Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Review of The Opinion Makers. Derby Theatre.

The Opinion Makers by Brian Mitchell & Joseph Nixon is playing at Derby Theatre from 13th - 23rd November and I highly recommend you grab your self a ticket or two for this fast paced and very funny musical show!

The Opinion Makers is directed by Daniel Buckroyd (Artistic Director of Mercury Theatre, Colchester), and this is co-production between Mercury Theatre, Colchester and Derby Theatre.

This new musical theatre show pokes satirical fun at the world of market research that was beginning rise dramatically through mass branding and rebranding in the 1960s. The world of advertising can be a truly fickle business. That product which is a hot hit may be freezing cold within a short period of time as brands chase out their competition through means foul and fair. Such a precarious way of making a living is ripe for satire and creators Brian Mitchell & Joseph Nixon have great fun making fun of the incompetent comical characters that people the fictional Fearnby marketing company plus others.

The hilarious cast often double up as another character with Julie Atherton as Mrs Campbell/Peregrine, David Mounfield as Mr Campbell/Donaldson, Daniel Boys as Penhall/Abramowitz, Justin Edwards solely as Mr Fearnsby, Stacey Ghent and Benjamin Stratton as actor/musicians and Mel Giedroyc as Lassiter/Migraine. There is also a super four person band featuring Dave Bernard, Adrian Oxaal, Fraser Patterson and Justin Shaw on drums.

The main action, comedy, song and dance takes place in a down beat London based marketing office in the 1960s but within a blink of an eye we are suddenly in several other venues through the manipulation of some simple but clever set pieces. The show is influenced by the comedy styles of the Carry On films and those typically British and satirical films by the Boulting Brothers.

Mel Giedroyc has some super funny moments as she lusts after her boss Mr Fearnby (Justin Edwards) and Julie Atherton is terrific as the feisty American Mrs Campbell constantly chasing the buck and the men with the bucks. This musical comedy has great ensemble work and all of the cast work well to bring out the fun and energy in this musical tale that pokes fun at the prospect of focus groups, the thought that the USA is bigger and better than the UK, that a computer is fast because it only takes four days to collect and churn out data and the luxury of teletype. So pop along to Derby Theatre and find out whether Doctor Campbell's Lotion is worth re-branding and have great nostalgic 1960s fun night in doing so.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Discussion of My Judy Garland Life at Nottingham Playhouse. A review.

There was an opportunity to attend a free discussion last night (10th November) at Nottingham Playhouse about the forthcoming play 'My Judy Garland life' based on the book by Susie Boyt and I attended, eager to learn more about the play that premiers in January/February 2014. The playwright is Amanda Whittington, a prolific and successful theatre writer from Nottingham.

The event began with an introduction from Nottingham Playhouse's Giles Croft who explained the proceedings and the opportunity to get a copy of Susie Boyt's book signed after the event. The actress Sally Ann Triplett was introduced on stage and sang a belting version of Judy Garland's 'The Trolley Song' from the film Meet Me In St Louis accompanied on the piano by Steve Sanders. Sally Ann will be playing Judy Garland in the new play and has a great talent and pedigree in the theatre and musical theatre.

We then welcomed and heard the author of 'My Judy Garland life', Susie Boyt reading from the book and she was very amusing with her childhood anecdotes. I paraphrase Susie's reading below.

Susie Boyt: I was a very sensitive little girl. I was the kind of child that if someone left a bit of mustard on the edge of the plate I'd really feel for that bit of mustard and do you know when you go to the supermarket and there's a little pile of items that people decide they don't want at the last moment. Well my heart used to go out to them and even now I try to buy one of them if I could possibly justify it in any way. I wasn't quite as bad though as the woman I saw on television once who used to cry every time she put the rubbish out because she was never going to see it again. Though I wasn't a million miles away. And it didn't help that my family had just returned from its biggest adventure just before I was born. When my Mum's Mum died she left her some money and my Mum brought a share in a rusty cargo ship and took her four small children round the world. And they had incredible adventures. They got stranded in Trinidad and had to sell limes and when they were in Denmark the crew mutinied and they had to eat my mother's face cream.

