Booth adds a wintry chill to the multi-purpose set (also by Booth) that combines starkly striped tree trunks with interiors: a locker room, a bedroom… with a window… Kevin Middleton’s sound design gives us the impression of the world beyond the set: a swimming lesson, hospital noises, and so on.

There are lots of scenes, some of them quite short, but Plumpton engages us from the off and, as the story unfolds, thrills and touches us in equal measure.

Niall Higgins’s Oskar has ‘victim’ all over him.  The kids in the story are played a bit older than they appear in the original and so Oskar comes across as perhaps being on ‘the spectrum’.  Bullied and alone, prone to shoplifting sweets and unable to communicate with his separated parents, Oskar is a sympathetic fellow.  Simon King is terrifyingly efficient as the murderous Hakan.  Deronie Pettifer makes an impression as his mother, who drinks; and there are strong appearances by Mike Baughan as the police chief investigating a series of murders in the locality, and by Oliver King and Elliot Mitchell as the bullies.

But the piece works as well as it does chiefly due to a captivating performance by Molly Packer as the beguiling Eli, an ancient being in a young girl’s body.  Packer is truly excellent, balancing moments of unhuman-ness with childlike fun.  Her violence is as credible as it is merciless.  Eli’s relationship with Oskar humanises her while it gives him backbone and independence.  It’s not just a vampire love story, it’s about real-life monsters and loneliness and resilience.  It’s also the sweetest horror story going.

A fantastic start to 2018 at the Crescent, this production gets everything right.

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Oskar worthy: Niall Higgins and Molly Packer (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 


Austen Powers

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

The Crescent Theatre, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

 

Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel whizzes along at quite a lick, condensing the action without cutting any of the important bits.  What couldn’t be clearer is the chauvinism of the age and the restrictions placed on women: they can’t inherit, they can’t go anywhere alone with a man – both of which are important plot points.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are dispossessed after her husband’s death and find themselves in reduced circumstances, swapping the family’s grand home for a little cottage near Exeter.  Suitors come calling, scandals come to light… On the surface, it’s a frothy rom-com but beneath it’s a biting social satire.  The wry wit of Jane Austen powers the exchanges and fuels the dramatic irony of the situations.

Karen Kelly makes a warm-hearted matriarch as Mrs Dashwood – her announcement of her husband’s death is strongly handled.  Naomi Jacobs is suitably restrained and fretful as the serious Elinor; Elinor is the ‘Sense’ of the title, ruled by her head; Marianne the ‘Sensibility’, ruled by her heart and her impulses.  Both are played well but I would like more contrast  between them.  Stephanie Cole’s Marianne who could do with being giddier or at least smiling more, especially from the off.  When reading poetry, she should really go for it.  Charlotte Upton, in a convincing portrayal as little sister Margaret, seems to embody both aspects of heart and head, in her childlike thirst for knowledge and honest reactions to events.

Thomas Leonard looks the part as the dapper Edward Ferrars, but could do with being a little bit more cut-glass in his delivery of Austen’s erudite dialogue.  Jacob Williams makes a pleasant Mr Willoughby, while James Lewis amuses as the sarcastic Mr Palmer.  Jordan Bird offers strong support as faithful servant Thomas but Adam Ragg’s Colonel Brandon is a particularly fine characterisation: the stiff-upper lip, the British reserve, the gentlemanly qualities.  Decency oozes out of him.

The evening belongs to Laura Poyner, superb in both her roles.  Provincial Mrs Jennings’s vulgarity and lust for life is in stark opposition to her snobbish Mrs Dashwood – her Fanny is a joy to behold.  The stage comes alive whenever Poyner is on and most of the cast is able to match her energy and commitment.

James David Knapp’s direction keeps the action clear in this stylish and slick production that should do well on its tour of other venues.  His original music is bittersweet and evocative.  Above all, the play serves as a showcase for the excellent costume team at the Crescent, with flawless and impressive work from Vera Dean, Pat Brown and Olivia Barnes.  Keith Harris’s simple yet elegant set: three period doorways among a landscape of books proves a versatile backdrop.

An enjoyable comedy of manners that brings a classic book to life in an accessible and entertaining way.

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Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. Stephanie Cole, Naomi Jacobs, Karen Kelly, and Charlotte Upton. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


The Truth Comes Out

THE LARAMIE PROJECT

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th May, 2017

 

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 sent shockwaves across the USA and around the world.  A tipping point had been reached, it seemed and, although it took a while, law was passed to protect minorities from hate crime.

At the time, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming several times, interviewing local people of a variety of walks of life and with a range of views on the murder.  Those interviews form the basis for this play, using verbatim the words of the Laramie people.

