The Mountaintop – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Reading Rep Desara and Nuffield Southampton Theatres present
The Mountaintop
by Katori Hall
directed by Roy Alexander Weise
Curve Theatre, Leicester 13 – 17 November 2018

It is 3 April 1968, the night before Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s assassination. Dr King (Gbolahan Obisesan) arrives back at his regular room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis having just delivered his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. He is tired, lonely, and debilitated by a cold. Room service maid Camae (Rochelle Rose) brings him his holy trinity of coffee, cigarettes and some casual flirtation. As the night develops and their conversations deepen, King is forced to confront his hopes and fears for himself, his family, and the world, always aware of violent threats directed towards him and his community, as well as the weight of his reputation.

Although not quite a warts ’n’ all exposé of the iconic Dr King, Kotari Hall’s play takes his quote of “I am a man, I am just a man” to show that yes, he is rightly revered as a great pioneer of civil rights, but also baggage carrier of the doubts and contradictions of any “normal” human—including smelly feet.

Surprisingly, this play initially struggled to open in America, premièring instead in the UK at Theatre503 in 2009, transferring to the West End in 2010 and receiving the Olivier Award for Best New Play that same year. A success on Broadway in 2011, a revival in 2016 directed by JMK Award winner Roy Alexander Weise, it is now midway through a UK tour, again under Weise’s direction.

Weise evokes a dream-like feel with this neat two-hander, as twists and reveals pepper the piece throughout. At around one hour forty minutes and no interval, this play needs to hold our attention. This is achieved, save for a faltering section as the dust settles on a bizarre comic interlude around two-thirds of the way through (I am trying to avoid several spoilers here!). Thoughtful lighting by Lizzie Powell adds to the bewitching feel, and Rajha Shakiry’s sparse, period design enhances the mood.

Obisesan shows both the stature and infallibility of Dr King with grace and conviction, missing his wife but enjoying the sass and sparkle Camae brings to his room, along with his coffee. Rose commands the stage, loud and unsuffering of fools, but there’s a soothing edge to her spirited behaviour.

Although not normally a fan of a montage, in this case, Rose delivers a dynamic monologue as the play closes. Images of key points in the civil rights movement and US life and politics since King’s assassination are her backdrop, with emotional reminders that “the baton passes on”.

Each stage in The Mountaintop’s performing life seems to punctuate where America is at: a time of new hope, born at the start of Obama’s presidency. In 2016, #BlackLivesMatter is a significant movement, and another election looms. And here we are in 2018, difficulties with a very different President, yet a record number of black women elected to Congress. It feels that for every positive step forward with the baton, there are baton drops and divisive steps back.

Whilst The Mountaintop focuses on one man and one event, now over 50 years ago, this play will and should always serve as a mirror reflecting how America moves on with its troubled relationship with racism and civil rights. A great vehicle for ongoing discussion post-performance, not only about the production itself but the wider political context.

Images by Helen Murray

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Sensory time travel (and a recipe for challah)

It’s funny how a taste, a scent, a snatch of a song chorus can carry you back in time to a specific point in your life, often childhood. Not always a good place of course, however, I like to be positive so I’m going for happy memories here.

I saw Kindertransport at Nottingham Playhouse recently, a production both uplifting and heartbreaking with Diane Samuels’ depiction of German Jewish children sent off alone into a perilous world before the outbreak of World War II as their best chance of survival. The play considers how these momentous events affected the child, Eva, her mother who stayed in Germany, and Eva’s new ‘mother’ in England during and after the war. I found this such a difficult dilemma to contemplate, but those at the time had to take action. Love, identity and faith are also strong themes, leading on to recent discoveries in my own family.

My brother-in-law is researching our genealogy and recently updated us on his findings relating to my maternal grandmother, Nana (Eileen), and her family, the Bates.

Eileen Bates married Max Lewin, my grandfather, and converted to his Jewish faith (love and faith trumping the politics of the time). Max was born in London, his parents having fled Russia in the late 1800s. My memories of holidays in their Sussex home in the 1970s include trips to the kosher shop for exotic items such as curd cheese, borscht and challah, the sweet, brioche-like bread traditionally eaten on the Sabbath.

