Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Dreamcoats & Petticoats - Richmond Theatre

Dreamboats & Petticoats
by Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran
Director: Bob Thomson
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

It would be interesting to take a group of teenagers to see this production. They might well feel it was a period drama. So it is, to some extent and yet the story is universal. Boy falls for wrong girl, right girl consoles herself with wrong boy. First boy then falls for right girl and wrong boy finds wrong girl who turns out to be his right girl and becomes her right boy. Anyway, they all live happily ever after. There is also the sub-plot of the little schoolgirl who loses her teeth brace, takes off her glasses and becomes the local belle. This is not giving away the plot as what is going to happen is obvious from curtain up.

However, based on this abbreviated story line is an entrancing two hours of youthful exuberance, singing, dancing, arguing, quarrelling, mooning about and playing ping-pong.

Several of the cast of eighteen double as both instrumentalists and dancers and/or singers, some of them doing both at the same time. Many “other characters are played by members of the company” so it is too dizzying to follow every change. For instance the actor who plays the hero’s father seems to be his grandfather as well, practically at the same time. The confusion makes it difficult to single out particular players but the relatively new Daisy Wood-Davis is perfect as the ingenue and Jennifer Biddall carefully plays the brazen Sue as fast, but not loose.

Under the direction of Bob Thompson Scott Bruton’s Bobby wins our support from the outset while Ben Freeman’sNorman is the boy every parent dreads their daughter bringing home. His schooling at “Grange Hill” must have been very character forming.

The evening is set mainly in St Mungo’s Church of England Youth Club “somewhere in Essex” circa 1961, where the band, or group, they cannot decide which, rehearse amongst the table tennis playing, the hula-hooping, the fizzy drink selling and the flirting. Set designer Sean Cavanagh uses scaffolding which arrives and departs as necessary to become the high-rise flat where the adult Bobby now lives with his granddaughter, or Southend Pier. The difference between the two is the lighting of Mark Howett who has given us every effect from gaudy to romantic and executes the final curtain with great pazazz.

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s script is full of youthful longing with the occasional ironic aside which only a post millennium audience would find amusing. It would be interesting to know the age of the choreographer Carole Todd. Reading the long list of her achievements it is just possible that she saw rock and roll at its height before it degenerated, through the Twist and the Shimmy-shimmy Shake, to the mindless, on the spot twitching of today’s club scene. Her dance moves are exactly as we danced, or rather, as we wished we could dance. (Don’t argue with me, I was there.) Nothing over the top to render it unbelievable but exciting both to perform and to watch.

Musical director has arranged over forty songs into a cohesive story line even if some excerpts were tantalising brief. Ben Harrison did a fine job in the sound design department with the energising beat, which revolutionised social dancing, never overwhelming the melodies which, in turn, did not obliterate the words. We were never blasted out of our seats.
The costumes of Brigid Guy were delightfully in period although I was less sure about Emma Hatton’s hair style, that strange quiff and a pony tail at half mast.
But altogether Ben Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield have produced a delightful evening’s entertainment, enough to brighten any credit crunch. Cries of “Wonderful!” from the seat next to me and the accolades of several teenagers, one of whom particularly admired the “vintage” aspect, confirmed me in my opinion that this is a thoroughly enjoyable show on all counts and is for all ages.

Dreamboats & Petticoats runs at Richmond until Sat 4th July

Evita- Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Directors: Bob Thomson & Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Ian Cain

The astounding brilliance of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice partnership is surely embodied to best effect in their spectacular musical biography of Eva Duarte de Peron, ‘Evita.’ With more than twenty major awards to its credit and featuring some of the most famous and inspiring stage music ever written, its position as a monumental musical masterpiece is firmly established.

The part of Eva is one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre and has been played by divas such as Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone, Marti Webb, Stephanie Lawrence and, of course, Madonna in the 1996 Oscar-winning film version. This latest revival, from Bill Kenwright, is a stylish and sophisticated production that succeeds on all levels and, in doing so, ensures that the shiny, polished brand that is Andrew Lloyd Webber remains suitably untarnished.

A tone of understated elegance is set from the start and runs throughout this production. Indeed, the order of the day seems to be that ‘less is more.’ From the set, which is amazingly simple yet brilliantly effective and stunningly beautiful, to the performances which have been rehearsed and honed to a state of faultlessness, nothing is superfluous or ostentatious.

The songs are delivered with a clarity and meaning that is almost reverential, which enables the audience to hear each and every one of Tim Rice’s lyrics.bThe role of Eva is usually performed by Rachael Wooding but, at the performance reviewed, was played by understudy Natalie Hope. That said, in no way at all did this reviewer feel short-changed. Miss Hope delivered a performance that was nothing short of mesmerising, as she captured each and every one of Eva’s characteristics perfectly, reflecting the change and development to great effect in the musical numbers. In ‘Buenos Aires’ she sings and plays Eva as an impetuous teenager who longs to escape her small town existence for the bright lights of the city; she is ambitious and calculating in ‘Goodnight And Thank You’; she is manipulatingly persuasive in ‘I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’ and strident in ‘A New Argentina.’

Seamus Cullen has put aside all thoughts of playing Joseph to star as Che Guevara and his interpretation of the role is somewhat different to his predecessors. Instead of the angst-ridden revolutionary figure that we have become used to, he plays him more as a dissident, a thinking man who comments upon the Peron regime rather than challenging it. This is successful in as much as it seems to sit in context with the understated approach that is the trademark of this revival.

Mark Heenehan is an imposing Peron, both physically and vocally, and he is every inch the statesman. The relationship with Hope’s Eva, although believable and pleasing to watch, is a little short of sexual chemistry, though. Perhaps this is more of a result of direction than performance? Carly Bawden makes a sensational professional debut in the role of the Mistress. Grabbing her one great number, ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall’, with both hands and performing it with pathos and poignancy earned her a lengthy applause from an appreciative audience.

It isn’t just great performances that make this production the gem that it is, though. Bill Deamer’s choreography incorporates tangos and paso dobles , giving a truly Latin feel, whilst Mark Howlett’s lighting design provides many breath-taking effects, too. ‘Evita’ successfully stands the passage of time and this production is one that you simply must see.

Evita runs at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle until Saturday 4th July 2009.

Monday, 29 June 2009

You Really Couldn't Make It Up - Live Theatre, Newcastle

You Really Couldn’t Make It Up
Writers: Michael & Tom Chaplin
Director: Max Roberts
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Hot on the heels of Newcastle United Football Club’s relegation from the Premiership to the Championship, Live Theatre presents ‘You Really Couldn’t Make It Up’, a follow-up production to Michael and Tom Chaplin’s original piece, ‘You Couldn’t Make It Up’, which was staged at the venue in February.

With disaster on the field and constant recriminations off it Newcastle United fans have well and truly been put through the mill, yet through it all they have kept faith – despite the constant failure of the club to consult them or even explain what’s going on. The fans now cling to the hope that the club’s latest messiah, Alan Shearer, will sign a new contract and be provided with a substantial enough transfer fund to make a return to the premiership in 2010 a certainty.

