Monthly Archives: November 2017

People, Places & Things

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 21 November

The concept of a box set takes on a new definition in this collaborative project from Headlong, the National Theatre, Manchester’s HOME and Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. The proscenium arch is framed with a white rectangle, like the lip of a box. Like any such container, it can hold a variety of things.

Duncan Macmillan’s play is a no-holds-barred almost clinically forensic examination of addiction and some of the therapies which seek to address the multitude of forms which it takes. The central character is an actress called Sarah (stage name Emma), given a magnificent three-dimensional portrait by Lisa Dwyer Hogg.

She’s onstage and at the centre of the action throughout as we watch her descent into a hell of her own making and her struggles to clamber out of it. Emma/Sarah is not a sympathetic person and Dwyer Hogg’s achievement lies partly in the way in which she makes this plain.

Directors Jeremy Herrin and Holly Race Roughan surround her with a shoal of would-be helpers, some of whom – like her parents – are completely out of their depth. Matilda Ziegler plays the doctor, therapist and mother showing that even tough love may not be enough to break the cycle.

Ekow Quartey is the nurse who has seen it all before many times, but retains his humanity and desire to help. There’s an interesting double of alcoholic Paul and Sarah’s father by Trevor Fox.  Mark draws another rounded portrait of an addict who has learned to accept his weaknesses and so guards against them from Andrew Sheridan.

That white set is by Bunny Christie, lit by James Farncombe and pierced by the soundscapes of Tom Gibbons and Matthew Herbert. I suppose that these days most of us know someone who appears to be about to if not actually tripped into the addiction spectrum. That makes this drama hard-hitting; it remains a gripping piece of theatre on any level.

Four and a half-star rating.

People, Places & Things runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 November with matinées on 23 and 25 November.

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Il barbiere di Siviglia

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 November

It begins with a stylish chortle of an overture firmly controlled by conductor Ben Gernon. Ten a curtain sweep aside to drop us into mid-20th century Seville, with Joanna Parker’s set reminding us of the city’s Muslim heritage and its lingering echoes in the roles of men and women.

This touring revival of the 2016 Glyndebourne Festival production is directed by Sinéad O’Neill. It’s frothy, never takes itself too seriously and is studded both with well-sung and acted characterisations and visual treats. That cloudburst of keyboards in the Act One finale, Basilio’s novel take on a thunderclap in “La calumnia” and the deliciously sent-up serenades “Ecco, ridente” and “Se il mio nome” all work well.

Jack Swanson’s Almaviva is vocally agile and displays just a hint of the social and sexual voraciousness which is more fully revealed in the second of the Beaumarchais trilogy. Laura Verrecchia as Rosina sails through “Una voce poco fa” and her duets with Marco Filippo Romano’s testy Dr Bartolo and Tobias Greenhalgh’s likeable fixer Figaro.

Slide-slithering Basilio gives Anatoli Sivko a host of opportunities, upon which he seizes. Janis Kelly’s sneeze-prone Berta stumps her way as Rosina’s chaperone until bursting out with “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” and ending it with a cascade of heel-taps and stamps which would do credit to any flamenco dancer.

Three masked actors, two with horned bull-visors and one with a plumed headdress reminiscent of traditional Sicilian puppets, circulate around the action, managing both to remind us that this is a traditional buffo comedy with stock characters but also that the ritualistic strikes deep chords.

I’ve always thought that Il barbiere was probably not the best opera with which to introduce the genre to pre-teens. Judging by the rapt attention and thorough-going enjoyment shown by a primary school party, that may not necessarily be the case. They certainly loved the visual aspects, but they also were engrossed by the music. Top marks all round!

Four and a half-star rating.

Il barbiere di Siviglia has a Saturday performance on 18 November. It can also be seen at the Milton Keynes Theatre in repertoire with Così fan tutte and Hamlet between 21 and 25 November.

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Around the World in 80 Days

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 14 November

A forest of furled umbrellas, topped with bowler hats. A stepped pyramid of portmanteaux and suitcases. A clock ticking relentlessly behind a jumble of station sounds. One of those 19th century maps where splodges of imperial red mottle the globe. This is the work of designer Lis Evans.

