Saturday, 29 November 2008

Riders to the Sea - ENO

Riders to the Sea by Vaughn Williams
Director: Fiona Shaw
Reviewer: Crystal Alsonsi

Whoever had the original flash of genius to merge Luonnotar and Riders to the Sea is to be warmly congratulated.

The ENO production of Luonnotar, a tone poem, by Sibelius presented a darkly atmospheric version of a Finnish creation myth. The part of the eponymous heroine was sung with such grief and raw anguish by soprano Susan Gritton that it made this a very moving performance. The striking set presented the audience with an imaginatively conceived back projection below the waves filmed in rich greens and blues that gradually zoomed in to reveal minute sea life as seeds of creation, glimpses of hair and a swimming horse as harbingers of a doom to come. Luonnotar stood in a fishing barque suspended vertically above the stage, her flowing costume tumbling to the stage 20’ feet below redolent of a winding sheet and a Christening robe. However as the piece progressed and Luonnotar disrobed, the costume disintegrated both in structure and in power to reveal a skin toned unflattering knee length shift. Having expended yards and yards of fabric on the over garment it was a shame that this skimpy garb could not have extended to Susan Gritton’s ankles making a far more graceful spectacle. Fortunately her voice more than over came such distractions and made the performance of this enigmatic piece a rare treat.

Luonnotar merged seamlessly with a bridging passage by John Woolrich into Riders to the Sea, a dark and brooding piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams. From the opening minutes when we saw Carthleen furtively washing herself, a role admirably played by Kate Valentine, echoing the birth narrative of Luonnotar we realised that Fiona Shaw’s cinematic experience would bring an exciting attention to detail.

The orchestra was ably conducted by Edward Gardner, stepping into the chasm left by the tragically early death of Richard Hickox. Patricia Bardon (Maurya) provided particularly vibrant, emotionally laden singing. Madeleine Shaw (‘A Woman’) gave a well observed, albeit brief performance. Leigh Melrose as Bartley and Claire Booth as Nora sang spirited roles.

The setting on a naturalistic rock outcrop on the Arran coast was wonderfully crafted with a rectangle of light delineating the croft and a back projection of billowing surging clouds evoking the underwater scenes of Luonnotar, the preceding work.

By the end of the performance it was quite hard to make out what was happening on the stage; bringing the lights up just a step or two would have enhanced the drama making the performers more visible whilst not detracting from the spiritual and emotional darkness evoked by the music and the words.

One thing unfortunately that just would not disappear was the miraculous self-supporting ladder that appeared early in the piece like a latter-day Indian rope trick almost central on the stage. For a family who are portrayed as so utterly impoverished the ownership of this brightly glinting piece of equipment seemed incongruous and jarring.

Riders to the Sea presents us with an account of grief and loss. The turning cycle of life is universal and painfully appropriate in the first few wrenching days following Richard Hickox’ sudden death. The emotionally wrenching journey of the conjoined works was so totally involving that I felt the brevity of the evening was a mercy. This is Fiona Shaw’s first operatic directorship; please may it not be her last.
Photos: Clive Barda

Friday, 28 November 2008

Calendar Girls - On Tour

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth
Director: Hamish McColl
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

The famous story of the heroic Women’s Institute members whose bold scheme to raise money in support of Leukaemia Research has been well documented in the media, by the sale of their product and by a block buster film based on their story. Now we have the stage play by Tim Firth, worthy of the original protagonists.

The Girls, Cora (Elaine C Smith), the “ruined” vicar’s daughter, Chris (Lynda Bellingham) the shop owner, Annie (Patricia Hodge) the widow, Jessie (Siân Phillips) the retired teacher, Celia (Gaynor Faye) the trophy wife, the mousie Ruth (Julia Hills) and Marie (Brigit Forsyth) branch chairman, range in age over four decades. Gradually they reveal their own reasons for joining the WI, all very different from the original founders who wished to support isolated farmers’ wives in rural Canada at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.

Costume is so important in establishing character and Emma Williams’ choice of kinky boots through neat tweed suits to baggy cardigans leaves no room for doubt. The story of the struggle to raise £519 to replace the hospital’s waiting room settee and its staggering success unfolds on a magnificently engineered stage. The set is of the walls of the village hall standing in front of a backdrop of the Yorkshire dales. For the outdoor scenes, the walls slide silently out of sight. The final transformation scene drew gasps of admiration. The passage of time is marked subtly and effectively with changes of lighting designed by Malcolm Rippeth and seasonal music chosen by Steve Parry.

Director Hamish McColl shows us the swift decline of John (Gary Lilburn), from rugged countryman to shadowy invalid and his eventual death, in a quiet, restrained manner. The rest of the play is a riot of fun interspersed with thoughtful one to one exchanges. Tim Firth cleverly avoids the Hollywood episode of the film with a more low key situation, still causing the same discussion and controversy. Of course the high spot of the evening is the photographic session. Here the props department comes into its own with evermore elaborate arrangements wheeled in. The “girls” assiduously guard their friends’ modesty with only the tiniest bit of cheating.
One suspects that Rod (Gerard McDermott) keeps his head down at home and in the shop. Joan Blackham plays both Brenda Hulse, the expert speaker on uninteresting topics and the elegant and well meaning Lady Cravenshire, using her height to great effect in both cases. Abby Francis and Carl Prekopp also have a chance to show their versatility, she as first the arrogant reporter on the local paper and then as a soppily solicitous make up artist, he demonstrating the difference between a sympathetic photographer and one who is just in it for the money.
The mathematically minded may be allowed a niggle that we are given only six ladies to cover twelve months but artistic licence must be allowed. Since 2000 the Calendar Girls fund has raised £2million and is not prepared to stop there.

Alex - Leicester Square Theatre

Alex by Charles Peattie & Russell Taylor
Director: Phelim McDermott
Video Design: Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer
Animation: Charles Peattie
Reviewer: John Roberts

Based on the Daily Telegraph's long running comic strip by Charles Peattie & Russell Taylor, Alex is brought to life in this fusion of Live theatre and animation. Alex is a middle aged financial banker in London's square mile and the highs and lows of being in such a profession is brought to life in this slick and sophisticated production.

Robert Bathurst's Alex is smooth, suave, and sexist but wins the audience around with his charm and panache and great comic timing. The charm of this production lies in his rapport with the audience from the go and is helped along by the split second timing with the superb on screen animations (Charles Peattie) that appear on the simple but effective set by Phil Eddolls.

Phelim McDermot is known for his quirky directing and this production has lots of ingenious touches, the blending of the live and the animated is perhaps, the best I've ever seen this technique done before. This production had the possibility of being over indulgent and a little to introverted in the issues and themes that it raised, but me being a complete finance novice found the information and the humour easy to relate too (I'm not quite sure if the fellow bankers in the audience found it as easy to laugh at though!)

