Thursday, 30 April 2015

Review: Beautiful Thing at Nottingham Playhouse

It is easy to forget that sometimes in an audience member's life it is the first time they have viewed a play despite it being around for a couple of decades and despite said play having a worldwide cult following. It is easy to be ignorant of why the play is such a draw to audiences whether gay or straight. On a first time viewing of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing at Nottingham Playhouse, a play centred around an awkward blossoming and loving relationship between two young male teenagers, this reviewer finds himself initially confused at its success. Dramatically interesting yes, amusing certainly, brave even, but what is the big deal?

Beautiful Thing is set in the early 1990s and had its world première at the Bush Theatre in July 1993. The play won rave reviews from critics and audiences alike and went on to tour the following year with a short run at the Donmar Warehouse. In 1994 it made its West End début at the Duke of York's Theatre and shortly after the run work began on a screen adaptation. In 1996 Film4 Productions released the film to more acclaim and the story reached a much wider audience than all theatres combined. Beautiful Thing has gone on to be a worldwide success entertaining and enlightening audiences in Germany, Holland, The USA and Australia. It must have something going for it then, surely.
Charlie Brooks and Sam Jackson as Sandra and Jamie
This initial confusion of mine is not inferring that it is not a good play. It most certainly is and is very well written and performed with a huge amount of honesty and energy by the small cast of five. It is the second time director Nikoli Foster has directed this play set on a landing outside three homes on a rough Thamesmead council estate in South East London and the direction is acutely observed.

Any personal confusion about why the blossoming gay relationship between the teenage boys Jamie (Sam Jackson) and Ste (Thomas Law) should be such a big deal stems from my own ignorance regarding the fact that in the 1990s this relationship would have been illegal. Even more shocking to discover is the fact that the play was produced only one year after homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in Great Britain. I was genuinely shocked to learn that homosexuality was considered a mental illness. I know that people can be prejudiced but that is a whole new level of intolerance.

Now I start to understand how such a piece of theatre could be life changing and continue to inform and offer hope to the often marginalised gay, bisexual and trans members of society. My confusion is lessened even more by my further reading (excellent and invaluable programme notes by Ruth Hunt CEO of Stonewall) that states that despite some recently historical changes in the law regarding lesbian and gay relationships there is still a long way to go to total non discrimination. Bullying and violence towards these members of society still continues whilst bigotry and ignorance prevails and even the simple sight of two men holding hands in the street can provoke strong reactions in some in 2015. How must it have been in the 1990s of the story of Beautiful Thing? In some it would have offered a confirmation that their love and sexuality was being shown in a positive light. In others a chance to walk out as Mr and Mrs Disgusted at the interval and never return. Thankfully, the majority stayed put.

Gerard McCarthy and Charlie Brooks as Tony and Sandra

So, do I now consider Jonathan Harvey's play differently after my first time viewing and have a deeper understanding of the issues it addresses? Yes. I feel it is a poignant play that grows on you and helps one consider the plights and lives and loves of others that should have an equality of good fortune the same as everyone and the same socio-political rights.

The production currently at Nottingham Playhouse enthrals and moves in its drama, wickedly amuses in the comedy element and is occasionally shocking in its moments relating to causal domestic violence.

Thomas Law and Sam Jackson as Ste and Jamie

The whole cast are exceptionally strong in their character portrayals. Charlie Brooks amuses with her brash humour and is tender with her feelings towards son Jamie even when he comes out as being gay. Sam Jackson is perfect as the sensitive young man Jamie, vulnerable but brave in initiating a homosexual relationship with his friend and schoolboy neighbour Ste.

Thomas Law is heart breaking as Ste the sixteen year old; beaten but not down; in denial of his sexuality and finally hopeful in his desperate need for love and acceptance. Gerard McCarthy is wonderfully alive and enigmatic as Sandra's hippy artist lover Tony. Vanessa Babirye is frighteningly realistic in her drugged up depiction as Mama Cass reborn and totally convincing generally in the complex role as the mixed up neighbour Leah. There are still references in the play to 1990s television personalities and jokes about them are thoroughly enjoyed by the Nottingham Playhouse audience.

The Brutalism inspired set design (Colin Richmond both set and costume design) allows for fast changes and creative interpretation of the piece and adds considerably to the atmosphere of the piece. Ben Cracknell's (lighting design) and George Dennis's (sound) enhance the whole experience.

Vanessa Babirye as Leah

There is a lot of fun and food for thought in Beautiful Thing, a play that doesn't posture as a gay play but provides hope and enlightenment for those who need its nourishment. Beautifully done.

Review originally published by The Public Reviews on 29th April 2015

Photo Credit Anton Belmonte.

Beautiful Thing plays at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 9th May. See this LINK for booking.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lakeside

Does Shakespeare's magical play A Midsummer Night's Dream actually remain magical after an artistic and directorial decision remove Theseus and Hippolyta completely from the story and replace their regal authority with Titania and Oberon on the Athenian throne – a combination of both human and yet fairy-like? Does the choice to cast Oberon as a strikingly beautifully woman in a gently quasi lesbian relationship with Titania add anything to the savage disparity the fairy couple have over ownership over an Indian boy? Does the choice not to have any of the young fairies doting on Bottom as an asinine figure of fun/lust in the play work in their absence? Does the important word and theme of doting (from the verb dotten in Old German meaning to be foolish or deranged) carry weight in Nottingham New Theatre's production at Lakeside? Remarkably, quite possibly so, albeit with a few reservations in the additional modernity of the language.