As with the first production, the play uses testimonies from football insiders and imagined encounters between the three mythical characters who have together defined the last year in the life of the club – Mike Ashley, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer.

Three of the original cast – Bill Fellows, Dave Nellist and Laura Norton - are reunited and are also joined by Chris Connel. They each play dual roles, firstly as a group of season ticket-holders who are becoming increasingly despondent with their beloved NUFC, and then as key high-profile characters.

Fellows reprises his role as Kevin Keegan, Dave Nellist takes on the part of Mike Ashley and Chris Connel plays Alan Shearer. Poor Laura Norton is deprived of a significant role, though, and has to make do with portraying Mike Ashley’s personal assistant.

Although each member of the cast delivers an excellent performance, it is Connel’s interpretation of Alan Shearer that raises the roof. Every mannerism and nuance is perfectly honed and his depiction of ‘Big Al’ is so accurate that it is almost surreal.

As well as being an informative piece of journalism, ‘You Really Couldn’t Make It Up’ is a heart-warming production that lends a voice to the many thousands of season-ticket holders through its four fictional characters. As the programme notes from the authors explain, it is ‘a howl of pain, a cry of rage, and in the end, a song of love.’

‘You Really Couldn’t Make It Up’ runs at Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne until Friday 10 July 2009.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - St Stephen's Church, Hampstead

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Director: Ben Horslen and John Risebero
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

In the cooling arches of the beautifully refurbished St Stephen’s in Hampstead a very gentile evening is taking place. Antic Disposition’s production of Much Ado About Nothing may lack a raucous joie de vivre, but it is a very enjoyable, if slightly safe, evening.

We are in the victorious year of 1945 and Don Pedro and his men have returned from fighting in the Second World War to find a society much changed in their absence. Women have been working in roles other than that of wife and mother and the shift of power has subtly changed. Into this framework Antic Disposition have successfully placed Shakespeare’s playful war of the sexes, Beatrice’s independence and Hero’s dutiful submission, Benedick’s acceptance of Beatrice as an equal and Don Pedro’s propensity to buy and sell women like objects, all sitting comfortably in this developing era.

Directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero utilise the elegant stone floored nave of St Stephen’s to polite effect with the red and white chequered audience tables framing the space and creating a pleasant intimacy of environment. The sunlight dappled floor presents a very pretty stage and the action moves smoothly if a little reservedly. Peppered with some gently smiling moments, this reserve for the most part stops these grins from ever developing into full throttle laughter and the comedy throughout is not always as prominent as it should be. Dogberry in particular has been directed in a very slow fashion making his usually hilarious scenes a little dampening.

Anouke Brook brings a centred strength and inherent sexiness to her barbed and husky Beatrice and as her sparring partner Ashley Cook is a very dapper and watchful Benedick, if lacking in a little merriment. Bethany Minell twinkles prettily as the youthful and easily impressionable Hero, not an enviable part, and Chris Waplington turns in a very intelligent and dastardly Borachio.

Risebero’s design of delicate strings of lights and bunting which line the entrance and the white clothed, sunflower and orange filled, trestle table simply lend a gentle Southern French feel to the piece. The sound has slight memories of The Last of the Summer Wine but although the recorded soundtrack jars a little, the cast choral singing moments are strong and fill the space impressively.

Lightly funny, gentle and pleasant, this is a restrained but highly affable night out. If the echoes of Kenneth Branagh’s iconic 1993 film are a little strong it doesn’t really matter in a production which lightly prods at the war of the sexes and comes away leaving one, if not exactly completely satisfied, then definitely cordially warmed.

Much Ado Runs until 19 July 2009

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Cabaret - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Cabaret by Kender & Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Rufus’s Norris’s production of Cabaret has been on quite a journey. Since opening to a mixture of reviews at The Lyric Theatre in 2006, it began a nationwide tour in Birmingham in May of last year and is currently playing at The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays.

Cabaret is unquestionably a gem of a musical.
Not only does it have the perfect combination of fantastic characters and stunning songs, it also has, which sadly many modern musicals lack, a compelling political storyline.

Set in the decadent Berlin Kit Kat club of the early 1930's during the uninhibited era of the Weimar Republic, Cabaret follows the transformation from the Weimar to the Nazi regime against the apathy of the masses. Having seen the production when it first opened in 2006, the intelligence of Rufus Norris’s direction is indisputable and full emphasis is placed on the gritty rather than the glamorous aspects throughout. Norris’s ingenious juxtaposition of the debauched semi-clad and sexually liberated dancers of the Kit Kat club with the final harrowing images of their naked and cold figures, huddled together awaiting their inevitable fate at the hands of the growing Nazi party is emotionally electrifying.

A worry, after a revival tour of such length is that the original production may have lost its initial spark, and there were some elements of this particular performance at the Lowry that did appear tired and lack luster. Fortunately these didn’t detract from the fact that this was, and still is, a stunning production.

Although slightly tamed down from the London premiere, full focus is still paid to the sexual hedonism of Weimar Berlin. Javier De Frutos’s sexy and sharp chorography is performed deliciously by an extremely talented ensemble cast and Katrina Lindsay’s imaginative and multi functional set design complements the imaginative arrangement perfectly.

There is also a stand-out performance by Samantha Barks as Sally Bowles. Her renditions of ‘Mein Herr’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ are delivered with such effortless style and confidence; one is left reeling at the fact that this is Barks professional theatrical debut. She is also a fantastic actor and plays Bowles exactly how she should be; an all-English waif with cut glass diction who is audaciously living it up in Berlin. Her heart wrenching performance of ‘Maybe This Time’ followed by Theo Cook’s truly beautiful yet unnervingly chilling ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ leaves the audience emotionally drained as the first half draws to a close.

Clifford Bradshaw gives a solid performance in the slightly thankless role of Clifford Bradshaw and Jenny Logan and Matt Zimmerman are adorable as the fateful lovers Frauline Schneider and Herr Schultz. ‘It Couldn’t Please Me More’ is packed full of energy and quirkiness, and makes the foreseeable demise of this beautiful friendship all the more tragic.

Unfortunately Wayne Sleep’s Emcee doesn’t quite match the high performance standards of the rest of the cast. Emcee is a dynamic and infectious character whom audience members should eagerly anticipate the various arrivals of throughout the show. Sleep, despite being a gifted dancer and competent singer, doesn’t possess the charisma or stage presence to pull this role off and sadly this diminishes the pace and energy that is so vital in his scenes. ‘If You Could See Her’ has sadly lost its original eccentricity and instead has remnants of pantomime scene. There are some notable performance moments for Sleep. ‘I Don’t Care Much’ is delivered with subtlety and pathos but unfortunately this comes too late in the day to save this particular performance.

However despite some misplaced casting and a few moments of under-paced dialogue, this remains a fantastic and innovative production of what, for me, is still the best musical of all time.

