Hairspray, The Broadway Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Mark Goucher, Matthew Gale, and Laurence Myers present
Hairspray, The Broadway Musical
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman, based on the film by John Waters
Directed by Paul Kerryson
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Hairspray, that big, bouncy, and beautiful musical, is back in town as former Curve Artistic Director Paul Kerryson returns to Leicester with this newly cast production, almost mid-way through its 2017 tour.

When life gives you lemons, you could do with a Tracy Turnblad to help make lemonade: it’s Baltimore, 1962 and plus-size Tracy has a dream of appearing on The Corny Collins Show, a teen dance show. Tracy also dares to dream she’ll find love with Link Larkin, heartthrob and current beau of drama-teen Amber Von Tussle. Sounds frivolous, but Hairspray tackles racism, body image and following your dreams with charm and spirit.

Inspired by John Waters’s 1988 film, Hairspray opened on Broadway in 2002 and has grabbed a clutch of Tony and Olivier awards along the way. This popular musical perfectly marries book (Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan), Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman’s witty lyrics together with Shaiman’s music—spot-on in terms of style, there’s not a dud song in the pack.

Rebecca Mendoza makes an impressive professional debut as Tracy, immediately endearing, full of teen spirit, and a great vocal performance. Another impressive newcomer, Annalise Liard-Bailey, is suitably goofy as Penny Pingleton.

Much of the comedy revolves around Tracy’s even-plusser-sized mum Edna Turnblad (Matt Rixon) and, together with Norman Pace as husband Wilbur, they share great comic timing and an enjoyable performance of their signature song “You’re Timeless to Me”, complete with corpsing and ad-libs.

Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle rocks the house with her stunningly powerful voice and spine-tingling performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been”. Gina Murray exudes cool, calculating “evil” as Velma Von Tussle.

Forgiving occasionally rattly scene changes and lack of clarity with some of the diction, this production zips along at a cracking pace. Takis’s pared-down, perfect-for-touring, functional set enables a sharper focus on Drew McOnie’s wonderfully slick, quick and ultra-energetic choreography.

Hairspray’s message is overwhelmingly positive and forward-looking, set at a time when the civil rights movement in America was gaining significant ground. Notwithstanding this, it is hard not to be aware of the current situation, both in America and across the world, lending greater import to some of the punchlines and drawing wry laughs and a little discomfort from the audience. I note the last time Hairspray came to Curve, President Obama was in office—we live in changing times.

However, the show must go on and Kerryson opts for a strong cast of top musical theatre performers (rather than a few big-name soapstars), and a cracking on-stage band (led by Ben Atkinson). If you need some feel-good in your life, this production of Hairspray is certainly that—it’s a fun, foot-tapping humdinger of a musical.

Images by Darren Bell

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Things I Know to be True – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company present
Things I Know to be True
by Andrew Bovell
Co-directed by Scott Graham and Geordie Brookman
At Curve Theatre, Leicester

Australia’s State Theatre Company and the UK’s Frantic Assembly are now touring their third staging of Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to Be True which picks at the lives of the Price family over the course of four seasons.

Frantic Assembly are syllabus-staples and widely studied as leading contemporary theatre practitioners. The audience for press night (and no doubt the rest of its run in Leicester) was largely made up of school parties, appreciative teens who whooped their approval with a rousing ovation. A reassuring sight in these times of threat to arts on the national curriculum.

Hard-working Fran (Cate Hamer) and Bob (John McArdle) have raised four children, now grown up and drifting away, although the youngest, Rosie (Kirsty Oswald), has just returned home after a gap year romance-gone-wrong. Rosie takes on the role of occasional narrator in this snapshot of family life—boisterous banter around the kitchen table, recalling the childhood dramas which shape our adult relationships.

Familial love is a complicated thing; deep and profound, bound by shared memories, but cut through with simmering resentment and disappointment.

Like in life, scratch the surface of a seemingly happy family and a brewing crisis lurks beneath; Mark (Matthew Barker) facing the dilemma with his identity, Pip (Seline Hizli) preparing to leave her husband and children for a career, Ben (Arthur Wilson) about to face the self-inflicted consequences of greed.

