Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Machine Gunners - Review - Royalty Theatre

The Machine Gunners  
Royalty Theatre
25th October 2016

This was promising to be an interesting show, with a young cast but as it turns out it was more interesting than anticipated. Unfortunately due to an accident just before the first night show the young lead Aidan Evans was unable to play his role and a stand in had to be found at the last minute. So we began the show with an apology from the Chairman as assistant director Peter Kelly would be taking the part of Chas McGill and would reading from the script at times. It also had to be said Peter Kelly is considerably older than the character of Chas McGill. However in true theatrical "the show must go on" style, the cast took up their places and the play began.

The play is a children's wartime adventure. The original story written by Robert Westall to entertain his own son, is full of wit and humour, the dialogue feels authentic - the kids talk and act like kids. It is great to hear a play in the north east dialect.
The story slips between narration by Chas and action and it moves smoothly from one to the other. Overall it has a Blytonesque feel to it - reminiscent of the Famous Five or Secret Seven - kids being kids but taking on roles more suited to adults, planning to save the day and be seen as heroes.

The stage was set with elements of each scene - a bomb damaged street, woodland, and the inside of Chas's home. Props and scenery were moved with ease by cast members to create each scene, a screen of trees brought forward for the woods, a table and chairs brought on stage for the inside of the house. Lighting was used to good effect, darkening for the scenes in the wood, then bright for the narration and the scenes in town. Sound effects combined with the lighting recreated the droning aeroplanes, explosions and gunfire. The tech was very well done.

As it turns out the chairman's apology was barely needed and any concerns the audience might have felt were quickly dispelled. It's a tall order to step into a role at short notice, and a taller one still for an adult to be asked to play a child. But, Peter Kelly not only stepped up he did so with style! Right from the start he was convincing as the character, capturing the cheekiness and ingenuousness of the boy. He got through the lengthy opening speeches without resorting to the script, and his assurance must have been hugely reassuring to the rest of the young cast - some of whom were on stage at this theatre for the first time. They did themselves and the theatre proud. If I had choose a man of the play - apart from Peter Kelly who was undoubtedly the hero of the hour - I would go with Lee Wilkins who gave a impassioned performance as the tough but vulnerable Glaswegian orphan, Clogger.

This is a great family drama, full of humour, some sadness, lots of adventure and it is a credit to the cast and team to have produced such a good show under difficult circumstances.

Tickets are just £8 and will be money well spent for two hours of entertainment and it runs until Saturday 29th October.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Machine Gunners - Royalty Theatre - Preview

The Machine Gunners
Royalty Theatre
24th-29th October 2016

Picture courtesy of Royalty Theatre
Next week the Royalty Theatre in Sunderland presents Ali Taylor's stage adaptation of Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners. Set on Tyneside in World War II it tells the tale of  Chas McGill. Chas has the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth, but when he stumbles across a crashed German bomber with its machine gun still intact he knows he can have the best collection. He and his gang hatch a plan to take possession of the gun. However when a German pilot is shot down events take a dangerous turn.

The original story was written by Westall for his son and is a classic boys adventure. The casting therefore gives younger actors the opportunity to take on the major roles. The lead role is taken by Aidan Evans, a member of the Royalty's Youth Theatre.  He will be acting alongside newcomers Lee Wilkins, Luke Harrison, and Emma Griffiths, as well more established members of the theatre including Matt Macnamee, Richard Delroy, Kirsty Downham and Scott Henderson. More information about the cast is available on the theatre's facebook page. The director is Anna Snell.

The Machine Gunners is a great family drama set right here in the north east, and should prove a good choice for half term entertainment. It runs from Monday 24th to Saturday 29th and tickets are available online from TicketSource or from the box office from 6.45pm before the show. Curtain up is at 7.30pm.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Broken Biscuits - Live Theatre - Review