Cabaret runs at the Lowry until Sat 27th June

Write Me A Murder - Darlington Civic Theatre

Write Me A Murder By Frederick Knott
Director: Ian Dickens
Reviewer: Ian Cain

The penultimate offering of Ian Di
ckens’ Summer Repertory Season is a good old-fashioned murder mystery entitled ‘Write Me A Murder’ by Frederick Knott.

The action takes place at Rodingham Manor, the ancestral home of the Rodingham family. As the story begins, the death of the elderly Lord Rodingham is imminent. His eldest son and heir, Clive (Paul Opacic), can hardly contain his glee at the thought of inheriting the title and, more importantly, the vast estate which he intends to sell to Charlie Sturrock (Leslie Grantham), an unscrupulous entrepreneur who was a humble grocer’s delivery boy in his youth.

Clive’s younger brother, David (Christopher Villiers), leads a contrastingly modest life. He lives on a houseboat, writes crime novels for a living and wants to see the estate remain in the Rodingham family for at least another five hundred years.

As the two brothers pace the living room floor of their childhood home, the tension mounts. They wait for news of their father’s condition from Dr Elizabeth Woolley (Helen Weir), the family’s trusted physician, and quarrel about the fate of the family home. Strangely, neither of the brothers seem too concerned about the fate of their father. Perhaps this is more telling than it first seems.

During the course of the first act, David discovers that Sturrock’s meek and mild wife, Julie (Maxine Gregory), is an aspiring writer who, despite dozens of attempts, has never been published. This comes in very useful for Charlie who seizes the opportunity to pay David to provide her with some private tuition, thus detracting his attention from the dodgy sale deal that he is negotiating with Clive.

It isn’t long before David and Julie’s collaboration produces a story that centres around how to commit the perfect murder and get away with it. As Charlie Sturrock’s behaviour towards his wife becomes increasingly worse and it
looks as though he has coerced Clive into relinquishing the family estate for only a fraction of its true value, it looks as though the temptation may be to transfer the plot into reality.

The play is engaging and portrayed well, as the action moves quickly and twists and turns are thrown in frequently. David North has designed a set that is substantial and convincing, comprising a main living room which offshoots a staircase and a study. Ancestoral paintings adorn the walls above the fireplace and the furniture is convincingly antique.

Generally speaking, the performances are of a good standard. However, from a casting point of view I am not sure why Paul Opacic plays the older brother and Christopher Villiers the younger, when in reality Opacic is Villiers’ junior by twenty-two years! As far as I could tell, both actors were talented enough to have been cast in the others role without it detrimentally affecting the success of the play.

But, I do not wish to deliberately pick holes in the production by concentrating too much on detail. On balance, ‘Write Me A Murder’ is an entertaining, intriguing and perfectly enjoyable evening’s theatre.

‘Write Me A Murder’ runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 27th June 2009

The Hypochondriac - Liverpool Playhouse

The Hypochondriac by Moliere
Adapted by Roger McGough
Director: Gemme Bodinetz
Reviewer: Marie Kenny

Laughter is the best medicine. It’s also free, unlike the medical bills of someone diagnosed with every illness that ever existed.

Wealthy gentleman Argan faces a never ending stream of invoices for pills and potions in ‘The Hypochondriac’, a co-production between the Liverpool Playhouse and the English Touring Theatre. Following the success of ‘Tartuffle’ last year, Scouse poet Roger McGough has taken on Moliere’s final production and transformed it from 17th century prose into clever and charming verse.

The plot centres around Argan who hates Doctor Purgeon’s high bills, but is in perpetual need of being cured. He sees an ideal opportunity in marrying his daughter Angelique to the son of a Doctor, the terribly awkward and slow nincompoop Thomas, so that he can receive free medical treatment.

However, when it comes to love, Argan is clueless. He fails to see his daughter Angelique has other ideas and has secretly fallen in love with the more desirable Cleante and that his wife Beline, is eagerly waiting for his death and the riches and freedom she dreams of. So it’s up to the maid to save the day, Toinette sets out to turn Argan’s life around. With a witty intelligence that far exceeds her master and a good, honest heart, she shows him the truth that’s been hidden from him for so long.

The play opens with Argan passing wind and appearing in his nightgown with an empty chamber pot declaring “Rien. Rien. Je regrette, rien”. The toilet humour reappears throughout but admirably manages to sit alongside the farcical situations and sophisticated and clever rhyming of McGough’s verse with ease. Clive Francis as Argan delivers a wonderful performance filled with mischief and dignity.

Liverpool talent Leanne Best takes on the role of Toinette, the larger than life, scheming maid and keeps the audience entranced throughout. Disguised as an Italian doctor, complete with ridiculous fake moustache, to expose the flaws of the medical profession her master believes in, she brings a certain magic to the farcical situation.

With direction from Gemma Bodinetz, this fast paced production is packed with great humour and warmth from start to finish. This is an outstanding production with a marvellous cast, certainly this season’s one to watch for the Playhouse. Advance bookings have been so popular that the run has been extended for another week in Liverpool, before commencing a National tour, one that should make Liverpool proud.

The Hypochondriac runs until the 19th July

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Women on the Verge of HRT - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Women on the Verge of HRT by Marie Jones
Director: Noreen Kershaw

Reviewer: Jacqui Senaun

Women on the Verge of HRT, the title itself tells the story. This could be the story of so many women today. Indeed from the start you could be on the stage yourself. Although the set is simple, it is the perfect set up. You do not have to use your imagination to believe that this scene could be happening in most bedrooms.

The story tells of two women, Vera played by Louise Jameson and Anna played by Janet Dibley, from Belfast away for the weekend to see Daniel O'Donnell. Once they get back to the hotel engage in what can only be described as a brilliant and hilarious take on what has become of their lives. Vera, who sees herself as being thrown on the scrapheap of middle age women that nobody wants to see, to Anna who is married to Marty, and has accepted her lot in life.

At first it seems that Vera, who is the more outgoing and outspoken one is the centre of the story but the contrast that is Anna's life is revealed as the play goes along when she admits the loneliness of her own marriage. Enter the waiter Fergal played by Aidan O'Neill, who plays a seemingly nervous man. During the first act of the play he only makes short visits to the stage but with his singing and glitter ball this pulls even the audience in.

The second act of the play was set on the shores of a bay at dawn, with the wailing of the Banshee. This sees Fergal playing the parts of Vera's husband and his new wife who by the way is 25 years younger than him and Anna's husband. He played each part well and got across the message they had to tell. The ending was a little disappointing, with such an abrupt ending one wonders if the playwright didn't really know how to tie things up.

Women on the verge of HRT, will speak to every women, no mater what age, whether being of the verge of HRT is something in the far distant future, something that is happening now or has already happened. It is at one moment funny and then the next moment thought provoking.

