Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Duet for One - Richmond Theatre

Duet for One by Tom Kempinski
Director: Matthew Lloyd

Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

The man in row G had something when on reading his programme he said to his companion “This doesn’t look much like a barrel of laughs”.

It has been said that no-one considering music as a career should do so if they can possibly imagine themselves being happy doing anything else. Perhaps they should also read Karl Lutchmayer’s doom laden introduction to the play, though bearing in mind that his is fortunately not the only opinion. After all, do not most of us, as he writes, continually walk “a tightrope between supreme self-confidence and a nagging fear that exposition as a fake is just around the corner”?

The beautifully detailed set by Lez Brotherton at first resembles a typical Victorian psychiatrist’s consulting room. Its restful green walls, and the couch on which no-one actually lies are illuminated by Jason Taylor’s sunlight pouring through the Venetian blinds, which are occasionally lifted as more light is shed on the story. Books line the walls floor to ceiling but the give-away beady red eye of the elaborate hi-fi system draws attention to the hundreds of CDs and tapes on the shelves bringing us firmly up to date. Plants flourish on the windowsills inside and out. A large and spiky cactus on a side table stage left confronts a peace lily on the doctor’s desk, foreshadowing the unfolding tale. We are in Harley Street.

Psychological dramas by their nature rely upon the disclosure of unpleasant secrets and the starting point of this story is sad enough. A woman is denied the fulfilment of her life’s work by progressive illness. The play could equally well have been written about a dancer, an athlete, Beethoven. In fact it applies to any one of us who, if we live long enough, will eventually be overtaken by physical limitations.

Henry Goodman and Juliet Stevenson as doctor and patient play their roles perfectly. One would expect nothing less. He is the fatherly confidant who can turn fierce in the interests of others. She may not look 42 but her delicate physique is a perfect vehicle for the portrayal of the invalid’s robotic walk and sudden falls which produce gasps of concern from the audience. The mental and physical energy to carry this three and a half hour dialogue is monumental, but how dull their CVs are in the programme. We are not entitled to know their intimate secrets but it would be nice to have some indication that they really are human beings and not just consummate players up there for our entertainment.

Director Matthew Lloyd puts much movement into what could be an extremely static production. Was Thomas Gould really playing the violin back stage or was that just the expertise of John Leonard’s sound engineering? Even Juliet Stevenson’s hair style had its part to play. Did Cally Bone, the make up supervisor, attack her with an egg whisk to produce that frazzled look mid evening before combing her out again for her final scenes?

For all its length it gives the impression that this is only Chapter One of the relationship between Dr Feldman and the unfortunate Stephanie Abrahams and one moral that can be dra` 1wn from the story so far is this. If your child wants to do something extraordinary with its life you must, at your peril, support it every step of the way, especially if it all ends in tears.

Duet for One runs at the Richmond Theatre until Sat 4th April 2009

Hot Flush- Darlington Civic Theatre

Hot Flush
Book: Julie Benson
Music & Lyrics: Olly Ashmore
Director: Alan Cohen

Choreography: Roger Hannah
Reviewer: Ian Cain

The last few years have seen a plethora of theatre productions aimed at a predominantly female audience. There’s been ‘The Vagina Monologues’, ‘Mum’s The Word’, ‘Grumpy Old Women’, ‘Calendar Girls’ and ‘The Naked Truth’ to name only a few. Now, though, this uplifting celebration of womanhood extends itself to include the menopause in the form of ‘Menopause: The Musical’, ‘Women On The Verge Of HRT’ and ‘Hot Flush!’

Darlington Civic Theatre was filled to capacity last night as the latter, ‘Hot Flush!’, began a week-long stint at the venue. Needless to say, the majority of the audience comprised middle-aged women who were intent on enjoying an evening to remember!

The musical invites us to meet Myra, Sylvia, Helen and Jessica – four ordinary women who are each going through the menopause. They meet every Tuesday evening in a local bar to offer each other moral support, cry on one another’s shoulders, gossip and malign the men in their lives. Collectively, they refer to themselves as ‘The Hot Flush Club.’

A stellar cast is led by the irrepressible and multi-talented Lesley Joseph as Myra, a successful barrister, whose husband, Howard, has left her for ‘some big busted blonde bimbo.’ Miss Joseph’s portrayal of heavy drinking, heavy smoking Myra has the audience cackling with delight as she dispenses with any inhibitions and gives the role all she’s got.Hilary O’Neil plays Sylvia, an American woman, who having become bored with her husband Joe, embarks upon a lustful affair with Myra’s eighteen year-old son, Damian.

Anne Smith is Helen, a widow who struggles to cope with her lonely existence since her husband died and her daughter, Kathryn, left home to go to university. Ruth Keeling completes the female line-up as Jessica, the fat, frumpy church fund-raiser, whose husband spends most of his time in the garden shed.

Each of the four women delivers a performance worthy of acclaim as they skilfully wring laughter and tears, in equal measure, from Julie Benson’s script. As the individual stories of each of the women unfold and become interwoven, the comedy and pathos alternate in quick succession.

However, the show is almost stolen from the ladies by Sam Kane. His tour-de-force performance sees him play an array of male characters in a ‘revealing’ role that shows off the most pert buttocks that any woman could or would wish to get her hands on.

The inclusion of some witty songs by Olly Ashmore – one of which sees Lesley Joseph descending into the stalls to sing it whilst sitting on the lap of an unsuspecting male – adds to the fun and frothy frivolity of the evening.

The production combines elements of revue, cabaret, musical and comedy in a way that appeals to its target audience with aplomb. The set is simple yet effective and is made up of four platforms and recesses, representing the abode of each of the women. Scene changes are few and far between, allowing the storyline to dominate the evening’s proceedings. Alan Cohen’s direction ensures that the action never loses momentum and Roger Hannah’s sassy choreography adds to the overall enjoyment of the piece.

Although ‘Hot Flush!’ may be a risqué, raunchy, raucous rollercoaster ride through the menopause it seems apparent from the riotous roars of approval, which brought the house down, that the show strikes a chord with more than just a few members of the audience. It is the sort of show that works best with an audience who are prepared to enter into the spirit of sisterhood and accept the pros and cons of femininity – hot flushes and all!

Hot Flush runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 4th April 2009

Monday, 30 March 2009

We Will Rock You - Manchester Palace Theatre

We Will Rock You
Music/Lyrics: Queen
Book: Ben Elton
Director: Ben Elton
Choreography: Arlene Philips
Reviewer: Phillipa Jenkins

Manchester’s Palace Theatre was last night transformed as I have never before seen it. Outside lay the red carpet and waiting paparazzi, inside the foyer was awash with a whole host of eagerly excited patrons; families, Queen fans, celebrities. The auditorium was buzzing with anticipation and huge glitter balls hung from the ceiling, alongside enormous newly constructed rigging that ran across the front of the stage. This long-awaited rock musical had finally arrived.

