Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Oliver Twist - Royalty Theatre - Review

Oliver Twist
Royalty Theatre
19th June 2017

The Royalty's season finale is an adaptation by Jeremy Brock of Dickens' much loved tale of Oliver Twist.
A challenging play to stage for an amateur stage society - not least because of the association most people will have with the Lionel Bart musical, and the preconceptions that will bring. Fortunately the setting on stage has more in common with recent televised Dickens drama - with their dismal, murky interiors than with the old fashioned Hollywood musical style. Dicken's works are filled with dark settings, and larger than life characters. It's a big ask to find actors for all the parts and the Royalty cast list is 21 strong with many doubling up (I advise buying a programme to keep track of them all).

Just as some of the actors are playing more than one part, so too is the stage - all the scenes are played out on just one set. This is cleverly conceived and manages to serve as the workhouse, the undertakers shop, Fagin's lair, the courthouse and the house in Chertsey, as well as various London Streets. It's a tall order, but it works well, giving the flavour of Dicken's world rather than the actuality, and avoids any cumbersome scenery changes. Lighting is used to great effect - with spotlights highlighting characters and leaving the rest of the stage in darkness where the background scenery would be a distraction. Characters enter from either side, and from the top of two stairways as if from the alleyways of London, the corridors of the Workhouse, and from a set of double doors at the back of the stage for the grand entrances. This creates a sense of space beyond the stage with characters arriving from different directions and on different levels.

These characters are the usual mix of good, bad, ugly and beautiful people from Dicken's imagination. They are in some sense caricatures of humanity and some play this aspect to its fullest - David Armstrong as Monks is a kind of terrifying Ray Whinstone character as he delivers hoarse threats to Fagin, Bill and Mr Bumble, and Billy Towers' Fagin limps and shuffles his way through the play with false camaraderie and obsequious double talking. Bill Sikes, played by Jordan Carling is not the most dislikeable character in the play, he comes across as a hard desperate man but there is a sense of lostness about him which is evident in the short scene after the botched burglary where Bill, recovering from a fever, reveals his dependence on Nancy (Abbi Laidlar). Nancy, in her bright red dress provides a rare splash of colour. It's also indicative of her fate, a bloody death for trying to bring Oliver out of the dark existence that Fagin, Bill and Monks have set for him.

Oliver Twist, of course is the face of real beauty and true innocence and is played by Becky Lindsay - casting a girl as the lead character is another clever move, as it does give Oliver that unusually sweet appearance.

 Artful Dodger looks the part in his dapper tails and his top hat poised at such a precariously jaunty angle that I worried he would lose it off at some point.  I did wonder if actor Aidan Evans had similar concerns as he lounged rather nonchalantly against scenery, however he displays some pretty fancy footwork in the demonstration of "The Game" to Oliver and his hat stays safely in place!

There is a lot of story to fit into a short time with this play, and at times it is a little disjointed - there are one or two deviations from the book as I remember it (though I admit it is a few years since I read it). The sheer volume of characters and subplots can be a tad befuddling, but credit goes to Thomas Potts as The Narrator who comes in at opportune moments to introduce characters, set scenes, fill gaps and sum up.

This is a challenge to end their season, and they made a fair stab at it. Good fun, a few surprises and plenty of drama.

Oliver Twist runs until Sat 24th June. Curtain up is at 7.30pm each evening and a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. At just £8 a ticket it is well worth a visit. Tickets are available online or on the door.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Under Milk Wood - People's Theatre - Review

Under Milk Wood
People's Theatre
June 13th 2017

Staged as a radio play within a play, the People's Theatre production reproduces the original recording of the play by the BBC.  On stage we have a set designed as the recording studio, with organ and piano, sound effects crew, and the cast of 12 actors who will voice 45 characters from the imaginary welsh town of Llareggub.