Women on the Verge of HRT runs at The Lowry, Salford Quays until the 27th June 2009

Friday, 19 June 2009

Menopause The Musical: Tyne Theatre & Opera House

Menopause: The Musical
Writer: Jeanie Linders
Director: Andrew Lynford
Choreographer:Helen Jeckells
Musical Director:Philip Shute
Reviewer:Ian Cain

I’m beginning to feel like something of an expert on the female menopause. Having reviewed ‘The Vagina Monologues’, ‘Hot Flush!’ and ‘Women On The Verge Of HRT’ already this year, and now adding ‘Menopause: The Musical’ to that list, I am certain that I am now qualified enough to write my own weekly advice column in a women’s magazine, should the theatre reviewing ever dry up!

‘Menopause: The Musical’, by Jeanie Linders, is a hilarious celebration of women who are on the brink of, in the middle of or have survived ‘the change.’ Since it first opened in a tiny 76-seat theatre in Florida in March 2001, it has been seen by nearly ten million theatre-goers in over 150 cities and 12 countries.
Four women with, seemingly, nothing in common become involved in a dispute over a bargain-priced black lace bra during a sale in the lingerie department of a well-known London department store.

As the quartet, a frumpy housewife from Skegness, a shrewd business woman, a vegan Earth mother and a prime-time soap star, discover more about each other they
learn that they have much more in common than they first thought: bladder weakness, mood swings, memory loss, hot flushes, night sweats, too much sex, too little sex and a craving for junk food and chocolate!

Cheryl Baker leads the cast of four and, as you might expect from a member of a Eurovision-winning pop group (Bucks Fizz, as though you’d need reminding!), she has a terrific singing voice. Her comedy timing is great, too, and she gives a wonderful performance as the meditating, ageing hippy. bSue Hodge (who many will remember with great fondness from her days as Mimi in the hit sit-com, ’Allo ’Allo) plays the down-trodden, dumpy, bespectacled housewife from Skegness and she gets many of the best comedy moments. The merest mannerism or facial expression was often enough to send the largely-female audience into hysterics.

Susie Fenwick and Ellen O’Grady complete the cast as the soap star and business woman, respectively. Although, not as instantly recognisable to many members of the audience as Baker and Hodge, Fenwick and O’Grady have impeccable pedigrees as West End musical performers and this was evident in their performances.

The show includes fun parodies of 23 songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s, including ‘It’s In His Kiss’, ‘My Guy’, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, ‘I Got You Babe’ and ‘I Will Survive.’ The lyrics are cleverly re-worked to suit the piece and are delivered with gusto by the cast. As the programme notes explain: ‘Menopause: The Musical is about women . . . not about theatre.’ No doubt this will attract a certain amount of theatrical snobbishness from some critics, but not this one.

The show, which is funny, entertaining and uplifting, culminates with a high-spirited invitation for audience members to join the cast on stage for a feel-good finale.

‘Menopause: The Musical’ runs at The Tyne Theatre & Opera House from Thursday 18th to Saturday 20th June 2009. It then goes on to tour at Portsmouth, Horsham, Lincoln and Malvern.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Killing Time - Darlington Civic Theatre

Killing Time by Richard Stockwell
Director:Ian Dickens
Reviewer: Ian Cain

A seemingly chance encounter in a supermarket brings Jane and Rick together. She is the ‘damsel in distress’ who has lost her purse and is unable to pay for her groceries; he is the knight in shining armour that steps in and settles the bill to spare her embarrassment.

But all is not as it first seems and gradually we discover that this story has more twists and turns than a corkscrew. During a conversation, over a gin and tonic, in Rick’s comfortable sitting room it transpires that Jane is unhappily married to a violent businessman. Rick reveals that he is a ‘head-hunter’ who has been out of work for a while.

However, it is obvious that both characters have more secrets to tell and every new revelation transfers the psychological upper hand from one to the other.

Hannah Waterman and Huw Higginson display their considerable acting talents as they portray two entirely different characters from Cyrenne and Percy in last week’s ‘Rattle of a Simple Man.’ Indeed, this 10th Anniversary Summer Repertory Season – brought to Darlington Civic Theatre by Ian Dickens Productions Ltd – has got off to a fantastic start.
In ‘Killing Time’, the sexual chemistry between Waterman and Higginson is as abundantly evident as it was in last week’s production, although the tension in this play feeds from suspense rather than comedy.

It is a tribute to the writer, Richard Stockwell, and the performances of the two actors that the momentum is consistently kept up. Two-handed plays which are set in just one room have the potential to be either brilliant or dreadful. In this case, the audience are kept on the edge of their seats throughout the performance as passions run high and events shock and surprise in equal measure.

The set, designed by Alan Miller-Bunford, is excellent and provides the perfect environment for the drama to be played out. Direction from Ian Dickens keeps the story moving and the atmosphere suitably tense.

It must be reiterated, though, that this production owes its success more to the performances of Waterman and Higginson than it does to any other factor. It’s a brilliant play that combines sexual provocation with murder, mystery and suspense and keeps the audience guessing right up to the final curtain. Don’t miss it!

'Killing Time' runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 20th June 2009

Quadrophenia - Manchester Opera House

Music, Lyrics & Concept:
Pete Townshend
Writer: Jeff Young
Director: Tom Critchley
Reviewer: Philippa Jenkins

‘Quadrophenia’; an album, a film and rock-opera that inspired, reinvented and affronted a generation, arrived at Manchester’s Opera House last night, and was welcomed by over 100 scooters in an organised ride out across the city.

There has certainly been a great deal of hype about this tour. In a city that holds music so closely to its heart it’s unsurprising that big names from the region had become embroiled in organising the bike ride out, after party, and generally working towards having their name associated with the production’s opening night. The atmosphere was almost that of a comeback gig. Old-school Mods mixed with young energetic wannabes, the odd local music mogul and the middle class theatre stalwarts. Anticipation was rife and it was clear that no one knew quite what to expect…

The show opened well. Loud, vibrant, already instilling a sense of yearning to belong within its audience. This group of adolescents, sharply dressed, unit
ing and attempting to come to terms with the confusion and youthful angst they felt towards the rest of society… it was inspiring. Obvious, transparent, almost na├»ve to the Mod movement itself, but nonetheless inspiring.

The lack of dialogue within the show quickly became apparent, and with it so did the pained melodramatic delivery of sung lines. The first half was slow to get moving. It picked up pace at ‘I Can’t Explain’ but by this point many of the purist Who fans had, I noted, begun to glaze over.

The embodiment of the main protagonist Jimmy in 4 characters; ‘the romantic’ ‘the lunatic’ ‘the tough guy’ and ‘the hypocrite’ was a clever and worthy concept in my opinion. It served to reinforce the frustration and uncertainty of the time, or as The Who themselves put it; the ‘Quadrophenia’. However it proved alienating to the portion of the audience who wanted a theatrical replica of the film.

The first half of the show focused its sights on the social context of the time, setting the scene and the mood of the Mods. There was little in the way of verbal characterisation, and one had to realign attention on the whole stage at all times to grasp everything that
was unfolding. The musicians and the vocalists can’t be faulted. Superb performances from all cast members, particularly Sydney Rae White as The Girl; her passionate performance of ‘Reign O’er Me’ was incredible. Ryan O’Donnell took the role of Jimmy the Romantic, and he was fantastic; reminiscent of Phil Daniels both in appearance and his heartfelt portrayal of the character.

