Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Unexpected Guest - The People's Theatre - Review

The Unexpected Guest
The People's Theatre
17th Jan 2017

Somewhere in the remote welsh countryside wreathed in fog, a man blunders into a house seeking help. Lost in the fog he has run his car into a ditch and sought out the nearest house to beg use of a telephone and possibly a bed for the night. Unfortunately for him the house he finds is  the scene of a very recent murder...

The scene is set -  a fog of dry ice hangs in the air in the auditorium, on stage a room in darkness, a figure in an invalid chair silhouetted against the dim light from French windows. Someone knocks at a door, a voice calls out and a figure appears entering tentatively shining a torch into the room and speaking to the person in the chair. When no response is forthcoming he shines the torch at the person asking if he is asleep...he gasps and scrabbles to find a light switch. the man in the chair is dead, and in the corner stands a woman holding a pistol.

And so begins The Unexpected Guest begins. Richard Warwick has been murdered. His wife confesses to the unexpected guest but instead of phoning for the police he helps her establish an alibi and comes up with a plan to blame the murder on an old enemy. We have no idea why he would do this. he has no connection to the family - he seems simply taken with the beauty of the lady of the house and opts to help her. The alibi is set, the rest of the house are roused to discover the grisly murder and the police are called. In the morning each member of the household is called to account for their whereabouts at the time of the murder. Questioned by Inspector Thomas it becomes apparent that everyone in the household knows something more than they are telling.

The audience has the advantage of knowing that the story given by Laura Warwick and Michael Starkwedder (the unexpected guest) is a complete fabrication, and little by little we discover that Laura's confession is also false (that's not really a spoiler it is clear she is covering for someone, again, the question is who?).  So who in the household is the murderer? Everyone has a motive, Richard Warwick it is revealed was a despicable and cruel man, spoilt by his life of privilege and further ruined by the accident that took away that privileged life.
The characters one by one reveal their hands, the blackmailer, the lover, the all knowing "loyal" retainer, the downtrodden and the diminished family members. Each one played beautifully, revealing just as much or as little as needed to keep the audience guessing. Red herrings and false trails abound, and Inspector Thomas methodically works his way through the evidence - you feel certain that he will eventually unearth the truth. His doggedness is complemented by the the poetic Sargent Cadwallader. Steve Hewitt and Richard Gardner are a delight throughout, playing the two policemen systematically providing the audience with information, highlighting clues, revealing motives, illuminating character and background.

Other standout performances for me were Sam Hinton as the mysterious, unexpected guest Michael Starkwedder and Callum Mawston as the ingenuous, childlike Jan Warwick, though all the performances were well played and convincing. Jess Chapman and Vanessa Aiken have produced a tense mystery which leaves the audience guessing throughout. Excellent.

The Unexpected Guest is visiting The People's Theatre until Sat 21st Jan.

Denise Sparrowhawk
Photographs courtesy of Paula Smart

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Beauty and the Beast - Westovians Pier Pavilion - Review

Beauty and the Beast
Westovians at the Pier Pavilion
Jan 15th 2017

Eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning feels like a strange time to be coming to the theatre. And since for most people the Festive Season has been well and truly over for a good week at least, it feels even stranger to be coming to a Panto. We are all back at work and school with our noses to the grindstone and festive frivolity has been packed away. But not at the Pier Pavilion  in South Shields - here they are just getting started! The Christmas tree is still up in the foyer and the Beauty and the Beast is set and ready to go...Oh yes! It is!

This tale as old as time makes a passing reference to the Disney version (I suppose these days all fairy tales have to, despite the tightly bound performance rights) but it is very much its own tale. Writer Philip Meeks is accomplished at writing pantomimes that draw on the original tales and cock a polite snook at the establishment.

So we have the story of Jolieville, a french town under siege by a hideous monster, and an even more hideous and corrupt Mayoress. In the town there is a beautiful girl - Belle (french for beautiful) and of course she is beautiful inside and out as true heroines in Panto always are. Only she is able to see the good inside the Beast and she sets out to prove that he is not all bad and to save him from the curse he is under. She is aided and hindered in this endeavour by various comic characters - from her father the inept Professor Baguette to friends Bertie and his mother Dame Fifi Latrine. Naturally there are many hilarious puns and word plays derived from their ludicrous panto names, and a healthy mix of fart and pee jokes for the kids and smutty innuendo for the adults. There is magic that has gone wrong, a terrible curse that must be broken and an evil sorceress who must be vanquished before everyone can live happily ever after ( hope that hasn't spoilt the ending for you all - if you've not been to a panto before you may not realise that there is always a happy ever after - that is the whole point). There also always has to be a parade of increasingly bizarre frocks for the dame, a custard pie or two in the face, and lots of booing, hissing and screaming from the audience. Am happy to report that this panto has all of the above in shed-loads.

