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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Write Faster - Review- Alphabetti Theatre

Write Faster
Alphabetti Theatre

When I arrived the show had already started. I wasn’t late, it was just the first indication that this was going to be a night at the theatre unlike anything I’d experienced before.
The (perhaps slightly deformed) brainchild of Richard Stockwell, senior lecturer at Northumbria University, and hosted by Alphabetti Theatre, Write Faster is a concept likely to give even the hardiest theatre soul palpitations. Saturday 16th July saw its 2nd incarnation.
    I was told, whilst at the bar, one of the most important places you can visit whilst at Alphabetti, that if I wanted to I could wander into the auditorium, which I did. I found a hive of industry.
    Ok, some background. The idea of Write Faster is that at 7pm there’s no show, just a title, in this case “The Unscratchable Itch”. At 7pm a team of three writers (Richard, Ali Pritchard of Alphabetti Theatre and Louise Taylor) begin, between them, a paragraph or so at a time, to write the first of 4 scenes. At 7.30 or thereabouts (more “abouts” than “there” on the night ;-) ) the actors, again 3 of them (Rosie Stancliffe, Matt Jamie and Steve Byron) arrive and, having read through the scene once, perform/improvise their way through it as it scrolls across a display screen.
    At this point, if you did come into the auditorium early you’ve had three kicks; watching the bizarre lines appear on the screen as the writers write them, watching the actors read through these lines quickly before beginning and watching them attempt to make sense of that in action. All three were hilarious, and surprisingly thrilling. But there’s more.
    Once the actors arrived on stage the writers had split into two teams. Richard and Ali started on scene 2 and Louise on scene 3. At this point it’s a race. Scene 2 MUST be ready by an obvious time limit. The whole thing is an event and when you factor in the play itself, a suburban tale of a couple trying to spice up their lives by contemplating a ménage a trois with a work friend of the husband (being invented on the fly, remember), also enormous fun.
Inevitably the actors win the race to scene 4, (it’s obviously quicker to perform than write, even in threes) which is being written initially by Richard and Ali and, when she’s finished scene 3, by Louise, on single slips of paper to be passed, live, to the actor whose line it is. To allow for the gap (admittedly quite small) that emerges between scene 3 and scene 4 there’s a pint mug on stage which has pre-prepared slips of paper with actions written on them. If anything thins is the most mysterious part of the process – how are the actions written? Making this work relies on the actors. All good improvisers they’re able to take whatever they find and make it work given what’s now happening (at this point, for example one of the characters was dead, or in the process of dying in front of ours eyes).
    It’s impossible to properly capture the chaos that ensues from the very simple premise “we’ll write a play while you watch”. But it’s probably quite easy to predict. What’s less obvious is how clever it is, in the right hands.
    One of the things I enjoyed most about it was the level of skill required it took to make it work. The actors all have to be good improvisers, and devisers and collaborators. Each made it look very easy. They were having fun. We were in very good hands. When you bear in mind that there had been no rehearsal and only one read-through, it was genius.
    The writers, too, are in the same position. They start with nothing yet the piece ended up fitting a 3-act structure. I suppose you’d expect from people who knew what they were doing, but they’re doing some of this in different teams (scenes 2 and 3 were written separately and god knows how they wrote scene 4, I was too busy watching the action) and bloody quickly. But the way it ends up working is that scene 1 is Act I, scenes 2, 3 and 4 work as ACT II (the proper denouement comes at the end of scene 4) and after the interval we get three monologues “following up” the action, like a sort of epilogue, which rounds everything off into Act III. You end up with a complete story (and a bloody funny one) written to a proper dramatic structure.
The madness and chaos of actually getting it to work contribute to the dramatic success of the piece because really to get it to work you want as few gaps as possible, especially as this story had a “nervous energy” about it – it’s about sex and accidental death – so the frantic nature of the writing contributes to this. The inevitable gap between scenes 3 and 4 (the actors are bound to catch up at some point) doesn’t matter because at the end of scene 3 (courtesy of Louise) they’ve killed their guest (about smack on the mid-point – again perfect story structure) so leaving the actors to “work it out for themselves with prompts” is quite funny (it almost seems as though they’ve done it to themselves) and, for the actors, relatively straight-forward.
So the whole thing ends up looking like it was planned. It’s very clever. And that’s the other thing I liked about it; it’s irony. It starts off looking like some kind of post-structural challenge. It takes apart the idea of a fixed theatrical text. There is no text at all at the start. And much of what emerges is random, notwithstanding that we have three very experienced writers on board. As it takes shape the text acquires more solidity and the words have more meaning but, to begin with at least, we have an infinite number of texts: it’s like a postmodern party game. The actors, too, have no given circumstances and no “character”, or “actions”. Some are given to them as the play progresses but much they have to make up and some depend on the other actors!
But to work the performance relies very heavily on age-old story-telling technique from the whole team. It is, if you will, post-postmodern. It’s a brilliant idea and, especially given that the play itself ends up being so good, very good indeed.
This is fringe performance coming to you very live from Alphabetti Theatre. I’ve not seen anything as funny, as edgy as eccentric or as creative as this for a very long time and this sort of activity deserves our support. If you want to see something new, clever, experimental, done by talented people at virtually no expense, there’s a new face in town.
    Thank you, Richard, for the idea, and thank you Alphabetti for the courage to stage it. Twice! Ladies and Gents Alphabetti need your cash. Go there and buy a drink, its how they make the place run. This show was “pay what you like” and they rely on bar sales to help cover their costs. Go and buy a drink. Better still, go and see a show. You won’t be disappointed.

