Friday, 20 March 2015

Review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole - the musical at Curve Leicester

"Dear Diary, just like the proverbial buses, reviewers, like myself, sometimes get three press nights all coming on the same night or see none at all. That's how it was on the 17th March. So I gathered my intellectual and poetic thoughts together and went over to Leicester Curve on the 19th instead. I had arranged to see The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged thirteen and three quarters – the musical. I was very glad I did. It was dead good. I think even that bully Barry Kent would've liked it too. I know Pandora would. Got to go. Review to write. Phil Lowe, aged fifty-nine and a quarter."

Five stars for an all star production!

The Curve production of Sue Townsend's story of adolescent trails and tribulations (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged thirteen and three quarters) turned musical by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary and directed by Luke Sheppard is a wonderfully entertaining, funny and touching night out at the theatre.

It hits all the right spots in portraying the life of the tender and wacky youth Adrian Mole, played by the very talented Lewis Andrews in tonight's show. It is no mean feat carrying a musical as the lead. Even for a seasoned adult performer you need bundles of talent, experience, energy and nerve and this young performer really nailed it as the gauche and socially confused lad obsessed with his observations of the adults around him and his love of the adorable Pandora. Andrews is a natural performer and conveyed all aspects of Mole's character to a tee. He could have walked straight out of the original book. Huge pimple and all.

There are four young actors who play Adrian throughout the run (until April 4th) and three young women who portray the object of Adrian's passion, Pandora. Tonight it is the turn of Elise Bugeja and she puts in an accomplished performance dazzling Adrian and the other boys on stage with Pandora's mix of confidence, sweet schoolgirl charm and posh girl understated sexiness. Adrian's cheeky mate Nigel (George Barnden in fine form) may initially get the girl Pandora over Adrian but he is hilarious in his teenage despair when it turns out she prefers Adrian after all. The audience really seem to like Barnden as Nigel and his dancing and facial glee occasionally reminds me of the character Michael in Billy Elliot. There is an obvious sense of huge enjoyment in what he is doing and in him going all out to do it.

The school bully Barry played James McJannett -Smith dominates (as you'd expect) in his scenes and has all the swagger of an idiot school bully but McJannett -Smith is also very funny in the uproarious Nativity scene as the kid forced to play the donkey in the second half.

The show itself zipps along at tremendous and colourful pace. Slamming doors punctuate the action on a fabulous set of cartoon style houses with pencils and pens for chimneys and back walls made out of pages of the Secret Diary made large. The original musical numbers are very professional with a good blend of fun songs, lively song and dance numbers and very tender songs about loss of love, regret and hopes for change. I especially liked 'I miss our life' sung by Adrian's estranged mum and dad Pauline and George (Kirsty Hoiles and Neil Ditt).

All of the cast play multiple roles (except Adrian Mole) to many laughs from the audience and they help the show retain its slickness by moving on set pieces and props. The adults in the show seem to have great fun playing the children at the Neil Armstrong Comprehensive school too.

Actor Rosemary Ashe is in fine voice and cantankerous form as Grandma, Cameron Blakely makes the slightly creepy neighbour Mr Lucas very amusing and is comic book laughable as the head teacher Mr Scruton. Neil Salvage as the old chap Bert Baxter complete with the food stained clothes and a communist bent is a real star of the show. Another highlight is Amy Booth-Steel's steamy portrayal as Adrian Mole's dad's new man mad lover, Doreen Slater.

This whole show is just a fun packed musical that should appeal to families and diarists alike. I would love to see it transfer to the West End some day. It is that good. Sue Townsend would have been delighted with it.


Bloody good Blood Wedding at Derby Theatre. Review.

Blood Wedding at Derby Theatre

This amazing co-production from Derby Theatre, Graeae and Dundee Rep Theatre of Blood Wedding is bloody good theatre.

Playwright David Ireland's new adaptation of Frederico Garcia Lorca's tensely beautiful poetic tale of love, lust, betrayal and death is a contemporary take told like a soap opera with a rapidly filling swear box on the side. It is bold, lusty, comical, irreverent and daring. It deserves to be seen as, like Graeae's other work, it gives a deeper meaning to the word 'theatrical' and properly demonstrates talents of the deaf and disabled and able bodied casts entwined.

