Tag Archives: Warwick Arts Centre Coventry

Voices and Choices

MY COUNTRY

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 25th May, 2017

 

This touring show from the National Theatre is described as a work in progress – largely because, I suspect, Brexit has yet to happen and the debate still rages on – this absorbing piece of verbatim theatre, using the words of ordinary people from across the nation (as well as the drivel of politicians) to chart the country’s mood, before, during and after the referendum that split the UK in two.

In a clever framing device,  writer Carol Ann Duffy has Britannia herself (Penny Layden) welcome representative from the regions to a meeting, a chance to listen.  The regional reps are clearly distinguishable by their accents and attitudes. For example, Cymru (the marvellous Christian Patterson) enters voice first, as befits a Welshman; Laura Elphinstone’s North East rep is a hoot, deadpan and down-to-earth, plain-speaking and unpretentious.  Cavan Clarke’s Northern Ireland breaks out into a spot of Riverdance in one of the show’s livelier moments, while Stuart McQuarrie’s Caledonia proudly recites Robert Burns, supplying the whisky and the pragmatism.

Britannia oversees as, in the voices of their ‘constituents’, the reps air the views of the people, complete with hesitations, repetitions and deviations, for spot-on authenticity.  The opinions are often humorous, telling, and eye-opening.  It’s like an extended episode of Creature Comforts with flesh-and-blood actors standing in for the plasticene animals.

For what is essentially a piece in which seven actors sit behind desks, it comes across as anything but static.  Director Rufus Norris breaks up the recitations with action and humour – although most of the best lines come from the vox pops.  The reps may be stereotypes but the many and varied statements we hear mark us as a nation of individuals, albeit with some shared characteristics.  It’s almost as if the UK is a microcosm of the EU.  Fancy that!

Britannia chips in statements from MPs.  Her Boris Johnson is almost as vile as the real thing, as he tries to make bizarre and ludicrous analogies instead of facing issues head on.  Layden positively drips evil as Nigel Farage, spewing his ‘voice of reason’ bile.  Yuck.  Although it’s not quite a year since the vote, the show brings it all flooding back, including the frustration and disbelief I felt at the mismanagement of the entire campaign by both sides.

More than that, the show is a celebration of British identity in all its manifestations, reminding us we have always been a diverse agglomeration of regional differences.

The show ends with Britannia saying she still loves us all and what we need more than ever is leadership.

Let’s hope we get it, eh, Brit?

My Country

Making a song and dance about Brexit, the cast of My Country.

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Stunning

OUT OF THIS WORLD

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 25th April, 2017

 

Mark Murphy’s latest piece for V-Tol pulls out all the stops in terms of theatricality – in fact, when it begins, I feel bombarded and disoriented by the barrage of light and sound, the tirade of disjointed lines of dialogue and all the rushing around rearranging the chairs.  This is purely intentional of course, but it takes me a while to take the piece in other than in via its form.  But gradually, the content emerges, explaining the choices made for the means of presentation.

We gather that our protagonist Ellen (Sarah Swire) is a famous musician, five weeks married to Anthony (Scott Hoatson) but something is very, very wrong – if the doctor and nurse and the clinical setting are anything to go by.  The fragmented nature of the action – complete with surreal moments – suggest that everything is happening in Ellen’s mind.  She even steps forward to break the fourth wall and tell us this.  Even we are projections in her story.

I warm to Ellen as she goes through her own rabbit-hole of a nightmare, complete with Lewis Carroll-esque exchanges with officious receptionists.  Sequences repeat and distort as we piece together what happened to Ellen and Anthony.  It culminates in the show’s most powerful scene, when all the stage technology takes a backseat, and husband and wife say their final farewell.  It’s heartbreaking.

And so, what begins as a dazzling, confusing circus of video, music, and high-wire flying, becomes a beautiful, sometimes harrowing, sometimes touching, sometimes funny, sometimes absurd, love story.  A tale of loss and grief – and survival.

Yet if it is all in Ellen’s comatose mind, I can’t grasp why there’s a scene in which she is not present: the doctor explaining to her brother-in-law about the car accident that shatters their lives.  Perhaps she could have floated overhead, like an eavesdropping Peter Pan, in an out-of-body experience…

Murphy certainly puts us through it, browbeating us with theatrical assault and then engaging us through the piecemeal resolution of what the hell is going on, and then hitting us right in the feels.  A remarkable piece that rewards those who have the patience to get through the initial ambush on the senses.  Marvellous.  It’s not often a show’s title is its own review.