Broken Biscuits
11th Oct 2016
Faye Christall - as Megan 
Grace Hogg-Robinson - as Holly 
Andrew Reed- as Ben 
Creative Team
Writer Tom Wells
Songs Matthew Robins
Direction James Grieve
Design Lily Arnold
Lighting Joshua Pharo
Sound Dominic Kennedy
Broken Biscuits is a coming of age tale. Three friends Megan (Faye Christall) Hollie (Grace Hogg-Robinson) and Ben(Andrew Reed) have just started the long summer break between GCSEs and the start of College. They are on the cusp of change and Meg has a grand plan to ensure they start the next stage of their lives in the "cool" corner. Hollie and Ben aren't so sure they want to be in the cool gang but they humour their friend. In fact, Meg is not the kind of friend you don't humour. She is bold, and brash and basically browbeats her friends into doing what she wants through the sheer force of her will. It's easier to give in to her than to deal with the fall out. And so the painfully shy, geeky Hollie and the sensitive, recently outed Ben find themselves reluctantly recruited into a band project for the summer. This will catapult them into coolness when they start college, (obvs!). The fact that they neither own nor play any instruments, nor know any songs, is beside the point. This will not deter Meg - she has acquired a drum kit from the charity shop and nothing is going to stop her!
And so the three friends meet for band night each Friday in Meg's shed, learning to play their instruments, learning to write lyrics, learning who they are and what they want - and what they don't - want out of life.
Broken Biscuits is incredibly funny. Laugh out loud funny. But it is also touching and sweet. You can't help but be swept along with Meg's bombastic enthusiasm, to feel every squirm of Hollie's shyness, and to cheer for Ben's self-deprecating self-awareness. Their characters are acutely observed, a bit stereotypical for sure - but lets face it, we all know those kids on the outside of the social elite, the geeks, the nerds, the uncool kids. Some of us were those kids. And the thing about stereotypes is, they are always based in some truth.
The three young actors are utterly convincing in their roles. The set is fabulous - even down to the sheddy smell of wood and creosote - I don't think I have ever actually smelled a set before. The script is witty and sharp, and it speaks the language of the teenager.  
Broken Biscuits plays until 22nd Oct. I swear on the biscuit, you will have fun if you come to see this!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

One Man, Two Guvnors - People's Theatre - Review

One Man, Two Guvnors
People's Theatre
4th Oct 2016

Pay attention because this plot needs concentration!
The year is 1963, the location is Brighton. Francis Henshall has just been dumped from his skiffle band. In need of food and money he accepts a job as a minder for Roscoe Crabbe, a small time East End hoodlum. Crabbe is in Brighton to attend his own engagement party and collect £6K from his fiancĂ©es father (Charlie "the Duck" Clench). This is something of a surprise to the engagement party since they believed Crabbe to be dead - murdered no less, and they are caught celebrating the engagement of Clench's daughter Pauline someone else. (Well, the sausage rolls were already paid for). Pretty straight forward so far? Wait, there's more. Ever on the lookout to make an easy bob or two Henshall accepts another job with Stanley Stubbers, a well to do crook who is hiding out at the Cricketers Arms, waiting for his girlfriend to arrive with the money for them to escape to Australia. This is where it gets complicated and you need to concentrate, Henshall has to make sure his two bosses don't find out he's moonlighting so he has to keep them apart. However, Stanley Stubbers is hiding out because he is the murderer of Roscoe Crabbe. The girlfriend he is waiting for is none other than Roscoe Crabbe's sister Rachel, who is currently masquerading as her brother in order to get hold of the six grand to pay for their tickets to Australia.

This play is full to the brim with everything from pantomime slapstick, farce, one-liners, and recurring jokes that just get funnier every time we hear them. It begins sedately enough, and if not for the lost skiffle band at the very beginning, we'd be forgiven for thinking this is not a comedy after all. But then Francis Henshall arrives at the party and the tone changes. Richard Gardner as Henshall bursts onto the stage in his checked suit, a stark contrast to the dark suited, somewhat sinister gentlemen at the party. His performance is full of energy and we are swept along with him as he tries in vain to keep his head above water and his two guvnors apart.

The whole play is a joy to watch - from the slapstick humour and asides to audience it has us laughing out loud. We begin to anticipate the jokes, knowing what's coming as Henshall invents his ludicrous stories to cover his tracks and trips at every step.

He is supported by a brilliant cast, Nathan Hussain as the flamboyant would-be actor Alan, and the vacuous Pauline played so well by Emma Jane Richards, Melanie Dagg as the savvy bookkeeper Dolly to name but a few.

