Friday, 27 February 2009

Dr Atomic - English National Opera

Doctor Atomic
Music: John Adams
Libretto: Peter Sellers
Director: Penny Woolcock

Conductor: Lawrence Renes
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Concerning the last days and hours leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb, or ‘Gadget’ as the members of the Manhattan Project somewhat endearingly called it, Doctor Atomic focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos whil
e the "Trinity" test was being prepared; ending on the iconic moment when the ‘Gadget’ exploded expectations and a new world age was entered.

Composed by the contemporary minimalist John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellers this is a deeply faithful piece of work, with the language being pulled mainly from source material including personal memoirs, government documents, recorded interviews and technical manuals of nuclear physics. As a result this opera is a somewhat lumbering beast, with Adam’s initially staccato score only making the heavily worded exchanges all the more disengaging. A deeply Brechtian concept, this distance allows practical understanding from the audience but at first does not encourage us to engage with the personal stories being told. The natural rhythm and pace of conversation seems too fast for Seller’s dense style and this is not aided by Adam’s repetitious, vertically linear note sequences.

But we were not to be as doomed as the Manhattan Project team themselves. Interspersed within this forest of scientific technical fodder oases of feeling and poetry begin to spring up in the form of soliloquies and choral pieces taken directly from sources such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the poetry of John Donne and Charles Baudelaire (a favourite of Oppenheimer). These transport one into an emotional understanding of the God like beauty and terror at work in the atomic creation. At these moments the layering which has been building up in Adam’s composition becomes at its most intense and an environment is created which crackles with electricity as each instrument plays unique moments whilst at once performing as a cohesive whole. It is now that this opera takes flight, creating questions and images in one’s mind which stay at the forefront for long after.

Film director Penny Woolcock’s first foray into the realms of stage performance combine a cinematic touch through the naturalistic and intimate performances of her leads with a blatantly theatrical mise-en-scene, in a production which elegantly reveals the psychologies of this terrible work and those who became caught up in its machinery. Julian Crouch’s setting with its haunted peaks of fabric and periodic table towers has one compartment for each of the chorus with Japanese style roll down screens for each square container. These speak volumes on their own whilst also forming the perfect back drop for Fifty-Nine Productions’ (Mark Grimer and Leo Warner) inspired video design which mixes sensual moments of seductive shimmering cloth with darkly cartoonish storm clouds and rain.
Against this smoothly eclectic bac
kground the leads within this piece are universally powerful; Sasha Cooke’s richly sensual Kitty Oppenheimer, Brindley Sherratt’s booming and wry Edward Teller and Jonathan Veira’s pompously humorous General Leslie Groves are of particular note.

But at the heart of this piece is the performance of Gerald Finley in the role of J Robert Oppenheimer. With effortless fluidity Finley’s melodic and pure baritone voice transports his feeling throughout the Coliseum, drawing all into Oppenheimer’s fall from assured proud excitement to tight grief as, in the eclipse like shadow of his bomb, he begins to awaken to the full potential of his creation crying ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’. This is a tour de force moment of operatic composition with score, libretto, performance and setting leaving a blinding imprint on the
mind of every person who lives under the shadow of atomic war fare today.

Doctor Atomic is a piece which begins weakly and gains in strength, as we are taken from the repetitive and distancing conversational first act to the spiritually searching final moments. A slow burner, it may not represent the momentum with which scientists go gung ho into the fray but what it loses in pace, it gains in longevity. This is an opera which will leave a lasting impression on those who see it and its repercussions will be felt for a long time to come; something that could be said of the ‘Gadget’ itself.

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Dr Atomic runs at the ENO until March 20th 2009 (9 performances)

You Couldn’t Make It Up - Live Theatre, Newcastle Upon Tyne

You Couldn’t Make It Up By Michael and Tom Chaplin
Director: Max Roberts
Reviewer:Ian Cain

The recent furore that has surrounded Newcastle United Football Club now forms the dramatic backbone of a fascinating new play by father and son writing partnership, Michael and Tom Chaplin. Drawing on verbatim testimony from a wide variety of sources, including journalists, social commentators, politicians, football pundits and fans, the production takes a bitingly satirical swipe at one of the most turbulent seasons in the history of the football club.

The cast of four – Mark Benton, Bill Fellows, Davie Nellist and Laura Norton – each deliver fine performances as they take on the guise of four disillusioned fans of ‘The Magpies’, before switching to portray key characters involved in the power struggle between ‘Cockney’ club owner Mike Ashley and ‘Messiah’ manager, Kevin Keegan.

Benton and Fellows’ performances, as Ashley and Keegan respectively, are convincing and compelling. The scenes between them, which are the result of some astute speculative imagination by the Chaplin’s, are tense, taut and terrifically acted. The fact that this is a script-in-hand production does not detract in any way from the content. Moreover, the scripts are a necessity as the writing is amended and updated to incorporate any new developments in the ongoing saga.

The set is minimalist, comprising four chairs, two black and two white, and a pair of television screens, which are suspended above, displaying relevant facts and significant images. The actors all wear Newcastle United strips.Consummate direction from Max Roberts allows the rawness and intensity of the writing to penetrate the auditorium with an immediacy that is tangible.
Although it may seem to be a piece of theatre that only strikes a chord with football fans, the appeal of You Couldn’t Make It Up is more far-reaching than that. It doesn’t matter that you may not be a follower of ‘The Toon Army’, or of football at all for that matter, this dramatic mix of fact and fiction demands and retains the attention of the audience for the entire ninety minutes.

You Couldn't Make It UP runs at the Live Theatre until Sunday 1st March 2009

The Convicts Opera - West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Convicts Opera by Stephen Jeffreys
Based on The Beggar's Opera by John Gay
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Music Arranger: Felix Cross
Reviewer: Sara Jackson

Amongst the usual confusion that people seem to have when arriving at the theatre and trying to find their seats (Row H, seat 1 – How can it be that hard) there was an added confusion over the program. On arrival I was presented with the script for the play, which had all the information on cast and note’s from the director inside it.

I have to say that it was lovely to see something in return for the price people pay from programs and a welcome change from the usual adverts and dross that fill a £5 program at most productions, and also a great memorabilia for the production.

Adapted from The Beggars Opera by John Gay, The convict’s opera is set on a ship transporting convicts to Australia. Written by Stephen Jeffrey’s and directed by Max Stafford-Clark this production sees Out of Joint Theatre teaming up with The Sydney Theatre Company to create a stunning piece that has to be seen in order to understand just how wonderful it is.

From it’s Dark eerie opening through to it’s dramatic conclusion this play keeps you griped as the actors effortlessly play multiple roles and depict the story of the characters on the ship and the play that the convicts are performing. It is difficult to explain the storyline as there are effectively two stories to the play, that of the convicts on the ship who all have different reasons for being there.