Everyone was always talking about their experience on the ship and it was nothing to do with me at all and people were always saying to me “You have got to toughen up. You've got to grow an extra layer of skin. You can't go round having all these feelings all the time or you're not going to have a happy life.” Which is quite a severe thing to say to a five year old. And yet one day my Mum took me to the cinema to see The Wizard of Oz. It was the first film I saw and when I heard Judy singing Over The Rainbow I thought, finally here is someone whose feelings seem to run as high as my own and she's not embarrassed about it. She's not ashamed of it, she's not hiding it. There was an instant smash of recognition between us. It felt to me that there couldn't possibly be better news than what she was communicating to me.

I had a record of The Wizard of Oz – not just the songs but the whole screenplay and I used to listen to it in my bedroom on my own and recite the film and so I'd be sitting in my room saying “That dog's a menace to community. I'm taking him to the sheriff to be destroyed!”. The more I listened to Judy Garland the more I felt that we cared about so many of the same things. Chiefly, the idea that the most important thing in life was making other people happy and I still believe that one of the best ways to improve the environment is to be 50% kinder to all friends and strangers and then just sit back and watch the world improve. And although I didn't understand Judy Garland's sorrows I saw that she had them and that they weighed heavily on her small frame and that she was a bigger person because of them. Like thousands of others before me I felt that just by listening to her I could somehow help. Even as a child I could see that Judy's courage was contagious. She must have been the most conscientious and and unreliable person that ever lived and I was conscientious and reliable. Chubby and intense – keen to stay a child for as long as possible, forever if I could manage it. I felt that the grown up world inhabited by my parents and my much older siblings was more dangerous than I could bear.”

Susie continued with a story about emulating Judy's dance routines by taking tap and dancing classes three days a week tutored by a Miss Audrey She worked hard and practised for hours using the mantelpiece in her bedroom as a barre. She said that she learnt a song called 'Friendship' which had the line 'if you ever lose your teeth when you're out to dine, borrow mine' and loved the idea that someday there might be somebody she might want to lend her teeth to! Her love of Judy Garland grew and after the death of her father Susie said that, although saddened, her outlook became positive and life, a little more possible and her strength of feeling that some saw as an affliction, Judy seemed to think could be the making of her. She went on to say:

“What does it say about this extraordinary performer that I felt so powerfully linked to her all my life? What does it say about me? But whatever strange alchemy has been at work between us the facts are these: I was there at her greatest triumphs and her greatest moments of despair and she has been at mine.”

There followed a short film clip of Judy Garland singing and washing up for a show. The lines called out for the listener to “Look for the silver lining and try to find the sunny side of life”.

In 1981 a fellow school friend of Susie Boyt got an expressive poem published in a school magazine and she confessed to the Nottingham Playhouse audience that she didn't know it was possible to have such thoughts and that she longed (inspired by Judy) for a life on the stage and all the alleged glamour of backstage life as portrayed in the MGM musicals. Then she read amusingly and in detail of how she readjusted her theatrical ambitions and went from downgrading herself from star to leggy chorus girl. Failing that the understudy job would do and maybe she could 'accidentally' cripple the star and rush out on to the stage in her place to great acclaim. Or maybe being the dresser or make up lady would be a possible career 'warmly soothing and smoothing – a sort of faithful human iron'. The stage door guardian and the box office lady both got considered as options and spoken about with wit and insight by Susie Boyt and then she slid down the ranks to ice cream seller clad in a maroon polyester tabard hankering for sequins. He maths teacher at school asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she that she shyly whispered that she'd like to be star of musical comedy to 'go on stage'. The maths teacher cruelly replied “Well, you'll have to shift an awful lot of weight before that's a possibility!”. Susie went on to say that later in life a friend was compiling an anthology of regrets. Susie told her that she always wanted to be a star of stage and screen. Her friend replied “That won't do as a regret because for something to qualify as a regret it has to be within the realms of possibility!”

