Thursday, 30 April 2009

ENIGMA - Lowry Theatre

ENIGMA by Derren Brown
Director: Andy Nyman
Reviewer: Helen Patrick

Being a complete Sceptic, I was dreading going to the Lowry Theatre with my husband to review Enigma, Derren Brown’s latest theatrical event. But I was soon put firmly in my place by a master of showmanship, one just couldn’t help but be swept along by the whole event and found myself laughing and clapping along and gasping with the audience in this sell out show.

Derren , throughout the show talks about randomness and how nothing in life is random even when you think you’re making a random choice. You make choices in life best on even the silliest of reasons whether it’s the colour of an item or the look of somebody, your mind really can’t do random things. Which is quite Ironic that he should chose a random way of selecting people to take part in his show by throwing a Frisbee into the audience or is it random? Well I can truthfully answer a resounding yes to this as my husband Steve caught the Frisbee and found himself and his thoughts at centre stage in front of 100’s of people and by the smile on his face he was loving every minute of his five minutes of fame, which horrified me as 3 years ago you couldn’t even get him inside a theatre.

I quote now from my husband Steve: “I am so pleased my wife and i had the opportunity to go to the show I had been looking forward to it for ages and always watch his TV programmes. When Derren threw the Frisbee and I caught it ,it made my night. The illusion he performed with me and another two audience members was phenomenal, so much so that me and my wife were still talking about it on the way home. Derren Brown I applaud you, you are talented and definitely worthy of the standing ovation you received last night. You made even the most cynical of people (my wife) believe anything is possible.”

Derren is a fantastic story teller being able to bring tears to your eyes, especially during one intimate and heartfelt story about his grandfather with whom it was obvious he was close to and held very dear to his heart, and again he magnificently weaves you on a journey that leaves you awed in silence and amazement.

I would like to go into more detail on the reason this show is called ENIGMA but this would only give far to much information away. If you want a night that you will never forget, that will leave you puzzled for days afterwards then make sure you book tickets for this show...believe me if you only experience this show by word of mouth alone then you have missed out on the theatrical event of the year!

Photo: Mark Berry

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Sign of the Times - Richmond Theatre

Sign of the Times by Tim Firth
Director: Peter Wilson

Reviewer: James Higgins

Tim Firth was originally commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn in 1991 to write a one act play (A Man of Letters) to be performed at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. Fifteen years later we finally learn what became of the characters after the one act play had ended. A new two act version under the title 'Absolutely Frank' was performed in Scarborough at Stephen Joseph once more in 2006. Sign of the Times is the new title for 2009 and one of some significance in today's current climate.

In Sign of the Times we arrive on the roof of Forshaws, an electrical signage company. Frank Tollit (Stephen Tompkinson) has worked there for 25 years and is now head of installations and takes great pride in his position. We find him trying to stimulate some interest in the mind of a bored work experience student, 16 year old Alan. (Tom Shaw)

Despite Franks great sense of achievement in climbing the corporate ladder he would much prefer to be a writer of Spy stories like his literary hero John Le Carre. He is a keen amateur novelist and discovers that Alan has a hidden creative streak which provides a lot of the common ground throughout the play.

The rooftop set is well constructed and uses props (the letters) from the 1991 original. Director Peter Wilson takes us on a journey that is full of highs and lows, one minute making us laugh out loud, the next sitting in quiet reflection contemplating the sometimes sad reality of life.

Stephen Tompkinson was excellent in the lead role. He was utterly convincing throughout as the man of the world with a constant supply of advice to dish out to young Alan during the first act. Tom Shaw as Alan, much like his character, starts off very quietly but grows in stature and we get to know him much more in the second act.

Tompkinson and Shaw work in perfect unison to portray the comedy and pathos of their characters as they develop and change during each act. Sign of the Times was an enjoyable and entertaining production that the audience really appreciated.

Sign of the Times runs at the Richmond Theatre until Sat 30th April

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers - Theatre Royal, Brighton

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
Book: Lawrence Kasha & David S. Landay
Music: Gene De Paul
Lyrics: Johnny Mercer
New songs: Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn
Director: Chris Hocking
Choreography: Chris Hocking

Reviewer: Elizabeth Vile

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a fun, family musical set in Oregon in the 1850’s. It tells the story of Adam and his six brothers who live in a farm high in the mountains and what happens when Adam brings his new wife, Milly, to live with them.This easy going musical is full of catchy songs and impressive orchestration with ample opportunity for dancing, solo and ensemble singing and some well developed characterisation by all involved.

The comic elements were brought out as much as possible, with elements of caricature apparent with some of the characters, especially those of ‘Frank’ played by Gavin Lee Rees and ‘Preacher’ played by David Alcock. Appearing flowers to represent spring and a townsman running around waving a carpet beater also added to the comedy. I felt these additions were humorous but it did push the production very close to becoming a pantomime, especially mixed with the bright costumes and large chorus numbers. Luckily this slide into panto never happened. The strength of the story and the professionalism of the principals gave the story believability and made the audience care about the characters they were watching.

Steven Houghton played ‘Adam Pontipee’ with the perfect mixture of strength, pride and tenderness. He is a man struggling to survive as the head of the household with a new, headstrong wife, who challenges the beliefs he has strived to live up to. His singing voi
ce was powerful and handled the large amounts of energetic singing easily.
Susan McFadden brought a young naive quality to the part of Milly as she dreamily marries Adam in the hope that he will be the escape to a better life away from the work in the local tavern. Milly’s inner strength and courage is also displayed when she unflinchingly stands up to Adam after the girls from the town were snatched. Her singing voice was beautifully pure and it never lost power during the energetic songs or during dance routines. Unfortunately it did break on occasion but her focus never waivered.

The chorus numbers were highly entertaining and were brimming over with enthusiasm and skill, the ‘Social Dance’ must be mentioned as it was beautifully done and showed off every dancer on stage to their full ability. I must also mention the ensemble singing during ‘Glad that you were born’ and the trio during ‘Love never goes away’ as both sent a shiver down my spine.

The use of projection also worked well throughout, helping the story move along and covering up some of the scene changes, I thought it was particularly effective during the Overture but strangely not so effective during the avalanche scene. Part of me felt that it would have been just as effective having the cast play the scene out towards the audience instead of upstage.

I’d recommend this show to anyone wanting a fun night out with plenty of laughs and a happy ending

Seven Brides runs at the Theatre Royal until Sat 30th April

His Dark Materials - Lowry Theatre

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Adaptor: Nicholas Wright
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy stunned readers and critics when it first emerged on the literary scene with its gripping and biting tale of alternate worlds, strange characters, corrupt theology, and theoretical physics. Main characters are subject to questionable morals, the whole Christian notion of the nature of the Universe is picked apart and characters that you find yourself caring about do die, forcing both the characters and audience to address their own spiritual and theological notions of life and death. It is also profusely entertaining and captivating and at the heart lies a fantastic story; a modern tale set within a mythical context.

