Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Interview with David Longford re: The School For Scandal

Interview with David Longford - Creative Learning Manager - at Nottingham Theatre Royal.

As the historic Nottingham Theatre Royal celebrates 150 years of theatrical existence Phil Lowe visited David Longford -former professional actor – now Creative Learning Manager and director of the theatre's community theatre group's (The Royal Company) recent acclaimed production of The School For Scandal. David was keen to promote the theatre and especially the hard work and non-professional local talents that made the promenade show such a huge success with Nottingham's theatre going public in September 2015.

The School For Scandal performance echoed Sheridan's day in terms of text and costume but also the students of Nottingham Trent University's Theatre Design degree course had huge input with their cross referenced costume and wig designs that combined the fashions of the mid 1800s but added in very modern touches with wigs made from modern day gossip magazines. The props of the piece included mobile phones and contemporary branded shopping bags to carry the play's messages across to a modern day audience. The whole combination worked extremely well and was backed up with periodic pop music tracks that introduced the characters at points during the show.

David Longford director and the show's narrator picked up on how the show worked and on the history of recent amateur community shows that have had and, benefited from, professional input throughout the rehearsal processes.

David Longford

“I started here in 2001 and there was no educational community role whatsoever in the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall. It was a brand new job and I had previously worked at the Mansfield Palace theatre as their education officer. Before that I was a freelance actor and director mainly working in young people's theatre. TIE has a real appeal for me. In the Nottingham Theatre Royal job I was lucky enough, in July 2001, to be employed full -time and to build everything up from scratch. My brief was, and still is, to work with all the visiting companies and to make the venue much more 'open' and publicly accessible and to get the community involved in our work. So, one of my first decisions was based on the thought that I wanted to set up a community theatre company so that we could engage with the public directly and within the spaces in the Theatre Royal and, as it turns out, also around the city of Nottingham.”

“The aim was for every one of the community projects to be a real 'in depth' process. Not just learning the lines but treating it with the seriousness and passion of a pro theatre project with as much professional input as chances would allow. I wanted to totally engage the participants by bringing in external practitioners in order to learn from them and bring a professional approach and discipline to the essentially 'amateur' actors experience and make them feel and grow from being really challenged. I always say to people as we go through the audition process – 'This is a big commitment – I will be asking a lot of you but I want to challenge you and I also want you to have some fun too.' We did a production here of the Government Inspector in 2002 and that was a promenade piece too. However it was not as extensive as The School For Scandal. We mainly used the foyer spaces. Our theatrical statement was that we wanted to do things differently and with local people involved. That went down extremely well and so The Royal Company was born.”

“My job includes working with Northern Ballet and Opera North (regular visitors to our theatre) and within my role with The Royal Company we often work alongside other venues such as when we did Fahrenheit 451 where we combined with the local amateur arts venue - Nottingham Arts Theatre. In 2005 The Royal Company show was held at Nottingham Castle and we rehearsed and performed Tony Harrison's version of The Mysteries, in a huge marquee, a very gritty and very northern piece. This version was originally done by the National Theatre in the 1970s and is all about working class folk putting together a passionate piece about the last days of Jesus Christ.”

“We have also done three productions on the Theatre Royal stage. One especially memorable one being Oliver Twist (2004) where we really used the Victorian interior of the Theatre Royal to best advantage with narrators in the boxes and the Nottingham Trent University Theatre Design course students who brought in their amazing talents. The shows we have done on the main stage have done extremely well, This is mainly because we have chosen sell-able titles and therefore they become commercially good sellers, but at the same time they still offer the all important challenges for the participants.”

“In 2006 we did our most successful production to date – 101 Dalmatians. We had one professional actress in that. This was Toyah Wilcox as Cruella DeVille. Toyah came into our rehearsals two weeks before the show opened and she was incredible. She had no qualms whatsoever working with a talented amateur cast. In fact the whole cast's theatrical outlook and performance level went up several notches with Toyah's presence. It makes me quite emotional thinking about the commitment those non-professionals put into the show to make it a piece to be hugely proud of. Once again there was a real physical theatre challenge about how do we create a world of dogs without having 101 people in cute doggy outfits!”

“Sometimes, I find when people ask what is the difference with working with professional and amateur community performers, and I think some of the performances in 'Scandal' were extraordinary high, I believe it is that confidence to 'play' within the rehearsal room to build on the role and its place within the play itself.”

“Generally, The Royal Company is an amateur company that is based at Nottingham Theatre Royal but doesn't limit itself to purely performing solely at the venue. We have even done schools tours in the past and some of our talented members have gone on to engage in professional theatre school training with the emphasis on a career in the theatre arts. Plus, we have encouraged the art of story-telling in a dramatic medium and our actors have gone out into the community to develop and show off their skills.”

