Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Snake in the Grass - People's Theatre - Review

Snake in the Grass
People's Theatre
4th April 2017

Snake in the Grass seems a simple play - a father has died, his two estranged daughters meet for the first time in many years. the elder escaped to a new life in Tasmania, the younger remained trapped at home to look after the aging parent. It transpires that the father's death may not have been accidental. This opens the door for blackmail and threats and recriminations. An already tense situation is stretched to breaking point. the simple play is more complex than it first appears.

The play has only three characters - Annabel (Sue Hinton) the eldest sister who returns after the funeral; Miriam (Penny Lamport)  her younger sister who has cared for their father through his illness, and Alice Moody (Sarah McLane), the nurse who has been dismissed by Miriam. All the action takes place in the garden of the family home, the stage is set with a summer house, a garden bench  and the fence and gate leading to the tennis court. In actual fact there is very little "action". The vast majority of the play is made up dialogue between the three characters. The most active scene -the murder scene ( this is a murder story)  - is brilliantly funny and creates an unexpected relief from the bickering and carping of the sisters.

Penny Lamport is excellent as the highly strung, over emotional Miriam she swings from an almost childlike angst to ingenuous sisterly concern, to biting sarcasm and a chilling, calculating demeanour, like chameleon changing colours. Miriam is a complex character and clearly there is much more to her than the frightened wreck we first encounter. Annabel is more straight forward - the archetypal British, no nonsense, keep up appearances at all costs type - practical, proud, unrelenting exterior hiding a mass of insecurity and played with the typically school ma'amish air by Sue Hinton.

The acting, the scenery, the offstage sound effects are all well executed. The tension between the women builds throughout and the final denouement is amusing - despite the dark undertones. However something about this play doesn't quite work for me. It feels almost as if Alan Ayckbourn tried to fit too much into it - too many secrets, too much treachery, plus a hint of supernatural.It touches on some heavy issues without actually dealing with them - unless criminal insanity is to be seen as the only possible result of an abusive, controlling relationship. Despite the excellent portrayals I did not feel any empathy towards the characters, except finally I feel a little sorry for poor Alice. There are many snakes in the grass here but in the end they all get what they deserve.

It is a slick production, and all the elements in it work but overall I felt Snake in the Grass was lacking something. Comments from the rest of the audience as we were leaving were all positive so perhaps this particular play was just not for me? Go see it and tell me what you think.
It runs until Sat 8th April.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Sunday, March 12, 2017

An Audience with Michael Brunström and the Silly Billies - Review - Alphabetti Theatre

An Audience with Michael Brunström and the Silly Billies
Alphabetti Theatre
10th March 2017

Friday Evening saw me at the final show in the Basement of Alphabetti Theatre. Coming straight from work (a goodly trek up the A19 from Hartlepool) I arrived early (probably a good thing as within 20 mins the little bar was full to bursting).  
As I entered the bar a very tall man in tights, feathers and a bird mask was greeting and chatting with people. Unfortunately the resident hound was not quite impressed with this large feathered friend and proceeded to see him off at every opportunity, until he was taken out in disgrace (the dog, that is, not the birdman). 

I wasn't sure what to expect from the evening - I'd read the press release, and been told(warned) that it would be off the wall. I might hate it, or I might love it. All I knew at that point was the guy in feathers and tights had better legs than me. 

As it transpires this scene in the bar was a perfect set up for what was about to transpire on stage. (They should make the dog part of the show...)

The Silly Billies are a couple of mad guys with an equally insane sense of humour. Michael Brunström is equally crazy but a tad, just a tad mind, more subtle). Over the best part of two hours we saw Giant babies, Stirrups v Vitamin A elections,  Mary Quant whaling, the Birth of Parsley, a tour of Madchester,  and some very sinister Venga Boys, to name just a few. 

The audience laughed, sometimes in unexpected places, they joined in sometimes voluntarily with enthusiasm, sometimes not quite so keenly but always with good humour. Audience participation is key to the success, had the audience not been engaged then we'd have had three guys on stage acting the fool in silly costumes. 