Interestingly mid 1800s artist Gustave Dorés pictorial image of Oberon and Titania (Les Fées) that has inspired generations of creators of versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream depicts the fairy god and goddess as both being very feminine. In Nottingham New Theatre's production this works acceptably enough excepting the need for more emotional argument between their Oberon (Emily Brady) and Titania (Rachel Connelly). The delivery of the Shakespearian language on the whole is expressive and handled well but there needs to be more bitterness and frustration between the couple to make sense of their falling out and cruel tricks laid on by Oberon and Puck (a delightfully bonkers Laura Jayne Bateman). The lack of the rather saccharine young fairies scarcely seems to matter in this production as all is fast faced and energetic. The fairies fluffing about being whimsical and sweetly poetic and flowery would just slow matters down in director Martin Berry's sparkling production for Nottingham New Theatre at Lakeside.

Very impressive is Titania's command over the hapless Nick Bottom played admirably by student actor Ben Maries. The quixotic scene where she darkly pulls the enchanted Bottom back into her proverbial web has great strength. I love the transformation into an ass with only a hat with ears, a false beard and some goofy teeth. It allows great facial dexterity in the actor playing Bottom and Maries excels in this regard as well as his pomposity and over the top acting in the court scene playing Pyramus and Thisbe.

The rude mechanicals (Nick Gill) as Flute, (Beth Wilson) as Snug, (Eoin Buckley) as Snout and Louise Knapp (excellent as Peter Quince) all exude great energy and enthusiasm throughout every woodland scene and are especially funny in the 'play within a play' section at the latter end of the play itself. One small criticism that jars is the addition of modern language interspersing Shakespeare's already funny situations with the mechanicals. Although they add the odd extra laugh they are unnecessary.

Lovers Hermia (Jessica Millott), Hermia (Libby Boyd), Lysander (James Roscow) and Demitrius (Daniel O'Connor) work inordinately well with each other within the text. They make each line depicting the confusion brought on by enchantment realistic both comically and dramatically. All their vibrant scenes are a joy to watch and much energy is gained with their chase through the woods taunted by the dotty skitter scatter Puck.

The artistic choice to have Puck relate one of her (yes her) major speeches at the very start of the play works well in establishing her as a storyteller and introducing the totally feminine world of the fairies within the wood. Martin Berry has chosen to make cuts in the original text and this pared down version works well in keeping it tight, engaging and sexy. The gossamer and glitter set design by Dorrie Scott adds gloriously to the magic of the work and the atmospheric lighting and live piano music all pull the thing together into an enchanting whole. Perhaps the retention of Theseus and Hippolyta in the production may have added something to the emotional temperature of the work but this production is such fun I think they would have been mere party poopers.

A Midsummer Night's Dream plays at Lakeside Nottingham University until Saturday 2nd May.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Review Mrs Green at Curve Leicester

As part of the Inside Out Festival at Curve Theatre Leicester, Nottingham based theatre company Sheep Soup wow the studio audience with their home grown Soul and Motown musical Mrs Green. The musical already comes with a pedigree of popularity from professional airings at the Nottingham Playhouse Neville studio and also at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 where their run sold out and played to great acclaim. Theatre company Sheep Soup are a group of former graduates from Nottingham's award winning Television Workshop. Sheep Soup is run by Nic Harvey the writer of the musical and lyricist for Mrs Green who also happens to play the character Darren in the show. Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie directs this comical play with a solid assuredness towards the wit and sympathetic notes.

The story goes that Mrs Mabel Green (Ben Welch) is about to be farmed off to an old people's home and has invited a group of friends round to her poky apartment for a cheery farewell. The marijuana plants in the living room are already attracting community police attention as the show opens.

Welch plays the elderly Mrs Green with great wit and although Mabel Green – the fairy Godmother of Nottingham- is occasionally naughty with her language she is never crude. He makes her very likeable and sympathetic. The audience feel very much at home watching the play almost as if they were actually in her home sitting alongside the tea, the piles of moving boxes and pot brownies. Welch also has a terrific soul singing voice and clearly revels in delivering the many songs including 'If The Lord Let it Grow', 'Home Made Love' 'Know Your Limits' and 'Mrs Green's Theme Tune'. It is such a familiar and relaxed performance from Welch that you feel the jamming sessions and dialogue is being superlatively improvised as the piece evolves.

The one act show is very much a lively and original song filled theatrical exposition with super fully fleshed characters. Tom Cowling is the local young community police officer Greg and is played as a fairly shy guy until he gets given one of Mrs Green's pot brownies, the effect of which, has Greg wilting to the floor and laughing outrageously at nothing. This is all to the great amusement of Scott played by Kieran Hardcastle. Mr Hardcastle is so brilliantly convincing as the ex bad boy idiot of the piece that it starts to become a wonder how and why the theatre group recruited this half wit. This doesn't mean his character is a cliché, Far from it. He just acts it so well with all his bling, hip hop street wear, reactionary finger flicking, gormless grin and characteristic truth that he is Scott. In my mind this is one of the best authentically portrayed roles in the show.

The two younger women in the piece are Natalia Bruce as ambitious Louise and Sabrina Sandhu as Scott's far more intelligent girl Kim. Both characters are well written and consummately acted each complete with their own history and complications and welfare concerns for Mrs Green.

Then enters the fiery soul singer with a cruel passion for knocking people and knocking back the whisky – Vivian de Wilde. Actress Shauna Shim gives Vivian de Wilde her very condescending best and despite her initial back biting comments to Darren and Mrs Green the audience eventually warm to her. The duets between her and Mrs Green are outstanding and have a real feel good factor in them.

The comic timing from all the cast is impeccable and whilst not a traditional song and dance show it has enormous heart and warmth and the musical numbers are performed with a very laid back and unselfconscious verve. The jokes are expertly and subtly delivered and the tender moments of the piece are very well done. The main thing is that Mrs Green is a feel good show and the Curve audience come out grinning. Ben Welch as Mrs Green is even standing outside the studio door saying goodbye to the audience as they leave. As I left I heard him saying that the elderly lady in front of him is actually called Mrs Green and it is her birthday today! What a treat! You can't make these things up!

