Saturday, 28 February 2015

Review Tony's Last Tape at Nottingham Playhouse.

Andy Barrett's new one act play 'Tony's Last Tape' has a few similarities with Samuel Beckett's play 'Krapp's Last Tape'. Both the playwright's names end with a double T, both plays reference the obsessive documenting of a full life through tape machines, and both have a single old man in a scruffy dressing gown as the hero. Plus at some point both heroes pull out a banana from a drawer and eat it. The banana that is – not the drawer.

This act of the eating the banana happens early on in Tony's Last Tape and there were a few knowing visual and verbal nods in the packed Neville Studio audience at this reference. In fact the whole play is about referencing a personal past and in many of the audiences' minds and political leanings – reverence. For the subject was not Krapp but the late Tony Benn, a divisive Labour politician. The rapt Nottingham audience appear to be made up, almost entirely, of Labour supporters enjoying the jokes and the wit of a political man. Barrett's new play is especially commissioned by Nottingham Playhouse as part of their Power and Politics season.

Throughout the play we learn that Benn was born in 1925 and christened Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, a set of names he grew up to dislike and much preferred to be plainly called Tony Benn. In his working life he served as a Labour politician and member of Parliament for 47 years and his political bias was to the far left.

Actor Philip Bretherton plays Benn brilliantly in this studio based production. The play is set in a writing room at Benn's home, a cluttered mess of books, files and papers crammed on a solid looking set of bookshelves and an equally cluttered desk at which the protagonist often sits and scrabbles about in its deep drawers. Ostensibly, Bretherton as Benn is there in a private hour to record another section of his memories onto various tape machines all running simultaneously – a loop to loop on top of the book shelves and two cassette recorders on the desk itself. The random nature of his taped expositions cover his opinions of former politicians with whom he worked or opposed, the various strikes he supported, his time as an MP for Bristol South East and his Socialistic motivated trips to Russia and to China. Bretheron puts all these across in such a fascinating and impassioned way through his interpretation of Andy Barrett's writing and the direction of Giles Croft that, even if you haven't a great interest or knowledge of politics, it still very much engages as a play.

Saying that, it is not all about national politics and one man's experience of socialism. We hear too about Benn missing his wife Caroline who died in the year 2000 and he amusingly refers to his own lack of DIY skills in the home. We get a practical example at one point late into the play where the actor Bretherton has to gingerly clamber up on top of his desk in order to change a light bulb. Even as he did so a joke without an answer popped into my head “How many Labour politicians does it take to change a light bulb?” Like any good researcher I found an answer. “None, they do not have a policy for that.”

We also hear of his time as young man in the RAF – a subject which is weaved cleverly into the story and often serves to illustrate other subjects through the viewpoint of a daring young pilot. Throughout the play Philip Bretherton embodies the dogged spirit of this political radical that had more compassion for the people he served than the political personalities he served with – with a few exceptions such as PM Jim Callaghan.

In short we come away with a picture of a complex impassioned man, a vegetarian, a pipe smoker and a self confessed drinker of far too much coffee. We too discover that after retirement from politics and endless writing of published diaries and memoires he was taken up as a contemporary hero by the young and considered a man with a great sense of humour and personal vision.

'Last' is an ambiguous word. It can mean most recent as well as ultimate. At the very end of the play we discover the meaning of this word in relation to the play's title. In Barrett's superb script the actor as Benn considers death and the often unknown causes thereof. He says that his own death might be from cancer, from a heart attack, natural causes or even potassium poisoning from eating far too many bananas. In gentle defiance he eats yet another banana and on departing the stage considers what 'Last' for him actually means. But that would be telling. It's probably on one of his tapes.

Tony's Last Tape played at Neville Studio Nottingham Playhouse until 28th February

Review originally published by The Public Reviews 27th February

Photo credits Robert Day

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Review: How to Breathe at the Neville Studio Nottingham Playhouse.

