Wednesday, September 20, 2017

And Then There Were None - Review - Royalty Theatre

And Then There Were None
Royalty Theatre 
19th September 201

The stage is set for Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" - as the house lights dim, the stage lights come up to reveal a drawing room, the furniture covered in dust sheets, curtains drawn across French windows. Two servants enter and begin to remove the sheets - Mr and Mrs Rogers (Lee Wilkins and Emma McLeary) are preparing for the arrival of house guests, they reveal that the hosts have been detained and that the first of the guests are due to arrive.
Fred Narracot (Ben Gettins), the local boatman, has delivered the supplies and is sent off to bring the guests across by boat. The house - Soldier House - is set on an island accessible only by boat, and with no telephone or other means of communication with the outside world. Eight guests are expected, they are all strangers to each other, their only connection that they have been invited to stay at the house by the hosts Mr and Mrs Owen, and that  each one has a secret from their past, a secret they would rather no-one else knew about. These secrets will have dire consequences for each guest and the Rogers.

Act One introduces the characters one by one, the glamorous Vera Claythorne (Helen Bowie) and the suave Philp Lombard (James Errington) arriving together, followed by the spoiled rich boy Anthony Marstsen (David Ford), the South African millionaire Mr Davis, alias William Blore, ex policeman (John Appleton), the eccentric General McKenzie (David Armstrong), self righteous Emily Brent (Christine Appleton), the superior Judge Lawrence Wargrave, and the very nervy Dr Armstrong (Chris Renney). They are a disparate group in both social standing and character, with no obvious connection and seemingly no idea why they have been brought together on the island. Each one has a different story as to how they were invited. As the act progresses their characters are revealed leading to the surprising climax of the act - an anonymous recording revealing each ones' secret, the accusations against them, and the death of the first victim. As the characters realise that one of the soldiers on the mantel is missing the lights go down silhouetting them against the windows of the drawing room, and the curtain falls on Act One. It is a dramatic end to the Act.

In Act Two the bodies begin to pile up as characters drop like flies. Suspicions rise, accusations fly and tempers flare as the horror of their situation dawns and one by one the characters fall.

The tension and suspense is nicely done. Seeming friendships and alliances are formed and lost as suspicion grows. Outbursts of anger and frustration hint at who the killer might be - perhaps Mr Rogers or Vera Claythorne. Or perhaps Dr Armstrong or Philip Lombard? Everyone is a suspect. The only certainty is that those who have already died cannot be the murderer.  Or can they?

There are some strong performances - particularly by Lee Wilkins, Helen Bowie, James Errington and Andrew Barella, though to be fair everyone in the cast gives a decent performance. Dramatic and timely use of sound and lighting enhance the tension throughout. The stage set is uncluttered and the costumes pleasingly understated (apart from the swaggering Philip Lombard - that blue suit is a killer!).  Billy Towers and Abbi Laidler direct with a deceptively light touch.

A solid opening for the Royalty's new season. If you have not read the book, this will keep you guessing - if not whodunit, then why and how?
And Then There Were None runs until Sat 23rd Sept.
Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Animal Farm - People's Theatre - Review

Animal Farm
People's Theatre
12th Sept 2017

As we enter the auditorium the stage is set - backlit with a low light silhouetting the shapes of a doorway and blocks of buildings, music plays in the background. There is a vaguely menacing feel to it all. The lights go down and the stage lights come up to reveal a run down farm yard - Manor Farm. The cast enter, dressed in black with gold buttons on epaulettes, giving a hint of military uniform. Each one carries a helmet with features to denote which animal they are - cows, chickens, sheep, horses, pigs...And then from the back of the auditorium Old Major speaks. He speaks of change that will come, a revolution, of a time when man will fall, and he warns them to avoid becoming like Man at all costs. The animals respond to his words with baas, moos, clucking. They are then scattered by Mr Jones the farmer.
Jones, played by Patrick Robertson, is a cruel, drunken man who has let his farm go to seed neglecting the crops and mistreating the animals. On day he goes too far and the animals, left unfed rise up against him and chase him from the farm. Old Major's revolution has come!

This production is a collaboration between the People's youth and adult theatres. It is cleverly done with minimal props and costumes, reflecting the austerity of the farm. The stage is full of animals at the start of the play and gradually the numbers reduce until at the end, only a handful are left as those who question the pigs are removed - even the young pigs who are tricked into a confession of guilt are not spared. The young actors take on their animal personas well - adopting the mannerisms of each animal. I think they have had a lot of fun preparing for this play and their preparation has paid off with dividends. There are some lovely performances - I especially liked the chickens and the sheep!

Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1945 to expose the soviet myth - communism was meant to be about equality but what is revealed here is that no matter what the ideals of man - or beast - might be, human nature takes over and all leaders become self-serving in the end. No-one is truly equal. Someone is always more equal than the others. Standing up for what is right means different things to different animals and voicing a differing opinion is dangerous, but sometimes must be done. When the animals were working together they were happy and successful, but easily mislead. The message of the play is - we must all strive to recognise the truth and stand together to uphold it - otherwise we will end up like the poor animals of Animal Farm.

Animal Farm plays until Sat 16th Sept. It is a lovely production - go see it.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Preview - And Then There Were None - Royalty Theatre


Helen Bowie  
(picture credit Royalty Theatre)
The Royalty Theatre will open their 2017/18 season with a production of the Agatha Christie hit And Then There Were None.

The mystery thriller by the world’s bestselling author (which was recently made into a BBC mini-series starring Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, and Aiden Turner) follows a group of strangers invited to stay at a house on a remote island.  Each is revealed to have a dark secret buried in their past – but when the guests begin to die one-by-one in mysterious circumstances, it becomes clear that the murderer may be one of them.

Director Billy Towers says, “And Then There Were None is a classic Agatha Christie thriller. Although first published as a novel in 1934, the passage of time has not dimmed its suspense, mystery or the brilliantly drawn characters which make for a great thriller. It’s a tremendous example of the thriller genre at its best, and one I can confidently call it a timeless classic.”

The play features a large cast, including Helen Bowie as Vera Claythorne, James Errington as Philip Lombard and Andrew Barella as Justice Lawrence Wargrave. 

And Then There Were None runs from 18th to 23rd September.
Tickets can be booked via or on 0333 666 3366.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Dogfight - Assembly Rooms Theatre - Review

Assembly Rooms Theatre
30th August 2017

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Presented by Equilibrium Theatre Company
Directed by Anna Besford-Smith

Dogfight begins in 1967 as marine Eddy Birdlace returns from Vietnam. As he rides the bus back to San Francisco he remembers the night four years ago, before he and his fellow marines were shipped out  and we are transported back to that night.  He and his buddies, Bernstein and Boland are out to celebrate their last night before being posted to active duty. They are full of bravado and testosterone, America's Heroes, ready to take on the world, after just 13 weeks of training. The traditional marine celebration is the "Dogfight", each marine puts $50 in the pot to pay for a party and a competition; each one must find an ugly date to bring to the party, the marine with the ugliest date wins the prize money. Things don't quite go to plan - Boland cheats and pays a prostitute to be his date, while Eddie discovers Rose, a shy and awkward waitress singing in a diner. As the evening progresses he comes to regret the Dogfight. He spends his last night with Rose and learns that there is more to people and life than appearances.  Unfortunately once back with his marine buddies he quickly reverts to Jar Head type and forgets Rose. Coming back is not what he expected. Things have changed, soldiers returning from Vietnam are not celebrated, and he is not the American Hero he dreamed of being. And he needs to find Rose after 4 years of silence.

The stage is set very simply with a scaffold bridge, and a set of chairs. These are supplemented with a bed and tables as required which the cast move as required for each scene. The simplicity works well on a small stage in a production that has a number of quickly changing scenes. There is not much room for big dance routines but there are a couple of vignettes  as Rose sings to Eddie, and the Marines marching routine works well to provide the flavour of war. Live music is provided by a six piece band, a little loud to begin with but infinitely better than a recorded backing track.

All the cast performed well but the stars of the show were undoubtedly the two leads - Luke Henderson as Eddie, and Amber Cox as Rose Fenny. Amber's singing voice is beautiful and she does full justice to the musical numbers, and plays a very convincing strong female character. Luke portrays the many sides of Eddie well - as he struggles to come to terms with new emotions and a different view of life to what he has come to expect.

This was the first night and there were some issues with sound particularly in the first act, which is a real shame, but it was pretty much sorted by Act Two with only a couple of mic problems. There were also some first night nerves on show but these were quickly overcome and the young cast performed well, keeping the momentum going and coping with the technical issues. No doubt the problems will be ironed out for the rest of the run.

This is a great premise for a musical - it has passion of all different kinds - resentment, jealousy, fear, anger, lust and love. The story basically covers two days - one in 1963 and one in 1967. Most of the characters are fairly two dimensional but are there as the backdrop to Eddie and Rose, providing the context for their developing relationship and particularly Eddie's character. It explores very personal themes of love, the nature of friendship, honesty, loyalty, and the much wider themes of society's attitudes to war, and women. For what is ostensibly a fairly simple "boy meets girl, boy changes for the better" love story, it packs a lot in.

Dogfight plays until Saturday 2nd Sept. Curtain up is at 7.15pm and tickets are available at just £12.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Monday, August 21, 2017

True Hearts - Woodlands Hall - Review

True Hearts
Woodlands Hall
19th August 2017

True Hearts is a Cabaret evening of music, dance and comedy featuring the True Heroes singers and dancers, and compared by the inimitable Bella Bluebell.