Mrs Green and Ben Welch as.... Mrs Green!
Review originally written for The Public Reviews on 26th April 2015

Performance Poetry workshop with Deborah 'Debris' Stevenson. A refection and video.

As part of the Inside Out Festival on Saturday 25th April at Curve Leicester I enjoyed a free poetry writing workshop run by Deborah 'Debris' Stevenson of Nottingham based Mouthy Poets. I couldn't stay for the whole two hours as I had to review a brilliant musical called Mrs Green by Sheep Soup in another part of the building at 12.15pm.

In the time I was able to attend I discovered that it was a delightfully engaging workshop in which the twenty-plus attendees enjoyed the benefit of Deborah's hugely passionate enthusiasm for creating and encouraging poetry and giving people a voice through poetry.  With a cheeky smile she told us that, during the workshop, we would be writing lots and lots of new poems and we most certainly did!

The main exercise after our poetic introductions was for us to creatively respond to titles offered by Deborah on a rapid basis. We were creating a short poem approximately every one hundred seconds. In total we must have each created about fourteen poems in less than half an hour. We broke off into groups of three and read each other a selection of our poems and underlined the positives in each. It appeared I have a talent for writing small pithy poems that the other two ladies in my group said were relatable. I also enjoyed hearing what the two ladies had created too. Always interesting and sometimes surprising to hear what people devise in a restricted time frame.

Deborah 'Debris' Stevenson
I was thoroughly enjoying the workshop when I had to slip out to review Mrs Green. In fact I enjoyed the workshop so much that I decided to perform some of my freshly composed poems at the open mike session later in the afternoon. There were some interesting other performers including Kevin from the workshop. I enjoyed his wry comical poetry very much. I always enjoy performing and it was especially good doing so in front of such an interested audience with the support of the staff members at Curve and representatives of Writing East Midlands. Alas for me the Mouthy Poets gig at Curve was sold out. I have heard some terrific responses to how well their work was received though.

"Deborah, I had no chance or equipment at the time to video myself onstage but have made this short video for you with some of my poems created on Saturday. I hope that you like them. Taking the workshop has made me want to revitalise my latent poetic talents and do something more with them. Big thanks to you and Mouthy Poets for the wonderful workshop and encouragement. "

Phil x Good to meet ya again!


Deborah 'Debris' Stevenson of Mouthy Poets
To catch up on the exciting things happening at the Festival check out #InsideOutFestival on Twitter.
To book 0116 242 3595

Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Shiv at Curve Leicester

The New York Times has described the work of American playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil as “Rich in feeling, wide in scope and teeming with poetry” so it is with great consideration that associate director Suba Das and Curve Leicester have chosen this newly penned one act play 'Shiv' to launch their Inside Out Festival. The exciting festival of fresh new drama, comedy, dance, the spoken word and music is taking place between 22nd April and 6th May.

The work that has gone into the production of Shiv is a clear demonstration of Curve's commitment to the arts, especially new work and the nurturing and exposure of it to new audiences. The set design by Kevin Jenkins is realised as a watery dream scape by a lake with a raked mattress central and integral to the action. Shiv's mattress sits aloft a square wooden decking section or landing. The gentle colour palate is a poetic mix of soft colours, the backdrop echoes of the landing by the lake, almost Japanese in the observing. To each side of the raised landing hang equally beautiful facsimiles of blue light shining on water as if grown large and pulled directly from a painting. The whole effect is of calmness and contemplation. Musical composer and sound designer Adam McReady (Poetic Machines Ltd) has created a superbly subtle soundscape that underscores and entirely compliments Aditi Brennan Kapil's play. David Holmes lighting design is a consummate blend of perceptive shades to achieve the constantly shifting moods of the work.

With only a three week rehearsal period Suba Das and his four actors have managed to create a superb realisation of Brennan Kapil's new writing. The story of Shiv (Emily Lloyd- Saini) and her search for meaning in her relationship with her Punjabi poet father Bapu (Andrew Joshi) takes place on and around the mattress – a solid depiction of safety and comfort but also a raft on which she tries to stay stable whilst coming emotionally adrift. Lloyd-Saint's Shiv is one moment a young girl in awe of her father Bapu – the next a more socially aware adult personality who realises her father's drinking problem and his affair. Andrew Joshi's Bapu is viewed as the younger version of himself so even as he plays flying kites with his young daughter and leaves the stage to return minutes later to talk with his adult daughter the poetic nature of the writing gives the illusion credibility and even adds strength to the storytelling. Like much in theatre there is an enjoyment in the theatrical corruption of reality. Both Lloyd-Saini and Joshi work attractively together and especially so in the very funny scene where it becomes evident that Bapu is a huge fan of Star Trek – The Next Generation.

Actor Ian Keir Attard is totally believable and the young American Gerard who lives and works by the lake and starts to fall in love with the enigmatic emotionally adrift Shiv. Their scene when they finally get together yet don't really is wittily realised. Like much of this complex and very human play one second the audience laugh with the characters and then have their hearts broken. In fact throughout this eighty minute play the audience are completely taken into this time shifting world of poetics. Shiv is a work of immense quality and depth and deserves a longer run than that allocated at Leicester Curve.

As this is a play about memory and different perceptions of a flawed creative (father Bapu) writer Aditi Brennan Kapil brings in a fourth character towards the latter part of the story. He is simply called The Professor. Robin Bowerman plays The Professor with an intelligent lightness and his recall of Bapu at a summer writing workshop in the past in which he brought with him a blonde lady 'translator' serves to add further levels of loving yet devastating understanding of the man who was Shiv's father.