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Twins Pique

THE NOTEBOOK

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 8th March, 2016


Forced Entertainment’s current tour is their adaptation of Agota Kristof’s novel about twin brothers sent to live on their grandmother’s farm during the War. Facing extreme hardships of poverty and physical labour, the boys’ bond becomes stronger as the world around them, as seen through their eyes, becomes darker and more dangerous.

They record their experiences in the titular notebook, restricting themselves to a purely factual approach. Their matter-of-face account is at turns funny, stark, and disturbing.

The staging could hardly be simpler. Two actors dressed identically represent the unnamed twins (although at first sight I think of them as Gilbert and George!). They narrate, reading from notebooks, sometimes in unison, sometimes in turn. Director Tim Etchells keeps the focus on the storytelling – the actors have very little else to do other than to tell the story – but he keeps things from becoming too static by having them rearrange their pair of chairs for different chapters’ different settings.

The overall effect is utterly compelling.

Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon deliver the twins’ story with the clarity and forthright manner of precocious children. Incidents amuse, repel, shock and horrify – the boys’ humanity is between the lines they read. They develop their own moral code, born out of the physical and sexual abuses inflicted on them and the horrors they see perpetrated as the War encroaches deeper into their little world.  You wouldn’t want to cross them or stand in their way, is all I’m saying.

The timing is impeccable, in terms of the speaking in unison and the lengths of the silences that punctuate the more graphic or affecting scenes. Subtle changes in the lighting (designed by Jim Harrison) add to the sense of time, place and mood, almost imperceptibly, in a story that is for the most part played out in our mind’s eye. This may be theatre stripped to its bare bones but in our heads, the richness of the story, evoked by accomplished and captivating narrators, carries us along to a stark and moving resolution.

I did find, however, it is a bit long. Two and a half hours without a break. Of course, an interval would have disrupted the flow and the world-building in our imaginations, I appreciate that – my mind was engaged and my emotions stirred but also my bum was well and truly numbed!

The Notebook Forced Entertainment_credit Hugo Glendinning

Proclaimers: Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

 

 


Play-Acting

THE LAST ADVENTURES

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 2nd October, 2014

 

Forced Entertainment’s new show makes for another unusual night at the theatre. On the surface it is unstructured and free-form – a free-for-all, even! But as it goes on, the shape of the piece emerges.

It begins with a kind of classroom situation. Two instructors face a dozen ‘students’ who repeat everything they say: facts and aphorisms that become increasingly surreal or ridiculous. Music and sound from the onstage performer (KK Null) encroaches – dissonant and above all: loud. The class breaks up. One by one they fetch cut-outs of leafless trees from the back wall and build a forest that moves and glides around the stage… Someone brings on a couple of wooden chests: dressing-up boxes from which the cast withdraw items of clothing and props: household items like saucepans and mops.

Soldiers emerge. The cast play at war. Here the piece is like watching a children’s playground. Like children, the actors transform the objects through imagination. A pan becomes a helmet, a broom a gun. Lengths of red ribbon represent bloodshed. The imagery is familiar to us all. Horrific images emerge: a couple with sacks on their heads are gunned down as they flee. There is humour two: a gunman has trouble getting a quartet of skeletons to put their hands in the air…

Absorbed in their individual scenarios, the actors/kids tear around, unselfconscious in their imaginative play. Other characters materialise: medieval princesses in tall coned hats, kings in tinfoil crowns… Cut out pieces become a dragon… The scenes change gradually – there is a lot of running to and fro and they don’t half make a mess – but eventually the child’s-play gives way to something more beautiful. Stylised clouds form a skyscape. Cut-out waves become a rolling sea…

For the most part, the sound and music design jars with the action, keeping us alienated and distant. Silence when it comes is more effective.

As a whole, it’s a surreal landscape, populated with childhood memories but I think it dwells too much on individual sequences. The point made, it should move on to the next, but sections are drawn out unnecessarily, I feel. There is value in repetition and its cumulative effect, but it’s a fine balance between effectiveness and disengaging.