As with any great book, it is always a risky business when attempting to do it justice on stage or screen. Nicholas Wright's six-hour adaptation of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, divided into two plays was first staged by the National Theatre in 2004 and has now been revived in a joint production between Birmingham Repertory Theatre an
d West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Wright’s adaptation begins and ends on a bench where we meet the two central characters Lyra (Amy McAllister) and Will (Nick Barber), sitting together but somehow apart. Throughout their ‘coming of age’ journey we discover that Will and Lyra are unwittingly caught in a struggle between good and evil and both have an important part to play within that. We are whisked through worlds familiar and unknown where they encounter fantastical creatures culminating in a terrifying visit to the land of the dead.

There is a ridiculous amount to get through in this six hour adaptation and it takes a very daring and ambitious director to tackle this most daunting of theatrical tasks. Luckily co-directors Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile are the women for the job and rise to the challenge impeccably. Their directorial creativity is undoubtable. This production doesn’t rely upon special effects or complex stage designs. It instead focuses on the characters, brought to life beautifully by the 17 strong cast, who work furiously to keep the magical allure of Pullman’s epic tale alive throughout. Designer Ruari Murchinson’s resourceful stage design is simple yet effective in complementing the imaginative and innovative direction. A handful of benches and tables are swiftly moved around the stage, supported by Malcolm Rippeth’s stunning lighting design, to convincingly portray an abundance of different locations.

Whether you are a fan or novice of the Trilogy, the storytelling in this production is exceptional. Despite the lightning fast pace, the story is
never lost and the cast have a huge part to play in this success. There are a few moments when some of the larger action scenes seemed a little messy and the choral choreography and fight sequences could have been tighter. However, the strengths of the execution definitely outweigh the weaknesses.

McAllister and Barber are exceptional as the central characters and their relationship from the outset is packed full of genuine emotion and heart-warming conviction. McAllister especially has an endearing charm as the young Lyra which adds a twinkle to her perfectly measured and solid performance. John Hodgkinson’s' imposing physical and vocal presence as Lord Asriel is mesmerising (although his attempt as Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby is a little less successful) and Charlotte Asprey gives an effortless performance as the sexily sinister Mrs. Coulter.

It is impossible not to be truly captivated by the sheer talent of Blind Summit’s contribution to this production and for me the puppets were the true stars of this show. Mark Down and Nick Barnes have to be congratulated for capturing some of the most breathtaking moments of the piece, through their creation of the daemon’s, Gallivespian’s and armoured bears brought to life by a myriad of puppets. What they lacked in height, Ian Conningham, Nicholas Asbury and Josie Dexter, as the Gallivespians, definitely make up for in their imaginative manipulation of their wooden dolls and impeccable comic timing. Gerard Carey also manages to manipulate Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon with a beautiful subtlety and sleight of movement and the parting of Lyra to her Pan as she enters the land of the dead is a heart-wrenching moment.

There is a lot more I could write about this superbly executed production and I urge anyone who wants an evening of exciting theatre to experience it whilst it’s on tour. I defy anyone not to be swept away and touched by this stunning whirlwind adventure.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Fame - Sunderland Empire

Conceived by: David de Silva
Written by: Jose Fernandez
Directed by: Karen Bruce
Reviewed by: Ian Cain

Such was the success of the 1980 smash-hit movie, ‘Fame’, that it spawned a hugely successful television series which ran for five years and, subsequently, a stage production that made it’s West End debut in 1995 and has completed seven national tours since.

This latest production stars Beverley Trotman, who was catapulted into the public domain as a result of her success as a finalist in ‘The X-Factor 2007.’

Several modifications have been made in an attempt to make this a production that resonates with a 21st century audience. Gone are the big fashions and even bigger hairstyles of the 80s; gone are the familiar characters, including Coco, Leroy, Miss Grant and Mr Shorofsky; gone, too, are the familiar songs such as ‘Hi-Fidelity’ and ‘Starmaker.’ Instead, the show is set in the present day and in come a new set of students and teachers and brand new songs, although the iconic title song, ‘Fame,’ is still there.

The decision to update the show is a risky one and, unfortunately, is not a total success. Although the re-vamped production boasts sensational choreography, a stylishly simple set and moody, evocative lighting it somehow lacks substance and heart. Jose Fernandez’s script seems to be a ‘shopping list’ of issues that are merely introduced and never actually tackled; the characters (of which there are too many) are stereotypical and one-dimensional, and some performances seemed slightly stilted at times.

Beverley Trotman is totally under-utilised and rarely gets the opportunity to demonstrate her vocal prowess which is odd when you consider that it was probably a significant reason for the decision to cast her in the role.

During the performance, I noticed that quite a few members of the audience were eager to be given the opportunity to participate, yet they were denied the chance until the finale and the reprise of the signature tune. This musical number was the highlight of the whole performance and it epitomised the youthful exuberance and energy that should have been in abundance throughout.

‘Fame’ is a production that puts style before substance and suffers because of it. However, if you are prepared to forego artistic and dramatic content and are only looking for a show that is superficially appealing, then ‘Fame’ ticks the correct boxes.

Fame runs at The Sunderland Empire until Saturday 2nd May 2009.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Widowers' Houses' - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Widowers' Houses' by George Bernard Shaw
Director: Greg Hersov
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Bernard Shaw’s theatrical debut ‘Widowers’ Houses’, first performed in 1892 as a response to the exploitation of the poor by Slum Landlords, has been given a timely revival at the Royal Exchange Theatre under the direction of Greg Hersov.

Coined in 1898 by Shaw as one of three of the ‘Plays: Unpleasant collection’, I was pleasantly surprised that this play ma
naged to entertain the audience throughout as well as raising important socialist comments.

Greg Hersov’s masterful sleight of hand direction ensures that the parallels between Victorian and modern-day Britain are highlighted throughout and audience members are reminded that where human greed and sleaze are concerned, history certainly does repeat itself.

Through both the slick direction and strong ensemble cast, the most is made of the fact that this play is also a romantic comedy of manners as well as biting political satire. Running alongside the exposure of slum landlords, who had grown rich charging extortionate r
ent on London tenements, is a blossoming romance between Blanche Sartorius (Lucy Brigg’s Owen) and young Doctor Harry Trench (Ben Addis). The romance begins during a holiday, blossoms into an engagement and suddenly and explosively finishes when Trench learns that his future father-in-law, Mr. Sartorius (Roger Lloyd Pack) had made his fortune by exploiting the poor. The idealistic Trench then insists that Blanche must live off his limited income, a demand Blanche rejects. The happy yet ironic ending shows that even the idealistic and proud Trench is not above moral corruption.