Most of us go through life with evolving perceptions of our parents. In simple terms there is the complete trust of childhood where the adults and their actions are seen sometimes through rose tinted glasses. Then those confusing teenage years where we start to form opinions of others and often rebel and finally the adult years where it can take years to come to terms with the emotional self and other selves. The play Shiv takes us through many of these feelings and brings an added depth through its witty observations of what it can be like to live in a multi-cultural society and for the young woman heroine to live in two worlds at once.

Photo images credit Pamela Raith

Review originally published on 24th April for The Public Reviews

Review: He Had Hairy Hands by Kill The Beast at Derby Theatre

'Kill The Beast' writers and performers David Cummings, Natasha Hodgson, Oliver Jones, Zoe Roberts and writer director Clem Garritty have come up trumps with their crazy mock horror show 'He Had Hairy Hands'. They uniquely describe themselves as macabre comedy knitters and this new touring play is their brand new tale of supernatural slaughter. It is very 'ripped out tongue in lacerated cheek with a lopsided smile' sort of humour. They won the prestigious Peter Brook Empty Space Awards in 2014 with 'The Boy Who Kicked Pigs' and are back with another five star winner of a show. I felt privileged to see it this afternoon. Throughout the whole of the one act play the packed studio audience at Derby Theatre are howling with laughter and smiling  in wonder at the clever projection design by Bryan Woltjen. The captivated audience are jolted from wacky scene to wacky scene in ultra quick succession. It is a triumph of total silliness.

There may be a rampant werewolf running amok in the building with the Historiorum ablaze and corpses building up faster than you can splutter a blood curdling “ Is that a Werewol...?” before dropping dead, but the audience are screaming with laughter so who cares!

This is the funniest show I have seen in a long time and it is made so by the sheer creation and lunacy of the actors performances. The supremely energetic cast of four are constantly changing roles and sometimes with a hairy hand's breath of a fraction of a second becoming yet another bizarre character. A brilliant variety of styles are utilised in this show, mime, song and dance, verbal and visual puns and all done with such craft it is an utter joy to watch.

The characters are darkly eccentric bordering on League of Gentlemen freaky but 'Kill The Beast' apply their own interpretations and I loved the absurd-isms of verbal and body language. I can't wait for their next show. Definitely a company to watch out for. "Hoooooowl!"

If you are lucky enough to get tickets the tour dates are 24th April Derby Theatre, 1st May The Atkinson Southport, 2nd May Harrogate Theatre, 15th & 16th May The Lowry, Salford.

Twitter @kill_beast / #hairyhands

Review: The Knife That Killed Me (film)

The Knife That Killed Me. (out today 27th April!! See link below to Amazon)

Although I love film I am not prone to writing film reviews as my professional time is taken up writing for the theatre. In the case of the film The Knife That Killed Me, written and directed by Marcus Romer and Kit Monkman I make a huge exception. I interviewed Marcus Romer and some of Pilot Theatre's cast for the touring production of Antigone earlier this year and reviewed the play at its launch at Derby Theatre. Intrigued by the green screen work and other media used in Antigone I was very keen to see what they have done with Anthony McGowan's novel The Knife That Killed Me.

The Knife That KilledMe is destined to become a cult classic – big time. The dark story of teenager Paul (Jack McMullen) and his haulage driver dad (Reece Dinsdale) arriving at a new home in Yorkshire after the accidental death of Paul's mother is discovered through a moving collage of Graphic Novel intensity. This is no ordinary teenage angst story but a knife wielding bloody symphony of startling imagery with the dark brooding clouds of wintry adversary always on the bleak Yorkshire horizon. If the director ever said “cut” in the filming process I for one would have stood well back.

The production values are exceptionally high and cleverly wrought taking the viewer through transparent sets lined with hand written text and graffiti. The result is a kind of magical hell. The attention to detail in every frame is phenomenal. Cameras swirl through many a creative angle to switch from gritty location to gritty location and the pot smoking scene with Paul's school friend Shane (Oliver Lee) is pure genius as the smoke rises up and up through the roof of a house depicted in a simple line drawing white on black.

The Acheronian world of the dangerous teenage gangs and their cronies is the main theme throughout coupled with the confusions of teenage love and deliberate lies woven by kids at the school to protect, survive and to deliberately deceive. Actor Jamie Shelton exudes quiet menace as gang leader Roth. On the opposite side of the bleak housing estate resides Goddo played with 'dressed to kill' revengeful swagger by Charles Mnene. This is a scary young man who delights in beating up the vulnerable but is sensitive about his dead dog. Theatrical joke alert. No-one would want to hanging around the playground waiting for this Goddo.

The hero Paul who speaks regularly about 'The Knife That Killed Me' is played with great understatement by Jack McMullen and his desperate story of just wanting to be accepted/loved must resonate with us all, teenagers or adults. The scene where he physically and verbally attacks his father is universal and ends with a cruel irony.

The film leads us into many a dark corner, has a superbly actualised gang fight and a brilliant twist in the telling which is very hard to predict. No spoilers in this review. I found this intelligent film utterly compelling at a cinema preview. It is dark, has a savage hypnotic humour, is visually unique and when it is released on DVD (27th April) I predict it will be racing up the charts to No1.


Lastly, I watch a lot of film and The Knife That Killed Me is the best British film I have seen in years. Equally to be lauded are the wealth of young acting talent in the cast and the directorship of Marcus Romer.