“With the 150th Anniversary of Nottingham Theatre Royal we felt that we needed to do the obvious production that was the inaugural production way back in 1865 – Sheridan's The School For Scandal'. It was cast by starting from a clean slate. We extensively advertised the opportunity to be involved through various local and national media and everyone, even people we had used before, had to audition with a single audition piece. Then we did group auditions and whittled it down. We had a lot of ladies audition so the production evolved with many of the male roles being played by women. This was so successful in creating a diverse, interesting and sexually charged piece that I almost considered having the whole cast as women! I loved the fact that Joseph and Charles were both played by young women and this was echoed through audience feedback too.”

“A practitioner called Gerry Flanagan came into the rehearsal process and helped with important clowning and physical theatre aspects of the play. Gerry is very thorough in his workshops and he really did push them. Interestingly we had three drop outs along the way but that doesn’t surprise me because in every single community show that I have done we have had a similar amount of drop outs. Sometimes people don't realise the hard nature of the commitment and sometimes they drop out for unfortunate personal reasons that no-one can predict. We just have to re-adjust and consider how to move on within the scenes. Each production is different and there were some extra pressures with this show because of the 150th Anniversary and the promenade aspects. I kept saying to everybody that when we are moving the audience around the theatre to each different place – that is still part of the performance. Overall, I truly believe that all the potential playfulness of Sheridan's comical play encouraged all creative aspects of the final piece and brought out really professional performances from a talented group of non-professional or amateur performers. I can't wait for the next project but I am so busy with the Nottingham Theatre Royal's 150th Anniversary celebrations that presently I have no idea what that might be.”

All production images are from The School For Scandal copyright Alan Fletcher.

All other images copyright author Phil Lowe.

For Phil Lowe's review of The School For Scandal click HERE.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review Brassed Off - Derby Theatre

Many happy years in this reviewer's life were spent in a hapless non- critical capacity just enjoying theatre as a form of entertainment and pleasurable education and there's nowt wrong with that lad. Then in the late 1980's this same reviewer took an unexpected big step into the world of higher education - an arts degree no less. This happened after a sudden redundancy from the Derbyshire based butchery firm he worked for at the time. Times were definitely 'a changing' as a certain Mr Dylan sang. Back then the papers and telly were full to bosting with news of the miners' strikes, the new and hated Poll Tax, Mrs Thatcher's government this and that - force for good - force for evil - dependent on the individual's and popular tabloid's bias. Be it political with a capital or small 'p' there was no escaping the dark mood of the apparently 'United Kingdom' in the 1980/90s and all domestic and economic security seemed to be going to rack and ruin for many. Communities in nearby or neighbouring Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, in the period covering the mid 1980s towards a decade later, felt the crippling effects of the changes and the devastation of once solid and mutually supportive mainly - working class - hands on - hard graft - industrial societies.

Meanwhile, this erstwhile and perhaps rather naïve theatre goer continued to haunt the Derby Playhouse, as was, and he saw every production at least once but, on the whole, considerably more times than that. The Derby Playhouse box office coffers swelled significantly at his generous and perpetual attendance.

Vicariously, he learnt so much psychological truth about other people's lives and gained much insight into the character's politics in all the senses; socially; politically; theatrically; surreally and even sexually. A certain German touring production of Miss Julie in the studio space even included real life naked actors!!!! Tut tut!

This theatrical house of 'well repute' was alive and kicking and still remains so today as it celebrates forty years of existence in its current form of the acclaimed Derby Theatre. Tonight this reviewer was honoured to help celebrate those forty years of theatrical excellence and wallowed in nostalgia as he chatted with friends new and old and counted at least 80% of the posters on the stairwell as shows he had enjoyed and even had been inspired to act in himself somewhat later in life.

Current artistic director Sarah Brigham, in a pre-show speech, referred to the hugely important need for a critical audience to share the theatrical experience and that notion can only be applauded and amalgamated into our shared theatrical consciousness. There are times in life when the spoken word can be perceived and truly understood as properly inspirational - not just some token 'put together' words for the occasion - but utterly heart- felt and honestly conveyed with a voice full with genuine hope and belief at its core. That is what I heard this evening. I heard of a Derby Theatre that has deep meaning for its community and beyond; one that is educational, inspiring and recognised. Here's to the next forty years and the future generations of theatre makers and theatre goers! I guess you were expecting a review of 'Brassed Off' so please read on...

Derby Theatre's gritty and realistic production of Brassed Off adapted by Paul Allen for the stage is as fluid and emotionally taut piece of theatre that you are ever likely to see on a British stage. It is directed with passion by Sarah Brigham and encompasses an incredible total of twenty-two actors (a professional and non-professional mix) who work on the piece over its entire run - plus a further, and much applauded commitment, from no-less-than forty members of the acclaimed Derwent Brass Band split between the shows. This band's involvement and talents cannot be under-estimated and must surely contribute to the standing ovations that the show has currently received every night of its performance so far.

