Fleabag – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

DryWrite and Soho Theatre present
by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
directed by Vicky Jones
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman monologue Fleabag has been on one hec of a journey: first performed by Waller-Bridge at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, the show then toured the UK, was made into a six-part TV series for BBC3, transferred to BBC2 and then Amazon Prime in 2016. Throw in a successful foray to the US, a clutch of awards including a BAFTA  and an Olivier nomination, and Waller-Bridge’s “confessions of a millennial” franchise has come of age.

A revival of the original 60-minute monologue—this time with Maddie Rice as Fleabag who took on the role at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe—is midway through a short UK tour.

We root for our not fully reliable narrator Fleabag from the start; we cringe as a wardrobe malfunction gets a job interview off to a disastrous start, we sympathise and empathise as we learn of the loss of her mother, her tricky relationship with her dad, the death of her best friend Boo (also co-owner of their cash-strapped guinea-pig themed cafe) and we laugh with her as she describes the anthropomorphic antics of Hilary, Boo’s guinea pig. We combine all these emotions as we witness her voracious appetite for sex (including enthusiastic top-ups from Porn Hub). It’s full-on, full-frontal, gross-out funny.

But this is really a study of love, loss and loneliness. Fleabag hasn’t quite realised what she’s searching for, thinking her worth is measured only by her ability to make a man want to have sex with her.

Working one of drama’s key tenets, namely comedy and tragedy are so good together, Waller-Bridge keeps us engaged and on-side with skill, despite some shocking reveals. Rice is charismatic, her in-your-face delivery of Fleabag’s experiences with men, menstruation and masturbation beautifully tempered by masterful use of pauses and half-finished sentences.

Vicky Jones’s direction has the pace just right and, overall, this is a perfect package for fringe theatre: a simple set of a stool on a red square on a raised plinth, minimal movement, lighting and sound design just right (Elliot Griggs and Isobel Waller-Bridge respectively). I say fringe; however, this show is at Curve for five performances in the almost-300 seater Studio, sometimes the main house of other venues on the tour, and a reflection of its success onscreen.

These are the musings of a twenty-something who has grown up with selfies, sexting and swiping left or right, yet does not alienate those for whom these phenomena may have passed them by, such is its grounding in base, human emotions (and bodily functions).

Fleabag offers masterclasses in tight, controlled writing, skilled storytelling and comic delivery. In short, painfully funny, painfully poignant.

Images by Richard Davenport

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Love from a Stranger – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Fiery Angel and Royal and Derogate Northampton present
Agatha Christie’s Love From a Stranger
by Agatha Christie and Frank Vesper
directed by Lucy Bailey
Curve Theatre, Leicester

If you happen to have an Aunt Lou Lou in your life, listen to her. Although something of a Lady Bracknell-esque character and comedic relief in Agatha Christie’s thriller Love from a Stranger, it turns out Auntie has a knack for sniffing out a wrong ‘un.

Christie’s work is enjoying something of a renaissance, what with the high glamour of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 movie remake of Murder on the Orient Express and the BBC’s chilling TV adaptation of And Then There Were None in 2015.

Perhaps a surprising nugget of information regarding Ms Christie is that she is the most successful female playwright of all time. Writer of 20 plays, not least the West End marathon The Mousetrap (now in its 66th year), she is still likely to be more well known as a novelist; synonymous with crime and detection, although her focus is always on the why and the who rather than police procedure.

And Love from a Stranger is totally relationship driven. Based on Christie’s 1934 short story Philomel Cottage, she adapted it for the stage with further embellishments by Frank Vosper, opening in the West End in 1936. Now, and following success with her revival of Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution), director Lucy Bailey gives this Fiery Angel and Royal and Derngate Northampton touring co-production a re-boot, re-setting it in 1958. Save for a few references and costume changes, however, it could be set any time thanks to its central themes of control, coercion and humankind’s innate fallibility.

Bored and uninspired by the thought of marrying her staid and dependable fiancé Michael (Justin Avoth), newly-minted Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) calls off the engagement in search of a more adventurous and spontaneous life, the intermittent but insistent ticking of a clock a significant background noise. With immaculate timing, enter charming American Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), interested in renting Cecily’s flat but, as the audience quickly discovers, with more sinister plans in mind.

Mike Britton’s ingenious set enables us to see what Cecily doesn’t—the shifting walls and rooms literally changing our perspective and viewpoint. Not knowing Bruce is a peeping Tom with an unhealthy interest in her lingerie, Cecily falls quick and hard for this stranger, and is soon Mrs Lovell.

We must believe prim and proper Cecily will do this, and Bradbury and Frenchum convince as a couple who fall in love at first sight, he seemingly providing all the freedom and escape she is craving. Frenchum’s penetrating male gaze is chilling, but irresistible. My reservations about Cecily’s actions niggle: why would a woman of newly-independent means seeking a different life marry and settle down so quickly? Still, this is 1958 not 2018 of course, and when under sexual tension’s intoxicating spell, you’ll do anything.

Aided by judicious use of screens and blackouts, Oliver Fenwick’s clever lighting and Richard Hammarton’s unnerving sound design, Bailey directs this thriller with aplomb, building tension and moving matters along with controlled pace. The supporting cast work well, including Nicola Sanderson’s imperious Aunt Louise Garrard, and rather fruity maid Ethel (Molly Logan), all asking questions, sprinkling clues and firing the odd smoking gun.

