Friday, 30 January 2009

Romeo & Juliet Docklands - The Space

Romeo and Juliet Docklands by William Shakespeare
Director: John Seaforth
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Admiration Theatre have moved Shakespeare’s tragic tale of fatal young love from the heated Italian streets of Verona to the cold industrial swathes of London’s Docklands in an attempt to make it more understandable to the people of the Isle of Dogs. Sadly this admirable idea does not translate at all in this placeless and unengaged production which if anything, makes the world’s most recognisable story a little incomprehensible.

Shuffling around the stage the cast are unable to be heard as their words are swallowed under painstakingly practiced East London accents. Furthermore under a muffled forest of dropped H’s and T’s they seem to have no understanding of what they are saying and so even when they are heard this does not assist the telling of this story. Along with the accents, hoods are used to indicate that we are in Docklands but there is very little else; indeed they seem to be moving around in a no man’s land, completely negating the idea that a further understanding of the text or engagement from the local population, can be gained from contemporising the location.

The cast are clearly trying very hard, but in this empty space find it impossible to form any meaningful connections and as such seem uncomfortable and self conscious throughout. Most importantly neither is any connection created with the audience, who therefore cannot care about the tragedy of their plight deeming the whole thing a bit pointless.

Also adding to the general sense of disjointed confusion are the movement sequences which supposedly forming the heart of the piece. These seem superfluous as do the white masks which at times form a chorus and at others a dead Paris. These stick out like a sore thumb and further add to the sense that this is a production with too many ideas, none of which seem to have come through successfully to form a cohesive whole.

It is easy to see in principle why John Seaforth felt that transposing Romeo and Juliet to Docklands would bring a contemporary richness from this text. The premature maturity in the youthful leads, the violence inherent within the action from the start and the tragic consequences which that violence and prejudice leads to are sadly things which Londoners, and especially East Londoners, are particularly familiar with. None of this comes through in Romeo and Juliet Docklands however, the only redeeming feature of which is that regardless of this production’s faults Shakespeare’s powerful story shines through at points. But before Admiration Theatre can do this story and their good intentions justice, they must stop thinking about making it mean something for the people of the Isle of Dogs and start thinking about what it actually means to them.
Romeo & Juliet Docklands runs at The Space until the 14th February

Berkoff's Women - Christ's Hospital, Horsham

Berkoff's Women by Stephen Berkoff
Devised by Linda Marlowe

Director: Josie Lawrence

Reviewer: John Roberts

After a meeting with long term friend Stephen Berkoff over a coffee in Covent Garden, an idea was planted and it took root and what came out was this one woman show using the hard edged over sexed and dominating women from Berkoff's plays and compiled to create a 70 minute production.

You cannot deny that Linda Marlowe is an outstanding performer, she boasts amazing stage presence, energy and exuberance that is very rarely seen on stage and the pace that she pounds through Berkoff's material is staggering, along with some energetic routines during scenes taken from Decadence, Agamemnon, West and others. My personal favorite being the touching yet slightly shocking monologue of Mum from East, one couldn't help but feel a level of sympathy for her desire to be loved. With some simple but effective direction from Josie Lawrence throughout you cant help watching, but unfortunately after a while that's all you do.

I found myself losing interest in the subject matter that most of these women inhabit, there is only so much one person can take on with listening to overbearing sexual women and their exploits of bringing off men to orgasm or how numb a woman is from to much sex, but this isn't Marlowe's fault... The fault lies in taking the highly sexed writing of Berkoff, take them out of context from their original source and try and make an audience connect with them, unfortunately for this reviewer that connection never truly happened and made me feel cold, numb and slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience.

Mary Poppins - Manchester Palace Theatre

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
Original Music & Lyrics: The Sherman Brothers
New Songs & Lyrics: Stiles & Drewe

Director: Richard Eyre
Choreographer: Matthew Bourne

Reviewer: Gemma Longfellow

As a collaboration by Thomas Schumacher
of Disney (The Lion King, Aida, Tarzan) and Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) I expected a big production full of thrills and magic from Mary Poppins at the Palace Theatre. I was not wrong. The show was fantastic.

The musical was a well-balanced blend of the classic 1964 Disney musical film and
P. L. Travers’ novel. It has been very well created with most of the original, classic songs and scenes included, which allow the audience to connect and sing along, whilst introducing newly emphasised storylines and numbers that are unique to the production. These were well received if the audiences’ involved hand clapping and rapturous applause are anything to go by.

The plot follows the Banks family as they are visited by the mysterious and magical nanny, Mary Poppins. I was pleasantly surprised that there was some depth to the narrative, exploring themes of broken family life, the Victorian image of ’the perfect family’ and all that is ‘proper’, and the importance of childhood fun. These were dotted among moments of sheer fun, just for the sake of it.

The direction and
production of the show was excellent. The cast were sensitively and creatively used on stage to effectively establish different settings. The bustling, busy Victorian city of London was portrayed well with period props and costumes. I especially enjoyed Bob Crowley’s use of colour in costumes, props and set to forge the distinction between the imaginary adventure world of Mary Poppins, and reality of black and white London.

The set was very impressive, mostly based around the Banks’ house, which moved and unfolded to reveal different rooms for scenes. These transitions were always smooth, and well as being used to reinforce the sense of magic and adventure in the plot.

The choreography and vocal arrangements and performances were faultless. The ‘Step in Time’ number was especially well done, using the whole cast in an amazing tap dance routine done around a moving set, with a surprise magical ‘Mary Poppins’ moment included.

It was fun, heart-warming and professional, just as a musical should be. Lisa O’Hare played a wonderful Mary Poppins, she convincingly portrayed the no nonsense nanny with a twinkle of magic in her eye. Daniel Crossley’s portrayal of Bert was a standout performance, done with humour, almost to the point of being clownish in parts, he effectively links the scenes of the real and magical worlds together.

Louise Bowden was perfectly cast as Winifred Banks, her ‘Being Mrs Banks’ solos were exceptional, revealing the heart of a woman troubled by her husband’s expectations for her and their family, and showing her desire to support him. Chloe Jones and George Spittle-McGuire were excellent in the roles of Jane and Michael Banks, with good vocal and dance performances from such young actors.

A wonderful family musical full of rousing choruses, comic moments and fun that is sure to brighten up those dark winter evenings.

Mary Poppins runs at the Palace Theatre until Saturday 7th March 2009

Thursday, 29 January 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Liverpool Playhouse

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Directed by Edward Hall

Reviewer: Kate Cottrell

As a huge fan of Shakespeare I have long loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of Shakespeare’s true classics and by far the funniest of all his comedies so I was eagerly anticipating this performance and longing for it to capture the magic, humour and warmth that this play, when done well, has in abundance.

