Wednesday, 30 September 2009

East is East - The Birmingham Rep

East is East
Writer: Ayub Khan-Din
Director: Iqbal Khan
Reviewer: Matt Schofield

The comedy East is East has moved full circle as it returns to the stage in Birmingham after its original world premiere production in the REP’s studio theatre some thirteen years ago, having since been adapted for the screen in the BAFTA award winning film of 1999. Its second production sees the REP cast under the direction of Iqbal Khan, a man whose background shares many similarities with that of the Khan family depicted in the play, having been raised by his Pakistani father in the Small Heath area during the 1980s. Talking to the Birmingham Post, Iqbal recollected on his childhood, ‘I always felt that tension between who I feel I am and who I’m expected to be’ and it quickly becomes evident that this is one of the underlying themes throughout the play.

East is East is set against the backdrop of Salford in 1971 and George Khan, owner of the local fish and chip shop is determined to bring his family up in the traditional manner. His seven children on the other hand have ideas of their own. One’s already left home to be a hairdresser, his daughter prefers playing football to wearing a sari and now 18 year old Saleem wants to study art while 12 year old Sajit is about to be transformed from a shy gawky boy into a self-confident teenager.

With one disastrous arranged marriage in the family already, George plots to bring his next two sons into line by marrying them off to the daughters of Mr Shah. When the Khan kids begin to oppose their father’s blundering attempts to control their lives, his English wife Ella is forced to make a choice between her husband and the right of her children to make their own ways in the world.

What still makes East is East so effective, aside from its sheer hilarity (culminating in the final scene where the sharade of a normal family life is shattered), is its ability to cut straight to the hard issues that have continued to challenge Asian (and more generally, imigrant) communities in the UK for more than 50 years through the itimacy of one family’s life and their struggle to understand the world they live in. Whislt some critics have argued its character portrayal is stereotypical as Iqbal argues, and I would agree that, ‘it’s a hard, complex play that’s surprisingly subversive…in terms of undercutting stereotypes that might exist about the north, about Asian fathers and their relationships with their families, and the white women who married into that community and their ability to be themselves.”

Underneath the comedy of this unorthodox and dysfunctional family, East is East asks serious questions about belonging, identity in mixed race families, conformity both to the society and family and about the rights and wrongs of those in positions of influence to enforce cultural and religious standards.
The cast potray both the intimacy and lunacy of this family life excellently (particularly noteworthy are Archie Lal as the overbearing father and Belinda Lang as his burdened wife as well as a hilarious performance by James McGlynn as Sajit with all his strange quirks) overcoming well the difficulties of performing such a play on a large platform. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable, provocative and hilarious production.

Runs until Sat 17th Oct

The Hypochondriac - Richmond Theatre

The Hypochondriac by Molière
Adapted by Roger McGough
Director: Gemma Bodinetz
Reviewer: James Higgins

The Hypochondriac is the unusual marriage of a 17th century French play reworked by a 21st century Mersey Poet.

First written and performed by French dramatist Molière in 1673 as Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) it tells the tale of a miserly old man (Argan) who despite his good health imagines he is plagued by every ailment known to science. The medical profession in the form of his doctors and apothecaries know this only too well and seek to exploit and extort him at each and every opportunity.

There is a distinct twist to this plot as Molière was, at the time of penning the play, ill and exhausted. He had been battling a condition (probably TB) for over five years which unfairly earned him a reputation as a hypochondriac, leading him to create the character of Argan for himself. If this wasn't already ironic enough he then died hours after his last performance of the play after he had earlier collapsed on stage.

This new production by the English Touring Theatre in association withThe Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, was adapted by the genial Scouser Roger McGough, a performer and playwright best known for his Poetry. Last year he had already taken on Tartuffe, Molière's vicious attack on religious hypocrisy and adapted this for the modern audience to critical acclaim.

This time, as previously, McGough has rewritten the play in verse, to hilarious effect. Despite its origins traditional British Lavatory humour is the order of the day as the play twists and turns like Argan's troubled bowels.
The set (designed by Mike Britton) is an unusual one, but one that works well. The entire play is set in Argan's rooms which consist of wooden paneling on all sides in an effective boudoir style with many entrances and exits through which the cast smoothly pass.

There are good dependable performances throughout, Brigid Zengeni (Beline) as the money grabbing stepmother who has her eye on Argans fortune, Lucinda Raikes (Angelique) and Jake Harders (Cleante) enthrall us as the star crossed lovers that yearn for family approval. Toby Dantzic's (Thomas) entertaining performance as the ill fitting suitor to Angelique had the audience cringing and creasing up with laughter at his characters strange mannerisms and awkwardness.

Clive Francis (Argan) was mischievous and convincing as the hypochondriac shown the error of his ways but the best performance of all was Liverpudlian Leanne Best (Toinette) playing the sharp witted maid in a strong regional accent which added to the warmth and humour especially when McGough's verse rhymed some fantastic English slang with comical Franglais that it had no right to. If offered the chance to see, say Oui.

Photos: Robert Day
The Hypochondriac runs until Sat 3rd October.

An Inspector Calls - Novello Theatre, London

An Inspector Calls
Writer: JB Priestley
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Marie Kenny

Our actions have consequences.

JB Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ screams that we are all responsible for each other. Written in 1944, set in 1912, resurrected in 1992 and now performed in 2009, the message at the heart of the play still rings true through this production.

At the start of JB Priestleys’ period thriller, the comfortable Birling family are celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. Oozing wealth and pomposity Arthur Birling takes the opportunity to share his theories on money and success along with the glories of being on the right side of the social divide. Interrupting this cozy evening strides Inspector Goole, who informs them a young girl has killed herself just hours before. Here begins an astonishing sequence of twists and turns as Goole chips away at their self-satisfaction, revealing how each of them contributed to her downfall.

With direction by Stephen Daldry, the production succeeds in presenting a family of such unlikeable, insensitive self-centred creatures, who are far from subtle in their characterisation. Sandra Duncan takes on the role of the robust, defensive and downright deluded Mrs Birling. When faced with the consequences of her actions, her hysteric crying and rolling around on the floor is not for the dead girl but for the damage the ‘scandal’ could do to her all important social status. Unlike her parents, Sheila Birling, a strong performance from Marianne Oldham, sees her flaws and mistakes and leads the cast with the hope that with youth there is a chance for change.

The star of the show is of course, Ian MacNeils wonderful set, an unfolding dolls house on stilts. It’s transformation is still as impressive and fascinating today, 17 years after its original creation. This 2009 production could be considered a timely reminder. The play calls on the audience to have a social conscience, to take another look at those less fortunate, to stop and consider our actions.

Photos: Robert Day
Runs for a limited period at the Novello Theatre, London

Entertaining Angels - The Lowry Theatre, Salford

Entertaining Angels
Writer: Richard Everett
Director: Alan Strachan
Reviewer: Iris Beaumont

A late September evening and a good crowd has gathered at the Lowry Theatre to welcome Penelope Keith’s latest play ‘Entertaining Angels.’

Gasp were drawn as the curtain raised to reveal the stunning set designed by Paul Farnworth, and for this reviewer one of the best set designs I have ever seen, The lifelike garden of the Old Rectory is the setting for this wonderfully and enthralling play.