Grace Madden (Ali McGregor) is an arsonist who changes her ways when she is shown kindness. Ben Barnwell (Brian Protheroe) is a coin clipper, who is still making coins on board the ship and we also meet political prisoner Phebe Groves (Karena Fernandez) who is plotting a mutiny through the journey. These and all the story’s of the prisoners on board are all uncovered through monologues and asides as the convicts step out of play rehearsals to talk to us directly.

The play within the play is just as dramatic and draws parallels with the convicts own lives and experiences.

In the course of this production we see music from every genre you can think of including music from Puccini, Bach, Marvin Gay and even The Proclaimers. There were giggles of delight from the audience every time a song we recognised began and we saw how clever its use was.

The set is minimal and very bland which constantly reminded you of the plight of the characters who were desperately trying to stay sane while spending months with only the same bleak sights to look at. There were audience members sat in boxes on the stage who became part of the performance when characters delivered their asides directly to them and at one point stole a handbag from them.

I always think it is a sign of a fabulous company when you cannot pick out one particular performance from the actors. There were no weak links, all the actors gave strong and memorable performances in their roles and seemed to move effortlessly from one character to another.

Max Stafford-Clark’s direction is clearly well researched and never fails. I would recommend this production to anybody who love’s theatre, opera, music or just a spectacular performance.

The Convicts Opera runs at the WYP until Sat 28th Feb 2009

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Murder with Love - Darlington Civic Theatre

Murder With Love by Francis Durbridge
Director: Ian Dickens
Co-Director:Leslie Grantham

Reviewer: Ian Cain

It seems that we British have a love affair with the whodunit. Only The Bible has outsold Agatha Christie’s collected sales of approximately four billion copies of her novels! If Christie reigns as Queen of Crime then, surely, Francis Durbridge must be King.

Ian Dickens Productions, renowned for their stylish and sophisticated stage adaptations, bring Durbridge’s intense and gripping thriller, Murder With Love, to Darlington Civic Theatre.

The stellar cast is led by Leslie Grantham, as the irascible but dogged detective Cleaver, and Neil Stacy, as barrister David Ryder.

Although the dialogue is wordy and the plot complex, Murder With Love is a great thriller. All the necessary elements are woven into the storyline – there’s deceit, suspicion, blackmail, incrimination and a few red herrings for good measure, too.

The action takes place in the late 1970s and is split across two locations: the study of David Ryder and the living room of Larry Campbell’s flat. Alan Miller-Bunford remains true to form in designing a set that is not only extremely functional, but also one that looks stunning, too. The way the action switched from one location to the other was effectively done with only a change of lighting.

Louise Falkner gave a convincing portrayal of a Fleet Street gossip columnist whose nose for a story places her in mortal danger and Jacqueline Roberts also shines as a femme-fatale television personality. Marcus Hutton puts in a nice performance as love rat Larry Campbell and Edward Thorpe seemed comfortable in the part of his brother, Roy.

However, it is Mark Booth, as the sinister and detestable George Rudd, who delivered the best performance. His portrayal of the cockney crook is carefully crafted and perfectly executed.

As the play progresses, you can’t help but become engrossed in the plot. As I paid careful attention to the twists and turns and attempted to deduce the identity of the murderer, I was caught completely off-guard by the twist at the end. And that’s exactly what a good thriller should do!

Murder with Love runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Sat 28th Feb 2009

Elaine Paige - Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Elaine Paige: Celebrating 40 Years on Stage
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Musical Director: Chris Egan
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Only a handful of musical theatre performers make such an outstanding and long-lasting contribution to the genre that they survive in the profession long enough to celebrate forty years of performing, but that’s exactly what the sensational Elaine Paige is doing.

The queen of the musical stage is marking her Ruby anniversary with a month-long national tour and packing the punters in.

Surprisingly, Miss Paige was a little weak to begin with as she performed a selection of numbers from her early days. However, it didn’t take long for her to break into her stride and start belting.

At almost 61, Paige still looks stunning and in a silver three-quarter length jacket and black trousers she was a picture of understated elegance.

Giving numbers such as Tomorrow, Broadway Baby and Hey, Mr Producer that inimitable touch of Paige perfection, she used the songs to chronicle events in her life and threw in a sprinkling of anecdotes for good measure.

The self-deprecating pint-sized performer poked fun at her lack of height with a song that was written especially for her, by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, entitled Small Packages. She also revealed that, early in her career,
she was often passed over for roles because she was deemed to be too short.

The concert comprises twenty five numbers but, obviously, the audience have primarily come to hear her sing those showstoppers that she is famous for. The first half of the concert contains a rendition of I Don’t Know How To Love Him from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and culminates in a breathtaking performance of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina from ‘Evita.’

The second part of the evening commences with the superb six-piece band, under the Musical Direction of Chris Egan, playing a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ overture. Then, suddenly, Paige makes her entrance as alter-ego Norma Desmond in her original costume from the Broadway production, complete with turban and sunglasses.

After delivering a sensational rendition of As If We Never Said Goodbye, she takes on the guise of Mrs Lovett to perform By The Sea from ‘Sweeney Todd,’ before donning a black wig and becoming Edith Piaf to treat the audience to The Ballad of Poor Old John, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Hymne a L’amour.

The evening was concluded with a spine-tingling performance of Memory from ‘Cats,’ With One Look from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

Elaine Paige is touring throught the country for more information please click here

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Blonde Bombshells of1943, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Blonde Bombshells of 1943 by Alan Plater
Director: Mark Babych
Musical Arranger: Howard Gray

Reviewer: John Roberts

'T'aint what cha do, it's the way that you do it,' and this production certainly does it in style!

Based on Alan Plater's television film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, the play tells the story of Betty and her all female band The Blonde Bombshells.

After playing a gig at the American Airbase in Catterick, half of their band seemed to have disappeared with dreams of Hollywood and rich Texas oil tycoons. The Bombshells big break is fast approaching and with half a band missing they hold auditions to find another four members to fill their cohort, and end up with a 17 year old school girl, a middle class army tart and a banjo playing nun. It's only when Patrick walks through the door, on the run from conscription and looking to drum does he agree to don the dress and help the Bombshells go live on the wireless and make the band complete.

Having already had
several tours around the world, this show is revived at just the right time, showing that even in the recession and when times are hard we can still have a good time and enjoy ourselves!

Mark Babych directs this production with lots of energy and pace and the simple but atmospheric set by Libby Watson really helps set the scene and period. The script is full of northern quips and brusk remarks make this show fire with wit and humour and looking at the cast on stage they seem to love playing those lines as much as the audience hearing them.

This multi-talented cast of actor musicians really make the most of their parts bringing great energy and fantastic harmonies throughout not to mention sublime comic timing.

