Thursday, 30 July 2009

Joseph & His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - Richmond Theatre

Joseph & his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

Another magnificent Bill Kenwright show with a monumental set by Sean Cavanagh. Opening with a curtain depicting hieroglyphs this rises to reveal the land of Canaan which transforms into a dungeon, Pharoah’s palace and back again to Canaan via Paris. The large chorus of children are thoughtfully seated on stairs at each side of the stage so that they can both see and be seen, very important for the families and friends who comprise a large part of the audience. All the members of the cast run and dance up and down these steps throughout, with not the hint of a hand rail in sight.

The plot stays more or less faithful to the Book, justly simplifying the ending although the very title departs from the original. The actual cause of all the jealousy was a coat which simply had sleeves, presumably enough to cause sibling envy in its day. Anyone taking a young child to the show would be well advised to explain the story in advance. One young person was so distressed at the nastiness of the eleven brothers she was very reluctant to see Act II despite assurances that “it all comes right in the end”. Some of the Egyptian god costumes are a bit scary, too, not to mention the enormous talking sphinx with its glowing red eyes. The coat, of course, is almost the star of the show and every opportunity is taken to display its magnificence.

Henry Metcalfe not only plays the aged Jacob and Potiphar but is also the choreographer. The dancing is truly magnificent especially that of the brothers, even the portly one (possibly Levi) leaping about in the Ho-down scene like something out of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”.

The music, of course, was very loud and the over-amplification may have been responsible for the occasional shrillness of the narrator and ironically rendered Pharoah’s words largely unintelligible. On the other hand Craig Chalmers’ Joseph was very clear. Good looking and charming, he was understandably his father’s favourite. He stood up well against the wiles of Mrs Potiphar and her flapper handmaidens, as any well brought up lad should.

The lighting is by Mark Howett played a large part in this elaborate production, giving us blistering heat, mysterious temples and prison bars with beams shining down from the edge of each stair.
Originally written in the sixties as a pop cantata for school production it would be a challenge for any amateur group to follow this one with its basso profundo camel, inflatable sheep and goat on wheels, whose dismemberment goes largely unexplained. However it might be possible to use Elaine Peake’s quite excellent programme notes (copyright John Goad).
Unfortunately the evening comes to a sticky end for some as after finale the reprises went on and on and on. Ever heard the adage “Always leave them wanting more”? So if you have a bus to catch sit at the end of a row and leave after the “happily ever after bit”.

Joseph runs at the Richmond Theatre until Sat 1st August

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Annie - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Book: Thomas Meehan
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Martin Charnin
Director/Chreographer: Roger Hannah
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

There is a growth of revivals of child friendly family musicals at the moment, with Oliver doing great business again in the West End the time seems right to bring Annie back to the stage, but Chris Moreno’s production although enjoyable just seems to lack the wow factor that would make it five star theatrical hit.

Annie based on a cartoon strip from the 1920’s during America’s prohibition, proved ideal source material for a musical, with enough political impact, villains and charming characters to make sure it appealed to a vast number of people.

Ask anyone apart from Annie what character do you like, most will reply Miss Hannigan, the drunken orphanage owner who would rather make sure the kids stay in the orphanage so she can get money from the state than let them find a family, reviving a role which she has played on numerous occasions is entertainment veteran Su Pollard. Pollard’s performance was polished and well performed but one felt let down slightly by her paint by numbers approach to the role, bringing nothing new or interesting to the character something which this reviewer has seen her do in numerous shows before.

At this press performance Annie was played by Ellen Gallagher, and although she was mic’d up to an extent where she was far too loud, her performance was highly believable as the red haired powerhouse orphan and a great on stage chemistry was clearly evident when she shared the stage with David McAlister (Daddy Warbucks) who gave the show plenty of energy and charisma as the hardened millionaire. Chris Molloy brought plenty of laughs to the stage as Warbuks’ buttler Drake.

The set by Alan Miller Bunford felt cheap and although there were some excellent ideas it just fell short of the money. Roger Hannah’s choreography & direction was first class with excellent use of stage space, which really brought the show to life.

My biggest bug bear with touring productions like this is to get all the child performers from stage schools such as Stagecoach, when scattered around the local area are many youth theatres with children that would kill for a chance to perform in a professional production. Producers it’s time to start taking some risks on children who cant afford the termly fee of such place and may actually bring some character to the stage than little replica’s of Bonnie Langford.

Annie runs at the Lowry until Sat 1st August

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Out of Dead Air - Theatre Matolido, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Out of Dead Air
Writer: Mark Murphy
Director: Mike Heath
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Mark Murphy’s ‘Out Of Dead Air’ promises in its programme to tell the tale of three prisoners Al, Lenny, and Mike who are locked in an endless routine of monotonous tasks and schedules and live in constant fear and paranoia, locked away from the intangible and remote outside world. On first entry into the imposing and industrial environment of The Printwork’s ‘Round’ space, one is hit by a rousing and highly effective sound score and some very arresting (and slightly uncomfortable) surveillance search lights. I am all for ‘endurance theatre’ (especially one which seemed to have been influenced by Orwell’s dystopian classic ‘1984’) so was quite excited for what I hoped would be an evening of challenging and thought provoking theatre.

Unfortunately, within five minutes of this production beginning, any optimism and anticipation was quickly dashed. I admire performances that take risks and branch out from the naturalistic ‘kitchen sink’ framework but this piece just doesn’t work. Firstly the writing never really has anything to say and the lack of substance is apparent from the outset. Concepts and ideas are shoehorned in and the characters, despite some fairly lengthy monologues, evoke no audience empathy. By focusing on the absurd monotony of the characters’ day to day lives within their prison environment, Murphy has also fallen short of the mark. The stilted and repetitive dialogue painfully flattens the pace and energy of the performance. It also distances the audience, which coupled with the industrial strength air-con blasting through the space (which the poor actors have to battle against throughout the piece), destroys any audience connection with the characters or their situation.

The flawed writing is also heightened by Mike Heath’s lack lustre direction. What should feel like an explosion at the end of the play lacks any real directorial concept or input and verges on the comical rather than the powerful. The final 15 minutes, which should be filled with tense anticipation as to whether the three prisoners will stay or go, instead descends into mindless and empty shouting. This becomes so excruciating, one is willing Mike to take the leap out of the window just to end the play rather than for any vested interest in the characters’ welfares.

The three actors face a massive feat to try and bring any credibility to this extremely confusing piece. Banji Ojo has stage presence but his aggressive and testosterone fuelled portrayal of Mike seems strained and one dimensional. Lewis Marsh is more successful as Lenny delivering a focused and energetic performance and is the only thing of any real conviction and believability throughout this production.

The 24 7 festival is quite rightly a festival for new and emerging writers and practitioners so risks should be taken and of course mistakes made along the way, but perhaps this was merely too ambitious a concept and project for the writer, director and performers involved, and sadly the result is a frustrating, muddled and slightly ridiculous hour of theatre.

Working Title - Blackhand Productions, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Working Title
Writer: James Jowett & Adam Davies
Director: Helen Parry
Reviewer: John Roberts

Sword Fights, Ninja’s with an assassination on the cards, psychotic Turkey Ham sandwich eating gays, underwear tea drinking flat mates, Stunt doubles, and a rabbit called Pancakes, could you fit any more surreal situations into a one hour performance? The answer is yes! Is it any good? HELL YEAH! this is the funniest show this reviewer has had the pleasure of seeing in a long time.