Stage designer Ali Allen has brought to the stage a visual and working class concept that is abjectly poetic in its grimy coal crunching boot honesty. The fictional mining town of Grimley is conveyed through a clinging solid wall of grey dust and a clever perspective of council houses that desperately huddle together with coal dust hanging in the air and over every rimy roof - visually intimating a wintery despair for all. You can almost enter each property unseen in your head and visit the ghosts of Grimley's future. There they sit, angry, bleak and desperately cloying against mildewed wet-netted windows sodden with condensation under a pall of social doom. However, the tiny 'just visible' red light of the distant pit head depicts the ever prevalent human hope of the miners and their community. Imagination is all.

Well, this all sounds a bit Bleak House doesn't it? All is not lost though as this play offers a chance of hope and spirit renewed as the members of the fictional Grimley Brass Band struggle through their existences; their troubled lives; fatalities even, and as each political and social disaster befalls them mutual support prevails and prejudices are challenged for the better.

There are some excellent naturalistic performances from Garry Cooper as the passionate yet ailing Danny and Adam Horvarth as love struck Andy struggling between his feelings for old flame and talented brass band horn player Gloria (Seren Sandham-Davies) and the harsh realities of pit comradeship. Jimmy Fairhurst excels as troubled clown and miner Phil and his scene as he literally hangs from the pit head is heart-stopping and tragic.

At the throbbing heart of this poignant and often wryly funny piece are Darren Bancroft as Jim, Howard Chadwick as the lovable rascal Harry and the beating pulse of the piece belongs to the miners wives and girlfriends played with utter conviction and honesty by Jo Mousely (compelling as Sandra), Kate Wood as Rita and Lisa Allen as Vera. Supporting the female side are ensemble members drawn from Derby Theatre Community Ensemble - Nikita Mediratta, Sophie Whitebrook, Bethany Madden and Lucy Mabbit.

Brian Weaver Fellowship actor Jake Waring convinces us so well in his parts as miner, bailiff and announcer that he is barely recognisable in each separate role.

The children in the Brassed Off play are as important as the main actors and tonight Oliver Watts as Phil's son Shane totally steals the show. In a ridiculously assured performance his wish in the programme notes to one day 'be' an actor are blown out of the proverbial water. He 'is' an actor and a darned good one at that. With such promise maybe in twenty years time we will be enjoying his performances on the professional stage as an adult.

In a theatre full of 'hope and glory' the audience rise in a standing ovation at the end of an emotionally fulfilling night at Derby Theatre and in their unifying victorious applause are determined that the spirit of community and love of theatre is alive in Derby and beyond!

See DERBY THEATRE WEBSITE for booking details but don't leave it too long as this one is fast becoming a near sell out production.

For a fascinating insight into the working lives of Brassed Off actors Howard Chadwick and Jake Waring check out their recent interview HERE.

Production photos credit: Robert Day.

Hood – the legend continues review.

As part of the Nottingham Theatre Royal's celebration of 150 years existence seven local theatre writers; experienced playwrights plus other exciting new and proven talents have been commissioned to bring about Hood – the legend continues, a new piece of theatre relevant to Nottinghamshire. Written by Andy Barrett, Tim Elgood, James Graham, Laura Lomas, Mufaro Makubika, Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon, Hood – the legend continues, is also co-produced by one of Britain's best and most innovative touring Nottinghamshire based theatre groups – New Perspectives.


The director is Jack Mcnamara and the quick change stage designs are down to designer Rhys Jarman and these are graced with atmospheric lighting by Mark Pritchard, music by Tom Mills and choreography by Chantry Dance Company.

Hood – the legend continues is allegedly based on the ballads of Robin Hood and set in the century and a half from 1865 (the year that the Nottingham Theatre Royal first opened) to the present day, thus reflecting the 150th Anniversary. It is promoted as a journey through a one hundred and fifty years of Nottingham's vibrant and colourful history through the eyes of Robin Hood. The question we may ask ourselves as an audience is 'does this theatre work also promote Robin Hood as an international figure or limit itself to local history?' The answer is most certainly the local history slant wherein each section of the story looks at one aspect of the character Robin Hood and presents a version appropriate to the historical period.

Keeping the writing in and around Nottinghamshire, the piece scores on the side of jokes about local areas and gets a lot of laughs throughout. Making fun of rival cities like nearby Derby works too, as well as it might in a pantomime setting. However this reviewer has his doubts whether a visitor from outside the East Midlands or even abroad would find the mostly Nottingham related wit in the piece amusing.

Equally, the six part episodic nature of Hood – the legend continues finds one in a succession of short historically based stories some of which don't actually seem to go anywhere and the narrative thread of the whole is stretched rather thin. In the final scene relating to the nature of the Robin Hood industry a row of what look like random supernumerary pensioners in a long line wearing modern day clothes and metal helmets are revealed to the audience. Sadly they look uncomfortably very out of place. The show in general is thankfully upheld by some spirited acting from the company especially Ed Thorpe as a very funny and engaging Alan A Dale.