This Australian/UK collaboration is affecting and imaginative and co-directors Geordie Brookman and Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham combine well to show that, from Adelaide to Aylesbury, families are a funny, messy old business.

Fran is the lynchpin and most well-developed of the characters: a strong matriach always aware of what food is in the fridge and provider of clean clothes. Hamer shows Fran’s strength and her vulnerability, her frustrations and contradictions wrought out of her as each of her children come to her at their time of need.

Recently-retired Bob spends much of his time tending the garden; his rose beds are planted and flower during the course of the play. Much of the action takes place here, a metaphor for a growing family, a place to nurture, a place of sanctuary. McArdle is stoic, sometimes bewildered at the different paths his children have taken. His anniversary sequence with Hamer is tender, a heartwarming moment as they dance and Fran is lifted into the stars.

Verging on soap opera, Bovell’s play is poetic; there are patches where characters tell us what we can see they are feeling, however, the dialogue and trademark physicality of the two companies are effective together; this physical element literally lifts it above a straight family drama. Nils Frah’s nagging, melodramatic soundtrack offsets Geoff Cobham’s simple, open design, the millimetre-perfect sliding chairs and table in harmony with the actors.

Overall, Things I Know to be True is a moving, sometimes humorous human story and its relatability gives the play its heart and heartwrenching conclusion.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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Pink Sari Revolution – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and West Yorkshire Playhouse in association with English Touring Theatre present
Pink Sari Revolution
Based on the book by Amana Fontanella-Khan, adapted by Purva Naresh
Directed by Suba Das
Curve Theatre, Leicester

“When you have power, nothing can touch you.” These are the words of Sampat Pal, outspoken leader of the Gulabi Gang, an infamous 400,000 strong group of women who confront injustice and abuse against the women of Uttar Pradesh (also ominously known as the “badlands’ of India).

The odds are stacked against Sampat, and women, as power rests firmly and unattainably with India’s male-dominated society and rigid caste system. Pink Sari Revolution shows how, despite a lack of education, money and clout, grassroots activism can chip away at the balance of power to enable women, case by case, to take some control over their lives.

Suba Das directs this new co-production between Curve, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and West Yorkshire Playhouse, with Purva Naresh’s adaptation of journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan’s best-selling account of Pal’s life and experiences. Research for the play included meetings with Sampat Pal and her gang members in India, together with personal experiences provided by communities in England.

Pink Sari Revolution features Sampat’s involvement in the case of Sheelu, a 17-year-old Dalit woman (Dalits are the lowest caste, widely considered “untouchable” outcasts), who refuses her father’s choice of husband, runs away with a boy she likes, accuses a higher caste lawmaker of rape, who in turn accuses her of theft.

Sheelu is kept in a police cell without proper examination or recourse to justice. Her father flees the situation, afraid of the shame his daughter has brought on his family but is subsequently captured and tortured. The Gulabi Gang hear of the case and Sampat endeavours to help Sheelu bring the man she accuses of rape to justice.

Sampat is known to be a “difficult” individual to deal with, and Syreeta Kumar reveals her complexities with conviction: strident, caring, vulgar and brave, her behaviour often contradicts the issues she is fighting for—justice for women, particularly victims of rape and domestic abuse, yet abusive towards her daughter and husband. However, her directness is what gets results, particularly with male officialdom.

Ulrika Krishnamurti also delivers a powerful performance, doubling as both feisty Sheelu and downtrodden daughter Champa, All the cast are strong though, and Das successfully presents various viewpoints of an issue to which there are no easy answers.

Action is centred around a tree, centre stage, its roots thrusting out of the ground symbolising the dislodging effect Sampat has on society and its established norms. Isla Shaw’s set design is effective and functional, complemented by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design which frames several stunning set pieces: the unfurling of shocking pink saris as banners to the cause, the chilling tableau of a woman hanging from a tree, a damning indictment of her community.

Shocking and disturbing, Pink Sari Revolution does the job of theatre—to confront, challenge, and provide material for thought, further discussion and action. That said, feeling about 10 to 15 minutes too long, elements of the play sag and affect pacing, particularly the second act with some unnecessary exposition.