True Heroes are a group of local performers who raise money for charities by staging shows in community venues. Saturday evening's show was part of the Woodlands Hall 50th Anniversary celebrations and was raising money for two local charities based at the Freeman Hospital - Maggie's (which provides help, information and support to cancer sufferers and their families) and CHUF (Children's Heart Unit Fund).

The show kicked off with a modern medley featuring the Black Eyed Peas' "I Got a Feeling", setting the tone for the evening. The True Heroes then rattled through an astonishing number of medleys including Boybands, Ricky Martin, Spice Girls, Bananarama, Madonna, and Madness, then a 70s disco medley before the first Act drew to a close with a tribute song and slideshow to highlight the work done by Maggie's.

Act Two brought us a  CeeLo Green combo of Beggin/Forget You, and then Blues Brothers, 80s Divas, Phil Collins, Kylie, and a Steps medley. There were two more touching and poignant tribute songs and slideshows - one at the start of act two featuring images of people linked to the show from the show who had in some way been touched by cancer, and the second slideshow highlighting the work of CHUF. 

Highlights of the show for me were the Spice Girls featuring Bella Bluebell as Ginger Spice and Leon Gill as Scary Spice. (Scary had to deal with a major wardrobe malfunction, much to the amusement of the audience.) Bucks Fizz brought a rousing cheer with a rendition of the eurovision favourite "Making Your Mind Up" - including the hand jiving and the skirts! In Act Two the guys came into their own with the Blues Brothers and Phil Collins Medleys, and the Steps Medley and Bridge Over Troubled Water tribute song showed off some great harmonies in the troup.

Bella Bluebell provided comedy ( and a welcome moment for the performers to catch their breath, I should think) with jokes and banter and an array of colourful wigs and sparkly frocks. Am pretty sure she'll be starring in a Panto come December - watch out for her!

All in all it was a good night, lots of fun and enthusiastic performances from all the dancers and singers, and all for a good cause. For me, Act Two was the better half, it felt more relaxed as if the performers were less nervous and enjoying it more. But all in all directors Ali Hassanyeh and Kevin Rhodes pulled together a good mix of crowd pleasing songs, and each performer had an opportunity to shine in both Acts. I was transported back to my legwarmer and fingerless lace mittens days with all those 80s hits. And, of course , no cabaret night would be complete without a Foreigner Finale - don't stop believing!

Woodlands Hall is a great community venue - they have an array of activities throughout the year all organised by volunteers. They've lasted 50 years so far so they must be doing it right. Their next show on 21st Oct is a swinging 60s tribute night featuring The Moonbeats. If you are in, or near Wideopen go along and support this fantastic community resource. Entry is just £8 and the bar is cheap! (drink responsibly, guys!)

Denise Sparrowhawk

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Much Ado About Nothing - Barnes Park - Review

Much Ado About Nothing
Theatre Space NE in Barnes Park
18th Aug 2017

Theatre Space NE's Plays in the Park have become the theatrical highlight of the summer in Sunderland, drawing crowds of intrepid adventurers out into the sunshine - and sometimes the rain - to experience the theatre in a different, more inclusive way. They traditionally stage three plays in three parks across the city - two Shakespeare and a family play, the latter usually written or adapted by a local writer. This year they offered Henry IV in Roker Park, Robin Hood in Mowbray Park and finally this week Much Ado About Nothing in Barnes Park. Sadly I couldn't make it to the first two productions, but survived the A19 trip from Hartlepool to Sunderland in time to catch their second performance of Much Ado.

Due to start at 6pm, the heavens naturally opened and poured out the contents of a large black cloud at 5.45pm. By the time we gathered at the Coach House CafĂ© for "curtain up" the clouds were departing and the last few drops of rain were giving way to sunshine. Clearly this was entirely due to the Gods taking pity on the actors as they sang a forlornly hopeful rendition of "Rain, rain go away".

The proceedings begin with the usual health and safety announcements - done in the style of a BBC announcer from the "magic black box", and then we are off. Transported to Italy after the end of a campaign of war (Italy was full of warring factions in the day - all the noble lords trying to pinch each others lands). Don Pedro (Steven Blackshaw) plays host to the returning heroes and his own brother Don John (Dale Jewitt) (nasty piece of work he is - full of scheming and sibling envy). Benedick (David McCarthy) wants to talk of war and daring deeds, but much to his disgust his friend Claudio (Luke Maddison) has seen the beautiful Hero (Eilidh Talman) and wants only to talk of love and marriage. Benedick thinks marriage is folly and swears he will die before he is wed. While Hero's cousin Beatrice (Corinne Kilvington) is scathing of men - and in particular Benedick - saying there is no man worth giving up her freedom for. She swears she would rather stay single as she is than marry an unworthy suitor.