I was not disappointed! Propeller deliver a breathtaking performance - beautiful, romantic, fantastical and comic and, all the more interesting and inspiring because it is performed by an entirely male cast as, of course, it would have been in Shakespeare’s day.

From the opening moment when Puck’s ruby red slippers appear it is clear that the whole production of the piece has been guided by the dream like qualities of the play. The set is beautiful, with ghostly white fabric draped around the stage and tens of ornate chairs fixed to create a suspended level half way up the stage. Oberon and Titania’s thrones sit throughout the piece, suspended in air at the front of the stage – their crowns depicted by wreaths of branches and leaves. The piece, as a whole, feels polished and expertly crafted – with all actors coming together to create an ensemble of fairies and beautifully depicting the changing face of the woods through which the lovers
are escaping.

The live music created on stage with a variety of weird and wonderful instruments also gives a haunting quality and brings the woods and the dream to life.
The three stories that link together to create the piece are expertly told through good direction and some wonderful performances. Special mention must go to Richard Frame who turns in a brilliantly feminine yet never “I’m a lady” performance in the role of the much sought after Hermia and doubles as Snug the Joiner, our cowardly lion who is ‘slow of study’ with some brilliant moments of comedy and terrific characterisation.

Indeed the ‘actors’, or Rude Mechanicals as they are often known, are a great part of the piece and, whilst their final performance to the court does drag a little, the comic timing and delivery is superb. Their initial meeting in the woods and their comic horror when Bottom is ‘transformed’ is a joy to watch. I cannot recommend this production highly enough – there are so many aspects to comment on and individual performances that are so well constructed - Richard Clothier as the most gentle and serene Oberon I’ve ever seen, Bob Barret as the wonderfully pompous and self righteous Bottom and, of course, Jon Trenchard in the role of our narrator Puck who creates a playfully physical and mischievous character that we long to see more of.

Propeller, who are performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream alongside The Merchant of Venice in a double bill, are off to as far a field as New York and Tokyo with this piece – catch it if you can – you won’t be disappointed.

West Side Story - Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

West Side Story
Music: Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Arthur Laurents

Original Direction and Choreography: Jerome Robbins
Director and Choreographer: Joey McKneelyn
Reviewer: Jim Nicholson

Many “theatre buffs” will have West Side Story clearly identified as the
number one musical of all time. So does this touring version, celebrating fifty years since the show was first on a London stage, help justify such claims or not? The answer is a very clear “yes” and this tour must surely end up back on a London stage with yet another deserved and very long West End run.

My daughter, who accompanied me to the show, certainly would not have believed I was going to write the above as I grumpily lowered my, more than ample, frame into a seat at the rear of the circle with my knees digging deep into the backs of two unfortunate ladies in the row in front. “How can you enjoy something when you are a million miles from the stage and in contortioned pain” she asked just before curtain up.

Well I sup
pose the absolute quality of the show broke through that pain barrier (aided by taking up residence in the standing area for the Second Act). And of course, as the Jets would say, “I utilised my 20/20 hearing and vision, Buddie Boy”.

Right from the off the finesse and execution of the choreography was breathtaking and throughout the clever lighting design of Peter Halbsgut enabled the Jets and Sharks to share stage but appear to be in their own neighbourhoods one moment and confrontationally at each others throats the next.

Paul Gallis’s set is a skeleton version of two blocks of flats that meet and turn allowing inventive use of fire escapes, bedroom windows and inside rooms.

The comedy, delivery and sheer dance dominance of the stage by Anita (Jayde Westaby) and the Shark Girls on “America” oozed the class that the song deserves. And this was just moments after Tony (Daniel Koek) and Maria (a superb understudy in Hazel Gardner) had given a wonderful rendition of “Tonight”, with the audience still glowing from Tony belting out a show stopping version of “Maria”. What a score!

At this stage you wonder if anything can top what you have already seen and heard. Well yes it can, as we end Act One with the beautiful blends of the girls, on the upper reaches of the set, preparing for their night out, whilst, down below, our two gangs plan their evenings “entertainment”. Musically this treats us to a masterful version of “Tonight” with the full cast leaving us clearly knowing just how the expectations of the male and female are so different.

Riff, played by Howard Jones and Bernado (Dan Burton) are more than believable as our gang leaders, in actual fact by now, “dead” gang leaders.

A much shorter Second Act is still full of great songs delivered with real style. “I Feel Pretty” is followed by “Somewhere”, which from the outset of the ballet sequence through to the heart stopping love scene is both musically and visually one of those theatrical events that must be tucked away, memory wise, in your top ten stage moments of all time.

Action (Brendan Cull), Baby John (Harry Francis), A-Rab (Jay Webb) and crew give a fine version of “Gee, Officer Krupke”, milking every last ounce of the comedy with the drum beat matching each and every truncheon blow in perfect time. The 18 strong orchestra certainly did justice to the master that is Leonard Bernstein.

We all know it’s a tragic ending but any tears at the end are “tears of joy”. A night out at a quality musical you can not beat and I can assure you, fifty years on, West Side Story is still up there with the very, very best.

West Side Story runs at The Mayflower until Sat 7th Feb 2009

The Graduate - The Customs House, South Shiel

The Graduate by Charles Webb
& the motion picture by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
Adapted by Terry Johnson
Director: Adrian Lloyd-James
Reviewer: Ian Cain

The Graduate is a
powerful rites-of-passage tale of sexual enlightenment, youthful disillusionment and one young man discovering who and what he really is. Immortalised for the silver screen in an Oscar winning iconic movie starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in 1967, it has since become a Hollywood classic. Tabs Productions have created a stage adaptation that is equally as stylish and sophisticated.

Back home after graduating in a blaze of glory, young Benjamin Braddock seems spaced-out by his success. Family and friends are celebrating, but not Ben, much to the confusion and bewilderment of his proud parents. When the boozy and seductive Judith Robinson reveals her all, Ben quickly succumbs and the pair begin a torrid affair. However, things get complicated when Elaine, the Robinson’s pretty teenage daughter, enters the scene.

Grant Orviss gives an impeccable performance as Ben Braddock, skilfully mastering the sexual inexperience and gaucheness of his character. Orviss bears a slight resemblance to John Simm from Life On Mars and he will, undoubtedly, become a bright new star in the near future.

Karen Henson’s interpretation of Mrs Robinson is sensational. Undaunted by predecessors that include Anne Bancroft, Kathleen Turner and Linda Gray, Henson’s Mrs Robinson alternates between man-eating tigress and playful kitten. Her lithe, graceful movements and purring voice contribute further to the feline analogies.
Heather Saunders effectively conveys the naivety of the prim and proper ‘Daddy’s girl’ Elaine, and other notable
performances are provided by Michael Sherwin and Susan Earnshaw as Ben’s parents. John Hester, Sarah Wynne Kordas and Mark Huckett provide successful supporting roles, too.