Grace (Penelope Keith) is grieving over the loss of her husband Bardolph who happened to be the local parish vicar through her loss Grace seems to think that everyone should understand her problems without much thought about those around her or the consequences of such behaviour, not only must she learn to cope through her grieving but also have to put up with a visit from her sister Ruth, a missionary in Africa. As the story unfold we find that Grace is also under pressure to vacate her home of over 30 years to make way for the new female vicar of the parish Sarah.

The whole cast manage to hold the audience’s attention throughout, with plenty to laugh about but also with some darker and stronger emotional scenes thrown in too, Richard Everett’s script is full of sharp and biting one liners with which suit Keith’s dry and biting portrayal to a tea!

As one would expect from a theatrical old timer as Keith, you are given nothing short of the best and her performance is brilliant and aided by Polly Adams superb performance as Ruth, the rest of the cast are strong and highly supportive, providing one of the best ensemble’s I have seen on stage in a long time, the chemistry between them is electrifying.

There are some interesting devises used in the play, and one of the strongest is the way we see Grace coping with her grief by seeing and talking to her late husband’s spirit in two of his favourite places the potting shed or underneath the branches of the tree down by the stream where he used to write all his sermons. Director Alan Strachan has a gentle touch throughout, never over doing the comedy or the emotional weighting of the piece and finding a balance that makes the show sit above other pieces in this genre.

Entertaining Angels is a touching and heart warming piece of theatre and is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish!
Runs until Sat 3rd October

Lord of the Dance - Liverpool Empire

Lord of the Dance
Created/Choregraphed by Michael Flatley
Reviewer: Iris Beaumont

When I first saw this show way back in the late nineties I never dreamed I would be fortunate to see it again. Lord of the Dance is a theatrical master piece which had the whole auditorium clapping and tapping ones feet, Michael Flatley's dance troop is a spectacular show of energy and will power. The show is based on the old adage of good versus evil, jealousy and hate, affects people at some point in their life.

Looking at the show content you wonder how it has held a captive audience in fifty different countries worldwide but when you actually see the power of the stars your question has been answered. There were no programmes and no narration to the show so one had to put the story together oneself which soon unfolded with the lead dancer milking the audience with his smile and gesturing to the auditorium and they loved it causing vast lengths of applause

The back drop consisted of scaffolding and curtains which were painted with Celtic signs and many lights attached to the scaffold which flashed in a multi colours throughout the performance, which at times came and shone into the audience blinding us for several seconds missing what we were really there for...The dancing! There were one or two surprises of explosions and fireworks which made people jump but all adding to the overall ambiance. The costumes were minimalistic but very eye catching with a vast amount of glitter but the long blonde wigs were too over powering which distracted and took your eyes away from the actual dancing.

The solo artist had a good voice but unfortunately the actual words were hard to follow as they were never clear enough but she came over as a pretty Irish Callin and wearing the only long dress in the show. One noticed that all the women on the show could hold a smile and dance at the same time while the men found it difficult and would only smile when I think the prompter of stage said smile but it did not in any way spoil the show

The energy the power of the whole show had a enthusiastic captivating magnetic pull on all the auditorium to the extent that they were called back on stage to a standing ovation with the lead dancer still egging the audience on.

If you can visualise Irish folk lore with Irish dancing set to music in a variety show setting similar to the old Sunday night at the London Palladium then you will enjoy this production, I left the Empire having had a thoroughly good time!

Runs until Sat 3rd October

Faulty Towers, The Dining Expereince - Lowry Theatre (Tour)

Faulty Towers, The Dining Experience
By Interactive Theatre, Austrailia
Reviewer: John Roberts

We've all been there, out for a nice three course meal with the family, things are going well then out of the blue things start to go wrong. All around you mayhem rings out, the manager is running around like a lunatic chasing after his incompetent staff, and it looks like your meal is never going to come from the kitchen.

The question you then ask yourself is do you pay for this kind of service? Well if you found yourself sat in The Lowry Reasurant this past week, or in other Resturants over the past few months the answer may well be a resounding yes, and why I hear you cry? Well the answer is simple, to be throughly entertained that's why!

Interactive Theatre based in Austrailia are currently touring the UK & Europe with Faulty Towers the Dining Experience, based around several episodic moments from the classic TV Series Fawlty Towers, you should know that you are not going to be sitting down to a normal dinner service (much to the anger and bemusement to several of the people who came to see the show!) What lies ahead is 2.5 hours of great food, and hearty laughs and utterlly brilliant performances.

Performed by three actors who are so similar to their TV counterparts its uncany from the lumbersome physicality of Basil played with great gravitas and angst by Michael Davoren, to the schreecy high pitched tones of Cybil performed by Alison Pollard-Mansergh (who is also the company Artistic Director) but the show was stolen by Daley Donelly as the put upon waiter Manuel, who charms his way into the hearts of all the people he interacts with.

The cast move around the restuarnt in a frantic and giddy wirl, interacting with many of the guests, our table found out the more that you interacted with them, the more they interacted back with you, and trust me this is the best way to get the most out of the expereince, although don't think being quiet is going to stop them commenting on you as one highly miserable man found out, when told that unless he cheered up he'd have his face shaven off, much to his dismay but to the whole audiences delight - he truely was a repulsive man!
The energy put in from the cast is stunning and the action never fails to hit all the right notes, with pitch perfect performance, great food and full on belly laughs and if the laughter and smiles of the audience were anything to go buy then this is a dinner date you will never forget!

Highly Recommended

Faulty Towers tours the uk until Nov - for more info click here

The York Realist - Riverside Studios

The York Realist
Writer: Peter Gill
Directer: Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

There is very little to qualm about in Peter Gill’s The York Realist, a charming Northern exploration of two boys in love and the constraints that their opposite class and backgrounds (though not societal prejudice it would seem) impose on their fragile relationship. Sweetly produced by Good Night Out, this is a gently beguiling, if a little sentimental, show which engenders an evening’s entertainment that absolutely lives up to the company’s name.

George is a strapping farm labourer who lives with his aging mother in a remote village. Simple family pleasures are the order of the day, until an attraction to the cosmopolitan John takes those pleasures in a very non-family oriented direction. The result is a touching relationship drama, which explores the restrictions that being a ‘realist’ puts on you – love can’t conquer all it would seem.

Strangely this doesn’t seem very realistic though, with Gill’s tender language and Stephen Hagan and Matthew Burton’s touchingly impassioned performances and strong declarations of love putting paid to the idea that these men would let anything stand in the way of them. It leaves one thinking that maybe it’s more tragically romantic if they cannot be together and that’s why Gill has left them single; Romeo and Juliet have a lot to answer for.

What is realistic however is the perceptive warmth of Gill’s writing within everything else in this play, from the subtle shifts and changes in relationships to the inherent Northern sense of humour. This delightful script has been deftly handled by director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, in a vibrant production that is gigglingly funny at one moment and softly heartbreaking at the next.

Spreadbury-Maher has teased out perceptive and rich performances from his cast, and Hagan and Burton’s chemistry is tangible; they seem truly to complete one another. In a strong ensemble Stephanie Fayerman as the fragile Mother and Sarah Waddell’s busy bodying Doreen are of particular note.

This play is not treading any new ground with strong echoes of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing within Gill’s narrative and language. Furthermore George Dennis’ beautiful and filmic soundtrack brings Brokeback Mountain forcefully to mind. But The York Realist’s references to these past stories do not take away from the quality of the evening or the emotional integrity of the cast. Definitely a good night out.