Official website.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: The Hired Man, Leicester Operatic Players, Little Theatre Leicester,

The musical 'The Hired Man' by Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall comes from part one of Melvyn Bragg's Cumbrian Trilogy. The novel and musical both offer a great sense of tough lives endured and terrific emotional drive. Almost twenty years after Bragg's novel was published to great literary acclaim Bragg joined forces with composer Howard Goodall to create what was billed at the time (1984) as The Hired Man – The Great British Musical. The press reviews were very favourable and although it had a relatively short run at the Astoria Theatre in the West End (164 perfs) it has become a popular musical for amateur and professional companies because of the gripping storyline. The piece also contains some very strong characters and rousing musical numbers that just grab you alongside the more poignant pieces. It has opportunities for a large ensemble and I've even seen a production with a real whippet on stage. The whippet didn't sing.

The Hired Man is an emotional roller-coaster but not without humour in the dialogue. At the Little Theatre in Leicester we find Leicester Operatic Players performing their thrilling version from 21st April - 25th. Considering that the original show started life at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester before transferring to the Astoria it's delightful that it should come back to Leicester in this way.

It is an excellent production and with a sensible size of cast in twenty-five meaning that it doesn't ever seem overly crammed on the relatively small stage at the Little Theatre. The set design is a blend of artistically realised and ever practical with some effective projection. As we are engaged wholesale in the musical action unfolding and swept along with the character's lives the scene changes just happen with a simplicity and fluidity that allows total audience and cast immersion in the show.

The story concerns newly-weds Emily and John Tallentire (Alexandra Elliott and Ashley Bright) and is set in the rural area around a fictional town called Crossbridge. The play opens in 1898 high up on the fells at the annual hiring fair where men and women offer themselves for hire as farm labourers and John is given employment by farmer Pennington. (David Lovell).

John becomes obsessed with his work to the neglect of his wife Emily. Emily has noticed Pennington's son Jackson (Tom Urch) in a recent wrestling match and succumbs to a brief affair with him. She is torn between the two men and John finds out about the affair whilst on a fox hunting trip with his brother Isaac (Neil Prior). John sees them embracing and knocks out Jackson.

Jackson then joins the army to go to India as he realises he will never be a hundred percent with Emily.

The musical play covers two periods in the couple's lives and we get to meet Harry and May the two children born of John and Emily. May (Laura Carvell) is a very naïve girl of sixteen and Harry (Nick Reid) a brave but occasionally foolish boy of thirteen. Against his parents wishes he gets a job down the pit. As time passes the Great War of 1914-1918 begins and John, Isaac and Jackson all serve in the armed forces. Even young Harry, pressurised by the recruiting campaign and a sense of foolish duty tries to pass himself off as older so he can join up. Isaac loses a leg in the trenches but is saved by Jackson. Eventually both Jackson and Harry lose their lives. Emily declares her love for John in a beautiful duet and after the war John goes to work down the mines. Emily has developed tuberculosis whilst working in a factory. The couple debate whether they might be better going back to the land. A sudden mining accident brings new drama to the family. John survives and goes home to find a new tragedy awaiting him. He decides to go back to the land where he started.

Throughout the whole show the demanding choral work is spot on and no better realised than in the opening number, The Song of The Hired Man. Considering that it is dialect based the lyrics come across very clearly from the whole cast. This is not something that can always be said of amateur musicals where the sound of the song sounds tuneful but the words themselves are an unintelligible mush.

Ashley Bright and Alexandra Elliot are perfect as Emily and John Tallentire. Both are clearly accomplished actors and singers and this comes across especially well in the more tender songs such as 'Now For The First Time' and 'No Choir Of Angels'. Elliott could have walked off the professional stage into this production. Her voice is crystal clear and she has a great depth and warmth of character to her Cumbrian Emily.

Neil Prior is characterful and enjoyable as the lazy yet lovable brother Isaac and is particularly sympathetic in the scenes after the war is over. Prior holds it together well in the song 'Get Up And Go Lad' where it appears the cunning fox ran off with one of his verses. I'm sure it will return with it intact for the rest of the week. David Toft makes the older brother Seth a very human character as he moves from union activist to pacifist in the journey of the show. He is especially moving in the 'War Song' and brings out the desperate sadness of the human waste in the war.

Unlike some shows there is no real bad boy in the piece excepting that of suitor Jackson Pennington who has the misfortune of falling in love with a married woman. Tom Urch has a super voice as Pennington and a lot of presence on stage. His 'Hear Your Voice' is one of the most moving moments of the show.

Laura Carvell and Nick Reid as May and Harry Tallentire both light up the stage at the beginning of the second act. Lots of youthfulness and energy. Carvell's song 'You Never See The Sun' is a most original and authentic rendition. Her exuberance shines out and establishes itself in what is quite a thinly drawn character. Similarly, newcomer to LOPs Nick Reid, makes a very likeable and confident Harry Tallentire whose taste for adventure takes him to the most dangerous of places. This young man is another of the cast whose every word is heard even with the Cumbrian accent. It makes such a difference.

There is a good proportion of ensemble work in The Hired Man and its style of presenting a story through song and dialogue has been seen historically as a close precursor to the 'sung through' styles that became more prevalent in the later 1980s and onwards in such shows as Les Misèrables. The set pieces that really stand out in this production are 'The Song of The Hired Men' 'Get Up and Go Lad' 'The Union Song: Men of Stone' 'Farewell Song' and 'War Song'. Throughout the singing is very strong and the placement of the characters in the last three works very well indeed. A feeling of genuine groupings is achieved in the direction and choreography, not just a cardboard cut-out cast on stage. The gentler 'Day Follows Day' seems slightly lost in the piece although it was introduced into the work as a new song and considered a better link after the battle scenes back in a revised version created in 2004 by Howard Goodall.

The small orchestra of five under the musical direction of Gill Hawkes and James Stevens are note perfect with folk song connected instruments, Trumpet, Piano, Harpsichord, Harp and Double Bass.

Overall, an exciting and emotionally engaging amateur production of The Hired Man expertly and passionately directed by Steve Elliott at the Little Theatre in Leicester. Highly recommended.