This is a pacey and often hilarious and satirical romp through Alex's trails and tribulations with his wife Penny, The stuck up french graduate trainee Sebastian and Mr Hardcastle the Leeds entrepreneur, with many moments making this reviewer cringe at the thought that there are people who are like this and behave in the same manner. This is without doubt one of Robert Bathurst's finest theatrical performances and should be seen before its too late!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Slava's Snow Show - Southampton (Tour)

Slava's Snow Show
Devised and directed by Slava
Reviewer: Jim Nicholson

I was hoping to be amazed, I wasn’t, I was expecting to be entertained and I certainly was, and all around me child after child and their parents were having the “night of their life”. Perhaps I was not as “drawn in” because of my midlife years, but if you have young kids, in actual fact, if you have any kids or perhaps you are just a big kid yourself then this is the show for you.

Half an hour before curtain up and the youngsters and parents alike are snowballing each other with the hoards of, tickertape like, white paper covering the floor of the theatre as if we had just encountered a very heavy snow shower. I warned a few not to pick up any that had gone yellow but the “supposed joke” appeared wasted as dad took yet another hit.

A short first act saw our hero Slava dressed in his fabulous lemon “baby grow” survive catastrophe at sea in his sailing bed and enjoy the company of a number of fellow clowns, all dressed alike in green coats with winged hats that seemed to have a life of their very own. Clever lighting helped each and every one of them bring a roar of laughter from the crowd with just a simple change of facial expression, bow of the head or pronounced mime.

No sign of any more snow yet but as the first half closed our main man finds himself stuck in a white “stretchy goo like net” that he manages to pass out into the audience and all of sudden this mess is not covering one or two of the crowd but each and every member of the thousand or so souls sat in the stalls. The reward for our stars escape though is an encounter with a huge green flying bug.

Sounds different, I should say so, but we were back to clowning as we know it best during the interval as the company joined the crowd and managed to dampen any one within reach as their umbrellas proved anything but water shielding.

So we enter act two and lop sided tables, coat stands, huge woollen telephones and a variety of other props enable our clowns to keep the laughter level high, and this leads to a very well worked crowd cheering competition where not a word is spoken but the wiggle of the little finger means so much to so many.

Then the snow really hits us in a literally breathtaking storm in which the crowd are engulfed with tons more paper snow whilst trying to stand upright in a wind that makes a Florida hurricane look like someone blowing out their birthday candles.

Then as the crowd start to get their breath back the show ends with them being bombarded with “beach balls” the size of garden sheds. Half an hour later they are still entertaining themselves as the balls are continually batted in the air, bounced off the walls, passed up to the circle with so many of them in play no one can relax for a single second.

The sheer joy on the faces of the youngsters was an absolute credit to the performers who included Charles Jeff Johnson, Tatiana Karamysheve, Robert Scalp, Bradford West, Georgiy Deliyev, Fransesco Bifano, Artem Zhimolokhov, Oleg Lugovsky and Yuri Musatov.

The show is obviously a work of love from its creator Slava Polunin and it is pretty clear why on it’s only ever visit to the West End it claimed that years (1988) Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment.

I said at the start I was not amazed by the show and put that down to my gathering years, but as my wife said on the way out of the theatre when talking about our 11 year old niece “If this ever went to the Chichester Festival Theatre”, the kids hometown, “Emily would absolutely love it”. True enough, although I do not think it likely young Emily will get the chance to see such mess, goo, flooding, wind turbulence and sheer theatre mayhem, that makes this show such a success, at her local venue. That said I certainly don’t envy the Mayflower cleaners when they turn up for work tomorrow.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Joseph - Manchester (on tour)

Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

After seeing a few other performances of Joseph both Professional and Amateur and enjoying each and every one, I was really looking forward to this show. The show opened with the narrator and two children walking across the stage while the narrator introduced the story of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, the back drop was like the inside of a pyramid with hieroglyphics on it and scenes from Egypt. The scenery (designed by Sean Cavanagh) was ‘typical’ Joseph with the Stairs going up either side of the stage and pillars and palm trees at the edge of the stairs.

Craig Chalmers one of the finalists from last years BBC hit series Any Dream Will Do, gave a very impressive performance even being very amusing in parts, though I do feel he was lacking slightly in his vocal range, as was Tara Bethan (Narrator) especially in the first half when you could hardly hear her due to the softness of her voice.

The dancing abilities of the Brothers and Handmaidens were fantastic and along with their singing, they carried the show during the first half when the others voices were too quiet. The singing and dancing of Robert Gwyn as Benjamin was of a very high standard as was the abilities of Adebayo Bolaji as Issachar and Maria Coyne as a handmaiden.

Realistically there is not a lot you can do with the performance of Joseph to make it any different from previously seen productions, although director Bill Kenwright manages to do it, showing why he is such a renowned director worldwide.

The children of the Joseph Choir from the Stagecoach Theatre school in Chester were seated along the stairs throughout the performance and started the second half by singing a few chorus’s from some of the songs performed in the first half, this did leave me feeling rather embarrassed for them as they did not seem to be enjoying the experience at all and one can only hope that as the show progresses they will start to enjoy it more.

I did feel that in some places the humour was very over done, making it a bit farcical in places. Over all the show was enjoyable and the audience were clearly enjoying themselves singing along, especially at the end when they did the reprise and Joseph Megamix.

Funeral Games - Nuffield Theatre (on tour)

Funeral Games by Unpacked Theatre
Director: Clare Dunn
Reviewer: Nick Hutchinson

I didn't know what to expect as I had never heard of Unpacked Theatre before but I was not dissapointed, this was a fascinating, funny and lively show. Performed in the Nuffield's small studio bar, as an audience member having the cast perform so close really added to the atmosphere of the production.

Funeral Games tells the story of two brothers, who meet up for the first time in twelve years, there father is a funeral director; Henry stayed at home and helped run the family firm, whilst Keith had been away, returning only on the news that their father is close to his death bed. They talk of the past and remember childhood joys and nightmares (mostly the latter) and it is clear that Keith will soon upset Henry’s steady but uneventful life. The true condition of their father is uncertain and although they are differences between them there is the common thread of an overbearing father who rejected one and controlled the other.

The play is truly physical and ‘in your face’. From the start there is interaction with the audience which made some people uncomfortable. It had the hint of pantomime but too much dark humour to fall into that genre in any significant way. The lighting and set were very basic, using tortured and gravely music to highlight the decay of the situation. Two filing cabinets were cleverly used as the main props/Set, acting as beds, cupboards, coffins, grave stones, hillsides, horse drawn hearse and more.

Performed by only two actors (Darren East & Gilbert Taylor) they both seemed to attack the whole performance with a real energy and gusto. They weren’t shy about encountering the audience and the whole event left me feeling that I was part of the action. How on earth 'Keith' managed to contort himself into the bottom draw of the filing cabinet I do not know.