James Jowett & Adam Davies have scripted their first play and what a knockout it is, this is writing that is sharper and funnier than a midget transsexual wielding a chainsaw. Jowett & Davies also take on the central characters (Will & Anthony) in this fast paced comical tour-de-force about two struggling writers failing to meet a festival deadline with their submission, With a natural on stage chemistry there is very little not to dislike in their performances.

Jowett & Davies are joined on stage with a true ensemble of comic creations some more brief than others but all equally surreal and hilariously funny. Notable performances are given by Michael Anthony Bond as Patrick and Sean Di Sora as Jason. Director Helen Parry must have had difficulty keeping this crazy cast under control, and even in its height of craziness, clear attention to detail meant that everything moved slickly and with perfect comic timing and at times some seriously strong tension.

I cannot recommend this production more, and if this is the talent that is coming out of Manchester then we are sure for a very bright and very funny if not slightly surreal future in years to come.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Remember Me - Sweet & Tender Hooligans, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Remember Me
Writer: Jason Crouch
Director: Sarah Meadows
Reviewer: John Roberts

Set amongst the backdrops of now and the Hacienda days of the late 80’s early 90’s Jason Crouch’s production ‘Remember Me’ explores the relationship between Darren (Ste Myott) Sophie (Jo Mousley) & Jessica (Lowri Evans) their daughter.

Crouch’s script uses a blend of naturalistic dialogue and stilted stylised phrases, it cross cuts from present, and past and for the most is engaging, heartfelt with a splattering of great one liners, but for all its ingenuity the use of cross cutting isn’t done to the best effect and as a result you don’t empathise with the character as much as one would hope.

Sarah Meadows direction is clean and crisp and she manages through the use of several theatrical conventions to tell the audience exactly where in the timeline we are, there are some truly touching scenes in the piece and the penultimate scene between Sophie & Jessica is one of the most gut wrenching emotional scenes in this years festival.

Ste Moyatt as Darren oozes charm, as the party hard playboy of the Hacienda, Jo Mousley produces a highly energetic and touching portrayal of Sophie, and boy does she know how to have a good time on the dance floor. Lowri Evans as Jessica gives a subtle performance as an emotional teen, almost reminiscent of Natalie Portman in Leon, but at times one felt she was a little too old to carry of the performance with maximum impact.

All in all ‘Remember Me’ is an enjoyable piece of theatre, that can do with a tighten up here and there in the writing, my biggest upset about seeing this show was the venue they had been placed in. Festival Organisers take note – seeing a show in a space where you can hardly hear anyone over noisy air conditioning does nobody any favours especially the actors who are working their socks of to entertain paying punters.

Detaining Mr K - Red Card Theatre, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Detaining Mr K
Writer: James Douglas
Director: James Douglas & Wendy Richardson
Reviewer: John Roberts

Everything about this show at the start ticked all the right boxes, the stark white set, the CCTV images of the audience entering the space, the echo sounds of an atmospheric soundscape. The basis of exploring the morals of detaining people for up to 28 days without any hard evidence, this should have been an exciting psychological exploration of a detainee and their detainer, what we ended up with was a script that only had one point to say and a badly mis-cast cast.

Ruth Urquhart plays Pauline McWhirter, an interviewer you are sent to as you’re nearing the final day of your detention, Urquhart’s portrayal isn't the menacing and psychotic portrayal one would hope for, instead you get an impersonation of Catherine Tate’s controversial and very grating character Nan. Equally miscast is Anthony Bentley as Mr K, highly unbelievable in his delivery of a man on the verge of cracking up under the strain of being detained, add on top if the performances the vast amount of line slip ups and it starts to become apparent that this may of not been finished in the rehearsal room.

The problem with the piece as a whole is it only has one real point to say and it feels overly preachy in its delivery, not giving any real plausibility to hearing the opposite side the argument, James Douglas could do with going back to the drafting stages, this isn’t a topic that works with trying to find comedy, instead it falls rather flat and boring, take it back to development workshop it with another director and take it to a more pertinent and serious angle and you may just have a strong play that resonates with the vast majority.

Enron - Chicester Festival Theatre

Writer: Lucy Prebble
Director: Rupert Goold
Reviewer: David Saunders

I arrived at the Minerva with a preconception I am afraid, I like the work that Headlong produces they are an inventive, stylish and challenging company who produces work that is usually stark and grounded in real emotionality. However this is not the case here. The piece which deals with the financial fraud committed by Enron officials at the turn of this century and the effects of those crimes. The problem here however is not with the performances but the concept.

This production is overly tricky with a text and subject matter that does not require it. By that I mean it is as if the creative team have been given a list and told to go and ensure they use every single theatrical trick and show they can in order to complete the performance. The creative work that is employed is no doubt stunning and used in a more restrained fashion would have been stunning for sure but here it makes what is a fast moving story feel flabby and overcooked. I know that the current vogue in Theatre is to show off as much as is humanly possible but Theatre should be about telling human stories most importantly and not just throwing as much at a piece as you can for the sake of it.

The concept aside there are some fine performances here; Samuel West brings depth and pathos to Jeffrey Skilling as we see his decline into desperation. The work Tom Goodman-Hill is at times hugely comic and twisted as he seeks to impress his worth to West’s Skilling. There is an excellent ensemble at work here with weight added by Tim Piggott-Smith and Amanda Drew. The cast as whole are stunning in their efforts but there is the sense that they are at times hamstrung not by Lucy Prebble’s economic, weighted and crisp text but by all the added layers placed on top of it by the Creative Team.

The design elements of this piece are exquisite from the detail and precision of the lighting through to the clever multi media work. The movement direction is also in keeping with the tone of the piece and adds an edge that would otherwise be lost.

The director Rupert Goold is being muted in Theatre circles at the moment as a bright young thing he is destined for the RSC in 2010 and possibly in the future the National? I would say that yes there are some clever moments in this piece but he needs to look carefully at the layers he is allowing into his work. The words, characters, and story are the key here and directors should look to maintain that status quo. I am a fan of technical work and the design is at times as I have said stunning but it does beg the question: Is the piece better or worse of for it?

Enron runs at the CFT until 29th August

No Wonder - Heart Off The Ground, 24/7 Festival Manchester

No Wonder
Writer: Claire Urwin
Director: Guy Jones
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

‘No Wonder’ has been on quite a journey. Since being premiered in 2008, it was invited to be part of the NSDF and is currently playing as part of the 24 7 festival. Delivered as a series of monologues and duologues (where the characters never actually speak directly to each other) Luke (Paul Currie) and Alison (Heather Johnson) recount the evening their father/husband falls from a window-sill and subsequently ends up in a coma. Taken from the viewpoints of a mother at the hospital bedside and son in his bedroom drawing pictures, this is a moving and poignant tale of childlike wonder and the pain of having to grow up too soon.

The Peter Pan parodies are cleverly crafted throughout and Clare Unwin is undoubtedly a playwright of great creativity and promise although sometimes her abundance of observations and metaphors make this piece feel more like spoken poetry than a play. However this is a small criticism in what is ultimately a very stylish and fresh piece of writing.

Both Paul Currie and Heather Johnson deliver admirable performances although Currie appears more comfortable and convincing in portraying the age of his character with excellent child-like mannerisms and relentless energy, portraying the tormented young mind of Luke. Johnson’s strengths lie in her ability to connect with the emotional impact that the event has had on Alison, although one never quite believes that she is old enough to be a mother and more attention needs to be paid to maturing her performance, so the contrast between mother and son are clear throughout.