Imagine Monty Python meets Reeves and Mortimer with a bit of the Goons thrown in. This sketch show was strange, it was bizarre, it was hysterical. It takes hold of the establishment and shakes it by the balls - under the buffoonery there is some serious social and political comment. I'm not sure they'll appreciate that idea getting out though. Pop culture, politics, gentrification, are all topics that are placed under the Order of the Silly Billiy's microscope. What it reveals is weirdly and terrifyingly funny. 
Best bit for me? The cockney market calls. Excellent. Classic pointlessly insane humour. It shouldn't have been funny, but it was. 

This was a fitting finale for the end of the Alphabetti basement. Hopefully we'll be seeing more such in a new venue soon. 

If you like your comedy strange, interactive and at times incomprehensible, watch out for more of the Silly Billies and Michael Brunström.  

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Tempest - Review - People's Theatre

The Tempest
People's Theatre
7th March 2017

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most lyrical plays. it is filled with music, strange airs, mysterious spirits and magic. But there is a darkness to it. It is essentially a play of ambition, treachery and revenge and redemption.

Prospero's brother has usurped his throne, influencing the King to ride against him. Rather than kill Prospero, he and his daughter are banished by the King and due to the duplicity of his brother who sends them away on an unseaworthy ship, they end up marooned on a remote magical island. In the twelve years that follow Prospero masters the art of magic helped by two unfortunate souls on the island - Caliban and Ariel. Ariel is a sprite who has been imprisoned in a tree by the witch Sycorax, Caliban is her son, a strange neglected creature. Both serve Prospero initially out of gratitude, but as his bitterness against his brother and the King grows he becomes cruel and rules them by force. His daughter Miranda is his only comfort, her beauty, grace and innocence a foil for the bitterness of her father.
When fate brings his enemies close to the island, Prospero conjures up a storm in order to exact his revenge. However, Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love and Prosperos heart is eventually softened towards his enemies, but not before he inflicts some retribution on them.

Anna Dobson's direction gives an interesting take on the play. The stage is set in a circle, books scattered around like the flotsam of a wreck, pages hang above the stage and are plastered onto the backdrop. The lighting is subdued, filtered through mists it changes subtly as the weather changes and as the day progresses. The cast enter from the sides of the stage and from the rear of the auditorium throughout, giving an inclusive feel, as characters pass close by and address their lines to the audience as they pass. The sprites act as props, and scenery, they observe and interact with the other characters to produce the sense of enchantment on the island. They are by turns fun, mischievous and sinister. They, the lighting and the music all help create a magical atmosphere.

There are excellent individual performances by Emma Jayne Richards, Sam Hinton, Pete McAndrew, as well as the double acts of Jim Simpson and Jake Wilson-Craw, and Richard Gardner and Steve Hewitt.  Mark Burden is a rather solid choice for Ariel - a contrast to the usual ethereal image of the air sprite but it
worked. He is a rather intimidating sprite.

The Tempest is a strange mix of pastoral, love story, vengeance and supernatural. At times it feels disjointed and as often happens in Shakespeare's plays he does shoehorn in the moral. The People's production is an interesting and intriguing interpretation with much humour in the telling of a dark tale, backed up with beautifully performed music. While it perhaps lacks the impact of previous Shakespeare productions here, this capricious play certainly deserves a viewing.

The Tempest plays until 11th March.
Photographs by Paula Smart

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, February 24, 2017

Preview - An Audience with Michael Brunström and the Silly Billies - Alphabetti Theatre

The Order of the Silly Billies present

An Audience with Michael Brunström
and the Silly Billies

Silly Billies present some of their finest, golden moments in front of a live celebrity audience. Joining them will be alternative comedian hero Michael Brunström.
All your favourite catchphrases and nightmares over one night.
For one night only (due to popular demand), your favourite Newcastle-based absurd, surrealist, occult anarchic collective will present a selection of the greatest hits plus a few new golden nuggets.

Joining them will be alternative comedian hero Michael Brunström (“Big, bold and dumb” – Chortle). A seeker, a weirdo and a winner of the prestigious 2015 Malcolm Hardee award for Comic Originality. “He’s my favourite” – Jack Gardner from Silly Billies. It’s promises to be sensual. Are you sensual? Then join us.

Silly Billies Comedy is an alternative comedy night that celebrates the anarchic, strange and surreal. Hosted by The Order of the Silly Billies.