My only critiscism is perhaps a slight mix of other theatrical genres wouldn't have gone amiss, this is a well scripted and performed piece of theatre, I even felt tired watching them, this was a very enjoyable performance and I would definatly try and see Unpacked Theatre again in the future.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Aladdin - Coliseum Theatre, Oldham

Aladdin by Eric Potts
Director: Kevin Shaw
Choreographer: Beverley Edmunds
Reviewer: The Patrick Family

Helen Patrick
This has to be one of the best traditional pantomimes I have taken my family to see, with no 'Star' names to carry the production, credit must be given to the production team in creating a show that is slick, pacey and full of the laughs and the boos that you want with a festive offering.

With bright and cheerful sets and costumes by Celia Perkins you are sure that this is one of the best looking shows in the north west. Special mention must be given to the detail of Widow Twanky's costumes including the High School Musical Cheerleaders kit and the Christmas Tree Wedding dress being particular favourites. and its not just the costumes that have had a high level of detail. The sets were simple and effective and we were never in any doubt about where we were meant to be.

Kevin Shaw has directed himself a winner, and his cast are simply superb making sure that they work as a true ensemble and not one person stealing the limelight for themselves or from the show itself. Saying that this reviewer most definitely had a few favourites but special mention must be given to the outstanding Barrie Ryan English who playing both PC Pong and the Genie was extremely versatile from being stupendously silly as the PC and having the audience including myself in tears of laughter, to the stern and very powerful Genie of the Lamp.

As you would expect from any Pantomime the big props were excellent from the scooter to the carriage pulling trike, and even when things did go wrong this first rate cast were on hand with fast and quick witted ad-libs that always kept a smile on your face.
I would highly recommend this production to all my friends and family, even with having to do a 100 mile round trip, this production has kept this family entertained for days.

Phoebe - age 7
I enjoyed all the singing and dancing, and loved Jasmines costume. I liked the part where Jasmine had to wear a paper bag on her head because nobody was allowed to see how pretty she was. Widow Twanky made me laugh loads in her Cheerleaders costume. My favourite scene was the Laundry with PC Pong, Wishee Washee, and Widow Twanky because they put PC Pong through the Mangle and into the Washing Machine.
Lauren - age 15
As a dancer I loved the song and dance routines, rocking the audience to songs from Mama Mia, Camp Rock and High School the Musical, The dancers were definitely giving 110% I loved the laundry scene and had me laughing for ages, and really liked the extra touches and special effects used in the scene. This was one great show.
Photos: Ian Tilton

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Imagine This - New London Theatre

Imagine This
Book: Glenn Berenbiem
Music: Shuki Levy
Lyrics: David Goldsmith
Director: Timothy Sheader
Choreogpraher: Liam Steel
Reviewer: Anthony Timmons
“Imagine This” is based on a fascinating idea: – the parallels between the Warsaw Ghetto and the siege of Masada some nineteen hundred years earlier. This is attempted by the stratagem of a play within a play. It is a good attempt at conveying an interesting idea but there is some stretching- notably the Romans come out of it fairly poorly. Generally it works dramatically, but I did feel that the “play within the play” was a little too complex for the coherence of the overall piece. The complexity led to the first half being a bit over long and under plotted but the second half was much tauter.

A musical on this kind of theme can be a challenge – there is a danger of undermining the seriousness of the issues or perhaps making them sentimental. Largely the piece avoids this although I did feel making the closing number a reprise of the opening scene didn’t really end in the inspiring way I’d of liked and overall it did quite rise to its subject.

The train shed set was splendid and highly atmospheric and the production was well designed throughout.

The opening scene of each half was a brilliant set piece very well choreographed and there were further scenes throughout. However particularly during the first half there seemed to be an awful lot of young men dancing with sticks which did get a bit samey. Also samey was the music – there were some good numbers notably the opening but again, particularly during the first half there were long passages which didn’t really do it for me and not enough contrast. All in all music and lyrics were very much of their genre and I just felt this clever idea called about for a bit more.

The company acted and sang their hearts out. I felt they were fantastic despite my reservations over some aspects of the piece. It was hard to single anyone out of the wonderful ensembles although Peter Polycarpou as the central father figure in both the reality and the play within the play engaged you and drew you right into the action. I was really impressed with Leon played by young actor Nathan Attard: he threw himself into his role with the same unflagging enthusiasm and professionalism of the rest of the cast – a nice touch.

Tis a Pity She's a Whore - Leeds Carriage Works

Tis A Pity She's A Whore by John Ford
Director: Mark France
Reviewer: Alison Noble

The Mooted Theatre Co. was founded only a year ago, and this production of ‘‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ is only their second theatrical venture. The play, written by John Ford in the early 17th century, became one of the most controversial in English literature, due to it’s theme - incest, and Ford’s failure to condemn the behaviour of his protagonists.

The programme promised us a “violent, frequently nasty” and “extremely powerful” piece of theatre. The delivered product was more of a damp squib.

Set in Parma, the play centres upon Giovanni (Andy Curry) and Annabella’s (Gemma Sharp) incestuous relationship, which eventually embroils most of the cast, and results in 5 of the 7 deaths in the play. Murder, deceit and revenge feature heavily. But Mooted’s portrayal somehow failed to convince. I just wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable enough - the brother and sister’s relationship wasn’t given enough context or time to develop in order to believe that they really were related and not just young lovers. Perhaps that’s the point, but I think Ford originally intended us to feel uncomfortable with feeling uncomfortable - that by the end of the play we have gained sympathy for the couple, and this challenges our preconceptions. This production just wasn’t that sophisticated.

Other relationships also proved problematic for the audience. Giovanni’s contact with the Friar, his confessor at regular intervals throughout the play, seemed far too “matey” to be true. At times it felt like the actors didn’t really understand the Jacobean text they were reciting, which accounts for some strange interactions and responses. Bergetto, Annabella’s idiotic suitor, and Poggia’s relationship was puzzling and never fully explained. Howard Spencer-Mosley’s performance as Bergetto fell on the wrong side of excruciating. According to the programme, he’s spent time touring as a stand-up comedian. His determined attempt to bring some comedic reprieve to the play resulted in much head-shaking and hang-wringing from my theatre-accompanying-housemate and I.

Being performed on Leeds’ Carriageworks teeny-tiny stage, the play was less “intimate” and “intense” and more “no way of escape”. With only 2 rows and 50 seats (we counted), the performance was on the same level as the audience, which unfortunately lent more of a sixth-form play kind of feel. With there being very little space to perform, there was much ping-ponging across the stage, and a fair amount of crawling around on the floor, which I found confusing and distracting. Props were minimal, and costumes in period, which seemed to make the cast feel ill-at-ease and unsure how to hold themselves.