Guy Jones’ direction is generally slick and well paced although there are some moments of contrived and gratuitous stage business (for example the emergence of a naked doll to punctuate the dialogue) which seemed a little unnecessary and detracted from the strong writing.

This play has a massive amount of potential. The writing is original and stirs the audience’s senses thrusting you very quickly from a state of child-like magic and innocence to the harsh and painful reality of adulthood. With further work on direction and characterisation, this could be a real theatrical tour de force.

Freshers - Shrink Wrapped Theatre, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Writer: Steve Pearce
Director: James Blakey
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

‘Freshers’ by Steve Pearce certainly lulls the audience into a false sense of security. What you assume (from the first scene) is going to be light-hearted look at University life quickly descends into the decaying relationship between a father and daughter in the lengthy aftermath of their wife and mother’s death. Jumping to and from the 1980’s to the modern day, Fresher’s follows the optimistic beginnings of Miles’ and Hephzibah’s relationship to its tragic and untimely end twenty years later. Miles decides to return to the university where he and his beloved late wife first met, much to the dismay and resentment of his teenage daughter Scarlett who is also studying at the same University. What follows is a poignant look at how and if a relationship can be re-formed after such a painful and complex tragedy.

Steve Pearce’s writing is intelligent and accessible and he manages to build up the characters and tie up the loose ends with ease. He also appears to have a lot to say and this piece covers everything from the constraints and monotony of capitalist life to the education system. However I find Pearce’s writing more effective when he is observing the everyday relationships of his characters rather than his overtly socio-political observations. Although they are presented in the writing as debates between two politically acute bright-eyed undergraduates, they still sometimes feel more like the presentation of an academic study rather than a genuine and believable conversation between two people. Having said this, there are lines of brilliant observation; ‘Sell-by dates are a Capitalist ploy’ and ‘I’m content to be unexceptional, as long as I’m happy’, being two of my favourites. The repetition of dialogue and idiosyncrasies between mother Hephzibah and daughter Scarlett is also beautifully crafted and again reflects a strong writing style.

The excellent dialogue is also complemented by a strong cast. Richard Hand is particularly brilliant as Miles and manages to juggle the very swift transformations from young student to older and wiser father with complete conviction and believability. Laura Danielle Sharp plays the petchulant teenager Scarlett with ease and has a fantastic emotional range and energy whilst Christine Clare is endearing and charismatic as Hephzibah.

The direction by James Blakey is a little inconsistent. Whilst the dialogue between the characters is well paced and engaging, the scene changes are far too slow and flattens the energy of the piece in places. The interference of the radio coinciding with the slow and stylised movements of the actors is a little lack lustre and confusing and this needs to be tightened if it is to work as a theatrical device.

The Person Without - Black Box, 24/7 Festival Manchester

The Person Without
Writer: Jenny Yates
Director: Ian Moore
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

‘The Person Without’ written by Jenny Yates is currently playing as part of the 24 7 Festival. It opens with two strangers Walt (Bernard Merrick) and Adam (John Molloy) awaiting their meetings with the mysterious figure up stairs, who has invited them both to a weekend poker match. As the play progresses the characters (and audience) are exposed to just how far people will go to exact revenge.

The strength of the writing makes it hard to believe that this is Yates’ first play. It is clearly inspired by the work of Harold Pinter. There is a strong sub-text throughout and the snappy and enigmatic dialogue maintains audience interest.

Ian Moore’s simple sleight of hand direction and effective staging combined with an excellent choice of space all help to add the required tension and atmosphere needed for this piece, but this is definitely an actor’s play and it is the talent and conviction of the three-strong cast that brings this piece to life.

Bernard Merrick’s understated and effortless performance as ‘miserable old git’ Walt contrasts wonderfully with John Molloy’s energetic and confident Adam and this results in scenes of magnetic and hugely watchable chemistry. Joan Mcgee also delivers a natural performance as ‘house-keeper’ Maggie and serves to further the intrigue and mystery as this plot unfolds.

For me, ‘The Person Without’ is exactly what fringe theatre should be about; a simple yet highly effective production which allows a strong script and excellent performances to speak for themselves. This is definitely a must see for anyone who enjoys challenging and intelligent theatre.

The Coffee Hour - The Third Place, 27/7 Festival Manchester

The Coffee Hour
Writer: Mike Peacock
Director: Amanda Hennessy
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

‘The Coffee Hour’ written by Mike Peacock (who also performs) opens in a Coffee Shop where two strangers Adam and Laura literally bump into each other. Despite an initial animosity on Laura’s part, this ‘chance’ meeting very quickly blossoms into a confessional tale of why Laura is drinking alone and the two strangers end up spending the night together. However, throughout this 50 minute piece on the complexities of grief, nothing is ever as black and white as it seems and Adam’s final confession to Laura leaves her heart and mind in complete disarray.

In terms of the writing, there are some moments of promise particularly in the opening scene. However as the play progresses the whole far-fetched scenario begins to grate. The fact that everything is spelt out and discussed in such detail prevents any sort of sub-text from forming and nothing is left to the audience’s imagination.

Instead of creating what could have been an enticing ‘Brief Encounter’ style piece where these two strangers are involuntarily thrust together and despite their reasoning or logic can’t seem to walk away; the obvious and outmoded writing makes this piece feel more like a TIE performance on the dangers of drink-driving.

The pace of the production moves along quite nicely and Mike Peacock and Sarah Wylie deliver strong individual performances. However the chemistry between the characters is never quite there and the conversation and humour appears strained and contrived. Unfortunately by the end of the production, you don’t particularly feel sympathy or empathy towards either character nor believe the relationship that has formed between them.

Temp/Casual - Spent Ambition, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Writer: Steve Timms
Director: Ben Power
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Temp/Casual is the new offering by 24 7 veteran Steve Timms and it is currently playing as part of this years’ festival. This engaging, funny and heartfelt piece follows the lives of a group of University Graduates and how their bright eyed dreams and aspirations slowly start to fade away as they enter the soul-destroying and mundane existence of 9-5 work.

Actress turned office temp Susan and failed stand-up Comedian Adam find solace in each others’ arms as they seek any distraction from their day to day lives and struggling DJ Stick also faces the added challenge of dealing with his father’s slow and painful death. The only character who has achieved relative success in his career is the Poet Laureate for the ‘Loose Women’ generation; Martin, but even he remains lost and unfulfilled, realising that no job can ever really bring true satisfaction or happiness.

This piece deals with a lot of issues very relevant to our generation and it could have the potential to become a very depressing production. However thanks to the freshness and humour of Steve Timms writing combined with the energy and confidence of the 7-strong cast, the result is a very entertaining and thought provoking hour of theatre.

Kate Newton, Marlon Solomon and Leon Jan all deliver strong performances as the plays love-torn trio and Karl Dobby is particularly effective as Stick, managing to balance the comic and tragic elements of his character effortlessly. Isobel McArthur brings a subtlety and sincerity to the part of the naive and optimistic Amy and both Julie Chapman-Lavelle and David Corden offer a master-class in character acting and versatility as they successfully tackle an array of contrasting characters.