"Silly Billies has fast become the place for the best alternative comedy the North East has to offer... developing a cult-like following in the process" - Narc magazine

"A comedy night where it’s okay for the performers to be batsh*t mental... In the same way that people are blown away by Tony Law’s one-man shows, there’s a real sense that Silly Billies is more than just a comedy night; it’s great fun and an immersive experience that you won’t forget in a hurry" - Giggle Beats Comedy

"Silly Billies seem to spurn repetition and make originality their life-blood, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. They didn’t avoid all the dreaded clichés of comedy... originality and pure lunacy - they're absolutely mental." - The Courier Newcastle

"A bunch of gay commies singing lullabies about pigs" - Ian from Durham

Where: Alphabetti Theatre, 18 New Bridge Street West, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8AW
When: 19:30 10/03/17
Book tickets: £5 @

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Antigone -Review- Peoples Theatre

Antigone – People's Theatre- 14 February 2017 

So the stage was set, there was not much props and scenery but the stage was set!

The Chorus, (which was portrayed amazingly well by Sue Hinton) was a massive monologue to start the play off, gave the public an idea of the story that would be told.

Antigone is a play about families, love and rebellion, it follows Antigone played fantastically by Ellie North (who I feel gave one of the performances of the night), Antigone goes on her travels to bury her brother who has been killed by her uncle and arrives back early in morning.

The Nurse (played by the delightful Eileen Davidson who was just fantastic and if Downton Abbey was still on TV she could definitely get on that showis asking questions and trying to find out where Antigone has been that night.

But Nurse isn't the only one that wants to know where Antigone has beenIsmene (played by Ruth Gibson) also is pushing the truth buttons…Antigone at this stage confesses what she has been up to.

Antigone is in love with Haemon (played by David Parker) his father is Antigone's uncle who also got her brother killed.

Other people in the play that deserve a mention are the guards played by Sean Burnside, Patrick Robertson and Ricky Harris.

The Messenger was played Gavin Mills and Eurydice was played by Frances Holland.

Page is played by either John Jenner or Jem Etherington.

But the stand out performance for me was the portrayal of Creon,( Antigone's uncle) the exchange between Antigone and Creon was fantastically done, they did practically the whole of the second half together and you could see that Creon (who was played by Andrew De'Ath and Ellie North) had worked hard to get them chemistry right for this confrontation and this made the play for me and I was hooked.

The lighting and sound was minimal but was used well in time with the story, it very much cast a modern feel to the production.

Directed by Kath Frazer assisted by Kay Worswick.

Until Saturday 18th

Reuben Hiles

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads - Sunderland Stages - Review

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Sunderland Stages at the Royalty Theatre
14th Feb 2017

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is a one man show written and directed by Adrian Berry, performed by Alex Walton and featuring the voices of Margaret Campbell (Glenda) and Rob Newman (Bowie).

This is the story of Martin - a boy with problems. His father left when he was just two years old, his mother is a chain smoking alcoholic. Martin himself is isolated, bullied, lonely and confused. He has an eating disorder and self harms - not a lot, "just enough to remind himself what it's like to feel". He is intrigued by a box in his mother's room and one day - aged 11- he picks the lock on the box and discovers a different world. The box is full of Bowie memorabilia, tickets, programmes, badges, playlists, and photographs of his father. For this lonely, misfit child it is a revelation and the birth of an obsession. From that day on he lives and breathes Bowie and dreams of his father. On his 18th birthday his mother gives him a letter that his father wrote before he left sixteen years earlier. It contains a map and an invitation to adventure. An invitation to follow his father's journey in search of their idol. Martin sets off to London on a pilgrimage to visit all the places that are significant in Bowie's early life, and believing he will finally, maybe, see his father.

Alex Walton narrates the story, introducing Martin and describing his London pilgrimage, he also plays all of the characters throughout from Martin, to the record shop owner, bus driver, barman, kebab shop server, and Martin's mother. Walton moves from character to character seamlessly, transforming with little more than a shrug from dispassionate narrator to the childlike Martin - filled with the joy of his passion for Bowie or crippled by his insecurities, or into a gruff Scottish shopkeeper, or a streetwise barman. His performance is gripping, holding the  audience and carrying us along for almost an hour and a half through the joy and pain of Martin's journey.