Set in the future, the narrative tells of a society wherein ‘real’ music and all instruments are banned, and everyone is forced to resign themselves to the ‘Computer Recorded Anodyne Pop’ (I’ll leave the reader to construct the acronym…) distributed by huge corporations. An interesting concept, and one that obviously attempts to comment on the current status of the music industry, however it was a little slow to start and could perhaps have been told a little more coherently. Saying this, it didn’t impair my enjoyment of the show in any way. With a whole host of Queen hits, the story acts as a catalyst for these monster rock anthems, and you simply can’t fail to be swept along in the tide of enthusiasm and music, relishing the chance to clap along wherever possible.

Put simply, there were no let-down performances in this show. The role of Khashoggi was taken by Jonathan Wilkes, whose performance I feel was somewhat sadly overshadowed by the fact he brought Robbie Williams along to sit in the audience; I doubt any of the screaming girls were focusing much on the show as a result. He took on the role confidently and competently; now a musical theatre stalwart; and it was clear he was relishing the opportunity to play a ‘baddie’.

A hugely enjoyable performance from X Factor finalist Brenda Edwards was if I’m honest, somewhat of a surprise for me. She had the audience in stitches with her comical interpretation of the Killer Queen, and was more than happy to poke fun at herself and the ongoing brand of reality talent shows that we endure. And my, what a voice. She was tremendous. Kevin Kennedy was superb in his role as the old hippy librarian, and the vocals from the entire cast were exceptional, including the lead of Galileo; played by Alex Gaumond.

The show boasts an impressive set, possibly the most audacious a set I’ve seen at the Palace in years, and makes good use of digital media, which only served to reinforce the spectacle aspect. An intentionally daft show, with a script by Manchester University graduate Ben Elton who also directs and choreography by Mancunian Arlene Phillips, it was an event for everyone, Queen fan or not, and seemed very much on home turf.

I also found myself oddly emotional at ‘The Good Die Young’, which dedicates itself to a host of musical legends with obviously the most poignant being Freddie Mercury. The musical ended with a heart-stopping finale, and stop my heart did when Roger Taylor and Brian May emerged for a unforgettable opening-night encore of Bohemian Rhapsody. Needless to say the auditorium erupted in a frenzy, and once my heart recovered I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience.

Fairly sceptical prior to entering the theatre, I will definitely go and see this show again, which is possibly the best recommendation one can give. Ambitious, colourful, unashamedly daft, and with sensational musical performances from each and every cast and band member. Quite simply, the most fun I’ve had at the theatre for years.

We Will Rock You runs at the Palace Theatre until Sat 6th June 2009

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Spring Awakening - Novello Theatre, London

Spring Awakening
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Book & Lyrics: Steven Sater
Music: Duncan Sheik
Director: Michael Mayer
Chroeography: Bill T Jones
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

There’s definitely something in the air at the Novello Theatre since the arrival of Spring Awakening, the pop/punk/thrash musical which has been taking the Lyric Hammersmith by storm. Crackling with edgy sex appeal and blistering new music this really is the indie rock star of the current West End scene, slicing through the old establishment with a microphone in one hand and a 10 page essay on human reproduction in the other.

Spring Awakening is based on the groundbreaking and controversial 19th century German play by Frank Wedekind of the same name, which criticised the sexually-oppressive culture and ripe parental repression of the time and presents a vivid dramatisation of the erotic fantasies that this oppression inevitably bred. The musical has stayed as true as it can to this exploration of passionate teenage lusts, wounds and wants whilst also giving it a squarely postmodern identity; the rock/pop score speaking loud and clear to the ever growing 'Skins' generation of uber cool teens.

By encasing this tragic story of teen suicide, abortion and sexual abuse in an alt-rock environment it is true that it has lost some of the darkness that is so all encompassing in Wedekind’s original, but what it brings to the text is a modern means of self expression which perfectly captures today’s frustrated youth. Who hasn’t wanted to grab a microphone and punch out some angsty punk-rock after an argument with their parents, partner or boss? Indeed, although pop music speaks most obviously to teenagers, its well worn and much used archetypes strike chords in us all.

And so although this is clearly by its very nature an adolescent musical, it is also an incredibly good one, whipping up old and young alike in it’s youthful enthusiasm. Steven Sater’s book and lyrics and Duncan Sheik’s music come together perfectly with pumping group rock numbers, tender ballads and transporting harmonies, making this one of the best new scores - or indeed old - around.

Christine Jones' set and Susan Hilferty's costume design lend the whole evening a Clockwork Orange meets Vivian Westwood edge and the constantly present wireless mics bring a pleasantly unusual distancing effect that has parallels with one of Wedekind's contemporaries, Bertolt Brecht.

The young cast are universally outstanding, each bringing a unique brilliance to their characters and working together with a sense of commitment and understanding of ensemble which belays their age and inexperience. Punchy and dynamic they convey both pleasure and pain with acute realism. Aneurin Barnard and Charlotte Wakefield as the tragic lovers are particularly mesmerising.

Sometimes it is hard to hear the lyrics, and Moritz's journey, which leads him to suicide, is not mapped out as clearly as it could be. But in the face of a force-of-nature, such as this production is, it is hard to remember these slight moments of failure. Spring Awakening is the best musical to have come out of this postmodern culture so far; it will raise you up and isn't afraid to knock you down and even if it falls into the archetypes of its predecessors, it never loses its integrity.

Photos: Helen Maybanks
Spring Awakening runs at the Novello Theatre for more information click here

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) - New Floral Pavillion, New Brighton

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)
Written by Adam Long, Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor
Director: Matt Rippy
Reviewer: Marie Kenny

I’ve never read the Bible, I have no intention of reading it, but I do love stories.

I especially like stories with a moral and according to the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the Bible is ‘The greatest story ever accepted as fact’. Playing to a sold out audience at the brand new Floral Pavillion, last night I finally got to see the Reduced Shakespeare Company, something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time.

‘The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)’ sees three performers reduce the Bible down to less than two hours. The show has been touring the UK since January this year, but was created in 1997 and even ran for two years in the West End. Back in 1997 it was considered controversial, but it takes a lot more to shock audiences these days. In all honestly, for even the most hardcore God loving population, there’s very little to find offensive in this tongue-in-cheek comedy.

From Adam and Eve in fig leaves, the Old Testament is swiftly covered through high energy sketches in the first act and then the New Testament equally swiftly in the second act. The show is filled with non-stop humour, character changes, singing and even a bit of dancing too. They’ve given it a modern spin with references to Deal or No Deal and the potential risks involved in going on a night out with Steven Gerrard.

With Noah’s Ark quickly brushed aside in the first act, William Meredith brings it back in the second act with his replica ark which is ‘accidentally’ destroyed by Simon Cole. Called up in pairs members of the audience are given an animal and an action for the song ‘Old man Noah had an ark’. With the threat of a super-soaker hanging over them, the rest of the audience joined in too. Borderline pantomime, but they just about get away with it.

Unsurprisingly then, this is a flawless, polished, finely tuned act, delivered by three extremely talented all-round performers. These guys work hard, they are rarely off stage and if they are, they’ll probably be doing a God-like voice over or doing a super-slick costume change in a matter of seconds. It’s so polished that even Jack Bennett’s improvised ‘mistakes’ are perfect and really not improvised at all.

