Skip to content

Twang!! Union Theatre

April 18, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th April 2018)

 
Merrie England, where even Merrier Men are dealing with their leader who has, to put it politely, lost his “twang” at a most inopportune moment. The Sherriff of Nottingham is Perpetually Punishing Poachers, and joining with Sir Guy to egg evil Prince John into ever-greater excesses of taxation and misogyny. Can Robin pull himself together, pull his bow to win the contest and, most important of all, pull Maid Marian before she ends up spliced to a maniac?

This re-worked fabled Lionel Bart 1965 flop takes a frequently hilarious 2 hours 20 minutes to reach the obvious answers. Julian Woolford and Richard John have scraped together the remains of the original show – such as they are – stirred in some new old Bart favourites and hung the whole on a simple story stitched through with tongue-in-cheek laughs and literally “camp” humour.

A two-tier Justin Williams and Jonny Rust set gives us castle or woodland encampment at the swish of a curtain, while Penn O’Gara manages both fun “period” (with a contemporary nod or three – nice tights) costumes and an ingenious Ugly Scotsman. Under Henry Brennan, Nick Anderson and James Hudson form a useful pit-band, helped out on occasion as required…


To a noble and peasant, the gang on stage are high-energy, a tightly drilled crew under director Bryan Hodgson, with timing, dance and acting talent making the very most of the lavish Sasha Regan production. Qudos Pantomimes need look no further than this cast for all its 2018 seasonal casting needs.

 
Robin Hood (Peter Noden) is very much a nominal leader. Probably in control never, yet always retaining the loyalty of his outlaws and audience alike. Confidant Little John (Christian Lunn) hides his exasperation with friendly goodwill and outstanding stage presence.


Campest in camp Will Scarlett (Kane Verrall) is more than a nod to a Jamie everybody is talking about, and will by rights end up there, hopefully soon. Alan-A-Dale (James Hudson) may be a rotten lyricist, but is a talented guitarist and likeable actor too.


Friar Tuck (Louie Westwood) endures the oft-repeated schoolboy joke about his name with good humour, and brings even more to a difficult patter-number.


Newcomer to the gang Much (Joe Rose) is all innocence but ‘gets with the program’ by the end,

 
and handles romance rather better than the esteemed leader, but all measures.

In this story, the ladies are, frankly, as unruly as the gents.
 
Marian (Kweeva Garvey) is a maid best untrifled with – her grasp of self-defence is as strong as her singing voice. Her posse of frustrated Ladies – Elphaba (Victoria Nicol – facially expressive enough to cut steel without words required) and Dolly (Francesca Pim – excited to a point requiring either medication or therapy) are hilarious, and thier attendant love-lorn Delphina (Jessica Brady) a lucky catch for Much; warm and gifted with instinctive light timing.

On the dark side, Prince John (Lewis McBean) takes a “Hamilton” approach with more success than the original. Sir Guy (Ed Court) manages creepy without insidious.


Sherriff of Nottingham (Christopher Hewitt) makes his professional debut in this show, his confidence growing throughout the performance. If by the end of the run he can bring his later energy to bear on his earlier scenes, he’ll be doing outstandingly well.

Not forgotten either are Dance Captain Micah Holmes, who not only keeps everybody moving but has the best exit jump to watch for. Chris Draper in the Ensemble shines when giving his touch of Wales,


and Hob of the Hill (Stephen Patrick) is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole show. A sprite with his own language, quite possibly the main Joan Littlewood invention still left in the piece, and all the better for it.

There are faults. Woolford and John arguably still have work they can do to lift this from hilarious to unforgettably absurd. The slightly unoriginal, but vitally helpful, musical theatre parodies have room to be expanded; and there are numerous opportunities for extra contemporary one-liners that could well polish and lift further the odd moment.

Much of the original music isn’t strong either.


“Silver Arrow” is perhaps the stand-out, “Welcome to Sherwood Forest” passable thanks to staging. It’s the interpolation of a few hits that keeps that end up, and provides one of the stronger “thorough jokes” too.


In short, this is the kind of rarity that Union Theatre fans rely on their favourite venue to provide, and that anyone who has ever bought a cast album should be seeking out. Not only a little bit of musical theatre history made to feel fresh, but a talented team making new theatre history themselves in this right blast, set in the past.

 

Five Stars for their efforts, for sure.

 

 

Photo credit: ©Anton Belmonté. Used by kind permission.