Matt Cummins

Thursday, July 21, 2016

West Side Story – Newcastle Musical Theatre Company, Theatre Royal - Review

West Side Story
Newcastle Musical Theatre Company
Theatre Royal
19th Jul 2016

After seeing their last production Sister Act I was very much looking forward to seeing West Side Story and it didn't disappoint.
West Side Story is a tale of love and gangs  which is gripping from start to finish.  The Jets and The Sharks., led by two great leaders Riff played fantastically by Dan Dickinson and Bernardo, Ty Roach Thompson. These two seem to be like ghosts in the second half of the show but their presence is still felt.

The Jets and The Sharks and have a dance this is where our two star crossed lovers meet; Maria who is Bernardo's sister played by the amazingly talented lady, Nikki Cunningham, falls head over heels in love with Tony played by Jamie Douglass.
I would love to take a minute to talk about The Jets because these guys were great and they really made you believe that they could be a gang, we have spoken already about Riff but in every team you need the engine and in the Jets you have Action played amazingly by Simon Pinkney. A-Rab played really well by Jack Hindmarsh, Baby John (Curtis Appleby), Diesel (James Mitchinson), Big Deal (Martin Hampton Matthews), Tiger (Daniel Thomas), Mouthpiece Nathan Denton), Aisling Vallely and Carl Luke who plays Snowball.  The star of the Jets is a girl called Anybodys (It couldn't have been Anybody else) played to perfection by the amazingly talent Beth Johnson who was full of energy throughout the show (and her hair grows back really fast!)

The Sharks comprised of Bernardo,  Anita played by Lauren Gordon, Rosalia played by Helen Cash who brings great comedy to the role, Ellen Crake who plays Velma, JoJo Hatfield who plays Consuela, Kara Ferguson plays Somewhere Girl and Savanna,  and finally the star of the Sharks, Chino played extremely well by Andrew Ewart.
Keeping the two gangs from fighting are four brilliantly actors  Dan Greener as Lt Shrank (and you should have seen the crowd of girls that flocked to him at the stage door after the show)) and the wonderfully talented Joe Costigan playing the delightful Officer Krupke, Noel Harris as Glad Hand and finally Ken Allen is brilliant and deserves great praise for the work he does for the company leading the Junior Section of NMTC.

Taking over as MD this year was Malcolm Moffat who does a great job with the baton with his 18 person band (yes it is that many).
The Crew deserve a mention because a lot of the great work they do goes unnoticed unless there are hiccups! The sound and lighting are great - a few little technical glitches but not enoughto spoil the show.