They do their research and make parts of the show relevant to the town they are in, a personal touch which went down well at the Floral. After making a hasty retreat at the end, they appear in the foyer to thank the audience individually as they leave. It was nice to see the theatre buzz with such a witty, clever, thoroughly entertaining show. A joy to watch, I hope they’ll be back soon.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Measure for Measure - Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Glover
Music: Simon Allen
Reviewer: Lilla Grindlay

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's most perplexing plays. A comedy that often seems more like a tragedy, it is set in a Vienna teeming with corruption and lust.

The play opens with the Duke of Vienna embarking on a mysterious journey, leaving his Puritanical Deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo wastes no time in enforcing the laws against immorality that the Duke has let slip. The jails are soon full of drunks and prostitutes - and amongst the prisoners is a gentleman, Claudio, condemned to death just for getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant. Claudio's virtuous sister Isabella pleads with Angelo to save her brother's life, leading to an unexpected turn of events. She inflames Angelo's lust, and he becomes obsessed with sleeping with her. Meanwhile, we soon discover that the Duke's journey is a ruse: he instead remains in the city disguised as a friar, watching to see whether Angelo will become corrupted by new-found power.

Jamie Glover's production transferred the play from Shakespeare's times to the world of Dickens, complete with frock coats, top hats and hooped skirts. A seediness and hypocrisy often lurks beneath the outward respectability of Victorian society, so the interpretation suited the themes of the play perfectly. The set, designed by Andrew D Edwards, was a superbly dark and seedy affair, dry ice and a dampened wall reflecting the sordid underbelly of a Victorian city. Chris Davey's atmospheric lighting fitted the play's mood well, but felt a little too dim at times.

As the play progresses, Angelo's hypocritical and despotic acts increase, as he resorts to more and more desperate measures to possess Isabella. Jason Merrells - a well-known name from television - tapped chillingly into the sense of tortured villainy that underpins this role. The other big name headlining the performance was Alistair McGowan, who brought a sense of engaging complexity to the role of the Duke, though it was when he was playing the lighter lines that the stage really lit up. He used his talents of mimicry to the full to adopt a Scottish accent when in disguise - a little off-putting at the start, though brilliantly sustained.

Emma Lowndes was a passionately virtuous but occasionally laboured Isabella. Her counterpart Deirdre Mullins spoke Shakespeare's lines with a real flexibility and ease, although she was only playing the much smaller role of Angelo's jilted fiancée Mariana.

Measure for Measure may be set in a city that is named as Vienna, but there is little doubt that Shakespeare was reflecting the London he saw around him. The Globe, where many of his plays were performed, stood in the same area as some of the city's most notorious brothels. The lighter side of the play comes when Shakespeare was writing about prostitutes and drunks and a host of colourful characters played these lines expertly for laughs, notably Dona Croll's Mistress Overdone and Robert Goodale's hilariously malopropising policeman Elbow. The most memorable performance of the night was that of Patrick Kennedy who as the louche and engagingly unreliable Lucio was a joy to watch.

Measure for Measure runs at the Yvonne Arnaud until Sat 28th March 09

Great Expectations - Liverpool Playhouse

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Director: Tim Baker
Reviewer: Marie Kenny

What a difference a day makes. One day you could be contemplating a life of poverty. The next day, someone mysterious could come along with a bag full of cash and want to turn your life around. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ is a classic ‘rags to riches’ story, with some unrequited love thrown in there too. Adapted to the stage by Tim Baker, the novel is condensed into a two hour production which is easy to follow, quite an achievement for such a big story. Along with composer Dyfan Jones, Baker’s intention was to add a new layer to the story through music and song. Musical director and pianist, Greg Palmer is a permanent fixture to the side of the stage and plays some lovely pieces. However, whether they all actually fit is another matter.

Set against a backdrop of dark clouds and candles along the front of the stage, the staging is very simple and yet atmospheric for 19th century England. Along the back there are eight seats for the actors to watch the performance from and step into the action when required to do so. This ensures a smooth flow to the piece and creates an interesting vision, with excellent costume design by Mark Bailey. When brought together onstage there are some truly beautiful musical ensemble pieces from the cast.

Pip, played by Steven Meo, narrates the piece and also plays his part in a series of flashback scenes, from a childhood encounter with escaped convict Magwitch to his continuing love as an adult for Estella. He is transformed from a blacksmith’s apprentice into a London gentleman, which has it’s own problems. Yet, I didn’t really care about them or his plight. Perhaps this was due to the ever-approaching distraction of the next song. Hard to tell.

Vivien Parry takes on the role of Miss Havisham, the decaying, jilted bride, who lives a life of perpetual devastation and heartbreak. Her hatred towards men extends to her training her adopted daughter, Estella to deliberately break Pip’s heart. Unfortunately, these scenes in particular are really not enhanced by the addition of music. Instead it feels like Miss Havisham becomes more of a caricature and consequently any heartbreak I should have been focusing on, was replaced by me hoping it wouldn’t turn into song, which, of course, it inevitably did.

Some light relief and amusement comes from Simon Watts, playing Pip’s friend Herbert. He fills his song with an energy that works and functions to bring the story along. Likewise, a touching performance from Steffan Rhodri as Joe gives us a glimpse of perhaps what Baker had intended the music to achieve.

This production benefits from an extremely tight and talented cast, but it’s caught somewhere between a musical and classic prose. Great Expectations is an ambitious experiment with inconsistent results.

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Great Expectations runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 28th March 09

Brief Encounter - Lowry Theatre

Brief Encounter by Noel Coward
Adaptor/Director: Emma Rice
Musical Director: Pete Judge
Reviewer: Iris Beaumont

Stepping into the auditorium you were sent back to the 1930’s almost instantaneously as you are greeted by musicians and singers wandering up and down the aisles singing classic 1930’s Noel Coward numbers, and puts you right into the ambiance needed to recreate the classic black and white film live on stage.

I went to the theatre expecting a stage adaptation of the film, but director Emma Rice has gone back to the original Noel Coward play which tells the tale of three lovelorn couples, the first being Stanley the Bath Bun seller and the not so bright cafe assistant Beryl and were played out beautifully by Beverly Rudd and Christopher Price. Annette McLaughlin and Joseph Alessi brought to live the second of the couples and the steamy love affair between Myrtle (the cafe owner) who sees herself above everyone else and wouldn’t be seen to admit the affair with Albert was ever taking place. Then we have our third couple played by Hannah Yelland and Milo Twomey who play the couple the film focuses on (Laura and Alec.)

Emma Rice has created a brilliant night of theatre that cleverly fuses live action with film and blends them so seamlessly that the flow together with seer pace and excitement bringing Laughter one moment pathos the next, that there were clear indications of tissues being used to wipe tears from eyes amongst the audience.

Neil Murray must be given high praise for the ingenuity of his set design , that helps excel the narrative from one place to another with ease and, along-side his costume designs again brought a touch of 1930’s class to the proceedings.

This is a production that you can clearly see that everyone involved are having the time of their lives, giving their all to the fantastic characterisations and to the songs which are directed with panache by musical director Pete Judge.