The second half opened to a more celebratory tone, finding the story now in Brighton. This led to a more lively portrayal of the time and tunes such as ‘Zoot Suit’ ‘Heatwave’ and ‘So Sad About Us’ were gratefully received. The main issue to grasp as an audience member is to focus less on the narrative and less on the film. I suspect that many had been in attendance to experience something more literal; whereas the show exists as an examination of the Mod movement; the anguish in wanting to belong, and subsequently the torment in being cast an outsider.

As much as it’s a celebration of the music it’s also a damning report on the fallacies of the genre. As Townshend himself puts it; ‘the reason that rock is still around is that it’s not youth’s music, it’s the music of the frustrated and dissatisfied looking for some sort of musical panacea.’ Perhaps this could be seen as more of a reason to celebrate…? It was a thoroughly enjoyable show once one committed and became totally immersed in it. To focus on it as a narrative simply does it an injustice. In effect ‘Quadrophenia’ is far more than just a rock opera… it’s an example of social commentary supported and defended by a generation.

“We are the Mods, We are the Mods, We are, we are, we are the Mods.”

Photos by Steve Tanner
Quadrophenia runs at the Opera House until Sat 20th June

Monday, 15 June 2009

The King and I - Royal Albert Hall

The King and I
by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Director: Jeremy Sams

Reviewer: Mark Valencia

The Royal Albert Hall is the star of the show, of course. That vast arena is tailor-made for spectacle and sweep, and this King and I doesn’t disappoint. Robert Jones has fashioned a majestic curved space within the arena, versatile enough to accommodate the play’s many locations. He avoids all decorative clutter once the early harbour scene has been played out – wisely
for an in-the-round experience – although the Bangkok waterfront, replete with moored sapmans on waters of steaming humidity, remains powerfully in place throughout the performance.

At first glance, The King and I seems the idea choice for this enormous space. Anyone familiar with the tale of a widowed Englishwoman, Anna Leonowens, who arrives in Siam with a suitcaseful of British Imperialist values and sets about westernising the children of the King before belatedly and inconveniently falling in love with their
father, will be thrilled by the scale of this grand royal palace. It is tailor-made for parading Siamese children and energetic shall-we-dancing. But so much of Oscar Hammerstein’s book comprises intimate duologues (between Anna and the King, Anna and Lady Thiang, Lun Tha and Tuptim et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the King might say), that an equally viable case might be made for staging this play in a little studio theatre. It is, therefore, a tribute to the production that intimacy is never lost amid the pageantry.

Producer Raymond Gubbay has followed form in recruiting Jones and Jeremy Sams, the designer and director behind the recent Palladium Sound of Music, to head a team that includes Susan Kikuchi, who has been involved in over twenty productions of The King and I as either dancer or choreographer, and the MD Gareth Valentine, who does a valiant job of marshalling his distant singers and reconciling them with the (barely-visible) Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Given the scale of the sprawl it is hardly surprising that his tempo choices veer towards the cautious.

A great deal hinges on casting a charismatic King. Daniel Dae Kim is too restrained to convey the role’s comic dimension, but he cuts an authoritative figure nonetheless. Maria Friedman is ideal in a role that she wears as confidently as her hooped skirts, and her Anna has surprising complexity. Jee Hyun Lim is outstanding as Lady Thiang (Something Wonderful is heart-stoppin
g), Yanle Zhong is a touchingly anguished though slightly florid-voiced Tuptim and, in the underwritten role of Tuptim’s lover, Ethan Le Phong gives the performance of the evening.

There’s no busy-ness like show busy-ness, and this is one very busy show. The enormous floor space is used kaleidoscopically by Sams and Kikuchi, but their bustle and traffic always has a clear purpose. Andrew Bridge’s subtle lighting offers them great support, and the only disappointment in an otherwise splendid production is the failure of Bobby Aitken’s sound design to tame the notorious Albert Hall cavern. He was not helped on opening night by some intrusive air conditioning noise (although this was dissipated after the interval and may not affect future performances). The ear does tune out the resonance after a while, but solving the RAH acoustic remains a work in progress.

Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to cap their partnership with The Sound of Music, a theme-for-theme, practically
scene-for-scene, retread of The King and I, but they could not match this original for melodic richness or emotional depth. Despite perpetuating some questionable attitudes towards Johnny Foreigner (and we must remember that this musical is almost ready for its buss pass, so it’s a product of its time) Hammerstein hints that all cultures have feet of clay, not least our own, and we should relate to the unfamiliar with humility rather than certainty. Some might argue that it’s a lesson still to be learnt.

Photos: Tristram Kenton
The King and I runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 28 June 2009
(20 performances only)

Friday, 12 June 2009

Peter Pan - Kensington Gardens

Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Adapted: Tanya Ronder
Director: Ben Harrison
Music Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Choreography: Fleur Darkin
Reviewer: Ayla Pektekin

Peter Pan, a classic character whose story has been lost
over the years through pantomime and Disney adaptations. Now JM Barrie’s classic returns as a play in the very place the author was inspired to write it, Kensington Gardens. The production takes place in a luxurious 1,100 tier seating circular pavilion, giving the audience greater connection to the stage, making it an intimate experience. While William Dudley’s state of the art 360-degree CGI projected scenery brings a new and exciting experience to the play.

A play for both children and adults the production is a mixture of fun and emotion. One of the highlights of the show is the spectacular aerial sequence where Peter, Tinkerbell and the Darling children fly over London to Neverland, giving the full effect of th
e CGI projection. The show has some great action packed swashbuckling scenes directed by Nicholas Hall and plenty of comedy from Tinkerbell, the lost boys and Captain Hooks fear of the crocodile. But keeping faithful to Barrie’s original, the play includes serious tones with Wendy’s sexual desires and Peter’s denials of adulthood.

The play indeed holds state of the art CGI but also includes traditional theatre techniques of puppetry directed by Sue Buckmaster, which brings back the feeling of a classic story. Itxaso Moreno plays Tickerbell as not just a naughty fairy but a scowling, grubby fairy with rock influence. Abby Ford captures Wendy’s feelings of a child verging onto adulthood with her growing feelings for Peter. Ciaran Kellgren plays a more serious Peter than usually seen, which
gives the character greater depth exploring his innocence, denial and anger. Though not the title character, Captain Hook played by Jonathan Hyde is the real star of the show, capturing the classic pirate with humour and fear.

The only real damper on the show is the title character Peter Pan not living up to the expectations of being the main attraction that this classic fairy tale is based on and instead having his enemy Captain Hook steal the show from him. Overall a magical evening with a fusion of both old and new effects, humour and emotion, intimacy and action; making it a show for young and old.