Photos: Felix Kunze

Spider’s Web - Darlington Civic Theatre

Spider's Web
Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Joe Harmston
Reviewer: Ian Cain

‘Spider’s Web’ was Agatha Christie’s first wholly original theatre script – and something of a departure from her usual writing style, too. Although renowned for her murder mysteries, here she consummately demonstrated that she was equally capable of writing a full-on comedy.

Apparently, Peter Saunders, producer of ‘The Mousetrap’, asked Christie to come up with a new play to be staged in the West End. Christie agreed and suggested casting Margaret Lockwood in the lead role. But, when the idea was put to Lockwood she revealed that she was afraid of becoming typecast as the vampy femme-fatale and asked Christie to consider writing the part as a comic heroine instead. Christie seized the challenge and the rest, as they say, is history.

When Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Melanie Gutteridge) discovers a dead body in her drawing room, she tries to dispose of it before her Foreign Office diplomat husband Henry (Lucas Hare) returns home with a government VIP guest in tow. Equipped with an over active imagination, Clarissa finds ‘real life’ murder a little harder to handle than her fantasy games. And having persuaded her house guests to become embroiled in helping her, it soon becomes apparent that the dead man, Oliver Costello (Matthew Hebden), was not unknown to everyone amongst them. As the web of deceit begins to unravel, Clarissa pulls her friends into a desperate race to unveil the murderer and solve the mystery before the police discover the felony and arrest her as their prime suspect.

The production could best be described as a typical ‘Whitehall farce.’ The term arose from a series of stage plays staged at the Whitehall Theatre, London, during the 1930s and 1940s, in which the entertainment was derived from situations involving a chaotic and unlikely series of accidents or events that caused drama and panic for the characters involved but amusement for the audience. Christie’s bold experiment was made even more daring by the fact that she seemed to be playfully spoofing the genre in which she set most of her more serious work. The script sparkles like crystal as the witty one-liners come one after another and there are moments of genuine hilarity that have the audience guffawing.

The performances from the cast completely do justice to the quality of the piece and director Joe Harmston is to be thoroughly commended for gathering together a group of actors who each suit their roles perfectly. Melanie Gutteridge, as Clarissa, delivers a no-holds-barred, tour-de-force performance that is worth the admission price in itself. She earned herself a spontaneous round of applause for the scene in which Clarissa animatedly provides the police with three differing versions of the same incident. A fellow reviewer and I were also struck by her resemblance, both physically and in mannerisms, to Helena Bonham-Carter.

Bruce Montague, as Sir Rowland Delahaye, and Mark Wynter, as Hugo Birch, made a great double act and nailed their characters with precision and perfection. Catherine Shipton, as gardener Mildred Peake mugged so energetically and brilliantly that I would not be surprised if she was slapped with an acting ASBO by the performance police! Supporting roles were portrayed by Dennis Lill as the dogged detective, Inspector Lord, Ben Nealon as Jeremy Warrender, Karen Elliot as the precocious Pippa, Michael Gabe as Elgin, the butler (who, incidentally, didn’t do it!) and Mark Rose as rookie Constable Jones.

Special mention must also be made of Simon Scullion’s stunning set which was a joy to behold and utilised to great effect, Mark Howett’s atmospheric lighting design and Brigid Guy’s authentic costume designs. All in all, ‘Spider’s Web’ is a rip-roaring romp that intrigues, entertains and delights in equal measure.

runs until Saturday 3rd October 2009.

The Way Through The Woods - Pleasance Theatre Islington

The Way Through The Woods
Writer: Imogen Commander

Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Ok so it’s a cheap shot but I just can’t resist – this show really lost its way through the woods. Careering between overplayed performances and a flimsy text, the supposedly magical The Way Through The Woods is depressingly mundane.

A brother and sister are reunited at their father’s funeral after 15 years separation; cue the awkward sibling dialogue and obligatory fight. But their world is literally turned upside down as the vegetation and animals of The Wet Woods begin to intrude and they are once more separated, with our heroine on an adventure to rescue her brother. Whilst she meets a cornucopia of strangely predictable characters, he has been captured by The Wax Moth, a weird mix of The Snow Queen and the animal hating Cruella Deville, who is played in wonderfully over-the-top fashion (the only time this style is fitting and even then it begins to grate) and is clearly the ‘baddie’.

Taking strong inspiration from Rudyard Kipling, the show is based after a book of short stories of the same name, The Way Through The Woods sadly lacks any inspiration of its own, relying instead on stereotypes, clichés and big dollops of exposition to drag it along. Whilst it is true that there are some interesting physical sequences which sashay each scene into the next, these too seem to be laboured and do nothing to save the structure from being stolid and laden. To add insult to injury the distinctly florid text, which appears to be so poetic so as to try and lend the entire affair some fairytale credibility, just sounds cumbersome.

So sadly pretty dire stuff but there is a glimmer of hope with the design by James Perkins, Martina Trottmann and Sally Ferguson being the one redeeming feature. With a clever topsy turvey buffet table which doubles as a mountain slope when upside down and some stunning costumes, in particular the Wax Moth’s, which really is ingenious and beautifully crafted, the aesthetic of this piece goes some way to keeping the polite interest of this flagging audience piqued.

But this is not enough to rescue production and with a predictable plot, clunky dialogue, melodramatic performances and very little else it is extremely hard to think kindly on such a show. Cilgwyn Theatre Company really are going to have to work much harder if they want to lift this lost and wayward performance from mediocrity and into the imaginative genius of it’s muse.

Runs until Saturday 10 October @ 7.30pm

Friday, 25 September 2009

Desperate to Be Doris - The Library Theatre, Manchester

Desperate to be Doris
Music/Lyrics: Andy Whitfield, Phil Bush, Lipservice and Doris Day
Book: Lipservice
Director: Mark Whitelaw
Choreographer: Nicola Bolton
Musical Director: Andy Whitfield and Phil Bush
Reviewer: Rebekah Maine

A packed library theatre on a late September evening sees LipService’s Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding take to the stage with their latest self-written production; Desperate to be Doris.

Based in current day Manchester Desperate to be Doris takes a truthful and comical approach to friendship, the workplace and of course, as the title hints, the 1950’s singer Doris Day. Whilst the theme of Doris runs throughout, it is not necessary to know a great deal about her as the writing and quick wit is a piece of comedy in itself.

Appealing to the local demographic with jibes about the city and current issues, scenes were cleverly assisted with a part naturalistic and part cartoon-esque set. This was both imaginative and practical. Lighting and Sound designer Phil Clarke provided the tools to allow the audience to differentiate between reality and imagination, essential for a play on Doris Day! Costume allowed the audience to identify different characters, and the actors to no doubt obtain a deeper form of characterisation.

Both Fox and Ryding portrayed several different characters, each displaying their versatile acting ability. The self-conscious acting style that was sometimes used caused the audience to roar with laugher at various points during the piece. Darren Southworth, as guest artist gave a believable and fun performance, which added something new to the normal working duo.

It soon became apparent that the characters were well though out, noticeably in their physicality and vocality. Multiple roles allowed the actors to portray a number of individuals, which helped to develop the plot; some likeable, some kooky and some just downright hilarious.