The evening continued with an audio recording of Judy Garland being comical and diverting in an interview. Judy spoke about being in Paris with a chic friend who she felt made her look very un-chic and it was suggested she got her hair done by a French hairdresser who went to town and piled her hair up on top of her head in extravagant bunches. Predictably the tall hair started to collapse as she started to sing.

Susie Boyt retired – with great applause- from the Playhouse stage and Giles Croft invited Kath Rogers (director of the play My Judy Garland Life) and adapter/playwright Amanda Whittington on to the stage to talk about the process of the play making from the directorial and the writing angles. I was particularly interested in the play making part of the discussion – the process and the inspiration. This is because I want to further my writing for the stage and it is always good to learn from those who have success in the business.

The discussion considered the phenomenon that was Judy Garland and what stardom and fame does to you and what it is all about and that there is no better person to have as an example of that. Giles said that he telephoned Amanda Whittington and asked her if she was interested in writing a play about Judy Garland. Amanda replied that it took about a tenth of a second to exclaim a very keen “yes!”. There was an explanation from Amanda that she realised that there was a play in Judy Garland because of her very difficult life but she felt that the dark side of her experiences was a 'known' and very well reported. She went on to say that when you listen to the records you get all the heartfelt joy and the love and the life and the celebration and during her play writing research she wanted to find a different way in. She read Susie Boyt's book and was knocked out by it because it is so original and so different and because Susie is such an authority and fan there were such a plethora of left of centre stories about Judy Garland to exploit. I use the term exploit in a positive sense. Also there is the central relationship between Susie and Judy and Amanda could see great potential in that as a work for the stage.

Giles Croft then spoke to Kath Rogers and we discovered that Giles first met her when she was an actress at a theatre he ran before Nottingham Playhouse. Kath described her transition for actress to director and spoke of how a lot of actresses find at a certain age that work falls off a bit and how she had always been 'that annoying actor' who thinks they know better and wants to direct the play in their own interpretation. Now she is a director herself she says that she realises how 'appallingly annoying' it is. She continued saying that she works with students a lot and she always tells them “Let the director direct her version of the play and you can do yours another time.” Kath's first chance to direct came from Nottingham born, Jonathan Church, at Salisbury and she found that she really loved the responsibility of directing and that one is creating something with amazing talents.

Kath met Amanda Whittington through Amanda's play – the Will's Girls – which was adapted for a Bristol audience at The Tobacco Factory. Amanda explained that the play began with the title Players' Angels and she adapted for it Wills so that it was relevant to the Bristol audience. The play showed in the actual factory and was a big success. Lots of people who didn't normally go to the theatre came to see it because of the historical aspect and generations of their families had worked at the factory. Kath and Amanda went on to talk about other projects they had worked on including Radio Four and Tipping the Velvet which was an adaptation of the novel by Sarah Waters. A play about slavery followed and then Kath commissioned Amanda to write a play called The  Dug Out. I was very impressed with the creative output from Amanda and would love to aspire to be the same. In relation to the play 'My Judy Garland Life' Kath Rogers said, when asked, that she isn't a huge fan of Judy Garland but is of Liza Minelli and realises that in lots of ways they are quite similar.