The Hired Man runs until Saturday 25th April.

Photographs credit and copyright Poyner & Mee

Review originally written for Sardines Magazine online reviews (22nd April)

Friday, 17 April 2015

Review: Our Country's Good at Curve.

The original production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play, 'Our Country's Good' opened at London's Royal Court Theatre in September 1988, some weeks after their production of George Farquhar's Restoration comedy, 'The Recruiting Officer'. During the runs audiences had a chance to see the same cast in each production directed by Max Stafford – Clark. Wertenbaker's play was workshopped with the original cast and director for historical accuracy, content and script development using the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally as a strong inspiration. For research Wertenbaker and Stafford-Clark attended a play performed by prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs prison and were impressed by the serious dedication to the work by the prisoners and this observation fed into the emotional backbone of the eventual play.

The workshopping methods utilised by Stafford – Clark and his creative team became known as the Joint Stock method of play writing and script/story development. This is due to Max Stafford Clark's artistic tenure at the Joint Stock Theatre Company. The actors there were always encouraged to 'own' the play through their ideas and work in the development of the play script.

During rehearsals Max Stafford- Clark wrote a seminal book called 'Letters to George' which contains his almost daily thoughts on the rehearsals of both 'The Recruiting Officer' and 'Our Country's Good' as they developed and rehearsed. The so called 'letters' were addressed to the long dead playwright George Farquhar and throughout the writing the man from 1988 instructs the man from 1706 on the changes in taste, theatrical fashion and social behaviour which have overtaken the play. He also informs George on the usage of 'The Recruiting Officer' as a play within the play of 'Our Country's Good'. Historically, Farquhar's 'The Recruiting Officer' was the first play to be performed on Australian soil and was performed not by professional actors of the day but by convicts in the penal colony.

The play has received a variety of awards including a Laurence Olivier Award in 1988 and a Tony Award in 1991. Throughout its history to date many 'Our Country's Good' actors worldwide have been given critical acclaim and the play is very popular with audiences and young adult performers because of the compelling themes of sexuality, cruelty and punishment and the proposed idea that it is possible for theatre to be a humanising force. The play is also used as a set text for Advanced level Theatre Studies and also as a set text at AS level in English Literature Studies.

The production at Curve Leicester is directed by professional director Nikoli Foster collaborating with a cast of talented students from De MontfortUniversity Leicester. The cast of sixteen (with necessary doubling) play over twenty characters ranging from Royal Marines, dispirited convicts, and members of the Georgian judicial system all set in a penal colony in New South Wales Australia. Curve have once again turned their studio space into an 'in the round' experience repeating the success in creating a tense atmosphere that was so prevalent in their professional production of Abigail's Party recently. Only this time the acting space is much bigger.

The main themes of the play are the hope for goodness to be brought out of the so called criminals and the idea that theatre can be an expression of civilisation and the enacting of it can lead people to see another side of themselves. It is also about the frustrations in achieving such ideals under dangerous and trying circumstances. The De Montfort University Leicester students do a sterling job in realising these endeavours on the Curve studio stage.

Even before the play begins we have an impression of a scorched land envisioned by a rough Hessian flooring that in certain lights sometimes looks like the sea shore after the tide has gone out. The production standards are very professional and the many emotional and literal locations are delineated by rapid light changes and incisive sound effects. There is a compelling pulse to the action on stage throughout the entire show and this immediacy benefits the telling of the story. The actors work as a well trained ensemble creatively inhabiting the space so well it is sometimes a shock to realise that one is watching non-professionals at work. Occasionally there are small issues with vocal audibility but nothing that detracts from the general high quality of the piece.


In a mixed sex cast of sixteen, playing twenty-two parts in total, some of the female cast play both sexes, those of the men and women prisoners and those of the male Royal Marines. It all works thunderingly well. Lily Shaw Morris as John Arscott and Second Lt William Faddy is particularly outstanding. Shaw Morris has a vitality about her that lights up the stage and her performance is witty and one of total engagement in the piece. The key female role of Liz Morden (Abigail Colebrook) is finely executed (excuse the dark pun) and her near redemption at the close of the play shows in every smiling muscle of her face.

This is a great piece of theatre for an ensemble and the acting standards from all the cast is outstanding. Showy roles can often be overdone but not in the case of Nick Read's Robert Sideway. His character is almost relentlessly positive and hugely enthusiastic about Sideway's notion of what it means to act or completely over act. Read's portrayal of his studied 'attitudes' from a bygone age of theatre is one of the funniest moments of the evening. It would be a great compliment to say that Read's work reminds me of a young Tom Courtney. As one of the few men that doubled up roles Corum Franklin shows great contrast in two characters that are equally hated and feared but from very different perspectives. Franklin is all objectionable bombast and vile spitting bluster as Major Robbie Ross and, conversely, becomes a caring and unwilling hangman in Ketch Freeman a man shunned by his convict contemporaries in the penal colony.

Chris Howitt as the often frustrated Second Lt Ralph Clark puts in a very mature and subtle performance as a man in charge of directing the production of 'The Recruiting Officer' and who has the added dilemma of romantic feelings towards one of the women prisoners. Thomas Carter as midshipman Harry Brewer particularly excels in his mad drunk scene on the moonlit beach haunted by ghosts. This scene is beautifully realised as a haunting circle of echoes from the directorial work of Nikoli Foster.

The show is technically very sharp and down to the combined efforts of the professional staff at Curve and the DMU student technical team. Through the artistic collaboration the students from all the theatrical disciplines have tremendous opportunities to develop opportunities to very practically learn about roles both on stage and off. As in Max Stafford-Clark's original production the actors totally 'owned' this classy production of 'Our Country's Good' at Curve and should be very proud of their achievement.