Shaw had a great talent for writing strong and independent female characters and Blanche Sartorius is no exception. Lucy Briggs-Owen fills these very large shoes with varying degrees of success. The latter scenes between her and Trench are delightful and she is certainly at her best when conveying the petulant side of Blanche’s character, these moments raising some of the biggest laughs of the evening, reflecting her strong comic timing. However, her blossoming relationship with Trench at the beginning of the production is less successful and you never quite believe the initial attraction between the two.

Widowers’ Houses is also notable for Shaw’s creation of one of his finest theatrical monsters, Mr. Sartorius, a seemingly impeccable model of patrician Victorian values who is revealed to be a ruthless slum landlord and he is brought to life in this production by Roger Lloyd Pack. Lloyd Pack uses his strong physical and vocal presence to capture the imposing and lugubrious nature of the character. However there were moments when he seemed a little uncomfortable and hesitant within the role and was unfortunately the least convincing member of the ensemble. The two performances of the night certainly belonged to Ian Bartholomew who excels as self-made scoundrel Mr. Lickcheese and Ian Shaw is perfect as the sniveling bureaucrat William De Burgh Cokane. Both actors deliver thoroughly energized and engaging performances throughout.

Despite the uneven performances, this well-paced and directed production makes for thought-provoking theatre and dismantles our naive belief that society will ever overcome its’ desire to exploit.

Photos: Jonathan Keenan

Widowers' Houses' runs at the Exchnage until Sat 9th May

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Noises Off – Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

Noises Off by Michael Frayn
Directed by Bob Carlton
Reviewed by Mark Valencia

Michael Frayn’s comedy of backstage horrors was once described as one of the 13 best farces written since the war, ‘the other twelve being Fawlty Towers’. That comparison was hard to deny in Michael Blakemore’s blissful premiere production with Patricia Routledge and Paul Eddington and, if anything, it was even truer in the razor-sharp revival that Jeremy Sams mounted for the National Theatre a few years back. I have even been reduced to hysterics by this play in a humble rep production before now; so what makes this Queen’s production fall so flat?

Bob Carlton’s production has plenty of zip, and it certainly looks great on Rodney Ford’s revolving set. This theatre has a good track record in modern comedy, most recently in a terrific staging of Ayckbourn’s How The Other Half Loves that featured many of the same actors, but for some reason their Noises Off fails to cross the footlights. And that ‘some reason’? There’s no getting away from it: too many roles are miscast and too many lines mistimed.

The resident company at the Queen’s, ‘cut to the chase…’, is a multi-talented group of actor-musicians who have done heroic work since last autumn across an eclectic range of shows. However, Noises Off is not a play whose parts can be distributed easily among a pre-existing company. Each role makes specific demands and requires dead-centre casting, while on a technical level the play is the very devil to prepare and perform. The tale of a down-at-heel touring company desperately trying to keep their wretched comedy afloat during a gruelling provincial tour, riven though they are by internal strife, is powered by an hilarious (but fiendishly tricky) central act in which a disastrous matinée performance is viewed from backstage. In fairness to the Queen’s, this virtuoso visual sequence is the production’s strongest suit and offers a tightly rehearsed half-hour of breakneck physical comedy.

For the rest, the strongest performances occur in the least prominent roles. Natasha Moore is a bikini-clad delight as the air-headed Brooke; Lucy Thackeray shines as the put-upon ASM, Poppy; and as Selsdon, the perpetual drunk, Stuart Organ is pitch perfect. All three are round pegs in round holes.

For the central roles we move on to pegs of a different shape. The careworn, lothario director is given a bruising interpretation by Shaun Hennessy that contradicts his character’s lofty pretensions. As the male lead in the play within a play, Rowan Talbot lacks the necessary twitchiness and opts instead for an angrily-actorly persona that’s at odds with his barely coherent outbursts. Kim Ismay misses the broken dignity of Dotty Otley, a once-cultured actress who has been reduced to playing chars and lollipop ladies, and the strong-voiced Simon Jessop is insufficiently vulnerable as the hyper-sensitive fall guy. Georgina Field, in her paired roles, oversells the comedy and leaves it for dead.

The audience applauded enthusiastically at the end, and you may be more swayed by their response than by mine. Certainly, anyone who has never seen Noises Off will find plenty to enjoy here, for the play survives more or less intact. But it could have been so much better.

Photos: Nobby Clark

Noises Off runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until Saturday 9th May

Hang On - Lyric Hammersmith

Hang On
Created by Theatre-Rites and Ockham’s Razor
Director Sue Buckmaster
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

A family show that actually pleases parents, children and cosmopolitan ‘friends’ alike? Surely this doesn’t exist without the Disney seal of approval. But if you want to take all your extended family along to one show this year, take them to see Hang On at the Lyric Hammersmith. Tumbling along through a delicately balanced mobile of Charlie Chaplin charm and virtuoso circus play, this piece will lift one and all above the mundane into a world of infinite and childlike possibility where everything that can be possible, is.

Theatre-Rites and Ockham’s Razor have come together to create a spine tingling and joyous show which feels a bit like a crazy mathematics lecture, a bit like a piece of contemporary dance and a bit like a circus performance with a dollop of intensely beautiful minimalistic art and music.

Eric MacLennan, Stefano Di Renzo, Alex Harvey, Tina Koch, Nao Masuda and Charlotte Mooney enter the stage with a spring in their step and proceed to turn small metal hangers into, massive spinning mobiles and tiny, and not so tiny, red orbs into xylophones and drums. Fully realising Theatre-Rites’ interest in object-lead work, each item used has its potential magic revealed and exploded to the delight of this very vocal and immediate audience. Hang On is performed not only to a score of delicate tubular music and pounding drum beats, but also to the tinkling of children’s giggles and the gasps of adult appreciation.

The cast all bring their own special something to the stage. With his feet firmly on the floor Eric’s cautiousness creates a well meaning, though initially overbearing, adult figure for the others to react against, albeit very kindly, with the sort of lively mischievousness that permeates all young people’s daydreams (and even some older ones too). Stefano has a thing for Tina and Nao leaps around them forming a world of sound to support their daring with a grace and agility which is stunning. Alex and Charlotte bring breathtaking strength and a kind elder-s---ibling feel to the proceedings. But amongst all this charming silliness it is clear that Eric is the solid, if a little worried, centre of the piece; each relationship perfectly balancing around his grounded presence to create a graceful mobile of musicians, aerialists, clowns and objects.

This elegant balance and fluid sense of peace, so apparent within all aspects of this production is what sets Hang On apart from other ‘circus’ shows. This essence of total calm and aesthetic beauty, inspired by Alexander Calder’s mobiles, is at times almost spiritual to watch and from the first moment that Alex, Tina and Charlotte (Ockham’s Razor) flip themselves up onto an aerial frame this piece begins to really fly. The gently comic relationships and intense pigmentation of the colours bouncing off the back wall, the nimble playing of Nao’s skillful and passionate percussion and the hanging stillness and incredible team work of the aerialists in Ockham’s Razor combines to create something of an absolute aesthetic beauty which speaks to everyone and lifts the spirits as though you were up there yourself. This is a transporting work, of which Calder himself would be proud, and a must see for anyone who still believes that even in the most normal objects there is the potential for silly fabulous splendor.