On approaching the adaptation Amanda explained that in adapting a book for the stage a lot of the decision is what you leave out and it can be a bit of a wrestling match because there is such a wealth of material and a lot of it is narrative. You have to tease the play out of the original and make it theatrical – bringing it into the moment rather than story-telling and try to avoid a lot of narration. What was interesting was the relationship of Susie and Judy, both complex young women, although at different times, growing up, both with commonalities and dramatic urges. Although Judy was there for Susie in impressing her development as a girl and woman, Susie wasn't there for Judy of course but, as Amanda explained – in the play she is. The play dramatizes the emotional and spiritual truths of the characters through a collaging of interaction. Plus there is the musical element of live singing from the actress Sally Ann Triplett who plays Judy. We heard that the writing has gone through countless draughts and Amanda explained about a time when she and Kath met up and they chopped up the text into sections and moved them around the kitchen table to look at the scenes in a new light and perhaps new order, sometimes cutting scenes in half to see what happens. There had also been workshops with two actresses to develop the writing of the play. Kath explained that the new play is nothing like anything Amanda has written before. “A very distinctive piece of work” echoed Giles Croft. Amanda said that 'the more unreal the scenario got the real and truthful it became and a very strange kind of alchemy that happened. As soon as you freed yourself from naturalism the more believable it became.' Susie Boyt, in admiring this stage adaptation of her work said that it was - like a dream collage.

Another new pay by Amanda Whittington will be playing in the Nottingham Playhouse Neville studio at the same time as My Judy Garland Life. This is a very different show and is called Amateur Girl, a gritty drama about a young woman who turns to the world of filming amateur porn films as a way of getting extra income and her getting drawn into that seedy and dangerous world. This started life as a fifteen minute play written for BBC Woman's Hour and developed into a larger one woman show. The character Julie was originally played on the radio by Kath Rogers.

There followed a discussion about the nature of good and bad fans and how this is central to the book and one assumes, the new play. Actress Sally Ann Triplett told of her childhood where she used to sit and wait for the Judy Garland MGM films to appear on the telly because there was no video facility to watch them at random times and that was the thing she loved. She also loved Betty Davis and Al Jolson was her hero even to the point of her doing impressions of him at school with white bits of paper round her eyes and mouth and got detention for it. Later in life she played Jolson's wife in a musical about the entertainer. Sally Ann illuminated the fact that Garland too meant a lot to her and that it wasn't her (Garland) but her energy that she admired and feels that she herself has a similar kind of performing energy to draw on. It was all about how Garland felt. It had to be 100% or not at all.

It was a very joyous discussion and we continued with a question and answer session. Questions ranged from “Aren't you a bit young for admiring an old timer like Judy Garland?” to one aimed at Susie asking “Why do you need another author to adapt your book into a stage play when you could do it yourself?” The answer to that was an embellished version of 'no, because it is a very different discipline and mind set writing a play to an autobiography or novel and it would be very hard for the original author to make choices in editing and making the work a theatre piece'. The first question was also answered and explained by Sally Ann Triplett as the love of Judy Garland and similar artists from the period they lived and performed in was a beloved legacy of the family all enjoying the films at the cinema and the telly. Also the actress feels sympathy for Judy Garland in her weakest moments as she was controlled by the movie bosses and felt dis-empowered and turned to alcohol and drugs to cope and this still continues with people this day. On a positive note Judy Garland as the entertainer still is very present in our culture today with children and adults still loving the famous film, The Wizard of Oz and others.

My own question (gentleman in grey sweater) was around the writing process as I was intrigued to hear about this dissecting of the script and laying it out on the table and asked if the working process had been used before. Amanda explained that she had never used that process before and always thought that it might be a particularly useful creative thing to do but it never seemed relevant to other things that she had done. She spoke of Bowie and how he famously used to write his lyrics like that and reconstruct the feel and text by tossing it all up in the air. Amanda felt it work because for this particular piece, it is not a linear journey, it doesn't start at a beginning, have a middle and an end. It goes backwards and forwards in time so the structure and where we place certain events didn't have to be chronological and it just felt right to get he Pritt Stick and the scissors and chop away at it and physically try and make this thing sit together properly. Kath interjected saying that there were certain bits of Susie's book that we wanted to 'get in' could be set in different places theatrically. She continued by saying that anecdotes and scenarios drawn from the book helped form the narrative and that by reconstructing the story in this way helped them find out the emotional core of what the play was about.

