Tag Archives: Warwick Arts Centre

A Nudge To Arms

TRYING IT ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Friday 8th June, 2018

 

At the grand age of 70, playwright David Edgar turns performer for the first time in this self-penned piece that blends autobiographical material and interviews with fellow activists, people who were active (for want of a better word) in the student movement of 1968 and beyond.  A survey of the political landscape of the past fifty years, a potted life story, and history lesson, the play’s didactic elements are leavened by humour and theatrical devices: Edgar converses with himself at age 20 via a voice from an antiquated cassette player; ‘stage manager’ Danielle Phillips upbraids him for his shortcomings, his dated language, his previous dismissal of feminism… It’s a searing attack that Edgar takes on the chin – the left has always been prone to bickering and in-fighting.  Indeed, the Labour party today is chronically divided, even if it has veered away from socialistic ideals and is squabbling over centrist pursuits.

It is a cliché that people become more right-wing as age withers them.  It is shocking to realise that the hard-won changes in legislation regarding race, gender, and gay rights were fought for by the same generation that largely voted for Brexit.  What happened to them?  Surely it is more than the ageing process?  Edgar attempts to enlighten us on this point and it’s a s sobering as it is entertaining.  He’s an engaging presence, seemingly effortless in his fascinating discourse.  The altercation with Phillips creates tension – this is no cosy lecture – and we are made to think for ourselves and our own position, as the world turns backwards and the progress we have made is threatened with erasure.

There is a lot to take in and ruminate over here.  It’s amusing, insightful and dismaying all at once, although there is a sense that Edgar is preaching to a choir of liberals, people who willingly and regularly attend the theatre and regard it as an arena for social commentary and change.  Perhaps we will be shaken from our comfortable complacency, our classical music and our Waitrose cuisine, and take up the cause to continue the fight before the political gains we have made are lost.  This is in addition to the long way we have still to go.

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Repeat Offender

FLEABAG

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 9th May, 2018

 

It’s a real treat to be able to see Maddie Rice reprise the hit one-woman show, three years since I first enjoyed it in Birmingham.  Since then, the TV version starring the show’s writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge materialised, opening the show out to six half-hour episodes – each of them brilliant, but it is refreshing to return to the original format of just over an hour, one actor, one chair… The simplicity of the presentation is deceptive.  This is a highly sophisticated piece of storytelling, and Waller-Bridge’s script still feels fresh and funny as ever.

Rice interacts with pre-recorded voices at times but mostly she delivers both sides of a range of conversations, switching in and out of characters in the blink of an eye, while providing asides as narrator.  It’s a dazzling display with precision and impeccable comic timing.  Rice is expressive in many ways.  Sometimes it’s a look, a mere shift of the eyeballs.  Sometimes it’s her entire stance.  Director Vicky Jones ensures it’s always the optimum expression, pacing the exchanges to perfection, allowing for reaction time among the snappy delivery and moments of reflection among the rapid-fire anecdotes.  Elliott Griggs’s subtle lighting signals shifts in mood, location and timeline.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny stuff as our narrator, seemingly without filter, recounts her experiences, sexual and otherwise, and yet it’s as endearing as it is outrageous.  Amid the funny stories, tragedy and pathos surface as we learn of mistakes made and we come to understand the excesses of her behaviour, the destructive spiral she is in.

The hour flies by in Rice’s entertaining company and virtuoso performance, and I’m left trying to think of a better one-person show, and I fail to come up with one that comes close.

My original review from 2015 can be found here.

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Funny girl: Maddie Rice

 


Full of the Devil

LIVING WITH THE LIGHTS ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 1st November, 2017

 

I am welcomed into the temporary, pop-up theatre by writer-performer Mark Lockyer.  He shakes my hand and invites me to get a cup of tea and a hobnob.  This informal, cosy beginning gives nothing away of what is to come.   When the audience is all in and settled, Lockyer begins properly, shedding his genial, corporate trainer demeanour to tell us his story – and it is his story.  What follows is a searing account of his experiences but this is no chummy recollection of theatrical anecdotes.  His time at the Royal Shakespeare Company features, of course, including a manic episode as Mercutio.  But Lockyer is more of a Macbeth, his sanity unravelling before our very eyes.

The storytelling is energised, volatile even.  The incidents related are increasingly chaotic and destructive.  When he tells us he has met the Devil, we believe him although SURELY it must be a metaphor for something-or-other.  We are not sure…

Tapping into a long-held cultural tradition of using devils and demons as personifications of mental illness, Lockyer weaves a searing tale of calamity.  In a blistering performance, he gives us a tour of his personal hell.  It’s gripping stuff, sometimes shocking, often funny, always compelling.  Director Ramin Gray keeps Lockyer on the move, making sure the range of characters that populate the story are clearly differentiated, and the tone of the piece forever changing.  There is light and dark here, humour and tension.