Sickening cases of rape and murder feature all too regularly in the news: Jyoti Pandey on a Delhi bus just one of many cases around the world, most of which don’t make it to the headlines.

This play is a passionate account of how the force of one woman has galvanised communities and an influential movement against injustice.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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Sunset Boulevard – review

The review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve in association with Michael Harrison and David Ian present
Sunset Boulevard
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the film by Billy Wilder
At Curve Theatre, Leicester

Say Sunset Boulevard and many musical afficionados think of Glen Close in her Tony-Award winning role as Norma Desmond, the silent movie star unable to accept her career has been overtaken by talkies.

Having played Desmond in a try-out role for the 1993 musical and covered for Close during illness in a recent London Coliseum production, Ria Jones now takes the role of Norma Desmond for herself in Nikolai Foster’s new production.

Based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic film noir, Sunset Boulevard shines a harsh spotlight on Hollywood and human relationships. Wealthy, reclusive Norma Desmond makes one last attempt to revive her fading career as a silent movie queen, buying the services and the love of struggling young writer Joe Gillis. Working together on her script for Paramount Pictures, the full extent of her delusional behaviour becomes clear and, as Joe tries to break free of Desmond’s demands and falls in love with fellow writer Betty, a tragic ending inevitably follows.

Visually arresting, Colin Richmond’s design perfectly captures the musty glamour of the era: the ubiquitous sweeping staircase in Desmond’s ostentatious mansion to the false reality of life on a movie set. Costumes are detailed and sumptuous, particularly Desmond, draped in velvet, silk and dramatic headdresses. Use of projection (Douglas O’Connell) for some key scenes is effective, with flickering snippets of silent films, and the clever waltzer-come-dodgem driving sequences.

Jones’s finest moment comes early on with a searing “With One Look”, the appreciative press night audience cheering their approval. Manipulative, melodramatic and living a dream which has long come to an end, Jones keeps control of this over-the-top character until her final tragic collapse.

Danny Mac slips easily into the role of Joe Gillis; believable and eminently watchable, last year’s Strictlyfinalist is clearly the draw for many in the audience, but notwithstanding his matinée idol good looks, he is much more than eye candy. Mac confidently delivers just the right balance of cynical exploitation of Norma’s desperation and doing what he can to survive. His scenes with Betty (a strong performance by Molly Lynch) are refreshingly normal in this unsettling tale where youth and appearances are everything, particularly for women.

Death and darkness are all around, from silent movies to Desmond’s bizarre funeral for her pet chimp, to her career and looks (and not least that the story is narrated by a ghost).

The 16-piece orchestra is a pleasure to hear under Adrian Kirk’s musical direction and, whilst not every song grabs the attention and the sung-through elements leave little to the imagination, overall Foster delivers a stunning cinematic spectacle of a musical.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Young Company and Community production of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Winston
Choreography by Si Rawlinson and Mel Knott
Set Design Kevin Jenkins
at Curve Theatre, Leicester

We’re all still dreaming of summer, and so, here in mid-August, trying to conjure up warmer days via Curve Young Company and Curve Community’s joint production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems worth a try.

One of Shakespeare’s most well-known, well-loved and most frequently performed plays, Midsummer Night’s Dream has also inspired classical scores, ballets, book, TV and film adaptations, and been re-interpreted in many styles (Victorian steampunk and Swinging Sixties two examples in 2017 alone).

Somewhere just outside Athens, four young lovers (Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia) of the court of soon-to-be-wed Theseus and Hippolyta are entertained by the “mechanicals”, a group of six men staging a play within a play—the story of doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe.

All the above are unwittingly controlled by meddling fairy king Oberon and his mischievous merry servant Puck. With sprinklings of magic fairy dust on unsuspecting sleeping eyelids, true loves are mistaken then re-found, often with proverbial “hilarious consequences”, and most notably Nick Bottom and Oberon’s queen Titania.

Director Nick Winston has gone with the original fairies and forest setting and the impressive design team of Kevin Jenkins (set), Metro-Boulot-Dodo (video), Edd Lindley (costume) and Preema Mehta (lighting) has created what is described in the programme notes as a “mythpunk aesthetic”. I felt more of a medieval goth vibe but either way, this is next-generation Shakespeare, aided by Dougal Irvine’s musical direction including rap, hip hop, The Carpenters and Norah Jones.