Whilst Lorca's original story was full of poetic dialogue, symbolism and a deep feeling of heated sexual claustrophobia this production substitutes the heat of Andalusia with urban families (with violent backgrounds) in a 21st Century environment. Former villains of each family are either dead or in jail but their legacies of violence live on throughout the unfolding story. The two families try to keep the peace for the sake of the future and the upcoming wedding of Olivia and Edward. Happiness should be on the cards but, in this adaptation, despite it being extremely funny, dark clouds loom over the family joys as bad boy Leonardo ruffles the feathers of the soon to be bride with his unbridled lust. She claims not to be interested but their lusts and her uncertainties tell another story.

The play is superbly directed by Graeae's Jenny Sealey and the excitement comes from her mixed cast of actors. What other company would give the audience a multi-sensory version of the same play? We have deaf actors and signing actors working together to build up a collusion of interpretation using simultaneous texting above the action - quite often with hilarious results as the deaf mother Agnes spills out her bitter feelings and Edward, the signing son, diplomatically edits them for the benefit of family peace. We have able bodied and disabled actors as lovers and it works superbly and interestingly, in this production we have the story-line deliberately referring to the deaf and disabled in a way that is supportive of them and their characters but, also reveals the difficulties other encounter in communication through humour. It is a brave piece of theatre work that deserves to be enjoyed and supported.

Most importantly, the deaf and blind members of the audience were able to enjoy the piece the same as any other audience member through the clever writing that described actions through and about the actors and the afore-mentioned simultaneous signing and projected text.

Does the adaptation work in the style that David Ireland has written and the director and cast have work-shopped? I was expecting to have to think hard about the story-line and the characters and perhaps struggle in understanding the poetics but no. It is written in clear, often very blunt, dialogue and the characters all lived for me as very recognisable. In particular to do with the kinds of behaviour that one witnesses at many weddings. It is funny but turns savagely dark at the end. It is brash and performed in a compelling mixture of styles and it is a shake up of perceptions. It entertains and disturbs to brilliant effect. The set is designed by Nickie Sangster as a neon lit environment where restaurants glide on in one scene and a wooded park is shown as a screen of movable bright green neon lights.

The wonderful ensemble are Ej Raymond as Agnes the mother; Ricci McLeod as the groom Edward; Irene Macdougall as neighbour Eileen, waitress and Doris the tramp; Alison Halstead as Alma and Diana the tramp; Millie Turner as Vicky the wife of Leonardo; Miles Mitchell as Leonardo; Ann Louise Ross as Shirley and Amy Conachan as Olivia the bride.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Review Mermaid at Nottingham Playhouse/Shared Experience

Nottingham Playhouse are really doing themselves proud these days and their latest collaboration with innovative theatre company Shared Experience is no exception. Polly Teale has adapted and directed the story of the Little Mermaid for the 21th Century. Thankfully, we see no Disney schmaltz in this stage production. Instead we have a gripping and emotionally taut tale of two worlds: the unselfconscious life of the mermaids in the depths of the oceans and the human life that exists on the land and sometimes encounters peril on the seas.

All is atmospherically set (designer Tom Piper) on a raised area surrounded by the seemingly cavernous and rusting walls of a sunken wreck. The performers use every inch of the stage to mesmeric effect and the rapt audience are so quiet during the story that you could hear a pin drop into the theatrically poetic ocean.

Shared Experience are well known for tackling text head on and devising new interpretations of story-telling and pioneering distinctive performance styles that celebrate a union of physical and text based drama. Mermaid is certainly a very physical piece and the actors playing the mermaids; Miranda Mac Letten, Ritu Arya, Amaka Okafor as mermaids one to three along with Sarah Twomey as Little Mermaid are exceptional in their physical dexterity. The three numbered mermaids morph into a variety of characters during the show. One second we see them being a sad selection of vacuous teenage girls hell bent on making a misery of a school friend's life and next as royal courtiers or a frightening gaggle of sea witches. Their costume changes are staggeringly quick.

As the Little Mermaid newcomer Sarah Twomey shines in her depiction of the inquisitive mermaid desperate to discover human life with all its joys and horrors which she discovers in a search for love and self love. Her speechless pleas to her would-be Prince lover are heart breaking as is her desire to be loved and the indignities suffered to gain human love in a stuffy royal court. An announcement that Twomey has sustained an injury prior to the show and is to be performing the role in a less physical way doesn't reflect whatsoever on her delicate and considered performance tonight.

