Thursday, 31 January 2008

3 Sisters on Hope Street - Liverpool Everyman

Three Sisters on Hope Street by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman
Liverpool Everyman 25th January
– 16th February 2008
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Reviewed by Kate Gorst

Three Sisters on Hope Street was an idea conceived by writers Samuels and Oberman during their time together at university and it is brought to life, fittingly, on Hope Street in the Everyman Theatre. Appropriate, also, is the timing of this debut during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, as this retelling transports the Russian Prozorov family of Chekhov’s original into the Lasky family living on Hope Street in the wake of the Second World War.

The production holds firm with Chekhov’s ideals of realism, the set in particular is ornate, detailed and life like and far removed from the usual minimalist and symbolic sets seen at the Everyman. The performance of the actors is equally rooted in realism, with moments of comedy, moments of tragedy and an engaging ability to capture the nuances of normal, mundane life. A memorable example of this being the moment at which the action of Act 2 stops for the assembled cast to watch a spinning top given to Rita as a gift.

Stand out performances come from the three female leads Rita (Samantha Robinson), Gertie (Anna Francolini) and May (Suzan Sylvester), who demonstrate a sense of sisterly unity and an optimism, steely determination and despair, respectively. Sylvester’s performance as the sarcastic and unhappily married May is genuinely entertaining and as funny as it is tragic. Philip Voss’ performance as ‘reformed’ alcoholic Nate is also worthy of note. Voss captures the weariness of the character yet also emanates warmth and affection towards the three girls who he views as family.

Ponser’s direction is perfect and the pace of the piece as a whole is superb – the hustle and bustle of family life contrasted sharply with moments of sadness and anguish which are played out slowly and with a clear attention to detail. The opening sounds of the rhythmical metronome set the scene for a play that focuses on the passing of time and the frustration of inaction. In keeping with this, and with Chekhov’s original, Samuels and Oberman do not pull the strands of the stories together neatly and we cannot expect a happy ending for the sisters who long to return to New York from their home on Hope Street.

The whole play is long at around 3¼ hours including interval. Yet the intricacy of the performances and the seamless interweaving of different stories, May’s all consuming love for Vince, Gertie’s selflessness, Arnold’s marriage and gambling problems and Rita’s search for a better life and a sense of where she belongs, make the time drift by quickly as you become absorbed in the Lasky family story and the broader story of the Jewish struggle to find a place in the world after the atrocities of the Hitler’s war against them.

Three Sisters on Hope Street will transfer to Hampstead Theatre in London following it’s final performance in Liverpool in February.

Photos show: Top: Samantha Robinson (Rita) & Anna Francolini (Gertie) Bottom: Company

Stomp - Lowry Theatre & Tour

Lowry Theatre & Tour
Directed by Steve McNicolas

Reviewed by Liz Waters

STOMP!, it has to be said, was one of the best shows I have seen to date, although as an avid percussionist myself, some may say that I am slightly biased. The performers exuded nothing but enthusiasm – so much enthusiasm in fact, that three of the broomsticks which they were using to create their remarkable beats had to be replaced within the first five minutes of the opening set.

Whether suspended from the ceiling or sat nonchalantly around a rubbish bag, these talented artists created explosive rhythms with anything that they could get their hands (or indeed, any other body part) on. Each routine had been so vibrantly yet precisely crafted, and the director’s attention to detail was truly remarkable, allowing for smooth and exciting continuity between sets.

Using everything from matchboxes and newspapers to buckets and water filled sinks, the group created rhythmic brilliance without the use of one word. For the more melodic amongst you, they even employed the use of plastic tubing to generate a rather tuneful set.

The stage set-up made full use of every inch, and by the end of the evening not one area had been left untouched, whether that be by finger, foot, sand or kitchen utensil! Far from just performing, the group kept the audience engaged by encouraging participation once or twice – my clapping abilities have been somewhat perfected, it must be said. Combined with an incredible use of unspoken humour, the performance is most definitely one for all ages.

Perhaps not for those with the sensitive hearing, but if you are looking for a funky, dynamic and exceptionally impressive show, STOMP! comes most definitely and highly recommended. It has left me looking at every house-hold object with new ‘rhythm-making’ potential!

The 39 Steps - On Tour

The 39 Steps by John Buchanan
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
On Tour

Directed by David Newman
Reviewed by Diane Higgins

John Buchanans' classic novel 'The 39 Steps' was first delivered as a comedy thriller by Alfred Hitchcock in his classic 1935 black and white film. This production at Richmond Theatre, adapted by Patrick Barlow takes that comedy a step further, with a cast of four actors playing 139 parts in 100 minutes of fast packed action and dialogue. It follows the adventures of Richard Hannay, an innocent man who learns too much about the plans of a spy ring and is then suspected of murder and escapes to be pursued across Scotland.

The pace of this production was amazing and illustrates how enjoyable comedy can be when delivered really well. David Michaels as Richard Hannay was a very convincing thirties hero. Clare Swinburne, as firstly the shortlived Annabella Schmidt and then Pamela and Margaret was excellent. Colin Mace and Alan Perrin as the men who, between them played the remaining 135 parts were thoroughly entertaining

Every movement in this play worked to keep the pace and action moving, with the clever use of actors moving their own minimal props. This all served to heighten the comedy, from the synchronised actions of Mr Memory to the sight of the spies and the lampost yo-yoing on and off the stage as Hannay looks out of the window. This simple action had all the audience laughing. At one point in the play Hannay gatecrashes an election rally arriving onstage to find himself mistaken for the propspective candidates and being introduced to the audience by a totally inaudible Mr Quarry, played by Alan Perrin.