All was not lost. Victoria Morris’ performance as Putana and Christopher Ratcliff as Soranzo managed to give some dignity and professionalism to an otherwise amateurish show.

From it’s conception until the late twentieth century, critics have usually been harsh in their condemnation of Ford’s play, taking offense at the subject. This critic simply took offense at bad acting. Needless to say, I won’t be recommending this one to my friends

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Security - Battersea Arts Centre

Security by Zena Edwards
Director: Anthony Shrubsall
Movement: Katie Pearson

Reviewer: Honor Bayes

Security is the moving and powerfully story of five disparate people who are drawn together through circumstance and find they have more in common than they may think. Although never fully going into the ideas thrown up by its strong title, it is a piece which explores what it is to live in a world where ‘security’ is such a watch word but where so little of it seems to exist. Zena Edwards tells us this story through a beautiful mix of song, movement and rhythmical language in a performance which, at times, is truly hypnotic.
The backbone of the story is the delicate relationship of Mahmoud, a 50 year old Palestinian man and Ayleen a young black girl, bustling with attitude but desperately trying to cope with her self obsessed mother and the loss of her brother. Surrounding them is the vast and colourful London world of Peckham, populated noisily by youths and techno pumping neighbours; and by Algernon, an 80 year old Caribbean man, who meets Elijah, Ayleen’s twin brother, at a bus stop, and unexpectedly changes his life.
With the flick of a hand, turn of the head or squint of an eye, Zena Edwards succeeds in bringing each individual inextricably to life in a performance which leaves you feeling both drained and elated through the sheer force of it. Whether she is the strong female narrator who sings or speaks with the voice of a titan, or Ayleen who ‘snaps crackles and pops’ her way through her own vulnerability, Edwards shows an incredible talent at flicking the switch and losing herself in these people she so proudly represents. She is a performer who tests the limits of her own ability and shines most in the hardest parts – the sadness in Mahmoud’s eyes which have seen the tragedy of war, or Elijah’s cocky hope which only comes with the promise of youth, are so perceptively performed that at points one imagines you are watching a piece with five actors not one.

And yet it is in this basic art of storytelling – of one person imparting a tale to another - that Edwards succeeds most. This is not a piece which could have been presented shabbily and nothing in this production is so. The attention to every physical detail, which bears the unmistakable mark of a dancer, is prevalent here and Katie Pearson’s work on movement is as obvious for it’s simplicity as it is for its impressiveness. Never losing itself in introspection, the eye of a director is likewise important within this piece and Anthony Shrubsall’s presence is a canny move on Edwards’ part. Neither Pearson nor Shrubsall allow her to fall into the often self indulgent autonomy which can plague a lot of one man shows. A truly collaborative effort that rests firmly on the shoulders of one, this is what one imagines the perfect ‘solo’ piece should be.

Theatre is often called a vagabond art form, taking as it does from so many others. Indeed it could be said that when each form is as perfectly mixed together as in this show, then it seems to be truly the best of them. Edwards, using only a table and chair and dressed all in black, succeeds without artifice in throwing open the world of inner London through a vivid combination of rap, song, elegantly constructed language and painstakingly fluid movement which pulls you into the veins of this vibrant city’s heart. Without fear of hyperbole it is fair to say that her performance and writing skill is truly awe-inspiring at times, focusing the audience on the wonder of life’s little details, whilst allowing space to imagine the vast world we exist in and have to live in. She is a performer who expects as much involvement from her audience as she has given to this work herself and although Security will leave you feeling exhausted, you will feel exhilarated too; a rare experience and one which only arises when one sees something truly wonderful and one has invested fully in it.

Photos: Irwen Lewis

A Taste of Honey - Royal Exchange Manchester

A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney
Director: Jo Combes
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Fifty years after ' A Taste of Honey' first shocked middle class theatre goers, Shelagh Delaney's ground breaking 1958 'Kitchen Sink' drama has been revived at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. The play still feels as strikingly honest and original as it must have done when it first premiered with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.

'A Taste Of Honey' tells the story of Jo, a 17 year old working class 'Salford' girl and her relationship with Helen, her crude and sexually indiscriminate mother. Helen abandons Jo after falling for a rich younger man named Peter leaving Jo to fall into the hungry arms of Jimmy, a black sailor, on short leave in post-war Salford. Following a proposal and consummation, the relationship is over before it has really begun, leaving Jo alone and pregnant, living with her camp acquaintance Geof in her mother's flat. Geof assumes the role of father-to-be until Helen's return. Even after 50 years, the extraordinary quality of the dialogue and characterisation is captivating.

Jo Combes' production of this influential piece of writing is a resounding success. Her slick and well-paced direction has kept this piece alive and kicking. The wonderfully choreographed movement sequences are a delight - giving the piece a beautiful dream-like quality which washes over you without ever becoming indulgent. Additionally Combes has paid homage to the master Littlewood by updating the vaudeville style jazz trio with a live DJ soundtrack (playing iconic songs from the past 50 years through Morrissey to the Ting Tings). At no point are these additions ever detrimental to the integrity of the piece. The production does not focus only on the grittiness and misery of these people's lives - Combe's masterful manipulation of the theatrical within the dialogue (songs/sequences/asides to the audience) and her wonderful cast strike a perfect balance between the comedy and tragedy apparent in the writing.
The five-strong cast convince of mankind's capacity to smile and quip in the face of despair with Sally Lindsay delivering an effortlessly natural performance as Helen. The loving yet neglectful relationship between her and daughter Jo is sincere and moving. The heartbreaking repetition of Helen's reassurance to Jo in the final scene, as she frantically attempts to convince both herself and her daughter that she can be a good mother, is played with exceptional poise and subtlety. Sally Lindsey's razor sharp comic timing and fantastic ability to throw away quips to cast and audience alike ('suppose you have to draw yourself. Nobody else would'), make the most of the character's comic potential. Paul Popplewell is convincing as the abhorrent Peter and Marcelle McCalla's beautiful singing voice adds a moving tenderness to the gentle yet sexually charged scenes between Jo and Jimmie. Jodie McNee as Jo grows in confidence and stature as her character develops from child to mother.

The performance of the evening must be Adam Gillen who is mesmerising as a hugely theatrical yet ultimately convincing Geof. His quirky physicality and impeccable comic timing not only works perfectly, but makes his unconditional asexual love of Jo all the more tragic. These moving scenes between the two lost souls starved of love are judged to perfection, with Geof's line; 'You need someone to love you whilst you're waiting for somebody to love' evoking involuntary sighs from the audience.

Jo Combes, her cast and crew should be applauded on this fantastic performance of a truly remarkable play. It is intelligent, thoughtful and a vivid reminder of why 'A Taste Of Honey' still remains prominent and relevant today. If there is one show you see before the financial grip of Christmas takes over, make sure it's this one.