Laura Stevely makes a suitably naive school girl (Liz) and has a silky smooth singing voice, her rendition of Ribbon Bow really captivated the audience. Matthew Ganley as Patrick really lays on the charm and his cheeky persona shines throughout this energetic and suave performance. Sarah Whittuck is superb as Banjo toting nun Lilly. Rosie Jenkins brings a different dynamic to proceedings with her upper class army officer Miranda. Barbara Hockaday and Susie Emmett as Grace and Vera bring sharp stabs of dry northern humour to their parts which this reviewer absolutely loved. Jane Miligan as May and Charlotte Armer also give fine performances as the matriarchs of the band.

The real star of this show for this reviewer is the music, which really stands the test of time and can really make anyone leave the theatre with a huge smile on your face and humming the songs for days to come, and if this show comes to a theatre near you soon then don't delay don your glad rags and have a great night at the theatre courtesy of The Blonde Bombshells of 1943.

Blonde Bombshells runs at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until Saturday 28th Feb 2009

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Othello - West Yorkshire Playhouse

Othello by William Shakespeare
Director: Barrie Rutter
Reviewer: Ali Noble

The flurry of excitement around the new production of ‘Othello’ playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been brought about by the casting of comedian Lenny Henry in the title role - his first ever stage role. It seemed an odd choice, and the theatre was at full capacity, the audience waiting keenly to see how Henry would fare.

‘Othello’ is a hard play to pull off. The original text is long, and the director must carefully piece his performance together: maintaining the action whilst explaining fully what’s happening, and making the progression from one event to another smooth and believable. I remember seeing a production in Nottingham some time ago and my overwhelming memory of the play was that it went on and on and on - a drawn-out, protracted and boring affair.

I’m pleased to say that Rutter’s version left a much better impression. Lenny Henry gave an impressive performance - even more so for the fact that he is not a stage actor, and had never studied Shakespeare. His first few lines in the first scene were hurried, but he soon settled into the role, and truly held the play together. The play was at its most dynamic when Henry was on stage, and his presence towered over the cast, stage and audience.

In terms of other stand-out performances, I loved Matt Connor’s portrayal of Roderigo, whose pathetic weaseliness was brilliant to watch; Fine Time Fontayne as Brabantio (the father of Desdemona, who is devastated that his daughter has secretly-wed Othello) is very real and relatable; and Maeve Larkin’s Emilia shone in the final scene, as her realisation of all that has passed floods over her and is unleashed in an almighty misery-stricken anger that sends chills down the spine.

The set was blackened and bare, which at times seemed too empty, but worked perfectly during the final “death-bed” scene, when a white four-poster bed was positioned on stage, and becomes piled with the bodies and blood of the slain. Costumes were based loosely on 1850’s dress and military garb, their bright colours nicely framed by the black set.

The problem with ‘Othello’ is that Othello isn’t actually the main part - it is Iago who underpins all the action in the play. And whilst Conrad Nelson as Iago performed well, my expectations were not entirely sated. Iago is without doubt the hardest part to play in ‘Othello’ - he must be loathsome enough to be a liar and a murderer, and at the same time the audience must believe that the other characters like and trust him. Nelson made Iago a lads’ lad, ‘matey’ and familiar with those he wishes to manipulate, which worked well in the ‘drinking-game’ scene, where Iago gets Cassio drunk, knowing that his intoxication will cause a violent temper. But this approach is more problematic when Iago induces Othello’s jealousy - the latter’s rapid descent into green-eyed rage is hard to equate with Iago’s actions, and not quite so plausible.

Nice musical and comedic elements helped the play along, and Iago’s menacing soliloquies throughout set the undertone of foreboding. The play finished to rapturous applause. The fate of all productions of ‘Othello’ is that they will be compared to those architypal stagings starring Ian McKellen, or Chiwetel Ejiofor. But this seems unfair. This performance stands by itself, and should be enjoyed for what it is - a worthy and creditable production.

Photo: Tristram Kenton
Othello runs at the WYP until 14th March 2009
This production is sold out - Returns only

Pack of Lies - Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Pack of Lies by Hugh Whitemore
Director: Christopher Morahan
Reviewer: David Aldridge

The play tells the story of a middle class suburban family, Bob and Barbara Jackson and their daughter Julie, who are put upon by a grey-coated intelligence officer (Stewart). He needs them to help him spy on their neighbours, the Krogers, who are also their old friends. Barbara especially finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the deception which this service to her country requires.

The action is introduced by David Morley Hale, standing in for Ray Marsden who has been “suddenly indisposed.” As the “civil servant” Stewart, he assured us, speaking above the sound of a relentlessly buzzing PA, that the events we were about to see were “by the way, by and large, true.” In my experience, that serves as a kind of coded warning that the events that we are about to witness are by the way, by and large, dull as ditchwater. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised. Despite the early sound problems which were largely resolved by the interval, I was impressed by the set, the interior of a suburban home in the early sixties.

I should say at this point that this is a difficult performance to review. Although I know that Marsden was also unable to make the previous Wimbledon run of the play, Morley Hale did not seem to have had much time to learn his part. He did a decent job for the first half an hour or so, but after a while I realised that he was reading from the notebook his character was carrying. His performance was therefore unconvincing and – to be honest – so were the other actors in the scenes they shared with him. It is difficult to know whether this shortage of chemistry resulted simply from a lack of rehearsal time with Morley Hale or whether the play was simply falling flat. There were certainly more than the usual number of dropped lines and false starts from the rest of the cast. The cynic in me wonders as to the cause of Marsden’s failure to appear.

Lorna Luft (Helen Kroger) is something of a disappointment. Her lines are simply delivered and one doesn’t really get a sense of her eccentric character, or why her neighbours love her so dearly. Although she has top billing (she is, after all, the one that’s not Liza Minelli…), the Krogers are not actually on stage all that much. In fact, much of the tension of the play relies on us thinking that they could come to the door at any inopportune moment. When this does happen, it’s not used to its full advantage; the high dramatic opportunity of the piece is over rather quickly and is quite unsatisfying.

Jenny Seagrove (Barbara Jackson) labours valiantly to hold the piece together. On reflection having seen the play, I realise that her character was deteriorating physically throughout, but a combination of my being slow to catch on and her perhaps over-playing this from the start meant that I suspected that Seagrove was possibly going down with whatever had kept Ray Marsden away that evening. More importantly, the style of Hugh Whitemore’s writing doesn’t really allow her to pick up much steam. The action is constantly interrupted by monologues addressed to the audience where the characters share with us the benefit of their hindsight. Barbara’s fate is alluded to in these monologues but not really signposted in the action of the play, so when it was revealed I felt cheated.