As the audience arrive the cast are already taking their places on stage, as if they too are just arriving for the show. (in fact we saw some arriving in the bar, before we even got to the auditorium). They chat quietly together until a very plummy BBC announcer draws our attention and introduces the play. The lights dim and the recording of Dylan's "play for voices" begins.

And what a tour de force it is. We are instantly drawn in to the sleepy dreamworld of the inhabitants of Llareggub, as First Voice Frank Coles begins to recite Dylan's lyrical words. The town sleeps, dreaming of wild and and wonderful things, strange and mysterious thing, of love and lust and death and life. And gradually the sun rises and we meet the good people of the town.

The play flows through a day in the life of this little town, narrated by Frank Coles and Steve Hewitt, We meet its characters, we see glimpses into their past and their present, and perhaps their future, as heard by blind Captain Cat (Mike Smith). The words flow, beautiful and musical with lilting welsh accents and the images appear in our heads as the loving, and plotting, and gossiping carries on around us.

Photo by Paula Smart
There would not be much action to hold our attention in the reproduction of the recording of a radio play, you might think. But as the actors come forward to deliver their lines, they flounce, and slink, and creep around, casting knowing looks to the other actors, and to the audience, so we know what's going on, both in the town and in the recording studio - there are little rivalries and friendships. Ho ho!

The play is enhanced with sound effects - some recorded - bird song, cows lowing, a cart trundling by, while others are produced on stage by the actors - the rubbing of a brush against a box, the tapping of a pen against a glass.

The small details make the play. Inevitably there are some stumbles over lines - Dylan's words are almost tongue twisters at times, yet even this was skillfully fielded with a wry aside to the audience.
All of the cast do a remarkable job of remembering and delivering this beautiful, sensuous play.

Lyrical words, enhanced by a beautiful musical score, and soulful singing. Come along, lose yourself for a day in Llareggub.
You'll laugh, and love, and maybe cry a little. You may not understand all of it, but you will not forget it.

Under Milk Wood plays until 17th June. Time hurries on. Don't miss it.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Sunday, June 4, 2017

It's not the character's problem - Royalty Theatre - Review

It's Not The Character's Problem
Royalty Theatre
2nd June 2017

Written and performed by Jordan Carling

I have seen a fair few one man (and one woman) shows over the last couple of years. It's a form of theatre that I increasingly love. They are invariably performed in small venues, and not necessarily to capacity audiences. Although, it has to be said, depending on the particular venue even a capacity audience can be pretty intimate.

There is something very special about being in a small space, listening to what are essentially very personal experiences. The shows take many forms - some have a lot of props to create atmosphere or context. They tend to follow a similar pattern in terms of theme - the meaning of life - or death - the nature of love, hate, indifference. They deal with some heavy subjects, and they usually do it with a fair amount of humour - often self deprecating - as the protagonist takes us on their journey of discovery. They are conversational, questions are posed, answers are invited, the audience is drawn in.

It's Not The Character's Problem we are told is a hard story tell, and may be a hard story to hear. It's Jordan's story. It is very personal. For this reason, I think, after the initial introduction - with some very sobering statistics about male suicide rates - he switches from first person, to third person. He tells Jordan's story almost like a case study, thereby distancing himself from it, and at the same time illustrating perfectly the isolation he creates for himself. In order to cope with unwelcome, negative feelings, Jordan removes them from his life - he banishes them to the wall of switches and turns them off. He builds a fortress around himself so that he doesn't have to deal with any of them, thinking that this makes him a man. Cold, dispassionate, ruled by his head not his heart. And it works fine (sort of) until a cataclysmic event leads him to finally realise that feelings, even the painful ones, are necessary to be able to fully experience life.

The show deals with a difficult subject and themes. It is a journey of self discovery. It is Jordan's journey, as he explores the way men are conditioned to respond to the emotional demands of life. How are men supposed to react to the events that life throws at them? How, in fact, has Jordan reacted to these? Not too well to begin with, as it turns out.