Curve’s community cast and Young Company have been honed by the collective might of professional theatre makers at one of the UK’s most well-equipped and distinctive venues. Interplay between Lysander (Chris Brookes) and Hermia (Megan Marston) and Demetrius (Harvey Thorpe) and Helena (Lauren Jones) is assured and amusing, with the catfight between Marston and Jones particularly enjoyable.

Boasting two Pucks for your buck (Mahesh Parmar and Joel Fossard-Jones), this double trouble of fairies works well in stereo. Most of the comedy comes courtesy of the mechanicals, and their “play that goes wrong” performance of Pyranus and Thisbe is joyfully inept. Making a wonderful ass of himself, Alexander Clifford is a glorious Bottom, displaying expert timing and physical comedy.

Aside from entertaining, a worthy objective of this production is to provide an introduction to Shakespeare and the theatre for the uninitiated.

Accessible and visually engaging, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a dream in many ways: a welcome opportunity to luxuriate in Shakespeare’s rich, earthy language, chances for many to achieve dreams of performing on Curve’s main stage and, in the midst of the dark troubles of 2017, an escape to the magic of midsummer.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Northern Ballet presents
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas 
Choreography, direction and scenario by Daniel de Andrade
Based on the novel by John Boyne
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Northern Ballet, “a powerhouse of inventive dance”, has taken John Boyne’s 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and created a new ballet, now in the early stages of a national tour. Boyne’s take on the Holocaust is a National Curriculum staple, and a peculiarly 20th century fable, no stranger to controversy following accusations that distracting liberties are taken with the reality of life at Auschwitz.

In the novel, our narrator is nine-year-old Bruno, son of a concentration camp commander at Auschwitz, and who gives the book its unusual perspective; Bruno’s naivety and lack of understanding of the situation can just about be excused.

Leaving their happy lives in Berlin, Bruno, his older sister Gretel, their mother and newly promoted commandant father are transferred to a mansion not far from the barbed wire of Auschwitz’s perimeter fence. Lieutenant Kotler is also stationed at the camp and soon upsets the family dynamics, flirting with both Gretel and Bruno’s mother, as well as his cruel treatment of the Jewish servants.

Left to his own devices, Bruno explores his surroundings and meets Shmuel at the fence. Despite their very different situations, they become friends and a series of events leads Bruno to his fateful visit to Shmuel in the camp.

Choreographer and director Daniel de Andrade presents a more linear telling of the story; Bruno is still the central figure, however, the ballet (like the 2008 film version of the novel) depicts scenes without Bruno’s presence or viewpoint.

The interpretation of The Fury (Bruno’s mishearing of The Führer) is a more abstract figure—a Von Rothbart-like evil presence in black rags and gas mask. Mlindi Kulashe is lithe and athletic in this role, puppet master to the camp commanders and a foreboding figure in the shadows.

Kevin Poeung accurately captures the exuberance and playfulness of young Bruno, and his self-obsessed lack of understanding of others—which comes over strongly in the book—does not feature here. This is no bad thing, and makes their friendship more believable. In the scenes where Bruno and Shmuel (Filippo De Vilio) imagine playing together, Mark Bailey’s set transforms into a wide blue sky without the physical barriers of the camp, nor those of ethnic persecution, and gives brief moments of joy.

Sean Bates is an arrogant and vicious Kotler, playing with the impressionable Gretel (Antoinette Brooks-Daw, successfully conveying the awkward transition from girl to young woman). Hannah Bateman (Bruno’s Mother) also gives a nuanced performance, as the reality of her husband’s role in the war and the purpose of the camp begins to dawn.

Gary Yershon’s score is jarring and uncomfortable with little opportunity for melody and the build-up to the final scenes has a persistent note of foreboding. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design gives a noir-ish mood to the performance, as well as highlighting the transportation and gassing of prisoners in chilling tableaux.