The tagline of the play is that suspicion can be a killer, and all that I can say is that there aren’t any real killers in this piece; more’s the pity, as that would have given Jenny Seagrove something to get believably disturbed about. She is constantly reassured by Stewart that her neighbours are no danger to her or her family, and this banal tale of urban spying really provides us with nothing more to worry about than Barbara’s friendship with her next door neighbours. It takes more than a liberal sprinkling of sinister lighting and music to suggest a fatal descent into anxiety, but we just aren’t given anything else. If I have spoilt the denouement for you, never mind. Go and see something else instead.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Rock 'n' Roll - Manchester Library Theatre

Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
Director: Chris Honer
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is a heart-warming tale of the how Rock ‘n’ Roll music can have the strongest of influences in the most unlikely of places.

This play covers three decades of communist rule in Czechoslovakia but at the heart of this overtly political piece lies the trials and tribulations of a middle class family in the UK. The play opens in 1968 with Esme (Emily Taaffe), a fun-loving 60’s hippy high on cannabis and adamant that Pink Floyd rocker Syd Barrett has just serenaded her on the family garden wall. Next we meet Jan (Graeme Hawley), a young intellectual who Esme is desperate to lose her virginity to before his departure back to Czechoslovakia and Jan is quickly joined by Marxist philosopher Max and his wife Eleanor (Cate Hamer) who is currently coping with the aftermath of breast cancer. The family unit is complete but the story does not stop there. We are then whisked off to Czechoslovakia in the midst of the overthrow of liberal secretary of state Dubcek (who believed in ‘socialism with a human face’) and the emergence of the mighty military machine, which was to violently rule Czechoslovakia, until the eventual downfall of communism in 1989.

The play enters a rapid journey through these 20 terrifying years of communist rule and we meet many more characters along the way, as well as recognising the important part that rock n roll music played throughout these turbulent years. Jan and flat mate Ferdinand (Ken Bradshaw), unwilling to play by the rules of the totalitarian regime, instead immerse themselves in the music and introduce us to non-conformist rock band ‘The plastic people of the Universe’. This band, despite their disinterest in bringing down communism, were so adamant in their refusal to compromise, that they were inadvertently thrown into the political arena and this storyline plays a very important role in this play. Culture and politics at this time were inseparable.

This is undoubtedly a fantastically written play and Tom Stoppard mentions in his notes that he wanted to write a story that would capture the interest of his audience. This intention has generally been done justice by Chris Honer’s intelligent and slick direction. The design by Judith Croft is also strong and the psychedelic and liberating projections of 60’s rock ‘n’ roll contrast strikingly with the grimy and conformist backdrop of Soviet Czechoslovakia.

The ensemble also put in a sterling effort and the performances are engaging throughout. The bloody minded and stubborn Max is played with huge charisma and conviction by Hilton Mcrae. His frustrating yet endearing refusal to believe anything that cannot be proven by reason or logic is measured beautifully by Mcrae. His excellent character development as Max ages into an even bloodier minded pensioner and his very vocal disillusionment with the watered down communism and apathy of the yuppie generation of the 80’s is delightful (‘why aren’t they angry?’). The part of Jan is played with subtlety and empathy by Graeme Hawley and the scene between him and the interrogator (Christopher Wright) is a particular highlight. There is also a charming cameo performance by Leila Crerar as the refreshing Lenka.

My only criticisms of this play would be that emotional outbursts are at times a little unfounded and the over explanation around the subject area made certain conversations seem a little contrived.

However these are small criticisms in what is ultimately a thought provoking and intelligent play. There is also a lot of food for thought for our own 2009 generation, where the angry ‘max’ characters are visibly absent. As the character himself observed in 1989, we live in a ‘democracy of obedience’. Additionally with the cult of the celebrity at an all time high, Jan’s disillusionment in the late 80’s with non-meaningful music (‘Who will be rid, who will be famous’) also rings true.

This is a must-see play for anyone who wants an evening of stimulating theatre.

Photos: Gerry Murray
Rock ‘n’ Roll runs at the Library Theatre until Sat 14th March 09

Why the Whales Came - Richmond Theatre

Why the Whales Came By Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor & Director: Greg Banks
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

Keeping the title “WHY the Whales Came” for this stage adaptation by Greg Banks of Michael Morpurgo’s book is so much better than “WHERE the Whales Came” used for the now nearly twenty year old film version. “Where” is simply an introduction to “this happened” whereas “Why” implies a more complex fulfilment.

The Birmingham Stage Company’s representation of this well loved book is of necessity a slightly simplified version of the story but the essential elements were all present, as confirmed by our co-critics Mollie, Tom and George. These three were representative of the two thirds of the audience at Richmond Theatre who ranged between about eight years old and thirteen.

The set, designed by Jacqueline Trousdale and provided by Capital Scenery, is of Gracie and Daniel’s beach as seen from the sea enclosed in a dark semicircle providing the claustrophobic atmosphere of life on a small island. At centre back a large red sail fulfils several functions from the Birdman’s hiding place to a changing room for the two actors who have double roles. Subtle lighting by Jason Taylor denotes the passing of time, season and all importantly, the weather.

Fishing equipment lies about and rather surprisingly, behind one pile sits a young lady, on this particular evening Alison George, playing music by Thomas Johnson on the cello. This could have been intrusive but despite its almost continuous presence her sensitive playing, intermittently also on the saxophone and flute, adds to the mystery.

More music is added by the haunting keen of Alison Fitzjohn who plays both the strong matriarch and the ridiculously pompous school marm who particularly appealed to the younger members of the audience.

Thomas Woodman also has two parts, playing the father of the family and Daniel’s older brother, Big Tim (and he is big) with astonishing agility.

Jay Quinn and Eliza Caitlin Parkes make believable children as Daniel and Gracie. The latter is an especially difficult part as it alternates between the child’s dialogue and narration, almost as though Gracie is telling the story in her old age.

The Birdman, or Mr Woodcock, to give him his rightful name, complete with the beautiful carved birds of John Brooking and played by Chris Llewellyn is unsettling. It is no wonder that the ordinary folk of Bryher are suspicious of him until the open mindedness of the children proves them mistaken.

Perhaps Andrew Thompson as the Preventative Officer could have been made to be a little more fearsome. After all the keeping of salvage is a very serious offence. The family seemed to think of him as something of a joke, and it would have been no surprise to hear him greet them with “Good Moaning!”… and why is he Welsh? The accents generally were not of any particular region, certainly not Cornwall, but rightly so for a play of such universal appeal.

In a similar way the costumes of Elizabeth Jones and Della Rebours, too, were almost undated. It was a while before it became clear that the period was the First World War and not the Second, a strong point rather than the opposite.

This play holds the attention throughout and is over in less than two hours, a strength when writing principally for children. It has some particularly high points such as the rowing boat scene and the skilful mime which overcomes the problem of the whale. Finally a little twist right at the end of the play removes any possible sentimentality from this highly successful production.