Mufaro Makubika's play 'How to Breathe' is a play that truly takes the audience under its protagonist's wing to hear his hour long story. We are seated within the playing space on army beds and plastic chairs. In the middle of the space, that acts like a theatre in the round but also as a promenade, is a young soldier asleep. Above the audience hang around forty lamps such as we might imagine situated in a modern army barracks. The design is by Sarah Perks. Sara has designed for over 140 productions and for a wide variety of theatre's, venues, sites and genres and the class shines through. Sarah has also been Associate Designer at Mercury Theatre, Colchester and English Touring Theatre. She has a brilliant pedigree and her website can be seen at The sound design in this piece was developed through Poetical Machines based in Derby. In reviewing a play these aspects are often omitted but without these talents we would have a much lesser experience in theatre going. So on to the piece itself:

The audience is peculiarly quiet on entering the Neville Studio and seat themselves respectfully almost to the point of not wanting to disturb the sleep of the incumbent soldier. Such is the atmosphere set that, unusually, there is no audience pre-show chit chat – no rattling of sweets – no ghostly mobiles glowing in the semi dark or going off during the play or pre-amble. 8pm precisely, the lights flicker, go out and a spotlight suddenly shines on the soldier  – his small framed body now up on the defensive - his fingers at the proverbial trigger - and himself slightly panicked from a bad dream. His breathing is rapid. His mouth is dry. His dark intelligent eyes wetly survey the audience in the gloom of the space. Already we are rapt.

Trevor Mugarisanwa plays new army recruit Joseph Tambo as he is about to leave for his first tour to Afghanistan. With a smile he explains to the audience that his army mates call him Toke. Toke is short for token black soldier. Mugarisanwa's character doesn't have a problem with that. Although he is an immigrant from Zimbabwe and his skin colour is black he sees the nickname as a bonding element of soldier-hood. In a very confident and ultimately confiding portrayal Mugarisanwa explains about his childhood, his one best friend, his connections back home, his decision to migrate to Great Britain, his love of football and  his very particular and individual experiences as a migrant.

Writer Mufaro Makubika has written a wonderful one man show that has legs. By this I mean that I can see it being performed in other small venues across the world. Many people have experiences as migrants and Makubika's writing brings out the personal story through a likeable character who often wonders if he has done the right thing by joining the army. His character's dialogue negates the fear and transfers the guilt/pressure onto others that are the un-named; those new recruits under pressure being of being weeded out. Not only that but he himself  has joined the army without telling his parents. More guilt. This decision loses him friends but allegedly also gains him new friends in his unit. This decision however could literally cost him his life – you might say -  take his last young breath away from him. This is a theatrical journey that takes a lively and engaging young man who engrosses his spell bound audience in his tales – employs dance as a medium of expression, colluding laughter as a method towards developing kinships.

Through the director Esther Richardson's expert hands 'How To Breathe' is a sell out show at Nottingham Playhouse's Neville Studio offering Trevor Mugarisanwa a professional acting opportunity outside of his student work at East 15 drama school and the writer Mufaro Makubika a realised chance at exploring the complexities of immigration by telling a story that he feels is rarely told. From the breath comes the word and from words come means of expression. 'How To Breathe' is a story beautifully expressed from both parties. Nottingham Playhouse should also be praised for giving new work a chance to breathe and be heard.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Review and insight into Inside Out of Mind at Derby Theatre

The best description for the extra-ordinary play 'Inside Out Of Mind' written and directed by Tanya Myers is this passage found on the Nottingham University website.

'Inside Out of Mind' is an innovative new play depicting life on a dementia ward based on research from a team of ethnographers led by Justine Schneider, professor of Mental Health and Social Care in Nottingham University's School of Sociology and Social Policy. The project brought together playwright Tanya Myers with director Stephen Lowe of Meeting Ground theatre group and a team of ethnographic researchers to create a workshop production which brilliantly illustrates the multiple realities of life on a dementia ward. Unlike some theatre commissions which have explicit educational directives or messages to deliver, the playwright was given total freedom with the resulting outcome representing a triumph of imagination and inspiration which has the potential to reach a wide general audience.'

The play delivers even as the audience are finding their seats and in a packed house at Derby Theatre we are given the vision of electrical impulses softly exploding in a complex forest of nerves projected on to the set. The scene is frankly magical and thoroughly magnetic. Not only do we have the visual of the live projection but also live figures abstractly moving about in their duties or in their residence. This surreality is further deepened and enhanced by an amazing soundtrack of voices and music bleeding in and out of the action. This soundtrack is supremely created and orchestrated by David Wilson. The impression is that you are seated in someone's very confused brain listening to the thoughts and outside vocal impressions and trying to make a sense of it all – and failing. As someone who has had a male aged in-law go through dementia and alzheimer's this opening scene, for me, was very moving.