For me, it’s the playground as metaphor for human endeavour. Watching the ‘kids’ at play, it feels like a Grown-up should appear to restore order or tell them all off, but it never happens. Just as there is no God who intervenes in human affairs – affairs which are just like silly games when compared to elemental or cosmic power.

It’s a challenging watch and not an easy listen but yet again Forced Entertainment deliver an original piece of theatre where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

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Into The Valley

THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT

Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 11th June, 2014

 

Alarm bells are always set ringing whenever I see in the programme that the director (in this case the legendary Peter Brook) has written a ‘statement of intent’. I’m a firm believer in the idea of a play speaking for itself and so, joke’s on you Mr Brook, I haven’t read your statement.

With my internal pretentiousness-ahoy klaxon about to go off big time, I settle in my seat and wait for the show to begin…

Codirected by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, this Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production is set in what is by and large an empty space (of course, this being a Peter Brook) with only a few chairs scattered around, a small table, a coat stand… But mainly, there is as little as possible. Three actors and two musicians occupy this space; it begins with each actor taking a turn in a spot of storytelling – something about Persia – but this is only a prelude to the play proper. In this minimalist setting, a naturalistic story unfolds, with narration and sometimes direct audience address. It’s the story of Mrs Costas, a woman with a prodigious memory. She undergoes tests for some scientists and becomes a successful novelty act performer, a la Derren Brown – sort of – but there are problems. She finds she is unable to forget any of the trivial information she memorises for her act. Show business is not the answer – who knew?

As Mrs Costas, the remarkable Kathryn Hunter reconfirms why I hold her in high regard; it’s a much less physical role than, say, Kafka’s Monkey, but no less captivating. She is a magnetic stage presence. Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill play the scientists, Costas’s boss, her agent and so on in a manner that appears effortless, moving from character to character, location to location with clarity and style. Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori provide an atmospheric musical underscore that enhances the story, filling the empty space with aural colours – this is a play about synaesthesia, after all! – It’s a play about the human mind and the nature of memory and it’s a thoroughly absorbing and involving, small scale piece with big themes – once you get past the opening moments, that is. And it’s funny and accessible with a positive disposition towards human nature.

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Show of Hands

HMS PINAFORE

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 22nd April, 2014 

 

This all-male production sets the action in the hull of a ship during the Second World War.  It’s Gilbert and Sullivan do South Pacific – in a way.  With only three sets of bunk beds and a length of rope for scenery and with judicious use of lighting (designed by Tim Deiling) the company of sailors perform the operetta in an evening that is never short of charming.

Accompanied by musical director Richard Bates on piano, the men are in excellent voice, with some beautiful harmonies and, most impressively, their singing of the female roles doesn’t descend into squawks and screeches.  In fact, as romantic lead Josephine, Alan Richardson displays a fine soprano, like an operatic Jimmy Somerville.  He imbues the role with dignity as well as femininity, wringing drama from the lines by means of understatement.  You get some idea how the Elizabethan boy actors might have got on with Shakespeare’s heroines.

Although disappointing to not see the mighty Keith Jack as romantic hero Ralph Rackstraw in this performance (Get well soon, Keith!) his stand-in, Sam Ferriday is a more than competent substitute as the dashing, lovelorn top man.  Also good fun is Neil Moors as Captain Corcoran, drilling his men like a PE instructor; and Davids McKechnie is suitably obnoxious as Sir Joseph Porter – Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire still rings true to this day: this ‘ruler of the Queen’s navy’ has never been to sea, is woefully unqualified to be the cabinet minister… (I’m looking at you, Gove.  And you, Hunt).  You can imagine Sir Joseph claiming expenses for his entourage of sisters, cousins and aunts (all of whom are delightfully presented!)

Alex Weatherhill’s Buttercup is endearing and funny.  The entire company camp and butch it up accordingly.  There’s a balletic sailors’ hornpipe and Lizzi Gee’s marvellous choreography also has elements of semaphore, I find.  There are shades of Derek Jarman’s The Tempest as they all scurry around but above all I was reminded how Gilbert and Sullivan are the forerunners of the silly songs of Monty Python.  Eric Idle owes them a lot.

A thoroughly entertaining evening that treats the original material with affection and respect, proving that with a director as inventive as Sasha Regan you don’t need to perform G&S on the grand scale for it to work as richly and as effectively as it does here.

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Hello, sailors! Neil Moors puts his crew through their paces