Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Birthday Party

(reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 23 February)

People play games, with others as well as with themselves. Playwrights play word games with both their charcters and with us, the audience. The Birthday Party was Pinter’s first full-length play to be staged, in 1959 to bemused, not to say highly critical, audiences.

Now we accept it, if not always easily, on its merits. Michael Cabot’s new touring production fo London Classic Theatre is high on intelligence and keeps up the pace, from those opening and closing inanities exchanged by long-term husband and wife Petey and Meg to the veiled self-revelations of their long-term lodger Stanley and those of the two strangers Goldberg and McCann who muscle into the boarding-house.

Personal revelations come, on the surface, thick and fast but, as always with Pinter, none are to be taken at face value. Jonathan Ashley’s Goldberg, his first name as slithery as his relations with Meg and neighbour Lulu, spins fantasies as complex as those of Stanley himself, the lay-a-bed recluse in flight from who knows what.

Designer Bek Palmer sets the action in a realisticly furnished set on a raised platform surrounded by black tabs. We’re in many different worlds at once – some of which overlap while others collide. Gareth Bennett-Ryan takes full advantage of Stanley diatribes as the pampered surrogate son and lover is changed from a sort of spiky relaxation into the collapsed creature of Goldberg and McCann’s manipulations.

The subtlest performance comes from Cheryl Kennedy as Meg, that archetypical frustrated wife and non-mother. Perhaps she was indeed once the belle of the ball in the tulle swatches of her pre-war party dress and has slunk into slovenly housekeeping purely as a reaction. Ashley makes a dominant (as well as domineering) villain with Declan Rodgers radiating menace as McCann.

The Birthday Party plays at the Norwich Playhouse on 24 February. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 25-27 February, the Key Theatre, Peterborough 1-2 March, the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford 8-9 March, the Harlow Playhouse 25-27 April, the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 10-14 May and the Alan Arena, St Albans on 9 June as part of the national tour until 18 June.

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End of the Rainbow

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 18 February)

There’s some part of most of us, if we’re honest, which revels in schadenfreude – in the theatre just as much as in other forms of life. Peter Quilter’s 2011 play about Judy Garland’s last, disastrous London season has been given a new production by the Mercury Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Buckroyd which launches itself on a major national tour between 22 February and 9 July.

We’re in a luxurious hotel room booked by Garland’s new manager (and soon-to-be fifth husband) Mickey Deans. Awaiting them is her long-time accompanist Anthony Chapman. Deans needs to keep her away from drink and pills, or he can see financial disaster ahead for the booked-out Talk of the Town performances. Chapman wants her to find some balance in her future life.

Basically a three-hander, the spotlight inevitably is on the actress who plays Garland. For me, Lisa Maxwell only seemed to arrive in the part with the first cabaret appearance. It’s as though she is trying too hard to inhabit the skin rather than the soul of her character. The scenes of pill-fuelled disintegration are well done, though the heart of the play remains in the exchange with Chapman when he suggests an alternative future.

Gary Wilmot makes Chapman thoroughly credible, as the gay man who accepts that his life cannot be as open as he would perhaps prefer but has understanding and practical compassion to spare. Sam Attwater makes no attempt to ply Deans for sympathy but allows you to appreciate how a rag-bag of emotions and motivations drive him. But there never is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

End of the Rainbow runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 20 February with a Saturday matinée. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds 31 May-4 June.

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A Raisin in the Sun

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 17 February)

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play about a Black Chicago family attempting to grope its way out of its cycle of second-class non-success has resonances for modern audiences, whatever their skin colour.Aspiration always needs a foundation.

If widowed Mrs Younger (Angela Wynter) is the lynch-pin of her family – married son, his wife, their son and student daughter – it is the daughter-in-law Ruth (Alisha Bailey) who keeps the family on track in their cramped apartment. Beneatha (Susan Wokama) is as stroppy as only a girl with frustrated ambition can be. Walter (Ashley Zhangazha) sees acquiring a liquor store as the easy path to riches and a new life.

Director Dawn Walton takes the first scenes at a brisk pace, perhaps too much so for an audience unaccustomed to the cast’s accents. Her designer, Amanda Stoodley has created a tour-friendly and realistic box set – you feel how cramped three adults, a teenage girl and a growing boy (his bed is the sofa) must find it.

There is great sincerity in the performances with Bailey in particular creating a real daughter-in-law, wife and mother more or less succeeding in keeping those around her in balance. The catalyst for the drama is the $10,000 life insurance from her late husband; spending it is something on which all Mrs Younger’s family have different ideas.