Photos: Jonathan Keenan

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Edward Scissorhands - Lowry Theatre & Tour

Edward Scissorhands based on the film by Tim Burton
Director/Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Music: Danny Elfman & Terry Davies
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

Matthew Bourne and his company New Adventures, have once again proved they are the best in dance theatre and with Edward Scissorhands this is no exception. This production at the Lowry received a rapturous cheer before even starting but had the audience eating out of its hands within seconds.

Edward Scissorhands is a Gothic story about a boy that is created by and left to cope in the world when his lonely inventor father dies, with only scissors for hands Edwards walk into society isn’t an easy one, with ‘picket fence’ Americans having to look past the appearance and find the real person deep within.

The story flows easily and even though the show is over two hours long you don’t even notice where the time went and this is down to the magic in Matthew Bourne’s slick and sensational choreography and direction, and helped along with one of the best looking sets by Lez Brotherston that I have seen in recent times, his costumes also deserve high praise. The score by Hollywood composer Danny Elfman and Terry Davies is outstanding and really evokes the Gothic atmosphere needed for this production to work. Howard Harrison’s lighting design should also be of note, providing rich Gothic tones and shades to make this one of the best lit productions.

Matthew Bourne has the ability to find a company that really do work as an ensemble and this production is no different, every member of the cast giving 110% throughout the whole show enabling us as an audience to be witness to one of the most original, inspiring and exciting pieces of Dance Theatre.

I’m not a reviewer that usually partakes in standing ovations as often they are contrived by the production or by screaming fanatics but this reviewer was so blown away, that I and the rest of the audience gave it the standing ovation that it rightly deserved. Whether you have an interest in dance, or not. This production is not to be missed and really is one of the theatrical events of the year.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Witches of Eastwick - Southampton & Tour

The Witches of Eastwick
Book & Lyrics: John Dempsey
Music: Dana P. Rowe
Director: Nikolai Foster
Choreography: Geoffrey Garratt
Reviewer: John Roberts

The Witches of Eastwick when first produced by Cameron Mackintosh in London in 2000 held its own amongst the heavyweight musical theatre productions of the time, so I was eagerly anticipating this new touring production by arguably one of musical theatres hottest directors Nikolai Foster.

The musical is set in the fictitious New England town of Eastwick and the relationships of the townsfolk. When the Devilishly delicious Darryl Van Horne comes to rage his sexual sensuality into this sleepy town and pits his emotional charge into three 'ordinary' ladies: Alexandra Spoffard, Sukie Rougemont and Jane Smart.

This new production has made some changes from the original London production including new orchestrations and the adding of new songs (Darryl Van Horne) and the removal of others (Eye of the Beholder & I love a Little Town) and it is unfortunate that for this reviewer these changes just did not work. The beauty of the original orchestrations were the ever present strings and yes at times they did appear in these new orchestrations but not to any great effect, but it is the removal of Eye of the Beholder (one of the most beautiful ballads in musical theatre) & I Love a Little Town (a much more catchy and fun introduction to Darryl than the new song) that left me slightly puzzled.

Putting these more personal opinions aside; this is a very good looking production, Peter Mackintosh's Set is very simple but stunningly effective and his bright rainbow costumes each stand out strong against each other. Fosters direction has taken a more simplistic approach than his previous productions and this is the major strength of this production, it allows the narrative to flow smoothly and with pace and makes the songs a real focus, this is especially true with the final production number 'Look at Me' which without a doubt was captivating.

Carrying the weight of top billing is Wet, Wet, Wet lead singer Marti Pellow and he makes a likable Darryl Von Horne with exuberant energy and sizzling sexuality but why a professional singer needs to have his microphone gain so high and even still appear inaudible is beyond me!

The highlight of this production is without doubt the performances given by Ria Jones (Alexandra), Rebecca Thornhill (Sukie) & Poppy Tierny (Jane) as the three 'witches', with excellent comic timing from all three and with voices that harmonise beautifully, its just a shame that these performances were spoilt by very sloppy follow spot operating, that meant at times left the performers in the dark.

This is a show that has so much going for it, but it is let down by silly mistakes which are easily fixed, at this mid point of the tour I think it may be worth Mr Foster coming to take a look at how his production is faring and try and tighten the belt a little, in what could and I am sure is and has been a fantastic production.

Photos: Robert Workman

Footloose - Manchester & Tour

Footloose by Dean Pitchford
Director/Choreographer: Karen Bruce
Reviewer: Lisa Whiteside

Footloose the Musical proved to be a thoroughly show stopping performance this Monday 17th November. Footloose is based upon the story of city boy Ren, who moves to the rural backwaters of America where dancing is banned. For this musical however, the dancing is definitely not banned and this is evident by the many magnificent dance sequences performed.

Certain ensemble dance scenes which stood out in my mind, range from the very camp routine of ‘I need a hero’, a particularly physical dance workout in the gym to of course the classic Footloose medley which left everyone on their feet clapping along with a smile on their face.

The set ranged from scenes at the bridge, internal house scenes and my particular favourite the local burger bar. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised with the set overall, and their very effective use of props be that the use of the gym balls within a dance piece or the oversized tyres which were used to leap, jump, or indeed throw.

The large cast comprised of six main characters who were then supported by other smaller characters and a large ensemble of dancers, singers and all round entertainers. It cannot be disputed this was definitely a strong cast, particularly in terms of their ability as dancers and singers. My main concern or should I say niggle was with certain accents presented by some of the cast, particularly the main character of Ren McCormack who seemed to travel through every state of America during the performance. This would be my main gripe really; although on hindsight another element of distraction was definitely certain lighting states which seemed to leave main characters in the midst of a scene in the shadows, whether or not this was a technical or indeed a performer issue I do not know.

Despite the dodgy accent of the main character Ren, it cannot be denied that both he and his leading lady Ariel did a fantastic job in leading the plot with their spectacular songs and many routines that were delivered with confidence and panache. These two characters were further supported by the very comical duo of Rusty and Willard, who definitely proved to be the light entertainment of the show. Despite the very geeky, silly characters that they were portraying it was evident that they were both incredibly strong all round performers who worked well to provide lots of chuckles from the audience.

The musical score was very entertaining and consisted of an amalgamation of well known and also alternative songs all of which were guaranteed to get your toes tapping and hands clapping throughout, particularly by the end of the performance with their show-stopping medley.

Overall this first night show presented itself as a very entertaining performance that would be suitable for a varied audience leaving you humming many of the tunes for days to come. A very enjoyable night out overall!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Muhammad Ali & Me - Oval House Theatre

Muhammad Ali & Me by Mojisola Adebayo
Director: Sheron Wray
Reviewer: Elizabeth Vile

‘Muhammad Ali & Me’ is a high energy, thought provoking production, that depicts an imaginary relationship between a child growing up in care during the 1970’s and Muhammad Ali. When Mojitola’s father leaves the country he is unable to take her with him and places her in a foster home. Mojitola’s way of coping in this unknown situation and with the sexual abuse she experiences there is to retreat into her imagination. There she has conversations with Muhammad Ali and through the stories he tells her about his own experiences she learns to cope with her own situation and fights for her own place in society.