Woven throughout the story is a central character called Blue. Blue is played with sensitivity and energy by Natalie Gavin. Blue is also the teenage girl viciously teased at the start of the play by her so called school friends for the way she looks and acts. The cruelty reflects the reality of extreme styling by girls to win or attract attention from their contemporaries and boys or men. Throughout the play there are constant references to mirrors, critical gaze and a sense of self in people of both sexes. Gavin's Blue documents the story during the play in a big book and, in a sense, directs the action through a force of will and growing self confidence often linking herself deeply with the mermaid.

Blue's mother, played by the wonderfully versatile Polly Frame, is portrayed as a woman suffering parental frustrations as well as being exasperated by the attitudes of her unemployed husband. Frame also plays Grand Mer the older mermaid and the haughty Queen in the royal household in several miracles of quick change.

All of the actors are tremendously flexible not only in the divergent parts they play but in the hard physical work and necessarily supple nature of the piece. The two men in Mermaid portray the emotionally crippled and physically drowned soldier Prince (Finn Hanlon) and the King (Steve North) plus fishermen in a stormy sea. All of their characters stand up well in a sea of actresses.

Much of the terrific atmosphere is generated through sounds of the sea and of waves and undercurrents that batter the mermaids across and under the stage. The sound scape is created by composer and sound director Jon Nicholls. Equally thrilling is the live tonal singing by the mermaids and the supporting songs from a chorus of twenty-six young girls who sit as witnesses at the sides of the set. Director Polly Teale wanted the local girls in the work to bear witness as the girls on stage face the challenges of being a young woman in a complex world. As the plays tours other local girls will be involved in this way and they will all take part in a nationwide project that accompanies the show and looks at the effect of the media on girls' sense of self and empowers them to challenge myths about femininity.

This poetic stage adaptation is as profoundly deep as the ocean itself and its universal themes of separation, desire, loss, loneliness, and pre-occupation with appearance to please others are very evident and beautifully demonstrated with Shared Experience's thrilling style on stage tonight. As a piece of theatre it works swimmingly well.

Mermaid production photos credit Robert Day

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Budding talents at Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama.

Given my avid interest in musical theatre I was especially delighted to be invited to speak to Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama principal Frances Clayton at their Nottingham base last week. The college stands proudly at the top of a hill in Carlton Nottingham and as I approached its front entrance I was met by a group of very happy looking students on their way to a dance class in the college's second purpose built building. My first impression was of energy and enthusiasm and students keen to develop their craft through expert tuition often from West End professionals.

Frances spoke to me extensively about the college's decision to include a level 6 Diploma in Musical Theatre (3 year course) additional to the 1 Year Foundation Musical Theatre Course, the pre-vocational training for 3 to 16 year old's and the very popular Summer course in July. The level 6 Professional 3 year Musical Theatre diploma validated by Trinity London provides an APEL (Approved Prior Experience and Learning) route into the BA (Hons) Professional Practice (BAPP) designed by Middlesex University for awarded students. This gives participants the opportunity, following graduation at MADD, to study for a BA(Hons) while continuing with their professional performing career. Additionally the Professional Performing Arts Diplomas provide an APEL route into some MA programmes.

Frances Clayton said that there a very good employment success rate for their graduates and that the high standards they enforce match that of the London based colleges. They are also accredited with the Council for Dance Education and Training and their academic standards are set and monitored through Trinity College London. David Essex OBE, Arlene Phillips OBE and David Wood OBE are the three patrons of the college.

As well as generously offering a talented boy student a full scholarship worth £26,400 (3 year training at MADD on the Professional Musical Theatre Diploma Course David Essex takes time out to visit the college whenever he is in Nottingham. He also goes to see the graduates perform at the Criterion Theatre in London. Frances described him as having extensive personal knowledge as a seasoned performer and writer who is keen to develop new talents, sometimes offering chances of employment in his own shows, all achieved with a quiet elegance. When David Essex was on tour with his show 'All The Fun Of The Fair' he attended the MADD college with his two leads and offered valuable insights into the business to the students including sharing the knowledge that each one of the students should recognised that their biggest asset was their uniqueness. Additionally, the Stage newspaper offer an opportunity to audition for a full scholarship for one boy and one girl.