A stunningly simple and extremely effective set, designed by Sarah Wynne Kordas provides the backdrop for the action and it is cleverly transformed into several differing locations throughout the piece. Director Adrian Lloyd-James is to be commended for his ability to add pace to certain scenes without seeming to rush them and, conversely, slow other scenes down without making them feel sluggish and drawn-out. This technique allows the more comedic elements of the piece to sit comfortably with the dramatic.

The result is a compelling and worthy piece of theatre that stands the test of time and provides relevance to a new audience who may not have seen the epic film version.

The Graduate runs until the 30th Jan then goes on tour

Joseph - Theatre Royal Brighton

Joseph & his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber

Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Bill Kenwright

Reviewer: Kimberley Knudsen

You have to hand it to Bill Kenwright for this revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph. Any show that can get the audience singing the songs in the foyer before the performance even starts is clearly on to a winner.

viewing figures for recent television ‘search for a star’ shows such as Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything prove that there is still a great demand for light hearted singalong style musicals and tonight’s audience whooped, laughed, clapped out the rhythms and sang along as if they really felt part of the show themselves.

Judging by the queues of smiling faces, young and old, waiting for autographs at the close of the show, Craig Chalmers has a burgeoning fan club who didn’t seem to be worried if he came 5th or 50th in Any Dream Will Do. Although his voice was a little lacking in depth, his cheery personality and obvious charm more than made up for it and his work down the gym meant that he could carry off wearing a loincloth with aplomb.

With animated eyebrows Roger Moore would be proud of, Tara Bethan turns in a great performance as the narrator, launching into the songs with gusto whilst also crystal clear in the quieter moments. Almost stealing the show from Craig Chalmers is Antony Hansen as the 70’s Elvis style lip curling, hip shaking Pharaoh who proved to be very popular with the audience.

As you’d expect the whole thing moves along at a cracking pace taking in the 1920s style of Potiphar’s household, via Paris and the Caribbean and back to Egypt. With some innovative props including talking camels, inflatable sheep and boats that double up as jail cells, together with some energetic choreography the cast look like they are having as much fun as the audience which sums up the evening perfectly

Joesph runs at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Sat 31st Jan

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Buddy - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Buddy by Alan Janes & Rob Bettinson
Director: Rob Bettinson

Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

Setting the scene on stage Adrian Rees's set design had images painted on the backdrop of various food products and ladies in 1950’s co
stumes in the centre screen, where a silhouette appears its then you hear a DJ on the radio.

It’s Sunday night and Buddy and all the boys have a half hour slot slot called
Sunday party on the local radio station KDAV, where they get to sing and play country songs, this does not suit Buddy and he embarks on making his dreams of Rock and Rolll stardom come true.

It is at KDAV the show starts and takes you through the highs and lows that was Buddy’s life. Buddy played by Oliver Seymour Marsh gave an outstanding performance, anyone who has seen Buddy Holly on TV or in a film could not fault this 21 year old’s tribute to Buddy. His mannerisms, his dance moves even the shaking leg had you believing this was the late man himself.

By the second act the audience are singing along, clapping their hands and some even dancing in the aisles.

Outstanding performances were by Alex Parry as the MC at Clearlake, Steve Simmonds and Catherine Henderson as Norman and Vi Petty, Carla Freeman as Maria Elena, Colin McGregor as the big bopper and lastly but not least the hip singing latino performance of Ritchie Valens by Pedro Reichert. The cast of this show work together so well you would think they had always worked together.

Considering it’s 50 years since the untimely death of Buddy Holly this show takes you on a magical journey that was and only ever could be ‘Buddy Holly’.

Writers Alan Jones and Rob Bettinson have created a show which in the words of Buddy will “not fade away” and will have people talking about it for weeks to come! Get along for a fun filled night of entertainment & “Rave on” You will not be sorry.

Buddy runs at the Lowry until Saturday 31st Jan 09

Monday, 26 January 2009

Cinderella - Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Written & Directed by Michael Harrison

Reviewer: Ian Cain

If each and every one of us could have our very own Fairy Godmother, I’d bet we’d all be thrilled if we were given Birds of a Feather star, Lesley Joseph to grant our wishes. Well, the much-loved actress is waving her
magic wand, sprinkling fairy dust and making all manner of dreams come true in Cinderella at Plymouth Theatre Royal.

Lesley Joseph tops the bill in a spectacularly lavish production that is, without doubt, one of the finest pantomimes that I have seen in
many years and from the moment she descends onto the stage she owns it. Incorporating all the characteristics that made Dorien Green a cult comedy character, Miss Joseph delivers a non-stop, high-octane performance in which she capably and firmly holds the audience in the palm of her hand.

She leads a strong cast that includes Matt Slack as Buttons, Laura Evans as Cinderella and Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins as the Ugly Sisters.

This is a production that has all the values of a West End musical – there’s fireworks, dry ice, stunning sets, sensational costumes and a magical transformation scene, complete with a flying Pegasus, that has the eyes of young and old twinkling an
d glistening with delight and enchantment. Oh, and of course, there’s plenty of good old panto fun and audience participation, too!

Laura Evans is everything Cinderella should be: demure, engaging, sweet and pretty. As well as looking fantastic,
she sounds it in her musical numbers, too. Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins are wonderful as Trinny and Susannah, Cinderella’s sadistic step-sisters, and their outrageous costumes are gloriously gaudy. The pair provide some great comedy moments and they must be two of the fastest-changing dames in the business. Trevor Jary is a suitably handsome and dashing Prince Charming and Kevin Brewis is wonderful as the foppish Dandini.

Matt S
lack is a firm favourite with the audience and he works his socks off as a rather cheeky Buttons. His performance incorporates impressions, stand-up comedy and physical clowning and he excels in everything he does. The scenes that he and Lesley Joseph share are pure entertainment and it is a joy to see two consummate performers, who both completely understand the art and stagecraft of pantomime, spark off each other as they ad-lib, corpse and leave the audience in stitches. The scene in which they perform a specially modified version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ with the Ugly Sisters is worth the ticket price in itself. It’s reassuring to know that, in an age of uncertainty, the theatre can still transport its audience to a place where worries can be put aside – if only temporarily – and a good time can be had by every generation of the family. Thank Goodness for panto!