LipService who have been performing for over 20 years have said that they ‘have created some very silly pieces of theatre, with the emphasis on silly…’ Their aim is to ‘entertain, to create a unique experience for that particular audience on that particular night’. Desperate to be Doris was a great example of this.
All in all, a cleverly written comedy, with likeable characters and organised production techniques….with a few musical numbers thrown in!

runs at the Library Theatre until Sat 3rd October

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Come back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean – Gatehouse Theatre, London

Come back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Writer: Ed Graczyk
Director: John Plews
Reviewer: Alex Millar

As soon as Juanita (a strong Jenny Marlowe) enters through the light swing door of this impressive 5 & Dime set, you are struck by the absence of what came before. She appears to be going through the motions of running her establishment, like a heart that beats out of necessity; she cleans, speaks on the phone and waits for the arrival of ‘The disciples of Jimmy Dean’.

It is 1975, (20 years since the actor’s death) and the ‘disciples’ are meeting at her establishment to commemorate not only his life, but their own. The ‘action’ is split between 1955 (post filming of his final movie ‘Giant’) stage left and the 1975 reunion (stage right), occasionally this can get a little muddled and clumsy, but for the most part is an effective device in showing the claustrophobia of small town McCarthy Texas, where this energetic cast are trapped or returning to.
The atmosphere is thick, not as thick a Tennessee Williams play for example but bear in mind that the most life affirming stories are of sex in the local grave yard and you have a rough idea how this reunion is going to go. You have the Belle of the ball in the character of Sissy (an ebullient Julie Rose Smith and slightly gauche Catherine Nix-Collins) who can’t keep from mentioning/grabbing her chest, laughing wildly or drinking, but due to the subtle performances of both actresses’ she becomes a small hero in this painful display.

Other staples are the deluded Mona (a solid Adrienne Matzen and skilfully sweet Fiona Drummond), who despite leaving McCarthy to get a college education, returns tout suite because of her asthma and drops the bomb shell that she is carrying the bastard child of one James Dean.

As the picture of Christ stares down at our protagonists, this clunky plot device is brought to the fore; they are here to worship and adore, not to face life in any way shape or form. Juanita (Marlowe) is constantly trying to drag their thoughts back to their upbringing, back to the bible, but these youngsters won’t hear of it. Her religion is of course a screen for her own repression and counter weighted by the other themes of Oil riches, embodied by the effervescent Stella May (a woefully under directed Kathryn Georghiou) and fame; be it local or otherwise.

This is quite a dull and obvious play, twists can be seen a mile off, and sometimes you are left wondering whether that was on purpose, but fortunately the cast keep your attention wrapped. With the afore mentioned Sissy and Mona being aided and abetted by Joe (a beguiling Josh Boyd Rochford), Joanne (an amusing Eleanor Boyce) and finally by the spectacle of trailer trash innocence that is Edna Louise (a wonderfully expressive and empathetic Coren Fitzgerald).

There are no small parts here and no small actors either, you do however feel that with a few brave directorial decisions this fairly unremarkable piece could have matched its remarkable set and cast.

Photos by Alex Rumford
Runs until Sat 18th October

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Deep Cut - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Deep Cut
Writer: Philip Ralph
Director: Mick Gordon
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Verbatim drama ‘Deep cut’, produced by Welsh new writing company Sherman Cymru, centres around the real life account of 18 year old private general Cheryl James who, along with 3 other young soldiers between the years 1995 and 2002, died from gunshot wounds at the Deep Cut army barracks, Surrey.

Throughout this 75 minute long production, the central tale of parental grief is widened into a shocking and fierce political commentary upon the incompetence, corruption and downright refusal of the MOD to offer any truthful or accountable reason for the deaths. The audacity that this still hasn’t been resolved 14 years after the initial death of private Sean Benton in 1995 is further highlighted on exit of the theatre, as ushers issue written pleas for the public to insist, through their local MP’s, on government protection of future army recruits by fully publicising all the police and army reports relating to Deep Cut.

This production comes with a clear message; that Cheryl’s grieving parents’ refusal to merely accept the very questionable government, MOD and police line that their daughter Cheryl committed suicide, will not go away without a fight. Philip Ralphs sharp and engaging writing coupled with Mick Gordon’s slick and well paced direction proves ultimately that in this case theatre is succeeding where journalism ultimately ‘dropped the ball’. It would take an extremely apathetic theatre goer not to be stirred to indignation by the torment that all four families have had to face in their acceptable demand for the truth surrounding their children’s untimely deaths under the care of the army authorities.
Gordon’s direction utilises fully Igor Vasiljev’s multi-functional stage design throughout the production. The gradual clutter of memories which had been locked away in boxes in an attempt by the parents ‘to start living again’, along with journalistic scrawling on the wall and an ever increasing abundance of flowers, poignantly suggests the ultimate havoc that Cheryl’s death imposed upon the family home and unit.
The performances of the six strong cast are also generally impressive. Derek Hutchinson and Robert Wilcox both display strong versatility skills taking on a variety of contrasting roles whilst Simon Molloy gives a solid performance as Nicholas Blake QC.

The three central roles of Des, Doreen and Jonesy are played competently and comfortably by Pip Donaghy, Janice Cramer and Amy Morgan. Despite some inconsistencies in her welsh accent, Morgan brings an endearing energy to the part of Cheryl’s friend and colleague and there are some truly touching, if not a little rushed, glimpses created by Donaghy and Cramer that temporarily push the politics to one side and reveal the true effect that Cheryl’s death has had on Des and Doreen’s state of minds and relationship throughout this 14 year ordeal.

The lightning fast pace of these more tender scenes would be my only real criticism of this ultimately impressive piece of Verbatim theatre. Of course it is understandable to presume that this was intended so as to not over-sentimentalise the production and keep the message clear and engaging. However one cannot help think that a reduction in the pace at these heart-breaking moments of unfeigned emotion from the central characters would have packed an even stronger punch to such a charged and powerful production.

Photos: Toby Farrow
Runs until Sat 26th Sept

Lord of the Dance - Opera House, Manchester

Lord of the Dance
Creator/Choreography: Michael Flatley
Composer: Ronald Hardiman
Dance Director: Marie Duffy
Reviewer: Laura Asbury

“My dream has been spread far and wide. The unthinkable has been achieved.” These are the forceful, evangelical, narcissistic utterances of the egotistical Lord Flatley himself, quoted in last night’s program next to his smarmy, self-loving mug shot.

Undeniably, the Lord’s critically acclaimed, award winning 1996 production, is a spectacular theatrical enterprise that continues to attract international audiences and this week’s explosion onto Manchester’s Opera house stage will undoubtedly witness a repeat of the show’s usual, somewhat tirelessly predictable enthusiastic reception. However, don’t be lured in by the box office records if you haven’t yet experienced the enterprise firsthand; the show’s curious mix of traditional Irish folklore coupled with its pantomimic delivery, star studded costumes, blonde wigs to convey flowing Irish locks, gaudily luminous lights and low budget pyrotechnics, the production is reminiscent of a Blackpool Pleasure Beach cabaret, at best.