Review originally posted on The Public Reviews website 16th April 2015

Photography credit: Pamela Raith Photography.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Review: Return to the Forbidden Plant. Curve Leicester

Review originally published on The Public Reviews website 8th April

For the 25th Anniversary tour the, Olivier awarding winning Best Musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet lands solidly on Leicester's Curve theatre main stage this week and takes off to huge applause. This fun sci fi show is packed with musical numbers from the 1950s and 1960s with the instruments all played live by the eleven strong cast of actors. Even before the show has begun the actors are out on the stage welcoming and chatting amongst the beaming audience. From the Return to the Forbidden Planet tee shirts in the audience it is clear that the show has a big fan base. As the high energy show launched into the first act and continued to rocket skywards you could see why.

The show always has a well known personality that is connected to space as Chorus – a pre filmed role – and this year it is Brian May Queen guitarist, music producer and Doctor of Astrophysics and May comes across well as the guide to the piece.

None of the roles are serious drama, more like pastiches of 1950s sci fi movies like the original classic Forbidden Planet. The acting is meant to be a mix of postured and over the top – the characters almost like walking talking and singing cartoon people and the story, tenuously linked with Shakespeare's The Tempest, is there to provide a narrative base for the songs and action. In director and creator Bob Carlton's musical the spoken dialogue is a mix of faux Shakespeare and actual Shakespeare quotes. It works amusingly well and the 'to be or not to be' gets the biggest laugh of the evening.

The internal space ship set design by Queen's Theatre Hornchurch associate designer Rodney Ford is a rock solid construction of steps and levels with enough bells and gadgets to satisfy any bad sci fi fan. It has an open roof through which we can see the stars and on coming wacky monsters. Additionally, the audience enjoy a deliberately corny effect of a space shuttle escaping the main ship into the blackened star lit cosmos. Ford first designed for Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre some thirty years ago and has also designed for many versions of the show in the UK and abroad. He is also credited as the costume designer.

The show is quite lengthy at two hours playing time but the time zips by quicker than a star ship hero can whip out his ray gun. The multi-talented cast play an amazing array of instruments between them including tenor and alto saxophone, clarinet, electric guitar, drums, flute, piano, oboe, bass, electric keyboard, harmonica, trumpet, trombone and even a cowbell!

The action is rapid pace augmented with songs to add musical depth to the story. All the cast are accomplished singers and wonderfully re-create the sounds of popular songs such as “A Teenager in Love” “Great Balls of Fire” (well what else do you sing as the space ship dodges through the asteroid belt?) and “Born to be Wild”. In total this toe tapping rock and roll soundtrack features twenty-seven hits.

Actor Sean Needham never lets up the comedy with his pipe smoking, square jawed space captain Captain Tempest and one of the highlights of the show is his rendition of “Young Girl” sung to the sweet and innocent Miranda played with a heart melting coyness by Sarah Scowen. Another relative youngster in the cast is Mark Newnham as Cookie the ship's hopeless romantic. Newnham's electric guitar solo is a show stopper and his acting as the lovable Cookie is tongue in cheek believable.

Jonathan Markwood excels as the crazy mad scientist Dr Prospero throughout and is powerful in his conjuring up of the space monster that attacks the ship before the interval. The audience recognise the extracts from King Lear as he whips up a storm of revenge and Mark Dymock's brilliant lighting design coupled with thundering footfalls of the monster coming closer (sound design by Ben Harrison) create real excitement and tension. Much hilarity is had from the 'clearly not real' big tentacles of the monster attacking the cast. This spoof monster is so like the old movies where the special effects were very poor and handmade compared to the CGI effects we enjoy today.

Of course the audience always look forward to seeing the robot character Ariel and although not on roller skates (guess the multiple steps rule that practicality out) Joseph Mann as Ariel does not disappoint. His character is not overly robotic but he works well in a lovable android way. Mann also has a superb singing voice as well as a great extra talent in fire breathing.

The female Science Officer played with gutsy effervescent by Christine Holman is a star turn in a play full of stars. Her energetic and sexy full on performance lights up the stage and although she appears to disappear and desert the ship by escaping in a space pod during the early asteroid storm she makes a surprising new entrance with Ariel later in the show.

There is so much to recommend in this silly science fiction show with its high energy, daft humour, campness and quadruple threat talents (acting, singing, dancing and live playing of musical instruments) and I would happily sit through the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch's version currently at Curve, again and again. It is no wonder it is loved through the world.

Tour details found HERE

Friday, 3 April 2015

Review Dust and Dreamtime. Derby Theatre Learning. Youth productions.

Derby Theatre Learning encourage practical application in the theatre arts and where better as a young person to learn than in a professional theatre. Each year two new performances are shown by the Derby Theatre youth theatre groups – one made up of the younger members and another by the older members. In a sense it is aspirant learning; both groups gaining valuable skills on stage that also lead to greater confidence in life and the younger group – in watching the older group's show – aspire and are inspired to improve. Not only are acting skills developed but also those of a directorial and technical side for those interested.

This year we have Dust by Sarah Daniels directed by Emma Waslin. The story of Dust concerns a school trip to the Globe Theatre in London which turns surreal when Flavia and her classmates are evacuated from the Underground. Flavia somehow gets lost from the group and ends up with a Tube train driver who drops her off at an unused station to make her own way to the surface. There is a large explosion and things take a funny turn as Flavia gets transported back in time to Roman times.

In her own 21st Century world Flavia (played beautifully by Holly Pridmore) is the victim of bullies at school and wants desperately to be part of their clique. In the Roman world she meets remarkably similar people but has the chance to learn how to deal with the world by defending herself and seeing the world in a different light. She has to gain courage even in the face of a wild lion. In her Roman journey she meets Queen Boudica, Centurions and Gladiators all played with gusto by the cast of twenty-four young actors.