Adam Morris as The Sheriff of Nottingham is best in the Second World War scene and as a greedy politician in the 1980s New Nottingham section. More darkly comical than pure evil Morris engages and entertains the audience throughout. Robin Hood himself (Jonah Russell) is presented in various rebellious guises. Mostly non-conformist in nature, this idea of Hood or Loxely is more of a man of words than an action hero although he does get into a few fights and scrapes along the way. Russell does have a good authentic rough Nottingham accent and this works to his credit.

Some of the most flexible acting opportunities are given to the two actresses Jasmine Blackburrow (Marian) and Alex Bedward (Scarlett) and both offer very enjoyable performances. Particularly funny is Bedward as a beer guzzling Nun and boy/girl newspaper seller. Lastly, Ewan MacIntosh bigs it up as Little John and brings out the comedy in all his various roles.

Overall, Hood – the legend continues offers the Nottingham theatregoers a chance to celebrate 150 years of theatrical fare in their beautiful Nottingham Theatre Royal and in a climate where theatres and entertainment venues unfortunately close this can only be a good thing.

Runs until Saturday 26th September.
Originally published and written for The Public Reviews. 19th September 2015


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review: Richard Thompson and The Electric Trio

Richard Thompson is hailed as a songwriter of extra-ordinary skill and he is a recipient of a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award and Mojo's Les Paul Award. Thompson was also appointed OBE in the 2011 New Year's Honours List and the Americana Music Association recently honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. Other top music artistes such as Robert Plant, REM, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Patty Lovelace, Los Lobos, David Byrne, Don Henley,Tom Jones and many others have been proud to record Thompson's songs. He and his band, The Richard Thompson Electric Trio, are currently three quarters of the way through a national tour which ends on 20th September at The Royal Festival Hall in London.

Having released his latest album Still produced by Jeff Tweedy in June 2015 and out on the Proper Records label, renowned guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson and his band are on top form. The line up is Thompson as guitar and vocals, Davey Faragher on bass and Michael Jerome on drums. An eagerly anticipated gig at Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall this fine evening on Saturday 12th September sees them wowing an appreciative audience with new tracks from the album as well as older material of six decades of his music. His undoubted skills as an extraordinary musician and 'genre defying mastery of both the acoustic and electric guitar' (to quote his website) will certainly cement his place in music history if tonight's gig and tight set is anything to go by. Thompson has the energy of a forty year old at the top of his game despite the true nature of his age and musical legacy begun in the early years of the folk rock group Fairport Convention that he co-founded as a talented teenager in the 1960s.

From the new folk rock album fans get 'She Could Never Resist A Winding Road, Beatnik Walking, Patty Don't You Put Me Down, Broken Doll, Where's Your Heart, and the stylistically varied guitar hero tribute number, Guitar Heroes. In a set that never seems like it is going to end (in a good way) Thompson and his band prove just how musically flexible they are with songs that vary in tone and mood such as Beeswing to 1952 Vincent Black Lightening. With a full evening's entertainment and fine support by thirty-five year old Johnny Borrell of Razorlight the fans go home ecstatic after three curtain calls and three standing ovations.

It is no surprise that Rolling Stone called Thompson 'The finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist after Hendrix'. Tonight's concert at Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall sent Thompson's audience home buzzing and eager to purchase his excellent new chart topping CD Still if they don't already own it amongst his massive body of work (over 40 albums) and consider it one of their prized possessions.

Originally written for Nottingham Live. 12th September 2015

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Review The School For Scandal Nottingham Theatre Royal

Sheridan's complex comedy The School For Scandal was the inaugural play that opened Nottingham's historic Theatre Royal in 1865. The 18th Century play had already been a popular night out at any regional theatre since its first ever performance at London's Drury Lane theatre on May 8th 1777. It continues to delight with its stock characters named after their personalities and their delectation in creating scandal in society. The higher in society the victims are the more thrilling (to the scandal mongers) is their demise. It seems that things haven't changed so much since Sheridan's day as modern day gossips still love to pour over the gossip magazines and many a celeb exposé and debt issues are common themes in all the modern media.

This performance of The School For Scandal is revived as part of the celebrations of Nottingham Theatre Royal's 150th anniversary. The Theatre Royal community theatre ensemble (The Royal Company) take the unusual stance of presenting the play in a promenade performance with various parts of the action played in a variety of locations in and around the theatre and its public spaces. With a constantly mobile audience of around fifty members, all eves dropping on the comical and naughty goings on in Sheridan's comedy of manners, the story becomes a lot more immediate than it might be in a classic proscenium arch production. Much use is also made of bringing individual audience members comically into the action. This type of presentation makes the audience true voyeurs to the piece almost to the point of direct complicity. The theatrical tables are even turned on the audience at one point when we are seated right here on the main stage watching the actors perform against the background of the sumptuous green and gold of the theatre's interior!