I for one will be highly recommending this production to all my friends and family and can’t wait to see another kneehigh production in the future.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - St Stephens, Hampstead

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe By C.S Lewis
Adaptor: Adrian Mitchell
Director: John Risebero & Ben Horslen
Reviewer: Becky Middleton

A church can be an ideal venue for gigs and plays, not just the weekly sermon. St Stephen’s, Hampstead, built in 1869, has lain derelict for the last twenty years, becoming a home to squatters and vandals who contributed to its dilapidation by stealing fittings, breaking windows and defacing the interior and exterior. But thanks to the Heritage Fund, English Heritage and several private investors, £4 million has been raised to restore the church to its former glory. And it was this sacred backdrop that played host to the lively and charming adaptation of the C. S. Lewis classic. Dry ice swirls around the black stage stretched from one side of the formerly derelict church to the other. The tinkling background music that greets audiences on their arrival is creepy and suitably atmospheric.

But it is a shame that this production was not big enough to fill the cavernous interior. As soon as the well-known story of the four Pevensie children, who get evacuated from London during the Second World War to a country mansion and discover Narnia through a magic wardrobe, gets underway, it seems that there is something missing. Looking up at the players on the raised-level stage in the vast interior of the venue, it is as if the hollows of the building dominate the production; the stage and actors dwarfed by its size.

A pleasing and enthusiastic Lucy, (Jayne Dickinson) projects her voice in textbook style; cute and lively. Peter, (Tom Radford) Edmund, (Dylan Kennedy) and Susan (Lorna Stuart) are faultless siblings each bringing their own magic to the land of Narnia. The nervous, enthusiastic dithering of the brilliant Mr Tumnus (Ross Hugill) is notable, as is Edmund’s youthful immaturity and eagerness to both antagonise his siblings and adhere to the white witch’s evil plans. Aslan, (Obioma Ugoala) emerges from backstage like a dreadlocked Joseph minus his Technicolor dreamcoat, bedecked in gold and ready to save the day.

But it is only in the group scenes such as the excellent execution of Aslan that the space comes alive and one can truly be enchanted by the well-known tale. The many voices chanting the demise of the great king reaches out and chills the audience.

The musical element is questionable. Well-sung, undoubtedly, but an outburst of song is surprising, and the rhyming of ‘turkish-delight’ with ‘it’s chewy and bright’ would have Lewis himself turning in his grave. Saying this, the eerie Macbeth witch-esque chanting of Aslan’s slaying is both haunting and suitably scary, one of the several occasions where the amateur musical style works.

The production runs until April 19 at St Stephen’s, Hampstead.

The Overcoat - Lyric Hammersmith

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
Created by Gecko
Director: Amit Lahav
Reviewer: John Roberts

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, exiting artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith David Farr approached Gecko to create a new piece of theatre based on Gogol's The Overcoat. This would be a new venture for Gecko, who not only are used to presenting small scale studio productions, but who have also never adapted anything before...but director Amit Lahav saw all the quintessential elements that have been present in past Gecko productions and took a stab in creating a new production.

Akakki is a lonely person, living in a doldrum existence of office work and paying his rent and his sexual fixation (or is this just a desire of wanting to be loved) of his female work colleague. It's only when his desire for a new overcoat takes over, do we see a new and emotional Akakki...but what he fails to see is that sometimes chasing who we are not by pretending to be someone we aren't is when things can turn out worse that what we first imagined it to be like.

Director Amit Lahav working closely with his designer Ti Green, lighting designer James Francombe and musical composer Dave Price have created a theatrical world that is not only rich in melancholy and macabre but also of innate beauty and peace. Green's creative monochromatic set helps realise Akakki's faded and depressed world, whilst Francombe's lighting really plays games with the images we see in the shadows (whether real or in our minds eye!) and has produced some of the most stunningly lit scenes I have ever seen. Price’s music really connects on a visceral level, at times the magnitude of his compositions really effecting how you feel both physically and emotionally throughout the piece.

Lahav and the company have devised some stunning scenes and choreography; the making of Akakki’s bedroom, the sinking through the bed to the land beyond sleep and the pure menace of the opening minute will visually stay with me for a long time.

Gecko’s ability to produce a show where virtually no English is spoken and still be able to keep your audience’s attention is no mean feat and on the whole this is one of this productions strongest suits...but unfortunately for this reviewer far too much time was taken up to the moment of Akakki taking the overcoat, and this makes his downward spiral happen and end all too quickly, something which a sharp ten minute cut (the production is 70 minutes) could fix quite nicely. The audience would still feel they have seen something truly unique as you really do get so much for you money.

Not only does Lahav direct but he also places himself in the lead role of Akakki and does so with a real physical presence and depth of emotion, but it is Natalie Ayton who shines bright in this dark production and gives the character of Akakki a warm and rounded character to really fall for...I don’t think it was just Akakki who fell for her charm, I have a feeling she won the hearts of many of audience in tonight’s performance

This is a fantastic production and although a lot darker than I was expecting, it really does pack a punch and will leave you with images that will never leave your theatrical memories.

The Overcoat runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until Sat 11th April 2009

Scar Stories

Scar Stories by Patrizia Paolini
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

The premise for Scar Stories has the surreally sweet undertone of the French film Amelie - Patrizia Paolini has a scar on her chin and is on a quest to find a man with the same scar, acquired in the same way, so that she can kiss him. But Scar Stories is in no way a straight love story becoming instead an exploration into the question ‘why do we get scarred?’ Looking at both physical and psychological scarring Paolini’s story is mingled inextricably with those of the men she interviews in a free form piece of theatre which sends out powerfully visceral signals even if it lacks the defined edges to communicate them successfully.

Through a number of video interviews, played on an old TV with a basic Mike Leigh functionality which is at times charming and at others edgy, Paolini presents these men, their intimate stories interweaving with the constant presence of Radio Four bringing the news of the world onto a stage which also houses Paolini’s own automatic style of storytelling.

It is an interesting mix, and one which creates a very particular atmosphere which propitiates the idea of freeing the imagination and mind, of breaking out of defined and archaic social methods of communication and seeing ‘if something will happen’. But although this method succeeds in transporting experience and information to the audience through a process of osmosis, it is less successful at speaking directly to individuals and therefore the level of engagement is never really high enough.

This is a deep shame because Scar Stories is an incredibly intimate and vulnerable show; the image of each scarred man raising his head, revealing his jugular and then speaking about his first kiss is gorgeously probing and reminds us that there is magic in the smallest encounters. As soon as one enters Paolini immediately takes her audience in the palm of her hand, defying convention by asking people to leave if they want to and to let her know if something has happened at the end because it rarely does.

But this beautiful bubble of reality is burst as soon as she starts speaking her script, however apparently spontaneous it is, and she loses us. This is the crux of this show; it explores and plays with performance and human stories looking at that all important space in between just existing and living life but Paolini the performer is never able to do what Paolini the interviewer is so brilliant at; going for the jugular of her subject. It is this lack of getting straight answers in all their direct and painful glory that means the audience is unable to grasp onto anything throughout this piece, however freeform it is meant to be, and so are left a bit excluded from its journey. Her story is simple, she says, the implications less so; ultimately for all it’s tender magic one wishes she’d just stuck with the story and left the implications to those living them.