Pippin. Southwark Playhouse

March 28, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 24th March 2018).

This piece of whimsy makes its way to a prestigious London fringe venue having originated in an equally prestigious Manchester one. The partnership between Hope Mills and Aria Entertainment has already borne fruit, and magic has now been done at both ends of the country.

Ostensibly the story of despot King Charlemagne’s younger son Pippin, a dreamer trying to find his own “Corner of the Sky” and perhaps do some good on the way, this is really a fantasy of short episodes as told by a travelling theatre company.

The difference in this production is director Jonathan O’Boyle and his team’s decision to go with a “Victorian Playhouse” setting, a pretty proscenium arch and thrust stage with the ladies in fishnets and all in monochrome (Maeve Black). Clever stage inlays and a lot of streamers, a pair of ladders, bale of hay and a few hand props are all that is required to get us through the evening, visually.

Leading Player (Genevieve Nicole) has an extensive professional CV, and her experience shows. Truly horrible ‘biscuit tin’ sound cost me both her opening number and dialogue, and also my attention. As the show continued (and the sound mix improved exponentially), her hard work – particularly “On The Right Track” set me back on it.

An equally horrible start for the title character followed, the iconic “Corner of the Sky” lost to sound cloud for Jonathan Carlton (Pippin). His crafty swig of water on the stairs by my seat didn’t endear either, but again, as he was allowed to re-wind his life on stage, so his performance displayed a depth that grew ever more touching as he found love with Catherine (nice solo from Tessa Kadler) and son Theo (Scott Hayward in a heartfelt few moments).

As comic relief, Mairi Barclay was handed the perfect advantage of playing both stepmother and grandmother to Pippin. Dramatically, her Fastrada – the scheming mother – had the edge for her to run with, particularly faced with effectively despotic Charles (Rhidian Marc). Her joyously rambunctious Berthe gave her full reign to grow old disgracefully, and involve the audience with vigour.

Bringing up the rear of the family, Bradley Judge (Lewis) is a perfect bone-head… and that’s meant in the nicest possible way.

Also worthy of mention were hard-working Michelle Andrews and Ellie Seaton, the players responsible for providing everything from glamour to practical support of a movie screen.

The last is perhaps the production’s only true mis-step. A certain incongruity about real soldiers going to their deaths, in a stage musical. Bordering on tasteless even if the song is about war.

Stephen Schwartz’s show has a long track record with the American public. It’s beloved and been a smash hit on Broadway, twice over. For this Brit at least, it’s rather more in the “Finian’s Rainbow” category – acknowledged as a classic, but trickier on the British palate than over the pond. It’s not just sugary and lighter than duck down, it also takes a while to display its raison d’être. Once it hits its stride and justifies itself on its own terms, though, it is a relaxing couple of hours, given here a wildly inventive interpretation.

Hopefully, a forerunner of even more successful transfers to come from the partnership.

4 stars.

 

 

And that’s it for this season. Taking an Easter break – so Happy Easter to all Christian readers. Back on 18th April 2018.

Summer and Smoke: Almeida Theatre

March 21, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 10th March 2018).

In a play concerned with religion and conformity, the Tom Scutt design of simple circular wooden floor, half enclosed by a raised step containing nine upright pianos is a masterpiece. 9 is, of course, a holy number – the number of times Christ appeared to his apostles, the spiritual gifts of God, St Paul’s nine fruits of spirit, and more. Alternatively, they may have had a German exchange student working on the show, who was asked if pianos were required…

Either way, combined with Lee Curran’s impressive lighting as we move towards enlightenment and the cast under Rebecca Frecknall’s expert economical direction, the result is a high-impact presentation of a lesser seen Tennessee Williams play.

Patsy Ferran is pastor’s daughter Alma Winemiller. Wracked with anxiety and unfulfilled needs for love, her infatuation with bad-boy Doctor’s son next door John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) is the arc of the play from one early summer to the following spring.

Ferran has developed into a towering acting presence. A fan from “Blithe Spirit” onwards, it is a joy to watch the full range of mature dramatic skill, so much more than simple comedy as so many more emotions are expressed, each as attuned as the other. Needham matches her line-for-line, his trickier emotional transition rendered credible thanks to an impressive natural physical quality in his body language.

Around the pair, the supporting cast are in stellar orbit of their own. As both Alma and John’s father, Forbes Masson needs only a cane to metamorphosize, frequently. He has a rather impressive singing voice too, it must be noted.

