Thursday, 21 February 2019

Theatre Review: Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Dora Chance’s voice leaps off the page in Angela Carter’s 1991 swansong Wise Children, almost as if this most theatrical of novels is demanding to be staged. Yet, translating its bawdily exuberant multi-layered narrative into a play was never going to be straightforward, which is why, perhaps, it has waited in the wings until now.

In her new adaptation, first seen at London’s Old Vic last October, Emma Rice has simplified some elements but captured all the celebratory spirit of the original book. With her Kneehigh credentials of imaginative, anarchic storytelling and a new theatre company named after the Carter novel, Rice directs a comic and poignant confection of an acting dynasty beset by twins, adultery and incest.

You can almost smell the greasepaint, daubed on behind the scenes to cover the cracks and fissures of everyday existence. Vicki Mortimer’s eclectically detailed set includes a dilapidated caravan that serves as the family home and the play’s name emblazoned in lights. Against this board-treading backdrop, the Bard looms large: Dora and her twin sister Nora’s natural father Melchior is a notable Shakespearean actor, as were both his parents before him.

The story spans the thespian generations with a sprightly 75-year-old Dora taking on the lead narrator’s role. Played with confiding, twinkling warmth and pathos by Gareth Snook, looking back on her life, Dora is far from in her dotage: still able to "lift a leg higher than your average dog". Carter’s singular prose stalks in glorious Technicolor through the show, skewering its targets: 1980s gentrification creeping south of the Thames is "a diaspora of the affluent" while "comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."

Rice’s collaborative ethos is much in evidence. The ensemble cast embraces the challenge of subverting the obvious; characters fluidly swap gender, colour and age while breaking into seemingly spontaneous song and dance. Ian Ross’s score combines elements of original music with era-signalling favourites ranging from familiar show tunes to the 1980s vibrancy of "Electric Avenue".

Puppetry enhances the story of young Dora and Nora, born on the wrong side of the tracks in Brixton as the Zeppelins were falling. Ignored by their father, they are taken under the protection of his twin brother Peregrine, athletically played in the canary yellow tartan trousers and flowing red locks of his prime by Sam Archer. Ankur Bahl as Young Melchior is a theatrical distillation of disdain and ego while Paul Hunter switches between the larger-than-life funny man Gorgeous George and the faded glory of the older Melchior. Katy Owen is outrageous as the naturalist, foul-mouthed but good-hearted Grandma Chance while as showgirls Dora and Nora in their heyday, Melissa James and Omari Douglas combine the blinkered effervescence of youth with long-limbed sensuous grace.

In case there weren’t quite enough elements, thrown into the final mix is a spellbinding pivotal animation that transports the older Chance twins to respectable north London. The motif of Carter’s words "what a joy it is to dance and sing!’ rings out its peal repeatedly; Wise Children is vividly messy, rambunctious and melancholic, sometimes a paean to aging but always an affirmation of life.

Reviewed on 24 January 2019 | Images: Steve Tanner

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Theatre Review: Crimes on the Nile at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Belgian super-sleuth Artemis Arinae returns in New Old Friends’ latest comic murder mystery, set in a fictional Agatha Christie inspired golden age.

This Bath-based theatre company has built a reputation for good old-fashioned spoof silliness, underpinned by Feargus Woods Dunlop’s verbally dexterous scripts and some energetic well-timed multi-role-playing from a four-strong cast directed by James Farrell.

For those who have seen New Old Friends’ previous productions, the formula for Crimes on the Nile is an entertainingly familiar one. Because wherever she goes, even on holiday, Arinae is stalked by murder. This storyline finds our detective heroine ready to relax on board a cruise ship, impervious to the inevitable requests for investigative assistance, until tragedy befalls one of the other guests. Then it’s up to Arinae and her legendary intellect to identify the murderer before any further killings take place.

Elements seen in previous productions are nonetheless endearing: hats fixed in position on set with actors scurrying between them to portray different characters and doors opening and closing in rapid succession, as cast members deliver lines while switching back and forth between roles.

Still, there’s no shortage of new show inventiveness to savour: alliterative tongue-twisters and innuendo abound. Then there’s the rewinding of the timeline - with the cast reversing across the stage as the central clock whirrs back to the beginning of the trip, an ingeniously recreated crocodile encounter and the ever-enlarging perspectives of a fiercely competitive camel race.

The cast of four is hard-working and incredibly enthusiastic in serving up its archetypal array of character-based fun. Kirsty Cox as Arinae performs a pivotal role in delivering the narrative with aplomb; as the body count increases, so does the number of suspects - and it pays to keep an eye on that clock.