Playwright Tanya Myers has written that she wants the play, written from the heart, to touch people's hearts and judging from the first night audience reactions it certainly did that. You could have heard a pin drop throughout – except for natural reactions to the dramas unfolding and some gentle laughter in appropriate places. So, may we then, as humans, question whether dementia a thing to laugh at? Well, in fact in the programme professor Justine Schneider says this “ The NHS sponsors have been crucial partners in recognizing the importance of enabling all of their staff to have a better understanding of dementia and even to laugh at it: this is a very funny play – people leave laughing.” My humble opinion is this theatrical result is less a laughing at and more laughing with through love and sympathy.

The second half where the 'ward with no name' residents are dressed up to celebrate Halloween is particularly funny. Further on where we are told of, and shown. the emotional impact and the practicalities of a person in care dying - are tenderly and poetically done. The realities of being a member of staff in such a ward are also spoken of – directly and individually to the audience in short monologues. Many of the scenes in the play are beautifully accentuated by projections and multimedia and these lend even more depth – you might say great emotional depth - to an already deep and meaningful subtly nuanced and stylised production. Birds, birdsong and the flight of birds are a common metaphor in this play, to our fleeting life experience as humans and certainly of freedom.

I feel compelled to name all of the actors as they all deeply contribute to the extra-ordinary portrayal of human existence in the dementia ward shown on stage in 'Inside Out of Mind'. Each plays a variety of roles, carer, nurse, doctor, patient, lover or HCA workers and they morph into their new persona as the stories unfold with consummate professional ease. So we have: Robin Bowerman as Mr P aka Gabriel Proust, Joanna Macleod as Muriel/HCA Brenda, Ulrike Johannson as Gertie/HCA Hazel and Lily Lowe Myers as Sophie. The rest of the super cast are Anna Mottram as Anna Bissett/RGN Patricia, Jim Findley HCA Raj/Tom Bissett, Maxine Finch as Elsie/RGN Grace, Robin Simpson as HCA Keith/George/Dr Dido and finally Rebecca de Souza in a fine a sensitive performance as the newcomer nurse Youth.

Without the combined talents of Nettie Scriven (designer), Richard Statham (lighting designer) and Barret Hodgson (digital media designer) 'Inside Out of Mind' and the backing of the University of Nottingham and Lakeside Arts would be a good but a lesser show. The combination of all the creative teams make it extra-ordinary. 'Inside Out of Mind plays until Saturday 21st Feb 2015 at Derby Theatre then tours to the following venues. Catch it while you can – it could change your life or your perception of the lives of others in dementia. Very respectfully – you would be mad not to!

Derby Theatre Wednesday 18- Saturday 21 February

Nottingham Lakeside Arts Tuesday 24 – Saturday 28 February

Canterbury Gulbenkian Theatre Tuesday 3- Friday 6 March

Warwick Arts Centre Tuesday 10 – Friday 13 March

Exeter Northcott Theatre Tuesday 17 – Friday 20 March

Curve Leicester Tuesday 24 – Friday 27 March

For the tweeters amongst us check on all the latest chat on #inoutofmind

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Five star review: Posh at Nottingham Playhouse.

This regional première of Laura Wade's 'Posh' a stunningly conceived and brilliantly written play about uber privilege and pomposity hits the Nottingham Playhouse stage like a shattering glass of the wrong sort of wine served up by the wrong sort of person. Snobbery and cut glass accents abound and some of the characters are so upper class arrogant that you would willingly punch them for their self-important ways and exclusive and ultimately damaging social and political ideals. Saying that it is very funny and gasp out loud controversial in parts. This is a co-production between Nottingham Playhouse and Salisbury Playhouse and only the second production after its Royal Court/ West End début. The packed audience this evening are testament to the play's savage humour and well earned credentials.