The cast execute the whole thing well - keeping the audience engaged against all the odds at times, battling against the noise of rustling sweet wrappers and fractious toddlers, to sing dance and joke their way through the plot. David Foster as Diablo and Erin Atack as Mme Bon Bon keep the story straight so the audience know that the Beast (Ty Roach) and Belle (Ashley Mitchell) are following the plan. Craig Richardson and Stephen Sullivan are the stars of the show as Bertie and Fifi Latrine, keeping the audience involved with jokes and banter throughout. In fact I think all pantos should introduce a karejoke contest from now on. The baddies of the show are Gary Manson and Annie Cairns as Claude and Camilla Parker-Bike and they are suitably booed as their nefarious deeds unfurl. That said, the high spot of the show for me has to be Mme Fifi's duet with Professor Baguette (Mark Lamb)- you just can't fight a feeling like that and you probably shouldn't try.

Staged traditionally in January to avoid competition with other theatres in the area - perhaps most notably the Customs House just down the road - the Westovians timing is a piece of genius. Nothing lifts your spirits so well as a room full of kids (and adults) screaming "he's behind you!" at a stage sporting a man dressed as a woman with a preposterous outfit and a huge hairy monster (now, now you smuttmeisters! What did you think I was going to say?). So if you are labouring under new year blues nip along to Shields for a couple of hours of belated festive fun.

Beauty and the Beast plays until Sat 21st Jan. Tickets can be bought from the box office tel 0191 456 0980. You could do worse than buy a ticket for this (seriously, it's worth it just to see the duet!)

Denise Sparrowhawk

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Jack and The Beanstalk - Peoples Theatre - Review

Jack and The Beanstalk
13th of December 2016  

The People's has recently gone through a makeover and the foyer is now more open and light which is a good thing. It's a work in progress but the signs are good.

So it’s Panto season (oh no it isn’t? Oh yes it is!) and thankfully it's behind me after I write this.
The show is based on the fairy-tale of Jack and the Beanstalk written by Philip Meeks. Fairy Alfalfa played by Rhiannon Wilson bounces onto the stage along with Sprout played by Daniel Magee (who did a fantastic welsh accent if I do say so myself) to give us the background to the story. We then meet Jack Trott played by Joe Robson, he has a friend called Simon the Pieman (have a guess what he makes?!) played by Nathan Hussain. Jack’s mother Nelly Trott was played by the Delightful Steve Robertson and his frocks were good (Spike wants them back when the show is finished!!)
The annoying and bratty Princess Mercedes was played by Alicia Lambert, and her older brother Prince Marmaduke by Stephen Waller who had a fantastic voice. The baddies Lord Fester and Lady Fangaria Fleshcreep were played by Craig Fairburn and Sara Jo Harrison who together did an amazing version of Bad by Michael Jackson.
Myrtle, The Giants Housekeeper. who we meet at the second act has a big secret (it brings the EastEnders intro out). The voice of Giant Bonecrunch was Ricky Alexander Shaw and there was a small part for Barbara Edmundson as the Princess's Maid.

This Panto had many bad puns and jokes within the script - most of them were terrible but that’s panto for you! (edit:oh yes it is! DS)  There was even a dancing cow (played by Laura and Jo Blackett).

The lighting was great and some of the songs were amazing but unfortunately a lot of the songs/singers were let down by the sound. The music was pre recorded and put through a computer and was set a bit too loud for some of the singers and it didn’t help that some of the soloists struggled to perform tonight. Hopefully the sound can be sorted out for other performances.

The Main cast where supported by a small chorus, Irish dancers from Clann Na Ngael Irish Dance Academy and a team of juniors and babes (I think it was Team B tonight). They all performed really well and added that cute factor to the performance.

This show is Great for kids (big kids and little kids) and adults as well. There is even the traditional sing-along song. Hopefully they will sort out the sound but if you like panto its got everything you'd expect and more. 