The Ending! Now some people would say that I have a heart of stone but jeez guys the ending nearly had me in tears (Don't believe anybody who says I was crying, they were tears of joy). I'm not going to ruin the ending but it will make you shed tear or two…
Before I finish I just have to give a shout out and an amazing well done to one lady who has worked on this show and the last 2 shows the NMTC have done - the amazingly talented Sandra Laidler. She has done a brilliant job with all the shows that she has worked on and I wish her all success with Copacabana in 2017. The  NTMC will have their work cut out finding a replacement, although of course she couldn't do it without her amazing production team - Chantal Riley ( Dance Captain), Philip Stockley ( Production Manager) Malcolm Moffat (MD) and Julie Macnaughton ( Accompanist).

Once again I would say that this is one show that will make you laugh and cry and take you on a journey and you will come out feeling better and having seen a great show performed by a great theatre company. This show is amazing and I do want to see it again and I definitely think that you should go down to the Theatre Royal box office and get your tickets before they run out.

It Plays until Sat 23rd July. 

Reuben Hiles

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lords and Ladies - Review - People's Theatre

Lords and Ladies
People's Theatre
19th July 2016

Based on the book by Terry Pratchett, adapted for the stage by Irana Brown, Lords and Ladies is a mad tale of magic, folklore and politics...

Disc World has become complacent. Years of peace have worn away the knowledge of what life was like before the elves (whisper it, they come out when they are called) were banished. Those days have sunk into folklore - tales to scare the children, not real.  But the elves have been plotting and they want to claim back their land. The old Witches' powers have waned and there are few of them left. The young people are dabbling in magic and setting themselves up as New Witches with new magic, and they are drawn to the tales of the Elves, seduced by the glamour. The Elves are waiting their chance and preying on the weak to inveigle their way back into the world they once ruled.

The People's Theatre have once again taken on the challenge of a big cast production with over 25 characters. And that's before you even consider the legacy of Terry Pratchett hovering over the whole proceeding! But as usual the People's team have taken on the challenge and presented a blinding production. Magnificent costumes, spectacular sound and lighting, a few clever special effects and some almost perfect comic timing make this an incredible show. We have morris dancers, wizards, witches - old and new. You have to love the teenage emo witches with their carefully ragged outfits and their self-consciously co-ordinated black lace handkerchiefs). An unexpected king and his queen to be, chosen from his subjects ( like all good fairy tales). Wicked elves, a glamourous bad queen and of course, an Orang-utan.
Pratchett tips the wink to all manner of art and literature from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream to modern film ( yes, Arnie gets in there too). If you were thinking it's all sounding a bit panto-ish, you'd not be far wrong, and of course, there is nothing the People's theatre do better than panto and Shakespeare.
The characters are colourful, larger than life, the humour is witty and bawdy, and at times cuttingly sharp. The tale is one of good versus evil, and the dangers of lessons not learned, or possibly forgotten. There's a lot going on in this play - and if you aren't familiar with Pratchett you have to pay attention to keep up with the plot! If you do then you will be rewarded with romance, fight scenes, lots of silliness and much laughter!

Standout performances from Sarah Scott as Magrat Garlick, Kath Frazer as Granny Witherwack, and Val Russell as nanny Og, who btween them save the day! Aided and abetted by the Rude Mechanicals and Sean Og (David Robson). One last round of applause to Count Casanunda - the world's second best lover, played fabulously by John MacDonaold. he deserves an Oscar for coping with that wig!

All in all this is a marvellous feel good production with a serious message about society if you'd care to look for it, or you could just enjoy the spectacle of a well put together hilarious show!