The almost predominantly male cast are superbly cast as young Oxford students from very socially advantaged and moneyed backgrounds where they blithely forgive their own criminally riotous behaviour by paying the victims off with wads of cash. Chris, a gastro pub landlord - convincingly played by Neil Caple (the action is mostly in a fancy suite in a pub) finds his guests progressively trashing his establishment and abusing his daughter and is expected to take all the abuse as long as he isn't left out of pocket. All sentiment for the human victims goes out of the window like the hired prostitute who refuses to take part in their lurid games.


The two women's roles are both strong characters. We have call girl Charlie played with a firm grip on reality by actress Joanne Evans. Evans also sings beautifully in Latin during the dramatic scene changes and creates the mood for the ever darker episodes of the play. The landlord's quick witted daughter is captured wonderfully by Charlotte Brimble – a recent graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. To balance the practically all male acting ensemble we have an all female creative team with director Susannah Tresilian at the helm. The use of theatrical space through Tresilian's directorship is exemplary aided with Ellan Parry's terrific set realisation.


The boys played by Tom Clegg, Dario Coates, Simon Haines, Tom Hanson, Robbie Jarvis, Laurence Kennedy, Philip Labey, Jordan Metcalfe, Tom Palmer, and Jamie Satterthwaite, are portrayed as just that - adults masquerading as - immature 'boys'. Even though a few of the well drawn and complex characters give us reason to be somewhat sympathetic towards their childish behaviour and their desires to put wrongs right they are all lacking in the experience of the real world particularly in their non relationships with the women they encounter. Upper class snobbery rules supreme with these guys and appals throughout. The ensemble work terrifically together and all are utterly believable in their parts. Many times in the play you forget they are acting so engaging are their relationships with each other.

Posh is a cripplingly funny play where the laughs are from the horror of increasingly bad behaviour brought brilliantly to light by the cast and creative teams. The language of the piece can be uncompromising at times even savage in the meaning of ;awesome or amazing and conversely at others it is blunt as fuck. It plays at Nottingham Playhouse only until the 28th February so Carpe Dieum and grab a hot ticket to this five star Trashmeister of a play.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Solace of The Road at Derby Theatre - interview with Polly Lister and Robert Vernon

On a freezing cold wintry Tuesday afternoon I came into forty-five minutes of rehearsal for Derby Theatre's 'soon to be' production of the late Siobhan Dowd's novel Solace of the Road. In this case it has been developed into a play format by the acclaimed playwright, Mike Kenny.

After the rehearsal I met up with Polly Lister and Robert Vernon – two principal members of the cast - for a chat about the story and how they fit into it and how the rehearsals under artistic director Sarah Brigham were going.

Heidi McKenzie introduced me to the actors and vice versa and outlined my acting and writing credentials. It was a very relaxed and intelligent interview.

Once we were quickly settled I read Polly and Robert a one page synopsis of the book and asked whether in theatrical terms it related to the story that Mike Kenny has developed.

They both agreed that in broad outline of the story and its characters it was spot on. I asked them how far they were into the rehearsal process. Polly said they were day two of week two into the rehearsal process.

Polly Lister

Polly: Earlier on we were a doing an exercise where we were all told to write things down for our different characters but when it came to present, Miko (Robert's character) said “Well actually I've got three characters” That was really funny and actually from that became a blueprint of Miko. And so when Sarah talks about it we have Michael the real guy and then we have another two versions of him which is really Holly the main character played by Rebecca Ryan.

Rebecca Ryan
Robert: When he has to leave his job then he's Michael and then when he has to relate with Holly he becomes Miko. The version she meets most of the time is that version. There is a third phantom ghost figure which represents the romanticised island calling her. Call it an idyll on the green hills. We talked in ways of saying that Miko pulls her through the story and he is the Irish spirit guide who is a fantasy.

Polly is playing Holly's mum, her step mum and a variety of other roles along the way. Polly said that all her characters have an impact on Holly/Solace's life on her particular journey. They all represent certain themes which are all important to her development. And so I play Mrs Atkins who embodies the authority that she is railing against. I play Chloe who is a university student at Oxford who she meets on the coach who represents a better future for women. This is a very sort of wholesome vision of a strong young woman whereas I think she has only had negative versions of strong women before and this girl is presenting something quite authentic, polite, kind, intelligent, generous and she is still strong and groovy.

Robert: She becomes more accessible as well because at first she seems like something that Holly couldn't be and then no, you've also got this commonality - meaning she could be like her.