Hang on Runs at the Lyric, Hammersmith untill 25 April

Panic - Barbican Theatre

Panic by Improbable Theatre
Directors: Julian Crouch and Phil Eddolls

Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Panic should be a show which works brilliantly, but instead it gets caught like a fawn in the headlights and what is left is a blinking and uncertain affair.
Harking back to the smaller scale work which marked Improbable out in the 90s, Panic is an intimate exploration of the ‘Great God Pan’ created from a blend of personal stories from the cast, personal interests from the creative team, and the personal work which came out of the devising process together. Is there a pattern emerging here?

Beautifully crafted projections, a sophisticated if bawdy sound design and a grotesquely attractive Phelim McDermott in hooves, horns and a huge wicker cock, it’s not as though there isn’t a lot to entice in this show. But for all the treats on offer here, this is never the less a self absorbed and messy look at sex, love and Pan himself. His propensity for pleasure and his violent yet awkward desperation in achieving it seems to be something that would ring chimes with all trying to express themselves sexually within our constipated modern culture. But in Panic, this twisting bestial journey win
ds its way through nothing but the intangible ramblings of a very talented but vague company.

Each section pervades the next with truisms mingling with lies to make this a quagmire of a performance which ponders from one thought to the next. There is nothing to hold on to as one sinks into said mire with a deadening sense that these people don’t really know what it is that they are trying to say. Indeed the heart of this show, which initially hinted at some depth within, is eventually revealed, with a rustle and a wink, to be as empty as the paper bags it shapes itself out of.

This seems a waste as these are extremely lovable performers who could have created work with real heart. From Phelim McDermott’s wide eyed, chubby Pan who flits from innocent to devil with a permanent twinkle, to our matter of fact Nymphs, Angela Clerkin, Lucy Foster and Matilda Leyser; each one beautiful and alluring whilst also highly unobtainable, this piece is peppered with charmingly down to earth performances. But as the performance progresses calm anxiety seems to descend
over the cast as they begin to wink and nudge a little too hard, willing the audience along with them through their personal fragmented journey with a desperation which borders on (perhaps intentionally?) panic. It is possible that they are exploring the sense of embarrassment that permeates the image of Pan as ‘a sort of cloven-hoofed Benny Hill’ but it goes further than that; they seem to want us to laugh so much because they need us on their side and are not sure the material will do that on its own.

A truly post-modern affair, this could have been so much more than the sum of its intriguing parts, but instead of weaving them together into a coherent exploration, this show simply takes each image, memory, experience and feeling, and meshes them together in a piece which probably makes perfect sense to those who created it, but loses everyone else in a series of imaginative, but completely self-absorbed, explorations. But then as Pan was also the god of chaos, maybe this jumble of a production was exactly the kind of thing he would have wanted.

Panic runs at the Barbican until 16th May 09

Dreamcoats & Petticoats - Manchester Opera House

Dreamboats & Petticoats
by Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran

Director: Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright

Reviewer: Steph Rowe

Set in the early 60’s when the population of the UK stood at 52,675.094 most of which were still shocked at the type of music the teenagers of the day were listening and dancing to. The era when American food hit our streets and saw the first opening of hamburger joints like Wimpy and when
fashion altered so much it was classed as indecent by the older generation. Yes Rock and Roll had arrived in Britain.

The show set to music from the sixties and also using the best selling compilation album of the same name to provide the basis of this jukebox musical we are given yet another story of unrequited love by a young girl, quite the ugly duckling, who while attending St Mungo’s Church Youth Club who slowly becomes a swan and of how Norman and Bobby compete for a place in the band and in the hearts of their true loves.

The cast of Actor/Musicians makes this musical work well, so well it has the audience singing along and dancing in their seats. The performances of the whole cast was outstanding, but it was Ben Freeman who left me aghast, to think he had spent all those years in Emerdale, where his true talent was hidden has to be a crime that has now been rectified. Not only do we see his true acting ability come to light, but his voice his phenomenal, and leaves you in no doubt that he has found his niche in musical theatre.

Scott Bruton as Bobby and Daisy Wood-Davis as Laura make this love story come alive before your eyes, while AJ Dean as Ray (Laura’s big brother) gives his role a true to life feeling with his taking the mickey out of his little sister the family swot, while also trying to protect her from the clutches of amorous Norman and Bobby. Jennifer Biddall gave her all as Sue the girl with the sensational body that every boy wanted and every girl envied. While Emma Hatton’s role of Donna certainly made you sit up and pay attention, her range when singing is fantastic, she really does have a powerful voice.

David Cardy plays Phil and the older Bobby
with the panache and charm you expect from such a seasoned actor, even managing to sing and dance along with the rest of them. Full credit has to be given to the rest of the cast who ensured you were kept fully entertained even when the stars of the show were off stage, with each one giving a fabulous performance.

The set by Sean Cavanagh beautifully made up of posters from the 60’s era and scaffolding with flooring on different levels works so well allowing the cast to be free to unfold the story and be able to do such a marvellous job. The lighting by Mark Howett and sound by Ben Harrison also add to the shows flair and style.

Directors Bob Tomson & Bill Kenwright have really worked some theatrical magic with this productio
n giving the show the flamboyance and elegance needed to make it a show not to be missed.

So if you “Da Do Ron Ron” have nothing else on this week then "Da Do Ron Ron" to the Opera house and give Dreamboats and Petticoats a go.

Dreamboats and Petticoats runs at the Opera House until Sat 25th April 09

Only When I Laugh - Arcola Theatre

Only When I Laugh by Jack Shephard
Director: Nicky Henson

Reviewer: Becky Middleton

In a culture of bland reality TV shows and ‘talented’ Britons trying their luck at the fame game in front of over-tanned and over-paid judges, it is wonderful to be reminded of the bygone days of variety shows and real entertainment in this pleasing production.

The action in Only When I Laugh is centred around the prestigious dressing room number one, a highly sought after, and slightly shabby,
indication of status on the bill for the show in which all the cast members are involved.

Set in post-war Leeds, the introduction of well-spoken Londoner Janey Shore (Nicole Schneider) causes some di
sgruntlement with the star, whose dressing room she is allocated. Jack Shepherd, better known as 90’s TV cop Wycliffe and co-star of blockbuster The Golden Compass, is the brilliant and officious stage manager who struggles to control the actors who are preoccupied with their own agendas.

Sam Bolton (Artistic Director Neil Sheppeck) is concentrating on his next illicit liaison with dancer Rita (Stephanie Thomas) before his controlling wife Hilda (Loraine Metcalfe) turns up. Tom Foley (Nick Earnshaw) is unsuccessfully trying to take Janey out to dinner in a town that closes down after 10.30pm.