The play satirises the behaviour and customs of the upper classes through witty dialogue and an intricate plot incorporating ludicrous situations that expose the characters' shortcomings. Sheridan's characters are somewhat cartoon like and take on bold characteristics such as; the terrible bore; the gossip; the wastrel and the rich uncle. There are a massive twenty one actors in the cast and live music is played by John Crawford and Richard Mercia. The very stylised clownish make up of the entire Royal Company helps considerably to convey these types. It is almost if these personalities have slipped out of a satirical painting of the era. The costumes designed with a modern twist by theatre design students at Nottingham Trent University are superbly conceived and made up, especially the paper wigs made from modern day gossip magazines.

Major gossips Lady Sneerwell (Deborah Porter-Walker) and Mrs Candour (Michelle Smith) are portrayed to perfection in their snobbery as is Snake (Ade Andrews) with his opening complex monologue gleefully depicting who he has sold down the line with his deceitful lies. The Surface family - Sir Oliver (Barbara Whisbey) and brothers Charles and Joseph (Madison Wales and Charlie Osborne) two young men under the guidance of Sir Peter Teazle, (Mik Horvath) are all played with broad strokes and their various character traits come through well with this style of acting. Both the brothers are played by female actors as is Sir Oliver Surface. Such theatrical artifice works terrifically in this production.

The scene where Sir Peter Teazle complains about his young wife Lady Teazle (Victoria Murphy) and her spendthrift ways works well and the common argument over money is as appropriate now as it was in the society of 18th Century Britain. The three clown characters (Mercedes Assad, Nikki Disney and Kayleigh Phillips) are played with great wit and energy and help keep the piece buoyant throughout the promenade transitions and within the play itself.

Edward Crook is superb as the rather camp Sir Benjamin Backbite, being all leopard skin and wicked asides and a louche poetic nature. Crook's stage performance as Backbite, although sadly brief, (as are a lot of the School For Scandal characters) leant a great deal of substance to the play as a whole and really brought out the self possessed nature of the scandal mongers. Contrariwise, the only truly moral character Moses is played with an aloof and knowing grace by the bespectacled and cautiously strutting Alina Hughes.

The School For Scandal is a complex and enjoyable play full of more sub plots than an over zealous design for a garden allotment, but The Royal Company do it proud in a gorgeously accessible production that Richard Brinsley Sheridan would have been rightly proud of here at Nottingham's Theatre Royal. It is directed with great style by David Longford. With a strong and likeable theatrical presence Longford also plays narrator Walter Montgomery who was the first theatre manager at the Theatre Royal.
This review was originally written for and published by The Public Reviews on 7th September 2015

Friday, 11 September 2015

Review 1984 at Nottingham Playhouse.

Hitting the Nottingham Playhouse stage with both bare and bleeding feet running, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke's Olivier Award winning acclaimed adaptation of George Orwell's dark political drama 1984, is a sure fire choice in starting off the Playhouse's Conspiracy Season with a startling bang.


Fresh from two runs in London's West End where it has been playing to packed houses, this terrifying theatrical version of 1984 ( a co-production between Nottingham Playhouse, Headlong and Almeida Theatre) wows and frightens. The various design elements; lighting by Natasha Chivers; stage design by Chloe Lamford and sound and video design by Tom Gibbons and Tim Reid respectively prove a collective theatrical and shocking tour de force. The adaptation inspired by the appendix of 1984 and directed by McMillan and Icke is phenomenal and this is truly theatre that makes us think about language and the nature of freedom and questions the fickle  natures of memory and reality.

Although the real year 1984 is long past, Orwell's bleak world of Big Brother watching still rings scarily true today with surveillance cameras high above most city streets in the world and monitors protecting and probing our every move in the shops and public buildings. In this fictional world where keeping a diary is unlawful and thoughts are criminalised, being in love is actively forbidden and history erased, the audience is completely gripped throughout. You can almost hear the audience's collective hearts breaking over Winston and Julia's doomed love affair as their world is literally pulled apart and gasps of real shock over Winston's torture.

Often it is said that a theatrical venture is an ensemble piece. Perhaps this can be a lazy description but not so in this constantly changing play of 1984 where within a second's worth of blackout the cast re-appear in completely different places on the stage and verbal repetition and human erasure fight for attention. Mere ensemble, hardly does the art justice. It is easy to see why this production has universally been offered five stars by the critics. Abstractly quoting from the play, maybe the critics were unsure whether they were seeing five or four stars and, terrified out of their wits, opted for five. If six or seven stars were another option 1984 would still be most deserving.

Every single performance by the ensemble; Tim Dutton, Stephen Fewell, Janine Harouni (Julia), Christopher Patrick Nolan, Ben Porter, Matthew Spencer (Winston), Simon Coates, Mandi Symonds, and the young girl played by either Anna Jaques or Victoria Todd is exemplary.

1984 is one heck of a production and deserves to go on winning award after award as it continues at Nottingham Playhouse and goes on to Australia and the USA.

