Tag Archives: Libby Watson

Miss Meena & the Masala Queens
reviewed 9 May in Watford

“I am what I am” is the central theme of Harvey Virdi’s new play with integral music an dance for Rifco which premiered at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 9 May at the start of a national tour. The theme could be reckoned a controversial one regardless of the ethnic and cultural background of the characters, for its inspiration derives from the British Asian drag queen and LGBTQ communities.

Families – of many sorts – are at the heart of the story. The main character is Abdul, working name Meena (Raj Ghatak), who walked out on his Pakistani father and mother when they refused to accept either his homosexuality or his adoption of a female persona. Now he runs a club in the Midlands with self-interested help from Munni (Jamie Zubairi) and still mourns the loss to AIDs of his life partner. Into the club wander embryonic drag-act Pinky (Vedi Roy) and Preetho (Harvey Dhadda).

Then student Shaan (Nicholas Prasad) turns up. He also has left home and is something of a lost soul; he needs a father-mother figure, a career an an identity. Meena is prepared to help, remembering a bitter past, and Pinky and Preetho are willing to assist. Munni, with a tame councillor in tow (Ali Ariale doubles Kabir and Ranjeet – Meena’s conformist brother) sees possibilities. Financial as well as sexual politics come into play.

Offstage, Meena and Ranjeet’s father is dying. But Meena backs out of making the phone call which might set the father’s mind at rest until it’s too late. Unusually for plays which come into the “special pleading” category, this one has fully rounded characters, so that we can emphasise with the dilemmas which they face. Pravesh Kumar’s direction keeps the action on the move, aided by Libby Watson’s set which switches effortlessly from the tawdriness of a run-down club to the glitter and glamour of a successful one.

Composer Niraj Chag and movement diector Andy Kumar, who also designed the Indian dance costumes, keep our eyes and ears engaged with the ambiance created; Mark Dymark’s lighting, one might say, is spot-on. The first night audience embraced the concept whole-heartedly; I hope this is an omen for the rest of the tour. The main thing is that you need neither to be British Asian nor a drag-act aficionado to enjoy this show.

Four and a half-star rating.

Miss Meena & the Masala Queens runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 13 May before touring nationally until 17 June. There are matinée performances on 11 and 13 May.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Reviews 2017

Lady Anna: All At Sea

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 June)

Craig Baxter’s play interweaves the plot of one of Trollope’s lesser-known novels Lady Anna with the sea journey from Liverpool to Australia which he and his wife undertook to visit their sheep-farming son. Colin Blunenau’s production has a cast of seven who play both the fictional and real-life characters; Libby Watson’s minimal setting cleverly gives us both worlds.

This production was initially staged for London’s Park Theatre; Cambridge Arts Theatre is not perhaps an ideal venue for it offering too much division between the audience and the players. But it is the sort of accessible intellectual joke which does draw the audience in, particularly in the second half. The performances are uniformly good.

Rhiannon Handy is Anna Lovel, who has inherited a fortune (though not necessarily a title) if the father who acknowledged her as his daughter was indeed married to her mother (Maggie O’Brien). The title (not not the money) has gone to young Frederick Lovel (Adam Scott-Rowley), whose aunt and clergyman uncle dither between thoroughly disliking – not to say distrusting Anna and her mother and egging him on to propose the marriage which will secure the money.

These two schemers are played by Julie Teal and Edward Halsted to fine effect. In opposition stand the skilled craftsmen Daniel Thwaite (Simon Robinson) and his father Thomas (Jonathan Keeble). Thwaite senior had helped the countess financially and morally when she is penniless; the two children have grown into teenage lovers – which is just the sort of liaison across the class divide which will imperil the status of all the Lovels.

On the voyage to Australia, Trollope (Keeble) and his dictatorial wife Rose (O’Brien) are concerned over the progress of his shipboard-scribed new novel Lady Anna. Rose argues with her maid Isabella ((Handy) while Trollope contends with sceptical and bored fellow male passengers. In the novel, a couple of lawyers (of distinctly Dickensian hue) become embroiled – a nice contrast in approach by Halsted and Keeble.