Runs until Saturday 31st Jan 2009

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Magic Flute, ENO - London Coliseum

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder

Original Director: Nicholas Hytner
Conductor: Erik Nielsen
Reviewer: Mark Valencia

In the late eighties Nicholas Hytner emerged as the golden boy of British theatre. In particular a trio of opulent productions from that period – a play at the National, a musical in the West End and an opera for ENO – garnered huge audiences, long runs and reviews to die for. The play was Alan Bennett’s dramatisation of The Wind in the Willows; the musical was Miss Saigon. Yet, of the three, only the opera survives in its original state, or something very like it. And why not? After all, Hytner’s is a magic Flute.

This richly entertaining production first saw the light of day in March 1988 and now, 13 revivals on, it has joined Rigoletto and The Mikado as one of ENO’s most reliable cash cows. This will come as no surprise to anyone who caught it in a previous outing: Hytner’s imaginatively joyous staging, complemented by Bob Crowley’s sizzling set and costume designs, raises smiles and spirits in equal measure. This Flute is feel-good opera. All it needs to hit the spot are good musical direction and a strong cast.

If you don’t know the plot of Schikaneder’s tale, it’s a bit of a mess but here goes. Outwardly nice Queen of the Night sends guileless Tamino (hero) to rescue her beautiful daughter Pamina (heroine) from the clutches of outwardly nasty Sarastro, her enemy. But appearances of nice and nasty can be deceptive, as hero and heroine grow to realise by the opera’s end. After two or three hours of quests, jests and tests, good triumphs over evil and we go home happy.

Ian Rutherford takes the revival reins for Flute 14 and he brings out all the visual wit and sprightliness of Hytner’s original. Such shortcomings as there are reside in the poor delivery of spoken dialogue by certain players (though emphatically not by the Sarastro of Robert Lloyd, that great basso profundo whose voice still rips your guts despite his having reached an age when most singers wobble by the wayside). Sarah-Jane Davies as Pamina is fine when she sings, but with the spoken word she falls short. Likewise, variously, the members of the ENO Chorus. As for Roderick Williams’s athletic, show-stealing Papageno, bird-catcher and comic relief, his otherwise bravura performance is compromised by a habit of leaping from oo-arr bumpkin to RP baritone whenever he stops speaking and starts singing. I cannot imagine Hytner sanctioning such jarring inconsistency.

The ENO Orchestra plays with idiomatic finesse under the baton of Erik Nielsen, who makes an auspicious house d├ębut, and the evening as a whole reaches the highest musical standards. Its delights are enhanced by Jeremy Sams’s witty translation, even though the unavoidable ENO surtitles remove all spontaneity and make his careful word-setting read like close-rhymed doggerel.

This free translation allows Sams and Hytner to dispense with the ticklish racial problem inherent in the role of Monostatos. As portrayed by Stuart Kale he is a creepy clown with a comb-over, more Ko-Ko than the would-be rapist who so wickedly abuses his status as overseer of the masonic temple.

That pinpoints a problem with this production: it’s a cartoon. Crowley’s designs may echo the neo-classical-meets-Egyptian mood of the original, but against this canvas Hytner simply has fun. In a world where all the perils are two-dimensional there are no real wounds to be healed by the spirit boys, exquisitely sung as they are by Charlie Manton, Harry Manton and Louis Watkins. Emily Hindrichs, for all her coloratura stratospherics, is more Morticia Addams than Queen of the Night, and Amanda Forbes’s Papagena is a comedy-breasted tea lady. Only Sarastro, Pamina and Tamino (a noble-voiced Robert Murray) escape with dignity intact.

What churlish analysis. Let us sweep aside such cavils and wish this joyous production a happy 21st birthday. Over the years it has opened countless hearts to the wonders of Mozart and been a major force for good in a dumb, dirty world. Here’s to the next 13 revivals.

Photos: Richard H Smith
London Coliseum, 24th January to 26th February 2009 (9 performances)

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Thriller Live - Lyric Theatre, London

Thriller Live
Direction/Choreography: Gary Lloyd
Musical Supervisor and Head Arranger: John Maher
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Thriller is definitely a show with, well, thrills. It’s also a slightly uncomfortable cross between a fan convention and posthumous tribute concert, but with songs as good as Jackson’s does one care? The answer is sadly yes, this is a show which tries far too hard and in doing so distances itself from its star; one of the most naturally gifted, if also incredibly confused, performers of the 20th Century.

Facts and numbers are thrown out at us as we hurtle from the infectious pop of The Jackson 5 (the group set a chart record when its first four singles peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100) through Michael Jackson’s emergence as smooth disco king and finally to his leathered 80’s hey day with Thriller (37 weeks at number one in the album chart) and Bad (sold 30 million copies worldwide).

Dance number after dance number is presented and we are shown an array of Michaels from the deeply impressive Kieran Alleyne to Denise Pearson, Roger Wright, John Moabi and Ben Foster, all of which seems to scream that Michael Jackson belongs to all colours, ages and even sexes. Of these performances Pearson’s (a former member of Five Star, the UK version of Jackson 5) is the closest to him, bringing a precision and focus to both the vocal pieces and dance numbers which has some of the star quality of Jackson himself. She is the only adult who combines both the impressive talent for dancing and singing that he excelled at and yet even she is no way close, prompting one to feel like this show is a poor man’s substitute for the real thing. A good word must also be said for Alleyne whose performance is astonishing. He holds the stage with much more presence than most of the other performers and all this in someone who can’t be older than 14; maybe we’ve glimpsed some genuine star after all.

Alongside this post-modern view of Jackson, there is also some straight down the line impersonation in the form of Ricko Baird. But even though Baird says he has worked with Jackson personally (a clever way to heighten the connection between the two) the imitation lacks the unity of Jackson’s talent. During the performance of Thriller, Baird dances impressively and wows the crowd with the moonwalk, however he is accompanied by a pre-recorded vocal to which he mimes, not always successfully; it takes two of these performers to do what Jackson did solo and suddenly this seems a bit cheap. No one can be the great man, but they could have taken some of his class.

Gary Lloyd’s direction and choreography is tight and the dancers are energetic and they certainly don’t lack in conviction, bombarding the audience with a zealousness that would make Disney proud. Overall however the look of the show lacks this conglomerates’ finesse, the PowerPoint esq projections and restricted costume changes again highlighting the overarching b-movie feel to this show.

But for all this the quality of Jackson’s music does come through and the hand clapping toe tapping numbers will, at points, permeate through anyone’s cynicism to the 80’s child beneath. Song after song is recognised and sung along to and it succeeds in making one realise that Jackson, for all his recent confusing and slightly disturbing exploits, is truly an artist who has entered the 20th Century Zeitgeist, as only really the Beatles have done before him. An extraordinary musician and entertainer, it is just shame that this tribute to him, whilst being painfully well meaning, is so far off his effortless mark.