Lords and Ladies plays till 23rd July.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Romeo and Juliet - Review - Theatre Space NE

Romeo and Juliet
Theatre Space NE in Roker Park
16th July 2016

On Saturday evening I joined a bunch of people in Roker Park, Sunderland for an out door performance of Romeo and Juliet. I have a love hate relationship with this play. I think it has some of the most beautiful lyrical writing from Mr Shakespeare but also the most annoying characters, added to this the plot device of the undelivered letter and the unfortunate timing by mere minutes in the final scene and my irritation is complete. I'm quite sure that Thomas Hardy's plots were all inspired by this device of Shakespeare! But enough of that - I was here to review this particular production of Shakespeare's tragedy of the star-crossed lovers not the writing of Shakespeare himself. But you may want to take that into account in the review - it was probably going to be a tough call to get me waxing as lyrical as The Bard himself...

Plays in the Park, it has to be said are a great way to introduce people to theatre - particularly people who maybe would find the idea of going to the theatre a bit daunting. For these, all you do is turn up at the designated entrance of the park and join the crowd. No worrying about finding your seat, or feeling out of place. As we arrive orange behoodied helpers ask for postcodes, and offer advice on where the best place to stand for the start would be. It is all very relaxed, but it is quietly efficient in its organisation. As we wait, watching the rest of the audience gather, the actors also begin to arrive and set up for the first scene.  Drums, guitars, and other percussion instruments are brought on, actors stand in little clusters chatting. We are given instructions from "Adventure Central" on protocols and safety issues during the performance....and then the action begins! Of course Romeo and Juliet starts with a fight scene - those Montagues and Capulets can't pass in the street without a situation developing. Tension builds with single drum beats and the call of "Star Crossed Lovers" and the opposing groups line up, the drum beats burst out and the fight kicks off - fists and feet fly, but no swords yet. The swords and bloodshed will come later - for now the fight is stopped by the arrival of the law and the leaders of the warring families are charged to keep their houses in order. It's a dynamic start - and sets the background and the pace for the play. Against this backdrop of fury and violence we have the contrast of a lovelorn Romeo. Pining for his love who has resolved to remain chaste and will not succumb to his advances. His friends, Benvolio (Steven Blackshaw) and Mercutio (Dale Jewitt), despair of him and he becomes the butt of their many bawdy jokes as they try to cajole him from his despondency. These two are the perfect foil for the seriousness of the warring families - they provide lighthearted relief and bring much humour to the play, reminding us that they are actually mostly just boys and girls, in their teens and full of the rebelliousness and restlessness that such an age brings.

And so, of course, Romeo's broken heart is quickly mended and Rosalyn forgotten once he sees the beauteous Juliet, only for it to be beset with a whole new set of problems when he discovers whose daughter she is! Am not going to spoil it and tell you the whole story - but you know it's not going to end well!

This production is fast paced, full of emotion and humour - surprising for a tragedy! The individual performances are great, the fight scenes beautifully choreographed and the anger and anguish realistic. If accents are a little more north-east England than north-east Italy, I think that can be forgiven.

Stand out performances for me were Romeo - William Davies brought such a mix of youthful enthusiasm and wretchedness to the role, he reminded me of an over-enthusiastic puppy! And Friar Lawrence - played by David John Hopper, again played with such humour yet his character displayed so much empathy with the plight of the young lovers.

I enjoyed the performance immensely - and the characters were not so annoying as I feared! Perhaps the recent anger and recrimination that has been witnessed since the EU referendum resonated with the themes of the play, where the characters all behave irrationally in their anger. Or perhaps the quality of this production won me over?

The last performance is tonight (Sunday 17th) at 7pm, if you can't get there tonight you can see the next productions from Theatre Space NE in parks in Sunderland over the summer - watch for George and the Dragon in Mowbray Park, and then more Shakespeare in Barnes Park with the Taming of the Shrew!

Lady Montague - Natasha-Sofia Goulden
The Prince - Steven Charles Stobbs
Benvolio - Steven Blackshaw
Paris - David McCarthy
Lord Capulet - Rob Reed
Juliet - Natasha Haws
Romeo - William Wyn Davies
Nurse - Corinne Kilvington
Tybalt - Jacob Ernie Anderton
Lady Capulet - Eilidh Talman
Friar Lawrence - David John Hopper
Mercutio - Dale Jewitt

Denise Sparrowhawk