Amanda explained that writing is mainly a solitary process but there are times when you work alongside a director or someone involved in a literary capacity and it can be brilliant to have two heads looking at the work and talking it through, figuring it all out. That to her as a playwright is very valuable that right from the early days of the process that is someone else is involved to give another viewpoint in the story and aid with the mechanics of script development.

Susie Boyt said that when she was writing the original book that she wanted those transitions between Judy and herself to have a flavour and the reader to have no idea about what was coming next. Giles Croft said that he first came across the book whilst driving to work and listening to the radio and it worked wonderfully and playfully on the imagination and that is why he thinks it would work equally wonderfully as a play.

Sally Ann Triplett sang us out with a great rendition of The Man That Got Away.

The event ended with an appeal from Giles Croft to the audience members to consider the effects that the local proposed County Council cuts to the Playhouse grant funding might have and for us to make our feelings known through various forums including the County Council website.

Susie Boyt was available to sign copies of her book after the event and I for one can't wait to see (and possibly review) Amanda Whittington's new play in January/February 2014

The play runs from Friday 31st January to Saturday 15th February 2014

Nottingham Playhouse Box Office is 0115 9419419

Sally Ann Triplett's own website can be viewed here.

Playwright Amanda Whittington's website can be viewed here.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Review: Nottingham Operatic Society. Oklahoma! 2013.

For Nottingham Live.
Oklahoma! by Rogers and Hammerstein is considered one of the major American musicals to change the style and fortunes of American musical theatre from the mid 1940s to what we enjoy today. Oklahoma! is presently seventy years old and still as popular as ever.

With this youthful production by Nottingham Operatic Society, directed by musical stalwart, Steve Williams, it seems that regardless of your age there is plenty to enjoy. Even before the show starts we are presented with a huge map of the USA painted on the gauze. As we scan the various states it comes across just how massive a land mass it is and makes you consider how different the world might have been in the America of the characters in Oklahoma!.

For those that are already familiar with the show there is the expectation of ranch hand Curly singing the most famous song of all – 'Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' – and it is sung with great warmth and assurance by handsome new member, Junior Harding. Harding makes Curly instantly likeable and like most of the characters in this show, someone we care about . As the story begins we want to know if he is going to get together with the girl of his dreams. The girl in question is the pretty but aloof Laurey, played and sung to perfection by Nottingham Operatic Society newcomer Lauren Gill performing her d├ębut with the Society.

Others of note are Alison Hope as the warm hearted and concerned Aunt Eller, Simon Theobold sympathetic and humorous as the hopeless pedlar Ali Akim and Grace Gallagher utterly lovable as flirtations and gullible Ado Annie. Gallagher's rendition of 'I Cain't Say No!' is one of the highlights of the show. It is a very strong ensemble that work well during the top notch choral singing and display great humour throughout but, the strongest performance came thundering out of the 'villain' Judd played with superb conviction and depth by Meng Khaw. His whole performance from his first deep grunt to his end said 'trouble' and his singing of the song 'Lonely Room' was chilling.

The entire cast seem to be having a ball and that - as they might say in Oklahoma – this is mighty comforting for the appreciative audience. We can sit back and relax. The performances are certainly augmented by some fabulous set pieces, from Aunt Eller's veranda to Judd's solid and sordid barn and to the more surreal dream sequence that takes us from corn field to bordello.

It is a large cast and they populate the stage well with their authentic cowboy and ladies period fashions. The choreographed numbers directed by Denis Palin are exceptionally good and feel natural to the piece, not tagged on and each performer comes across as an individual character.

For a wonderful, nostalgic night out at the theatre jump on your 'Surrey With A Fringe On Top' and trot down to see Oklahoma at Nottingham's Theatre Royal playing 6th to 9th November.

Phil Lowe

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Review: Balletboyz – the Talent. Derby Theatre. November 5th 2013

Co-produced by Sadlers Wells – Balletboyz-the Talent (ten very impressive professional male ballet dancers) electrified the Derby Theatre stage with two challenging ballet works. The fine attention to detail to every single body position, move and extension, the juxtapositions, the incredible balancing acts of male body against male body – still – gliding or in flight – held the mainly youthful audience in rapture. Once the lights went down and we were presented with a short film and the first dance sequence nary a sweet wrapper rustled across the auditorium. Such was the respect and admiration for this company.