The plot seamlessly moves forward, the actors working extremely well together to propel the performance to its denouement amid an often frenzied overlapping of egos and comedy moments.

The script not only shows the backstage of the Leeds Empire in the ‘50s, but it also goes behind the scenes on alcoholism, adultery and the fickleness of fame; issues confronted with skill and ease. But it is Jim Bywater, who plays Reg Henson, the bill-topping comic, who steals the show.

Nothing is left to the audience’s imagination when Bywater bears all, which serves to highlight the star’s eccentricity. His ranting and insightful social commentary continue right up until the second he is ushered, late, ‘on stage’ for the variety show, but instead of delivering a ground shattering conclusion to his soliloquy, I was left feeling like something was missing.

Only When I Laugh runs at the Arcola until Sat 2nd May

Monday, 20 April 2009

Hay Fever - Chichester Festival Theatre

Hay Fever by Noel Coward
Director: Nikolai Foster

Reviewer: David Saunders

I arrived at the CFT hoping for a bright sparkling piece of Coward light entertainment. I was not disappointed. The ensemble work wonderfully together moving from gentle comedic interplay to wild physical farce. The actors make the piece fizz along with Coward’s trademark acerbic wit and crisply observed character writing.

The cast are stellar from old hands through to the younger members of the company. The actors are really firing allowing the warmth and wit of the words to take the plaudits. The performances are not showy but well pitched to fit within the confines of a text that wastes little time in dropping us directly into the foibles and problems of this most self obsessed family. All of the actors are working extremely hard throughout both in terms of the busy physicality required and the verbal jousting each of the family members and they’re guests.

Director Nikolai Foster allows the action to flow quickly from one situation to the next with little fluff giving the piece a streamlined and quick fire approach than has been seen in Coward productions of late. The sumptuous set by Robert Jones perfectly mirrors the dilapidated nature of the family as we glimpse broken belongings in amongst the grandeur of a gentile country house. The costumes designed by Fontini Dimou are opulent and perfectly formed to add a real layer of luxury to the proceedings. The lighting and sound designs work seamlessly within the production offering subtle changes in mood and temperature within the house as we move through this disastrous weekend with the family from hell.

Overall this piece has everything you would hope for in a Coward production, beautifully designed sets and costumes and sparking materials played with zeal by a group of actors who look to be really enjoying themselves. While this may not be the sort of right on political theatre that is in vogue at the moment this piece of Coward confection is the perfect antidote to the credit crunch.

Hay Fever runs at the CFT until Sat 2nd May

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Evita - Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Bob Thomson and Bill Kenwright

Reviewer: Jim Nicholson

Let me lay my cards on the table right from the start, Evita is my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and it is up there in my top ten shows of all time. So another touring version, so soon after the excellent Olivier Award winning Elena Roger took the West End by storm, meant I attended with some trepidation, could this staging and cast do such a great musical justice?

Well the good news for the Lloyd Webber / Rice combination is that “the money will still keep rolling in” especially as the casting director here has come up with a gem of a lead in Rachael Wooding. I was already a Rachael fan having seen her as Amber Von Tussle in “Hairspray”, Meatloaf in “We will Rock You” and Annette in “Saturday Night Fever”, the first two of these highlighting the comedy side of her talent. Well she is simply sensational here and possesses one hundred percent of the “star quality” that the Eva role demands. Her delivery of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, her control of “Buenos Aires”, her tenderness in “You Must Love Me” and the sheer bloody mindedness of “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” are just some of the examples of how she dominates the stage and show alike. I have seen Elaine Paige, Marti Webb, Elena Roger amongst others play this lead and I can happily report that Miss Wooding is there alongside the very best.

Che is played by, “Too old to be” Joseph finalist, Seamus Cullen, he of “smiley face and curly hair”. Although he sings pleasantly enough there is a real weakness in the lack of attitude and abrasiveness that his character shows and this therefore fails to generate the extreme tension that should exist between Eva, the Peron regime and Che.
The Migaldi role appears to have been decided by a “Liverpool Star – Search for a Star” competition with James Waud ending up the winner. At least four years at the Liverpool Theatre School means he can sing and he can act.

Mark Heenahan is a smooth, fast moving Peron with a fantastically clear singing voice that means you can feel the real meaning in the superb lyrics Tim Rice has written for this role, but unfortunately the Director has chosen to lose the side by side “shirt sleeved” comradeship between Peron and the “man on the street”.

The overall production has some very elegant and eye catching sets and this is no better highlighted than at the Casa Rosada, although once again we lose the link with the peasants as Eva appears to bear her soul from the balcony to the “toffs” down below rather than the working class that are the real recipients of her “never left you” plea. That said she does deliver that message with some style.

The choreography keeps close to previous versions with boxed movements and marching lines but is very slick and feeds into the hatred the gentry and military have for our Latin heroin. I can not end without mentioning the child who delivered “Santa Evita”, although the young girl is not named in the programme the Stagecoach School of Salisbury and Downton have a star in the making and coaches Claire Hodges and Linda Cameron have unearthed a ten year old destined for a “high flying, adored” future.

This is a must see show, it may not be the best ever staging but there is plenty of quality on display and the 11 piece orchestra do full justice to an ALW score written when he was at his very best and long before he decided to concentrate on making a quick buck out of reality TV.

Evita runs at the Mayflower Theatre until Sat 25th April 09

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Jolson & Co - Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Jolson & Co: The Musical
Reviewed at Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Writter by: Stephen Mo Hanan & Jay Berkow
Directer by: Ed Curtis
Reviewer by: Ian Cain

Hollywood entertainers don’t come much bigger than the legendary Al Jolson. Now, the life and times of this talented, but tyrannical, man provide the subject of a classy new biographical musical, ‘Jolson & Co.’

Allan Stewart gives a phenomenal performance as Jolson that captures every nuance and mannerism of the man perfectly. He is joined on stage by a supporting cast of just two, Donna Steele and Christopher Howell.
Adopting the format of a live radio interview at New York’s Winter Garden Theater, in 1949, the show chronicles the personal and professional life of the man who was affectionately known as ‘Jolie.’

Born Asa Yoelson, the fourth child of Moses Reuben Yoelson and his wife Naomi, in Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century, the boy who was to become Al Jolson arrived in America at the age of eight.

It didn’t take Jolson long to decide that his future lay in show business and his rise to fame was swift. By 1920, he’d elevated himself into the position of being America’s highest-paid entertainer and he went on to star in the first-ever ‘talkie’, ‘The Jazz Singer’, seven years later. By the time he was 35, Jolson was known as ‘the world’s greatest entertainer’ and became the youngest man in American history to have a theatre named after him.

This production looks behind that legend and it is a poignant, passionate and powerful piece. Stewart portrays a man whose obsession with professional perfection gave way to vanity and pig-headedness; a man who craved the adulation of his fans but who was incapable of demonstrating love to those closest to him. The role demands much from Stewart and he delivers consummately.