Runs until Saturday 26th September 2015 at Nottingham Playhouse

See Nottingham Playhouse ONLINE to book and see more details about the stunning Conspiracy Season ahead.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Interview with Brassed Off actors Howard Chadwick and Jake Waring

I met up yesterday with Howard Chadwick and Jake Waring after watching an hour of early rehearsal for Derby Theatre's forthcoming production of Brassed Off (18th September to 10th October). I explained to them that I had seen the acclaimed film some years ago and that I wanted to ask what the cast and production team have done in terms of research for the play set in a troubled mining community.

Howard Chadwick

Jake Waring

Phil: What have yourselves as actors experienced to understand the social and political impacts on the mining industry in the UK in the early 1990s?

Howard: I feel like mining is following me a bit at the moment. The last play I did (Digging In) was commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 strike. So I have done a lot of research about that strike and about the period leading up to 1984 and the period immediately after. In our play the mining industry is in decline and tapering. The strike was categorically lost and Thatcher's government just beat them into the ground, didn't they? This play is the point where the bit of meat on the bones are just being picked off.

It was very interesting to go up to The National Mining Museum between Dewsbury and Wakefield. We all went there on the first day of rehearsal. I know you didn't Jake cos you were working on another play weren't you?

Jake: That's right.

Howard: The tour is underground and you go down in the cage and the tour is given by an ex-miner. The one that took us round was probably in his mid-fifties and therefore he would have been in his mid twenties in '84. Now of course his job is a tour guide. He was very funny, a very amiable guy and his tour takes the mining industry right back to its origins to the present day. It is really well done but... he's one of the younger guys amongst some tour guides a lot older than him. I thought about how long the museum can last with original ex-miners taking the tours with their first hand knowledge of being down the pit. Really after the mid 1990s period only a handful of existing pits remained and I believe the last one or two have just gone in the last month or so. It is quite a poignant time to be doing the play I think especially given that we have just had the 30th anniversary of the 1984 strike. So, I suppose where we are in the play is just where all the politics and social unrest hits the wall and slides off really.

Phil: In the play a character called Gloria arrives into the mining community at Grimley and gives a bit of a boost to the miner's brass band. Tell me a bit about her. What is her intention in coming into that community?

Jake: It's to reconnect with her roots I think. All she really wants is to be accepted the whole way through the story. She is from Grimley originally and what I find interesting about Gloria is that she is just a foot soldier. There is an element of guilt surrounding her and like a lot of people she thinks she is just doing her little job and they are part of a jigsaw. Then when things like pit closures come about they live with the guilt even though they weren't implicit in the dealings. I think that is what she comes with and she wants to save the pit and then to be accepted by her community. Narratively I think the device is really interesting because she arrives as the outsider. I was born in 1989 so I wasn't around during the real strikes but we had the Brassed Off video in my family and even though I was perhaps too young to watch it - I did - and it has remained one of my favourite films over the years. There was that video “I Support My Dad” that we watched as well as research.

Howard: Yes that was about how the miners children were affected by the 1984-85 strike in North Staffordshire. The play that was I was in was written by Debbie McAndrew and it was commissioned to go into schools and community centres to tell the story of the '84 strike. This was to kids whose parents or grand parents were involved in the strike so it helped them if they (the kids) didn't know a lot about it. The 'I Support My Dad' film is about the '84 miner's kids and how the events shaped them. They are seen as the adults they are these days and they are talking retrospectively. In 1984 there were only six mines still open and now there are none. There is a colliery band that survives – Florence Colliery Band. It is also interesting to hear what their attitudes are now to authority – to the Tory Party – to the police...

Jake: The knock on effect is staggering actually. Looking at the police brutality, people being locked up simply for stepping on the road when they were introducing new laws on how you can picket and things like that. All of it is not a million miles away from things that happen now which is why I think it's amazing how this is echoed in the Brassed Off play. There are speeches in the play that resonate and you almost think it's happening now. For a play set twenty years ago it is amazingly relevant today.

Phil: Is this the first time a play has been developed from the original film script?

Howard: No. Sheffield Crucible were the first to produce it not so long after the film came out and then Sheffield Lyceum toured it with Touring Consortium in about '99. Several places have done it. York have done it twice as a co-production with York Theatre and Bolton Octagon. Oldham Coliseum have produced it twice too. With York and Bolton there was a tour last year. It is a play that is often done Phil. I think it speaks to people, speaks to communities. It is about a community and that community was dependent on the mining industry. Not only for the people that the pit employed but for economy. Without all those jobs the supermarket in the play will close, the video shop will close, the pub will close because there's no heart there. The pit is the pulse of the community and in our play the voice of that is the brass band.

Phil: The actual physical band you are using and their music – what emotional impact has that had on your working on the play so far?