Husband and wife team Feargus Woods Dunlop and Heather Westwell delight in switching personalities with abandon (at the drop of a hat, you could say), from lascivious erotic novel writer Temperance Westmacott (whose every book includes wenches) to her overgrown and disapproving son Colossus and Hans Reichman, a doctor practiced in timing bodily functions with Germanic precision. Fergus Leathem fleshes out the ship’s booze-addled captain and other guests, from acrobatic Scottish lawyer Kirk McMiller to the convention-busting American steel magnate Marty Montgomery Jr, who euphemistically discloses a penchant for fish and red wine.

Occasionally this production could push even harder; there’s creative use of cases and trunks but the various levels of Connie Watson’s polished set are under-utilised. And the final timeline of events is devilishly hard to follow, until you decide it doesn’t really matter and go with the flow to the quick-fire set-piece saloon bar dénouement.

Yet, as New Old Friends grow in confidence, this could be their most ambitious and impressive production to date. Crimes on the Nile is a fast-paced, beguiling romp through the thriller genre; a combination of slick storytelling and new and old tricks. Lightening the mid-winter gloom with hearty chuckles, for sheer madcap fun, you could find it criminally hard to beat.

Reviewed on 16 January 2019 | Images: Pamela Raith Photography

Friday, 25 January 2019

Theatre Review: The Gift of Presents - Spielman Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

At some time during The Gift of Presents, you might reflect that, near the beginning of the show, you were offered the chance to leave. You’d already surprised Shesus at her birthday party and seen her perform some nifty Christmas-themed lip-synched routines with her two devout followers. Was this not an auspicious time to head for the exit, before things became even more disconcertingly interactive?

Though you may still wonder where it’s all heading, it’s testament to the talent of London-based trio Shesus and the Sisters that you’re glad you stayed. Part Christmas party with festive music, pass the parcel and a budget chocolate yule log, part commentary on the preoccupations and ills of today’s society both politically and personally, their energetically bonkers show has real inclusiveness and warmth.

This is the first time performing in Bristol for the company: Loose Baker, visually arresting in white robes with flowing locks as the multi-gendered drag-king Missiah Shesus, and twin sisters Lauren and Danielle Meehan as Mary Berry and Pauline Hollywood. With their red lips and brows on fleek, the two nuns may be wearing more make up than conventionally expected for their calling, but this is a party, after all.

The threesome works deceptively hard at entertaining, with fast-paced cabaret and quick-fire banter backed up by plenty of clowning. They indulge in some gleeful physical comedy, clambering about the intimate Spielman Theatre, distributing food and encouraging an assortment of mad-cap group activities.

There’s no shortage of tongue-in-cheek silliness, innuendo and off-the-cuff wit, as the audience sings along and rewrites a favourite Christmas song with more adult themes. It makes the mood-change even more startling when the performance swerves into spoken verse and the sort of fragile, heartfelt confessions that tend to come out when you’ve overindulged in the eggnog.

At times, their performance is vaguely based on a liturgical church service, though the opportunity to greet your neighbour has the potential to become something more extreme. At others, they veer towards paganism and the spirituality of rebalancing the universe and calling on the cosmos for group therapy and healing.

Perhaps it could do with a little trimming here and there, but, for all the daftness and improvised interaction, the show is underpinned by a solid structure and choreography that allows its performers to push the boundaries. Thought-provoking, entertaining and irreverent all in one, The Gift of Presents is the Mother Superior of Christmas parties and you won’t go to another quite like it.

Reviewed on 11 December 2018 | Images: Giloscope (Giles Smith)

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Theatre Review: The Borrowers at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Mary Norton’s magical 1950s tale of the tiny people who might be living under our floorboards is reimagined in a Bristolian setting by award-winning writer Bea Roberts. A message of inclusiveness - about the need to cherish our environment and show kindness to strangers however different they may be - is threaded through this captivating family Christmas show that fizzes with exuberance, inventiveness and fun.

The story is framed in the reminiscences of kindly Eddie from Merseyside, revisiting the house where he stayed as a 10-year-old boy. Beneath the boards at 23 Myrtle Avenue lived the minuscule Clock family, teenager Arrietty and her parents Homily and Pod.

Initially apprehensive but excited at the thought of sharing the house with some new ‘human beans’, the family’s contained existence is soon thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Eddie’s cleaning-obsessed Aunty Val, determined to update the inconveniently Victorian property in custard yellow and scour its every surface free of accumulated dust.

Quirky and buoyant original music composed by David Ridley, who also takes on the role of young Eddie, lifts the early pace of Nik Partridge’s direction, occasionally slowed by the amount of narration required from Simon Armstrong as the older, wiser Eddie. Once the context is established, the ever-present musicians weave in and out of the story, adding to its sense of whimsical enchantment. In the intimate setting of the Factory Theatre, there’s great fun to be had with differing scales. The Borrowers grapple with an array of oversized props, from a cotton bud wielded as a weapon to the protective shelter of an empty sardine tin, its lid half peeled away.