In this respect, this show is pretty much like others that I have seen. However it is also quite different. This is a very serious piece of story telling. There is humour - but the humour is used sparingly, with pinpoint accuracy it punctuates the narrative, providing a moment of welcome relief and preventing it from becoming too difficult to bear.
The dispassionate, third person narration means that when finally emotion begins to break through, it is all the more telling; the anger is more shocking, the grief more poignant.

"It's not the character's problem" is performed very simply with minimal props, and almost no staging - a chair, some papers, a spotlight and a white screen. Nothing is projected onto the screen, it is just there. Jordan sits throughout, reading from the papers and discarding the pages one at a time, until the story is almost done. The only action is the representation of the heart monitor in the hospital room, he draws the line in the air with his finger and taps out the heartbeat on his chest. This is an incredibly moving moment, followed by a literal thirty second pause, until the realisation that the heart has stopped. I find myself counting off the seconds. On the count of 30 Jordan resumes the story and brings it to slowly to its conclusion.

Finally an image appears on the screen.  A dedication to his father.

This must be a hard story to tell. It is a hard story to hear, but for an hour the audience's attention is held, and we listen and we feel.

"It's not the character's problem"  showed for one night only to an almost capacity crowd in the studio at the Royalty. It has also been staged at Northern Stage and the Customs House. I would hope it gets an airing in other venues, it's a story worth telling and a story worth hearing.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hobson's Choice - People's Theatre - Review

Hobson's Choice
People's Theatre
30th May 2017

Although written a hundred years ago, this period comedy has a very modern feel. The stage is set with the inside of Hobson's Bootmaker's - a counter, laden with shoes and boots, a desk with a ledger (the shop's books), framed with a mosaic of leather patches emblazoned with images of fine boots. 

Hobson (Steve Robertson) is proudly middle class, owner of a successful and respected boot making business. The success of this is down to the skill of his workers and the astuteness of his eldest daughter, maggie (Alison Carr). He has built up his fortune by paying low wages to the craftsmen he employs, and no wages to his daughters who run the shop and his home. 

One evening he takes umbrage at his daughters' attempts to manage him. Incensed by their "uppishness" he launches into a tirade over the inappropriateness of their behaviour, their dress, which he perceives calls into question his own respectability and reputation. He decides that they should be married off, to give another the man the inconvenience of keeping them - except Maggie who he considers too old (and too useful) for marriage. However, when he realises that it will cost him money to marry off his two younger daughters he quickly decides that they will stay at home with him after all, thus thwarting their hopes of escaping to make lives of their own. 

When a wealthy customer, Mrs Hepworth (Barbara Johnson), singles out one the workers, Willie Mossop (Ian Willis), and demands that all her boots be made by him in the future, Maggie sees an opportunity to escape the dead end existence of living with her domineering and increasingly drunken father. She proposes marriage to Willie and sets about managing their escape.

When her father learns of her plan to marry Willie, a match he considers to be wholly inappropriate, he threatens to beat Willie for daring to court his daughter. Maggie and Willie leave and set up their own business with help from Mrs Hepworth. 

As Hobson's pride and drinking get the better of him, he loses all three of his daughters and his business begins to decline until he is on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Photographs by Paula Smart
This is a cautionary tail told with great humour. Harold Brighouse's characters are well observed and cleverly drawn - from the blustering Hobson, with his preoccupation with image and reputation to the astute and clever Maggie who manages to steer everyone to a happy outcome eventually. 

This is a perfect choice for the People's Theatre, the team have once again produced a well acted, creatively staged production.  A classic play given classic treatment, has the audience laughing out loud at the antics of Hobson, the indomitable cleverness of Maggie and the sufferance of Willie. 

Hobson's Choice plays until Saturday. Your only difficulty will be choosing which night to go see it. 

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Pitman Painters - Review - Royalty Theatre

The Pitman Painters
Royalty Theatre
16th May 2017

After a year long wait, I finally got to see this production by the team at the Royalty. Lee Hall's northern classic was scheduled to run last season but unfortunately had to be cancelled at the twelfth hour. I was keen to see how the team at the Royalty tackled the play, especially considering the enforced hiatus.