Donna Steele is sensational as the women in Jolson’s life. She plays eight different parts and excels in them all, whether she is Jolson’s mother, Mae West or any of Al’s four wives. Her stagecraft is magnificent and she proves herself to be a great character actress. Christopher Howell is equally as successful in the nine roles that he portrays, which range from Al’s strict and overbearing Poppa to an effeminate film director.

It is extremely rare that a critic cannot find fault with anything in a theatre production. However, ‘Jolson & Co’ is one of those longed-for occasions. Nothing has been overlooked in this show: the simple set, designed by Morgan Large; the fantastic costumes, created by Chris Hayward; the gorgeous wigs, designed by Linda McKnight; the superb musical orchestrations by Gary Hind. They all contribute to the overall tone of this wonderful show.

Add to that, the fantastic performances by the stellar cast and just about every one of Jolson’s unforgettable anthems and the result is a technical triumph and a production that provides the best entertainment that money can buy.
Jolson & Co runs at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle until Sat 18th April 09

Lucky Sods - Lowry Theatre, Salford

Lucky Sods by John Godber
Director: Nick Lane
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

As with all John Godber plays you know you are in for a really good show... provided the play has been directed well... and with Lucky Sods at the Lowry Theatre Salford, and also on tour, this production by the Hull Truck Theatre Company is certainly one not too miss.
Morris and Jean do the lottery every week and watch as their dreams fade on an all too common weekly basis, until one day Jean changes the numbers and bingo they win £2 Million.
As with many others who have won they say it’s not going to change them, but Morris has a lot on his plate with his mother being in the hospital after suffering a series of strokes, this only adds and compounds the stress that the couple are already feeling over the death of their daughter a few years earlier.

Directed by Nick Lane the production has you laughing from the start. Lane’s direction has a lightness to it, which only makes the more emotional scenes even more powerful. Credit must also be given to theatre stalwart John Godber who still knows how to write edgy observationalist comedy and one can see why next to Shakespeare in the UK he is the most performed playwright.

Morris played by Gordon Kane really is in tune with his character, playing him with such passion and emotion that you can’t help being swept along with him on his journey. Jacqueline Naylor gives us a relaxed and laid back approach to jean which juxtaposes nicely against her co-star Kane.

Fiona Wass playing Annie, Connie and Mother seemed to fill into the trap most actors do when playing several characters and that is to not differentiate them well enough that after a while they seem to morph into one and the same character. James Weaver is a highly talented man, with fantastic comic timing his camp portrayal of the Vicar and dim Norman roles really shows his talent from the off.

The set designed by Pip Leckenby of £ signs falling into a simply decorated lounge in the first act and falling into a open air scene in the second act allows the play to run smoothly without vast scene changes or long breaks between each scene.

You wouldn’t believe that this production has been on tour for two months and still has a long run ahead of them, performing with a real freshness and energy that makes for a truly enjoyable night at the theatre. You may not win the Lottery but if you get change to catch this production you will most certainly have a golden ticket!

Lucky Sods runs at the Lowry Theatre until Sat 18th April 09

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Little Shop of Horrors- The Sunderland Empire Theatre

Little Shop Of Horrors
Music: Alan Menken
Book & Lyrics: Howard Ashman
Director: Matthew White
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Who would have thought that a 1959 low-budget black comedy B-movie, directed by Roger Corman, could have spawned the camp, cult classic that is ‘Little Shop Of Horrors.’ Legend has it that, given two days use of some sets from another movie, Corman gathered together a cast of stalwart regulars and created the epic tale on little more than a shoestring.

Such was the popularity of the film that a musical stage version debuted in 1982, followed by a movie remake in 1986. This latest stage revival, from The Menier Chocolate Factory, is a stylish production with a superb cast and stunning special effects.

Seymour Krelborn is a meek, and slightly nerdy, florist’s assistant who finds fame and fortune when he discovers a strange and mysterious plant following a sudden eclipse of the sun. Naming the plant ‘Audrey 2’ - after the colleague whom he has secretly fallen in love with – he cannot understand why the plant does not flourish under his tending and care. A prick from a rose thorn and a drop of blood soon reveal that the plant needs more than just Miracle-Gro to survive.

Damian Humbley is excellent as the botanical nerd and his performance strikes exactly the right balance between nerdiness and vulnerability. Clare Buckfield is sensational as Audrey and she, too, delivers a performance that skilfully combines humour and heartache. Sylvester McCoy displays his immense talent as a comedic actor in the role of Mushnik, the Skid Row florist who intends to maximise the new-found public interest in his once-floundering flower store.

Alex Ferns camps it up in his portrayal of Orin Scrivello, the sadomasochistic dental surgeon who is using and abusing the delectable Audrey. His groin-grabbing performance is a huge hit with the audience.

Nadia Di Mambro, Cathryn Davis and Donna Hines, playing Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette respectively, are a trio of street urchins who inhabit Skid Row and provide musical commentaries on plot developments in a style similar to the ‘doo-wop’ girl groups of the 1960s.

At the risk of offending this hardworking cast, it is ‘Audrey 2’ that steals the show. The puppet increases in size in relation to its voracious appetite, starting off as a small potted plant, less than a foot tall, and finally ending up as a seven-foot monster with a bad temper and a foul mouth. Mike McShane provides a smooth, strong and rich voice for ‘Audrey 2’ and David Farley is to be congratulated for the design of the plant and indeed the entire set.

The 60s-pastiche score is as toe-tapping and enduring as ever and stand-out numbers include ‘Somewhere That’s Green’, ‘Suddenly Seymour’ and of course the title number, ‘Little Shop Of Horrors.’ Matthew White’s direction and Lynne Page’s choreography are the finishing touches that ensure that this horticultural horror is a hilarious hit.

Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Little Shop runs at the Sunderland Empire until Sat 18th April 2009

Boeing Boeing - Theatre Royal, Brighton

Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti
Translator: Beverly Cross
Director: Matthew Warchus
Reviewer: David Saunders

I arrived at the Theatre Royal on Bank Holiday Monday looking forward to a riotiously funny evening to ease me back into a working week. Unfortunately I have to say I left the theatre feeling somewhat short changed.

The premise of the show is the stuff of the classic sex farces of the late fifties and early sixties. A man living in Paris is engaged, to three different airlines hostesses from three different airlines. His life is moving nice along and he is juggling the ladies until changes in the flight schedules ensure things descend into farce.

The text by Marc Camoletti has not aged well and in this translation by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans we are given a text which is very much of its time. The jokes feel laboured and at times clunky. The idea behind this piece should always be to deliver the work at the fastest pace possible and to ensure that if the audience have not enjoyed the joke that has just gone by that there will be another shortly along that they will. This production sadly for me was not able to fulfil this element.