As Arrietty becomes emboldened in venturing above the boards, Rosanna Vize’s versatile set comes into its own. Clambering along horizontally suspended ladders and sliding down ropes, Arrietty meets Eddie and the pair form an unlikely and frowned-upon friendship, their size difference simply but ingeniously contrasted and alternating in perspective.

Jessica Hayles’s brave and curious Arrietty finds her longing to explore the larger world is fulfilled at a cost, but her sense of wonder as she runs through blades of grass far taller than her head is irresistible. Craig Edwards makes the most of his role as the risk-averse protocol-obsessed Pod and there’s a lovely lightness to Peta Maurice’s adventurous and worldly Homily.

Lucy Tuck, veteran of Tobacco Factory Theatre Christmas productions, steals the show with her every appearance as obnoxious Liverpudlian Aunty Val. She’s a one-woman whirlwind of tacky redecoration, vacuuming and barking at Eddie (and the audience) for cluttering up the place; her musical number as she single-handedly takes on a bevy of oversized dust balls is a riot.

When Aunty Val closes in on the perceived threat within her walls and musician Ellie Showering performs an uproarious cameo as pest-controlling Sheila, can Eddie do enough to save the Clock family from their fate?

Danger may come from unexpected sources but so does the prospect of a new beginning. The timeless story of The Borrowers shows us how it’s possible to be little yet still overcome great adversity with courage. This beautifully judged show in both performance and tone will surely bring a sprinkling of magic to people of all shapes and sizes this Christmas.

Runs until 20 January 2019 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Monday, 3 December 2018

Theatre Review: Rocky Shock Horror at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

The Wardrobe Theatre’s alternatively adult Christmas comedies have become something of a Bristolian institution over recent years, splicing together two popular genres with unlikely but hilarious results. They’ve previously bestowed Muppits Die Hard and Goldilock, Stock and Three Smoking Bears on an unsuspecting world.

Now, with Oedipuss in Boots about to open in their home venue, director Tom Brennan has revived 2016’s hit Rocky Shock Horror with a new cast and a tour of the south of England, kicking off in the Tobacco Factory. This madcap musical charting the increasingly surreal exploits of Rocky Featherboa is about to reach a whole new audience.

The clue, as always, is in the title; the 1976 film starring Sylvester Stallone about a small-time boxer who takes on the fight of his life collides with Richard O’Brien’s cult sci-fi parody The Rocky Horror Show. Down on his luck and low on self-esteem, Rocky’s life is going nowhere. Even his coach Mickey berates him and his relationship with Adrian, the shy girl he loves, is faltering thanks to some Trump-style locker room advice about what girls like from best friend Paulie.

The touring four-strong cast may not have had a hand in the script’s original devising, but they capture its spirit from the first; deliberately clunky and repetitive dialogue is tackled with comic overacting, dodgy Philadelphian accents and multi-rolling, gender-swapping verve.

There’s plenty of potential for chaos, but the show is elevated by its constant flow of clever, exposition-filled songs, split-second timing and smart choreography. There’s a riotous attempt at Thanksgiving, grappling with an over-sized turkey and an ingenious yet oddly poignant ice-dancing date in an abandoned skating rink. And when world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed materialises in flamboyantly unlikely boxing gear to issue his challenge, the storyline takes off into delightfully bonkers and risqué territory. For it’s not only the fight of Rocky’s life, but he must also take on a quest to save the whole of humanity…

Caitlin Campbell does an admirable job in the central role of Rocky, a gutsy but none-too-bright straight man with a good heart and a bad wig. Daniel Norford swerves between macho posturing (albeit in high heels) as Mickey and increasingly assertive femininity as Adrian, a heroine for the #MeToo generation. This is a woman in touch with her sexuality, taking what she wants when she wants it, once her coy veneer has been stripped away.

Kim Heron is a blur of dextrous physicality in the roles of Paulie and Riff-Raff, presiding over much of the action on roller skates. Meanwhile, Alex Roberts as Creed steals every millimetre of limelight whenever he appears; strutting about the stage and flirting with the audience, he’s the outrageously over-the-top brazen drag-queen of boxing.

Maybe in the second half the storyline becomes too bizarre and unresolved, but it doesn’t really matter, because the belly laughs keep on rolling. Rocky Shock Horror is the perfect antidote to traditional Christmas fare; a hugely enjoyable and audacious flashback to the seventies, with enough contemporary edge to keep its audience hooked.

Reviewed on 13 November 2018 | Images: Paul Blakemore

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Theatre Review: The Duke at The Spielman Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Rather than taking on an alter ego, Hoipolloi’s Shôn Dale-Jones is keen to emphasise he’s being himself in The Duke. And indeed, his hour of one-man storytelling feels very personal: a funny, heart-warming and poignant blend of real and imaginary events.