Photos: Simon Annand
Peter Pan runs at Kensington Gardens until Sunday 30th August 2009.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Playboy of the Western World - Liverpool Playhouse

Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge
Director: Garry Hynes
Reviewer: Marie Kenny

When it comes to love, women are mad. Druid’s production of ‘Playboy of the Western World’, backs up my theory well.

Set in a Victorian tavern in the Irish countryside, the story revolves around a young Irish girl, Pageen, living with her father and through limited choice is promised to a cowardly, God feari
ng suitor. Her life is mapped out and to be fair, it does seem a little boring and claustrophobic.

Enter Christopher Mahon on a dark and wild night, a small and dirty stranger who claims to have killed his bullying father by splitting his skull with a shovel. Here begins a somewhat baffling situation, as he’s proclaimed a brave hero by the locals and his attentions are sought by every woman in the village. Offering him a job and paying particular interest in him, is Pageen, she longs for love, excitement and escape and believes she has found it in this rather pathetic specimen. He appears dangerous and glamorous in her eyes and he can barely believe his luck as he frequently rubs his eyes in disbelief (along with the audience).

With love, marriage and security with Pageen in sight, his luck runs out as his father has chased him across the countryside and is not dead after
all. Branding him a liar, he’s rejected by Pageen and the village, bound with rope and burned, such is their disgust that he didn’t really kill his father.
The play is filled with far fetched twists, Christopher’s determination to then kill his father and reclaim his brave outlaw status, being one, the fact that his father simply will not die and keeps reappearing like something out of a horror film, being another.

With set design by Francis O’Connor, the bleak tavern with it’s tiny windows and sawdust floor does an outstanding job in recreating Victorian Ireland. Throw in some drunken Irishmen, a lecherous widow and some giggling girls and the scene is set with wonderful precision.

Played brilliantly by Aaron Monaghan, Christopher is the catalyst that brings the villager’s true colours to life, my only problem was tuning my ear to the accent during his outbursts, a little tricky at times. Clare Dunn gives a passionate performance as Pageen, her desperation to find a man worthy of her strength conveys a persistent hope and determination and her eventual disillusionment and grief at realising her lonely fate is touching.

This tragic comedy keeps the laughs coming on the whole, of particular note is Shawn Keogh played by Marcus L
amb, who lives in fear of Father O’Reilly and doing the right thing. At the thought of confronting his rival he comically cowers before him, despite towering above him.

When first produced in 1907, the play caused uproar in those who took offence and imagined their own small village’s immorality and stupidity being played out. On the 100th anniversary of the playwrights death, the play recreates the humour and sympathy for an age which is long gone.

Playboy runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 13th June

Rent - The Customs House, South Sheilds

Music & Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Director:Gareth Hunter
Choreographer:Nadia Wearn
Reviewer: Ian Cain

‘Rent’ is set during the very real recent history of New York. During the 1980s spiralling rent increases in Alphabet City created heated protests that culminated in rioting. The bohemian residents of Alphabet City, a poor and notoriously dangerous neighbourhood, united with the homeless to protest at the loss of their housing.

Jonathan Larson was 29 when he started work on ‘Rent’ and his aim was to write a musical that really reflected the world that he lived in. His two major storylines - the impact of AIDS and the Rent riots in Alphabet City – reflect directly the lives of himself and his friends. Every character in ‘Rent’ is based on someone that Larson knew. Tragically, Jonathan Larson died of a rare genetic disease after attending a dress rehearsal of the original version.

The story follows a year – or, more as the song goes, 525,600 minutes - in the lives of seven friends struggling to express themselves through their art and striving for success, acceptance and a sense of community while enduring the obstacles of poverty, jealousy, sexual identity and the AIDS epidemic.Beginning on Christmas Eve, the friends progress through the seasons, eventually turning full circle, as they take stock the following Christmas.

The narrator and main protagonist is Mark (Jordan Branthwaite), an unfulfilled film-maker struggling with self-belief. He shares a flat on the Lower East Side with Roger (Jonathan Bell), an angry rock musician who believes he is living on borrowed time because he is HIV positive and is desperate to write one hit song before his time is up.

The apartment is owned by Benny (Steven Stobbs), a former room-mate who has married into money and has plans to build a cyber-arts studio on the site of the neighbouring tent-city. However, Maureen (Alice Brown), Marks ex-girlfriend, plans a midnight protest performance. This leads to Benny issuing Mark and Roger with an ultimatum; either convince Maureen to cancel the protest or pay their last year’s rent.

Gareth Hunter has assembled a young and extremely talented cast and each of them deliver amazingly energetic performances that are full of youthful exuberance. Nadia Wearn’s impressive choreography makes demands from the cast that, at times, seem almost physically impossible.

There are some fantastic performances, most notably from Jade Thirlwall as Mimi, a Latino wildchild and nightclub dancer with a dangerous susceptibility to heroin; Andrew McKay as Angel, a transvestite ‘guardian angel’ and Amber Glover as Joanne, a yuppie civil liberties lawyer and Maureen’s new girlfriend.

‘Rent’ is undoubtedly one of the darkest musicals that you are likely to see, but it is also an uplifting story of hope that makes a bold and gritty statement about modern life.

‘Rent’ runs at The Customs House, South Shields until Saturday 13th June 2009.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Alphabetical Order - Richmond Theatre

Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Anne Bawtree

The principal player in this work is the set, by designer Janet Bird. She gives us the last place on earth anyone would want to work. The semi basement room with its dirty skylights, garish paintwork, the disorder, even to the piece of tinsel left over from at least one Christmas ago and possibly ten. Harsh lighting, by Tim Mitchell and the clattering typewriters of sound man Fergus O’Hare complete the effect of dreariness. The clanking of the metal door of the lift emphasises the feeling of imprisonment, and untidy? That is hardly the word for it.

The characters also would be the least congenial one could wish for in work colleagues. They range from the blindly over-optimistic Geoffrey (Ian Talbot) through the monosyllabic Arnold (Gawn Grainger) the pseudo-philosophical John (Jonathan Guy Lewis) the irresponsible Lucy (Imogen Stubbs) and the predatory Nora (Penelope Beaumont) to the Tigger-ish Wally (Michael Garner). Only someone with the four inch armour-plated psyche of Chloe Newsome’s Lesley could have suffered them for the six month’s duration of the play’s action.

The author is quoted in the programme notes as saying “What you see in Alphabetical Order is a compendium of the various other libraries I got to know”. Thank goodness it did not really all happen in one place. He is referring to his time as a journalist in the fifties and six
ties which entailed many a visit to local newspaper cuttings libraries. Although the play is set in 1975, as accurately depicted by the costume department, probably nothing much had changed. The chaos had just grown. Maybe now the mess is actually still present but is hidden in the inner workings of computers.

In Act II the set again is the star turn, eliciting gasps of admiration from the audience and even a few cheers. The stage manager Mike Powell Jones must have a
team of miracle workers.