This use of dual story telling forces the audience to concentrate on the action in front of them as there is a huge amount of information being given to them. Not only do the cast explain about Muhammad and Mojitola’s life stories they also interweave a strong sense of time and place into it. The themes of racism, war, naming, love, determination and pacifism are explored through the eyes of a child and of an adult. This is all pulled together by a set, costumes and music that are influenced by the 1970s.

Although there was a lot of content within the piece it was not forced onto you as an audience member. The issues were dealt with in a sensitive, humorous way that meant the audience did not get bogged down with the seriousness of the themes. Instead they were allowed to enjoy the energy and quirkiness of the characters portrayed as well as being given information that they were able to go away with and think about afterwards.

Through the use of movement, projections, sign language and verbatim pieces the three actors played a variety of fictional and non fictional characters with ease. The audience had very little trouble understanding what characters were being portrayed at which time due to all three actors’ strong characterisations for each part. This was made even more impressive due to the consistent gender and colour swapping each actor went through. On occasions the odd costume was used to help demonstrate the different characters but this was kept to a minimum.
Integrating the sign language was an original idea and one that I had not seen before. I wondered if it might detract from the performance, but it did completely the opposite. The Referee (Jacqui Beckford) signed the whole performance from on stage in character. Her movements while she was signing looked almost like dancing and every so often the other cast members joined in and signed simultaneously adding to the dance like effect. The deaf members of the audience really seemed to appreciate this integration and it added another level to the piece.
I would highly recommend this production to teenagers and adults. It’s a slick, well researched, imaginative piece that gives an insight into the lives of two very different people whose experiences are more similar than you would think.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Locked In - Birmingham Rep

Locked in by Finn Kennedy
Director: Angela Michaels
Reviewer: Katherine Lunney

Locked In was a passionate whirlwind display of modern teenage culture in east London. The play focuses upon Blaze & Riqi – the Two Wise Men – who bunk off school to spin the decks and rap about their lives on a, presumably pirate, radio show. A joint love of music brings ‘da Christian brother’ and a member of ‘the Muslim Massive’ together in harmony despite any of the racial tensions at their school or amongst their crews. Then the sassy, strong Zahida enters the scene and challenges them both on their views and what they are going to do with their lives.

The outside forces of peer pressure cause the tolerant easy-going friendship of Blaze and Riqi to become a battle of beliefs and cultures, not just a battle of the MC’s. Kim Hardy, who plays Riqi, performed a spellbinding monologue over a bangra beat about discovering the comforts of the mosque after an argument with Blaze, providing the audience with a modern argument for the appeal of religion as a worldwide ‘crew’. Ambur Zhan, who plays Zahida, gives a convincing performance of the atheist view on the world. Whilst Ashley J created a boisterous display of masculine pride and bravado in his characterisation of Blaze which only allowed for moments of humanity to creep through his outer shell when alone.

Instead of conversation we are given a progression of raps and banter between the characters, which often seemed to be a modern version of storytelling – gripping the audience with their ‘spits’. The entire production is aurally and visually stunning; I was captivated by the physical performances of Blaze and Riqi particularly during the body-popping dance sections where they performed everyday actions in a robotic style. Their physical control was evident throughout and the choreography was impeccable.

Within this one hour production Fin Kennedy has managed to create complex, ‘real’ identities for the three
characters and you cannot help but care about their life choices. The stereotypes are there but only because the stereotypes are available in real life, East End teenagers also have the choice to fall into the stereotype and become part of the gun or knife culture. Interestingly, the weapons used on stage are made of clear Perspex to indicate that they have a neutral status – a knife doesn’t perform an action, it is the hand that holds it that stabs someone. The message of the play is the importance of choice and personal action: no one religion is given the upper hand in the play’s representation nor are the actions of the teenagers damned. But rather all of these are left to the audience as blank as the Perspex, in order for us to choose our own interpretation of right and wrong. Push your boundaries: go and see a hip-hop drama as good as this and you just might surprise yourself.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Horrid Henry - Liverpool Playhouse (Tour & West End)

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon
Adaptor: John Godber
Director: Hannah Chissick
Reviewer: Reece O'Toole & Katie Hill (age 10) & Auntie Steph (?)

Reece & Katie
When we got there and collected our tickets we were given a programme each which was filled with lots of fun things to do and jokes, it also had things in of interest like who was playing who in the play.

We had great seats and could see everything that was going on, on the stage. It was a little bit late starting but that was ok because we sat reading our programmes and telling each other the jokes.

When the show started Horrid Henry came on and was being told off by his mum and dad and sent to his room. He was in his room when he started to imagine what things would be like if he were king or had his own show, (We thought that was very funny because this was his show.) Whenever he thought about people he knew they would appear in the walls of the stage in an opening like a window or a door, before the first one appeared we thought it was a tiled wall like in a bathroom, but it wasn’t. Katie and me really liked the people who played Horrid Henry because they were very funny and we could not stop laughing all the way through it.

Auntie Steph
Horrid Henry is definitely a child orientated show, it has the child transfixed from beginning to end and the way they used the wall as the windows to his mind was ingenious, with every character Henry thought of while telling his stories appearing right on cue to take his or her part in the show.

Horrid Henry was played by Steven Butler and Stephen McGill as his Henry in his mind, they were both exceptional in their roles, it cannot be easy to take on a role as famous as Horrid Henry in front of a theatre full of his fans especially those fans being children who know every move and saying that Henry is well known for, but they achieve this and keep the children well entertained along with the other cast members, who were playing mulitple roles each managed to pull of their characters fabulously.

Credit should be given to the John Godber who adapted the Horrid Henry stories for this show, while still managing to keep Henry’s cheeky sense of humour which could so easily have been lost.

Director Hannah Chissick has a winner on her hands with this show as it is sure to attract children from all over the country, many who perhaps have never stepped foot into a theatre before and ensure that they all leave having had a wonderful and fascinating night. The costumes, the set and the lighting all made sure Horrid Henry and his friends is a must see for all children aged 5 to 100.

Photo: Robert Day

Spyski - West Yorkshire Playhouse (on tour)

Spyski by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Director: David Farr
Reviewer: Sara Jackson

I arrived to confusion in the auditorium at the West Yorkshire playhouse. Partly because most of the audience was made up of young students who clearly had no volume control but mostly because we had all come to see a production called Spyski and were presented with a program which said The Importance of Being Earnest (Most definitely not Spyski) on the front and all the cast were listed as playing characters from Oscar Wildes classic.
The piece starts unexpectedly before the lights go out when a spy enters through the auditorium. It took the young audience an annoyingly long time to settle down and realize what was happening.