There is distinct lack of coherent narrative with no attempts made to amalgamate the music and dance; scenes episodically shoved back-to-back - variety show style, to the shameful extent that it could be re-marketed as ‘Ireland’s got talent’! To both my horror and sheer amusement: the musicians (two fiddlers dressed in tight sequined dresses and knee high leather boots), despite given their three minutes in the spotlight, failed to perform live and merely mimed a histrionic arm flailing, lip pouting farce along to a backing track. The miming was especially noted when the violinist, who was too preoccupied with gyrating her hips and winking at the blokes on the front row, consequently forgot to come back in at the correct sync time… and miraculously her melodic line continued! A forgivable theatrical faux pas maybe, but in the context of other too frequent distasteful moments, a tad cringing to say the least.

Although Sir Flatley himself no longer takes to the spotlight, he plays an integral role directing his talented army of dancers to ensure unsurpassable standards of military precision and technical dexterity throughout the electrifying tap sequences. The unison en-masse sections are rhythmically impressive due to complexity and variety and they are furthermore, faultlessly executed with flamboyant brilliance and charming stage presence. During one fleeting moment, the girls appear in classical Celtic pinafores and we appreciate their lyrical beauty, the harmonious music and virtuous innocence of the traditionally feminine dance.

Shockingly incongruous to this, mid-number and more importantly - without warning, the music strikes a dirty electro chord as the lights diminish into a passionate red wash and the girls, literally, strip off their pinafores to reveal sequined, primark-esque bra tops and hot pants, the furious foot tapping still continuing! A sullied image of cheap Irish exoticism, the show often evoked a Vegas show-girl/drag queen quality with its hyper sending up of gender stereotypes resulting in a lavishly camp, soap opera style narrative.

Credit where credit’s due however, the production does exactly what it says on the tin by spoon feeding these high energy moments with gusto force. Good Vs Evil is the general message, triumph of course conquering adversity against all odds. The Lord trained his virile lead male dancer well, although he failed to communicate the level of charismatic arrogance Flatley delivered when in the role. Unable to credit individuals due to not one member of the cast credited in the program, was somewhat indicative of Flatley’s diva-esque desire to hog the glory and massage his own choreographic ego.

Overall, a shoddy, cashing in, emotionless, superficial depiction of Irish heritage, Lord of the Dance, in it’s true parodic style, is in fact the living pantomimic embodiment of Riverdance’s ugly sister. The clever thing is, and hats off to the Lord for spotting a hungry niche in the mainstream market, the doting audience simply can’t get enough of the rhythmical tapping extravaganza that we all secretly love, or in my case, love to hate.

runs at the Opera House until Sunday 27th September.

Kes - Liverpool Playhouse

Based on the book ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines
Adaptor: Lawrence Till
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: John Roberts

Set in the bleak hills of Yorkshire, upon a backdrop of poverty and localised Isolation you are never going to expect a light hearted romp through the highs and lows of family life, based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines which was first published in 1968 and later immortalised in film by legendary director Ken Loach just a year later.

Billy Casper is a local boy with nothing special going for him, he’s been in trouble with the police, not very popular at school and his family life if rife with trouble, but one thing really sets him free and that is his passion and love for the Hawk he has trained every day.

Director Nikolai Foster along with set designer Matthew Wright have created a very cold and stark atmosphere with the industrialised set pieces and bleak brown and dark green hilled backdrop, lit with brilliance by Guy Hoare and underscored by original music by David Shrubsole makes the creative sides one of the strongest elements of this co-production between the Liverpool Playhouse and the Touring Consortium.

Stefan Butler is stunning as the downtrodden and emotionally charged central character of Billy, and never at any stage of the production do we feel we are watching anyone older than a 14 year old (something that in the wrong hands could go disastrously wrong) which is testament to his dexterity and maturity as a performer. Daniel Casey who is fast becoming a North West favourite gives a charming and sympathetic portrayal of Mr Farthing the teacher that see’s hope in young Billy’s dreams. Mike Burnside and David Crellin also provide excellent performances throughout.

Foster’s direction is a little unbalanced throughout and at times I got increasingly annoyed at the amount of back to the audience and profile acting on show in some of the vital scenes whislt at others left in awe at the simplicity in detail. One can’t help feel that although immensely beautiful the choreographic dance moments which were performed with flair and passion by Oliver Watton, were slightly superfluous given that there were intrinsic moments of the play not to the standard one would hope.

There are certain areas one would hope would be pitch perfect, the first is Accents, across the board these are strong and believable, but Oliver Farnworth’s (Billy’s older brother Jud) is unforgivable wondering from Welsh to Jamaican via several other stops on the way. Kes is a vital ingredient to the production, as an audience we need to believe that Kes is real and flying around the auditorium and you never quite feel that this is the case in this production, which means the climax of the better and more pacey second act is left slightly wilted and underwhelming.

Apart from the obvious downsides to this production, it still has lots of elements that charm, and the use of local school children in the production and not stage school children should be applauded, an enjoyable evening but one that needs another couple of days in rehearsals/dialect lessons to tighten the weaker areas could make all the difference.

Photos: Robert Day
Runs until Sat 10th October

Singin' in the Rain - Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Singin’ in the Rain
Based on the MGM film
Songs:Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
Director: Alison Pollard
Choreography: Graeme Henderson
Reviewer: Jim Nicholson

Another touring version of what many see as the most triumphantly cinematic musical of all time can have many pitfalls, and unfortunately, I think this Alison Pollard directed version of Singin’ in the Rain has fallen into a fair few of those.

Familiarity with the story and a nostalgic love for the original film means you need a stand out cast to prevent an audience feeling short changed by certain scenes, songs or characters. I am not sure just how good the cast were here because I feel the direction allowed a feeling of ‘wooden’ comedy rather than allowing it to look in any way spontaneous.

That said it does have its highs such as Don and Cosmo’s vaudevillian ‘Fit as a Fiddle’, Cosmo’s wackiness in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ finale that at last let us hear the soaring vocals of the chorus.

I have long been a fan of Tim Flavin and saw him in all three West End shows for which he received Best Actor Olivier nominations (winning in 1984 for On Your Toes). He is still a genial showman who here, as Don Lockwood, holds centre stage whenever he gets those legs moving and those feet tapping but vocally there was not the oomph I remember him delivering over those past 25 years.

In actual fact Graeme Henderson, as Cosmo Brown, appears stronger on all their duets. Henderson also choreographed the show and that is some challenge. Amy Griffiths, in the Lina Lamont role, gets the stupidity level just about right but the voice is just not convincingly ‘annoyingly real’ for my liking, although I suppose ‘What’s Wrong With Me?’ is meant to be pretty painful.

Jessica Punch’s Kathy Selden is very sweet voiced and she more than holds her own when it comes to “sofa abuse” in a very appealing ‘Good Morning’ routine. Elizabeth Dennis comes up throughout with some very colourful and resplendent costumes including a triple coloured range of hats, boots and waterproof jackets, aided by matching umbrellas, to fight the monsoon that hits in the very soggy finale .

Rainwater is also a plenty at the end of act one as Tim Flavin did his best to emulate the great “Singin’ in the Rain” dance routine, no one is ever going to be able to replicate the genius that was Gene Kelly, but at least I didn’t sit through the interval wishing it had been Morecambe and Wise, rather than Flavin, up there on stage.

So all in all far from my favourite visit to the theatre in recent weeks. That said I always hark back to the many shows I have been to and loved, only to see the professional reviewers rip them to bits in the next days press. Well I can report a very positive audience response at the end, in actual fact far, far more positive than mine. Suppose it could have been me just having a bad hair day or perhaps I was just depressed by all the wet weather.