The play’s theme of imposing order on chaos centres mainly around the hippy-ish Lucy and the mousie librarian, Lesley. Michael Frayn notes that when the play first opened in 1970, in the heady days of Flower Power, most people identified with Lucy. It is quite possible that balance has now changed in favour of Lesley. In fact it is hard to empathise with any of the characters as they are all quite dreadful, which only goes to prove the talent of the actors. The ones who deserve a sympathy vote are the cleaners, who receive a brief mention at the beginning of Act I.

Alphabetical Order runs at the Richomd Theatre until Sat 13th June

High School Musical - Liverpool Empire

High School Musical
Book by David Simpatico

Movie by Peter Barsocchini

Director Jeff Calhoun
Choreographer Lisa Stevens
Reviewer: Rowe Family

Every child from 3 onwards has heard of High School the Musical, Disney’s hit movie of the decade, and now it has hit the stage. It’s nothing short of a phenomenon, and watching the highly energetic spectacle unfolding on the stage, it’s not difficult to see why.

This is like a cross between Grease and the Kids from Fame for the Tweenies generation. It is bloodless and sexless with no bad language to heard anywhere, it sweetly conveys a moral messa
ge, that tells its audience not to allow themselves to be boxed in by other people’s perceptions of them, or put limits on what they want to do.

As in Grease, the two lead characters meet on holiday and then find themselves at the same school, only Rydal High has been swapped for the even more active East High School. But as their romance plays out, it makes Grease seem like Train spotting.

Troy, the basketball playing jock, and Gabriella, the swot, have to wrestle with the expectations of their peers (and in Troy’s case, those of his dad, too, who coaches the school basketball team of which he is the star) to fulfill their dream of starring in the high school musical.

The performances of many of these actors/actress’s was admirable, but Troy played by Ashley Day and Jack Scott (the voice of East High) played by Richard Vincent stole the show in my book, their timing was perfect and had you enthralled from the start.

While the rest of the cast gave an exceptional performance it was in my eyes spoilt by the false American accents that they all tried not only to use while talking but also while singing. Sharpay played by Emma Kelly really needs to concentrate on her singing as several times she missed her cue and even managed to sing off key. The dancing was first-rate and the tricks with the basketballs were tremendous, and this has to be down to the fantastic choreography of Lisa Stevens.

The set was well done by Kenneth Foy, but having it change so much during the performance did distract from the routine quite a bit. The lighting by Ken Billington did add to the performance but at the end of the show we were blinded when the lights were turned on us.

Phoebe aged 7 thoroughly enjoyed the show and was even singing along to the songs that she knew, although some were sung differently than in the film which she did comment on. Lauren a modern day teenager thought the show superb and did not have a bad word to say about it.

All In all the show is definitely a hit children’s show and from the audience reaction one that is sure to continue to be a success just as grease and fame before it.

HSM runs at the Liverpool Empire until Sat 13th June

Rattle of a Simple Man - Darlington Civic Theatre

Rattle of a Simple Man by Charles Dyer
Director: Ian Dickens
Production Directors: Caroline Burnett, Ian Marston & David North
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Timid football fan Percy is down from Manchester with the lads and after the match is picked up by lovely young prostitute Cyrenne. The lads bet he won’t spend the night with her but, uncharacteristically, he accepts the bet and goes to her basement flat. He is shy, gullible and believes all her lies about her exclusive education, her rich family, her sophisticated acquaintances and her exciting life. He prefers to talk rather than ‘do anything’ and gradually they open up to one another.

Hannah Waterman follows in the footsteps of fellow ex-‘EastEnders’ Letitia Dean and Michelle Collins to take on the role of Cyrenne. Her portrayal of the seemingly self-assured ‘working girl’ is powerful and compelling as she consummately captures the contradictory qualities of Cyrenne’s character.

Huw Higginson injects an endearing vulnerability into his performance as Percy that makes the character both likeable and credible. A lesser actor could easily have taken the role into the realms of caricature but Higginson, skilfully, retains believability throughout.

There is a chemistry between the two actors that you can almost reach out and grab hold of and it is a joy to behold.

Charles Dyer’s script crackles along and his writing is honest, sympathetic and heart-felt. The audience empathise with his characters as we discover that Percy leads a dull life with a hum-drum job, that he is lonely and longs for love, whilst Cyrenne is a fantasist from an ordinary background who was abused by her stepfather and is now struggling to find pride and independence.

Ian Dickens’ direction allows the characters to reveal their true personalities to each other and the audience gradually, yet the pace never drags. The scene between Cyrenne and her brother, Ricard, (played by Jarone Macklin-Page) is particularly poignant.

The fourth ‘star’ of this production has to be David North’s stunning set. He has authentically recreated a 1960s bed-sit and the attention to detail is superb.

Although ‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ was written in 1962 (the original production starred Sheila Hancock and Edward Woodward and was performed at the Garrick Theatre, London) it doesn’t seem that dated. Okay, so we are not as easily shocked or offended as we were back then, therefore the word ‘bottom’ no longer causes grown men to blush and shift uneasily in their seats. However you can bet your life that men such as Percy still exist in the twenty-first century, albeit they may be fewer in number.

There are some moments of high comedy, too, which triggered a number of bawdy laughs from a lady in the front row of the stalls who had either been fairly well lubricated with alcohol prior to the performance or was demonstrating a reaction to the high level of E-numbers contained in the bag of M&M’s that she was devouring her way through.

‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ is a play that is beautifully written, lovingly revived and tenderly portrayed. The opportunity to bask in two and a quarter hours of sentimental nostalgia is a sheer delight and something that is all too rare in the theatre nowadays.

It seems fitting to conclude with a quote from Harold Hobson, “those who do not see ‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ will always be somewhat impoverished for having missed it.”

‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 13th June 2009, before transferring to The New End Theatre, London from Monday 22nd June until Saturday 4th July 2009.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Thyestes - Arcola Theatre

Thyestes by Seneca
Translated by Caryl Churchill
Director Polly Findlay
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

Darbourne Luff’s ‘Thyestes’ is engaging, innovatively staged, and superbly acted – and all this in a tight, 75 minute nutshell!

The space itself is impressive: the post-apocalyptic warehouse space with its hanging lights and derelict furniture mirrors the darkness that is about to unfold. A lone, sinister figure sits motionless on stage while the audience is seated, then slowly rises and the play begins. Tantalus, sent to hell for killing his son and serving him as dinner for the gods, is dragged back from the underworld, blind and disoriented, to reawaken his family’s curse.

Showing impressive physical prowess, Youssef Kerkpur’s Fury introduced Tantalus’ by dragging his ghost from a large vat of water on stage, lifting a drenched Jamie Ballard out and over his head before throwing him on the floor. A picture of fear, Ballard’s blind eyes were staring wildly as he scrabbled around on the wet floor, beautifully setting the scene for the horror that was to come.

The only real problem with this play was the amount of reportage used to describe occurrences that happened offstage – a common issue with Greek Theatre as events are too fantastic to actually be presented. The scenes where the characters interacted, particularly those between Ballard as Thyestes and Nick Fletcher as Atreus, were so engaging and powerful that when you got long passages of description it felt the energy dropped, especially when events were then recapped in the following scenes.