The lights go down and the curtains open and The Importance of Being Earnest begins. However when the spy leaves the cast breaks out of character to explain there true mission, to tell the truth about a government cover up using their talents as actors. They have had 3 day’s to piece together the performance, which leaves plenty of room for wobbly thrown together sets, bad accents (particularly the Chinese one, although they did explain that there was no time to get an accent coach) and cheap props.

Davis Farr’s direction has to be given high praise; it takes a great deal of planning to make a piece look thrown together. It is very slick and well thought out and the cast all give great performances as inept actors who are swept into a world of government cover-ups.

The set was very simple and effectively used. There were no real scene changes as everything was moved as a part of the performance. The performance is energetic and fast-paced and the cast worked hard to convince the audience that the story was true. If there was a problem it was a technical one with the sound. The music for song at the end was so loud you could barely hear the singing.

All in all though a very clever and funny farce and an enjoyable night out. It won’t change your life, but it will make you laugh.

Boris Godunov - ENO

Boris Godunov by Musorgsky
Translation: David Lloyd-Jones
Director: Tim Albery
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Reviewer: Jeffrey Mayhew
That ENO’s Boris Godunov was very good without, except at moments, being brilliant, is probably more to do with the choice of score – the original 1869 version – and the relatively minimalist setting rather than any inadequacies in the cast, music or direction.
It is probably inevitable that both Rimsky-Korsakov’s rescoring and classic Russian visual images in the style of Ivan Bilibin inextricably colour our perception of this opera. To me the interpretation was very much of Pushkin's text as much as Mussorgsky’s opera - digging deep into the parallels between the late sixteenth century reign of Boris and Pushkin’s own, early nineteenth century experiences. Pushkin had clashed with the government and wrote Boris in the inevitably ensuing exile. The opera, in turn, proved controversial. In this current interpretation there are clear references to immediately pre-revolutionary Russia - caped officers in white, Volga boatmen style peasants, echoes of the Winter Palace steps via Eisenstein, photos of the last Tsar and his family. So it was rather intellectual and "careful" – nothing wrong with that in itself but maybe not what you think it says (or should say) on the tin.

The concept served the opening moments wonderfully - a huge, timber, barn-like box set with half lit, grey clad peasants harangued by the clergy and hounded by the military was real Lower Depths stuff. Later when, with rather overtly economical touches (like the lowering of a single lamp, or tipping in a little gold chair), it had to serve as a courtyard, a monastic cell, an inn or a palace it did seem to feel a bit stretched. Tobias Hoheisel’s design was fine as far as it went – and it was stunningly lit by Adam Silverman – but there were times, especially when trying to follow changes of time and place, when that didn’t seem quite far enough. The costumes, by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, were beautifully faithful to the concept and looked wonderful en masse. Again, though, knowledge of the show (or a good read of the programme before curtain up) is good idea – there is a lot of black and grey!
Given all that Tim Albery gave us a fine production with little recourse to levels but yet still delivering some stunning crowd scenes – and that crowd can certainly sing! Singing is where we are at though. Whilst Peter Rose (Boris) could be seen to be perhaps over restrained at times he nevertheless gives the performance appropriate to the conception and with some stunning vocal moments and real presence. All the rest of the cast are excellent, too, with some fine acting as well as singing from John Graham-Hall as Shuisky and Robert Murray as the Holy Fool. This is a very male piece but Yvonne Howard needs especial mention as the innkeeper and Sophie Bevan as Xenia. For me (but this is inevitably subjective) the evenings honours went to Bridley Sherratt as Pimen with a voice and presence worthy of Chaliapin himself.

Edward Gardner made the most of this very different scoring achieving some sublime moments during Boris’s descent into madness. This is a very good production of what it is, as it were. Where it might seem to fall short for some is when what is isn’t becomes a problem.
Photos: Clive Barder

Carousel - Manchester (Tour, prior to West End)

Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Director: Lindsay Posner
Musical Director: David Firman
Choreographer: Adam Cooper
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

Carousel is one of the all time classics written by the fabulous Rodgers and Hammerstein and performed at many theatres since it was written in 1945 it was made into a film in 1956 and has become one of the best loved musicals ever. Having seen Carousel a few times on stage and of course the film I was looking forward to this production at the Opera House with the opera singer Lesley Garrett, unfortunately she was indisposed and her role of Nettie Fowler was taken by understudy Kathryn Akin.

The set by William Dudley shows a blue brick factory wall with a window looking on all the machinery, and as the girls leave their place of work for the evening it becomes a fairground with dancing girls and jugglers men on stilts and lastly giggling girls hanging around the Carousel hoping that the Handsome guy who works on it will show them some attention tonight. They all queue paying for their tickets and suddenly there it is on stage a Carousel achieved by the help of film onto a curtain, a very good use of technology. The stage setting changes a few times through the performance but it is the Carousel scene that made the most impact, with the dancers twirling and rising and falling like horses.

The story of the love affair between Billy Bigelow, a smooth-talking carousel barker, and Julie Jordan, a naive young mill worker, takes us through the many emotions we feel when we first fall in love to the reality that nothing is ever a bed of roses. The choreographer Adam Cooper has taken the classic dances we know and love in this musical and spiced them up but not too much to detract from the original along with the wardrobe master who has also stuck to the timeless costumes.

When reading the cast list for this musical I settled into my seat awaiting a fantastic performance as the last show I saw with a Teatro member in really took me to the wonderland that was and is theatre, so with Jeremiah James in the lead as Billy Bigelow I was waiting to be transported again into this wonderful place. Jeremiah sang his heart out throughout the show but sadly his acting was very unemotional and left me feeling empty and unable to connect with his character.

Alexandra Silber who played the role of Julie Jordon our naive young mill worker, works hard to make her part realistic and really puts her heart and soul into her performance, which is sadly let down by her leading man. Lindsey Wise played a brilliant role as Louise, Billy and Julie’s daughter. She had a feel for the role that was refreshing to watch and thou she has a few shows under her belt, I feel this is just the start for this fabulous young actress, and we will see a lot more of her in years to come.

The whole ensemble gave a good performance on the whole, again it could have had a lot more energy pumped into it making it worthy of being a west end show and ensuring its success in the west end, but at the moment it does need that extra energy. Director Lindsay Posner has done well to put together such a well loved musical and it could go on to better things, She just has to now take the cast and get them into shape prior to west end, it was just the occasional one or two who let the side down, but sadly this reflects on the rest of the show.

Overall an enjoyable musical bringing all the old favourites to life and making you want to tap your feet and sing along as a fair few of us did, it will always have its cult followers making it a show that ”Never walks alone”

Monday, 10 November 2008

Enjoy - Birmingham Rep (Tour prior to West End)

Enjoy by Alan Bennett
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Helen Chapman

Alan Bennett has been hailed as one of the great translators of observation of British family life to the stage. Originally written in 1980, Enjoy, portrays the lives of an ageing couple living in one of the last back-to-back houses in Leeds, facing the demolition of their beloved community and a move into new maisonettes, with nothing less than vinyl flooring in the lifts.