More than a showcase for his skills, more even than a confessional, this autobiographical show is a clarion call for more talk about mental health and better provision of services.  The lack of beds in psychiatric wards is a running motif in Lockyer’s story.  Importantly, he shows us that even the lowest point is not the end; you can come back from it, you can learn to live with manic depression, rampant paranoia and so on.  You can live with the lights on.

Lockyer has beaten his demon into submission.  Others can too.  The importance of bringing issues of mental health into the open is more than a hot topic.  For many, it is a matter of life and death.

This important show from the Actors Touring Company deserves a much wider audience.  Cancel your plans and head to Warwick Arts Centre.  Living With The Lights On is playing there for the rest of this week.  It’s a blistering piece of theatre with something crucial to say.

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World Class

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th October, 2017

 

An absolute treat to be able to catch this New Vic production for the third time – but what can one say that has not already been said?  I’ll probably repeat many of the plaudits of my previous reviews but here goes:

The hit show has a new lease of life with this lengthy tour.  Originally produced in-the-round, this is a chance to see the action re-directed for end-on stages and, for the most part, it’s a great fit.  With a new set by Lis Evans – all suitcases, packing trunks and umbrellas – a versatile space is created, with an ancient map as a backdrop.  Warwick Arts Centre’s Butterworth Hall is perhaps a bit cavernous, denying us the intimacy of the New Vic’s cosy arena – the regular theatre space is undergoing refurbishment at present – but the cast work hard to get the show across.

All over again I am struck with wonder.  James Atherton’s original score is the beating heart of the production, evoking sense of place and also the passage of time, as well as underscoring the action and the emotional beats of the story.  Andrew Pollard’s stately but silly Phileas Fogg; a Frenchman’s satirical view of the Englishman abroad: eccentric, entitled but ultimately decent.  I wonder if Jules Verne were writing today if his portrait would be less endearing, as we seem to have become a baffling, stubborn joke to the rest of the world.  Kirsten Foster’s beautiful and elegant Mrs Aouda – the subtlety with which she has an effect on Fogg, awakening his emotions is a heart-warming delight.  This is a Fogg to admire rather than to mock.

The action sequences still astound.  The long-distance fighting allows for cartoonish excesses without physical contact, and the running gag of flying banknotes and passports does not get old.  Director Theresa Hawkins has created a classic piece of comic theatre, rich with physicality and also theatricality.  Sound effects, especially, are brought into play to heighten the atmosphere and augment the fun.  The timing is super-impeccable.  It is like watching the intricate workings of an exquisite clock as the indefatigable ensemble dart around, setting and striking scenes, creating illusion and impression as well as over a hundred characters.  This is a show that uses great stores of imagination to get our imaginations working.  We readily buy into the swaying ship’s rails and tilting furniture and there is hilarious interplay between the world of the play and the world of the performance, with audience members enlisted to perpetuate the effects.

And it is absolutely wonderful to see a new audience fall in love with the marvellous Michael Hugo.  His Passepartout sees him at his most energetic, physically versatile and most lovable.  Hugo is a living cartoon and seems to defy the limits of the human body and I suspect he may be a CGI character, projected somehow onto the stage…

The other players lend strong support: Pushpinder Chani’s Mr Naido, Matthew Ganley’s Colonel Proctor, Joey Parsad’s Miss Singh, all rushing about and coming and going to keep us on the move from country to country.  Dennis Herdman’s nominal villain, the meddling Inspector Fix is an excellent foil for Hugo’s sweetly decent and naïve Passepartout.  Herdman is also larger-than-life in his actions and reactions – we almost feel for Fix in his failures.

Above all, the story retains its charm.  A frivolous wager reveals the best of human qualities: selflessness and determination among them.

On the road for more than 80 days, this ongoing tour is your chance to experience one of the finest productions I have ever seen.  Breath-taking in both its invention and execution, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a superlative piece of theatre.

Review ends.  If I have repeated myself, I am not sorry.  I am consulting my gazetteer to see when I can catch it again.

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Andrew Pollard and Michael Hugo be trippin’

 

 

 

 

 


Back out in the Outback

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

 

Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.  It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.

Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel.  Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout.  Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus.  Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover.  They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on.  There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story.  And quite right, too!

Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company.  The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!

Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say?  But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun.  What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon.   The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.

Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch.  As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs.  You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock!  Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.

There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out.  A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact.  On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.