Claudio, happy in love, plots with his friends to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love, while Don John plots to undermine his brother Don Pedro by breaking up the marriage of  Claudio and Hero (it's all very devious and complicated!) From this ensues a wealth of comic and tragic misunderstandings. Lives are and happiness are threatened, fools and knaves are revealed, and well, if you want to know how it all turns out you shall have to get along to the park and join the adventurers!

As always it is difficult not to end up listing everyone when it comes to performances of note - but mention has to be made of Dale Jewitt who excels as both the superciliously conniving Don John and the self-important yet asinine Dogberry; David McCarthy is glorious as Benedick, and is surely the audience's favourite. David John Hopper as Leonato is transformed from a foppish sycophant in the first acts to a resolute, determined statesman in the final act, both persona's perfectly believable. Samantha Bell morphs from the tipsy maid, Margaret, to the jobsworth watchman Secole, and finally to an almost Julie Waltersesque performance as the elderly Friar.  She gets full marks for character hopping. Eilidh Talman is a beautiful and graceful heroine.

The best thing about Theatre Space NE's productions is that they don't take their Shakespeare too seriously - they are actively trying to make it accessible to everyone, so there is none of the grandiose pontification that in the past has been the mark of Shakespearean acting. Any pontificating is done very much tongue in cheek. They are not afraid to add in elements to make the play relevant and accessible to a modern audience, but do this without sacrificing the essence of the original. They add music and song. They interact with the audience, asides are generally addressed toward particular audience members. Eye contact is key - this is not an audience watching a play, this is an audience experiencing a play. There is no better way to experience Shakespeare in Sunderland!

Don't miss the last two chances to experience Plays in the Park this summer - Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th August, 6pm at Barnes Park. 

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, August 11, 2017

Royalty Theatre - New Season - Preview

2017/18 Season Preview
Royalty Theatre

The Royalty team never shy away from staging plays that challenge their performers and their audiences. Their 93rd season is no exception. There are some dark and chilling tales coming up with a spattering of comedy to lighten the mood.

The season kick starts fairly safely with an Agatha Christie classic. And Then There Were None is widely considered to be Christie's masterpiece and her darkest tale. The tension and suspense builds throughout to the climactic reveal. Who is next on the list of casualties and just who is killing off the guests? And Then There Were None runs from Sept 18th - 23rd.

From Agatha Christie they move to Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills. A chilling drama set in the Forest of Dean in the summer of 1943. Childish games take sinister turn. Not supernatural but definitely something evil here, a good choice for Halloween and Guy Fawkes week it runs from Oct 30th to Nov 4th.

Christmas and the Panto Season rescue us from the darkness for a spell, thrusting us into the adventures of Dick Whittington, and a more light-hearted battle of good and evil. Will the streets be paved with gold? Maybe, maybe not, but the stage will be paved with song, dance and jokes from 7th- 17th December. Oh yes, it will...

New year brings more murder and madness with a studio production of Shelagh Stephenson's Five Kinds of Silence.  This dark play explores the damaged relationship between a man and his family. Its claustrophobic atmosphere makes it a perfect choice for staging in the studio. It runs from 24th to 27th Jan.

February brings a Pulitzer Prize winning play - The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsey-Abair. This play deals with the nature of grief and investigates with drama and humour how different family members cope with loss. From Feb 19th-24th.

The second half of the season takes a lighter turn with Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense. This Goodall Brothers adaptation of  this PG Wodehouse tale runs from Mar 19th to 24th.

Their second studio production is a touching and witty fictional account of the Occupy London Protests of 2011. Temple by Steve Waters occupies the stage from 25th-28th April.

From a very British crisis we move to a typically English farce in Move Over Mrs Markham by Ray Cooney and John Chapman. Two couples separately arrange to use a friend's flat to meet up with their lovers...confusion and hilarity ensue between 21st - 26th May.

The final show of the season is Mike Kenney's adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. A great family show with Mole, Badger, Ratty and of course, Toad of Toad Hall. Explore the Wild Wood with them from 25th -30th June.

As well as the main programme, there are a number of one off performances including a concert by soprano Joanna Forest and an Open Clasp production of Rattle Snake from Sunderland Stages in October,  and in July there is the opportunity to see work by Lee Stewart, one of the Royalty's regular actor/directors as they stage his latest play There's Someone Coming Through.

All the details are available on the Royalty website. Tickets are available now and can be booked online or in person at the box office - times and dates are listed on the site. At under a tenner a ticket it's a night at the theatre that won't break the bank.

Denise Sparrowhawk