Polly: Yeah yeah and then of course there is the awful mogit woman she meets at the ferry port. Actually this woman does just represent just utter misery. I do get to play just a one noted character too. (laughs).

I said that in the brief rehearsal I had just witnessed there was a lot of laughter and excitement as some of your cast worked through a motorbike riding scene that necessitated human balance and body co-ordination skills. It was very funny but I asked whether the play had a lot of humour in it?

Polly: I think it has every sort of voice and every sort of tone and there are belly laughs and I also think there are wry smiles. I think there are knowing laughs and I think are variants of all emotions.

Robert: There are some very human moments as well, aren't there? Warm. But then there are psychological elements. There are some quite harrowing moments that are just sort of teased out and then just moved away from it. They leave just enough remnants of those difficult emotions so it is really interesting. The thing is that the pace is really fast.

some of the cast in rehearsal
Polly: Sarah said that the piece we worked on last night has really worked and whilst we are characters we are definitely in the cranium of Holly Hogan and so that any image we represent or present has a feeling as if Holly is developing an old fashioned photograph. Every sort of influence we give it makes the photograph something that we can play with as it is developing. The best way I can describe it is as if we are subtly playing with the tonal levels in her brain as she calls upon the bits that she knows will help or scare her

Phil: And do you think that would be aided not only by the acting/ conveyance of emotions but also enhanced by Barney George's set design and the lighting and sound scape? I'm thinking of the whole bringing those things home in the theatrical illusion of moments fading in and out as memories. Like you would see in an old fashioned photograph developing in the dark room tray. Eventually we get to see the whole sharp picture but it can still be manipulated and interpreted by the onlookers – the cast and the audience.

Robert: We are shifting through all these memories and we keep getting reminded that the design is about black. So the ability to have absolute darkness on the majority of the stage and just pinpoint one area and seeing nothing else you can just frame it along with a few things simultaneously. Suddenly you can go 'look at this!'. That's really interesting, it has a focus and can create very intimate things.

Phil: It is very much like what I saw in the Derby Theatre promotional video for this show. Moving swiftly from place to place and scene to scene.

Robert: Yes, that's spot on. I think also the danger with this sort of thing is that there are so many things happening so fast it can all just blur into one and you don't get the detail. It goes bang look at this and now bang look at this.

Polly: And playing the dichotomy between the two things in her head she can conjure an image top right of warmth and 'come to me – come to me' and beckoning and down here something different that contrasts. We are talking a lot about light and colour and dark and shade and everything... but... down here we are now skew whiff, slightly at odds with the other impression. They are both co-existing in her head and it is the one she chooses to extinguish that carries the story forward or for that matter bring up or put down. It's like emotional puppetry with light, sound and acting.

Phil: That's very interesting. I can imagine that as you tell it – how it might be presented.

Robert: Stylistically it is fascinating and there will be lots of explosions of light very quickly...

Polly: There is a thunderstorm on the heath where it is her epiphany or her nadir. But from the nadir comes her strength and resolve. We did a time line today and we worked out that she's actually, if everything chronologically makes sense, on that hill, in the pouring biblical rain talking to Jane Eyre, for four and a half hours! So she's in one hell of a thunderstorm and in that thunderstorm every emotion is crashing over another one and she's manifested in most of the characters in the play … screaming at them all.

I asked in all this dramatic cacophony if microphones might be used. The answer was that Polly and Robert believed that it would be done live without mikes.

Polly: We are using two hung mikes for radio announcements and such and that's more of an artistic thing than a vocal thing.

I asked Robert to tell me something of his character.

Robert: Oh well, right. Miko in reality was her care worker in Templeton House and they've had a very strong relationship. He is very dedicated but at the start of the play he is moving on to new things. In the play he is a part of her psyche that she looks to for comfort, for advice, and for guidance. Also he is just a buddy on her road trip. Sometimes it s nothing more than that – someone to bounce off and say “ hey look at that – look at this”. Light-hearted. I'm finding where we are getting to in the play now he transpires to be a very pointed absence where she meets the most threatening character. Unfortunately, he is not there at all. This means that she is actually confronting the issue at hand herself and in a mature way. Her age is only 15 but the majority of the characters believe she is 17 or even 18 years old throughout the play because of her behaviour. Looking back at Miko he is very warm and human and that's the thing – I didn't want him to be just some apparition.