The story is punctuated with blasts of Bowie's music, images projected onto the backdrop, and snippets of speeches from Bowie (Newman). It's a story of how Bowie influenced and inspired two people. It is full of dreams, anguish, humour and heartache. Will Martin follow in his father's footsteps right to the end or will he become a Starman and shine? The ending is satisfyingly ambiguous. We are left to draw our own conclusions.

The UK tour of Ibiza ends on 27th Feb. You can catch the show at these venues in the north:
15 Feb: York, King's Theatre Queen Ethelburga's Collegiate
16 Feb: Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire
18 Feb: Selby Town Hall SOLD OUT
21 Feb: Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre

Tickets are selling fast so I recommend booking in advance!
Information on other dates and venues can be found on the website:

This is the third show I have seen from Sunderland Stages. All three have been very different but all have been excellent, thought provoking productions. Their aim is to bring the best theatre, dance and
spoken word performances to different, unexpected and favourite venues in Sunderland; watch out for more from them in the coming year.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, February 10, 2017

Rob Hudson Needs to Talk - Alphabetti Theatre - Review

Rob Hudson Needs to Talk
Alphabetti Theatre
10th Feb 2017

As I entered Alphabetti for tonight's show I was greeted by a sign on the door that sais I should be aware that the performance contained partial nudity. Another sign reiterated the message on the door to the bar...I get the feeling that someone has complained somewhere down the line. I don't recall seeing such signs when I came to see Jon Coleman trying to be a man and there was a fair bit of partial in that. Still, I was a little bit concerned for Matt Miller - Alphabetti is never warm at the best of times and tonight it was actually snowing outside. I feared he might catch his death. I needn't have worried - the partial nudity was very partial as it happens (just his bum showing).

The auditorium is declared open and we file in - collecting a rug for our knees on the way (like I said, snowing out) and choose a seat. Alphabetti seats are mildly famous - infamous? - a mishmash of chairs - some padded, some not - and there was a friendly scuffle in the front row over a "squidgy" chair. I can understand that - I have sat on one of the lesser padded seats and it can be distracting. Tonight however I chose with care and sat comfortably on red velvet for the hour of the show. And what a show! I almost don't know where to begin, as you can probably tell by the previous preamble! This is a fifty minute one man show and it is packed full of laughs, observations, advice, onions, sadness, pain, more laughs, self help, lies, more onions, questions, relationships, friendship, heartbreak. And laughs. And darkness. It soars up into the brightness of a new relationship, and it plumbs the depths of its break up.

Matt Miller leads us through the relationship between Rob and Sarah - how it all began, and how it all ended. Rob needs to talk. Sarah has broken his heart, and for a while ruined his life. But he's getting better. He is better thanks to his mother (she likes to help) and his self help books: Louise Hay's "You can heal your life" and "F**k It, the Ultimate Spiritual Way". Yes, it is a real book, written by John C Parkin. You can borrow it from the library, as Rob did. And you can breathe in and release the stress from your life by naming the stressor and then, instead of breathing out, you say F**k it. Rob invites us to try and asks if anyone has anything that is causing us angst. Either no-one in the audience has any anxieties or they are too shy. Surprising really because they appear to be a group of drama students. So, to help out I share the current propensity for parts of my car to drop off, making life a tad difficult lately. We breathe and F**k it. We laugh. I feel better.

Rob however has taken a good while to feel better. Sarah has not been a perfect girlfriend. She has not been entirely honest or open and this has taken her to a dark place, a place that Rob understands, and he endeavours to help her out of it. He helps her so successfully that she moves back to London. She is still not very honest and open. Another book helps him to understand Sarah. This one is not from the library though. This one is Sarah's diary and it is full of truth, and lies. Truth that she has not shared with Rob, and lies that she has. The truth and lies break him and he spends a very long time getting better.

This show is a conversation with the audience, and at the end we are left with a decision - he needs our advice on what to do next, we are invited to help him decide by placing our "pay what you think" envelopes in a "burn" or "return" bucket. Whichever bucket gets the most votes will be the final course of action for Rob. As I put my vote in the bucket it seems most people have gone for burn. I hope he follows the advice - he really doesn't need to give Sarah any more ammunition. Burn the book, Rob, and close the chapter.

Rob Hudson has talked for the last time at Alphabetti tonight, but am sure he'll be talking in other venues. If you get the chance to hear him go along - he's worth a listen.

Denise Sparrowhawk