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Killing Jokes

THE COMPLETE DEATHS

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 6th October, 2016

 

Arch comedy troupe Spymonkey present every onstage death from Shakespeare’s plays in one evening.  A bonkers premise, perhaps, but one which yields surprising results.  The death scenes, taken out of context, afford little possibility of dramatic engagement and so our enjoyment comes from the theatrical forms used throughout the evening.  Everything from puppetry (projected on screen via a live video feed) to contemporary dance is brought in to make for a series of inventive and hilarious scenes.  In fact, it feels like the show is parodying the very medium of theatre, especially its more avant garde aspects.  Certainly the ways Shakespeare is often presented to us come in for a lot of stick.  The through line is the off-stage drama, the relationship problems of the cast members, but that’s not what comes across.  The relentless parade of deaths – silly stabbings and poisonings in abundance – is fun but Shakespeare’s reflections on death and mortality – which tend to come after someone has died – are not given.  We’re keeping things light here – for which I am grateful – but you can’t help thinking of the transience of life, symbolically represented by a rubber fly on a wire!

As ever the performers seem tireless in their versatility.  Aitor Basauri hilariously mangles the blank verse while proving himself an accomplished physical comedian.  Stephan Kreiss brings Teutonic intensity to his clowning.  Petra Massey, a relentlessly funny woman, delights at every turn, while Toby Park adds a touch of melancholy with his marvellously evocative score.

Highlights for me include a joyous Titus Andronicus with a giant mincing machine, the murder of Cinna the poet performed by paper figures on a table top, and Cleopatra’s big production number, complete with dancing asps.  There is darkness here too but whenever the show veers in that direction, the mood is punctured by more silliness.  Director and Adaptor Tim Crouch keeps things tearing along, and the ideas keep coming.  There is cleverness underpinning the madcap mayhem and an anarchistic approach.  Shakespeare stifles creativity, it is claimed – not if this show is anything to go by!

It’s not every night you go to the theatre and see your namesake ‘casually disembowelled’ but there it is: Death Number 4 is one William Stafford in Henry VI Part 2.  And so I experienced a fleeting moment of vicarious fame.  Gutted.

A fabulously hilarious evening of satire and silliness that proves once more the supremacy of Spymonkey’s clowning, informed as it is by an intellectual animus and a celebratory approach to both form and content.

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I see you, baby, shaking that asp. Cleopatra (Petra Massey) and her snakes, Aitor Basauri, Stephan Kreiss and Toby Park


Dim and Dimmer

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th November, 2015

 

Headlong’s production of Tennessee Williams’s 1940s play curiously sheds light by keeping us in the dark. It’s very dimly lit – we are warned it will be by Tom (Tom Mothersdale) in his prologue. He tells us we are about to see a ‘memory play’ as if that’s a genre, and he narrates – Williams’s language has a languid poetry to it that shines through the gloom. At first I find the darkness problematic; it’s as though Tom’s memory involves deterioration of vision. The cast is almost lost in Fly Davis’s black box of a set. It’s like they’re in a basement during a blackout. And yet powerful performances emerge. Greta Scacchi dominates as overbearing mother, Amanda, with her flights of nostalgia and old-fashioned manners. Amanda enlists Tom to bring home a gentleman caller for his sister – her only hope is to marry her off. Scacchi is the engine that drives the performance, keeping us hooked in while the design and production choices keep us at a remove. Distortions of sound by Gareth Fry along with bursts of popular music of the time link the scenes with mood as much as Tom’s narration.

There are striking moments when the director’s choices work brilliantly and brutally: the blocking is stylised in contrast with the naturalistic delivery of the dialogue, providing visual metaphors (when you can see them!) and colouring Tom’s recollections of these events. It was obviously a dark time for him! The moment when they say grace before dinner is an example where this expressionistic staging illuminates the inner life of the characters.

Tom Mothersdale has a nice line in sarcasm – it’s never stated overtly but Tom’s secret life, what keeps him out until the wee small hours, is hinted at (a typical feature of Williams’s work). As club-footed Laura, Erin Doherty brings out the girl’s emotional immaturity – Laura is hampered by more than physical disability, she has social anxieties too; and as the gentleman caller Jim, Eric Kofi Abrefa is like a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic setting. Odd though that Tom can recall in such detail scenes in which he doesn’t appear, but hey ho…

The second act packs the emotional punch. Director Ellen McDougall carries off the denouement with aplomb – her unconventional way of presenting Tennessee Williams pays off by the end. It may not be easy on the eye, peering into the murk, but there is a blinding flash of realisation and, literally, a shattering moment. Sometimes despite and sometimes because of the conceptual presentation, the emotional truth of the piece remains intact, even if the glass animals do not. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and egos are as fragile and brittle as Laura’s vitreous zoo.

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)