Ben Power’s slick direction and the effective use of a simple yet multi-functional set design combined with a rousing sound score and multi-media elements also add to this highly accessible production. This is a great start to the 24 7 festival; check out ‘Temp Casual’ before it finishes this Saturday.

5:30 - Cheapseats Theatre, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Writer: Alistair McDowell
Director: Clive Judd
Reviewer: John Roberts

Friendship can at times be a fickle thing, just how do we make friends when we have never had any? To what lengths would you go to get a friend? and to what length would you make sure that friendship was real and one that will last the test of time?

Those are the questions that are brought up in Cheapseats Theatre Company’s production of 5:30, Alistair McDowell has written a sure fire hit. Fast in pace, hilariously funny and brutally hard hitting, you can’t help leaving after 55 minutes and grabbing a drink to mull over everything you have just experienced.

Clive Judd has directed this two hander with a real aplomb, the detail in the comedy, the tension, the pathos is weaved in a way that wouldn’t look out of place on a bigger west-end stage a real tour-de-force of theatrical delight.

Rob played excruciatingly menacing by Peter Ash is a masterclass in performing, the energy and power he paces through the lines is pure brilliance and one would only hope that this performance leads him onto bigger and better things. Adam Caslin (Tim) provides a suitable more quieter but equally disturbing character performance.

you may be asking the question that this reviewer isn’t giving much away...well the company have kindly requested that we don’t give anything away and if this show was a huge flop I wouldn’t really care about keeping to that request, but it isn’t! It is one of the strongest pieces of theatre I have seen for a long time and if you really want to know what happens to the friendship of Rob & Tim, I suggest you get your ticket as quickly as possible as this is bound to sell out quickly!

The Last Chair - Northern Elastic Theatre Co, 24/7 Festival Manchester

The Last Chair
Writer & Director: Ian Townsend
Reviewer: John Roberts

I want to open the review with a quote from the play itself “there were no seats left for this mediocre play, with no big names and very little talent.” Unfortunately for this show thats the only thing that made me laugh as it summed up my whole experience of this production.

I am a huge fan of surrealist comedy, Ionesco has a permanent place in my heart as a master of comic genius, and if you are going to produce a piece of surreal comedy then you need to submerge yourself in as much research in the area as possible but Ian Townsends writing falls miserable short of the mark.

Taking the idea of the last chair in the world and two people, who should have the chair? Should they share it? Take turns? How long should they each take? Where should the chair be placed in the unknown place? To be honest I really didn’t care as the whole premise has the feel of a very bad thirty second sketch on a bad television comedy that’s been stretched out further than Rick Waller’s Waist Line.

Ian Townsend has also directed the piece and one must raise a few questions the first, why play your leads as upper class, what relation does this have to the piece other than to annoy the living hell out of your audience? Karl Lucas & Hayley Fairclough seemed to be enjoying every moment of their high pitched squeals of delight throughout, but their performances left little more than the feeling I was watching a very bad Am-Dram from Alderly Edge.

I guess the most absurd thing about Townsend’s production is trying to understand why this play actually got picked for the 24:7 Festival.

The Grapes of Wrath - Chichester Festival Theatre

The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck
Adapted by Frank Galati
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: David Saunders

I am not one of those people who are widely read in fact I consider myself to be thinly read at best. I have never read the classics and while I was aware of the basic outline of Grapes of Wrath that is about the limit of my knowledge. I had hoped for a sweeping portrayal of the desolation many of America’s families felt in during the Great Depression. Instead what I saw was a tender and intimate portrayal of a family struggling with the world around them but also their own internal struggles.

This production has within the company some fine performers, in the lead male role of Tom Joad; Damian O’ Hare brings power and control to a man struggling to keep his moral compass in the most trying of times. It is a performance of raw physicality aligned to good vocal control and a sharp accent. The same cannot be said of the as a whole cast some of whom struggle with the intricacies of the accent work required in the piece. The family ensemble work well as a unit clearly showing the sense of a family desperate to break free from the troubles they face as well as each other. Special mention should go to Sorcha Cusack who gives a performance at times both fierce and fragile bringing depth to what is written, showing a clear theatrical level of experience that is at times lacking across the company.

The direction of Jonathan Church allows the story to unfold at a gentle pace but there are some clever touches and inventive uses of the Festival Theatre space. We are able to see the varying tones and rhythm of Frank Galati’s adaptation as the characters are given room to breathe. The design of Simon Higlett is highly original and really places the audience in simple yet superbly realised detail throughout the piece it is a shame in many ways that the quality of the design work in setting, lighting and sound is not always matched by the quality of the performances.

In short this production is well worth a look and is at times all you hope for, searing, emotional, raw, beautiful, tender and dark. The question then is in this modern age where people cross continents without thought has our changing experience as a society diluted the power of this work? It seems unfortunately in places it has. There is the bigger question that are we better or worse of for this change?

Grapes of Wrath runs at the CFT until Sat 28th August in Rep with Oklahoma

West Side Story - Lowry Theatre, Salford

West Side Story
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Joey McKneely
Reviewer: Lindsay Kelly

It is hard to believe it is 50 years since one of the most endearing musicals of our time, West side Story first hit the stage. A Romeo and Juliet based musical. Highly emotional, beautifully choreographed and with an amazing soundtrack, Remembered by the older generation for the songs, and loved by the younger ones for the lively dancing, this is a musical the whole family can enjoy.

The book has been written by Arthur Laurents and is set on Upper Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950’s. The two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks face the biggest challenge of all, when Tony, the leader of the Jets falls madly in love with Maria, the sister of Peurto Rican gang leader of the Sharks. The two gangs battling for control of the neighbourhood are plunged further into cultural division and violent resolution when the secret love of Tony and Maria is discovered.

The set by Paul Gallis of basic American style balconies and fire escapes was well used especially for some of the dances.

The accents of the Peurto Rican’s was hard to understand at first but by the second half you had actually become accustomed to it. The first half of the show was very slow and dragged along to the interval, but after refreshments the second half livened up and you really started to enjoy yourself, singing along with Maria ( Sophia Escobar), Tony ( Daniel Koek) and Anita (Jayde Westaby), these three really had the voices to carry off the strong numbers they were required to sing and hit the notes with no trouble, the rest of the cast were great too and each one played a fabulous part.

The score is by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics Stephen Sondheim and includes such memorable hits as Maria, Tonight, America and Jet Song, which under the musical direction of Simon Beck had you singing and tapping your feet throughout.

Directed and Choreographed by Joey McKneely this is a show which could quite easily still be around for another 50 years.

Photos Alistair Muir
West Side Story runs at the Lowry until Sat 25th July

Lub You - Steele Productions, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Lub You
Writer: Eve Steele
Director: Ed Jones
Reviewer: John Roberts

Making her writing debut with Lub You is Eve Steele, using her own experiences of her own children to create the piece she has weaved a fantastic piece of physical theatre that is one of the festivals true highlights that taps right into the mindset of a youngster and all that trouble them.

Seen through the eyes of Charlie, we see his love of rangers, play fighting with his dad, the hatred of new baby Bo-Bo, the post-natal breakdown of his mum Vicki and the breaking up of his parents and the joys and pitfalls of having two bedrooms to sleep in.

Charlie is played beautifully by Eve Steele with a strong physicality and glorious facial expressions one can’t help but remember all the moments that she vividly brings to life from our own past experiences. Playing Bo-Bo is new graduate Amy Spencer, who for the majority of the play grimaces and crys but really comes into her own in the final ten minutes of the piece when Bo-Bo learns to talk.