It’s a deceptively complex and contemporary tale that belies the fluency of its recounting to gnaw away at the relative values we ascribe to life and art, not only in financial but emotional terms as well. It’s also perfectly suited to the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory’s newly opened Spielman Theatre.

Shôn’s central thread is of a family heirloom, a Royal Worcester porcelain statue of the Duke of Wellington that his Dad bought as an investment in 1974 and kept under his bed, wrapped in sponge, to gradually increase in worth. After her husband’s death, while Shôn is working on a breakthrough film script, his mum calls him in disarray from Anglesey, to tell him that she’s accidentally broken The Duke.

Pushing aside a fast-approaching deadline for revisions that will tear the soul out of his script but mean his work might get financed, Shôn embarks on a mission to track down a replacement statue. But current events keep intruding into his consciousness; taking in the charity shops of his home town of Cambridge, he and his mother meet a refugee family—a mother of two young children whose husband has been left behind.

Seated at a desk, choreographing his own music and sound effects from his laptop, Shôn weaves these disparate strands together into a fantastical road trip to Anglesey. His mother, his film script and the refugee crisis all vie for his attention. You may never quite know how far real events are overtaken by inventiveness, but there’s a playful sense of which way the scales are tipping.

Though Shôn’s been touring this show since August 2016, he wasn’t the same man he was a year ago or will be in a year’s time, he says. He has the knack of drawing the world closer; alongside family, the political becomes personal, too. Sadly, the refugee crisis remains as pertinent as ever, but rather than dwell in guilt, he’s been doing something about it. Since he began, The Duke has raised nearly £50,000 for child refugees.

The Duke is an antidote to our divided times, emphasising connection and kindness. Told with charismatic wit and warmth it delivers an enduring message with the lightest of touches, that even if you can’t solve everything for everybody, it’s still possible to give what you can.
Reviewed on 30 October 2018 | Image: Brian Roberts

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Opera Review: WNO's La Cenerentola at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

WNO brings two heroines of diverging fortunes to Bristol this season; the tragic decline seen at the core of Verdi’s La traviata in stark contrast to the lighter-hearted triumph of virtue over greed in Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

First staged in Rome in 1817, this dramma giocoso of the Cinderella story may be missing the now familiar pumpkins and glass slippers but has a refreshingly assertive heroine who knows her own mind.

At the ball, Rossini’s Cinderella rejects the advances of the man she believes to be Prince in favour of the valet she has loved from the first. Rather than capitulate when his identity is revealed, she challenges her lover to recognise and still want her when she is dressed once again in rags. And, reflecting on her own good fortune, she generously forgives the selfish shortcomings of others who have shown her nothing but scorn.

It’s an essentially moral tale that combines the romantic arias of love at first sight with larger than life characters and a rousing male ensemble. WNO’s revival of Joan Font’s production, initially performed in 2007 and here directed by Xevi Dorca, plays it for full pantomime appeal. Designer Joan Guillén’s inventively visual spectacle is awash with primary colours: characters are robed in extravagantly lofty wigs and exaggerated silhouettes while dancing mice scuttle around the stage, a cross between teasing Greek chorus and scenery shifters. Though they have the potential to irritate, by the final curtain these velveteen rodents prove more endearing than distracting.

While there may be little subtlety in the setting, Tara Erraught’s central performance is full of confident nuance. A beguiling Angelina, she is as strong and fiery as she is loving and kind. Her mezzo is clear and controlled, mastering the difficult libretto with warm and silky tones. This Angelina endures the knocks of domestic servitude, but still dares to dream. Yet, while she takes a girlish delight in her transformation from rags to riches, her feet remain firmly on the ground. Happily-ever-after only comes to fruition here on Cinderella’s terms.

Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe combine strong vocal fluency with comic acting verve to form a magnificently vile double act as Clorinda and Tisbe, Cinderella’s self-regarding ugly sisters. Fabio Capitanucci as her indolent and gluttonous step-father Don Magnifico completes the despicable trio. These two-dimensional characters take such cartoonish delight in advancing their own cause that you could begin to boo them from the audience.

Matteo Macchioni brings a romantic dash to the role of Don Ramiro, rich and tender in his first act duet with Angelina. Yet at times he is in danger of being upstaged and over-sung by Giorgio Caoduro’s animated Dandini, the valet who relishes his role as the stand-in Prince a little too much.

Though the tempo is inclined to be fast-paced in some of the more reflective moments, Tomáš Hanus conducts with a flamboyance attuned to the greater part of the work, and WNO’s orchestra is as assured as ever. When the chorus of the Prince’s male attendants fills the stage, whether with pomp and ceremony or drinking revelry, it breathes life and exuberance into the scene.

It’s the apogee of a production that may lack some of the structural light and shade required by Rossini purists but is always full of sparkle.

Reviewed on 26 October 2018 | Image: Jane Hobson