Thursday 21 March 2019

Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide 

Launching the Tobacco Factory Theatres’ 2019 repertory season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings the shock of the new to this most familiar of Shakespeare’s works. The Factory Company’s vigorously driven production translates the traditional Athenian setting into a dystopian near-future Britain, re-examining the dynamics of the play’s central relationships and bestowing a stripped-back clarity on its interwoven stories.

Director Mike Tweddle, returning after last year’s successful inaugural productions of A View from the Bridge and Beautiful Thing, has cleverly updated the relationships between the four lovers with some judicious gender switching. As Lysander becomes Evlyne Oyedokun’s impassioned Lysanda, in love with Hermia, it becomes clearer to a modern audience why Egeus might forbid them from marrying. And Joseph Tweedale’s sparky Helenus, determined to reclaim the affection of Demetrius, introduces a fluid contemporary edge to the confusion of the foursome’s fast-shifting allegiances in the night-time forest.

Nor is Tweddle afraid to push the work’s boundaries in terms of its political setting. Anna Reid’s design and some haunting original music recreate a dark and often frightening place where, in disobeying her father’s wishes, Hermia genuinely fears for her life. The tension between Charleen Qwaye’s brooding Hippolyta and Luca Thompson’s dictatorial Theseus introduces an intriguing power play and the pair’s additional take on Titania and Oberon is equally ferocious, creating a sexual chemistry that is lacking in some of the other couplings.

The flip-side of this bleak realpolitik energy, however, is that some of the play’s evocative, dreamlike quality seeps away. Rather than magical, the forest becomes an earthy and sinister setting, where Kim Heron’s sprightly Puck deploys her mischief-making with a menacing edge. Titania’s fairy attendants are more akin to a subversive tribe, comedically surly rather than enchanting in their endeavours. At times, this can lead to a feeling of imbalance between the narrative’s separate strands, that there is not enough lightness in the dark.

That said, the comedy is exceptionally well crafted. The fairies’ effortful transportation of Titania around the forest in a roll-top bath on a pallet lifter and Oberon’s distinctive spell-casting style are nice touches. The Rude Mechanicals are a convincingly raggle-taggle amdram bunch, their chaotic rehearsals trounced by the final laugh-out-loud performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, complete with inappropriate costumes and a farcical wall.

Heather Williams is an engagingly boisterous and playful buffoon as Bottom, both with and without her ass’s ears. Meanwhile, Dan Wheeler’s Flute, arriving at rehearsals by bike in a yellow high-viz jacket and helmet, painfully gabbling his lines before discovering an affinity for playing in drag, is particularly affecting.

The multi-rolling cast is solid throughout, though the heightened energy means that some verse-speaking rhythm is inevitably lost in the momentum. While not everything may quite come off, the vision is to be applauded; this is a bold and refreshing take on Shakespeare’s classic tale that questions and entertains in equal measure.

Reviewed on 5 March 2019, runs until 6 April 2019 | Images: Mark Dawson Photography

Monday 18 March 2019

Theatre Review: Kinky Boots at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide 

Bristol Hippodrome makes way for the industrial north, as an ailing Northampton shoe factory takes centre stage on the latest stop in the Kinky Boots UK tour. Adapted from the 2005 film of the same name and based on real events, the hit musical has garnered a clutch of awards since its 2012 Chicago première for its book and original score penned by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper.

When Charlie Price’s father dies unexpectedly, Charlie’s new life in London with his fiancée Nicola is turned upside down. He returns to his family’s factory to find it making high quality, long-lasting shoes that nobody wants any more. The workers’ future seems grim until Charlie bumps into drag queen Lola and hits upon the idea of catering for a niche market: flamboyant thigh-high boots, whose current shoddy construction is snapping under the concentration of a drag artist’s manly weight on a sliver of stiletto.

Recreating his original tight direction and choreography for the tour, Jerry Mitchell’s ensemble numbers are never short of spectacular, although they could occasionally be sharper both musically and lyrically. But to really fly, the show demands a larger-than-life powerhouse performance from Lola. Here Kayi Ushe - having recently taken over the role from the stalwart Callum Francis who now fronts the Broadway production - is staggeringly good.