Nana (seated, centre) and her sisters

Nana’s brothers and sisters (a total of eight children) had a leaning towards show business, enjoying careers as dancers and music hall entertainers, a bare-back elephant rider in a circus, and a Hollywood B movie actress. More investigation is needed here, and sadly, these exciting careers never seemed to be something we discussed at family get-togethers. I have so many questions now.

However, for now, back to food. I’ve been making different types of bread recently, and in honour of my Jewish heritage, have had a go at challah. I tried this recipe by Joan Callaway; my second attempt was better (image from the first loaf). I made half the quantity stated (as this makes two large plaited loaves which, for a rich bread is hard going for just us). At the second making, I made the half quantity into two smaller plaits, one of which is now in the freezer. I found I needed a lot more flour as this is a sticky dough and a food mixer would have been welcome (as mentioned in a previous post, get this woman a Kitchen Aid!).  It also seemed to need a longer prove, about two hours.

Beaten egg painted on the loaf before baking gives a lovely, shiny conker-like shine. And when I tasted it, it’s heavy sweetness, I was back in the seemingly endless hot Sussex summers of the ’70s with my Nana and Grandpa. Lovely.


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Fly Half – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide 

Fly Half
written and performed by Gary Lagden
Music composed and performed by Gareth Moulton
Directed by Geoff Bullen
Upstairs at the Western, 25 October 2018

Don’t let the simplicity and minimalism of the staging detract from the power and colour of Gary Lagden’s Fly Half, his paean to rugby’s beauty and brutality. This is an absorbing almost-hour-long performance, with a capacity audience held captive by Lagden’s South Wales lilt.

Lagden is both writer and performer and he tells the story of Darren, who, like many in his South Welsh community, combine their day job in the steel industry with living and breathing rugby. Darren watches the game with friends, is a player for a time and glows with pride as his son seems destined for a great playing career in the prestigious No 10 shirt of the fly half—in his view, the only position which requires a player to think on the rugby pitch.

Fly Half deftly charts rugby’s metamorphosis from the old-style punch of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (“my hard bits into your soft bits”), to the professionalism and perfect physiques of the modern game.

It is beautifully written—an extended poem, a free verse epic utilising the alliterative tricks and phrasing of Dylan Thomas to provide a rich, aural experience: “him, battered and bruised and beaming”, and “this lifeblood of our land, the crack and thwack of metal and furnace”. Darren’s thuggish adversary Barry, now weak and ill, was not going gently and Darren’s closing rage against the death of the game he loves creates new interpretations of Thomas’s potent poem on loss.

Arriving in his ill-fitting, “best” suit, apparently for a funeral, he is accompanied by on-stage musician Gareth Moulton’s ghostly guitar. There is an eerie quality to this performance, this time evoking Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Again, the skill of the writing is such that all is not explained; we learn of Darren’s life with his wife Sian, his passion for rugby and pride in his son yet not all ends are tied.

Moulton’s musical interludes provide breaks in play, his acoustic songs more a garnish to the narrative rather than driving it forward and providing room for the character, and audience, to pause and reflect.

Humour and pathos are ever-present and, whether you are a rugby fan or not, the excitement of playing and supporting your team, the thrill and anticipation of gathering for match day are vividly drawn.

The play toured rugby clubs in Wales in 2017 and has now begun a tour of venues and rugby clubs over autumn and winter—the content and minimal staging make this a perfect fit for a pre-match warm up event at any rugby club in the country.

Director Geoff Bullen keeps things simple, and wisely lets Lagden’s words and skilful delivery speak for themselves. Fly Half is both love song and lament; loss of the free flowing, fast-punching game to a more health and safety conscious, corporate approach, of the dying of industry in a community, and love and loss for family and friends.

A fitting and moving tribute to rugby’s pre-professional game.

Image by Keith Turner

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Calendar Girls The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers and The Schubert Organisation presents
Calendar Girls The Musical
by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth
Directed by Matt Ryan
De Montfort Hall, Leicester
16 October – 20 October

“Musical comedies aren’t written, they are re-written,” says Tim Firth, co-writer of Calendar Girls The Musical, and quoting Stephen Sondheim. Firth must be very familiar with the editing process: he co-wrote the 2003 film Calendar Girls, on which this musical is basedas well as the stage play which premièred in Chichester in 2008 before transferring to the West End in 2009.