Thriller Live is booking at the Lyric Theatre until the 12th April 2009

The Choir, Above the Stag Theatre

The Choir by Errol Bray
Director: Prav Menon-Johansson
Reviewer: Jaclyn Lord-Purcell

Arriving early for Errol Bray’s play, my friend and I were greeted by a drag queen, a multitude of rainbow flags and countless flamboyant spectators. This is sure to be a good night, I thought. With the scene set, we took our seats.

The theatre itself is horribly small: a ‘black box’, according to my friend. In other words, the actors performed practically on top of the small audience, creating an intimate setting to say the least.

The Choir follows an all-male cast as pre-teen orphans living as friends and foes. The boys’ homoerotic trials and tribulations are the main focus of the production

Heavy topics including, castration, homosexuality and simple ‘screwing’ are discussed, making this show unsuitable for the hyper-masculine homophobe.

Beneath these broad subjects, however, lie other, more intimate ones, such as love, adulthood and power relations; thus making the simple concept of ‘screwing’ much more than what the word entails.
Strong acting and a small-community feel are just some highlights of the production: a breath of fresh air in the ever-so-commercialized London theatre scene. Sure, you could go see Jude Law, Rowan Atkinson and Josh Hartnet, but why bother when you can see something equally as good without all the pomp.

If I had to make one criticism, I would say that, at times, the plot is unrealistic. All characters speak openly about having sex with their male counterparts – even thought they are all meant to be 12 years old (with only one exception). While sex is a fact of life, homosexuality is unfortunately still largely taboo, most especially for males. There is no way so many pre-teen boys would speak and express themselves in such a manner.

Then again, leave six male monkeys together in a cage for long enough and they will resort to sexual acts with one another. Abandon seven young boys together in an orphanage and would the same phenomena occur?

If you’re looking for a little male erotica, mixed with good acting in an intimate setting, this is your best bet. Conservative lovers of football, beer and other things typically male need not apply.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Blood Brothers, Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne

Blood Brothers by Willy Russell
Director: Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Ian Cain

It is difficult to believe that ‘Blood Brothers’ is a quarter of a century old, as Willy Russell’s tear-jerking tale seems more resonant and powerful now than ever before. During the last year, the country has slumped into recession, unemployment has risen to 1.92 million - its highest level for more than a decade, and gun crime has brought fear to the streets of our inner cities.

The play centres around Mrs Johnstone, the single mother who struggles to cope with her seven unruly kids and the news that she is expecting twins. With ‘the welfare’ already looking over her shoulder, she desperately tries to hold things together but learns that ‘living on the never-never’ only makes things worse.

It seems that any production of ‘Blood Brothers’ must now have an obligatory Nolan sister to perform the lead role. In this case, Maureen Nolan does a first-class job and her performance epitomises everything that the character should be.

The last time I saw ‘Blood Brothers’ Marti Webb played Mrs Johnstone and her portrayal seemed brittle and aloof in comparison with Maureen Nolan’s warm-hearted matriarch. Nolan is utterly convincing and she tugs at the heartstrings of the audience, forcing them to embark on this poignant and emotional journey with her.

The story of the twin boys, of which ‘one was kept and one given away,’ provides plenty of opportunities for more powerhouse performances and the current cast rises to the challenge marvellously.

Sean Jones is terrific as mucky Mickey, the street-wise ‘twinny’ kept by Mrs Johnstone, whilst Simon Willmont brings vulnerability and sensitivity to prim-and-proper Edward who was given to the barren, middle-class Mrs Lyons. Tracy Spencer is excellent as the neurotic and paranoid Mrs Lyons and her descent into emotional despair at the thought of her ‘son’ still retaining his bond with his biological mother is compelling. Anna Sambrooks is also wonderful as Linda and her transition from tomboy to teenage temptress to tragic young housewife is perfectly executed.

Robbie Scotcher skulks around the stage as the moody, menacing Narrator, tormenting both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons and refusing to let them forget the enormity of the pact they both made and reminding that ‘the Devil’s got your number.’

The drama is underpinned by a beautifully haunting score and the songs have a tendency to lodge in the mind, only to recur when least expected. This is especially true of the emotionally-charged ‘Tell Me It’s Not True.’ It is no surprise that, by the end of the show, the audience were on their feet in a standing ovation and roaring their approval between emotional sobs.

Blood Brothers runs at the Theatre Royal until the 31st Jan 09

Cabaret, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

Cabaret by Kander & Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Patricia Webster

A very warm welcome at the Sheffield Lyceum theatre only got hotter when the curtain rose and the musical got under way! This is defiantly not a production for you maiden aunt, with lots of flesh on show and nothing left to the imagination.

For those that don’t know the story of Sally Bowles and cabaret, it starts off on New Years Eve 1930 in Berlin Clifford Bradshaw is on the train station waiting to go to Berlin and meets Ernst Ludwig unknown to him but a nazi colluder and gets Clifford to bring his case of contraband into Berlin. They get talking and Ernst gets him a room at Frauline Schneider’s rooming house and an invite to the New Years Eve party at the Kit Kat club where anything goes. It’s all very hedonistic since the horrid days of World War 1. Clifford meets the beautiful Sally and she is thrown out by the emcee, (Wayne Sleep, very good by the way even though his German accent doesn’t remain throughout!) for being a bit too amorous with Clifford, not a paying guest if you know what I mean

Sally ends up going to share Cliff’s room and in the meanwhile Frauline Schneider and Herr Schultz fall in love and plan to marry. Ernst finds out and tells Frauline Schneider she will make things difficult for herself if she marries a Jew, Clifford has been listening to the politics on the street having gone to Paris again for Ernst for another case of baubles and fancy silk stockings. He no longer wants to go to Paris for him and having heard the threat to Frauline Schneider he decides enough is enough and wants out.

The nightclubs seemed the only escape for the people of Berlin and Sally Bowles was the main attraction at the Kit Kat club. People had fallen off coming to the club and the Emcee persuaded her to come back During all this Sally finds out she is with child and Clifford wants her to move to Mud village in Pennsylvania to settle down and raise a family, but Sally being Sally, the life and soul of the party she has other ideas

Samantha Barks has been brilliantly cast as Sally Bowles, her voice carrying over the sometimes slightly too loud orchestra with ease of a professional that had been performing for years, it’s a shame that Matt Zimmermans and Jenny Logans love duet couldn’t do the same.

The cast in general were superb, and the songs sung very well, Cabaret was a great performance of a dark time in Berlin and I would go and see it again if only for Samantha’s voice and the nice cheeky bum of the sailor escaping from Frauline Kost. With nudity, laughter poignancy and violence the audience were on the edge of their seats at times. The silence descended like a feather on the breeze. WONDERBAR! WONDERBAR! WONDERBAR!