Frederick’s originally pragmatic, not to say mercenary, approach to the prospect of marriage with a hitherto unknown girl cousin mutates into something stronger – and transforms him in the process. Scott-Rowley convinces with his lightly-sketched yet in-depth portrait of a privileged young man’s growth into maturity. O’Brien’s granite-faced, iron-corroded souled countess is given a well nuanced counterpart in Handy’s Anna, a girl who has principles with the moral fibre to back them up.

It all makes one want to read the novel – and a biography of Trollope as well.

Lady Anna: All At Sea runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 2 July with matinées on 30 June and 2 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 21 June)

Which week of the year is ideal for opening a new production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most performed play? For Trevor Nunn’s return to his home town of Ipswich with the one Shakespeare play which u to now he has not been commissioned to direct, the summer solstice is the obvious choice.

Nunn and his designer Libby Watson have set the action in British-ruled India during the 1930s. The contrast in cultural values adds weight to Egeus (Sam Dastor)’s ferocity of purpose as far as his daughter Hermia (Neerja Naik)’s marriage is concerned. Demetrius (Assad Zaman) is his choice; she prefers Lysander (Harry Lister Smith).

If Duke Theseus (Matt Rawle – doubling the role of Oberon) supports Egeus, his war-won bride Hippolyta (Fiona Hampton – who also plays Titania) is not so sure. But she is at this point powerless to intervene and it is Hermia’s friend Helena (Imogen Daines), fruitlessly attempting to wash away her unrequited love for Demetrius with alcolhol, who precipitates the confusion which will ensue when the elpoping lovers are pursued by Demetrius and he himself by Helena.

Once we’re in the forest, Esh Alladi’s lithely malevolent Puck is the master of woodland ceremonies, indeed a spirit of no common sort. This is where Sarvar Sabri’s score really underlines that this is a spirit realm into which humans trespass under under licence; the musicians are led by Suhail Yusuf Khan. Costumes for the sprites are shredded and faintly fluorescent; those for Titania and Puck more blindingly so.

None of the woodland creatures, led by Michelle Bishop (who doubles as Theseus’ up-tight personal assistant Phyllis) are ever still. Arms wave and undulate constantly, as though the thinnest, finest tendrils were stirred by a forest breeze. Sonia Sabri is the choeographer, devising a mixture of western courtly ballroom, Kathak and Indian folk-dance styles to great effect.

The mechanicals suggest a community of street traders hawking their own crafts from their initial appearance. You feel that their fee if their play is performed for Theseus’ wedding is genuinely important. Harmage Singh Kalirai’s Quince is a marvellously homespun philosopher, just about managing to keep Kulvinder Ghir’s know-all Bottom in check (would you really buy a rug or length of cloth from this man)?

Deven Modha’s Flute makes his sari-clad Thisbe into a gentle foil to Ghir’s Pyramus in the play scene. All six newly weds join in the exuberant dance which heralds the arrival of the immortals to bless the nuptials. When Puck invites the audience’s applause, it’s no wonder that the response is enthusiastic.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until 9 July with matinées on 22, 25, 28 June, 2, 5 and 6 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

Laila

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 27 April)

It is said that there are only five basic plots from which to construct a story. Young love thwarted by a combination of family, political and cultural pressures is surely one of these. In the West, we probably think of those star-crossed lovers Juliet and Romeo. In the East, there is the story of Laila and Qays.

Laila, the new musical from Rifco in association with the Palace Theatre, Watford and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has a fusion score by Sumeet Chopra, played under the direction of Benjamin Holder, lyrics by Dougal Irvine and a script by Pravesh Kumar. Choreography is by Cressida Carré, and is also a fusion of Indian classical and western modern steps and gestures.

The stry begins today, with a young British Asian girl Laila (Mona Goodwin) refusing her father(Ravin J Ganatra)’s injunction to marry the man he (but not she) has selected with due regard to that dangerously nebulous concept of honour. Then we step back several hundred years to a kingdom ruled by a man who has fought his way to his crown and now has a crown prince waiting impatiently for his turn.

Qays (Reece Babia), his father (Surrinder ‘Shin’Singh Parwana) and his cousin are the dispossessed previous ruling family; they are concerned that Qays’ passion for Laila will bring further destruction to them. But love will find a way – particularly young love seeing only black and white, and never the grey nuances so apparent to their elders.

The designer of the sparse set with its billowing drapes transforming from palace pillars to wind-scorched desert to ferocious flood is Libby Watson. There’s a shadow puppet sequence by Matthew Robins which is effective but needs a little more subtlety of manipulation (hands too visible) and atmospheric lighting designs by Philip Gladwell.