Calendar Girls The Musical is a reworking of Firth and co-writer Gary Barlow’s The Girls, which ran for six months in the West End in 2017.

This latest production began a 30-week UK tour in Leeds in August and is based on the true story of one Yorkshire Women’s Institute group’s innovative and phenomenally successful method of raising money for a local hospital and charity following the death of a member’s husband.

Set in Knapeley, a small village in the Yorkshire Dales, the opening number “Yorkshire” immediately sets the tone of the whole show, serving as an anthem to the close-knit community’s green and pleasant land, and an introduction to the characters and their relationships. Robert Jones’s set is simple—the rolling Dales are the permanent backdrop, and we definitely know where we are.

There is charming and believable chemistry between lifelong friends Annie (Anna-Jane Casey) and Chris (Rebecca Storm) forming the core of this story. Following the death of Annie’s husband John (Phil Corbitt), her WI group resolves to help Annie raise money for a settee for the hospital after she endured many uncomfortable hours during visits. Chris’s idea of a nude calendar doesn’t go down well initially, however, as the group work through their individual insecurities (including issues with competitive scone-making), their final scenes of disrobing make for a triumphant climax.

By this time, we are with the actors all the way; the love and support for them swells the auditorium as artful poses are struck with buns, jam-making equipment, knitting and other WI-standard fare. Release, empowerment, taking control in an emotional journey—it’s all here.

A strong ensemble cast includes many powerhouses of British TV and stage, all impressive, but a special mention for Ruth Madoc as Jessie who gets the bulk of the best lines, delivers them with comic aplomb and sings a show-stopping “What Age Expects”.

Holding their own in amongst such star-studded company are the younger blood: Danny (Danny Howker), Tommo (Tyler Dobbs) and Jenny (Isabel Caswell), teenage children of Chris, Cora (Karen Dunbar) and Marie (Fern Britton) respectively, and an interesting counterpoint to the more middle-aged themes. This adds to the feeling of the continuance of a community; life goes on, after all.

There is something of Victoria Wood about the earthy and down-to-earth humour which saves this from being overly sentimental—it’s all relatable, witty and grounded and the style of Barlow’s songwriting suits the piece. He describes it as a patchwork quilt of songs and I feel this is right in that they sit well together, songs don’t necessarily stand out individually but work as a whole. Several are recitative, or sung-through dialogue, allowing a character’s thoughts to be shared.

As you might expect with a show about a calendar, there is a strong sense of how our lives are measured by marking time in different ways: anniversaries and traditions, the length of a friendship, when we want time to slow down and stop, the changing seasons, how to get from one day to the next when coping with grief and loss.

It has been said “join the WI for fun, friendship and enlightenment”, and Calendar Girls The Musical captures this spirit with warmth, humour and humanity.

Image provided by venue

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Another royal wedding? Let them eat cake (and bread and soup)

May 2018: warm and sunny for Meghan and Harry’s wedding.

October 2018: strangely warm, rather windy for Eugenie and Jack’s wedding.

Two happy couples, but of slightly more practical interest to me, two wedding cakes.

You might recall, H and M opted for a spring-like lemon and elderflower, my own version here.

E and J went for a red velvet cake. Unusual? Perhaps, and something of a newish phenomenon in the UK. I’ve been intrigued by this cake, although whenever sampled in a cafe it’s always seemed rather dry and disappointing.

I had questions: do you use beetroot? Yes, you can but it’s not vital. Is it a chocolate cake? Yes, kind of.

Looks like it’s time to have a go at another royal wedding cake.

After some hunting around, I tried this recipe from Georgina Hayden from Jamie Oliver’s team of chefs. She gives some background to the history of the cake and explains the ‘science bit’ (i.e. buttermilk, white wine vinegar, bicarbonate of soda).