The inaudible speech, coupled with the slow exaggerated actions were very reminiscent of Marcel Marceau, with a bit of Chaplin aswell. Similarly, playing the scots woman I was reminded of one of Stanley Baxters great characters. Both Colin Mace and Alan Perrin gave remarkable performances with the speed yet clarity of dialogue, the change of accents and costumes. The train and station scene which involved all four charachters was outstanding. A combination of a clever use of their physical movements, a moving station sign and Hannay and Pamela waving their hats which exactly evoked the movement of the train and wind.

All four actors worked perfectly together as a cohesive ensemble, their performances were faultless, this made for a very lively, funny, and extremely enjoyable evening.

Photos show: Top - David Michaels as Hannay Bottom - David Michaels & Claire Swinbourne

Merrily We Roll Along - Watermill Theatre

Merrily We Roll Along
Watermill Theatre - 16th Jan - 8th Mar
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondhiem
Book By George Furth
Directed by John Doyle

Reviewed by Damian Sandys

Ever since Press Night, I have been at somewhat of a loss as to what exactly I wanted to say in this review. I had high expectations for the show: I was already familiar with the piece, loved the music, and this was an opportunity to see the legendary John Doyle at work, following his Tony Award-winning production of Sweeney Todd.

Yet I have my reservations about this new production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Whilst it was a perfectly enjoyable evening, there is something about this production that just did not quite work for me. When it came to analysing exactly what this “something” was, however, I disappeared into perennial circles, unable to totally settle upon the production or the piece itself.

Merrily is a strange beast of a show. Based on the play of the same title by George Kauffman and Moss Hart, the musical tells of the disintegration of the friendship between successful songwriter Franklin Shepard, his lyricist Charlie Kringras, and novelist Mary Flynn. The action takes place between 1957 and 1980; yet crucially the action is unfolded in reverse. As the play begins, tensions and feuds take centre stage, and it becomes apparent that the materialistic Frank is no longer on speaking terms with Charlie, whilst Mary is an outspoken alcoholic; in contrast, the final scene shows their first meeting upon a roof during an eclipse, full of youthful optimism, an abundance of goodwill and a shared future.

It is a daring and innovative construction to tell the story backwards; the emphasis immediately switches from what happened to why it happened, and Sondheim and Furth have provided a wealth of intelligent echoes and refrains to underline the changes of fortune and attitudes of the characters. Yet the very nature of this clever and imaginative structure brings a major problem in terms of actual performance: By beginning at the end of the story, the characters have all turned into bitter, depressed and cynical creatures; a fact that makes it difficult - not impossible, but difficult - for an audience member to care sufficiently about them.

This is a big hurdle to climb during the opening scene, especially so as this talented and versatile cast have to additionally cope with playing all the instruments and singing. Sam Kenyon’s Frank takes centre stage for most of the production, seated at a magnificent grand piano, the focus of Liz Ascroft’s stark, but beautifully evocative set. This perfectly underpins his character as a composer, yet, curiously, he is seated facing upstage, away from the audience, which only serves to alienate the audience from Frank, particularly so as Kenyon’s portrayal is lacking in the charm and charisma necessary for us to invest in the central character. Elizabeth Marsh’s Mary is the saving grace for the opening, providing humour with her biting, acerbic observations and a steely focus emerging from her elegant frame.

The rest of the cast rarely leave the stage, and are assembled in rows, only moving out of position to deliver lines and briefly partake in the action. Instead the movement is provided by the spools of magnetic tape whirring round on the back wall, and then pulled along by the cast members during scenes. Artistically, the idea is a good one, highlighting the production’s interpretation of the story as the unfolding of Frank’s memories. In practice, however, it becomes rather a stagnant visual picture; think more concert performance than a visual spectacle. The truly beautiful moments of the production come when this static approach breaks; the short scene where Frank, Beth, Mary and Charley are assembled around the piano packs more of an emotional punch than anything else as, for almost the first time, the actors are free to act and tell the story free of other constraints.

It must be understood that the cast are phenomenally talented people; Sondheim’s music is notably hard and these actors play up to four instruments onstage each, often swapping between them seamlessly. Yet this is a big demand to lay upon an actor, and restricts heavily upon the casting pool available. In casting these parts, musicality must have been one of the major concerns, resulting in some actors being a little out of their depth. Whilst none of the acting could be described as mediocre, there were times when I was left wishing for a little more of an emotional range or depth of character. Joanna Hickman is the knockout performance as Frank’s first wife, Beth. Her transformation from bitter divorcee to na├»ve, fresh faced youth is the most convincing and also most apparent. Rebecca Jackson also tackles the manipulative Gussie with much gusto and helps propel the story along with more emotional impact than before. The male characters do not fare quite as well, with a lot of humour and meaning lost between the lines.

It seems to me that both the production and the piece are made up of some intelligent, thoughtful and bold ideas on paper, yet they all meet with some difficulty when in comes to applying them through performance. As mentioned already, the set is beautifully evocative with the back wall resembling a large piece of manuscript paper, fading in sepia tones. When the characters stand directly in front of this, their costumes blend them in, allowing us to view them as the ghosts or shadows from the past. Again, a brilliant idea – but when the actors are still directly involved in the scene and contributing lines, the audibility decreases and another layer of stillness is added to an already static scene.

I certainly enjoyed the evening, and have thought about it several times since, yet it is remarkably telling that, come the time of writing this review, it is the music that lingers and not the performances.

Photos top: - Sam Kenyon & Michelle Long. Bottom:- Rebecca Jackson

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