Jack and the Beanstalk plays until Sat 18th Dec - tickets can be booked via the website

Reuben Hiles

Saturday, December 10, 2016

How Did We Get to This Point - Alphabetti Theatre - Review

How did we get to this point / Wrong Place, Wrong Time 
Alphabetti Theatre 
Wednesday 7th December 2016

Alphabetti Theatre’s story is amazing and I got to hear it through different voices. If you don’t know their history, it starts in 2011 and is still going strong!!
I don’t want to spoil it for you but Ali Pritchard’s story of how he created a space for artists and the public alike is astounding, from starting out at The Dog and Parrot to a basement in Newcastle via The Edinburgh Fringe. .
The play is directed by Ben Dickenson and includes stories about homelessness and problems that come from that; the struggles that people face in those environments. Some of these I have personally experienced.
Now Ali hasn’t experienced Homelessness himself but has experience in helping people who have found themselves in that situation (one of them I know quite well). Ali has been working with the charity Crisis who’s details I will put below.
The Actors were awesome Rosie Fox, Dean Logan and Rosie Stancliffe played many different roles and all played the role of Ali at various points in the play.
The show also had Animations by Ben Walden which helped the public understand what was going on as well as Music by Haythem Mohamed which was a fantastic addition to the show and gave it another dimension, Technical Manager was Adam Goodwin who didn’t put a foot wrong.
The play left me with many questions and not many answers. I'll give you my final thoughts later after I have spoken about the second play which was a response to How Did we get to this Point. Wrong Place, Wrong Time Performed was by the brilliant Paula Penman (who reminded me of my sister in law - please don’t kill me) and written and directed by Steve Byron.
It tells the story of a girl born at what people could say was the wrong time, wrong place. Born into a family with an abusive mother and with brothers who don't give a damn, it follows her story as her life spirals out of control.
Both plays were fantastic and a joy to watch but as I mentioned before they left a lot of questions for me and the main one was why in the 21st century do we still have homeless people and why haven’t realised that we can change the world just by being nice to each other and being the change that the world needs - that together we can end the problems in the UK and even the world if we try.
This show is on till Saturday and I definitely think this is not to be missed.
Reuben Hiles

Edit: For me it was like being blasted in the face with a hand grenade! Wrong Time, Wrong Place really made me sit up and take notice. An incredible play. - Michael

Saturday, December 3, 2016

How to be a Man - Review - Alphabetti Theatre
How to be a Man
Alphabetti Theatre
2nd Dec 2016

We enter the theatre to the strains of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' "Walk Like a Man". The falsetto exhortations of a father to his son always struck me as a little ironic as a child (yes, I was a child who got irony) but it is the perfect theme tune for Jon Coleman's exploration of manliness. Jon himself enters the stage clad only in a pair a grey underpants. He begins with an explanation and an apology - he is white, privileged and manly - proud of, and comfortable with, his masculinity and yet, he is not. He is not really sure whether his idea of being a man is correct. The show, he says, will not explain how to be a man. It will not answer the important question. It will explore the ideas of manliness and masculinity, with help from his friends Leo and Manfred (two mannequins) and A Guide to the Art of Manliness (a real book).  Jon chooses clothes from a rack and shrugs himself into a red, sparkly dress. Skin-tight, it shows off his assets, though perhaps not quite his manliness. Or does it?

Why should a man have to wear a suit and tie? Can he not be just as manly in a frock? And this is the crux of the show. Through various stories, scenarios and arguments with Leo and Manfred, Jon illustrates the accepted preconceptions of being a man. From the friendly competitive wrestling to forge friendships, to the inability to express feelings and emotions and the disappointment of learning that your father is not the infallible man you thought him to be, via the correct way to execute a man-hug, and bonding over whiskey and shortbread Jon Coleman raises the question of what it is to be a man. He looks at the traditional roles and the dilemma of the modern man.

This is funny, irreverent, surprising, thought provoking and a little confusing. Leo and Manfred are essentially Jon's conscience - they act like a pair of Jiminy Cricketts, questioning his motives, offering alternate points of view, and generally disagreeing with him. He argues, and fights with them. The confusion comes because they both have pretty much the same voice, so it wasn't always obvious which one was speaking (and yes, I know, I said they are mannequins but they areas much part of the action as Jon himself). Jon mixes conversations, with Leo and Manfred, with the audience, alongside recounting stories and enacting scenes. It is a fast paced presentation - there's a lot to get through in an hour including several costume changes and an exercise regime. Jon's style is open and engaging and he has a good rapport with the audience.