Vocally, and indeed metamorphorically, love interests Nellie, Rosemary, Rosa and Pearl, all played by Anjana Vasan are portrayed with equal skill. This versatile actor will hopefully be seen by enough casting agents during the run to ensure a full diary for years to come. To play both heart-breakers and heart-brokens and keep switching is a rare technical achievement.

As Alma’s mentally distressed mother and also neighbourhood observer (to be polite) Mrs Basset, Nancy Crane is another double actor able to carry off two difficult roles. Kleptomaniac or gossip, both are equally successful, her deterioration moving yet controlled when it would be all to easy to lose focus.

Eric MacLennan does well in the smaller roles of dangerous Papa Gonzales, and also as Vernon. A real sense of danger is neatly created. Similarly, Tok Stephen as Roger Doremus and Dusty is a neat co-conspiritor. Final mention for Seb Carrington, who waits until the end for a single scene as his professional debut, but is another to note for future casting as a supporting lead.

This tale of small town life, love and morality is almost instantly gripping, and holds attention not only in plot but the actual characters to the end. Intimate and satisfying as we share the emotional journey, it may not be quite the punchiest Williams ever, but it is certainly almost as memorable as the fabled Young Vic “Streetcar,” with a cast that equals them.

If you can get a ticket, go.

5 stars.

Jubilee. Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

March 14, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 7th March 2018).

As both programme and indeed performers acknowledge, much of the audience will be familiar with the title from the original film – and mostly from its notorious showings in the early days of Channel 4. Many a lonely teenage male watched furtively in their room or taped it in the hope of a flash of… well, so I was told, anyway, moving on…

The presence of original “Mad” Toyah Willcox, this time as Queen Elizabeth I, regally ensconced in a box until near the end – when she proves she can still belt out her biggest hit number, is the only real tie with that movie.

We have moved on, past Silver, Golden, Diamond and now into (we are assured) Uranium Jubilee territory. Punks are replaced by generation iphone, and you may be recorded for training purposes at all times, including while using someone’s body for gratification and being murdered for it.

Disjointed imagery and a smattering of Shakespearian language are still present. The trouble is a strong sense of ennui for those who remember it all the first time around. Back then, teenagers were rebelling against a system of values that had stood for decades. Now, those same teenagers (so a late scene charges) have created the horrors of globalisation, austerity and everything in between, while reaping and keeping the gains for themselves.

Trouble is, those same 70s stock also broke down the system to the point where today’s tribe have to go far further to find something to kick against. The fundamentals have changed – police are not that interested in tackling most of the anarchy they can create, all vices are online at the click of a mouse and the current economy excludes many in all generations so it is not exclusive to the young.

A glimpse of stocking was still mildly shocking even back in 1978. Today, almost the entire cast are nude at one point or another, and it just didn’t matter. No sense of rebellion, edge or hint of creativity (despite that being the point of Ariel / Viv (Lucy Ellinson) involved, just a few goosebumps as it isn’t that warm on the stage (I know, I was sat on one of the rather comfy stage benches). Even a quick incest idea (Craig Hamilton – Sphinx, John Ross Williams – Angel) is reduced to a couple of actors lying on a mattress, ignored as action proceeds centre-stage.

The whole effect is of an acting troupe given Arts Council money to spend weeks improvising for something, and then showing what they have created. The performances are strong – can’t fail to enjoy Crabs (Rosie Wardlaw’s) walk down the stair rail, warm to Amyl Nitrate (Travis Alabanza) and the history lessons, nor appreciate Bod (Sophie Stone) putting the world to rights in a bondage outfit. In fact, the genuine affection the cast eventually have when they pull together is a redeeming feature.

For the rest, it’s a meander over nearly two and a half hours, for something that could have been done and dusted in half that. For those living in today’s cyber world, it’s about as dangerous as unfiltered Google Image results, and nearly as eclectic. There’s little whiff of freshness, some hints of undercooked ideas, but with enough snorts of polish to see it through and justify its existence.

As strange as the original film, but more strained and lacking anything to measure restraint against, is the monkey verdict.

Two stars.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (Richmond Theatre).

March 7, 2018

(Seen at the evening performance on 6th March 2018).

The curtain rose to a happily nostalgic sigh from the audience, as the familiar “Morse code” theme tune filled the theatre. On a 1970s orange and beige (Simon Higlett) set, there sat Betty (Sarah Earnshaw) and Father O’Hara (David Shaw-Parker) discussing how to tell Frank (Joe Pasquale) that he was about to become a dad.