Playing Vicki is also new graduate Tanya Huq, not only stunning to look at physically but a fantastic actress to boot, the breakdown of her character transposed into dance is one of the best singular pieces of physical theatre I have seen. One couldn’t help but feel more could have been made of Ted Holden playing Jay, the put upon father, but when he is on stage he holds his own with his sheer physical presence.

Ed Jones has directed this piece with a sharp eye, and makes sure that the pace is kept upbeat and the tension is rung to its maximum effect, with well observed mannerisms, and choreographed routines this show packs a real punch for your pound and I can truly say I LUB this show!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Maine Road - Monkeywood Theatre, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Maine Road
Writer: Sarah McDonald Hughes
Director: Martin Gibbons
Reviewer: John Roberts

Promising a Story of Football, Family, Bricks and Mortar, Monkeywood Theatre have managed to pull in a good crowd for their lunchtime performance. Is this clever marketing selling a show on the back of a cultural icon and a location that many Mancunians hold close to their honest answer is yes as the football element is so small in this production it is almost nothing more than just an anchor to develop this beautifully written family drama.

Sarah McDonald Hughes has already received critical acclaim for Maine Road, which was shortlisted for the Alfred Bradley Bursary Award the most acclaimed radio prize in the UK and one that also got her a one year mentorship with the BBC.

McDonald Hughes has had several commissions as a writer for several Theatre in Education companies and it is clear to see why, she has weaved together a slick piece of writing that tackles some of the themes that most teens go through and whilst watching it is hard not to imagine this piece doing extremely well in the schools touring market.

Telling the story of Leo whose life is slowly falling apart, his beloved Maine Road is only a few days away from having its last match, his Nan has died, his dad is more interested in spending time at the pub, and his Mum is absent through her grief of losing her mother, but all is not lost as loving older sister Jade is there to pull him through.

McDonald Hughes as well as writing also plays Jade and is well cast in this role, suitably being hard and sympathetic in order to get her family to function in any way possible that resembles some sense of normality. Daniel Fitsimons is also well cast as Leo its very easy to over play a charcter that is younger than you, but Fitsimons handles this with the maturity of an actor of many more years experience and gives a heartfelt performance.

Marie Critchley also provides a strong central performance as Elaine the mother who is falling to pieces trying to cope with the loss of her mother. One would have liked to have seen the role of Clive (the father) developed more into the storyline but Tomas Aldersley gives a stunningly brutal performance. Francesca Waite is also strong in her small cameo as Donna.

Maine Road flows with swift and smooth direction by Martin Gibbons and never lacks the punch or pace that a piece like this can come up against. A well written and performed production but I feel this piece would be better received and much more at home in the educational theatre market than the mainstream.

Dancing to the Sound of Crunching Snails - Balancing Act, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Dancing to the Sound of Crunching Snails
Writer: Joe Graham
Director: Joyce Branagh
Reviewer: John Roberts

Joe Graham’s bittersweet comedy set during a tense family meeting on boxing day, inviting the father that you haven’t had a relationship with in some years to a gathering can bring up all sorts of insecurities, especially when those insecurities and feelings are based on memories.

Memories are obscure things especially when looked at closely, that we accept memories how we want to see them and not how they happened, how we can quickly forget the good times and hang on to the bad.

Catherine Kinsella (Katie ) gives a wonderful performance as the youngest daughter, who hasn’t seen her dad in many years, holding onto the fact that she has nothing in common with the dad that ran out on her when she was younger. Kinsella’s depth of emotion throughout the piece is exquisite, comical and yet heartbreaking.

Andrew Grose as Katie’s Husband Sam gives a powerful and highly comic performance of a man living his childhood memories through Monopoly, Buckeroo and Hungry Hippo’s. Gemma Wardle also gives a warming performance as older sister Sara, but it is TV regular Michael Stark that steals the show as Howard the estranged father who shows Katie they have a lot more in common than she first thought. Stark’s every word is punctuated with a heavy load of emotion, and in one scene even had this reviewer bring tears to his eyes, yet also laughing so much your ribs hurt, this is a real tour-de-force performance.

The performances are only as strong as the writing and directing and I am pleased to say that these are also of a high standard, Graham’s script is pacey and the dialogue flows with a real sense of understanding, helped along by Branagh’s slick and moving direction and a brilliant decision to turn the space into a thrust meant that all the audience felt very much part of the living room set designed by Richard Foxton.

Dancing to the Sound of Crunching Snails shows what real fringe theatre can be about, engaging performances, beautifully written script and clever direction that never feels it needs to do anything but tell a story, if there is one show at this year’s festival that should be in your must see list then this has a fighting chance to be in your number one slot!

Exit Salford - Steel Productions, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Exit Salford
Written by Ed Jones

Director: Martha Simon
Reviewer: Lisa Whiteside

‘Exit Salford’ written by Ed Jones is based upon a true story about a young writer, Luke, who moves to Salford only to discover the usual rules of the world really don’t apply within this very close knit and largely segregated community. As Luke’s story develops, he begins to forge friendships with some of the local disengaged youths and we begin to see such relationships take a startling turn for the worst.

This is a piece that is generally well performed, well written and well directed and one to recommend. One of the greatest strengths of this piece is that although it is topical and raises many issues of today it isn’t in any way preachy or self righteous in its delivery.

With an interesting use of direction that was quite stylistic in its use of props this piece strikes a good balance of both current issues and entertainment. I would argue its greatest strength is within Luke’s brief encounters with his very different neighbours, one of my favourite lines being ‘Just eat the bacon then!’.

If I was to pick this play to pieces I would argue that on occasions Luke’s narration could be slightly long winded and the relationship between him and his French girlfriend didn’t seem entirely necessary to the piece as a whole. However, out of the many plays I did see that day I would say that this was undoubtedly my favourite. The combination of such competent writing and direction clearly illustrated to me that that this piece could go far with further development.

‘Exit Salford’ is definitely one to pop along and see if you want gritty real life issues, an inventive and stylistic approach to performance with several laughs thrown in to satisfy the needs of a wide variety of audience members!

Phys Ed - Opposite Leg, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Phys Ed
Written by Simon Carter

Director: David Windle
Reviewer: Lisa Whiteside

Phys Ed is a solo performance based upon the character of Neville Trellis. As the piece develops we discover that Neville is rugby obsessed PE Teacher with an inferiority complex over his amazing twin brother and previous history of wetting the bed!

As a one man show, this piece written by Simon Carter, has a massive task of keeping the audience entertained for 55 minutes with the stories and revelations from one man, Mr Trellis. In order to do so it is necessary for us to share his laughter, pain, downright embarrassment and desires for more in life and this was definitely made possible by the very competent performance from actor Nicholas Osmond.

From the offset it is evident that as an audience we are going to empathise with this character despite the ‘plummy’ accent, skin tight leggings and mini warm-up routine.The subtleties of the character in both moments of light and shade is what really keeps you entertained as you giggle, cringe and feel for this character and his encounters with other people.