What did impress me, however, was how these troublesome passages were presented. In the longest one, between the Messenger (Prasanna Puwanarajah) and Chorus (Michael Grady-Hall) the lights went out as Puwanarajah described Atreus murder and mutilation of Thyestes’ sons, and the rest of the scene was lit only by torches. The impressive creative team then showed their true worth, as the stage became a horror film: flickering lights, blood trails and footprints appearing as if from nowhere, and filing cabinets illuminating to show silhouetted children covered in blood. This was superb to watch, however it served to make the text mostly redundant, as it was so much more interesting that what was being said. Also, Puwanarajah’s delivery was very matter-of-fact: clearly spoken, but with little feeling behind it. Grady-Hall’s Chorus was similarly underpowered, and failed to engage and built the required rapport with the audience.

Fletcher’s performance as Atreus was beautifully drawn and consistent throughout the piece – a vengeful brother in the guise of a politician: a slick, smooth sociopath. The final scene, when he gives Thyestes the heads and hands of his children and completes his revenge, was outstanding. Ballard, strong as ever, presented a destroyed man: Thyestes wailing and wretching on the floor, trying to find a way to process his horror. Atreus, watching coldly, remarks that his pain “is not enough” for him, delighting in his terrible triumph.

A new production company, Darbourne Luff have made a strong start with this engaging piece, and I can only hope more of the same is to follow.

Photos: Iona Firouzabadi
Thyestes runs at the Arcola until Sat 27th June

Friday, 5 June 2009

Sister Act - The London Palladium

Sister Act - A Divine Musical Comedy
Music: Alan Menkin
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book: Cheri & Bill Steinkellner
Director: Peter Schneider
Choreographer: Anthony Van Lasst
Reviewer : Stephanie Rowe

When you mention Sister Act today, everyone automatically thinks of the show girl who finds herself in a convent, after witnessing her gangster boyfriend murder a man, they think straight away of Whoopi Goldberg playing this nun in the film, and the musical is the film reincarnated.

This musical comedy is definitely going to pull in the crowds, with its quick wit and toe tapping musical numbers written by Disney stalwart Alan Menkin, you cannot help but to hum along to the songs and watch spellbound, awaiting the next hilarious antic of Sister Mary Clarence played Patina Miller who is making her West End debut.

Patina brings all the fun and characteristics we expect from Deloris, giving the nun the comedy factor and confidence we see throughout the film. Her voice is fantastic the musical range is phenomenal and she has you mesmerized from the second she appears on stage and throughout the rest of the show.

Julia Suttons performance as Sister Mary Lazarus is enthralling she makes this role stand out from the rest as the sharp tongued and elderly nun who obviously feels she has missed out on life through her choice to join the convent. Sheila Hancock takes on the position of Mother Superior with all the panache and integrity one would hope to find in a nun of this calibre. Other mentions must go to Ian Lavender for his part of Monsignor Howard, Claire Greenway for Sister Mary Patrick and Chris Jarman for Shank, in fact the whole cast are stunning from start to finish.

The set designed by Klara Zieglerova helps the story line move from show bar to the different areas of the convent smoothly and although you notice when the set is changing, it is done so tastefully and skilfully that it does not distract from what is happening within the show at all the chase scene is one of this sets highlights! Lighting by Natasha Katz shrewdly gives the impression of a dark dismal convent with creepy dark corners and candle lit cells.

Choreography by Anthony Van Laast is fast moving and jazzy and really brings the musical numbers alive adding to the excitement of the show. Director Peter Schneider keeps this musical within the bounds of the original novel and the film and under his direction the show has all the get up and go needed to ensure you do not have one minute to look at your watch or wonder when your going to have a break because no sooner has it started, it has finished even though you have been in the theatre for over 2 and ½ hours, boredom does not get a chance to set in.

Having seen many musicals in my life this has to go down as one of the best and no doubt with its strong cast and strong direction will continue to play to packed houses for many months to come.
For more info on Sister Act - Click Here

Much Ado About Nothing - Open Air Theatre, Regents Park

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Director: Timothy Sheader
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is possibly the most beautiful space to be in London on a balmy summer’s evening. Reminiscent of a Greek Amphitheatre the gently sloping auditorium and circular stage are framed by an azure sky and towering trees, all the world, it would seem, truly is a stage this evening. Performed against a backdrop of humming bees and the gentle whisper of the wind Timothy Sheader’s charming production of Much Ado About Nothing delicately succeeds in winding its audience around its little finger.

Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, returns from war with his men, including Claudio and Benedict, to the delight of the household of Leonato, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Hero and Claudio fall in love and are to be married in a week, but in the meantime there is mischief to be had with the staunchly bachelor Benedict and Beatrice. As Don Pedro conspires to match make these two, his bastard brother, Don John, plots to destroy this merry company with a false accusation that nearly destroys them all.

Although his bonny production sporadically passes over the plays more significant textual moments, Sheader’s light direction brings out Shakespeare’s funniest lines and exchanges with a good dollop of jovial slapstick and some very smooth stage play. It careers along at a cracking pace, bringing the text to life with a merry wiggle and a jaunty wink.

Underneath this revelry, Sheader handles the inherent misogyny within the play with a strong understanding of modern feminist perspectives; a pertinent point is exquisitely made whilst Hero is dressed for her wedding in a metal bodice and skirt hoops which poignantly resemble chains. But it is clear that Sheader’s ‘hero’ is not this young impressionable girl, but the bold older cousin whose rejection of the male status quo is realised through a biting verbal wit. Comedy has always been used to subvert the establishment and so it is in the feisty and powerful Beatrice portrayed here with gusto by Samantha Spiro. When she incites Benedict to challenge the fickle and emotionally juvenile Claudio (a suitably boyish Ben Mansfield) Spiro becomes the avenging angel that all woman in the audience long to see wreak justice on the so called ‘good’ men of Messina.

Spiro’s Beatrice and Sean Campion’s buccaneering Benedict perhaps lack the disenchanted wisdom that is so rarely brought out to the full in these two mature lovers, but they dally with each other very prettily; the scenes of their entrapment into love being the highlights of the show, twinkling with quips and hocking a pretty hefty feel good punch.

Only equal to the levity of these scenes are the marvellous performances of Antony O’Donnell as Dogberry and Simon Gregor’s hilariously fawning Verges; never over-the-top these two adorable buffoons channel such greats as Laurel and Hardy, making one feel that slapstick has truly come home.

The costumes and set are pleasing if a little inconsequential, letting the performances and natural back drop take centre stage in a crowd pleasing production which makes up for it’s lack of focus with fruity cheek. The music was a bit too dainty for my tastes, and the absence of live music was sorely missed (the recorded soundtrack seeming incongruous when faced with all this natural beauty) but on the whole this is an engaging Much Ado which succeeds in the deceptively hard task of making a Shakespearian comedy laugh out loud funny.

Photos: Alastair Muir

Much Ado runs until 27th June.
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