It is one of my favourite plays, probably because Lee Hall writes with such empathy about the north east. His characters are entirely believable and are written with genuine affection and humour yet he does not sugar coat them. So with the Pitman Painters we have five irascible characters who argue and bicker, sometimes in  fun, sometimes in earnest, yet manage never to fall out altogether despite their disagreements.

They come together for the unlikely purpose of taking an art appreciation class with the WEA. It very quickly becomes clear that the tutor's planned programme is way above the heads of the pitman and so a compromise is found - they will learn to appreciate art through participating in art themselves - they will be painters. It is glorious to see their development from huffy, defensive, reluctant painters into a group who are confident and assured enough to voice their opinions, and to exhibit their art.
Their forthright salt of the earth manner provokes plenty of chuckles from the audience.

There are some fair performances - Kristian Colling as George Brown - the stickler for the rules and regulations, holds the group together, breaking up the arguments when they start to get too earnest, particularly between Harry (Graham Alex) and Jimmy (Michael Fletcher) who just can't see eye to eye about anything. Yet just as often, George stalls the progress of the group when regulations look like they may be contravened.
Matt McNamee takes on the role of Oliver Kilbourn - the pitman who is most affected by the art class. Oliver's character is different to the others, as he struggles inwardly with the idea of becoming something other than a pitman, and this is a challenging first major role for McNamee. He acquitted  himself well, though his performance was lacking some of the emotion I expected from his character. That said he has certainly grown as an actor and I look forward to seeing how he develops in future roles.
David Farn plays the intellectual and rather pretentious art tutor who benefits from the group. There are some lovely moments when he begins to pontificate and is undercut by the pitmen and Mrs Sullivan (Corinne Kilvington).

What makes the show for me is the clear chemistry between Michael Fletcher, Graham Alex and Kristian Colling. Their timing and delivery is almost perfect, and the banter between their three characters acts as a foil for the seriousness of Oliver Kilbourn.

It's a play with a message that is still relevant today though it is set in the mid-20th Century, social class, capitalism, nationalisation, working class aspirations and bourgeois pretensions. Well worth seeing, Pitman Painters runs until Sat 20th May.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, May 12, 2017

More Light -Review- Peoples Theatre

More Light
People's Theatre
9th May 2017

The new auditorium of this great theatre was buzzing with excitement for the production of More Light by Bryony Lavery.
The Theatre has gone through a huge transformation in recent times, and has created a fantastic light open area for people to congregate in before the show.

The show has a very oriental feel to it and hmm what to say about it??

The play takes us through an emotional journey with More Light and the other girls, as they find themselves in the inner tomb of the emperor without food and no leader.
They have the finest people in the next part of the tomb who are all dead before the end of the first half
This play is a group of ladies journey of self discovery!! After eating and killing all the men of course.
The cast is very big one for a People's Theatre Production and the lines are shared around greatly around the cast but some outstanding performances especially by Sarah Jo. Harrison who played More Light  exceptionally well and created an atmosphere from the start and has a startling shriek that wakes up the room.
The eerie silence is creepy and I was waiting for someone to say something for a bit too long but it did create a great atmosphere in the room.
This show you could say is a feminists wet dream. cannibalism and women fighting back and showing men what for, is technically what the play is about but it's also about the ladies finding themselves and creating a life which they find fulfilling.
Another few performances that deserve a mention are Sarah Scott who plays Pure Joy, Emma Jane Richards who plays Love mouth and Eileen Davidson who plays Many Treasures, these 3 help build a great story and bridge the gap between all the characters.
The male roles and there is only one really and he was played by David Parker fantastically and really brought his character to life.
The ending of the play is a bit to sudden and doesn't quite work for me but its a great play and I enjoyed it thoroughly and The Peoples Theatre Productions keep getting better.

Playing until Sat 13th May

Reuben Hiles

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