I would highly recommend Phys Ed, directed by David Windle. A strong, confident and very humorous performance is given by its only actor and the dialogue clearly illustrates the writer’s previous comedy connections and experience. This is a piece that doesn’t preach, cover any particular topical issue of today or have any other agenda than to purely entertain and that is what I would argue is its greatest strength. As we now live in a society that is often rather bleak with constant reminders of swine flu, gun crime or terrorist attacks, if your wish is to be entertained and forget for a brief moment about such horrors of the world then this piece is definitely for you

Frontline - Breeze Bloc Production, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Writer & Director: Victoria Ofovbe
Reviewer: Lisa Whiteside

Frontline is a drama based upon the lives of two young people living within a Manchester area where gun and gang culture are rife. As the story unfolds we learn more about Ramone and Aisha, the central characters, who are both heavily involved within this lifestyle. As one endeavours to move on the other realises that this will be impossible as the consequences of such involvement will be massive.

Considering the nature of recent breaking news within Manchester of late it would be very difficult to dispute the relevance of Victoria Ofovbe’s script. This piece of drama is undeniably key to today’s issues with crime and gang culture and being a Mancunian myself, definitely relative to Manchester and local areas.

When given a maximum running time of no more than 60 minutes for the 24/7 festival any writer would be hard pushed to fully explore and develop a character’s story and that is what I would personally have liked. This script has great potential, however I left feeling like I wanted to know more about each of the characters, their growing relationship together and the realisation of the consequences that will follow each of their actions.

Ramone is a character that has the potential for enormous scope in terms of illustrating both a sinister and soft side to the character and that is what I would have liked to have been explored further. The piece was suitably cast with both performers, however on occasions felt rather ‘shouty’ thus making the piece on occasions lose its intensity as the subtleties of the work were lost. This was a piece whereby I felt as though I wanted to empathise with the characters but was unable to for some reason and that is what I felt was needed to make the audience fully engage with the piece as a whole.

Overall ‘Frontline’ proved to be a relevant, gritty and topical piece that kept the audience entertained. I personally would argue however that this piece definitely has much more scope with further development of the script, exploration and refinement of characters and detailed direction to truly realise its overall potential and relevance both within today’s society and theatrical climate.

Blinded by the Light - LAX Theatre Company, 24:7 Festival Manchester

Blinded by the Light by Karl Voden
Director: Paul Fred Kelly
Reviewer: John Roberts

By the very nature of a fringe festival you are inevitably going to come across some shows that are of a high calibre and some that unfortunately fall short of the mark, and I have to say that my first production of this year’s fringe most certainly fell into the latter.

Karl Voden’s script about a collective of media photographers and reporters meeting outside a fictional stars home after a reported rape, which during their time together start to question themselves and the reasons behind what they are doing is definitely an interesting topic to wrestle with, but if falls remarkably flat and also a little contrived. Over use of expletives and sexual references a fringe show does not make!

The show isn’t helped either by the lack lustre direction by Paul Fred Kelly, with only 55 minutes to wow the audience we are instead left with an production that leaves the actors mostly in horrid straight lines, messy clusters and a complete unawareness of the landscape geography of the world they are inhabiting.

Reg Edwards (Ray) & Tom Tunstall (Gobi) for actors who have a wealth of experience between them are rather flat and for the first ten minutes were only just audible clearly having difficulty in tackling the acoustic challenges of the space, but Edwards does give a menacing performance throughout, but is let down in this by Tunstall colourless and cross armed performance which takes place throughout feeling that he is searching for his next line rather than the next emotion.

The only ray of sunshine in this production is given by the comic and energetic performance of Mitch played by Thomas Latham, showing the rest of the cast how to connect with a piece and to the audience, but even his colourful interpretation couldn’t help the poor writing and poor direction.

I think I would rather be on the end of a Paparazzi onslaught than sit and watch this production by LAX Theatre Company, at least at the end of it I will have something to go home with and talk about!

Pirates of Penzance - Union Theatre, London

Pirates of Penzance
by Gilbert & Sullivan
Director: Sasha Regan
Reviewer: Leon Trayman

The Union Theatre has built itself a reputation for outstanding fringe musical theatre over the last few years, and their revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic The Pirates of Penzance does not disappoint.

Directed with great flair by The Union Theatre’s founder and co-producer Sasha Regan, we are thrust into the topsy-turvy world of G&S with this wonderful all male ensemble cast. Robyn Wilson-Owen’s design makes excellent use of this versatile performance space and Regan ensures that every piece of it is used to it’s fullest. The set is minimal, except the sail-like tabs, which billow gently as the cast rush past them. Sophie Mosberger’s costumes are simple and effective, transforming the cast from chest-baring, sword-wielding pirates, to demure balletic debutantes.

I feel that a special note should go to Chris Mundy who is – to all intents and purposes – the whole band, playing the piano throughout inclusive of (by his own admission) a truncated version of the overture with great skill and dexterity. Fred Broom is certainly the very model of the Major General Stanley, and turns out a charming performance. Samuel J Holmes’ Ruth is an excellent study in how to play a woman without being overly camp or ‘feminine’, his comic timing and occasional ad lib very wonderfully timed and he sang with great feeling.

Alan Winner gives a robust performance as The Pirate King, athletically hanging from a crossbeam during one of the numbers! Russell Whitehead plays Frederic with an endearing naivety, and delivers the recitative sections beautifully. Major General Stanley’s daughters Mabel, Isabel, Kate, Edith, and Constance were played by Adam Ellis, Adam Lewis Ford, Dieter Thomas, Stewart Charlesworth ad Lee Greenaway respectively. These performances were mostly nuanced and considered performances that made me genuinely feel that I was watching a group of young ladies.

Adam Ellis (Mabel) has an incredible falsetto at times singing like a coloratura! The ‘ensemble’ members of the cast all gave great performances: Frank Simms for his ‘note’ as the policeman, Brandon Whittle for his beautiful ballet, Adam Black for his moustache-acting, Raymond Tait and Daniel Maguire for their comedy glances, and Lewis Barnshaw for this terribly camp policeman!
The thing that really makes this production – aside from the great direction, musical direction, design, and individual performances – is the choreography. Lizzi Gee has done a phenomenal job on this show. The set pieces create beautiful pictures with the bodies on stage, the rhythm of certain movements within the dance help the actors to make postural changes allied to their characters – providing uniformity within the ‘ranks’, and there is generally a sense of great energy, vitality and movement throughout; despite the relative lack of space!

Pirates runs at the Union until Sat 18th August

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Naked Boys Singing 2009 - Arts Theatre, London

Naked Boys Singing
Director: Phil Willmott
Musical Director
:Elliot Davis
Choreography: Andrew Wright
Reviewer: Becky Middleton

Naked Boys Singing does exactly what it says on the tin. The eight lads even have a song to demonstrate the fact that they are naked boys, Singing. Despite stating the blatantly and slightly surprisingly obvious, Naked Boys Singing in a great fun, tongue-in-cheek camp-fest, that celebrates the flesh of all things male.

Cleverly masquerading as an audition process for the play's own play, the eight men each have their moment to shine with 'audition pieces' impressively belted out with a touch of humour.

David Lucas’ ‘Naked Maid’ number helped to cement the comical tone as he swept and sung his way around the stage accompanied by the playful piano accompaniment. This was enhanced by Duncan Leith’s ‘Perky Little Pornstar’ rendition that was both entertaining and fun.

It's good to know they are talented as in the vocal as well as aesthetic department. The spectacle cheekily begins with a musical number entitled ‘Gratuitous Nudity’, promising the audience they will get what they paid for, and they certainly do. The audience is introduced gradually to the nudity of the actors, as they begin fully clothed and do not strip off completely until some of the final scenes.
The result is a light-hearted juicy west end musical with an entertaining and original twist.