Scene changes are cleverly covered by great performances by the skiffle band, with guest appearances by various cast members.

First time director David Downing has done a marvellous job with this play. It moves at a dizzying pace and the timing is spot on.

One Man, Two Guvnors plays till Sat 8th Oct. Come see it - you will chortle.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Royalty Theatre - The Ghost Train - Review

The Ghost Train
Royalty Theatre

The Royalty Theatre's new season kicks off this week with a production of Arnold Ridley's The Ghost Train. Though it was originally performed back in 1925 it is a play that has withstood the test of time. Set in the 1920s "somewhere in Cornwall". It is a tale of ghosts and espionage - a true Boys Own adventure. A group of travellers are forced to spend the night in a remote station on a wild winter's evening. A hapless passenger on their train loses his hat and pulls the emergency cord, causing them to miss their connection to Truro. But many things are not quite what they seem - from the hapless passenger to the haunted station with its lugubrious station master and strange foreign locals. What is the truth behind the ghostly night time express and the young lady with psychic vision? Is the hapless passenger really as hapless as he seems? There is more to this spooky tale than meets the eye and eventually all will be revealed - but to find out the truth you must see it yourself: there are no spoilers here.

The team have made a fair start to the season - a simple set, a good play, and a decent production. Good performances by Mik Richardson, Andrew Barella and James Errington, though Lorna Breeze almost steals the show with her portrayal of Miss Bourne - I enjoyed her tipsy flirting with Charles! Great sound and lighting effects for the train and the ghostly manifestations. It is a little rough around the edges - one or two performers trying just a little too hard and there are some shocking accents which I will forgive, if only because this is a comedy thriller and has quite an element of farce running through it (intentional, I hope). It's an entertaining production with enough sudden bangs to keep the audience on edge and a fair start to wnat looks like a promising season.
Stationmaster - Matt McNamee
Richard Winthrop - Andy Barella
Elsie Winthrop - Nikki Briggs
Charles Murdock - James Errington
Peggy Murdock - Zoe Tempest
Miss Bourne - Lorna Breeze
Teddie Deakin - Mik Richardson
Julia Price - Chloe Mendez
Herbert Price - David Armstrong
John Sterling - Rob Lawson
Policeman - Kevin Smith
Director - Billy Towers

The Ghost Train plays until Sat 24th September. Tickets cost £8/£6.50 and are available online in advance or on the door from 6.45pm . Curtain up is at 7.30pm

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Grimm Tales - Peoples Theatre - Review

Grimm Tales
People's Theatre
13th Sept 2016

Grimm Tales is, as you might expect, a selection of stories from the Brothers Grimm. Fairy tales - tales of wicked witches, enchanted princes, evil stepmothers, of strange creatures, and lessons to be learned.

But these are not the sanitised stories we might have heard today. These short plays hark back to the original stories from the Brothers Grimm, so they are darker and more sinister, and in the case of "The Mouse, The Bird and The Sausage" quite brutal! The wicked characters are truly wicked, selfish and cruel. Even the good characters are not all wholly good, some are weak and easily led, though some do have true innocence and purity and it is these who triumph.

Each story has a narrator who also takes up one or two character roles within tale. Each one has a distinct "narrator's voice" so it is easy to tell when they move from character to narrator. And the stories are told through a mix of narration and dramatic enactment.

There is no scenery. The only prop on stage is a plain wood block that serves as seat, bed, headstone. Scenes are created by the actors who stand to represent trees in the forest, or donne a costume to symbolise a change of scene. Very few props are used - some sticks for firewood, a stool, a handful of dust or pebbles, a mask and a sack of straw...Actors and audience must use their skill and imagination to envision the scenes.

Performed in the round with the audience on stage, it is a very intimate setting. The audience are close to the action and the narrator speaks directly to them - inviting them into the story as any storyteller would.

There is clever use of costumes and puppets to denote the different characters - especially where the narrator is doubling up as one or more characters. The fact that each tale has a different narrator's voice also works very well. And there are some grood performances from the young cast - notably Phoebe De'Ath as Gretel, Henry Freyne, as Hansel and Dummling, and Rheanne Boothroyd as the steadfast youngest daughter in the Lady and the Lion. The senior members Ian Willis, Eileen Davidson, Andrew De'Ath, and Karen Elliot do sterling work keeping the tales and the action moving, playing narrators and various wives, husbands witches and charming princes!