Scarr Stories runs at the BAC until Sat 28th March 2009

Monday, 23 March 2009

All the Fun of the Fair - Sunderland Empire

All The Fun Of The Fair
Book: Jon Conway
Music & Lyrics: David Essex
Director: Nikolai Foster

Reviewer:Ian Cain
Rarely have I ever been more moved by a musical play than I was at last night’s performance of All The Fun Of The Fair. Inspired by the music of David Essex – and starring the legend himself – this contemporary tale of passion, prejudice and personal loss is set in the murky, gritty underworld of a travelling funfair.

Levi Lee (David Essex) is the recently widowed owner of the travelling fair who is still coming to terms with the loss of his wife, Lizzie. He is also struggling to repair the fractured relationship he has with his rebellious teenage son, Jack (Paul-Ryan Carberry) who feels that the fair is hopelessly out of date and in desperate need of a revamp. Matters are made even more complicated by Rosa (Louise English), the attractive gypsy clairvoyant, who predicts that any change will result in grave danger.

David Essex, although no longer the pretty-boy pin-up that he once was, has a somewhat grizzly appeal and he is just as charismatic and as much of a hit with the ladies in the audience as ever. The twinkle of the bright blue eyes and the wry smile is still enough to have them all of a-quiver, yet his performance as Levi also has a sincerity, sensitivity and resonance that is to be acknowledged and applauded. His singing voice now has a gravelly warmth that suits the part perfectly.

Louise English, blessed with a stunning voice and sultry good looks, is perfectly cast as Rosa and she gives a performance that has conviction and depth. During her scenes with Levi the sexual chemistry between the pair is palpable. The exquisite clarity of her singing voice is shown at it’s best during her wistful performance of ‘A Winter’s Tale.’ Indeed, Miss English is a rare commodity and, in every way, she is the archetypal consummate leading lady.

Paul-Ryan Carberry’s performance as Jack is full of attitude and has an edginess that convincingly conveys the impetuousness of youth. Emma Thornett and Tanya Robb contrast beautifully as the two girls vying for Jack’s attentions. Miss Thornett is suitably feisty as Mary, Rosa’s daughter, while Miss Robb is equally successful as the slightly spoiled daughter of local gangster, Harvey.

David Burrows portrays Harvey with an understanding of the role that enables the audience to see him as an over protective father rather than the brutish villain that he actually is. The dark undertones of his character are punctuated by the haplessness of his henchman, Druid, played excellently by Barry Bloxham.

Stefan Butler delivers an endearing performance as Jonny, a simple-minded young outcast who has found a sense of belonging since joining the travellers. The ensemble, comprising Susan Hallam-Wright, Chris Crosby, Nicola Bryan, Phil Lawton, Lara Denning Billy Christy-Cook and Carl Patrick all put in strong performances as other members of fairground folk.

Jon Conway’s writing skilfully reaches out to the audience, pulls at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever been torn in love and takes them on an emotional roller coaster ride. The story wonderfully combines humour and heartache, danger and deception, fun and fear. The inclusion of David Essex’s back catalogue of hits is intrinsic rather than contrived and each song seems to possess a sense of theatricality that reflects the action on stage and validates its inclusion.

The fairground set, designed by Colin Richmond, is authentically evocative and includes stalls, barrows, carousel horses, motor bikes and even a synchronised dodgems sequence. It is brought even more vividly to life by the use of surround sound effects and Steve Jonas is to be congratulated for the sheer effectiveness of this.

Nikolai Foster’s slick and stylish direction is the icing on the cake of this compelling and captivating musical. Indeed, if one were to look into Rosa’s crystal ball, I am sure that a long and successful future lies ahead for All The Fun Of The Fair. It’s a hit!

All The Fun Of The Fair runs at The Sunderland Empire until Saturday 28th March 2009.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Tempest - The Richmond Theatre

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Director: Janice Honeyman
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

A co-production between the Baxter Theatre Centre and the RSC, this production of The Tempest promised to be an exciting, inventive and visual spectacle.

A project first pitched by director Janice Honeyman in 2000, the ‘African’ Tempest exposes themes of enslavement, racism and corruption that have a particular resonance with modern African life and politics – and also anchors this ‘magical’ play in a place where spiritualism, ritual and mysticism still have strong meaning. Honeyman has drawn together the power of African culture and both traditional and original African music, weaving a modern vitality into this classic text.

Anthony Sher gives a strong performance in the central role of Prospero, a man who is at times vehement and forcible, and at others’ wonderfully tender. I was particularly struck by his relationship with Atandwa Kani’s Ariel – on several occasions he tried to make physical contact, but stopped at the last moment. The ritual at the end of the play when he frees Ariel was both symbolic and moving, the washing away of the spirit’s body paint physically representing the breaking of his bonds. John Kani is majestic as Caliban, and his gravitas and vocal power made him a joy to watch. However, the representation of him as a man rather than the expected ‘monster’ works as a comment on slavery, but makes it hard to see him as monstrous and not to sympathise with a dignified older man being badly treated.

Due to the cutting of the play, I felt some of the other characters were not fleshed out as they would be in the full text, however the characters of Sebastian and Trinculo certainly survived this and brought their usual comic relief. I was surprised, and delighted, by Tinarie Van Wyk Loots as Miranda - a role that frequently smacks of saccharine was re-imagined here, with the ingénue daughter appearing as a feral creature amazed by the entrance of civilisation into her world. Some enjoyable comic moments came out of her ‘exploring’ Ferdinand, and in the physical stances she adopted, often moving on all fours or stopping to scratch the soles of her feet. Charlie Keegan also debunked the idea that models can’t act, giving a commendable performance as Ferdinand.

For me, Atandwa Kani’s Ariel was the star of this production, breathing new life into a character whom has been represented as anything from a nymph to a robot and everything in between. From his terrifying harpy (for which he bounced on stilts whilst declaiming and whirling sticks) to his elated cries when his freedom was granted, he was a true pleasure to watch, embodying the character and interacting beautifully with the rest of the cast.

Although cutting the play to two hours seemed a little severe, the story still kept its shape and intensity. With strong performances across the board and amazing puppetry, music and set, this production was both enjoyable and accessible, and succeeded in transporting the Bard’s last play into an exciting “brave new world”.

Photos: Eric Miller.

The Tempest runs at the Richmond Theatre until Sat 28th March 09

Billy Wonderful - Liverpool Everyman

Billy Wonderful by Nick Leather
Director: Serdar Bills

Reviewer: Carl O’Toole

Derby day in Liverpool is the highlight of the football calendar, a day where all over Liverpool people desert the streets and either watching on the television or from the stadium itself. People stop you in the streets to see if you have a ticket they could buy from you, and it is from that point the show actually starts.

Sitting in the cafe waiting for the auditorium to open we are approached by several men all asking for spare tickets to the derby, they then lead into the auditorium where the seats are arranged in the round and the set is a football pitch half red and half blue a simple but ingenious set by Hannah Clark.
Billy has made the team, it’s a the game of a lifetime and he’s soaring it’s his big chance he has waited for this all his life, it’s his chance to score the winning goal in the biggest match of the year, can he do it, can he really believe this is happening, he doesn’t believe in much.