Cabaret is on at the Lyceum Theatre until Sat 24th Jan 2009

Blonde Bomshells of 1943, Lowry Theatre

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 by Alan Plater
Director: Mark Babych
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

Set in the Second World War, the year 1943 and the Blonde Bombshells were the most glamorous of all girl swing bands, or at least their poster said they were.

This tongue in cheek musical comedy will have you toe tapping along to the hits and laughing at the very fast coming innuendo’s. Packed full of 1940’s hits performed by a live sensational eight piece swing band, the story of how the blonde bombshells manage to lose members of its band every time they play at a GI camp and how now they have an important live changing event coming up they need to replace 4 of the members they lost.
Along comes Elizabeth ( Laura Stevely) a 6th form naive schoolgirl who plays the clarinet like an angel, Lily (Sarah Whittuck) the singing banjo playing nun, who has you laughing every time she speaks, Miranda (Rosie Jenkins) a very upper-crust ATS girl with a very strong liking for men, playing the saxophone and then comes Pat or should we say Patrick (Matthew Ganley) who will do anything to avoid being drafted in to the army even down to wearing a dress and a wig!
The cast shone throughout with each member respecting the others and not one of them trying to upstage the others. There were particularly remarkably moments when each member of the band had the limelight and this really helped you to understand their character.

The setting was simple, a bombed dilapidated theatre where rehearsals and auditions are held to the glamorous setting of the performance at the secret location, Libby Watson, who was also responsible for the setting and the costumes, was spot on, with the high waisted trousers, the tight fitted skirt and the trilby all added to the magic of this show.

If after seeing Blonde Bombshells you do not come away singing all the hits and laughing still at the jokes within it then Mark Babych will have failed in his Direction of this show, but I can guarantee you he has not and you will enjoy it tremendously. This is a not to be missed show, a simple case of if tickets are not available here then chase them at another theatre as soon as possible.

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 is on at the Lowry Theatre until Sat 24th Jan 2009

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Mother Goose The Pier Pavilion, South Shields

Mother Goose by Jon Parker & Mark Fairweather
Director: Gareth Hunter
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Dispel all thoughts of the credit crunch with a traditional family pantomime that certainly won’t be painful on the pocket and is guaranteed to brighten the most dismal and dark of January nights. The Westovians, are renowned in South Tyneside for the quality of their Christmas shows, and this year they are treating audiences to their version of Mother Goose.

The story centres around the impoverished Dame Goose and her two sons, ‘Silly’ Billy and Colin, who are struggling to make ends meet and keep up with the rent increases constantly imposed by the greedy Squire. However, a kindly Fairy Godmother is watching over the unfortunate family and decides to intervene. She bestows upon them a magical goose, called Priscilla, who has the ability to lay golden eggs and could provide the possibility of solving all their problems. Just one catch – the vain Dame decides to trade the bird to the evil Demon King in exchange for beauty beyond measure.

The dotty Dame is brilliantly played by Stephen Sullivan, who contorts his face into an array of grotesque expressions to portray the thoughts and feelings of the character. His energy levels are equally matched by his entertainment value and outrageous costumes. Craig Richardson is outstanding as ‘Silly’ Billy and he strikes up an instant rapport with the kids in the audience right from his first scene. His skilful performance gives Billy a simple, likeable quality that grows throughout the show. He displays his mastery at physical clowning in the slapstick cake-baking scene, with the Dame, in which he has eggs broken into his face and gets covered in flour and cream.

Kylie Ford is the thigh-slapping principal boy, Colin, who is out to win the heart of Jill, the Squire’s niece. Playing the straight-part of the romantic hero in panto is no mean feat, but Kylie nails the role and is especially good in the hysterical money-lending routine that is one highlight in a show filled with them. Carol Cooke gives her interpretation of the kindly, but care-worn Fairy Happiness who feels that she has been called upon for one panto too many. Although her character bemoans the demands made on Fairy Godmother’s at this time of the year, she is steadfast in ensuring that goodness prevails over evil.

Mark Lamb is fantastic as the Demon King and really demonstrates his star quality in the musical numbers, Easy Street and, most notably I Wanna Be Evil. His scenes in the second act with Ruth Burn as the Queen of Gooseland, who is slightly under-utilised, are also sheer brilliance. In addition to the sterling performances of the principals, there are some great supporting characters. Adrian Jackson is the skinflint Squire, Nick Pringle and James Lockwood play brokers men Ad and Lib, Karen Bays is Jill, Becca Wood is the Queen of Eternal Youth and Beauty and Bethany Walker is Priscilla the Goose.

Gareth Hunter directs a pantomime that delivers everything it promises and much more, too. Filled with slap-stick comedy sketches, Benny Hill-style chases and great gags, the entertainment was eloquently summed-up by a patron on her way out who said: “Well, that was well worth the money.” bIt’s an excellent show – see it if you can!

Mother Goose runs util the 24th January 2009

Friday, 16 January 2009

Into the Woods, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Into the Woods
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Director: Racky Plews
Reviewer: John Roberts

Sondheim and Lapine’s musical tells the story of a childless baker and his wife, who finding out that a curse was placed upon them to keep them barren, set off Into the Woods to find the four things the Wicked Witch needs to un-break the spell. Whilst in the woods we encounter several familiar faces from some of the best loved fairytales but this is where any familiarities end, instead we are cleverly shown the unpleasant character traits that these well known characters possess, and in the end, their greed for wanting more in life than they have is inevitably each of their downfalls.

Racky Plews directs this small revival with real heart and character far more so than the recent lavish and overly expensive production at the Royal Opera House. Plews gives this production a real comedic flair with some splendid touches, the bird on the flute is one perfect example, helped along the way with some creative and ingenious use of video projection (designed by Martin Walton) throughout the performance.

A simple but hugely atmospheric set by Stephie Hoyle, who after seeing her set of Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi you know you will get a design that has been well thought out and true to the nature of the piece, and that’s just what you get with the set of Into the Woods with subtly atmospheric lighting by Howard Hudson this show is a visual treat.

Commanding the stage in this production is Dominic Brewer (Baker) and Rachel Bingham (Bakers Wife) who really steal the show as the childless couple, belting out their songs with a powerful and emotional resonance. Lauren Appleby’s Red Riding Hood is a simple joy to watch and brings a highly energised and slightly menacing performance, with other notable turn coming from Daniel Summers as the simple but ever so endearing Jack.

If one was to find fault with this production it would be the use of the cast playing instruments on stage, this was never fully explored unlike The Watermills production of recent West End production of Sunset Boulevard, but this is a small niggle in what otherwise is a splendid production

One would suggest that if you are looking for a production to see over the next two weeks then book yourself a ticket to this production, it will take you a long time to find a musical in the London that has this much magic and charm.