This is a charming play by the People's Youth Theatre. It covers 8 tales from the Brothers Grimm in just over an hour and so each one is quite a compact telling. While it may not have quite the finesse of previous productions, it is an imaginative, clever and carefully thought out solution to the challenge posed by the current building works for producing a studio play without a studio.

Grimm Tales runs until Sat 17th Sept and is great viewing as the nights begin to draw in.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sweeney Todd - The Elephant Tea Rooms - Review

Sweeney Todd
Elephant Tea Rooms, Sunderland
6th Sept 2016
Last night we were invited to a dress rehearsal of a new production of Sweeney Todd - in a tea room of all places. A tea room? I must admit, not having been to The Elephant Tea Rooms before, I was imagining quaint china and lacey tablecloths. It didn't quite fit as my idea of a venue for Sweeney Todd. A Miss Marple Investigates seemed a more appropriate production...Just goes to show you should never make assumptions. The Elephant Tea Rooms is no quaint teashop. It is interesting and quirky with big old oak tables and a mish-mash of different chairs, and dimly lit  (though the subdued lighting may have been deliberate for the evening's entertainment - perhaps during the day it is bright and cheery?) Perhaps a macabre murder might fit after all. The ambience was definitely not Miss Marplish!
And so among the tables and chairs (filled by the family and friends of the cast for this dress rehearsal, plus a couple of reviewers) and with the backdrop of a selection of exotic teas, the action began. Dramatic, we are plunged straight in as Anthony and Mr Todd disembark from a ship and say their farewells - Anthony to go onwards to Plymouth and Todd to 'a thing he must do'. He is anxious to be away and brusque with a friend who saved his life. Immediately we are aware of mystery and an urgency around Mr Todd.
The drama and suspense builds throughout this intriguing production, cast members are seated in amongst the audience, rising slowly to sing the ensemble pieces, and moving between the tables making eye contact with members of the audience, at times speaking to them and including them in the action. It is in your face theatre and there is nowhere to hide from it - so if you have a ticket be prepared to be included in the drama (especially if you have a lot of, or too little, hair, or a beard in need of a trim!)
There are so many good performances in this but if I have to single out any for special attention, then I particularly like Jenni Winter as Nellie Lovett - she was a delight with her self deprecating attitude to being the purveyor of "the worst pies in London"  and as she proffers mischievous yet down to earth advice on how to dispose of the bodies. Liam Gilbert as Todd has a marvellous voice and portrays perfectly the many aspects of the barber's unbalanced character. Marie Swan, the Beggar Woman, has the interaction with the audience spot on, eliciting a great mix of interest and discomfort in those she chooses to grace with her attention. Altogether the cast are a grand mix of flawed characters, each adding to the sinister and macabre story.
The asylum scene was excellent - a cacophony of shrieks and cries that makes you positively uncomfortable.
This is a macabre story, but it is also full of humour - albeit dark - so there are some chuckles and the odd belly laugh in amongst the gasps of horror. This is probably just as well for those of you who are partaking of a pie or two while watching (I'm not sure how conducive Sweeny Todd is to good digestion!).   
Tuesday night was the dress rehearsal, and the first full run through the cast had had in the venue. There were a couple of minor hiccups but nothing drastic, and considering the tight production schedule, they have done a fantastic job. Under the direction of Matthew Rankcom they have produced an impressive and  quite unique theatrical experience. If you are going along you are in for a treat and a half - but don't worry, we have it on good authority that the meat in the pies is beef...

Sweeney Todd - Liam Gilbert
Jenni Winter - Nellie Lovett
Stephen Stokoe - Judge Turpin
Shaun Crosby - Beadle Bamford
Gemma Hutchinson/marie Swan - Beggar Woman
Lewis Harley - Tobias Ragg
Jamie Douglass - Adolpho Pirelli
Matthew Rankcom - Anthony
Emily Miller - Johanna
Ashleigh Bentham   )
Cat Louise Moody   ) Ensemle
Steve Udale            )

Sweeney Todd plays at the Elephant Tea Rooms till the 10th Sept.

Denise Sparrowhawk