Costumes by Jacquie Davis were straightforward football kits (a blue team and a red team.) Even thou the play skims over twenty two years the kit remains the same for each era, and thou I noticed this it did not in any way detract from what was occurring in the show.

Director Serdar Bills has a hit here! Under his direction the play runs smoothly and flows from act to act without interference, with only five actors taking on all the parts working together as a true ensemble to give an extremely outstanding an
d thoroughly brilliant performance Neil Caple( Billy Snr), David Lyons( Billy) Rob Law (Moz), Shaun Mason(MC) and Micheal Ledwich (Shiner). Simple lighting effects by Ian Scott add to the whole atmosphere. The use of score to show Billy’s age at that particular time of the play and also the score of the Derby is a great little touch.

This is a show that really takes you on a journey and hits your emotions on all levels, if you go and see any football match in the next few we
eks make sure you go to the one that’s on at the Liverpool Everyman.

Billy Wonderful runs at the Liverpool Everyman until Sat 4th April

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Nothing Like the Wooden Horse - The Customs House, South Shields

Nothing Like the Wooden Horse by Tom Kelly
Director: Jac
kie Fielding
Reviewer: Ian Cain

The eve of Wayne’s return to Iraq for another tour of duty brings the usual ritual of banter and a few drinks with Tommy, his granddad, before he leaves. But something is not quite the same this evening.

Tommy and Wayne have both survived their contrasting experiences of the army and as they recount their tales, tonight is the night for a few secrets to be revealed.

Nothing Like The Wooden Horse is a compelling two-hander, beautifully written by Tom Kelly, that captures the impact of war on both men whose experiences appear all too similar but also quite different.

Donald McBride, as Tommy, and Michael Imerson, as Wayne, deliver consummate performances that are honest and poignant throughout, while Kelly’s writing has a warmth and humility that is punctuated by moments of pathos and hilarity in equal measure.

The business of staging two-handed plays is a risky one - it requires two extremely talented performers, a stunning script and a director with an attention for detail that borders on the obsessive – and it can very easily go awry. Nothing Like The Wooden Horse triumphantly suc
ceeds on all levels.

Tom Kelly drew upon the life of his father, who was a German Prisoner Of War in World War Two, when writing the play and, it seems, that this has provided an additional emotional layer to the piece.

Although much of the action takes place in the neat living room of Tommy’s council bungalow, flashbacks are effectively used to visualise pivotal moments in the experiences of both men. The moment when HMS Birmingham is bombed with Tommy onboard is brought vividly back to life, as is the explosion in Iraq that maimed Wayne’s best friend, Dave.

Nothing Like The Wooden Horse is an outstanding play that examines the effects of war on two ordinary, working class men and demonstrates that, although one side may claim victory over another, there are never any real winners in warfare.

Nothing Like The Wooden Horse runs at The Customs House, until Saturday 21st March 2009.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Witches Of Eastwick - The Sunderland Empire Theatre

The Witches of Eastwick
Based upon the novel by John Updike
Book & lyrics: John Dempsey
Music:Dana P. Rowe
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Ian Cain

In the sleepy New England town of Eastwick three women, Alexandra Spofford, Sukie Rougemont and Jane Smart, are bored with the monotony of their dull lives and, over a few Martini’s, they wish that they could conjure the arrival of a handsome, mysterious man who might bring with him some much-needed excitement. Soon afterwards, their ‘spell’ seems to have been successful when Darryl Van Horne moves into town. The mysterious Darryl seduces each of the women in turn and creates a moral scandal.

This touring production, with sets and costumes designed by Peter McKintosh, is riotously colourful and not at all for the faint-hearted. Directed by the hugely talented Nikolai Foster, it is laden with phallic symbols, sexual innuendos and provocative positions.

Marti Pellow, as Van Horne, has female members of the audience, many of whom are old enough – but perhaps not strong enough – to behave better, transgressing into sexually-charged, salacious sorceresses. And he clearly revels in doing it, too. With his hip-swivelling, his groin gyrating and his tongue flicking he has more than just three ‘witches’ held firmly under his captivating spell! His performance oozes charisma, sex appeal and downright dirtiness that delights his legions of female admirers and leaves their fellas feeling more than just a little inadequate by comparison. Indeed, he positively smoulders and sizzles as he prowls around the stage in a predatory manner.
Ria Jones, Rebecca Thornhill and Poppy Tierney all deliver fantastic performances, too. They each possess beautiful voices which, when put together in harmony, are exquisite. Rachel Izen is an actress who never disappoints and her cameo role as Felicia Gabriel, the town’s self-appointed moral guardian, injects much comedy into the evening’s proceedings.

A talented ensemble add pizzazz to the big numbers and handle Geoffrey Garratt’s choreography with ease and aplomb. Indeed, The Witches Of Eastwick is a devilishly decadent evening’s entertainment that is wickedly wonderful. This vibrant production is so hot and steamy that I would not be surprised if the Sunderland Empire were required to install a brand new air conditioning system by the end of the week!
Photos: Robert Workman
The Witches Of Eastwick runs at The Sunderland Empire Theatre until Saturday 21st March 2009.

Spyski - Liverpool Playhouse

Spyski by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Director: David Farr
Associate Director (Tour) Andy Burden
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

Oscar Wilde is perhaps one of the greatest British playwrights of all time, and arguably his most revered show is that of “The Importance of Being Ernest” and this is the show that we have all came to see or is it?

If the set (lavishly designed by Tom Piper) and the programme are anything to go by then yes, but as the show starts and the actors take their places at the top of Act 1, the scene is disturbed by a member of the audience shouting down a radio and running around the auditorium and off he goes disappearing almost as quickly as he appeared.

Peepolykus are well known for their crazy antics and physical theatre productions, and this production of an actor who stumbles upon a sinister plan by the British and Russian Governments to create nations of placidly obedient citizens with the use of genetic engineering is no different. Throw in a baby in a rucksack and the almost compulsory love story and this is what you get with SPYSKI!

The actors are giving over to this production 110% with more energy than the Duracell Bunny and this must be applauded, add in the cleverly crafted use of props and on stage illusions that only help keep the audience’s attention throughout, leaving most of the audience hanging on to the edge of their seats for the next gag and one liner to come and make them laugh.

Judging by the audience’s reaction they loved this show people were howling throughout, but I just wasn’t able to connect with this piece, don’t get me wrong I love comedy as much as the next person, but this was too far on the wing in the humour stakes for myself.

I personally felt though, as if I was watching a bunch of over -zealous actors running around the stage being incredibly stupid the kind of behaviour I would expect to see in the school playground and certainly not on the stage...but then again what do I know for I was obviously in the minority, and the rest of the audience were lapping up every gag and enjoying every minute.

Spyski is on at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 21st March 09

Calendar Girls - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth
Director: Hamish McColl

Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

Tim Firth has taken his smash hit film, and adapted it for the stage in this touring production that started life at The Festival Theatre in Chichester during its Summer Season in 2008.