Arlene Phillips OBE and world renowned choreographer offers her continual support as patron even though she is constantly in work and often on the other side of the world. Arlene is a very busy and sort after individual and in great demand for her skills. She is also patron of the IDTA. Through her recommendations several of the MADD students have got work in shows like Starlight Express (UK and Germany) and Grease.

Writer David Wood OBE writes and produces pre-dominantly theatre for children and he is the only writer allowed to adapt the works of Roald Dahl for the stage. Amongst many other titles David Wood's adaptations include The Fantastic Mr Fox and James and The Giant Peach. Frances Clayton's own daughter Emma has worked continually with David Wood in the theatre. He often attends the college and showcases and is constantly on the look out for new talent. He has a big input in the casting of his shows. In 2014 he came over to Nottingham to do workshops with the third year students. In 2013 he came to workshop a play and one of the female students impressed him so much with her all round talents and particular gift of comedy that he suggested she audition for his theatre adaptation, The Tiger That Came To Tea. She was given work and has toured all around the world with the show.

After our chat in the MADD office Frances gave me a leisurely tour of the college and I had the great pleasure of sitting in on some of the classes including a singing class with about twenty mixed students held by actor/singer and West End performer Shona Lindsay. Shona has performed as Christine in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of The Opera alongside Glyn Kerslake as Phantom for 18 months. Glynn is also engaged as a tutor periodically at the college. The students cannot but benefit from Shona's fantastic musical theatre pedigree. Whilst I was there a young girl student was selected to sing her choice of song in front of the note taking and observing class. The young woman sang 'Look What Happened to Mabel from Mack and Mabel.' Shona coached her on her breathing and on her delivery and the importance of the knowledge of the back story and character. The whole class began with a powerful vocal warm up and were 120% attentive to the tutor and pianist. I sense that there is a profound amount of dedication in this college, not just from the devoted and skilled staff but from the young people themselves and none of it came across as false hopes at stardom more as true development of innate talents ready for realistic work in the theatre or other entertainment mediums.

I also briefly sat in on two drama classes – one based on the musical Chicago – complete with dancers in the wings as a young man sang Mr Cellophane and the other deep in discussion about the characters in Animal Farm. As the students here are trained in dance, singing and drama I my time was also spent in a class teaching ballet. This was mostly young women but there were a few young men in the class too. Before I reluctantly left (could have happily stayed all day) I attended a one to one singing session with a student who was fresh from the ballet class and sang beautifully.

All in all, a wonderful short insight into the daily routines and enthusiastic practices of all at MADD college in Nottingham. Thank you to all the friendly and welcoming staff and students and especially to Principal Frances Clayton for sparing her valuable time to show me around and talk about her exemplary school. I got the distinct impression that MADD is a college that genuinely cares for its students and their futures. I very much look forward to the showcase at Nottingham Playhouse on
19th and 20th June 2015.

Images with kind permission of MADD.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A visit to the Drama and Theatre Studies department at Bilborough College.

I was invited to visit the Drama and Theatre Studies department at Bilborough Sixth FormCollege in Nottinghamshire yesterday. The department works with young students who have a strong level of performance or design and can demonstrate a creative approach to productions including the skill of evaluating a performance. The classes work along the new Edexcel specification which means that the classes have no more than twenty-one students – sometimes fewer. Their performances are in a purpose built studio equipped with full lighting and sound.
The academic level at which they study is AS and A Level Drama and Theatre Studies. From my visit I recognised that there was a strong level of dance and movement too. Overall the course takes on about two hundred and twenty students. Even for those that choose not to go on to study drama professionally or at university the life skills learnt on this course are invaluable in terms of building confidence and the ability to speak clearly in public and work very well in a team environment. Many employers value such skills very highly.

Drama Principle Sharon MacIness gave me a tour of the department and was keen to tell me that many of the students retain links with the course after graduation and some even return later in life to teach. While I was there I spoke a young man with a dancer's build in their office who had studied dance at Rambert. He was keen to express his love of the course when he was a student there and how he is back helping to support the course in its contemporary guise.