Each of the two dance pieces is announced by a short film about the Balletboyz company's inner workings and rehearsals plus the two choreographers ideas and inspirations. The first work is called Serpent with music by Max Richter. It is choreographed by Liam Scarlett.The supine dancers create the abstract world of gliding and linked/unlinked serpents with utter fluidity, visual poetry, coiling and striking rivals through the medium of ballet. Throughout the dance and Richter's music amplified water drops punctuate the movement and the lighting by Michael Hulls works well with the near bare dancers. The over all effect is stunningly beautiful.


The second ballet work, Fallen, choreographed by Russell Maliphant is a completely different artistic animal. This piece is densely industrial in feel. The music by Armand Amar rises and falls to a dull beat and the dancers, clothed in quasi fatigues spiral from without a scrum and the bodies pulse and dive and spin like elastic crouching dervishes in green pools of light. The dancing becomes more and more animated and is impressive (perhaps an understatement) as bodies begin to fly across the stage as if light as feathers. Then the Balletboyz use balance to an extraordinary degree throughout manner of acute body angling and brave falls and catches. This is certainly a brave dance company and are acclaimed throughout the world for their depiction of forms old and new in ballet.


The Derby Theatre audience rose as one and gave the guys a well deserved standing ovation. Catch them if you can! 'Real men wear tights' as their t-shirts say.

Phil Lowe

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Stage Writing Development Project for all writers

A Stage Writing Development Project for all writers
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is inviting emerging and established writers throughout England to take part in Playwrights’ Progress, an inspiring new script development project, FREE to the chosen participants with all expenses paid. This is a major promotion run in partnership with Royal Central School of Speech &... Drama (RCSSD) and Leicester Square Theatre.
The project (open to Guild and non-Guild applicants) aims to give writers the opportunity to progress their career paths. Four will be chosen to attend a three day, intensive workshop to develop their exciting new scripts in progress. The best work from the workshops will be showcased by actors of the highest calibre, at Leicester Square Theatre to an audience of invited literary managers, directors and producers.

Funded by the Arts Council England and The Writers’ Foundation (UK), with substantial support from the RCSSD and Leicester Square Theatre, this project has been set up by the Guild to promote writing through education and training. The scheme is open to all writers, at any stage of their careers, to enable them to work on their unperformed plays with professional actors, directors and dramaturges of the highest calibre.

To apply, candidates should:
Submit one hard copy plus an electronic copy of a draft of an unpublished, unperformed dramatic piece. Initially this needs to be the first act only (drawn from a full-length script of maximum running time of 2 hours 30 minutes). The text should include a cast list, essential production notes plus a resume/ scenario of the whole piece. A shortlist of contenders will then be drawn up and these will be asked to submit their full scripts for the final selection.

• Submit a brief biography of your experience and career to date, which must include at least one production for public performance or equivalent publication.

• Include a letter of application, of no more than 500 words, setting out your reasons for wanting to develop this piece, its potential as a drama and your aspirations for it. And why this experience would be valuable in terms of your personal development as a writer. This letter should also include all your contact details plus a stamped, addressed envelope if you wish your script to be returned.
The initial read-through workshops will take place in London in the week beginning 3rd March 2014, followed by the three day workshops held from 1 - 4 April. The public showcasing at Leicester Square Theatre will take place in the week beginning 4th May.
All applications and hard copies should be sent to the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, 40 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4RX, FAO Richard Pinner by the 11th December 2013. Electronic copies should be sent to
Owing to the considerable task of selection, it will not be possible to offer a critique or respond to those candidates who have not been selected. But if you have any questions or need more information about this project then please do not hesitate in contacting Richard Pinner.