This is the background to the Stoke-on-Trent New Vic’s tour of Laura Eason’s version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. A multi-talented, multi-skilled cast of nine  whirl us through the adventures of Phineas Fogg (Andrew Pollard) and his resourceful but accident-prone valet Passepartout (Michael Hugo).

Hugo is undoubtedly the star of the show, wooing the audience and apparently endowed with more than the usual allocation of flexible joints. Pollard gives Fogg a precise combination of certainty (he’s a Victorian gentleman completely assured of his place in society) and selfless generosity, as when he and Passepartout rescue Mrs Arouda (Kirsten Foster) from her husband’s funeral pyre.

Then there’s Inspector Fix (Dennis Herdman). He’s single-mindedly in pursuit of a daring bnk robber. Not only does he grasp eagerly at the wrong end of every stick which pokes itself into his limited vision, he resorts to skullduggery on a thoroughly nasty scale. By which time, Herdman very properly enters and leaves stage left, as a villain should – and is heartily booed for his wrong-doings.

Darting in and out of multiple characterisations are the rest of the cast, demonstrating circus skills as well as mime and dance. The use of props is clever and beautifully timed. Movement director Beverley Norris Edmunds deserves equal billing with the show’s director Theresa Heskins. The soundscapes of composer James Atherton and designer James Earls-Davis are equally commendable. It all ads up to a thorough-going theatrical delight.

Five star rating.

Around the World in 80 Days continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 18 November with matinées on 16 and 18 November. The tour also includes  the North Finchley Arts Depot (29 November-3 December) and the Norwich Theatre Royal (16-20 January 2018).

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Hedda Gabler

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November

Women usually find something to sympathise with in fictional woman characters. In the case of the title character of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, that’s difficult. Hedda, in Patrick Marber’s version,  stirs no empathy.

Ivo van Hove’s production abetted by Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting is modern Scandi noir. it suggests a penthouse almost devoid of furniture and in which Hedda’s old-fashioned upright piano is so out-of-place that it becomes a doppelgänger for the woman herself. Threads of Tom Gibbons’ sounds drift through the miasma of the action.

At the performance I saw, Cate Cammack – who played the part when this National Theatre production went to the USA – was Hedda. Her movements, at times almost as disjointed as the character’s tormented inner being, occasionally seemed at odds with her gentle voice.

Annabel Bates’s Thea Elvsted contrasts well, her apparent fluffiness (which both infuriates and intrigues Hedda) underpinned by a level of determination only Adam Best’s unpleasant Judge Brack can equal. His is a man who knows only his own law.

The two men – Tesman who has taken this pretentious apartment partly to reflect his new wife’s status as the daughter of a general but mainly because he is initially sure that he will be awarded a well-paid professorship and researcher-writer Lovborg – appear almost like twins in Abhin Galeya and Richard Pyros’ characterisations.

Galeya is the eternal optimist, though a degree of uncertainty soon crumbles the façade. Pyros, the former alcoholic who is tempted to one disastrous relapse, comes over a this sort of distorted mirror image. Tesman may survive for the moment by reconstructing his friend and rival’s masterpiece, but his future looks bleak.

Tesman’s aunt Juliana is crisply delineated by Christine Kavanagh and the ever-present, no doubt ever-watchful maid Berthe becomes a brooding presence by Madlena Nedeva. It’s an effective staging, but at the end we are left in the cold of a winter without end.

Four star rating.

Hedda Gabler runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 11 November with matinées on 8, 9 and 11 November. It also tours to the Royal & Derngate Northampton (28 November-2 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (27 February-3 March 2018).

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Driving Miss Daisy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 6 November

Where do our prejudices come from? nature or nurture? The question underlies Alfred Uhry’s deceptively straightforward Driving Miss Daisy which the Theatre Royal, Bath is currently touring in a 30th anniversary production.

Director Richard Beecham and designer Simon Kenny keep the three-hander on the move with clever use of a bleached-effect set, suggestive of clapboard and minmal props and furnishings. There i also highly effective music an sound by Jon Nicholls. But for all this, it all boils down in the end to the actors themselves.