Both shows are set in a semi-circle arena space with structural adaptations to suit each show. Each show also explores the lives of young people and their struggle to find their own voice.

Dust opens in the Underground with all the cast awaiting the next tube train. Throughout the piece good use is made of the casts group mime skills and non more so than in the full cast's amusing and frustrated reactions of tube trains shooting invisibly by. The sound effects ring true with added Underground station authenticity from a live saxophone player. When we reach the transformation to the Roman times there is a good atmosphere of period with the clothes and movement but I'm not overly sure about the modern language used by Boudica and The Romans. In saying so I do like the inclusion of short monologues historically referencing women who have changed the world.

There are some nice stand out performances including Tabitha Gresty as the aged Soothsayer and especially strong (as you'd expect and Amazon to be) was the portrayal of the Amazon Warrior by Jessica Kneale. Very gutsy and solid work. Reid Oliphant is really amusing as a cocky gladiator and both he and Kneale bring the production alive in their slow motion gladiatorial scene.

The most important thing in this production apart from dramatically and the entertainment value is what the young people are getting out of the experience. Just to quote a few; “It means a lot to me. I get the chance to grow and meet lots of new friends”, “building my confidence as an actor...”, “meeting friends with shared interests and doing what we enjoy best – acting”, “how to be more confident on stage and about the backbone of a theatre production”, “ that I get to meet new people and that I have had an opportunity to try and assist in directing”. If I was one of these kids parents I would be immensely proud.

The second production of the evening is from the older youth theatre students and the commitment shown in Dreamtime by Stacey Sampson and directed by Emma Waslin is very professional. The older group workshopped and improvised a number of potential scenes with characters they had created and worked with Stacey Sampson on the structure of the whole piece. After weeks of this collective script work the ideas were used and the script of Dreamtime evolved into a piece of theatre that had all of the older cast's names and ideas stamped on it as well as the professional writer. It shows in the quality of the work and the mature commitment to it.

Dreamtime draws upon a group of teenagers that gather together in an underground car park to share experiences and work our their emotional feelings in order to find common comfort and consolation. This is done in a very stylised way with great influence from Aboriginal culture and dance. The cast are all costumed in white with splashes of a darker hue on their costumes. The story of Danny, a young man leaving the group of friends to go to University and the support and criticism he receives in his decision is well portrayed. The warrior theme is picked up again but this time it is has a mix of admiration blurred with the realisation of idiocy as the cast watch YouTube footage of boy racers creating havoc in Derby city centre.

Dreamtime is great evidence of how exciting theatre collaboration can be and how this talented cast of twenty work tremendously well in the group pieces. This includes the vibrant Aboriginal style dance and, in the acting, creating a tangible atmosphere and adapting their body language and speech to accentuate mood. As in Dust the individual short monologues are especially well done utilising some very complex vocabulary in ways that are immediately comprehensible. There is a strong sense of family in Dreamtime and in the text an authentic notion of the young people trying to discover who they are. Brilliantly and professionally done.

Dust and Dreamtime run at Derby Theatre until Saturday 4th April.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review: The Mist in the Mirror at Nottingham Playhouse

Judging from my last two visits to the theatre (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Mist in the Mirror) theatre technology has suddenly got very exciting and certainly helps add a terrific atmosphere to the plays that a straight forward set perhaps would not.

In this instance Oldham Coliseum Theatre and ITD (imitating the dog) have joined forces to create a masterpiece of Gothic drama in a stage adaptation of Susan Hill's ghost story The Mist in the Mirror. The adaptation is by Ian Kershaw and the result (in this touring production) is a stunning and scary piece of Gothic story-telling shown mostly in black and white with some amazing effects. The piece is a wonderfully stylish piece of theatre directed by Kevin Shaw.

Imitating the dog have been creating and touring original performance work since 1998. Pete Brooks, Andrew Quick and Simon Wainwright are the Artistic Directors and their work has built a company with a unique reputation in the UK, Europe and internationally. They also collaborate as creative partners for other works. Their recent work includes concept and projection design for Soul Sister in the West End and fairly recently the outstandingly popular and critically acclaimed The Hound of The Baskervilles for Oldham Coliseum Theatre. The Guardian newspaper called them "a company at the forefront of testing the nature of theatre".

In 'The Mist in the Mirror' we witness a restless young traveller named James Monmouth (Paul Warriner) becoming obsessed with the legacy of a famous fictional explorer known as Conrad Vane. During the story, superbly narrated by Jack Lord, as The Reader, Monmouth is repeatedly warned by a range of eccentric individuals to leave well alone. It is a bit like watching a horror film where the hero foolishly decides to venue into the creepy cellar where the killer lurks in the shadows and you know darn well he shouldn't but the crazy compulsion drives them onward.

The interaction between live and digital is brilliantly done. Rain pours down almost constantly, spooky fog at the docks fills the stage, doors disappear before your very eyes, and the darkness of the fantastic set created by Barney George adds superbly to the chill factor. My astonished self almost wanted to laugh out loud at the brilliance of a train carriage seemingly arriving on set, the hero descending from the carriage and the train departing in a ghostly mist. This was all done by projections and a solid entrance. The whole short play contains so many wonderful tricks of light, dark and shade and illusion that you are completely drawn into the story. The cast of five (Sarah Eve, Caroline Harding, Jack Lord, Martin Reeve, Paul Warriner) work together terrifically to tell the story with some perfect timing as they flit in and out of the darkened set as shadows of evil and good intent.

This is a Gothic fireside story that draws the audience into its complicities, makes you jump rather than terrifies, has creepy voice echoes that resound around the theatre and has an otherworldly mystery from flickering Edwardian gas lit start to startling finish.

Running at Nottingham Playhouse until 4th April 2015