The performances were at times inconsistent and some of the casting to me was a little ill fitting. In this ensemble there needs to be a thread of believability. Martin Marquez as the juggling playboy lacked the easy charm that this sort of role requires. As his cousin John Marquez failed to get the words out with sufficient punch and at times seemed to struggle with the odd choices that had been made for the role. Susie Blake as bedraggles maid Bertha had little to do and was underused in a piece where performers of quality are really needed. As the first of the girls to arrive Sarah Jayne Dunn provided us with the one consistent accent of the evening and brought a bubbly charm to the role. Josephine Butler and Thaila Zucchi seemed to struggle at times with the accents and dropped them on a number of occasions. This sort of piece needs actors who are able to give their all and while there were enjoyable moments from both the lack of vocal quality was there to see.

Boeing Boeing appeals to those who remember the sixties and smile but for this reviewer the show lacked the fizz and sparkle necessary to make it work in a large house. It has been a while since I have left a theatre feeling under whelmed and I can understand that Theatre Royal has a demographic which I am not part of but I did get the sense that this piece of West End smash on tour is looking a little jet lagged.

Boeing Boeing runs at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Sat 18th April 09

Sunday, 12 April 2009

When We Are Married - West Yorkshire Playhouse

When We Are Married by J.B. Priestley
Directed by Ian Brown
Reviewer: Ali Noble

‘When We Are Married’ is a Yorkshire farcical comedy written by one of Yorkshire’s most famous sons, J.B.Priestley. It was a play I’d never come across before, and I toddled along to the theatre ignorant of the revelry that awaited me. I was also ignorant of the fact that the play was billed as starring Les Dennis, of ‘Family Fortunes’- and Celebrity Big Brother tabloid fodder-fame. Les was (thankfully - sorry, Les) just one of nine main characters in the play, and a cast of 13, an ensemble who worked brilliantly together and pulled off the ridiculousness of the plot with aplomb.

The action of the play takes place in a single room - the living room of Mr. & Mrs. Joe Helliwell, but the antics of the cast gave energy and movement - I didn’t even notice that the cast were confined to one room until I read so in the programme afterwards. The imaginative and clever set helped create the illusion of movement too. The Helliwell’s abode is constructed on stage, their living room, complete with illuminated picture frames, whisky bottles and doilies, takes centre stage; the stairway, corridor, dining room and front door are seen behind the living room through translucent walls and with clever lighting. The lights really were quite something - when the lights were down the screen separating the rooms seemed opaque and wall-like, but when the lights were up, the audience could clearly see the cast running up and down the stairs, dining, and squabbling in other areas of the house. The beautiful and ingenious design greatly added to the enjoyment of the play.
The story is set before the First World War, and follows three couples who were married on the same day two and a half decades ago, who come together to celebrate their joint silver wedding anniversary. It’s hard to outline the story without giving away the twists, turns and laughs of the play, but be assured that much hilarity, knicker-twisting and ear-wigging ensues, with a couple of staged wallops and slaps thrown in for good measure. Polly Hemingway stood out in her performance as Clara Soppitt (wife of aforementioned Les Dennis’ Herbert Soppitt), and Tom Lawrence was rather dashing as the token southerner, Gerald Forbes. It was a shame we didn’t see more of his romance with Nancy Holmes, the Helliwell’s niece; their sneaking around added a nice dynamic to the play.

‘When We Are Married’ is well-worth a whirl for a lovely evening’s entertainment. Underneath the gags and silliness though is an insight into Priestley’s perspectives and an interesting commentary on the ‘nouveau riche’ of society and the institution of marriage (neither of which come out very favourably). It was all wrapped up with a rendition of the titular song and a chorus of ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah’Tat’ for the home Yorkshire crowd, very much in the spirit of the play - good fun.

Photos: Keith Pattison
When We Are Married runs at the WYP until Sat 25th April 2009

Stones in His Pockets - Lowry Theatre

Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones
Director: John Payton
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Stones In His Pockets’, the acclaimed play by Marie Jones certainly has longevity. After rave reviews on the London and Edinburgh Fringe circuit and a hugely successful West End transfer, this two-hander is now on the road and I had the pleasure of experiencing it recently at the Lowry in Salford.

The story is centered on the ambitions and fears of two Irishmen, Jake Quinn (Jack Reynolds) and Charlie Conlon (David Caves), who are working as extras in a movie being made by a Hollywood studio in County Kerry. They slowly tell the story of the effect this has upon the local community and especially upon the young man Sean Harkin and his family. After the unfortunate suicide of Sean Harkin, which both Quinn and Conlon can relate to for very different reasons, the studio has to decide between either allowing the extras to attend the funeral or to continue shooting in order to avoid going over budget.

This play has been described in the past as a tragicomedy, which I would partly agree with. Marie Jones certainly has a sharp ear for comedy and the humour of this piece is beyond doubt. However, the writing of the more tragic elements of the play is sometimes a little under-developed and lacks the depth and dexterity of other parts. The reason why Jake Quinn so verdantly blames Hollywood for Sean’s suicide is never really explained. What really brought this play to life for me were the two performers. This is certainly an ‘actor’s play’ and both Reynolds and Caves successfully manage to play fourteen characters between them with exceptional finesse and versatility. Jack Kirwan’s simple yet effective stage design (which comprises of a collection of shoes lines up against the back of the stage and a large chest) serves to heighten the importance of the two performers. Without the aid of costumes or props the actors transfer from one character to the other with a simple change of physicality and voice. The character changes are lightning fast but not once were the audience left confused or lost; a complete testament to the high performance standard of both actors.

The biggest endorsement I can give this play is that by the end you feel you have watched a much larger cast than just two. Caves and Reynolds work their way through a variety of offbeat and outlandish characters including Caroline Giovanni, the glamorous yet fickle A-list movie star (played with fantastic charisma and humour by Caves), Old Mickey, the only surviving extra from “The Quiet Man” the endearingly tragic figure of Finn, the imposing security man Jock Campbell, Simon the First Assistant Director and Aisling, his flirtatious Production Assistant. Their ability to transfer instantaneously from Man to Woman to American to Irish to English is what makes this play so endearing and delightful to watch. It is a master class in the actors craft and David Caves and Jack Reynolds should be congratulated on providing the audience with such a wonderfully enjoyable and energised evening of theatre.

Friday, 10 April 2009

A Little Night Music - Garrick Theatre

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondhiem
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Trevor Nunn
Musical Director: Tom Murray
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Reviewer: Leon Trayman

Sondheim asks, “Where is passion in the art; where’s craft?”. Well both can certainly be found in abundance in this production of The Menier Chocolate Factory’s West End transfer of A Little Night Music.

Having previously seen this production at the Menier, I found that it has lost none of its intimacy and charm, and Trevor Nunn’s simple and clear direction, coupled with David Farley’s adaptable and highly effective design produce a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment. The stage is beautifully transformed from living room, to bedroom, apartment to digs, country chateau to Swedish woodland. Lynne Page’s waltzing choreography whirls and swirls around the stage seducing the audience and making the most of a fantastic overture.