When the women of the WI decide on a new fundraising event to raise money for a new settee in the visitors room of their local hospital, little did they know what exactly would become of such a small town WI calendar and the ladies who dared to pose for it.

We know from the go that this production is going to touch us not only with pathos but with oodles of laughter too, as the show opens with the ladies of the WI partaking in a spot of tai chi to the tones of Cora singing Jerusalem. Who under the strong leadership of Chris (Linda Bellingham)has just so happened to have read a book on the subject, but the story quickly turns to sadness when we find out Annie’s (Patricia Hodge) husband John (played with real emotional weight by Gary Lilburn) has Leukaemia.

Hamish McColl has directed this production with a real empathy but does not let the heavy weight subject of Leukaemia pull the evening down into a melancholic affair, instead we get an uplifting story, which rightly so given the subject matter takes us on an emotional journey of laughter and tears, aided by a beautiful set designed by Robert Jones...and yes Sunflowers are included!

Patricia Hodge gives a heart rendering performance as the widow of a man loved by everyone who met him. Going through the emotions of loss and grief with such passion you really believed her performance. Linda Bellingham really throws her heart and soul into the role of Chris enjoying all the limelight the calendar has bought her, and getting carried along in the whole fame thing.

The rest of the cast also give Stirling performances, bringing an extra layer of believability to the whole story. Brigit Forsyth ( Marie ) has you believing she really is the snobby madam she portrays, who is more interested in her social standing than in her friends. Julia Hills ( Ruth ) has you in pleats as the poor woman who has obviously no confidence in herself that she constantly tries to please everyone.

Elaine C Smith’s performance of Cora makes you understand the trouble she has with her teenage daughter and Sian Phillips portrayal of a retired School teacher was a truly fantastic performance. Gaynor Faye gave a fabulous performance as the golf playing, vodka drinking hussy.

This is one of the most heart warming production I have seen, and with a stellar cast and excellent performances all round, it’s no surprise that this production after a year on the road is West End bound, and long may it play there!

Calendar Girls runs at the Lowry Theatre until Sat 21st March 2009

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Allo Allo! - Darlington Civic Theatre

Allo Allo! by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft
Director: James Robert Carson

Reviewer: Ian Cain

“Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once.”

The popularity of Allo Allo! Is a phenomenon that cannot be disputed. The classic television series, written by David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, ran for 85 episodes over a period of ten years from 1982 to 1992, regularly attracting many millions of viewers. In 2004, it was voted thirteenth in a poll to find Britain’s Best Sitcom. The success of the series spawned two Christmas specials, international tours of the stage show and a series of books chronicling The War Diaries of René Artois.

Now, Calibre Productions have brought Allo Allo! back to the stage. Of course, some of the original actors who created the iconic characters are no longer with us, while others are committed with other work. Therefore, the weighty task of playing René and Edith Artois, Herr Flick, Helga Geerhardt, Michelle ‘of the Resistance’ Dubois et al rests on the shoulders of a talented new cast, starring Vicki Michelle who reprises the role of Yvette Carte-Blanche. Her stage entrance was marked with a fond round of applause from the audience.

This production, staged to
commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the legendary series, is wonderful. The farcical antics that took place in Café René, Nouvion, France, during the German occupation of World War Two still had the audience in stitches and the laughs, which came often, were loud, long and hearty.

What impressed me most about this show was the attention to detail that is evident throughout. From the performances of the cast to the charming set, designed by Nancy Surman, no small detail has been overlooked.

Jeffrey Holland makes a wonderful René without attempting to mimic or impersonate Gorden Kaye. The success of
his interpretation of the role is shown to best effect in the scenes he shares with Vicki Michelle’s Yvette.

Vicki Michelle, not looking a day older than when the series was first aired, is a sure-fire hit with the audience, especially when throwing her arms around Holland and rumbling an elongated, deep growl of “Ooooooh, René!”

As always, these intimate moments between the cafe owner and his waitress are shattered by the shrill demand of Madame Edith: “René! What are you doing with your arms around that serving girl?” Corinna Marlowe’s performance as Edith is a fitting tribute to the comic character created by the late Carmen Silvera – she even manages to be as off-key with the cabaret singing!

Other significant roles are consummately performed by Nell Jerram (Helga), Judy Buxton (Michelle), Martin Carroll (Captain Bertorelli), James Rossman (Herr Flick), Claire Andreadis (Mimi), Richard Tate (Leclerc), Oliver Beamish (Gruber) and Matt Jamie (Crabtree).

Although the stage version is slightly more risqué than the television series was, Allo Allo! is still a fantastic evening of gentle, nostalgic comedy filled with double entendre and all the familiar catchphrases. Don’t miss it!

Allo Allo runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 21st March 2009

Lloyd George Knew My Father - Yvonne Arnaud, Guilford

Lloyd George Knew My Father by William Douglas Home
Director: Richard Digby Day
Reviewer: Fiona MacKenzie

Lloyd George Knew My Father was written in 1972, ten years after it is set. In that period, Britain was experiencing a new social phenomenon: the affordable motor car. But at what price?

The government jumped on the bandwagon of progress and started laying tarmac in front of its wheels, planning routes through England’s green and pleasant land. Protestors rallied to protect the countryside and suburbia, sites of scientific and historic interest, and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Men and women nobly fought for their country.

The set is the drawing room of a country house – the sort of stunningly elegant room which makes us feel proud of our British heritage. Lady Sheila Boothroyd (Helen Ryan) enters, and then Robertson, the butler (endearingly played by Derek Wright). The masterful comic timing of the play begins as Sheila’s piano-playing perfectly accompanies Robertson’s laying out of breakfast. Enter
General Sir William Boothroyd (Edward Fox). The interaction between these three is charmingly played – the companionable morning routine of weather report and two boiled eggs, unchanged for 50 years. Then, quite casually, we have the shock announcement.

On reading the news in the local Saturday morning papers that the planned bypass through their grounds is going ahead, Lady Boothroyd, as she has promised for some time apparently, announces she is ‘not going to be here’ by the time the bulldozers start on Monday morning.
As the rest of the family enter, a range of misunderstanding and disbelief at this declaration is comically played out. Hubert, son and heir (Andrew Wincott), is blamed by his mother for not having used his political power to stop the road being built. Maud, his wife, (Lucinda Curtis) is shaken by even the suggestion of death, represented by the samples of wood her mother-in-law is choosing between for her own coffin. Their daughter, Sally, (Charity Reindorp), secretly engaged to Simon (Dudley Hinton), portrays the modern class divide, sharing her woes about her father’s disapproval of her non-Tory journalist fiance in exchange for hearing, and, after some misunderstanding, believing, her grandmother’s threat.

Simon, when everyone else has gone hunting,
hatches a plan with her Ladyship for a ‘scoop’ which might profit both himself as a journalist, and the cause. Through it all, Sir William seems matter-of-fact and in no denial that she is going to ‘do herself in’, although it is in no way clear whether this is due to knowing her for a lifetime, his own barmy eccentricity, or from too long being hardened on battle frontlines.