Naked Boys Singing runs at the Arts Theatre at 9:30pm until Sat 30th Aug

F**king Men - Arts Theatre, London

F**cking Men by By Joe DiPeitro
Directed by Phil Wilmott
Reviewer: Becky Middleton

F**king Men is not the dodgy peep show the name may suggest to unsuspecting audiences going to the theatre behind Leicester Square tube station on a weekday night.

The title is a bold introduction to the examination of a series of relationships detailed in the play. Split into a clever collection of ten scenes, and with an impressive and cleverly used stage space, the characters interlink in a variety of thought-provoking dialogues. They are strong, likeable and emotional where one may not expect.

A young pornstar with a conscience and attachment issues shares a stage with a masculine army private who is struggling with his sexuality. A scruffy journalist with verbal diorreah can’t believe his luck when a top movie star uses him as a dirty little secret to hide his sexuality from his wife.

Overall, F**king Men is entertaining but asks some serious questions about the treatment of gay men in society. Definitely worth a look

F**cking Men runs at the Arts Theatre at 7:30pm until Sat 30th August

Spend, Spend, Spend - Watermill Theatre, Bagnor

Spend Spend Spend
Music: Steve Brown
Book and Lyrics: Steve Brown and Justin Greene

From the book by Viv Nicholson and Stephen Smith
Director: Craig Revel Horwood
Reviewer: Jim Nicholson

How often do you get the chance to review a two times Olivier winning show featuring the life story of your very own Auntie and Uncle. Despite the family link, and the fact I saw the 1999 original West End version eight times and then made a number of visits to the follow up 2001 national tour, please do not think for one moment that I would be biased in any way at all with regard to this “fabulous” night out at the Watermill Theatre to see this “fantastic” version of Spend Spend Spend.

Seriously though, Craig Revel Horwood has done it again as for the third year running he has taken a London juggernaut of a show and Water(Mill)imetered it. After downsizing with such success both Martin Guerre and Sunset Boulevard, our Director has done the same with the Viv Nicholson “pools winner, pools spender” story. Unlike the previous two hits though, where he utilised the intimacy of this lovely Berkshire theatre to home in on one hundred percent emotion, he has this time used the same "in your face" space to ensure each and every member of the 150 strong audience is hooked with every comic line and movement in such a way that you just do not miss a thing as laughter fills the air for very nearly the full 125 minutes of this performance.

Just as in the West End where Rachel Leskovac stole the show as Young Viv, the stand out star here is unquestionably Kirsty Hoiles in that same “common as muck” rags to riches and back to rags story. Kirsty manages to captivate you with her vulgar, sexually explicit, couldn't give a **** attitude whilst also somehow gaining sympathy for her lousy choice of "men" whilst all the time delivering word and belting out song in a perfect Castleford accent. I have not seen much of Kirsty before but she is certainly a name I will follow in the future.

Viv, despite five husbands, only had one real love in her life and, second down the aisle, Keith is yet another lovable "badun". Greg Barnett, fresh from success in Zorro, gives the character warmth and depth from being the naïve "boy next door" right through to "curing" his alcoholism via the love of a canary before his untimely death on the way to Wetherby races.

Narrated by Karen Mann as the older and wiser Viv the show moves so quickly from song to song and scene to scene there is no loss of focus at all, so much so that there is not any distraction actor musician wise. One of the real strengths of the show is that our “big winner” pulls no punches as far as where the mistakes were made and they were nearly all hers.

The set, designed by Diego Pittarch, is most unusual, even for the Watermill, with the back half of the stage closed off by a large electronic garage door which makes a change from a curtain I suppose. A number of backdrops are projected onto the door and when opened a cleverly designed bar is revealed that can go the width of the stage for the pub scenes or fold back to a much smaller size for the many "house parties".

Revel Horwood was nominated for an Olivier for his original choreography on this show in 1999 and he does not hold back here despite the lack of stage space. His choreographic skills are no better highlighted than in the Spend Spend Spend number when the full cast, nearly all dressed as bunny girls with boxer shorts, give us a superbly funny "Bruce Forsyth led" cheque presentation routine in which the male bunnies may prove they are not yet ready to become Cagelles but are certainly fleet footed to say the least. Special mention here to Susannah Van Den Berg who, as the token female bunny, hops to the centre of the fun with a series of facial expressions that even Marty Feldman would have been proud of.

This musical may not have the strongest score ever written (although it certainly does have its moments) and, in amongst our cast, we may not have the greatest voices heard on stage but Stephen Brown and Justin Greene have given us one hell of a strong book. They appear to have utilised their vast TV experience with the likes of Jasper Carrott, Smith and Jones, Alan Partridge (Stephen was the one and only Wayne Ponder, before he was sacked), to ensure that any show short comings are firmly papered over by sheer comic quality.

This is a night out when both at the interval and again at the end of the show you will leave the auditorium with a feel good feeling that will last for some time to come. Oh and by the way the bit about Keith and Viv being relations of mine was totally made up, but there again I am in training for a job with the Sun.

Photos: Robert Day
Spend, Spend, Spend runs at the Watermill until Sat 29th August.

Monday, 13 July 2009

It Felt Like A Kiss - Manchester International Festival

It Felt Like A Kiss
Created by Adam Curtis & Felix Barrett
Director: Felix Barrett
Composer: Damon Alburn
Video: Adam Curtis
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

‘He Hit Me and It Felt Like A Kiss’, the haunting song by The Crystals based on singer Little Eva’s violent boyfriend is the languidly pulsating heart at the centre of Adam Curtis and Felix Barrett’s darkly hypnotising and mind freezingly terrifying ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’. Driven by a desire to give an audience a linear experience of Curtis’ experimental BBC political film about the rise of America, Barrett has hijacked an old office block in the centre of Manchester, turning rooms from blank work spaces into perfectly preserved 1950’s/60’s bedrooms, gardens, hospital bedrooms and nightmares.

From the moment that you edge through a laughing clown’s mouth into the darkness within, you become the child of your imaginary adventures; ‘I will be strong, I will be the one to go first’ one thinks, as dark spaces with bodies on the floor (are these manikins or not – each decision turns out to be the wrong one, sometimes to horrifyingly jumpy effect) lead into eerily still rooms full of evidence and tiny model villages with flickering lights and miniature inhabitants.

Going against Punchdrunk’s usual vein of unique individual participation, you are encouraged to share this journey with others, at one point when standing on the precipice of terror which ends this piece you are positively encouraged to stick together – ‘Stay in the group to be safe’ we are ordered. I don’t need to be told twice. But it is also an adventure which can be experienced alone, and as individuals traverse through each space you are in complete control of your own time within this massive and slightly spooky ghost train. At points one finds oneself wishing for a yellow brick road or white rabbit to point the way.

Damon Albarn’s soundtrack completes your sensory experience with a score which sinks into your brain, seeding thoughts and memories both on a conscious and subconscious level. It is brilliantly recorded by the disturbingly unique Kronos Quartet, whose rumbling and echoing sound is at times soothing and at times downright nerve wracking. Creating the perfect counterpoint to the ‘dream songs’, as Curtis calls them, of the soulful 1960’s pop numbers which also sparkle within this piece, the whole thing feels like you’ve walked into the twilight zone of a decaying past glory. Anything could and does happen and as you are shown the darker side of this national ambition, truly scary things take you by surprise and the adrenalin heightens your physical awareness and level of mental participation until you are a fully integrated part of the environment around you.