This comedy is centred around Connie and Wilf Craven, commonly known as Mam and Dad. Exceptional performances from Alison Steadman and David Troughton exaggerated their already larger than life characters, focusing on the differences between the two. Dad, not quite recovered from a hit and run, keen to move into the new maisonette that is sure to solve all their problems, and Mam, a motherly amnesiac, slightly more reserved and desperate to cling onto their past.

With the arrival of a sociologist to observe the couple as part of a community study, the couple’s day takes a few extraordinary turns. Their daughter Linda doesn’t quite live up to the pedestal her parents have put her on. And there is the taboo subject of their long lost son. Little by little the audience is given a bit more of the family’s story, always exaggerated but still rooted in reality. Clever exploration of the aging process particularly Dad’s exasperation at Mam’s loss of memory aids the story telling.

I found the play took a change of direction in the second half. Without giving too much away, what began as a comic take on a slightly dysfunctional family trying to prove they live a “normal” existence, turned into a more far fetched, somewhat bizarre story of strained relationships and loss of control, maintaining throughout an air of hilarity. The plot in my mind wasn’t completely resolved – but being a young Southerner, perhaps a lot of the unsaid went unnoticed! Whilst the storyline to me took some strange turns, particularly the undressing and washing of a supposed corpse by the next door neighbour, the dialogue was spot on with Bennett as sharp as ever. Clever use of timing and language and (mostly) appropriate use of innuendo, (there were some moments I was glad not to be there with my grandparents!) kept the show flowing despite only using one set throughout.

The play was set in the living room of the Craven’s home, carefully decorated with all the home comforts you would find in a working class 1980s home. This true-to-life setting was a fitting home for simple, kind Mam, who took pride in both her home and her family.

Whilst written as a comedy, Bennett does explore the way in which we often change our ways to impress when under observation. Although in this case perhaps it was only under observation that the family’s true colours came out. This play was cleverly written, hugely enjoyed and will be pondered upon for days to come!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Rank - Tricycle Theatre

Rank by Robert Massey
Director: Jim Culleton
Reviewer: Becky Middleton

Carl Conway is overweight, has huge credit card bills, missed mortgage repayments, he has lost his wife and to make matters worse, he owes local mobster Jack Farrell €3,000 by midnight.

Set in the dark criminal underworld of Dublin in the not-too-distant past, the plot of Rank centres on Carl (Alan King) and his fellow taxi driver friends George Kelly (Eamonn Hunt) and Bush (John Lynn) and their entanglement in gambling, debt and one big choice they are forced to make in the name of loyalty.

Cricket-bat wielding Jackie (Bryan Murray, The Bill) is the domineering, threatening force who drives the performance, bringing both comedy and violence to the stage. The emotion runs high, evident by the red faces and veins popping out of temples.

There is obviously an easy rapport between the five actors, as the quick-fire dialogue bounces easily from one to the other, creating a sharp, comic style that works very well.

A lot of the humour derives from Carl’s weight, with every character making jibe remarks throughout the play, even himself. Playwright Robert Massey attributes Carl’s weight to his loneliness and the €30,000 of debts, and dieting is seen as a way of improving his life and getting back on track. In all honesty it felt a tad overdone at times, especially in a key heated moment when Carl and Jack are face to face in a confrontation. Unexpectedly Jack makes a weight comment, when one would have presumed another death threat to ensue. But at the same time it contributed a welcome comic relief from the gloom of debts, threats and violence.

Carl is a hapless taxi driver, and a lot of the action centres around the holding area for taxi drivers at Dublin airport. Bláithín Sheerin’s bland and minimalist set accurately reflects the underlying tone of the mundane; the audience learns that aging George has bought a life-time supply of toilet rolls, and Bush laments over his recent and dangerously ongoing conquests with local gangster Fred’s wife.

There is a distinct lack of women on the stage, but they are not forgotten, as wives and conquests are regularly brought up although they are never seen. The sex industry provides another comedy sideline to the main plot; Jack runs a pay-per minute phone line, hiring his own nieces to work on the other end of the line, demonstrating the cold business mind he has, whilst his son Fred (Luke Griffin) owns a strip joint with his wife Jasmine.

Rank’s triumph at the Ulster Bank Dublin Film Festival this year has paved the way for the play’s success in the UK and beyond. It is highly recommended, and seemingly a lot of major publications in the UK agree. (“A cracking comedy thriller” says the Daily Telegrah, “An enjoyable jaunt … filthily funny … the acting is spot on” says The Guardian) This gritty, quick-witted Irish thriller is a surprising delight.

Photo by Pat Redmond

8sixteen32 - Birmingham Rep

8sixteen32 by The Decypher Project
Director: Leo Kay
Reviewer: Elizabeth Ambrose

Lasting just 55 minutes 8sixteen32 was a whole new cultural experience. Filled with energy, passion and talent the performance did not fail to entertain. A combination of humour, the discussion of contemporary issues along with the use of music gave this piece many dimensions.

Focusing on four young aspiring MC’s living in inner city Birmingham, they each described their own experience inviting us to share in their journey to become the top dog of MCers. United by their passion and dreams these four individuals reflect true friendship, solidarity and oneness. That is until the announcement of a competition fuels their ambition but divides the unity of the group. They are given an opportunity to individually present their rapping skills for a chance to win the latest phone N 8sixteen32 and much craved stardom. As tension rises the desire to be the best comes between their friendship. As the play unravels it becomes clear that the competition was a ploy to promote the phone rather than acknowledge the talent. However, the group are still determined and come together for one final performance.

The Actors presented a range of skills which brought depth to each character. They have a diverse catalogue of experience each bringing a uniqueness to their role. Their personal passion for Grime, poetry and music added body to their performance, creating a realistic feel to the play. The way they used the stage space reflected their excellence as actors. Their use of mime and the lack of props meant that they held the audiences attention throughout.

I along with a friend went to see 8sixteen32 with excitement and anticipation. As we waited in the queue it soon became apparent that this play reached a particular audience: Young black people. This would be expected because of the nature of the play and the issues covered. If anything it brought our naivety and lack of cultural understanding to the surface. This meant that at times we felt alienated by our culture and as a result some parts of the plot were hard to follow.

The play dealt with a range of issues such as peer pressure, how the media both influences use of the latest technology and exploits young people and their desire to be accepted. They spoke about the power of music and how it can evoke emotion, an issue which was somewhat reflected in the audience as a fight broke out towards the end of the play. The play was informative, humorous and engaging. Overall a powerful and positive experience which would be recommended to all.
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