Goodwin, Bahia, Parwana and Ganatra are all effective in making their characters live and there’s a nice study of Laila’s maid by Sheena Patel. Sufi singer Asif Raza dominates some of the musical nubers; for my ears, the whole thing is somewhat over-miked, but that seems normal for musicals of all genres nowadays.

Laila runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Watford until 30 April with a matinée on 30 April. It also plays at the Arts Theatre Cambridge (9-14 May) and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (17-21 May).

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Filed under Music & music theatre, Reviews 2016

Sweet Charity

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 September)

Happy endings don’t always occur, even in fairy tales. At one level the musical Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Neil Simon and Bob Fosse is a variation on the Cinderella myth. it is also a wry study of the way in which a woman can be her own worst enemy, something which Peter Rowe’s radical new production for the New Wolsey Theatre emphasises.

The Ipswich theatre is one of those which specialise in actor-musicians, as opposed to using a more conventional pit orchestra. Musical director Greg Last has some good instrumentalists in the acting-singing-dancing performers who keep to the sides of Libby Watson’s deceptively simply framing set when not occupying centre stage.

It is Katie Birtill in the title role of dance-hall hostess Charity Valentine who really dominates. She has the kookiness of the small-town girl who is hopelessly adrift both in New York and in her relationships with the various men she repeatedly views ‘from the off” as The One – only to be let down each time.

The first of these is Charlie, who steal her cash and lets her half-drown in the Central Park lake. Her encounter with film star Vittorio Vidal (Jeffrey Harmer) leaves her less bruised. Harmer has a very good voice as well as the right sort of flamboyant personality; his ballad number is deservedly applauded.

Just before the interval, Charity meets Oscar (James Haggie), an introverted youngish man with acute claustrophobia – just one of his multiple hang-ups. But he’s no Price Charming, not even a Frog Prince. it’s a tribute to Haggie’s performance that the character (as opposed to the performer) was roundly booed at the first night curtain calls.

Choreographer Francesca Jaynes has devised some good routines for Charity’s fellow hostesses – Katia Sartini, Sophie Byrne, Nicola Bryan, Giovanna Ryan, Elisa Boyd and Lindsay Goodhand – as they await their customers and then have to entice them to dance and the stylised movement for the various New Yorkers work very well.

Perhaps, though Rowe uses the space and cast cleverly throughout, the fault in the production lies in the show being tuneful enough but without real stick-in-the-memory show-stopper numbers, “Big spender” and “The rhythm of life” apart. It’s all properly slick with some nice visual touches and good performances, especially that of Birtill, but the only heart in which you can believe is that of Charity herself. And that’s pretty bruised by the end of the evening.

Sweet Charity runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 September.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

The History Boys

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 6 July)

Sell A Door Theatre Company may be only six years but there’s no mistaking its maturity. Kate Saxon’s touring production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys emphasises this. One of Libby Watson’s trademark sets both defines the timelessness of the story of a class of boys in their final term before university and indicates (through understatement) its non-real aspects.

The core of any production of this play lies as much in the casting of the eight pupils as with the four teachers with whom we, as the audience, engage. Here the stand-out performances are those of Steven Roberts as Posner, the misfit Jewish boy who uses his innate ability to camp things up as a weapon as well as a shield, Sid Sagar as quiet but brilliant Akthar and Kedar Williams-Stirling as at-ease-in-his-black-skin Daykin.

Richard Hope brings something more complicated to the key role of Hector, charismatic maverick teacher befouled by his own weaknesses as well as strengths, all too eagerly exploited both by colleagues and students. Christopher Ettridge’s apparatchik of a headmaster, so brisk in jumping on Hector’s sexual fumblings while patently seeing nothing wrong in his own advances to his secretary, contrasts beautifully.

Then there’s Irwin, the man with his own secrets who has been brought in to groom the boys for Oxbridge entrance examinations and interviews. Mark Field makes him so tight-lipped and buttoned-up that we all but squirm, while accepting that his approach may not win hearts but can ensure university (not to mention media) success. Susan Twist is the no-nonsense Mrs Lintott, who believes in facts and dates but is so much warmer than any Gradgrind.

Top marks all round.

The History Boys runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 11 July.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015