Runs until Sat 26th

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Spider's Web - The Curve, Leicester

Spider’s Web
Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Joe Harmston
Reviewer: David Noble

Spider’s Web came into being when Margaret Lockwood, the star of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, requested that Agatha Christie write her a play in which she was not the anti-heroine. She was seemingly worried at being typecast as the villain of the piece, and such was her distress that she turned to Britain’s leading author of detective fiction for assistance. Thus, Spider’s Web is surprisingly not the average tale of murder, mystery and intrigue one might expect. Instead it contains all three of these elements, but is laced with light “comedy”.

The play details the eventful evening of newly-married Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, played by Melanie Gutteridge, whose rather cushy life comes under threat upon the discovery of a body in her living room. This revelation leads to a somewhat farcical, and indeed enjoyable, tale of blackmail, bizarre motives and innumerable lies.

However, the proceedings prior to the murder in question are painstakingly slow, and one’s impatience at waiting for something to happen is compounded by the irritatingly frequent appearances of Pippa Hairsham-Brown, who is the remorselessly energetic character of Karen Elliot. This grating annoyance was principally caused by the fact that the actor in question was twenty years older than the character, and her overtly stereotypical childish behaviour over-compensated for the fact that there was this age gap. I cringed horribly on a regular basis.

Fortunately the lack of pace in Act 1 did allow one to take in what was a gorgeous set, as designed by Simon Scullion. Additionally, Ian Horrocks-Taylor’s use of music from the period during the brief interludes between Acts was a particularly nice touch.

In what was an entertaining climax (climax here referring to all action after Act 1), Bruce Montague’s portrayal of Sir Rowland Delahaye was a clear highlight, along with Denis Lill’s Inspector Lord. Montague especially was able to present an air of aristocracy whilst being understatedly deadpan; he clearly judged the role very well. It was unfortunate that his comedic timing and general wit was not evident in some other members of the cast, for example Melanie Gutteridge, as one got the impression that a few snappy one-liners were wasted through poor delivery.

Clearly one should not be expecting to be left overawed by this performance of Spider’s Web, and why should they? There are inadequacies of course, but at the same time it is suspenseful and relatively engaging. At the risk of sounding utterly clichéd, I would have to recommend it to fans of the genre, or anyone who enjoys watching Columbo from time to time.

Spider’s Web runs until 26th September.

Blood Brothers - The Sunderland Empire Theatre

Blood Brothers
Book/Music & Lyrics: Willy Russell
Directors: Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Steve Burbridge

There seems to be a common misconception – particularly amongst less accomplished theatre critics – that the future of ‘Blood Brothers’ depends, predominantly, upon the continued casting of a Nolan in the lead role of Mrs Johnstone. This, in my opinion, is completely wrong.

Having seen three of the sisters (Bernie, Linda and Maureen) play the part, I am the first to emphatically acknowledge and applaud their significant contribution to the success of the show over the last twelve years. However, I do not consider it necessary or fair to be ‘wary’ or ‘concerned’ if one of the aforementioned siblings does not occupy the position of leading lady in Willy Russell’s modern masterpiece.

After all, the list of actresses who have donned the care-worn smile and crossover pinny to portray the Liverpudlian single mother ‘with seven hungry mouths to feed’ reads like a ‘who’s who’ of popular music. They include Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee, Petula Clark, Carole King, Helen Reddy, Clodagh Rodgers, Marti Webb and the current incumbent, Lyn Paul.

Having starred in both the West End and several touring productions of ‘Blood Brothers’, Lyn was hailed, in December 2008, as ‘The Undisputed Mrs Johnstone of All Time’ by fans of the show on the Blood Brothers Online website. She is also rumoured to be producer Bill Kenwright’s favourite Mrs Johnstone, too. No pressure there to deliver the goods then, Lyn! Yet, from the moment she stepped out onto the stage, I felt certain that Miss Paul’s performance would live up to - and perhaps even exceed – my personal expectations.

She looks just right and is vocally impressive, too. Her voice is powerful without being harsh and it is strong enough to travel throughout the auditorium, raising hairs on the backs of necks as it goes. What differentiates Lyn Paul’s performance from most of her peers is her decision to play Mrs Johnstone as a much softer, more sensitive woman. This adds another dimension to the character and effectively stamps Paul’s own personal trademark on the role.

It seems futile, to me, to outline the plot of ‘Blood Brothers’ in this review. Suffice to say that if you don’t know anything about the show that is affectionately dubbed ‘Scouse: The Musical’ then the past quarter of a century has completely passed you by. Instead, it seems more appropriate to focus on the performances and the production.

Whilst I was greatly impressed by Lyn Paul’s depiction of Mrs Johnstone, I am not sure that I’d rate her as my all-time favourite. I’ve seen the role performed by Siobhan McCarthy, Helen Hobson, Marti Webb and the three members of the Nolan clan mentioned earlier. I also have cast recordings of Barbara Dickson, Petula Clark and Stephanie Lawrence.

The Liverpudlian accent is notoriously difficult to mimic convincingly and if a performer is unable to master it perfectly, then it is prudent to underplay it rather than force it as Marti Webb did during her brief stint as Mrs J. Lyn Paul chooses to err on the side of caution and only gives the merest hint of a Scouse twang. Where Miss Paul really shines is in her portrayal of a torn mother. The scene in which she inadvertently reacquaints herself with the twin son that she gave away as an infant eight years earlier is heart-rending and played perfectly.

Sean Jones and Simon Willmont were billed as the twins, Mickey and Eddie, who are separated at birth and grow up on opposite sides of the social-class spectrum. However, an announcement made prior to the performance informed the audience that the role of Mickey would be played by the understudy, David Cooper. As usual, Willmont was outstanding in his portrayal of ‘posh’ Edward. Unfortunately, though, Cooper – despite his seemingly obvious attempt to make the most of his opportunity – fell short as scruffy Mickey, and this affected the portrayal of the relationship between the two brothers.

Robbie Scotcher – one of the best narrators that I have ever seen – gave his usual polished performance. His understated portrayal of this sinister spectre from the shadows combined with the haunting beauty of his singing voice creates a lasting impression for all the right reasons. Paula Tappenden, as the neurotic and paranoid Mrs Lyons, seems to deliver her lines through a mouthful of marbles, whilst Tim Churchill, as Mr Lyons, mutters and mumbles throughout his performance. You’d think that the middle-class couple, of all people, would have had elocution lessons in their youth. Certainly, though, something needs to be done about diction in both cases.

There is no disputing the status of ‘Blood Brothers’ as a contemporary classic. It has captivated audiences all over the world and won a plethora of awards. However, in my view, the production standards have been allowed to slide. The relentless rigours of constant touring are beginning to show on some of the scenery. Whilst peeling wallpaper may add an air of authenticity if it were evident in the Johnstone household, it looks out of place and downright tatty when seen in the Lyons’ home.

Since producer Bill Kenwright took charge 21 years ago, the show must have made him a tidy sum. Well, Mr Kenwright, it is about time you started putting in instead of taking out. Failing that, pass the reins over to someone who is prepared to invest some time, money and effort into the phenomenon that is ‘Blood Brothers.’ Having recently celebrated its silver anniversary, it would be a travesty if the brand was allowed to tarnish now.