Ushe’s Lola explodes onto the stage complete with his bevy of Angels, a coterie of drag artists who fill the drab industrial setting with song, dance and inventive acrobatics. Gregg Barnes’s costumes are a riot of colour and sequins and the Angels’ performance on the factory’s conveyor belt as they anticipate strutting the Milan catwalk in the ensemble number “Everybody Say Yeah” is a visual feast.

Ushe is equally believable dressed as a man, tentative and vulnerable as he bonds with Charlie over the weight of paternal expectations thrust upon them. “Not My Father’s Son” is a poignant counterpoint to the extravaganza of the louder numbers and provides a moment of real emotional heft. “Hold Me in your Heart”, performed by Lola as though to an audience of thousands, also allows for a moment of bittersweet closure.

The exploration of personal identity and move to acceptance of diversity from all the leads is well balanced; a little predictable maybe but celebratory and never preachy. Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie makes the most of his less showy central role, and there are strong performances from Paula Lane as factory worker Lauren (swooning comedically through her big solo number “The History of Wrong Guys”) and Demitri Lampra as the recalcitrant Don, whose journey to inclusivity is the furthest and perhaps most endearing one of all.

The story is supplemented by a romantic subplot, as materialistic Nicola (Helen Ternent) shows her true colours and Lauren finds herself falling for her boss. There’s some nifty staging - such as the slow-motion boxing match in act two - and whip-smart one-liners (as his disapproving father succumbs to lung cancer, Lola quips that the fags got him in the end). Though there’s never much doubt about the final outcome, it’s still a delight to watch how everything that seems to fall apart is stitched together again during the exuberant dénouement in Milan.

Reviewed on 26 February 2019 | Images: Helen Maybanks

Thursday 7 March 2019

Book Review: Welcome to the Heady Heights by David F. Ross

Archie Blunt is one of life's also-rans, scratching a living in 1970s working-class Glasgow. But he's a man with big dreams and a beady eye for an opportunity. Sacked from his bus conductor's job, he begins working as a chauffeur for one of the city's most notorious bookies, only to find himself with a celebrity passenger in the form of the renowned talent show host Hank 'Heady' Hendricks. When Archie inadvertently saves Hendricks's life in a bizarre confrontation, he seizes the chance to audition his new singing group made up of five callow youths from Glasgow's East End. Before he knows it, he and The High Five are on an unexpected path to fame and fortune, but there are complications ahead, as some powerful enemies with too much to lose threaten to catch up with him.

Reading the synopsis for this novel instantly brought to mind Roddy Doyle's The Commitments, transplanted from Dublin to a Glaswegian setting. But while The Commitments harks back to an earlier musical era, Welcome to the Heady Heights is immersed in 1970s British culture. There's no shortage of allusions to real events for those (like me) who were around at the time to revel in nostalgically. David F. Ross's playful take on the talent show Opportunity Knocks, complete with its charismatic presenter - catchphrases and all - and infamous clap-o-meter measuring audience reaction, is a delight.

Heady Hendricks certainly embraces the latest fashions:
He wore a fawn three-piece suit with a large-collared shirt open at the neck. It revealed a large coruscating disc of silver, nestled comfortably into a nest of dark hair, like an alien spacecraft that had landed in a dense forest clearing. Shiny black hair was slicked back from a widow's peak, giving Heady the air of a seductively tanned Ray Reardon. A pencil-thin black moustache hinted at charismatic menace. His flattened boxer's nose made him look like a bank robber sheathed in American tan.
Ross also draws a fine parody of the workplace hell endured by women police officers at that time, taunted with relentless sexism, relegated to making tea and accompanying the wives of public figures on their shopping expeditions. But for all its laugh out loud moments, there's plenty of darkness and grit in the mix. WPC Barbara Sherman strives to advance beyond her menial duties and, while investigating a missing person's case, stumbles upon a plot that stretches all the way from a notorious homeless hostel in Glasgow to a shady amoral club of the entitled elite known simply as 'The Circle'.

The lonely and hapless Archie may have the legendary Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files as an imaginary friend but, as he gets in over his head, he's in danger of meeting a violent end. This is an enjoyable helter-skelter ride of multiple perspectives with an exceptionally strong sense of place. Filled with larger-than-life characters, the strong Glaswegian dialect may occasionally prove a little difficult to decipher for those of us born south of the border, but hold on in there for the twisted thrills and spills along the way.

Welcome to the Heady Heights is published in paperback by Orenda Books on 21st March 2019. Thanks to the publishers for my review copy.