I left the theatre to the sound of Four Non Blondes singing "What's Up?",  feeling good but with a lot to think about. Possibly not least the reason men have such a hard time knowing what their role is these days is because none of us know how we are meant to be; nothing is clear cut, everything is a contradiction and we will almost certainly say or do the wrong thing to someone at some point in our day, week, month, year, life...
In an ideal world a man could walk down the street in a dress and heels, if he wanted.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Lady in the Van - People's Theatre - Review

The Lady in the Van
People's Theatre
16th Nov 2016

Alan Bennett's Yorkshire humour is typically dour, his writing superb. In The Lady in the Van he observes and retells an episode from his life with a self deprecating modesty, and some (self confessed) fabrication. He did indeed invite an old lady to live on his drive in her van. He expected her to be there for a couple of months, she stayed for fifteen years.

Anne Cater is Miss Shepherd, the lady of the title. She looks every inch the part in her grubby mac and ludicrous hats and she plays the part to perfection. Turning on a sixpence from the irrascible, opinionated, immoveable enigma to the suddenly vulnerable, lost old lady and back again. She is a thorn in the side of Mr Bennett - an unwanted responsibility, yet one that he cannot shirk. Alan Bennett is played by two actors - the part calls for him to intereact with himself. As the timid and insecure Bennett (Sean Burnside) deals with his life, he talks to himself - his alter ego (Ian Willis) expresses the bold opinions that Alan is afraid to voice - the things he might think but is too polite, or too afraid, to say.

Miss Shepherd is a troubled lady, as Bennett is a troubled man. They each have their demons to deal with, as the play progresses snippets of Miss Shepherd's life are revealed, and we learn of the tragic events that have led to her current lifestyle and her fragile mental state. Bennett we see struggling with his own lack of confidence, and his troubled relationship with his mother.

The humour is undeniable - the situation only an englishman, and possibly only a yorkshireman could have written - but it is also a poignant commentry on society and religion, that a life so full of talent and intelligence could be so tragically changed.

Under the direction of Clive Hilton the People's Theatre have once again produced a great show. Great acting by an accomplished cast, a wonderful set (how did they get that van on stage?). I think Mr Bennett would approve.

The Lady in the Van runs till 19th Nov. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sticking - Alphabetti Theatre - Review

Alphabetti Theatre
10th Nov 2016

Matt Miller's Sticking is a tale told in music - 12 songs, six people, one term at university. The songs are a hook to hang his experience on. They punctuate the story alongside aposite snippets from his history lectures.

His story takes us from the car journey with his dad, the arrival and claiming of his student room to the end of term. We meet his friends - new people who are firm friends after just 24 hours and we live through those days and weeks of trying to fit in. The uncertainty of being in a place where no-one knows you and realising you can be whoever you want to be, but not knowing quite who that is. He invents and reinvents himself to try to fit into this new world; caught like the sticking point on a vinyl.

He tries everything that is new, some of it he likes, some of it he's not sure about but he tries it any way. One thing that he does like is a girl. She makes his insides bubble. We all know that feeling. And we know the song that goes with it. We also know the song for crossing a line, going too far. Not being able to go back.

This is the story of the start of self discovery - half way through there is the pivot point - when he realises that he wants to be more than he is, more than a person trying to fit in, and that he can be more but that this is not the way for him, he has to get past the sticking point. By the end, he is beginning to know himself, but his journey is just beginning.

This is an emtional, joyful and intense performance. Performed in the small space at Alphabetti, with minimal staging, and bold lighting. It is intimate. Matt talks to the audience, moving forward to be just a foot or two away from the front row, making eye contact with members of the audience. We were in the front row - the intensity of his stare is un-nerving! He is full of energy and emotion, you can feel it pent up and simmering beneath the surface, then bursting out in excitement and anger and confusion.

Twelve songs. Six people (well seven people). One term. Lots of firsts. Some lasts.
We all have a history and we all have songs that evoke the memories and remind us of our journey.
It is a joy to listen and watch as Matt explores this short but pivotal piece of his history.

The last show is on Saturday, followed by an after show party - you're invited to suggest a tune for the playlist .

This is a pay what you feel performance but reserve your seat in advance because it is a small venue and you wouldn't want to miss out!
Book tickets here.

Denise Sparrowhawk