Blood Brothers runs at The Sunderland Empire until Saturday 26 September 2009.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Dial M For Murder - West Yorkshire Playhouse

Dial M for Murder
Writer: Frederick Knott
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Sara Jackson

This is the original stage play written by Frederick Knott in 1952, which was adapted for screen and then famously directed by Alfred Hitchcock in the film version starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.

I have to admit to having not seen the film so I had no idea of the plot which is always useful when watching a thriller. I was utterly gripped from start to finish of the piece. It's intense excitement leave he audience on the edge of it's seat and even gasping with surprise at points were the plot takes and unexpected turn. Even though the audience is a witness to the murder, which is played out on stage with perfect timing, you are kept wondering weather the truth will be found out by Inspector Hubbard (Des McAleer) and will they find out before there is a second murder or the wrong person is executed.

Director Lucy Bailey takes a classic approach to the text and allows the play to do the work for itself. Her use of dark lighting which changes with the mood and the steady pace with which the piece unfolds is perfectly timed and gives a suspense, which at times is almost unbearable. But just enough comic relief is given to stop the piece being over played without being farcical.
Set in one room, the audiences perspective is constantly altered as the set continually revolves. This disorientates and adds to the disturbing nature of the piece. The back wall is represented by gauze so the audience can see the comings and goings outside the apartment. This also keeps the audience one step ahead of the characters in the piece and adds to the suspense.

Aislin McGuckin as Sheila Wendice and Nick Fletcher as Max Halliday give steady performances throughout, but the stand out performance of the piece goes to Richard Lintern as Tony Wendice. He is suitable cold and calculated throughout the whole piece, and is so convincing in his performance that even the audience begins to believe his lies.

I would recommend this piece to anybody, even if you are not a regular theatre goer as it is completely accessible and a joy to watch.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Runs until 3rd October 2009

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Walworth Farce - Lowry Theatre, Salford

The Walworth Farce
Writer: Enda Walsh
Director: Mikel Murfi
Reviewer: John Roberts

Druid theatre company have fast become a name associated with theatre of the highest calibre, and a real gem in Irish Theatre history and this production is another smash to add to their ever growing list.
The Walworth Farce written by Enda Walsh, who also wrote The New Electric Ballroom for Druid, puts his razor sharp ballpoint pen back on paper for what is one of the funniest yet horrifically terrifying productions to reach the northern theatre scene in many years.

Set in Walworth Road, London in a 1 bedroomed run down flat which was impressivly designed by Sabine Dargent, Father (Dinny) and brothers Blake & Sean, do what they do every day. Try under force to take on their father, the reigning and unbeaten champion of the Acting award, which has pride and place on the shelf in the living room. but before that can happen the stage must be set and when Sean brings back the wrong items from his daily Tesco shopping trip at 10am things go from bad to worse.

Director Mikel Murfi ensures that the production moves with lightning pace, but also with a real sense of clarity that ensures that as long as you are concentrating as an audience member you are with the action every step of the way.

The strong cast of four deliver on all levels, and is perhaps one of the strongest ensembles I have seen in a very long time. Michael Glenn Murphey as Dinny is breathtaking as the domineering father which at times is highly manic and unstable. Raymond Scannell as the agoraphobic son is fantastic as he scoots around the living room, throwing on various dresses and wigs as he performs again helpless to the habitual void his life has fallen into.

Tadhg Murphy as the youngest son Sean is sensational, you can’t help but sympathise with his character as he learns about his past, and the lies he has been told to keep him isolated from society. Mercy Ojelade although only really present for a small portion of the play, helps the mix and provides the much needed feminine touch to the overbearing masculine household.

Overall this is theatre at its most exciting, providing you with plenty of laughs and yet will make you leave the theatre with an almost heavy heart at the plays excruciatingly painful to watch second act.

Runs until Sat 19th Sept

The Pirates of Penzance - Richmond Theatre

The Pirates of Penzance
by Gilbert and Sullivan
Director: Peter Mulloy
Reviewer: James Higgins

One of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular comic operas, The Pirates of Penzance was first performed in London in 1880. This production is by The Carl Rosa Opera Company that was recently reformed (1998) after first being established in 1873 by Carl Rosa, a German musical impresario.

The action takes place in Cornwall during the reign of Queen Victoria and the first act begins with the Pirate King congratulating Frederic, an apprentice pirate, on becoming fully qualified. We learn that Fredric however wishes to leave piracy behind and tells of a mistake my his nursemaid Ruth in landing him the position originally as he wanted to be a pilot and she had misheard.Frederic then discovers the many daughters of Major General Stanley on a deserted beach and becomes instantly enchanted with one of them (Mabel)What follows is the story of how he is torn between the pirates and his love and is a thoroughly enjoyable fun filled feast.

The music was conducted with gusto by Martin Handley and played with great passion.The cast were in absolutely superb voice and time flew as the multiple musical numbers were reeled off with beauty and precision.Steven Page gave a very convincing performance as the dastardly Pirate King. Lincoln Stone (Frederic) and Kathy Batho (Mabel) excelled as the lovers that first met on the beach.

Karen Dunbar, herself famous for her comedy, brought an air of mischief to her role of the Sergeant of Police. She did struggle a little to connect with the audience at times when trying to interact with them possibly as she was unknown to them. (Jo Brand played the role in the West End but had to withdraw at short notice.) Barry Clark as the Major General really stole the show with his fantastic performance of the fabulous tongue twisting and well known Major-General's Song that had the audience enthralled.

Ciaran Bagnall (Designer) created a great backdrop that really complemented the amazing Victorian Costumes on display that really helped to set the scene.The Pirates of Penzance is a marvellous piece of fun and theatrical cheer that has lost none of its magic over a century after it was first performed to packed audiences in London and New York. The perfect antidote to the gloom outside the front door.

Runs until Sat 19th Sept

Dorian Gray - The Curve Theatre, Leicester

Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Adapted, choreographed & directed by Matthew Bourne
Reviewer: David Noble

When Oscar Wilde wrote A Picture of Dorian Gray, at the end of the 19th Century, his tale of a man who sells his soul in return for immortal youth, only to find his portrait disfiguring as he slips into a life of hedonistic depravity; he was widely criticized for the “homoerotic undertones” of the text. In fact so much was the Victorian distaste at the main protagonist’s actions, although never mentioned in the novel, that the book was used as evidence in Wilde’s trial for “carrying out obscene acts on another male”. The contrast with Matthew Bourne’s dance adaptation could not be greater. Bourne, who is most famous for directing a male version of Swan Lake, decides bring the tale into the 21st Century, and the “undertones” of Wilde are well and truly abandoned, in what can only be described as an utterly transfixing performance.

Although Dorian Gray begins rather clumsily, with a somewhat clichéd photo-shoot pastiche, Bourne’s fluid choreography soon grips. Dorian’s rise as a model and subsequent descent into an uncontrollable state of lust and passion is portrayed in an eerily absorbing manner, which is heightened by the excellent and wonderfully eclectic musical compositions of David Shrubsole.

Some scenes of Dorian alone, played by the brilliant Richard Winsor, even breach upon the ethereal as he writhes in pleasure at his own beauty. Yet the aspect of the choreography most expertly executed was that in such a dark and chilling story, Bourne was able to transmit some of Wilde’s sparkling literary wit into the piece, a most remarkable feat considering there was a complete lack of dialogue. This surprising embellishment relieved the constant wickedness of the play, and though the depressing denouement inevitably arrived, one felt it was not the drudging procession it could have been.