Does The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas work as a ballet? In the main, this is an evocative and sensitive piece, but with reservations. The explicit depiction of Bruno’s Mother’s indiscretion with Kotler seems an odd diversion—it is enough for us to see her realisation of the camp’s purpose and her husband’s role in it without implying this affair as a “relationship breakdown” moment.

The need for dance to exaggerate movement as part of the telling of a story does not always sit well with this subject; for example, depicting Shmuel doubling over dramatically with hunger and exhaustion seems clumsy.

Leaving aside the questions over whether this friendship could ever have occurred, this ballet has creatively interpreted a key moment in our past, adding to the wider debate on how we treat each other, and whether lessons have been learned.

Images by Emma Kauldhar

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The Red Shoes – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Matthew Bourne’s
The Red Shoes
A New Adventures Production
Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Choreographed and directed by Matthew Bourne
At Curve Theatre, Leicester 16 – 20 May 2017

The Red Shoes is, as Matthew Bourne suggests in the programme, a show to die for, and adds further fuel to the idea of red signifying passion and danger.

This touring production celebrates the 30th anniversary of Bourne’s New Adventures company and shows no signs of the acclaimed choreographer, director and creator losing his Midas touch.

A show within a show, designer Lez Brotherston’s ingenious revolving proscenium arch takes us front and back stage and into the lives of the Lermontov Dance Company of the 1940s.

Talented dancer Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) gets her big break when prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja (a wonderfully diva-ish Michela Meazza) sustains an injury in rehearsal for Les Sylphides. Taking the main role to great acclaim in the Lermontov company’s tour of The Red Shoes, Victoria and upcoming composer Julian (Dominic North) fall in love, achieve their creative goals and life couldn’t be better.

However, the show’s ideas of control and choice take over and for Victoria, both the red shoes themselves and the men in her life determine that she can’t have it all.

Ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (a ram-rod rigid Sam Archer) believes Victoria’s commitment to dance should be total and thus she must choose between her art and her heart. She and Julian are cast out from the company, end up in an East End music hall and, with their relationship under strain, Victoria is lured back to Lermantov; her final decision becomes her downfall.

Complex and heavy with allegorical detail, this is a stunning production, not least the concept of life imitating art, both with New Adventures’ exploration of a world they already belong to, but also Victoria’s own experience, as her on and off stage lives collide.

Long-time Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston’s set transforms from the sweat and tears of backstage life and grimy music hall to the glamour of a Monte Carlo verandah. His costumes are, as ever, gorgeously detailed and evocative of the period: high-waisted trousers, chic evening gowns, picture-postcard beachwear.

Bourne states he wanted to capture a surreal, cinematic quality to this production and the Lermontov company’s performance of The Red Shoes—the ballet within a ballet—achieves this in a gripping and heartrending sequence. Duncan McLean’s projection design featuring monochrome worlds of city, bleak moor and heavenly starscape is breathtaking and complements the mesmerising choreography.

Shaw is beautifully expressive and perfectly captures Page’s journey from desire to despair in her duets with North, the “dance devil” (Glenn Graham) and Ivan Boleslawsky (Liam Mower, excellent as the rather fey premier danseur).

Master storyteller Bourne skilfully blends Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale, and Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film of the same name to the music of Bernard Herrmann from various pieces, in particular from Fahrenheit 451 and Citizen Kane, but not the film’s original score.

Herrmann’s distinctive and insistent strings (he was a some-time Hitchcock favourite, composing the iconic soundtrack to Psycho) add a nagging portent to the story with Terry Davies’s orchestration expertly combining Herrmann and Chopin (from Les Sylhpides). Paul Groothuis’s sound design is unsettling, particularly in the final scenes of Page’s torment.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, with many amusing asides, particularly during the bawdy music hall sequences.

Bourne and his creative team have set high standards over their 30 years together and this production is no exception. His thrilling choreography, incorporating various influences and striking imagery, creates unexpected worlds: obliquely-angled Lowry-esque city workers transform into the fluidity of leaves and ethereal creatures carried in the wind are just one example of his innovative style.

The Red Shoes doesn’t put a foot wrong as a supremely talented company conjures a bygone era in delicious, devastating and authentic detail.

Images by Johan Perrson

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