Photos by Mitzi de Margary
Into the Woods runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 1st Feb 2009

In Blood: The Bacchae, Arcola Theatre

In Blood: The Bacchae by Frances Viner
Director: Noah Birksted-Breen
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

The warmth of South America is breathed into the Arcola’s East End converted warehouse space with the advent of In Blood: The Bacchae, the centrepiece of the Arcola’s Brazilian Season which has been cannily timed to explode in technicolour onto the cold January London stage. Men whirl around one another as drum beats permeate the thick hot air and individual voices are raised and entwine into a melodic harmony.

In this visceral environment we are told the story of Besouro a young Afro-Brazilian man who used wit and subversion as a pacifist to stand up to the Euro-centric oppressive Government and became a street hero. He arrives back home after an inferred exile to take his revenge on the man who shot his mother, Gordilho, the Chief of Police; a seemingly racist, fanatically Catholic bully who longs for the sophistication of French food and wine in the middle of a dusty South American suburb. Besouro tricks him to attend a ‘Roda’, a meeting of capoeiristas, with Gordilho’s subsequent humiliation indirectly having tragic circumstances.

Beating through the heart of this tale is the Brazilian art form capoeira, a mixture of dance, martial arts and games here choreographed by Carlo Alexandre Teixeira da Silva, which each member of this cast seems fluent in. They tumble and sweep around one another like lion cubs, testing out their strength and agility with each encounter. It perfectly fits Besouro’s conviction, confrontation with no violence; instead it is a beautiful and almost spiritual way of sparring, combining deep strength with elegant intelligence. Accompanied by a berimbau, drums and song it is these moments of capoeria which are closest to the trance like state of the Bacchae although in a sense it is also the polar opposite; being a much more mellow form of meditation than the frantic feasting and celebration of the women of Thebes.

Indeed although this is a powerful piece, it is hard to see the similarities with The Bacchae and it is a pity that writer Frances Viner felt the need to attach Besouro’s story to that of the Greek ‘God of Wine’ and his frenzied Bacchalian woman. It is here that this piece falls into flimsier territory, trying to make a story fit a shape it’s not naturally predisposed to be. It never quite convinces of its connection with Euripides’ tragedy and instead through Viner’s attempts to do this we have a story which is too long in some parts and in others too opaque. This all results in a show which isn’t quite sure of what it’s saying – is it a Greek tragedy about the Gods manipulating humanity violently and revengefully, or the tale of an oppressed minority which faces fear and oppression from a ruling elite who are scared of the unknown? It could have been both but sadly Noah Birksted-Breen’s production does not quite reach either as a result no continuous momentum is really found and there is no thrilling climax to match the down fall of King Pentheus
of Thebes.

What we do have here however are some shining performances from our leads and a confident and fluid team of players and musicians who, with great grace, delight the audience with their charm and style. Daon Broni’s Besouro is as strong as a lion and he rolls Viner’s thickly rich lines around his mouth as though they are honey, presenting a very engaging and charismatic leader. Greg Hicks’ Gordilho is a bundle of aggression and nerves and his desperation is truly touching. An outsider in his own right his persecution of the Afro-Brazilians is heartbreaking to watch because he seems so pathetically needy of the love of one of them; the woman he killed.

Vibrant and gentle, skilful and at times all encompassing, In Blood: The Bacchae begins with Teixeira da Silva entering the space, his strong lone presence silencing the room in preparation as he moves around. Sweeping and ducking effortlessly he is a capoeirista with complete and utter control and as he stares individuals in the eye making a sweep of the three sided audience an instant and direct connection is made that is at the heart of all great theatrical story telling. With such a forceful beginning, it is a shame that within this passionate but convoluted piece there were not more moments such as this and that The Bacchae made it impossible to feel the true spiritual and playful power of In Blood.

In Blood: The Bacchae runs at the Arcola Theatre until 31st January

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Cabaret - Theatre Royal Brighton

Cabaret by Kander & Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos
Reviewer: John Roberts

This touring production of Rufus Norris’s hit West End revival of Kander & Ebbs award wining musical has been on tour since May last year. Starring young 18 year old Samantha Barks as Sally Bowles, being one of the finalists from BBC’s I’d Do Anything this show is better by the fact that she didn’t win the role of Nancy for the West End’s revival of Oliver.

This production wowed audiences during its revival in the west end, and got them applauding in Birmingham when this touring production first started, but it looks like the life on the road is starting to take its toll on this show.

Telling the story of Sally Bowles and her work as a sexy cabaret performer in the Kit Kat Klub of 1930’s Berlin, this show oozes great musical numbers and Javier De Frutos’ sexy and ravishing choreography really brings a hedonistic feel to the proceedings helped along the way with racy costume designs by Katrina Lindsay, who’s black box stage design also helps the action move along without the need for cumbersome and overlong scene changes, but what was the point of the Chicago-esqe ladders?

Rufus Norris’s direction is clean and brings a freshness and sexier Cabaret than is usually performed but there were some ideas that seemed a little lacking and unfinished, not that I am a prude, far from it, but for me it feels like questions of ‘what am I saying with this moment?’ seem to have been misplaced for the desire to shock and titillate rather than strengthen the story that needs to be told or the message that is intended to get across to the audience.

Cabaret has two iconic roles, the first being Emcee played in this production by Wayne Sleep, it is unfortunate that when seeing this production his performance lacked any real charisma or stage presence, his singing voice was ok if a bit wobbly at times, but his performance lacked energy meaning the pace of the production slipped and dragged whenever he was on stage.

The second of these roles is Sally Bowles, and it is the professional debut performance of Samantha Barks that steals the limelight from all around her, not only is she very easy on the eyes, but her singing voice is sensational and her performance of ‘Maybe this Time’ will stay in this reviewers mind as probably the best rendition of the song I’ve ever heard. Samantha really is a professional triple threat and will no doubt be a big name in years to come.

Other notable performances come from Suanne Braun as Fraulein Kost, and Theo Cook also making his professional debut as the Young Nazi.

This is a production that could have swept me off my feet, but with a book that is starting to show its age, and performances that are under-coloured and under energised, one cant help feeling that a cast change or some re-direction is needed to bring this production back into its sexy size 8’s that it belongs rather than the cumbersome size 16’s that is grown into during the last six months.

Cabaret is on at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 17th January.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Mary Goes First, Orange Tree Theatre

Mary Goes First by Henry Arthur Jones
Director: Auriol Smith
Reviewer: Diane Higgins

The Christmas and New Year season at the Orange Tree Theatre opens with Mary Goes First, a comedy written by Henry Arthur Jones and directed by Auriol Smith. The play was first performed in 1913 and this gives us an entertaining reflection of those times, taking us through the local and national politics of the time and the etiquette required and developing position of women of a certain class in the social order of that era. It was set against a backdrop of the Liberal government of Asquith and the ongoing fight for women’s’ suffrage.