I have to admit it is a bit of a faff, however, worth it for a special occasion cake. The texture is definitely velvety, it’s dense yet light, moist – all those wonderfully sensuous words and I love the hint of chocolate from the cocoa. The red colour during the mixing process is a little disconcerting, but all adds to the air of excitement!

As this was made on a bit of a whim, I didn’t have quite the right ingredients for the recommended icing, but next time I will be going the whole hog with cream cheese frosting.

Bread and a new soup

I’ve also been getting into bread making over the last couple of months. So far I have been following some of the recipes in Mary Berry’s Baking Bible with success (white loaf, cottage loaf, dinner rolls, soda bread). I love the science bit of the bread making process: sticky dough turning to smooth, application of elbow grease, the miracle of expansion, the golden crust as a loaf emerges in triumph from the oven.

With a royal wedding cake in the bag,  it seemed like the perfect time to make Mary’s bread crown. Great for tearing and sharing, and perfect with a new soup recipe I came up with, as ever out of necessity.

Trying to make room in the freezer, I took a 1kg bag of frozen cauliflower and broccoli florets. Soften a chopped onion, add a potato (peeled and chopped) and the bag of frozen veg, add enough stock to cover. With the lid on, let the soup bubble away for 20 mins or so, blend and season. Add water from the kettle if it’s too thick – this should make a good six portions or so of soup.

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Joygernaut – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

written and performed by Andy Craven-Griffiths
Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester

Joy – what is it good for? Most would likely agree the answer is ‘quite a lot’, and as we wade our way through the negativity of the news, where is the joy in life?

Joygernaut aims to recalibrate our joy compass by re-connecting with kindness, both giving and receiving. Poet Andy Craven-Griffiths spent 12 months researching, gathering words and acts of kindness to create a one-man, one-hour (and a bit) exploration of our individual, and society’s, response to this undervalued concept. 

Entering the Main Hall of Attenborough Arts, you can feel ripples of audience-participation-fear: jokes written on A4 paper placed on random chairs, chairs in a horseshoe formation with a flip chart as a central point. Have we stumbled into a weekly ‘we’re so wacky here’ sales meeting?

As it turns out, it’s all fine as Andy asks us to write down our best insult word in our biggest writing, then hold it up for all to see. A cathartic experience, and some impressively creative compound words are noted. A picture of a house was also requested, which again was a nicely diverting exercise.

Joygernaut features an eventful week in the life of My Name which includes a competition with a work colleague for a new role combined with an awkward boxing bout with his boss, trying to get back with an ex-girlfriend, and negotiating life’s many other competitive situations. Stressful and exhausting, events spiral out of control leading to a reassessment.

Craven-Griffiths is a skilled performer and storyteller, dynamic and engaging throughout. The space is used well, performance pace is just right, and day and scene changes are marked with effective lighting design. Props and devices are clever: a sketchpad for the young boy neighbour, a bar complete with pints drawn on the flip chart. Audience participation is also used to good effect with a handful of individuals used briefly as characters, and whilst this story is very much contemporary, the charisma of Andy’s performance keeps the diverse audience on side and engaged.

Through colourful and contemporary language and phrasing (by this I mean colloquialisms and imagery, not swearing), Andy has some great turns of phrase:

power makes a man of you

an old smell over a wrong smell

a visitor in my own world

closing the barn door after the horse is in the glue factory

My Name makes the mistake of believing our intrinsic value is based on how much we earn, what car we drive and how we are perceived by others, rather than looking out for one another. His exchanges with his young neighbour are touching, and there is something of an echo of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, namely an adult at last growing up thanks to their interaction with a much younger and seemingly less mature person – looking at the world through different eyes.

I think it was a coincidence that this performance came a day after World Mental Health Day, however, it is relevant always. Statistics surrounding high levels of suicides, particularly amongst men, are mentioned during the performance, and serve as a reminder about the importance of not suffering in silence, and of having an honest conversation. Listening. Joy and kindness lead on from this, and as advocated by the experts, they are all good for our mental health.