Polly: We had a day when lots of children who lived in care and were coming out of the other side of it came in to work with us and the biggest topic of conversation they wanted to talk about was Miko's character. This was because on a scale of one to ten, when he says he is leaving Templeton House, if ten is the worse and one is the best plus this represents absolute abandonment and say, you felt ten when your mum left, what would Miko be? They all said 'ten'. It is that important and so it is so important for Robert to get the role spot on and he does.

Phil: That must have been moving to hear such an absolute opinion from the children in care.

Robert: Yeah, it was good to hear it in such strong terms because in the story we obviously would never under estimate the significance of her mum in her life even though Holly says that she can't remember her mum properly – it is all stories and pictures – poetically described as a painting running in the rain. Whereas he is a real person and the person that has been the most dependable
for her.

Polly: In rehearsal we did a thing where we had to write who had been around in her life more so who has been a constant in her life. The only person who beat Miko was her pet dog Rosabelle– a fluffy toy to which she had clung for a good proportion of her young life. Rosabelle has been with her in every single life event until the audience meet her.

I was interested to hear about a human being focussing their loving nature and need to express love on a toy when there was little human love in their life and I related a story about myself going through a divorce some years ago and happening upon a toy monkey found in a work environment which became a focus for me of succour for a while.

Polly: That's very sweet. In the story of the play Miko says to Holly that she should put the toy dog down, not pretend to feed it food any more, keep it, don't dispense with it but set it aside and lessen its value – let it just warm your feet. You can't treat the toy like a real thing any more – you need to grow up. Holly then chooses to leave the toy dog at the care home.

Robert: I really like that idea of the mementoes because as the play progresses elements of that are bleeding through into earlier moments and revealing truths through experiences and items. As you say – with these qualities and ourselves as living mementoes (especially in this story) she is the memento. She is the only connection to the mother really and that is referenced to. There is a twinkle in the eyes – a memory of the mum...

Polly: Like a shadow looking into the same mirror as Holly so she can see her mum reflected and the mum's saying “There's a little bit of me in those eyes” and that's obviously Holly saying “I can see my mum.”

That was possibly the most intelligent and insightful and poetic interview I have ever done. Many thanks for your feelings, your information and your intellect actors Polly Lister and Robert Vernon I look very much forward to seeing Solace of The Road at Derby Theatre.

Friday, 6 February 2015

At Derby Theatre until 7th Feb. Girls Like That

Last night was the first night of Girls Like That and here are a just a few of the comments from the audience members of what sounds like a terrific production on the main stage of Evan Placey's explosive play about the dangers of sexting and the fragility of friendships. I wasn't able to attend as a reviewer but I have been hearing great things about and wanted to share them. More will be added in the next two days.

The play is performed to professional standards by second year University of Derby Arts students. #uodgirlslikethat

"It was great to sit down and already be immersed in the atmosphere of technology and cyberspace."
"Brilliant to see my classmates on the main stage at Derby Theatre. It looked and was very professional."

"I really appreciate the underlying themes of the show. It was really powerful."

"Technically fantastic! The acting was brilliant. I really enjoyed it."

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Review: Barnum at Nottingham Theatre Royal. On tour.

In early September 2014 I reviewed, for The Public Reviews, the very first showing of the now touring production of Barnum at Leicester's Curve theatre. It was a very exciting night for this reviewer. Firstly I loved the re-working of the show and its new dynamics plus a deeper and more fluid emotionally engaging storyline. So on a rare chance to review the same show twice on its twenty-four theatre venue tour (finishing at the Birmingham Hippodrome 7 July - 1st August) I'm delighted to witness Barnum once again at NottinghamTheatre Royal (Tuesday 3rd February - 14th February).


In between time I have had the chance to interview the lead man himself, Brian Conley, for Sardines magazine. The interview was a great insight into the process of being chosen by Sir Cameron Mackintosh and how Brian agreed to play the role after seeing the show in a slightly different format at Chichester. The interview can be read in issue twenty-four of Sardines magazine. It is four pages of fascinating insights and some glorious photos of Barnum and of Brian's amazing career so far. I digress.