Mary Goes First is truly a comedy based on the manners and social status of the time and written about the clash between the wives of two local gentlemen. One is a professional man and the other a tough talking, newly ‘self-made’ one, who though not born into the upper class has improved his and his wife’s social position by dint of his earnings and his skill in using local and national politics.

The play is set in the drawing room of a young, up and coming lawyer in the northern manufacturing town of Warkinstall. He hosts an evening dinner party. Following the correct social etiquette at the time, the host would offer his arm and be accompanied by the lady guest of the highest social rank, when going into dinner. Mary Whichello is the superior, ambitious and outspoken lady, always previously accustomed to ‘going first’ on these occasions. Her position is usurped at the dinner party by a local arch rival Fanny Bodsworth, a grocer’s daughter who’s husband has been knighted in recognition of his financing and building of a local sanatorium. This rankles and turns Mary against her rival.

In three parallel subplots, there then emerges a series of personal clashes both between the two women and then their two husbands, keeping us amusingly entertained as the play unfolds. At the dinner party, where the new Lady Bodsworth (Claire Carrie) ‘comes first’, Mary (Susan Trayling) is critical of the woman she considers to be a vulgar upstart, with her blond hairpiece and powdered cheeks. She accuses her of being an ‘impropriety’, suggesting she is a “Fille de joie” and the worst of examples for the young ladies employed in Lord Brodsworth’s enterprises.
This ‘impropriety’ jibe results in the Brodsworths threatening to sue Mary for slander and sparks off a bitter social rivalry between the two women.

There are many amusing verbal exchanges, good uses of body language and eye contact between them. Mary at one stage employs the phrase “My dear Lady Brodsworth” several times in a mocking way, each time maliciously poking fun at her rival, who shows her annoyance and embarrassment. Mary seeks to retrieve her position through pushing her husband to better himself (and so herself), against his will, to become the local Liberal MP . Richard Whichello’s main interest is to play golf and his political aspirations soon evaporate comically and are taken on by the eloquent young lawyer instead. Having failed in this plan, Mary tries and succeeds in reinstating an ancient baronetcy for her husband thus recovering her social position through him.

This smoothly moving and seemingly old-fashioned play, particularly in some of its language and expressions, encompasses many modern ideas. It teaches us that over time our society has changed very little. Manoeuvring for social status, political wrangling at both local and national levels and the ways in which honours are bestowed in ‘cash-for-honours’ scenarios, have been and still are very current issues.

The Orange Tree theatre, with the ‘stage’ and actors intimately enclosed on all sides by the audience, lends itself perfectly to this play. All four acts are set completely within the confines of a Edwardian drawing room and we all had the benefit of seeing and hearing the words, ‘asides’, nuances and gestures of the actors in an interesting, almost three dimensional form. Susie Trayling and Claire Carrie are excellent in their roles as social rivals and most expert in playing off each other. The rest of the company are well cast too. All the actors’ enunciation and timings really maximise on the features of the unusual Orange Tree setting in a most skilful way, a real tribute both to them and their excellent direction. Made for a very enjoyable evening.

Photos: Robert Day
Mary Goes First runs until the 30th January 2009

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Three Women - Jermyn Street Theatre

Three Women By Sylvia Plath
Director: Robert Shaw
Reviewer: Honor Bayes

The Jermyn Street Theatre’s walls are a pale blue and in cream frames are babies clothes pasted to the background like Grecian reliefs. Into this supposedly hospital (but actually Jane Austen sitting room) like space, Voice 1, Voice 2 and Voice 3 enter. Flesh and blood women; they somehow float over the powerful words they speak, beautifully intoning but never getting their vocal cords dirty. In fact apart from one slash of red light, there is no visceral link to the passion and pain or the blood and tears that has marked Sylvia Plath’s legacy in Robert Shaw’s beautifully tame production.

3 Women is a little known radio play by Plath which was published in the same year as her most famous poem Ariel and and ahailed a worthy forerunner of this piece in terms of quality. In it Plath manages to elegantly, violently and with cut glass beauty detail fragile and precarious emotions as three women go through the life changing experiences of having birth, having a miscarriage and choosing to have a child adopted. The text is as raw and vulnerable as a new born baby, and as painfully beautiful and awe-inspiring as the process of child birth itself. It is wonderful that this neglected work is finally on display.

The cast is a capable one. Elisabeth Dahl as the mother (voice 1) plays her part with a deep serenity if a little too much passivity, as the secretary (voice 2) Tilly Fortune bristles with unjust anger at her lot and convincingly portrays her feeling of betrayal at the ‘flat’ men who run her world and at a fickle mother nature. Lastly the young Lara Lemon (Voice 3) as the student who gives up her child invokes Plath’s younger self in body passionately, even though the tears glistening in her eyes never quite ring true.

Robert Shaw’s direction is by the book but offers no dialogue with Plath’s impressive text. He is deeply wedded to her script and knows each contour and curve and yet he seems unable to challenge or question it and therefore it is a pastel version of a vibrant piece. Conflict, so implicit within the text is nowhere to be seen, only compliance and passive representation. In short Shaw’s direction strokes, when what it needs to do is grab this piece by the balls.

This is a well acted and strongly directed version of a ground shaking and soul breaking text and it is definitely easy on the eye, focusing as it seems to on the delicate femininity of Plath’s text. But where is the paper cut edge in ‘And from the open mouth issue sharp cries/Scratching at my sleep like arrows/Scratching at my sleep’? Where is the weird fascination when: on looking at new born babies, the mother says, ‘I think they are made of water; they have no expression/Their features are sleeping, like light on quiet water’? Said with gentle sympathy and competent lyricism, these lines, as with most in this production, are never fully embodied to their complete meaning.

A beautiful and calm production, but one as flat as the men described along the way, Shaw’s version floats along and is ultimately unable to fully penetrate Plath’s intricate poetry. The last stanza ends with fierce optimism as the secretary who has been beleagued with miscarriage after seeming miscarriage (or is it her choice; abortion – an optional reading in the text – is completely ignored here) speaks of ‘The little grasses/Crack through stone, and they are green with life’. Instead of heralding hope, in this production this line peters through and suddenly we are at an end, clapping the actresses - blink and you’ll miss it. For all this however, this is a show worth going to experience, even if the visual is somewhat swoopy, Plath’s forgotten masterpiece will completely carry you away.

Photo: Marilyn Kingwill
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