Endings can be tricky and as the show comes to a conclusion, this final segment seems a good five minutes too long; by this point we know where the story is heading and, compared to the ambiguity and the ‘things left unsaid’ being one of the strong points of the play, this comes across as a bit too tidy and over-explained.  This could also be a subject which lapses into trite, preachy sentimentality – it doesn’t thankfully, reflecting the strength of the writing.  A rousing finish, of which we are all a part, sends us out into the night with renewed positivity, and certainly in my case, a chance to reassess and recalibrate my own compass. 

PS I’m not aware there are currently other performances planned in the near future, but worth keeping an eye through the usual channels, as detailed at the foot of the Joygernaut website (and including interesting guest blogs from writers such as Inua Ellams and Vanessa Kisuule). 

Image by Sara Teresa

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Cilla The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Bill Kenright and Laurie Mansfield present
Cilla The Musical
by Jeff Pope
Directed by Bill Kenwright
Curve Theatre, Leicester 9 – 13 October

Everyone loved Cilla Black, or at least felt they knew her: flame-haired girl next door, a diamond in the rough, forever proud of her Northern credentials. She had a belter of a voice, and was a charming performer and hostess in front of a live audience and a TV camera.

A graduate of Liverpool’s beat scene, rising from coat check attendant at The Cavern Club to super-celebrity status, Cilla’s story is a classic rags-to-riches journey out of Merseyside. Pleased with award-winning writer Jeff Pope’s 2014 TV drama Cilla (starring Sheridan Smith), the real Cilla gave her blessing to Pope and executive producer Robert Willis (her son) to go ahead with a stage version. Sadly, she died in 2015 before she saw this version of her life story, but it has proved popular with audiences since its opening in September 2017.

If you’re a fan of Cilla’s music and the sounds of the swinging ‘60s, you’ll not be disappointed. The company perform many of the musical numbers on stage, with Cilla’s mates John, Paul, George, and Ringo (Michael Hawkins, Joe Etherington, Alex Harford and Bill Caple respectively) particularly entertaining. All the hits of the era are here, pop pickers: The Beatles’ versions of “Twist and Shout” and “Roll Over Beethoven” and Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “I Like It”.

However, this is a show all about Cilla and Kara Lily Hayworth delivers her songbook with power and passion, as well as an impressive representation of her Mersey vowels. Unfortunately, the sound balance didn’t seem right with the band overpowering Hayworth’s strong vocals during many of the songs. As a result, the quieter “Liverpool Lullaby” is easier to appreciate, rather than the power ballads such as “You’re My World” for which Cilla is more well known.

It comes as a surprise that, considering Pope’s great skill as a writer on TV, stage and film (PhilomenaLucan and Little Boy Blue), the dialogue is clichéd, telling the action rather than showing it—rather too many “I feel so nervous”, “this is everything you’ve ever dreamed of”, and “this is a moment I’ll always remember”. There are a handful of running gags, but these have a rather flippant tone.

Cilla The Musical covers the period from her discovery at The Cavern Club in the early 1960s to her first BBC TV series in 1967. We also meet Bobby Willis (Alexander Patmore), her on/off manager (second fiddle to Brian Epstein), who became her husband in 1969.

Bobby is devoted to Cilla who seems unsure of her feelings for him. Her famed steely resolve surfaces when she demands he sacrifices his own singing career to look after hers. I found Patmore shows the greater determination here, sure that he must be with Cilla despite her wavering. Perhaps surprisingly, Hayworth and Patmore’s duet of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” feels the most emotional expression of their relationship.

Andrew Lancel gives a pained performance as the troubled Brian Epstein and his one solo number “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” provides a limited opportunity to hear his good voice.

Through use of light-rigged high proscenium arches and teak sliding walls, Gary McCann’s set manages to convey the contrasts between Cilla’s humble beginnings living above a barber shop to her triumphant performances live at the London Palladium. The Cavern Club scenes are enjoyable, although the cramped intimacy, heat and sweat of this iconic venue has more of a roomy, airy feel in this production.

Take this show for what it is: a chance to hear some of the great popular songs of the ’60s, sung well and performed with heart and exuberance.

Postscript: hats off to wigs designer, Richard Mawbey. All the cast wear one at some point during the show and, whilst I’m not sure what the collective noun for wigs might be (a forelock, or maybe a crown?), this is a fine collection.

Images by Matt Martin


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