Playing at Richmond until Sat 21st Feb
More tour dates can be found by clicking here

The Last Resort - The Customs House, South Shields

The Last Resort By Russell Dean
Director: Ashley Dean
Composer & Musician: Mark Dean
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Described as ‘Spitting Image meets The Brothers Grimm,’ The Last Resort is a darkly comic folk tale with a startling mix of half-masked actors, puppets, live music and song.
A soldier-thief is forced to make a fiendish pact with a devil on holiday from Hell and they both descend upon an unsuspecting remote village on the edge of ruin. As the visitors make a tantalising offer of redemption, how far will the mayor, the priest, and the doctor go to seize the glittering prize?
This production is staged in a manner that is reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte, the Italian form of improvised theatre that originated in the 16th century. The cast of four, Russell Dean, Jonny Dixon, Roxanne Palmer and Kai Simmons, portray a multitude of stock characters, their masks enhancing the characterisation of each of them.
The masks, designed by Russell Dean, are gloriously grotesque yet strangely beguiling. Each is an individual work of art in its own right and they provide a look that is caricatural, adding to the mood and tone of the play.

The lighting and sound design also contribute greatly to the overall effect and the accordion music gives a distinctly Eastern European feel.
A simple set, skilfully designed by Jane Churchill, is effective and, rather than detracting from the events unfolding in the play, its windows are utilised to reveal hand puppets, two of which were remarkably similar to Waldorf and Statler from The Muppet Show.

Aimed at adults and young people of nine and over, The Last Resort may be a little too dark for youngsters. However, with each act being approximately fifty minutes long, the total running time is perfect. Ashley Dean’s direction combined with the actors’ performances and the satirical script ensures that the audience’s attention never wanders.

The Last Resort is a quirky, weird and wonderful piece of theatre that is absorbing and entertaining. The story, as with most folk tales, has some dark and gothic moments but there is the obligatory moral, too: Kindness and honour will triumph over greed and personal ambition.
For more information on tour dates click here

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Circus of Horrors - Floral Pavilion, New Brighton

The Circus of Horrors - The Asylum
Reviewer: Helen Patrick

Entering the doors had me slightly taken aback due to various characters from the show selling programmes and generally just going round scaring the living day lights out of people, me being one of them, to the point of me having to swap seats with my husband so i wasn’t on the end of the row. The show has a recorded message before beginning it states “Circus of Horrors is not suitable for chavs, sissies, close minded bigots and people of a nervous disposition................. “. I am unable to let you know the rest as it is unsuitable to be written yet very funny.

The show is rated a PG and there were some children of various ages in the audience yet it’s not the type of ‘circus’ I want my 7 year old watching.

The stage set was cluttered and very disorganised or so it seemed to begin with, during the first half you realise it is exactly how it needs to be due to the vast array of props and equipment needed. The lighting was bright sometimes to bright blurring my vision and the music was excellent yet far too loud to hear the words being sung. Don’t let my negative comments put you off though, the show was gruesome, funny and vulgar and definitely worth seeing.

When the show begins there is in my opinion to many tricks and horrors going on and you don’t know which to look at first, but within seconds it becomes clear that each artiste will have their own time to ‘shine’. The gymnastics, the crude antics and the ever amazing illusions have you sitting there wondering what on earth they can do to amaze you next, yet it just keeps coming.

The audience gasped with disbelief at parts, imagine seeing a man ripped in half or watching a lady have her throat slit open. The illusions really are made to look realistic and spectacular.

There is a story to this show yet it is hard to follow as you are more aware of the performances going on around rather than the story being sung. We know from the beginning it is based in an Asylum for the criminally insane and that’s about as far as I got with the story line.

‘Garry stretch’ has two Guinness world records for skin stretching hence the name, yet knowing this i felt he didn’t show us enough of his talent during the show, don’t get me wrong he is either talented or a pure freak but the slot he is given doesn’t do him justice. The gymnasts are also very talented they can get into positions you would not believe. All the cast of this ‘circus’ are talented in their own unique way and for this they are worth watching.

Dr Haze is then main man of the show. He is involved in a few illusions but is mainly there to relay the story via song. It is Professor Daniel Von Henry who gets the most laughs during this performance and you will be amazed by the items he attaches to parts of his anatomy.

The circus of horrors is one show my husband had been looking forward to and he did enjoy it as much as I did, unfortunately we are both undecided as to whether it was pure talent or just a freak show and whether or not it’s worth the £15 each to view a bunch of talented freaks on stage, don’t get me wrong it’s a show worth seeing but definitely only once, and never take a young child to watch this, the language, the sexual innuendos, the bizarre illusions could disturb such a young and imaginative brain. Yet for adults who are not easily traumatised or offended go and see this whilst on tour.
For dates on the tour please click here

The Sandman - Liverpool Everyman

The Sandman By Flilippo Fiori
Director: Glen Noble
Reviewer: Steph Rowe

When you think of the sandman do you relive part of your childhood when your parents used to tell you to go to sleep quickly so the Sandman could bring you a dream, then when you wake in the morning with gritty eyes your told its the sand that he left with your dream in or maybe you think of the song “Mr Sandman bring me a dream, make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen” by the Andrews Sisters, well I say think again this is one play that will lay to rest all your thoughts and feelings relating to the Sandman.

Greta was told the story of the Sandman when she was tucked up in bed, as a little girl happy in the family she knew and loved her darling mum., who could make a purse out of a sow’s ear and a father who was so good at his clock and watch making he was renowned for it. Little did she know that as she grew older and her father continued to tell it to her would she become entangled in the web that was ‘THE SANDMAN’.

The scenery was very cleverly thought out to incorporate the various rooms in the house that were to be used throughout the play, from the cellar, to Greta’s bedroom right up to the rooftop. The stairs being transformed by a quick turn around and the window in Greta’s room allowing the use of silhouette puppets. Constructed by Lobster productions it was a well thought out use of the stage.

Lighting design by Justin M. Breman along with the music composed by Matthew Wood took you through the various scenes allowing you to feel a part of the story and carrying you through it with an eerie wonder. Costumes by Kevin Pollard were very Victorian in design and added to the beliefs that were carried by many Victorians of Ghostly goings on and many unexplained myths.

The acting abilities of Kate Crossley (Greta), Anthony Cairns (Cornelius) and Steve Wallis (Edgar) were tested in this play and I feel they managed to carry it off magnificently given the script they had to work with, Kate had you believing in the little girls dilemma and Anthony and Steve gave brilliant performances in their roles even the working of the puppets. These three worked well as a team and kept you intrigued right up to the end of the show.

Overall the play was very cleverly written and did give a lot for you to think about and ponder, and from the audiences reaction many seemed to enjoyed it unfortunately I prefer to remember the Sandman as someone who bought lovely dreams to children as they slept.