I feel I must make a special note of the sheer brilliance of Hannah Waddingham; in my opinion our greatest musical theatre leading lady. She lights up the stage with her captivating smile, whilst delicately placing the melancholic nuances of ‘Send in the Clowns’ that has the audience reaching for the tissues. Her comic timing is also impeccable, but one assumes that it has to be when sharing the stage with the awesome Maureen Lipman, whose performance is breathtakingly funny, nuanced, honest and layered with the regrets of a life well lived.
Kelly Price is a wonderful Countess and makes mincemeat of Jessie Buckley (Anne Egerman) during their duet (Every Day a Little Death) towards the end of act one. Buckley has a very nice voice, but lacks the acting expertise so beautifully displayed by the rest of this ensemble cast. Her tuning is flat on occasion and she plays the eighteen year old Anne like a petulant and stupid twelve year old. Ditsy and naive, is not the same as stupid…

Alexander Hanson and Gabriel Vick are excellently cast as father and son respectively and both turn out fine performances.

The supporting cast are great. Especially Kaisa Hammarlund is spectacular as Petra and performs a spine-tingling version of ‘The Miller’s Son’. Nicola Sloane’s supporting role as Mrs Segstrom, deserves a special mention as she is clearly a hugely generous performer, not to mention a stunning soprano.

A Little Night Music at the Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, is the perfect introduction to Sondheim for the uninitiated; as well as those diehard fanatics amongst us. As one would expect, Sondheim’s quick, witty and clever lyrics accompanied by stunning music provide a pseudo-operatic musical treat. The costumes are exquisite and for two and a half hours you are transported away to Sweden at the turn of the last century. If you are a fan of Ibsen, Chekhov or Gorky and have yet to be convinced of the virtues of west end musical theatre this is the one for you.

Where is craft? Just watch Waddingham and Lipman for a veritable masterclass!

Don John - Battersea Arts Centre

Don John
Director and Adaptor: Emma Rice

Poems and Words: Anna Maria Murphy
Musical Director and Composer: Stu Barker
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

This slick, stylist adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is exactly what physical theatre should be. From the opening, where a semi-naked Elvira entwines herself with the epynonomous John, through the sizzling sex scenes and ensemble pieces, Kneehigh Theatre’s tightly choreographed show is spectacular to watch.

Don John is the ultimate anti-hero, a man with no saving grace but his animal magnetism. He has appeared in many incarnations throughout literature – Don Giovanni, Don Juan and Cassanova are just some of his names. He is the enbodiment of temptation, a rogue and libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women and fighting their champions.

This particular version is set against the bleak backdrop of ‘The Winter Of Discontent’ (1978), a time of widespread strikes, blackouts, and dispair. In contrast, John offers excitement and escapism to those he encounters, as well as hollow promises to the score of women ‘on his list’, a chronicle of his conquests. His sidekick, Nobby, takes a polaroid of each woman in place of a physical list, and these many encounters are unrolled by Nobby in ‘Wantonness’(a modern adaptation of “My little lady, this is the catalogue” from Don Giovanni) while images of the multitude of women are projected on a bedsheet. A besotted Elvira has followed John from town to town, believing they are truly meant to be together, and Nobby uses these pictures to show she is just one of the many, and John’s promises can not be believed. Devastated, she leaves but returns throughout the play to offer John the redemption he never accepts.

The audience also witness John’s final three seductions, which are all unsuccessful in one way or another. On arriving in town he immediately beguiles Anna, the wife of Derek the vicar. Anna is a downtrodden woman, wearied by a life devoid of affection and caring for her terminally ill father. After attempting a fruitless sexual liason with Derek Anna is desperate and stricken. Derek leaves and John enters, blindfolding and ravishing her. This scene was electrifying, with Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir giving a raw and intense performance as Anna which saw her literally hanging from the rafters. Her father wakes, and threatens John with a gun – they struggle and the father is shot and killed by John. On realising her encounter was with a stranger, and that it ultimately resulted in her father’s death, Anna is devastated and tells Derek what happened and that she thought it was him.

Meanwhile, Zerlina (a Polish cleaner) and Alan (her inoffensive, unassuming boyfriend) decide to marry and begin to plan the wedding. John desires Zerlina , and arranges a stag night for Alan so he can separate the pair and make his move. Nobby draws Alan off, leaving Zerlina alone with John who asks why she is marrying a man she does not love. She tells him Alan loves her, and can offer her security and stability. Nevertheless, she is drawn to John and they end up having a frantic sexual liason on the table that moments earlier had held the wedding cake for the upcoming ceremony. Alan witnesses this and is humiliated, but John merely laughs.

This scene was another example of the superb physical theatre skills of the company. A number of different things were happening simultaneously but were skilfully interwoven, along with the wonderful music, and built to a climax just as the lovers were discovered. Patrycja Kujawska as Zelina was magnificent throughout, and particularly so in this scene, effortlessly melding her physical, vocal and performance skills to make the character flow through stylistic changes and stay utterly consistent.

Ignoring Nobby’s pleas to ‘lay low’, he gets high and dons a dress to attempt a second seduction of Zelina at a second party, thrown as her hen night. This time she is not willing, and he attempts to rape her in front of the entire party. Elvira is present, and incredibly drunk, so John suggests he and Nobby swap clothes so Nobby can bed her and John will be free to try and seduce Elvira’s maid. Nobby’s deceit is discovered, and the women humiliate, beat and photograph him, with Zelina declaring she will be on ‘no one’s list’. After this, everyone knows who John is, and what he is responsible for and go out in search of him. Taking yet more drugs and drinking heavily, John is confronted by the ghost of Anna’s father, and dies ignominiously. In Mozart’s Opera he is then dragged into hell, but in this version he remains in a crumpled heap while the other characters decide what they will do with the rest of their lives.

In terms of physical theatre and staging, this production was faultless. The only down side was that some of the performers did not speak their text with much truth or conviction. In particular Gisli Örn Gardarsson (Don John), though outstanding physically, lacked any real connection with his character, and this left him somewhat two-dimensional when engaged in dialogue.

In addition to the main narrative, there were a couple of stand-out moments from characters that offered some welcome light relief from the melancholy of the main plot. Carl Grose was marvellous as Alan – understated, sympathetic and hilarious in equal measure – and had a brilliant slapstick routine when preparing for the wedding that got it’s own, well deserved, round of applause from the audience. Craig Johnson’s Derek was similarly impressive, making brilliantly wry, poignant speeches with flawless comic timing.

This is quite simply an unforgettable production, with an imposing set, bold direction, and spectacular lighting, music and design. Produced in association with both the RSC and Bristol Old Vic, Kneehigh’s Don John seduced me, and left me begging for more.

Don John runs at the BAC until Sat 9th May 2009
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