Almost twenty years later, this new production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio demonstrates the piece has lost none of its power and, sadly, none of its relevance.  It’s a play about its own making.  Actors play actors from the theatre company along with the people they interview and the whole piece is structured around the murder – before, during and its aftermath, covering a year in the life of Laramie.  It’s a compelling piece of work and this production certainly does it great service.

The cast of ten populates the space with police, neighbours, family members, the clergy – over 60 roles, all aided by the costume designs of Pat Brown and Vera Dean: we see who these people are in an instant, before they speak for themselves.  I cannot assign roles to particular actors (I’m sure to get it wrong) so, as the programme does, I shall just list them: Kassie Duke, Juliet Ibberson, Simon King, Sean McCarthy, Judy O’Dowd, Liz Plumpton, Ben Pountney, Phil Rea, John Whittell, and Sam Wilson.  They all rise to the challenges of the piece, delivering varied and rounded characterisations as well as the emotional punch of key scenes.

There is an especially chilling and repulsive portrayal of hate-mongering, Bible-brandisher Fred Phelps – all the more sickening because you realise bastards like him are still around, spouting their bilious nonsense and disrupting funerals of gay people.

Rod Natkiel does a remarkable job of directing the action on his minimalist stage – each monologue and exchange is delivered differently.  There is nothing samey or static in the presentation; we have a lot to listen to but he keeps us engaged and, even though we know the outcome, gripped as the story is pieced together.  Natkiel also uses specially shot video clips – news bulletins, mainly – which add to the verity of this docudrama, as well as upping the Americana factor.  I have to say the accents are uniformly strong.

A play about hatred but there are also the more positive aspects of humanity in evidence: humour, warmth and compassion, to name but three.

As societies across the world, from the USA to Chechnya take backwards strides in their treatment of gay people, the grisly death of Matthew Shepard is back to haunt us and ask us what kind of society do we want to be.

Compelling and a shining example of the high quality of work produced at the Crescent.

laramie

 


Made Man

FRANKENSTEIN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 28th January, 2017

 

Nick Dear’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel that spawned modern science fiction will be familiar to many from the landmark National Theatre production directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cumberdick Bendibatch.   Here, in the Ron Barber studio, the show is inevitably scaled down but director Jenny Thurston ensures the play loses none of its power.

At the heart of the show is a towering performance from Andrew Cowie as the Creature.  From his ‘birth’, we see his cognitive development – he becomes an inquisitive toddler before our very eyes.  Nick Dear keeps the Creature at the centre of the story and so we empathise with him rather than fear him.  The Creature is the outsider, the ‘different’, hated for his appearance – his only recourse is to take revenge on the society that shuns him, and the creator who abandoned him.

James David Knapp is excellent as Victor Frankenstein, uptight and twitchy – he becomes unravelled as though he is the one held together by stitches.  His scenes with Cowie are electrifying – even if you know the story.  The tension is palpable.

The two main players are supported by a tight ensemble who come and go in all the other roles.  Charlotte Ireland makes an appealing Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée; there is some amusing character work from Tom Silverton and Richard Constable as a pair of Scottish graverobbers; Paul Harris’s kindly blind man, Bethany Wyde’s cheeky Clarice, Charlotte Upton’s sweet William, Rosa Pardo Roques’s earnest Agatha, Sam Wilson’s devoted Felix – all populate the story with the best and worst of humanity.  It is very telling how they are all united, even the decent, hard-working ones, in their rejection of the Other.

Thurston delivers the macabre humour, the shocks and the tension but above all the thought-provoking aspects of Shelley’s novel: the nature of Man, the pursuit of scientific discovery, the genie out of the bottle…

There are puppets, rabbits and dogs and so on (designed and made like children’s toys, by Jenny Thurston and Richard Constable), which observe much of the action, reminders of Nature, but echoing Victor’s unnatural creation.  They are for the most part highly effective, but I think the birds could be handled with a little more finesse.  Faye Rowse’s economical set serves the locations well – a table piled with sacks suggests a snowy mountain range, and illustrative projections remind us we are watching a story from a book.  The costumes, as ever at the Crescent, are superb.  Pat Brown and Vera Dean capture the period and, as the Creature’s intellect develops, the clothes he wears change too, civilising him – on the outside, at least.

Chris Briggs’s lighting creates atmosphere, patches of enlightenment in the murk, and the inclusion of snatches of music by Messiaen underscores the action with discord.  It all adds up to a Gothic setting for Shelley’s fable, framed by the device of a group of nervous lantern-bearers opening the book and, at the end, slamming it shut.  We must be careful where we shine our light, the production says.

All in all, this is unquestionably the most powerful production I have yet to see at the Crescent, superbly presented and performed, thrilling, moving, funny and heart-rending.  Andrew Cowie’s magnificent Creature will haunt me for a long time to come.

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