The Sandman runs at The Everyman until Sat 21st Feb 09

Cabaret - Darlington Civic Theatre

Cabaret By Kender & Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos
Reviewer: Ian Cain

For a story of anti-Semitism, homophobia, poverty, degradation and the fall of the Weimar Republic, Cabaret is a remarkably cheery piece. Since its Broadway premiere in 1966 and the famous movie version starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey, it has won a staggering number of stage and screen awards including 8 Oscars, 7 BAFTAs and 13 Tony Awards.
This current production, which made its debut at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in October 2006, is heavenly hedonistic, deliciously decadent and stylishly staged.
Samantha Barks, from BBC TV’s I’d Do Anything, easily establishes her worth as an actress and singer as Sally Bowles, proving that she is much more than just a reality show runner-up. Stepping into the shoes of Liza Minnelli must surely be an extremely daunting professional debut for an eighteen-year-old actress, but Barks shows no signs of nerves and delivers a performance that, in my opinion, betters Minnelli’s. Her voice is strong, clear and powerful and she raises the rafters with renditions of Mein Herr, Maybe This Time and, of course, Cabaret.

Wayne Sleep stars as the sinister Emcee and demonstrates that he is still as sprightly – or should that be spritely, you decide, both apply! – as ever. He excels in his performance of Wilkommen and is delightfully amusing in the risqué Two Ladies. Henry Luxemburg, as struggling novelist Cliff Bradshaw, is suitably handsome and the sexual chemistry between him and Barks is tangible. He strikes exactly the right balance between optimistic, noble romantic hero and deep, moody writer.

Jenny Logan, as Fraulein Schneider, fluffed a line in her solo, So What?, but recovered quickly and professionally and gave a good performance. The story of her short-lived romance with Herr Schultz, played with aplomb by Matt Zimmerman, is tender and poignant. Karl Moffatt as Nazi Ernst Ludwig and Suanne Braun as Fraulein Kost lead a talented supporting cast and particular mention must be made of Theo Cook who delivers a beautifully haunting rendition of Tomorrow Belongs To Me. The ensemble are amazingly energetic and very easy on the eye – and they need to be with so much bare flesh on display. Some of the most pert buttocks and perfectly formed breasts that I have ever seen were put, tastefully, on show.

Javier De Frutos’ choreography, which is bold, daring and effective, is complimented by Katrina Lindsay’s stunningly simplistic set design. The sensational costumes and atmospheric lighting contribute further to the overall effect which is accentuated by a fantastic orchestra under the Musical Direction of Tom de Keyser. The slick direction, from Rufus Norris, ensures that the action moves along at exactly the right pace.

Indeed, this production of Cabaret ticks all the right boxes. Aside from the decadence, debauchery and depravity of the Kit Kat Club, there is the terrifying spectre of the rise of fascism and the horrors that awaited around the corner for Berlin and the rest of the world.

Cabaret Runs at the Darlington Civic Theatre until Sat 21st Feb 2009

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Little Shop of Horrors - Theatre Royal Brighton

Little Shop of Horrors
Music: Alan Menkin
Book & Lyrics: Howard Ashman
Director: Matthew White
Reviewer: John Roberts

A film about a man eating fauna from out of space, it could never work, I am sure that was the cry many years ago when the original idea of Roger Cormans 1960's black and white film was pitched, but to the pleasure of millions of people worldwide I'm glad it did. For it was picked up by Alan Menkin & Howard Ashman to turn the film into a smash Broadway musical, winning the critics circle award for best musical in 1982-3. It then transferred to London's Comedy Theatre in 1983. The musical was also turned into an Academy Award nominated musical in 1986 although changing the original darker ending for a much happier Hollywood finish starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Green ( who reprises her role from creating the original musical version of Audrey) and Steve Martin.

This production by London's Menier Chocolate Factory is in keeping with this fringe theatre's mission of bringing High quality entertaining shows back to the public eye brought Little Shop back into London for the first time since the 1983 production, a year long run at London's Duke of Yorks theatre followed, and it is this production that is being toured across the nation - albeit with a new cast and slightly trimmed back set and original ending firmly back in its rightful place.

This show is sensational from start to finish, from the rousing first bar of dramatic musical chords of the Prologue to the final ending of the Finale the music stands strong, and this is only testament to the tremendous talent of the writing team Alan Menkin & Howard Ashman.

Matthew White's direction is first rate, bringing a manic energy and perfect comic timing from all of his cast. White has also added some new little touches which makes sure this production leaves its original mark on those of us that saw the London production. Lynne Page also gives the production a great choreographic flair.
The atmosphere of back street Cleveland is effectively brought to life, not only by the fantastic set by David Farley and amazing lighting design by David Howe but also starting pre-show by bringing on the cast in various guises of prostitutes and highly amusing but tuned to perfection drunks, even using them in the background during the scenes visible from the shop window. One couldn't help feeling a little done by the original Mike McShane Video used as the reporter at the beginning of the show, why not use the new cast?

This is a cast that fire on all cylinders, from the exuberant energy of the fantastic trio of Cathryn Davies, (who really does have a voice that wows) Nadia Di Mambro and Donna Hines as the Ronnettes. Sylvester McCoy shows why he is still getting work by being a consummate professional from start to finish. His rendition of Mushnik & Son being a particular favourite. Alex Fearns brings multiple role playing to the forefront with some excellent comic creations, but his main role of Orin Scrivello is a blast, providing us with a character that you just love to hate and his final scene is splattered with as much laughter as the blood that will be provided to Audrey 2, but one does worry about his voice that is already showing heavy signs of strain, will he be able to carry this on for the rest of the run?

Which brings us onto Clive Rowe who lends his voice to the Man eating plant, and what a voice he has! Giving us a silky smooth and soulful Audrey 2, which allows for much more vocal subtlety and inflection which you sometimes loose by playing it with a heavy rock voice. With first rate puppetry and a fantastic design this is a plant will stay firmly in your memory for years to come. Damian Humbley as Seymour is a real joy and you can't help but feel emotionally attached to all that happens to him as Humbley gives us a performance that is clear and honest from the off.

One of the biggest joys of the evening came from Clare Buckfield, gone is the Ellen Green renditions of Audrey (Thank God) and we say hello to a much more sexier and captivating rendition of the hard done by florist assistant whos performance is a revelation. Having seen Clare in various guises over the years, this is her at her best and her rendition of Somewhere That's Green was laced with emotion, enough to bring a lump to this reviewers throat.

So why don't you go Downtown and get yourself a ticket to Skid Row before this show leaves for another town!

