Tag Archives: Wendi Peters

No Wonder

WONDERLAND

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017

 

This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood.   Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting.  Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.

The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there.  Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is.  Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child.  Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.

The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them.  What brings this show crashing down is the book.  There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror.  There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen.  “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain.  Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.

Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes.  She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it.  Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake.  I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.

Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones.  He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context.  Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally.  Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story.  Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world.  This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.

A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.

kerry-ellis-as-alice-photo-by-paul-coltas

Kerry Ellis as Alice (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 

 

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Family Firm

RUTHERFORD & SON

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 13th March, 2013

 

Northern Broadsides is doing the rounds with this revival of Githa Sowerby’s play of 1912.  It has been edited by Blake Morrison so the dialect is accessible to a wider, modern day audience, but even so, the themes it deals with are still pertinent today – and familiar to viewers of soap operas, Dallas and even the old sit-com Brass!

Jonathan Miller directs a strong cast in this broadly naturalistic piece.  The intimacy of the New Vic’s in-the-round puts us right in the Rutherfords’ living room with this family.  There is a lengthy build-up before the patriarch appears – the characters view their hopes and deeds through the prism of Dad’s disapproval – but when the man himself appears, he exceeds our anticipations.  Barrie Rutter is in his element as the headstrong, tyrannical father, ruling the roost and crushing his children’s’ aspirations under the wheels of his industry.  What makes him compelling is his apparently reasonable nature.  He puts his case, explaining why he has treated his family and his workers in particular ways – it all seems perfectly fair and equitable to him; generous, even.  He regards relationships as business deals.  What you put in, you get out.  Because he toiled for decades to lift his family to the middle class, he expects his sons to follow in his footsteps, to pay back what he has invested in their upbringing.  The problem is raising his family from the village cottages and a life of hard work, he has enabled them to aspire to other spheres or, as in the case of his spinster daughter, cut them off from the world completely.  In the shadow of his oppression, his offspring cannot thrive.

Nicholas Shaw is very good as elder son John, a bit of a dreamer who has hit upon a new invention that will revolutionise the industry and make himself a fortune.  But he is naive in the ways of business and patents, and his dear old dad soon hits upon away to acquire the secret formula behind his son’s back.  This is pure Dallas.  Younger brother Dick is a neurotic and ineffectual curate, treated dismissively by his unholy father – a splendid turn from Andrew Grose.  Sara Poyzer excels as the cloistered daughter, frustrated by her life of idleness, who finally busts a corset to tell the old man what she thinks.  That she has been having an affair with his trusted right-hand man Martin (Richard Standing, both noble and humble at the same time) is the final straw.  She is disowned – by the end Rutherford has no children left.  It falls to his cockney sparra daughter-in-law (a very strong and nuanced performance by Catherine Kinsella) abandoned by her dreamer husband, to strike a bargain with him to ensure the upbringing of her four-month-old baby boy.  His family has gone west but in Rutherford’s eyes, they are business deals gone sour.  He is able to shrug them off and move on to the next negotiation.

Rutter is absolutely compelling, dominating the scene even when he’s not on stage.  He is supported by an excellent cast – There is a strong cameo from Wendi Peters as the aggrieved mother of a worker he has dismissed for stealing (although it did seem as if she became more inebriated as her scene went on).  Kate Anthony’s formidable as Aunt Ann, who dresses like Whistler’s Mother but is the prefect presiding over the family while her brother’s at work, issuing warnings and admonishments to keep them in line.

Jonathan Miller directs the rows and arguments with an almost orchestral ear.  Voices rise and fall; there are crescendos and silences, each as powerful as the other.  The timing of these tonal changes is impeccable as the characters negotiate the emotional transactions of the dialogue.  Light and shade are effectively handled by this maestro of theatre.

With atmospheric lighting from candles and lamps, the production creates a dim view of the gloomy life of the Rutherfords in their father’s shadow.  The final act, in the broad light of day, reveals the empty chairs at the empty table, enabling outsider Mary to speak plainly and get herself heard.

This is a powerful drama, entertaining and accessible.  By the end we realise Rutherford is not a monster but a tragic figure, blinkered to love and life by his view that commerce and work are more important than other people.

Rutherford and Sons