Lez Brotherston’s set, which consisted of a rotating centre stage divided into two, resourcefully displayed the dissimilarity between Dorian’s public and private life. The sparse feel of the rest of the set coupled with the naked lighting (designed by Paule Constable) ensured the mood of the play could be altered with quite literally the flick of a switch or indeed a rise in tempo of the music, both of which were skilfully utilised.

As mentioned the undeniable star of the show was Richard Winsor, who was simply captivating as the self-obsessed Dorian. He managed to convey a bullish nature whilst also capturing the inner insecurity and vulnerability that possesses the character so virulently.

Michela Meazza’s elegiac performance as Lady H also deserves credit, for she oozed style and grace with every footstep she so casually trod. However, I do feel as if the role of Cyril Vane, played by Christopher Marney, could have been refined in so far as his stereotypically homosexual actions and nuances did not merge fluidly with the nonchalantly bi-curious conduct of the remainder of the cast.

All in all, Matthew Bourne has created a beguiling picture of Dorian Gray, and one that thoroughly entertains. The rhythmic movement and eventual unerring brutality in many scenes craft drama that is visually stunning, and leave one immersed in the unfolding action. It is a technically magnificent and cleverly adapted piece, yet as Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface of this novel, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” So I shall leave no further comment!

Dorian Gray runs at the Curve Theatre until Saturday 19th September.

High School Musical 2 - Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

High School Musical 2
Director: Jeff Calhorn
Choreographer: Lisa Stevens
Reviewer: Lyndsey Holmes

'What time is it?' Its time for High School Musical 2 live on stage! Love it or hate it, there is no denying how popular the High School Musical movies have become, and this stage adaptation of the 2nd movie did not disappoint the hundreds of excitable children in the audience.

High School Musical 2 continues where the first movie left off, with our favourite East High students heading off for their summer break. The Wildcats all get summer jobs working together at the exclusive Lava Springs country club, only to find the parents of scheming Sharpay Evans own the resort. She wields her remarkable power in an attempt to win Troy away from Gabriella but as you would expect everything turns out okay and the rivals are united in a big musical finale!

The show is extremely high energy and the cast are all very strong. Liam Doyle, who won his role after a series of auditions on GMTV, does not disappoint as Troy Bolton. His voice is strong and his good looks make him perfect for the part. There is plenty of chemistry between him and on stage girlfriend Gabriella Montez, played by Nikki Mae but particular mention must go to Lauren Hall who is outstanding as Sharpay.

Kenneth Foy’s scenic design is fun and very original and Ken Billingtons lighting design enhances it perfectly. There were a few first night technical hitches, the performance started fifteen minutes late and there were a few problems with sound, but generally a very slick show.

I am sure there will be a lot of people quick to criticise this show but High School Musical 2 is everything it ought to be. Featuring all the songs you know and love from the movie, along with impressive choreography performed by a very talented cast, this show has all the ingredients for a great night out with the kids.

Photos: Eric Richmond
Runs until Sat 19th Sept

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Porridge - Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne

Writers: Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Director: Gavin McAlinden
Reviewer: Ian Cain

“Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences – you will go to prison for five years.”

For many fans of the BBC’s hit comedy, ‘Porridge’, including myself, that phrase has been etched onto our sub-conscious by the twenty episodes and their numerous repeat transmissions.

‘Porridge’ ran for just two and a half years, between September 1974 and March 1977, yet it’s cultural significance and immense popularity ensured that it was a resounding success, which resulted in it being voted seventh in a poll charting the ‘100 Greatest British Sit-coms’ in 2004. A 1978 sequel series, entitled ‘Going Straight’ also followed, but only ran for one series due to the sudden death of Richard Beckinsale. After successfully bringing ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Allo Allo’ to the stage, Calibre Productions return with another coup-de-theatre – the first stage adaptation of ‘Porridge.’

Penned by the original writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais this hilarious show stays true to the spirit of the original television series and is performed by a talented cast which is led by Shaun Williamson. Better known to many television viewers as Barry Evans from ‘EastEnders’, Williamson gives an excellent portrayal of Fletch, the crafty con with a heart of gold and a scam for every possible situation. The role gives Williamson far more scope to demonstrate his talents as an actor than his soap character ever did and, although he never outshines Ronnie Barker’s performance, he really manages to convince in the part.

His on-stage camaraderie with Daniel West, as Godber, is a joy to behold. West also looks and sounds the part and Sally Vaughan is to be commended for her brilliant casting of each and every role. Nicholas Lumley barks and berates brilliantly as Principal Prison Officer Mackay, whilst John Conroy is good guy to Lumley’s bad as Officer Barrowclough. There are great performances from the supporting cast, too.

All in all, it is anything but a punishment doing ‘bird’ at HMP Slade and, in my judgement, I have no choice but to impose a sentence of laughter, nostalgia and great entertainment at Newcastle Theatre Royal for a duration of two hours.

Photos: Matt Jamie
‘Porridge’ runs at Theatre Royal, Newcastle until Saturday 19th September 2009.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Mixed Up North - Bolton Octagon

Mixed Up North
Writer: Robin Soans
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewer: John Roberts

Mixed Up North is the latest verbatim play to come from writer Robin Soans and between Stafford-Clark and Soans have produced some of the most significant plays of 21st century British theatre, and it was only a matter of time, that the problems and difficulties of the Greater Manchester borough of Burnley is used as the basis of a play.

Soans to start with seems to have found an interesting angle at which to anchor his play – the lives of the young people who live in the area, how the politics and racial tensions from other members of the community and their own families effect their day to day lives, but even Soans can’t escape creating and merging what would seem as his own political voice and agenda into the piece. The writing never really lets you care for the stories we hear being told to us and this is partly due to teh fact that the play loses direction especially in the second act. The play intersperses far too many stories/voices for you to care about any of them, flipping from naturalistic dialogue between the characters to direct address to the audience unfortunately it doesn’t work.

Stafford-Clark’s direction is key to keeping the play interesting and for the majority he manages to keep the pace flowing and moving, using various levels and areas of the thrust auditorium of the Bolton Octagon, this reviewer did feel sorry for those in the balcony areas as a fair bit of the action was played directly under their seating area.

The set of a youth centre is designed beautifully by Jonathan Fensom and to the majority used well, however it is highly underutilised in the second act and many of the pieces almost seem superfluous to what is really needed.

Where this production stands strong is in its actors, producing a real chemistry on stage and often highly charged and truthful performances. Stephanie Street’s performance as youth worker Aneesa is superb and probably the stand out performance of the night. With notable performances also given by Asif Khan as Aftab, who loves nothing better than standing on the outside and filming everything that goes wrong, probably to get onto Youtube as soon as possible. Lisa Kerr’s performance as bitchy and aggressive fame seeking wannabe Kylie is as shap as the insults that she throws out to the other characters on stage.

This is a play that could have really sent out a strong message, but Soans’ script is flawed in a sense that it still feels like it doesn’t know where to place itself, is this true verbatim or is this a naturalistic play? An enjoyable evening but leaves you with more frustrations at the possibility of what the play could have been and that unfortunately leaves a bitter taste in my mouth!

Photos: Ian Tilton
Runs until Sat 26th September

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