Your own personal nightmare and the shared journey of a broken world power It Felt Like A Kiss is a patchwork quilt of sensory experience that has periods of stillness, moments of anticipation, true gasping sections of terror and an infinite sadness which permeates the entire space and begins to infuse your very centre. Time and space become infinite and as you get lost for what feels like months or weeks or days part of you won’t care about returning to your outside world, but only about the next room that you are going to enter.

The tragic documentation of a nation’s poisoned dreams and the frightening experience of one with no dreams at all this is both an enticing and chilling event. If you have to kill to get a ticket to this do it. It is astonishing and just where theatre should be going.

It Felt Like A Kiss runs until the 19th July

The Importance of Being Earnest - Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Director: Irina Brown
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

"We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces" Lady Bracknell admits in Oscar Wilde’s delightfully nonsensical The Importance of Being Earnest, and so it would seem to be in Irina Brown’s rather outward facing production at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park. Set against Kevin Knight’s incredibly stark background of white minimalist lines and huge mirrors which sparkle as coldly as Wilde’s dialogue, this is a production which seems rather stretched at times, with the actors often reaching to be heard and posturing a little too overtly in sometimes uncomfortably blocked passages of action. It is still terribly funny though, peppered as it is with recognisable witticisms from arguably England’s most diverting writer and as comedic arrow after arrow zings out from the stage, it cannot be denied that it is a very enjoyable evening.

Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff and John (Jack) Worthington are two young men whom lead double lives, with Algy frequently escaping his responsibilities in town by going on imaginary visits to a sickly friend name Bunbury in the country and Jack taking on the liberating role of Ernest, his fictional wayward younger brother, whilst in town, to avoid the restricting seriousness that besets his role as Cecily Cardew’s guardian in the country. Through the appropriation of Jack’s cigarette case, and a rather awkwardly placed inscription from Cecily, Algy finds out Jack’s secret and intrigued by the idea of a beautiful young ward, hightails it off to the country in the persona of Ernest to woe the aforementioned beauty. Meanwhile, also under the persona of Ernest, Jack has wooing of his own to do being in love with Gwendolyn, Algy’s cousin and the formidable Lady Bracknell’s daughter. When Jack returns to the country to have his name officially changed to Ernest (Gwendolyn insisting that a man of any other name would not do) and when Gwendolyn follows suit all hell breaks loose, only to be resolved in perfectly proper British fashion with a fortune and a bit of gentlemanly blackmail.

Set against a backdrop of heavy weight contemporaries such as Ibsen and Chekhov, Wilde’s play is, as the great man put it himself, ‘quite nonsensical and has no serious interest’. A masterclass in form however, it has succeeded in rivalling these more serious works of theatre purely because although it contains very little substance, its style is so delightfully barbed, sparkling and clever that it is almost the very embodiment of ‘camp’ itself. Sincerity is replaced by theatricality, Victorian austerity is turned on its head into the frivolous world of ‘Bunburyism’ and no one plays into the established roles to which they should be bound (the woman are particularly strong willed and minded for the time, and Algernon and Jack are impossibly effeminate for such virulent heterosexuals).

The impish and jolly musicians who book end each Act add a kick to the proceedings but seem slightly out of place when compared to the rest of the show’s cool aesthetic, and the cast succeed in bringing out the beats within Wilde’s language, falling into a pleasantly melodic rhythm. But for all the shows inherent humour Brown’s production is a somewhat awkward affair, with most of the actors dwarfed by the vast staging, their microphones only highlighting how small they appear. Brown seems to have been stuck between a high class BBC dramatic acting style and a Tim Burton-esque design, appearing to have settled somewhere between a rock and a hard place. The show therefore neither nails the natural pointillism of the verse, or fully realises the heightened artifice of its commentary. Only Jo Herbert and Lucy Briggs Owen as Gwendolyn and Cecily are able to transcend this gap, bringing a delectable fluidity to their performances which marries both mannerism and nature; the poisonously polite scene upon their initial meeting being truly the best moment of the show.

A strangely and somewhat superficially amplified version of Wilde’s vertiginous masterpiece this is never-the-less an entertaining production which may feel unfulfilling at points but which reminds you why The Importance of Being Ernest is quite certainly the epitome of English farce. In a theatre scene flush with political works and worthy substance, for all his nonsense Wilde is clearly a playwright whose work should be taken very seriously indeed and the more flippantly done so the better.

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
The Importance of Being Earnest Runs until 25 July 2009

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Tart and the Vicar's Wife - The Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle

The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife by Joan Shirley
Director: Ian Dickens
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Glenda Parry (Linda Armstrong) and her husband Robert (Marcus Hutton) were the archetypal successful couple – him an affluent businessman, her the glamorous ‘exec’ wife with all the trappings of wealth – until Robert escaped unscathed from a horrendous car crash and decided to devote his life to God and become a vicar.

Glenda consequently finds herself thrust into a complete transformation. Instead of organising extravagant dinner parties she finds herself organising the village fete and solving the problems of all who arrive on her doorstep. Certain aspects of her life don’t conform to the expectations of her new-found role as a vicar’s wife, least of all the salacious short stories that she writes under a pseudonym for a women’s magazine, and she struggles to make ends meet and in dealing with her new identity crisis.

When Robert leaves for a four-week seminar, Glenda turns to her friends Kate, the frumpy farmer’s wife (Suzie Chard), Pru, the posh antiques dealer (Sarah Jane Buckley) and Sindy, a young American back-packer (Nicola Weeks), for support – all of whom are in similar financial distress.

Then Joe Carpenter, a millionaire lottery winner (Matt Healy), turns up in the village to seek Reverend Parry’s help in exorcising his haunted manor house. Instead, he meets Glenda and her friends who end up baring their souls to him and discovering just how far they will go for money!After several glasses of wine, the decision is made. With Joe as their minder and his associate Selina (Danielle Johnson) as advisor, the girls agree to temporarily become high class escorts to ease their financial burdens. However, the constant appearances of the vicar’s curate, Reverend Henry Benson (Daniel Crowder) results in some awkward situations and great comedy moments.

This racy revival marks the first tour of ‘The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife’ since 1980, and Ian Dickens’ Productions seem to have taken this responsibility very seriously. The result is a resounding success which represents an hilarious evening’s entertainment intertwined with a topical ‘credit-crunch’ theme that certainly strikes a chord. David North and Alan Miller-Bunford have done a magnificent job in creating a set that perfectly depicts the large kitchen of the Reverend and Mrs Parry’s five bedroom period cottage, complete with rustic exposed beams and stone walls.

The decadence of the comic capers involving feather boas, strawberry yoghurt and Shirley Temple song and dance routines are interspersed with some dramatic and poignant moments during which the main characters reveal the reasons that have led them to their respective situations.

The entire cast are truly excellent, however special mention must be made of Linda Armstrong. Miss Armstrong took over the lead role as a last-minute replacement for Bernie Nolan, who had to withdraw from the production ‘due to intense commitments’ with the forthcoming Nolan Sisters reunion tour, and after a rehearsal period of only five days gave a faultless performance. ‘The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife’ is, without doubt, one of the most enjoyable comedy-drama’s that I have seen for some time and I would recommend that you book your seats as a matter of urgency.

‘The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife’ is on an extensive national tour.
frontpage hit counter