The male and female leading parts are terrifically played. Edward Fox is absolutely convincing and his timing and delivery of Sir William’s reminiscences, even when repetition and digression are re-used for humorous effect, are a tour-de-force of comic acting. Helen Ryan is stately and equally believable, even in her extreme stand. The cast, artfully directed by Richard Digby Day, makes the set seem both intimate and expansive by turns, as the focus zooms in and out on the family dynamic.
Thirty-seven years after it was written, this play has still much to highlight about the British character, and the causes we fight for. Witty and wise, this makes for a charming evening at the theatre.

Photos: Catherne Ashmore
Lloyd George Knew My Father runs at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until 21 March

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Look Back In Anger - Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

Look Back In Anger by: John Osborne
Director: Erica Whyman
Musical Composition: Leif Jordansson
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Legend has it that when Look Back In Anger was first performed, at London’s Royal Court Theatre in May 1956, audiences gasped at the sight of an ironing board on a London stage. Such harshness and realism in theatre was in stark contrast to the more escapist fare previously seen.

Fifty-three years later, the strongest reaction that John Osborne’s play provokes is boredom. There is no denying that Look Back In Anger was hugely influential, most notably because it spawned the terms ‘kitchen sink drama’ and ‘angry young man’, but today it appears dated and contrived and has little relevance to offer a modern-day audience.

Jimmy Porter, the main protagonist, is a vile character. Domineering, cruel, bad-tempered, violent and sarcastic - Osborne gives Porter few traits that the audience can empathise with. This is also true of the two other main characters: Alison, Porter’s upper-middle class wife, seems to thrive on her ill-treatment and Cliff, their Welsh lodger, is weak and pathetic.

Bill Ward (Coronation Street’s Charlie Stubbs), at 42, is far too old to portray the disaffected 25 year old. His performance was underwhelming as his diction veered from resembling a bad impersonation of Tommy Cooper to being totally inaudible at times. He hurls and throws himself around the stage, in his stocking feet, while shouting and ranting like a lunatic and, at one point, looked more like Todd Carty trying to perform a routine in Dancing On Ice as he slid and slipped on the wooden flooring.
Nia Gwynne , as Alison, was convincingly down-trodden. She gave some good facial expressions and her physicality also conveyed the character’s plight. Rob Storr’s portrayal of Cliff was rather less successful. His performance was one-dimensional and his voice, which, incidentally, was completely devoid of a Welsh accent, was monotone.

The dialogue, which now seems cumbersome and clunky, was punctuated by a couple of lovely lines that were delivered with aplomb by Laura Howard as Helena. There were more than a few times throughout the evening when I found myself thanking God for Osborne’s insertion of the character of Helena and also for Laura Howard’s sassy performance. Robert East also gave a fine and suitably understated performance as Alison’s father, the Colonel.

The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, and the lighting, designed by Charles Balfour, combined to create exactly the right atmosphere of squalor for Jimmy and Alison’s attic flat. However, in a production that comprises three acts and runs for more than three hours, these highlights were not enough to sustain the interest of a sparse audience and there was a certain amount of fidgeting and fumbling and I wondered just how many of the audience felt, as I did, that they’d wasted an evening.

Look Back In Anger runs until Saturday 21st March 2009

Jenufa - English National Opera

Jenufa by Janacek
Translators: Otakar Kraus & Edward Downes
Director: David Alden
Conductor: Elvind Galberg Jenson
Reviewer: Crystal Alonsi

Another triumph for the ENO! Don't be dismayed by the beginning of the first Act---your perseverance will be rewarded! Amanda Roocraft in the title role, made a somewhat hesitant start, seeming slightly overawed by her surroundings, and I did wonder whether or not she would be able to last the whole evening. However, this subdued beginning soon vanished in a glorious, confident flood of sound.

The opening scene in a bleak, strangely silent Eastern European factory did not bode well for the evening. The treasured and portentous Rosemary plant, whose progress or lack of was reportedly so pivotal to the happiness of the main characters, looked remarkably un-Rosemary like from where I was sitting. It might seem like a very minor point, but as it spent a long time front centre stage being sung over at considerable length, it would have been good if props had managed to rustle up the genuine article.

Likewise, why did Laca (Robert Brubaker), who gave a magnificently controlled and powerful rendition of his singing role give such little thought to his acting? For a large part of the opening scene he aimlessly fidgeted with two long metal bars. Five minutes spent watching a genuine welder would have given him more than enough information on which to base this piece of stage business, transforming it into meaningful activity rather than an irritating and pointless distraction.

Janacek’s opera is unusual in that it largely consists of dialogue accompanied by music to produce a musical play based on real events, enhanced by sympathetic, beautifully crafted music. The young Norwegian conductor Eivind Jensen gave himself over completely to his task. He took the music along at a good pace; Janacek can sometimes wallow, but he brought out the voluptuous lyricism of the violin in Act two; the tender longing in the music contrasted sharply with the bleak, distorted set.

Amanda Roocraft did justice to Janacek’s work, singing and acting with convincing sensitivity. Her lively enthusiasm with Jano, the shepherd boy, (Julia Sporsen) the youngster she has taught to read, was engaging, and a powerful metaphor for her own situation. Here was Jenufa, the educator, the one who leads out, nevertheless completely tied by her own circumstances and stifling surroundings. Having been taught to read, Jano wants to learn to write, yet his teacher, Jenufa, cannot convey her own feelings. Her protégé has a whole new world to explore, but before long, Jenufa is confined for five months to virtual captivity in just two rooms, Jenufa is shown as a sympathetic supportive friend even to the underdog.

Love in its many forms is the key to the drama in this opera. Laca represents unrequited love, Steva demonstrates lust and narcissism masquerading as love. Kostelnicka, the stepmother’s love is mostly for herself and her own pride. Having fallen for the blandishments of fickle, self-centred, drunken and feckless Steva, Jenufa has given herself in love to him then finds herself pregnant and therefore desperate to marry, to avoid shame and censure. Ignoring the advances of Steva’s, jealous stepbrother Laca, who in desperate and uncharacteristic pique cuts her face, Jenufa tries to persuade Steva to marry her.

Kostelnicka (Micaela Martins) gave a commanding portrayal of Jenufa’s stepmother who; consumed by fear, feels driven to murder as the only way of preventing public humiliation. She justifies her actions by claiming to have love for her stepdaughter and a desire to protect her honour. Her accent swerved from American through English to Irish somewhat disconcertingly throughout a powerful, brooding performance.

The use of shadows in Act Two gave the air of a Hitchcock or Ridley Scott film. At one point Jenufa is pleading with Kostelnicka, who is some distance upstage, but her stepmother’s shadow, misshapen and menacing almost touches Jenufa and the door to the room where her precious, doomed baby sleeps.

In the last scene, as surrealistically the walls part and the villagers advance, tension rises as the finger of blame points inexorably at Jenufa until finally in a passionate outburst Kostelnicka dramatically admits to the baby’s murder. The opera closes a Jenufa, rising above all the agony, turmoil and grief of her past, decides to forgive her stepmother and commit herself to Laca, whose love and loyalty offer the hope of a new life and happiness together.

All in all it was an inspiring end to a magnificent evening!

Photos: Robert Workman

Jenufa runs at the ENO until March 23rd (5 performances)
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