Siân Phillips is Miss Daisy, the former teacher who crashes the car her businessman son Boolie (Teddy Kempner) has bought her and is now required to use a Black chauffeur Hoke (Derek Griffiths). her perforamnce is beautifully nuanced as the Jewish momma with her own prejudices begins to trust Hoke and ultimately to depend upon him.

Kempner’s study of a man who is accepted as a quasi-honorary member of WASP society, but who is perhaps too careful not to overstep the mark is also multi-faceted. Hoke has his own shoulder-load of chips and Griffiths entices us with equal skill to join him in the character’s own journey from spikey, well-concealed resentment to a mental and social place  of comparative calm.

The waltz rhythm of the old “When the ball is over” ballad permuates the action. It suggests a flavour of Tennessee Williams’ faded Southern belle Amanda, but Phillips’ Daisy learns how to baance a never-to-come-again past with the inevitibility of future’s changes. it makes for a memorable, thought-provoking evening in the theatre.

Four and a half-star rating.

Driving Miss Daisy runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 11 November with matinées on 9 and 11 November.

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Up ‘n’ Under

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 1 November

John Godber’s early (1984) play about amateur rugby in his native Yorkshire has been revived by the Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax.Ben Roddy’s direction keeps the action moving while giving space to the different characters’ soliloquies, delivered straight out to the audience.

Designer Connor Norris has created an apparently sparse setting – goal posts backing moveable pieces which transform the scene between locker-room, pub, playing field and gym – which also embraces the sides of the auditorium. There are some excellent lighting effects from Dawn Meadowcroft, including shadow-puppet style silhouetted sequences.

Central to the story is Phil Stewart’s Arthur, who tries to galvanise the no-hope Wheatsheaf Arms team into something which has a chance of beating local top-boys Cobblers Arms. In this he is aided by gym instructor Hazel (Gemma Oaten), whose efficiency eventually wins the lads’ respect.

Those lads are Phil (Adam Shorey), Frank (Matt Collyer), Tony (Duncan McInnes) and Steve (Chris Aukett). Aukett also plays Cobblers Arms manager Reg, whose bet with Arthur triggers the whole plot. If Arthur’s dilemma takes entre stage, that is not to belittle the often subtle characterisations of his mis-matched team, or  Oaten’s portrait of womanly assurance.

Four star rating.

Up ‘n’ Under runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 4 November with matinées on 2 and 4 November.

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The Invisible Man

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 31 October

Some scientists are obsessed beyond reason with their research, often using the benefits that might accrue for their fellow-men as vindication. Of such are legends made, both in fact and fiction.

In the latter category one might place Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert L Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and HG Wells’ Griffin. His “scientific romances” are all rooted in technology which wouldn’t have seemed too far-fetched to their original consumers.

The Invisible Man with its late 19th century setting contrasts the academic world which is content to experiment – but only step by cautious, provable step – with the uncomprehending – and therefore less forgiving – countryside outside these ivory towers and well-equipped laboratories.

Putting this onstage requires more than a script, provided by Clem Garrity for this première production. It needs stage trickery of a high order and performances which take the serious parts of the story seriously. Ryan McBride’s production has a looming, dark set by Lily Arnold, cleverly lit by Nic Farman to allow John Bulleid’s magic to make its impact.

Rebecca Applin’s score alternates rough’n’ready street ballads with incidental music where the violins scratch away to echo the activity within Jack Griffin’s brain. Matthew Spencer’s performance in the part is a very fine one; he suggests the outsider, the loner right from the start as his driven need to prove his theories right alienate both Lucy (the girl who loves him) and his former tutor and friend Dr Kemp.

Both Eleanor Wyld, who doubles Lucy and her actress sister Amelia, and Paul McEwan as Kemp make the most of their parts. Griffin eventually rents a room in Iping, a small Sussex village, where his landlady Mrs Hall (Sophie Duval) accepts his money and his strange activities more readily than the other locals, notably Matthew Woodyatt’s Tommy and con=man thief Marvel (Phil Adèle).

It’s all clever enough in staging, sound and performance to keep the audience’s attention focussed, though the explanations of optics and the refraction of light are perhaps over-long, if necessary to the plot. And it’s perfect fair for the darker, witching months.

Four star rating.

The Invisible Man continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 18 November with matinées on 2 and 11 November.

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