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Little Shop of Horrors runs at The Theatre Royal Brighton until Sat 21st Feb

Monday, 16 February 2009

Saturday Night - Jermyn Street Theatre

Saturday Night by Stephen Sondheim
Book: Julius J Epstein
Director: Tom Littler
Reviewer: John Roberts

As the song in this revival and also UK premier of the updated production of Sondheim's first venture into musical theatre goes, "What can you do on a Saturday night..?" It could have been go to the Jermyn Street Theatre to see this production, but unfortunately it doesn't have the wow factor to make me jump up and down and tell everybody about it.

It's 1920s New York, and a group of friends from Brooklyn dream and aspire to be like the smart and sophisticated Wall Street bankers, and it is with these dreams that the shows protagonist Gene who plays the game more than anyone, starts to find himself in trouble with the new broad and the Law.

The problem with producing a show in such an intimate venue is that you can't get away with making mistakes and you can let your actors have a subtlety and nuance that you don't normally have the opportunity to give in a 700 seat proscenium arch theatre...This just doesn't happen, the cast all do a reasonable Job but the show is carried on the back of David Ricardo-Pearce, straddling the stage with a real panache and energy every time he is on stage.

Other notable performances are given by Charlie Cameron who in all honesty steals the show every time she appears with her bright eyed presence and huge smile and Joanna Hickman who provides the show with its only strong female character.

Tom Littler deals well with some hard challenges in directing and staging a 2 hour musical in the tiny and intimate venue of the Jermyn Street Theatre, jumping on the recent bandwagon of Actor Musician productions he has found this formula as a justifiable way of staging the show, but unfortunately one feels that real compromises have been made in relation to the quality of the acting/singing ability because of this.

The New York skyline set by Will Reynolds gave this production a slightly cheap looking feel and at times proves more of a hinderence to the cast than a help, other personal grates were the constant slips of accents, if you are going to do an accent on stage then please don't go wondering to other countries or even your native tongue, if you are from New York stay in New York.

Primavera's production unfortunately just doesn't stand up to recent productions in other fringe venues, such as Racky Plews' recent production of 'Into The Woods' at Upstairs at the Gatehouse or Nunn's exquisite production of 'A Little Night Music' currently in a sell out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory which is a shame as one can't help but welcome Primavera's mission of bringing lesser known productions to the masses.

If you have nothing better to do on a Saturday night then why not pop along, you wont leave feeling you have been ripped off but likewise you wont leave thinking you had just seen the latest smash hit either.

Photos: Robert Workman
Saturday Night runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 14th March 2009

Sunday, 15 February 2009

La Bohème – ENO at London Coliseum

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giacosa and Illica
Reviewer: Mark Valencia

It’s been a long wait, but Jonathan Miller has finally made it back into the Coliseum with this new production of Puccini’s tearjerker. His lengthy exile from St Martin’s Lane has been especially baffling considering the longevity of his ENO Mikado and Rigoletto, not to mention a superlative Turn of the Screw (recently superseded but still unsurpassed). Trendy, untried opera directors have come and gone from the house in recent years, leaving behind a trail of unrevivable detritus, and I can only imagine that the embarrassment of recent flops has prompted the house management to bring back Dr Miller’s trusted, tried and tested pair of hands for their new Bohème. A wise move, for when it comes to audience-friendly repertoire any repeat of last year’s car-crash Carmen would have done lasting damage to the company.

La Bohème tells the romantic tale of Rodolfo, a struggling poet who starves elegantly in a Parisian garret until the right girl comes along in the shape of Mimi, she of the frozen extremities. Alas, their love is doomed as Mimi succumbs to consumption amid the winter chill.

On paper it’s a wretched little story, but Puccini’s yearning, fractured melodies propel the emotion with remarkable economy and conciseness, and with an exquisite comedy counterpoint to the pervading misery in the sub-plot of Rodolfo’s fiery friends, Musetta and Marcello.

Despite a strong cast, Miller’s direction is more persuasive in the comedy than the tragedy. Roland Wood and Hanah Alattar are so outstanding both vocally and dramatically as the duelling amorosi that they eclipse the passionless Mimi and Rodolfo of Melody Moore and Alfie Boe. The lovers’ vapidity is not entirely the singers’ fault: Miller’s concern for visual style means that he rarely allows the unhappy couple to make eye contact so, as far as the audience is concerned, love’s bolt is never shot. Boe woos Moore from behind her chair when he should be gazing into her baby blues; and later, out in the snow, the two stand side by side and slightly apart for an exchange where only face to face would do. It’s hard to care about the lovers’ plight when we’re denied the visible evidence that they do actually love each other.

The stunning, semi-monochrome Paris imagined by Isabelle Bywater is thrilling in its atmosphere and versatility, but her designs do conceal a problem. More than half the action of La Bohème takes place up in that famous attic room; however, this is so cramped and placed so high on the stage that there is no space for the kind of directorial panache the music demands. Worse, even from the dress circle the Coliseum acoustic is not kind to voices produced from way above floor level, and Miguel Hartha-Bedoya’s excellent orchestra tends to swamp the singers during the outer acts of the opera. Too often Alfie Boe’s mellifluous tenor is so engulfed by Puccini’s orchestral waves that he is barely audible.

For all its faults this rich, subtly updated La Bohème is a treat that should pay its way in years to come. It has all the makings an ENO favourite; it just needs a touch of directorial unbuttoning, and perhaps a few stentorian voices to help it along,

Photos: Tristram Kenton
La Bohème runs until the 8th March

The Price - Liverpool Playhouse

The Price by Arthur Miller
Director: Giles Croft
Reviewer: Kate Cottrell

It was a timely choice by the Liverpool Playhouse, in conjunction with the Nottingham Playhouse, to bring to the stage one of great dramatist Arthur Miller’s lesser known plays. The Price, first produced in 1968, explores complex family relationships, duty, honour and the importance of money. In a time when jobs are precious and scarce and finances are being hit hard by economic forces out of our control, Miller’s work offers a perspective which perhaps demonstrates the real, and very personal, price of the credit crunch.

Throughout the piece, there are tinges of Miller’s ideology and the communist leanings that brought him in front of the McCarthy jury, through the different lives of two brothers – Victor and Walter. The choices that the characters’ made, when faced with their father’s bankruptcy and depression in the Wall Street Crash of the 1920’s, demonstrate the great American struggle between doing what we are duty bound to do and doing what we want to do in order to achieve the American dream.

Robin Kingsland delivers a superb performance as Victor, a regular American cop who has lived a quiet and reasonably happy life. In a different performance the character of Victor might be portrayed as a tortured soul – a man deeply unhappy with his life. Yet through allowing Kingsland a good 3 minutes on stage alone at the beginning of the piece – looking around his family home, reminiscing at old furniture and records – director Giles Croft sets up a different scenario and it is the entrance of Victor’s wife, Esther, played by Elaine Caxton, that seems to change the atmosphere. Claxton’s portrayal of Esther is as a plain woman, dissatisfied with the card life has dealt to her and with the life her once promising husband has provided and what we see, through this, is Victor as a man drowning under his wife’s needs and expectations. The couple’s relationship and, crucially the power dynamic within this marriage, is explored with depth and delivered expertly by good direction and strong performances.