Hansberry’s ending offers a suggestion of hope, though this is just as likely to be blighted as to materialise. That new home in a hitherto all-White suburb, a new baby for Ruth and Walter, a life in medicine with her Nigerian suitor for Bneatha – will they ever materialise, or will they evaporate as Walter’s shop-owning dream has already done?

A Raisin in the Sun runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 20 February with matinées on 18 and 20 February. It plays at the Palace Theatre, Watford 8-12 March as part of its national tour.

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Poppy+George

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 16 February)

Poppy+George? It sounds like an equation with a positive outcome. Poppy-George? That sounds altogether more negative. Poppy? George? This suggests two people each going on a separate path, that might – or might not – coincide. Diane Samuels’ latest play poses more questions than it offers solutions.

It’s 1919. The war to end all wars has ground to a formal halt, though its repercussions reverberate internationally. The location is London, in a tailoring-costumier workshop run by Smith (Jacob Krichefski), an emigré Russian Jew. He caters, among others, for female impersonator Tommy Jones (Mark Rice-Oxley) and society chauffeur George Sampson ((Rebecca Oldfield).

Fresh from the north of England with a determination to forge a new and proper life for herself comes Mary Louisa Wright (Nadia Clifford), a bright lass who prefers to be called Poppy. She learns to hold her own with both Smith and Jones – but with George? Their relationship, how it blossoms and how it withers, makes the drama.

You can’t fault the acting or the production values. Rice-Oxley takes you to the heart of music-hall as well as the fall-out from service in the trenches. Oldfield makes a marvellously androgynous George, well in with his employers and ambitious to become a racing driver. Krichefski convinces as the footloose man with too many pasts who still holds to the possibilities of the future – somewhere, somehow, sometime.

Clifford makes embryonic suffragette Poppy a girl who knows that her new path will probably be a rocky one (so different from the conventionality of her home background and the lifetime of service which is all it can offer). She wants honesty, not make-believe whether of the theatrical, fashion or intimate relationship types. There will be a price to pay, however.

Designer Ruari Murchinson has raked the stage steeply and produced a variety of costumes and fabric rolls to surround the actors. Director Jennie Darnell keeps the whole thing on the move in a valiant attempt to make this a play about human beings and not just types. Composer and sound designer Gwyneth Herbert adds a haunting accompaniment which echoes both the jollity and the sentimentality of popular music of the period.

Poppy+George runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 29 February with matinées on 18, 20, 25 and 27 February.

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Hairspray

(reviewed at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 15 February)

This new touring production of the “feel-good” musical comes from Leicester’s Curve Theatre and is a first-rate demonstration of how really committed performances allied to deceptively simpe choreography and a reliance on fabulous costuming rather than elaborate sets can compete with anything the West End has to offer.

You probably know the story, and may even have nostalgic memories of the 1950s and 60s. Television is still in its black and white phase and Baltimore keeps its Black and White population well segregated. Must-see viewing each week is Corny Collins’ teenage dance show, dependent on its sponsors so ever mindful of the barriers which should not be crossed.

Corny, his producer Velma Von Tussle and the whole White Baltimore establishment haven’t reckoned with plump little Tracy Turnblad. It’s not the easiest of parts, but Freya Sutton (who has played it before) takes Tracy’s mix of ambition, first-love pangs and determination to do what seems right to her – regardless of the consequences – ten knows how to use the music to define and express all her conflicts.

If Sutton is rightly the star, there are some other major twinklers in this galaxy. Tony Maudsley as Edna, Tracy’s mother, never over-camps the part and is ably abetted by Peter Duncan as Wilbur Turnblad, a loving husband and father full of good ideas but short on the ability to implement them. Claire Sweeney as Velda, the show-biz mother of Amber (Lauren Strood), Brenda Edwards as Maybelle, the outspoken mother of Dex Lee’s Seaweed and Monique Young as Penny stand out in a large cast.

The girls’ costumes and wigs glitter and swirl to fill the stage with movement and colour (some of the quick-changes must be a backstage nightmare). Musicals with a message can appear badly fractured for all the authors’ and producers’ good intention. This one doesn’t bark or bluster, but its message of understanding and tolerance for surface differences is not in the least diluted by the gentle approach. You don’t usually go to a musical for a history lesson. There’s one here, but it’s an extremely palatable one.

Haispray runs at the Cambridge Corn Exchange until 20 February with matinées on 18 and 20 February. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich 29 March-2 April, at the Milton Keynes Theatre 4-9 April and at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend 16-21 May.

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016