Howard: Massively. When people say 'when you hear a brass band' they quite often put their hand to their chests (Howard demonstrates) and that's what we all collectively do when the brass band comes into rehearsal. And for those of us who are lucky enough to sit in and be with the band and have that sound around you it's fantastic. It really gets you. The Derwent Brass band are brilliant and the sound is just beautiful. As you saw in the rehearsal today – the blokes in the locker room getting changed – going through their rough and ready routine and then they go and play this beautiful music. As the character Danny says at the end “People will remember the music long after the pit has gone.” This means the band playing miners are able to still speak through their music.

The play is based in a place called Grimley – loosely based on Grimethorpe where they had the Grimethorpe Colliery Band who on Saturday won the British Open Championship! Our fiction band are playing in the National Championships at the Albert Hall which is a different competition. They win that and Danny has a very rousing speech about how music matters but actually, it's the people that matter. It's easy to forget this.

Jake: That's one of those speeches and it's message that could easily be said now with a few word changes. Basically the same message.

Phil: Jake, this is your first experience working here at Derby Theatre as 2nd year recipient of the Brian Weaver Fellowship. How has it been thus far?

Jake: It's amazing because I found out that I'd got it in January and this is the first production I've come into. So I have been itching all year to get into it. I was doing another show at Edinburgh over the summer – a puppetry show. It had me in work since March until August and at the time I said to Sarah (director of Brassed Off) that this had come up and she said 'we want to support your career so it seems silly for us to stop you from doing another show'. There was an overlap of a week and she let me do that - hence why I have come into to this week later. In another kind of working environment that may have not been made possible so I am very grateful for that kind of support. From a logistical point of view it has been amazing that I have had the opportunity to be in work all this year. With this show I am playing six characters and I have six costume changes. It is really fun and what it does mean is that I'm in a lot of scenes without a lot of lines or a lot to do and this means that I can be in rehearsals all the time and watch very knowledgeable people like Howard who has masses of experience and soak up all that influence and acting knowledge. Equally there are other members of the cast and creative team of all ages from whom I can learn about their processes. It's an amazing opportunity. I am doing Cinderella after this and because I am from Derby, having lived in London for a few years now, it feels like a homecoming and I'm very lucky and loving the chances I'm getting through the Brian Weaver Fellowship and DerbyTheatre.

Thank you to Sarah Brigham, Heidi Mckenzie and Derby Theatre for the opportunity to interview Howard and Jake.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Talking Heads at Theatre Royal Nottingham. Review.

Since Alan Bennett's original six part televisual masterpiece of social observation, collectively known as Talking Heads, aired on the nation's televisions in 1982, some of the ground breaking monologues have been transferred to the stage by both amateur and professional companies. The choice is usually an evening of two monologues and invariably two of Bennett's funniest – A Chip In The Sugar and A Lady of Letters. Quite often they are performed in an intimate studio or small stage environment as the confessional nature of the writing and performing suits such venues. Not this time however.

This Theatre Royal Bath professional touring production boasts not two but three of Bennett's works with a stellar cast of three well known actors each taking up the challenge of performing a forty minute monologue.

All three monologues are performed on a full stage and augmented by Frances O'Connor's clever angular sets. Paul Pyant's lighting adapts for each piece as well as suggesting glimpses of the outside world around the stories of all of the closeted characters. Original music by Simon Slater helps to create the changing moods within each of the monologues. Sarah Esdaile directs each piece with the accent towards uncluttered detail and delivery.

In the first monologue – A Lady of Letters - Bennett's character – the acerbic Miss Irene Ruddock (Siobhan Redmond) dashes off hand-written letters right left and centre to numerous officials and government bodies, including the royal family. She does this in order to express her ill informed opinions and complaints. Redmond plays her as the eager eyed ultimate curtain twitcher, smugly realising her minor victories through the power of the pen.

Whilst the audience laugh at Redmond's hilarious avalanche of verbalised written accusations, delivered with aplomb, the true and shocking reality of her actions is driven home. This is another of Bennett's obsessives whose practices lead to their downfall only in Miss Ruddock's case it is not terminal. Interestingly, her journey leads her to a better and more socially useful life. In this monologue Bennett returns again to his favourite writing topics of the 1980s – the youth of policemen on the beat, trendy vicars, society's ignorance and the obliquely racist opinions of his characters.

A Chip In The Sugar is one of only two Talking Heads monologues written for men by Alan Bennett. The other is Playing Sandwiches which is about a man with paedophile tendencies. In A Chip In The Sugar Bennett's own style of speaking and subtle northern wit is heard most clearly.

A Chip In The Sugar is almost a mini protest play from the view point of a closeted individual called Graham Whittaker (Karl Theobald). Graham's protests arise from his jealous perception of an unexpected new relationship between his elderly and forgetful mother and her new suitor – a seemingly dapper Mr Turnbull. The jealousy arises because Graham and his mother behave not so much like mother and son but like an old married couple very much set in their ways. Graham also protests against the nature of language and how it can obscure reality. There is a perfect example when Graham attends a meeting at Community Caring for the mentally ill. Pathetically railing against an accusation that he is being 'defensive' about sexual intercourse he erupts with his retort “I am not being 'defensive' about sexual intercourse! She is my mother!”