Yet, it is Jon Rumney as ageing furniture appraiser Solomon who really lifts the piece, breathing life into the family scenario and providing real moments of comedy.

It would be impossible not to mention the set which is beautifully put together and, through its dark and ornate furniture stacked up high, creates an imposing atmosphere for the story to be played out in.

As with much of Miller’s work, The Crucible being the notable exception, The Price is much more about conversation than action, yet the piece does draw you in and the parallels between the world of the play and ours in 2009 are clearly and easily drawn. A very enjoyable and thought-provoking evening which will leave you questioning your beliefs in the power of money and the strength of family.

The Price Runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until Sat 28th Feb

Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) - UK National Tour

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)
by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

additional material by Matthew Croke
Director: Matt Rippy
Reviewer: by Ian Cain

Condensing the entire Bible into a theatre production that runs for just under two hours is no small undertaking, but that’s exactly what the Reduced Shakespeare Company have achieved.

From fig leaves to Final Judgement – and almost everything in between – the cast of three, comprising Simon Cole, John Kielty and William Meredith, appear as a multitude of biblical characters in this satirical, fast-paced jaunt through the Holy Book.

This is strictly a tongue-in-cheek production that should be taken with a large pinch of salt: do not expect a reverential re-telling of Christianity. Instead, prepare yourself for a rollercoaster ride through the Old and New Testaments and prepare to be entertained, shocked and surprised all in the same evening.

Many well-known biblical tales are retold with some topical twists, including Gabriel, Angel of The Lord, presiding over a game of Deal or No Deal, David’s battle with Goliath being performed in slow-motion as a parody of Chariots of Fire, and members of the audience, imitating animals, being boarded onto Noah’s Ark.

There is no doubt that the controversial script, penned by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, will have some people screaming ‘blasphemy’ from the nearest church steeple but, if you’re a fan of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the schoolboy humour will, undoubtedly appeal.

The three performers are on stage for, virtually, the whole duration of the show and they each deliver energetic and extremely physical performances. They also demonstrated their skill for ad-libbing to particular effect when a pair of late-comers took their seats.

Particular highlights include the re-enactment of the Last Supper, in which the three actors portray Jesus and all twelve of his disciples by poking their heads through cut-outs in a drop cloth, and William Meredith dressed in a pink and white bunny costume recounting the events of the Resurrection.

If you think you may enjoy a romp through the history of religion which includes searing satire, juvenile jokes and madcap mayhem, then this is a show for you – but take one piece of advice from me: don’t bring the vicar!

The Bible: The complete works of God (Abridged) is on a UK tour for more details visit tour page

Friday, 13 February 2009

Two - The Studio Theatre at The Customs House, South Shields

Two by Jim Cartwright
Director: Bill Cronshaw

Reviewer: Ian Cain

Set in a Northern pub, Two is – as the title suggests – a two-handed play by Jim Cartwright. Jilly Breeze and Adrian Ross-Jones play a variety of characters, encompassing the publicans and a selection of their regular customers.

It is staged in The Studio Theatre at The Customs House, which is the ideal space to provide the intimacy that the piece requires.

The characters of the landlord and
landlady of the pub provide a constant thread that runs through the play, and they are a couple at war with each other. They may look happy to their punters but after closing time their conflict provides a dramatic spine for the show. Indeed, it is impossible not to draw comparison with the pub-running, pint-pulling legends that were Den and Angie Watts from The Queen Vic in EastEnders.

Other characters include a violent, bullying husband and his downtrodden wife, a pair of oddball cyclists from the Midlands, an old man and an old woman.

The script demands a lot from Breeze and Ross-Jones and, for the most part, they deliver the goods. It must be difficult to
portray such an array of differing parts in such a short space of time and this deprives the actors the opportunity to immerse themselves into any particular character. It also robs the audience of the opportunity to form an emotional relationship with most of them, too.

However, this is not the case with the publicans themselves who, strangely, are not given any individual character names. The drama really unfolds during an after-hours confrontation which reveals the catalystic incident that sent their marriage careering off the tracks but, ultimately, culminates in a reconciliation of sorts.

The set is sparsely simple but adequately effective – just a bar, a couple of tables and a few chairs. However, the actors use the set well and manage with only a limited selection of props.

Overall, Two is an entertaining production which owes more of its success to the performances from Breeze and Ross-Jones than it does to Cartwright’s writing.

Damascus - Tricycle Theatre

Damascus by David Greig
Director: Philip Howard
Reviewer: Adrian Pumphrey

I do not really know an awful lot about Syria which meant I was pretty excited about watching a play designed to – as writer David Greig put it – 'explore the complexities between the west and the Arab world.' Unfortunately after watching it, I would say I am not much the wiser.

Damascus tells the story of a young Scottish businessman (Paul Higgins) on a trip to sell English language textbooks to a Syrian education agent (Nathalie Armin) and her business partner (Alex Elliot). Things happen one after the other meaning plane after plane for the trip home is cancelled. What was meant to be a simple overnight business trip away from the family soon turns into an obsession with his seductive Syrian associate.

The acting was praiseworthy with a solid performance from Higgins and Armin alike. The Manuelesque character of Zakaria, kept the play alive and was played superbly by Khalid Laith. Also, with the play having a fairly slow pace, the inclusion of the lobby pianist Elena (Dolya Gavanski) was refreshing though it felt random at times.

The atmosphere was effective and well put together. From the moment you walked in to the theatre you stepped in to a hotel lobby in a modern, Middle Eastern city. The stage was lit and a TV on stage in the lobby was playing news footage from Al-Jazeera. Unfortunately, this was one of the only things that really gave a sense that you were anywhere outside of North London.

References to Syrian life were few and far between and where they were present, they tended to be in over-obvious places. The prime example of this was in the inclusion of a discussion over how a Syrian might feel about 'Westernised' anecdotes for aids in the English Language textbooks.

What started out as a well meaning exploration into cultural difference, soon descended into a just a story of a businessman drawn into an emotional relationship, due to bad circumstances and bad decisions.

This play attempted to bring to the fore the discussion of differences in Eastern and Western perspectives. It turned out to be more of a business trip romance gone wrong with a few references to how culture affects our every day decisions. There was a distinct lack of the differences of the two ways-of-life being interwoven into the plotline. However, for what the play lacked in story, it made up for in acting and the atmosphere produced.

'Damascus' did not make me want to visit Syria anytime soon. It did however provide a good night out on what was a very wet evening.

Photos: Tristram Kenton
Damascus runs at the Tricycle until Sat 7th March 2009

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