Actor Arsher Ali was a former student there and went on to study at East 15 drama school and has been seen on television and in film as well in his stage work. Another former student Andy Coxon went on to study at Mountview and has appeared in the West End production of Les Misérables and the recent film of Les Mis. Ed Boott took further study at Rose Bruford and went on to found Nonsuch Theatre Company. Bilbourgh College Drama and Theatre studies course are justifiably proud of their 100% pass rate at AS and A2 level.

The students I got the pleasure of meeting and observing were rehearsing their devised pieces inspired by The Medieval Book of Miracles and the controlling theory of God punishing mankind for his wrong doings plus other religious, social and political insights from the medieval world. The book features newly uncovered illuminations form the renaissance depicting miraculous phenomena.

The students were rehearsing in all parts of the building – in corridors – in spaces behind the lighting and sound box – in the drama studio itself. I was impressed with some of the interpretations created by the students themselves and found the inner director in me responding to their 'in rehearsal' presentations. I kept quiet and concentrated on observing and taking photos of three of the rehearsals. I came away very impressed and keen to involve myself with the students sometime by discussing the role of a theatre reviewer. I hope that the evening presentations/showcases went well for the students and that they get to learn about themselves as creators and performers not only through tutor based criticism but also through seeing themselves on DVD and learning from that form of teaching. Often the best way of learning is through your mistakes.

It was a surprise and a pleasure to bump into Chris Chambers who I acted with in Richard 3rd in 2008. Chris is a fine actor and he has decided to pass on his skills by training to be a drama teacher. I have no doubt that the students will benefit greatly from his energy and expertise. Thank you to Sharon MacIness, the dedicated staff on the Drama and Theatre Studies course and also to the welcoming and talented students for my visit. Phil Lowe

Photos by Phil Lowe

Monday, 2 March 2015

Review: Solace of The Road at Derby Theatre.


'Solace of The Road' at Derby Theatre ( until  14th March) is a gutsy reworking of Siobhan Dowd's novel about Holly, a young girl in care on her journey across the country desperately hoping to find her real mum in Ireland. The stage adaptation is skilfully executed by playwright Mike Kenny and the creative realisation of the work is shown through the sterling work of director Sarah Brigham, her team of creatives, the technicians and the six versatile actors. If you are looking for an entertaining, inspiring and moving night out at the theatre look no further.

For those who love Siobahn Dowd's original story they certainly won't be disappointed. In fact they will be thrilled by what has been done overall in its magical transference to the Derby Theatre stage. You could say that it is like the original with extra theatrical meat. My sincere apologies to the character Vegan Phil for mentioning the M word.

The piece is perfect theatre. It has invention. It has class. It has pathos and it has a great deal of humour. Four of the six actors play twenty multiple roles in a fast changing storyline. These are Naomie Ackie, Neal Craig, Jack Finch and Polly Lister. All bring tremendous light and shade to the piece through their interpretations but special mention must be made towards the roles played by Polly Lister and Neal Craig. The subtleties they convey as they morph between Mam/Foster Mother Fiona, Denny and Ray plus other roles are master classes in acting.

Rebecca Ryan plays Holly/Solace with great authenticity throughout the play and exudes just the right amount of sympathy as the vulnerable fourteen/fifteen year old on the run. As Solace in her confidence giving blonde wig Ryan still shows her character as a vulnerable girl desperate to be loved but far too capable of being exploited by some of the men she encounters on her journey. Luckily most of the male roles are sympathetic to her almost defenceless position in the world.

One of the most sympathetic characters is her key worker Miko played with warmth and affinity by Robert Vernon. Close to the beginning of the book Miko leaves the story to find his own successes in the world but in the play he remains as a visible guide in Holly's head during her adventures. Again, differently to the book, we also find the influence of Holly's former care home friends Trim and Grace (Naomie Ackie and Jack Finch) inhabiting the stage and offering their feelings, opinions and more.

The set design by Barney George is deceptively simple but offers great scope for interpretation of time and place through the two main levels and hidden spaces coupled with the very inventive use of large props flown in as theatrical suggestions of environments. Even cars, haulage trucks and a speedy motorbike are featured in this show through clever suggestions of vehicles. All this and more are aided by wonderful lighting and sound by designers Alexandra Stafford (lighting design and composer/sound designer Ivan Stott.

Overall, a terrific piece of theatre that should prove a runaway success for DerbyTheatre commercially and in particular as a demonstration of excellence through Derby Theatre's position and commitment to being a learning theatre.

Photo credits Robert Day