Two pages from feature/interview for Sardines magazine.
As a second review of the same show I would expect a little repetition but what I found tonight was that the show seemed extremely comfortable with itself and tighter than at Curve where the cast had so little time to get used to the building and the stage before press night was suddenly thrust upon them.

So without further ado: Barnum at Nottingham's Theatre Royal is an utter triumph! The 'old time' set fits in perfectly with the ornate Victorian architecture and green and gold finery and the magic of the show sparkled from beginning to the glorious finale and epilogue. The energy of the piece continues to be phenomenal. By the end you truly believe that PT Barnum (as played by Conley) is the Greatest Showman on Earth. There is almost a tangible sadness in the audience that the real life exuberant character isn't around any more.

Brian Conley as PT Barnum is certainly up there with the greatest show folk. There is a lovely warm chemistry from Conley with the audience and he handles all the great physical demands and vocal demands of the show with a hard earned cheeky ease and humour. The tension in the audience is palpable as he attempts to walk the high wire! In our interview for Sardines magazine Conley told me about how he feels during the wire walk. He said that he has learnt to concentrate solely on 'staying on the wire' and not just on getting to the other side. He said, " That's the real mind set - staying on the wire - plus the wire itself is a work of art. It has to be at exactly the right tension so that it doesn't snap. I like it as tight as possible. I don't like it moving. It took ages to get that right. And our set is solid. It has to be as we have people doing acrobatics on it and everything."

Like a previous Barnum (Michael Crawford) Conley has that wonderful ability to engage you wholesale in the emotional roller-coaster of his character with each utterly joyful and sometimes tearful note. Over the last five months touring with Barnum Conley has really grown into his character displaying further subtleties in his interpretation.

His recent diversion into pantomime with Gok Wan has certainly done his performance no harm. Indeed, his performance is continually electric and he is superbly supported by the whole talented ensemble and especially by his stage wife Chairy Barnum played by the beautiful and talented Linzi Hateley, stalwart of many a West End show. Hateley brings out all the grounded love for her husband PT Barnum and her depiction of her attractively sung songs feel genuinely heartfelt. You may imagine that a long running show on a national tour may diminish in quality. Imagine all you like this but this one has grown in stature beyond even the gigantic size of Jumbo the elephant! Hateley and Conley's on stage partnership is still as fresh as ever.

Actress and singer Kimberly Blake throws a romantic Swedish spanner into PT Barnum's world with her seductive talents as 'Swedish Nightingale' Jenny Lind singing Love Makes Such Fools of Us All. The brilliant staging as she rises to the roof of the stage on a swing has her literally ending her song on powerful 'high' note. Interestingly the slow acrobatics above the action- dream like with coloured umbrellas was excluded in tonight's show


Landi Oshinowo makes 160 year old Joice Heth one of funniest parts of the show with her utterly mad rendition of 'Thank God I'm Old' and Landi's later talents as Blues Singer warmly imbue the musical tone perfectly in the more poignant parts of Barnum.

General Tom Thumb – only twenty-five inches tall – played by Mikey Jay -Heath flings himself into the optimistic song 'Bigger Isn't Better' with great gusto and his scene with Jumbo the huge elephant has the audience in stitches.


This continues to be a very slick production with each of the all singing, all dancing, circus skilled cast putting in 200%. The live music (Musical Director Ian Townsend) is spot on acoustically and instrumentally and each musical number still gets huge applause from the very appreciative audience here in Nottingham.

Bang from the outset we are bedazzled by the cast playing amongst the audience and bamboozled with Conley's baloney and all sorts of circus trickery and hokum pokum. As previously hinted at the wonderful stage set is lit like a versatile Victorian gas lit theatre with all the colours of the spectrum thrown in for free. Well maybe not for free. A few worthwhile dollars may need to spent on a ticket or two but like Barnum's American Museum I can envisage people heading for the egress and queuing round the block to see it again and again. There are a few tickets left at the Theatre Royal but only a few. Grab em while you can.

This exuberant production of Barnum, adapted from the original 2013 Chichester Festival Theatre Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble production is utterly breath-taking acrobatically, musically, visually and fizzing with theatrical energy.