From there, writer and director Guy Unsworth has us time-travelling to simpler times, when the bank manager and BBC (Moray Treadwell) were to be respected deeply, and mother-in-law Barbara Fisher (Susie Blake) was to be feared.

The story concerns Frank’s latest tilt at gainful employment as a professional magician. The first half is his attempt to impress the bank manager enough for a loan, even as Betty tries to deliver her news. The second his attempt to be filmed for television, and bring the story to a neat conclusion.

Unsworth’s dialogue is stuffed with classic lines, fans of the TV show can tick them off as mentioned (pre-Columbo, though, it’s the cat Cleopatra who widdles on Frank’s plans – literally), and things are still taken out in the morning.

Better still, Stunt Co-ordinator Kev McCurdy and the set designer do a very impressive job for a touring show of giving us plenty of trademark physical comedy, including a couple of impressive set pieces, one painfully articulated. I’d rather guess that one set-piece failed to make the director’s final cut, though, as from where I was sitting I could see a toilet suspended at first floor level that was never revealed to the audience. Oh well, what they did do worked just fine anyway.

For the monkey fans, sit on the left side of the auditorium rather than the far right as you look at the stage, as the view is slightly better in a narrow auditorium.

Of the performances, we accept very quickly Pasquale, Earnshaw and the gang. Pasquale may have a heftier build than young Crawford, but he has the same shining innocence and certainly a little more warmth and tenderness. Unsworth has ratched up his intelligence a notch (Frank makes a pun or two) and Pasquale thinks and speaks noticeably more quickly than the original, tackling some impressive word-play too.

Earnshaw is simply sweet, making the most of the slightly less stage time allotted than might be imagined. Her final scene in particular is genuine and moving, another happy sigh over the end theme tune showing just how well the pair hit the emotional mark between themselves and the viewers at home, er, theatre.

As Betty’s mother, Susie Blake has a wonderfully degenerate second act. Without asking stage management, I’ll take it that the late Spencer Prune Wine was fake and that Blake worked off skill rather than instinct, but it’s a close call.

In the duel role of dinner partner to her, and later harassed BBC presenter, Moray Treadwell gets two rather good roles, and makes the most of them. His first act chairs sequence, and second act attempts to simply get Frank to walk through a door are beautifully timed reactive acting.

David Shaw-Parker manages to remain both godly and terminally confused throughout. Resisting parody, he’s a good man doing his good works in an ever murkier situation.

Last, but by no means least, Chris Kiely as Desmond James and the Constable is given the important job of wrapping up the story with some fairly “Scooby-Doo” writing. That he manages it and overcomes one of the two non-true-to-the-original style moments in the show (the other is a highly unnecessary twice repeated swear-word that can and should be deleted right now, if anyone from the show is reading this) is to his credit, and his timing, too, is immaculate.

To sum up, this is the right cast with the right script in the right environment. It’s as relatively unsophisticated as the original times it is set in. It’s an enormously, truly, enormously fun time-capsule. A little piece of the Great British Past that anyone who ever loved it will want to see again and again. It’s on national tour, and that’s exactly as it should be. The West End would see it sink without trace – “The Play That Goes Wrong” has the market cornered and feels like an iMac compared to this typewriter. Yet a typewriter will work without electricity, and requires nothing more than good mechanics and a skilled operator to produce highly pleasing results. This hard-working and happy re-union with old friends is exactly the same.

 

4 stars.

 

More information and tour dates, see: http://somemothersdoaveem.com/

The Ten Tests of Theatre

February 28, 2018

For me, theatre is “work” most of the time. I’m sitting there working out whether the seats are good value and also what to write about the show (easy if it’s good or bad, harder if it’s mediocre). So, I have a few things I do as a matter of habit, which help things along.

1) Smiles In View. Are the theatre staff happy in their work, or just there because it’s the closest they will get to a stage all year? The best want to chat to the audience, help them find their seats, and push off out of the auditorium once the show begins. The worst stare into the distance or chat among themselves (sometimes during the show) and pass the odd bitchy comment about what they are watching. Never good.

2) Chav Count. How many audience members are illegally taking photos before and during the show? Using their phone generally? Bringing drinks in and having a seat picnic?