Theobald takes us on Graham's emotional journey of a life tipped into confusion and chaos by the arrival and courtship of the bullying and opinionated ageing roué Mr Turnbull. In a complex darkly comic monologue that brings in other characters Theobald does well in entertaining the audience with his ever twisting story whilst retaining Graham's own fey character.

Stephanie Cole is the seventy-five year old widow Doris in A Cream Cracker Under The Settee. Her frail old lady character has a fall from a height whilst attempting to dust the top of her wedding photograph on the wall. This tumble proves to be her downfall. Cole brings out all of Bennett's bitterly accusing wit and Doris's stubborn nature borne of a cleaning obsession and love hate relationship with her home help Zulema. Her main personal demon is the constant thought of being packed off to Stafford House – as she sees it – to die a lonely death with people who smell of pee. With beautifully written dramatic irony this fear is actualised earlier than Doris anticipates except that her place of death is her living room not in the relative comfort of Stafford House. Cole has the audience close to tears in the final part of her affecting monologue as she says “Never mind. It's done with now. Anyhow.”

Talking Heads runs at Theatre Royal Nottingham until Saturday 5th September.

Originally reviewed 1st September 2015 at Theatre Royal Nottingham for The Public Reviews.


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Review of Company by KW Productions at Leicester Little Theatre

On a transfer from Leicester's bijou Upstairs At The Western venue KW Productions take a second shot at their production of Stephen Sondheim's musical masterpiece Company. The Little Theatre Leicester venue allows for slightly more breathing space and an opportunity for the KW performers to let their souls sing out in the Haywood Studio space. This artistically freeing move proves to be a huge success on their (second) opening night, this time at The Little Theatre.

Company, with its brilliantly brisk energetic score and sophisticated wit, is largely regarded as a trail blazer of the modern concept musical genre and has been the winner of seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Lyrics and Best Book. In 1995 the musical was revised and amongst other changes it was decided to drop the dance number “Tick Tock”. In 2007 the show was named Best Musical of the Year by New York Magazine for a production directed by John Doyle and starring Raúl Esparza as Robert. In this production the performers not only sang, danced and acted but also played the instruments as part of the show.

Updating the original 1970s concept of the story of fractured relationships to include a modern young lesbian couple and humorous acknowledgement of the current trend towards selfies the KW version of Company proves as relevant today as it did when Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's piece was first aired. Leigh White directs this simply staged and classy production of Company. It is a funny, sophisticated, exploration of love and commitment seen through the eyes of 35 year old charming perpetual bachelor Robert and KW Productions do it proud.

Robert (Keiran Whelan) is about to celebrate his 35th birthday and all his friends rally round to give him a surprise birthday party. In this way we are introduced to all of Robert's (Bobby's) friends in the pulsating opening number “Company”. The KW rendition is sung with clarity and gusto by Robert and all the fourteen strong cast. Whelan as central character Robert does an exemplary job of holding the whole show together and has a fine singing voice and first rate American accent that is held nicely in check throughout.

Gradually throughout the first and second act we meet all of Robert's friends be they married or single. The highlights of this show's first act are the classy renditions of the following songs for both their witty and poignant aspects; “The Little Things We Do Together”, “Sorry-Grateful”, “Have I Got A Girl For You”, “Someone Is Waiting”, “Another Hundred People”, “Getting Married Today” and “Marry Me A Little”. There is not a weak link amongst the whole strong ensemble with professional standards throughout the piece.

The highlights of the first half are the cleverly put together staging of “Another Hundred People” and Amy's (Victoria Price) comically frantic “Getting Married Today”. Plus, Whelan and Nikky Leigh Brooks as Harriet add a whole depth of tenderness to the song “Sorry-Grateful” that is usually begun by the two male characters Robert and Harry.

As we reach the second act Robert and the company open with a rousing and inventive “Side by Side by Side” and “What Would We Do Without You”. As the piece takes on a more sombre tone the bitterness of some relationships takes over after the comical yet poignant number “Barcelona” between Robert and April (Liz Kavanagh). Kavanagh has a great talent for understated comic acting and is delightful as air hostess April. One of the highlights of any production of Company is the older character Joanne belting out “The Ladies Who Lunch”. This is a song with less of a smile and a whole lot of savage bile and Karen Gordon does a fantastic note perfect job of putting it over.

Optimism is the key to the ending of Sondheim's bitter sweet musical look at the complexity of relationships and both Robert and the company complete the evening with a stirring rendition of “Being Alive!” And that's what it's really about. Isn't it?

Directed by and live musical accompaniment by Leigh White - Company runs at Little Theatre Leicester from 2nd to 5th September.

Photographic credits and copyright Sally Evans.