The whole concept of Barnum is that the audience get swept along wholesale on a huge musical and spectacular wave of unashamed enthusiasm and emotion and this show that began its tour at Leicester Curve, far from disappoints. In fact it excels beyond measure. The multi talented ensemble are a force of energy that could light up the whole of a chilly and wintry February Nottingham one golden brick at a time! If you stood outside the frontage of the Theatre Royal during this show you could almost warm your hands on the brickwork. But maybe that's just humbug! Maybe not!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review Nottingham Playhouse production of Forever Young.

For a play to come back to the Nottingham Playhouse stage four times since it's first showing in 2010 and to have a legion of devoted followers, some having made repeated visits to see the show, it must have something very special about it. Forever Young is a musical comedy that makes broken hips hip.

The programme advises that “Forever Young began life at the beginning of 2001 in Germany and was originally called Thalia Vista Social Club. It is still being revised now and is currently enjoying its latest incarnation at the state owned Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. The reasons for its longevity over there are as mysterious and extraordinary as they are in Nottingham.” Maybe audiences throughout the world just like seeing folk grow old disgracefully. Especially wacky old actors.

Two images below from the German productions.

In Germany, it was originally devised as an entertainment in front of the safety curtain that could allow construction work to continue on the set for what turned out to be an unexpectedly short running production of the opera Faust. Gedeon's Forever Young turned out to be more popular than Faust and has been played all over the world to adoring fans. Something strong within the show demonstrates a very positive message or two about getting old and its originators highlighted Europe's poor record when it comes to looking after its elderly citizens. Saying that, the messages are put across with a great deal of adult and silly humour and pathos as well as some lovely renditions of songs including the title track Forever Young by Gold/Lloyd and Mertens.

The play is set in 2050 and Nottingham Playhouse has had to close because of what are known as The Cuts. The space has been turned into an old folks home and some of the residents are old actors that once graced the boards at Nottingham Playhouse. In this production they are played by some of the cast of the recent (2014) pantomime. Part of the fun of the piece is in seeing familiar faces and bodies aged up. Each week the residents revel in taking to 'the stage' and relive some of their old routines and shows. With the exception of Georgina White as the sexy Sister George all of the actors/ characters play themselves many years on. So actor Clara Darcy is Ms Darcy, Dale Superville is Mr Superville and so on.

Darcy and Superville make a fantastic couple of geriatric old love birds, mostly squashed together on a settee. Darcy tries to act much younger than her years and hangs on to her days as Juliet or Nina from The Seagull when she isn't going for a random perambulation around the theatre. Superville shows off some superb comic timing and brings the house down with his high pitched singing voice and uninhibited dance moves. His character is the very essence of continuing to have fun despite his physical age. His disastrous magic show is one of the highlights of the show.

Rebecca Little's old lady swears like a trooper and gropes the old men's bottoms and her ribald behaviour is only temporarily put on hold when part of her body drops off! Little also brings a less licentious side to her character in the more poignant aspects of the show. As in the Nottingham Playhouse pantomimes she shows off a great singing voice.

Tim Frater and John Elkington play off each other brilliantly during a prolonged slap stick scene that amuses with the creative ways each find to damage the other ending with an explosive first half. Each of their characters sit on the opposite side of the stage and often say so much by saying very little.

All the young actors are very believable as the old folk shuffling around the stage. Their antics receive a mixture of laughs and sympathetic “aaahs”. Much of the show is told through action rather than dialogue and is often more truthful for it. Musical director Stefan Bednarczyk is seated at the piano on stage for 99% of Forever Young being his character Mr Bednarczyk and playing the accompaniment to the eighteen main songs ranging from the traditional folk song Scarborough Fair to the rousing I Love Rock and Roll including three original numbers by Gedeon – By and By, Dying and Thanks for the Laughs.

To give it its full title 'Forever Young – rock and roll until you die' this fantastically funny and ultimately poignant show will have them rocking until their hips break unexpectedly in the aisles at Nottingham Playhouse and on its tour including its artistic partner Oldham Coliseum, the Warwick Arts Centre, and Cast Doncaster. Forever Young is gloriously directed by Giles Croft and plays at Nottingham Playhouse only until 7th February. Shuffle on down to the Playhouse for this production and you will be guaranteed to laugh yourself young again.

Review originally published by The Public Reviews on Saturday 31st January 2015
Photo credit: Robert Day.