3) Programme Flick. A good mix of articles and adverts, with headshot photos so I can identify the cast? Or £4 for 2 pages, 1 of which is clearly for the owner’s daughter’s new hair salon? Bonus points if they take credit card payments for programmes and have the right change too.

4) Souk Alert. Only a few manufacturers supply most of the souvenirs sold in London theatres. Fewer still sell anything even remotely tasteful. Still, distinguishing between the acceptable (nice show-logo mug, a well designed Tshirt) and the total garbage passes a few minutes before they open the auditorium.

5) Dusty. Has the place been swept? You will not believe some of the crud if you look for it on the side rails, circle fronts, between seats of an ill-maintained theatre (Delfont Mackintosh set the cleanliness standard, if you are wondering).

6) Bog Standards. Can you smell them as the door from the foyer opens? A good sign if not.

7) Throwing a Paddy. As in, does my butt get angry when it finds there is nothing between it and the wood for the next three hours. Theatre seats are expensive, but pretty vital, so let’s keep them in good shape, eh?

8) Sign of the Times. Are the doors marked with the right seat numbers (the Lyttelton hilariously misses off a seat in the stalls), and can you actually find the loos?

9) Box Office Brilliance. Can they find your order in the box? Can they deal patiently with the twit in front who turned up on the wrong night at the wrong theatre, even as the line builds up behind? It’s a daily thing, and only the best survive – but they are an art to watch in action.

10) Something In The Air. First, is the air-conditioning or heating over-enthusiastic. More to the point, are the crowd? Concentrating and involved, or going to behave like they are on their home sofa and not where the actors can see and hear them…

 

Passes the time, anyway.

How Green is my Voucher?

February 21, 2018

To great fanfare, one theatre last year announced it was going “paperless.” Gone are the cardboard tickets. Instead, you can just show the image on your phone (with a machine-scannable QR code – the dotty box thingy). Same goes for pre-paid programme vouchers (that I find easier, as it means not fishing for change on the day).

The other good news is that if you don’t have a smartphone (I don’t), you can get your tickets and vouchers emailed to you, print them out and bring them along. Bearing in mind that the season before last either that theatre’s ticket despatch agents or the Royal Mail managed to lose an entire season of tickets I’d bought, causing me to have to arrive ridiculously early and stand in line at the box office every time to get a re-issue… and every single time have something go wrong in the way of “can’t find it / forgot the programme voucher / someone in front having real trouble holding up the line until seconds before start time when we’d all been waiting half an hour already” variety, I was pretty happy. In a way…

Of course, in practise, the fun begins when someone who is firmly in the “let them eat lentils if they want to, but respect my right to steak” brigade drills down beyond cuddly “save the bunny” thinking into reality.

Let’s kick off with the visitor experience. Guess what… the system doesn’t actually cope… with anything at all… So, you try and be as green as they would like them to be, and play along by printing off your ticket and programme voucher on two sides of a single sheet of paper (“Save The Trees” and all that). First, they want to keep your voucher when you collect your programme – can’t, the ticket is on the other side, and nobody said to print them separately. Hardly green, anyway – two sheets of paper when one will do? Second, they can’t read the QR code as there is no wifi to all parts of the theatre to operate the readers. It can be sorted, but it’s a hassle.

The interesting point, though, is the last bit – “readers.” And here, for me, is where all the “Green” stuff falls apart. For decades, I’ve found it hilarious that those preaching the “Green Gospel” – Green Party, various organisations like the BBC etc and all the individuals, yes, even David Attenborough – have massively, and I do mean massively, larger “carbon footprints” than I ever do or will. They own massive amounts of property and items, take holidays by car and plane etc, etc, etc. I don’t. So, who is actually being “greener” and saying nothing about it?

Moving back to “green theatres” it struck me as soon as the “paperless ticketing” thing was announced that in fact, the environmental costs of all the equipment to service the policy was going to be far higher than a few bits of ticket paper and a single mainframe computer system. All those phones the audience have, the extra hardware the theatre staff all need, the power to run it all… got to be more than one tree’s worth of paper stock and post carrier sweat per year, surely?

A quick look at an article on spectrum.ieee.org gave me confirmation of my thoughts, though I’m not wasting more time going even deeper.

All I am trying to get at is that once again, please think twice about the real value of such active campaigns. I’d love to see the data to back up the savings, so feel free to send it to me any time, but I’m betting that common sense may just be the best bet… Meanwhile, sorry, but if you think I’m falling for the hype, well, you really are greener than I am.