Don’t think too hard about the plot (although it makes for a lively post-show discussion), this is an absorbing and unsettling thriller, packing an erotic charge and with a corker of a climax.

Images by Sheila Burnett

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The Little Mermaid – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Northern Ballet presents
The Little Mermaid
Director and choreography by David Nixon
Music by Sally Beamish
Curve Theatre, Leicester

After Northern Ballet’s 2017 world première of its new ballet The Little Mermaid in Southampton, the national tour is brought to a close for 2018 at Curve in land-locked Leicester.

Taking the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story as its inspiration, rather than the more child-friendly 1989 animation, this is a tale of love, pain and sacrifice, and for which there is no sprinkle of Disney fairy dust to ensure a happy-ever-after ending for our protagonist.

Marilla (Abigail Prudames) and her mermaid sisters (Aileen Ramos Betancourt and Miki Akuta) are a little like marine magpies, collecting trinkets discarded or lost in the sea by humans. Marilla falls in love with an image of Prince Adair (Joseph Taylor) from a locket and, after saving him after his ship sinks in a storm, determines she must become human to be with him on land. After taking a potion from Lyr, Lord of the Sea (Matthew Topliss), Marilla gives up her voice and tail in exchange for legs, her new limbs awkward and painful.

By then, Adair has fallen in love with Dana (Dreda Blow), believing her to have been the woman who saved him. Marilla must watch in silence as Adair and Dana marry. Although her sisters provide her with one last chance to return to the sea by ending Adair’s life, Marilla sacrifices her own for Adair’s happiness with Dana.

Choreography and direction by David Nixon, Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Kimie Nakano’s design combine beautifully, creating magical underwater effects in this stylish ballet. We dive into a mystical world of ethereal sirens, mermaids carried high above the corps de ballet, swimming in the waves of the Water Men and Women’s skirts. The attention to detail in movement is stunning: tiny flicks of the fingers as fins, hands and arms swaying gently, suspended in water.

Two shimmering, pearlised underwater edifices switch around to become rough, craggy rocks on land, perfectly depicting the contrast between Marilla’s two worlds.

The storm scenes are thrilling and dramatic as sailors are picked off the ship, dragged under and carried away by the pull of the storm. On land, wedding guests dance a ceilidh reel, the men resplendent in brocade-trimmed kilts.

Blow and Taylor’s pas de deux are innocent, tender and playful. Topliss is a commanding Lyr, his demeanor strong and definite as he pushes proudly through his watery kingdom. This though is the story of the little mermaid, and Prudames shines as Marilla, her hopes turning to physical and emotional pain and tragedy. Her quivers and fluidity underwater contrast with her awkward ‘otherness’ on land.

After Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which also premièred in 2017, The Little Mermaid is more coherent as a concept, and certainly as a ballet. Whilst Sally Beamish’s dramatic score reinforces the Celtic themes in elements of the costume design, there is occasional discord between score and story. The narrative is clear in the main, although reference to the synopsis in the excellent programme prior to act 2 may help, particularly with younger audience members.

A sensuous and absorbing telling of a classic fairy tale.

Images by Emma Kauldhar


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The Last Ship – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Karl Sydow and Kathryn Schenker in association with Northern Stage present 
The Last Ship
Music and lyrics by Sting
Book and director Lorne Campbell
Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Described as Sting’s “personal, passionate and political” musical, The Last Ship feels like a love song to this global rock star’s Geordie childhood, as well as a lament to the shipbuilding past of the North East.

Now at its third location on a 12-stop UK tour, this musical has been several years in the making; originally, and somewhat inexplicably for such a peculiarly British show, opening on Broadway in 2014 for a short run, then revived and re-launched in 2017 with new producers Karl Sydow, Kathryn Schenker in association with the Northern Stage, opening at its ‘home’ venue earlier this year.

The Last Ship tells the tale of shipbuilding town Wallsend, where the heavy plant construction of the latest ship towers over the terraced streets. A young Gideon Fletcher wants no part of this and runs away to the Navy, away from home and his sweetheart Meg (unaware she is pregnant by him). He returns 17 years later to Thatcher’s Britain, the shipbuilders on strike, Meg now owner of several businesses and a daughter Ellen, who wants to escape to London with her band.

The shipbuilders have almost completed a new vessel, Utopia, a symbolically significant name given the government and the company owners deem the ship is too costly to sell and should now be dismantled for scrap. As the health of their stoic foreman Jackie White deteriorates, the community takes action to try to save the ship and their town.

As we hear at the start, this community are “the tellers, not the telled”, and the Wallsend story they tell is typical of many nationalised industries of the 1980s at the mercy of political ideology and the marketplace.

Sting’s lyrics and Lorne Campbell’s book have a poetic strength, although frequently veer into simplistic, predictable rhyming couplets, occasional cheesy sentiment and stereotypical characters. That said, the choral power of Sting’s music gives this show real heart and soul, with stunning vocal arrangements and songs mainly in a folk style (often accompanied with emphatic stamping), along with a few jazz, soul and Latin-inspired numbers.

59 Productions’ design is a key element to this production, evoking coastal, crashing waves, the community church’s stillness and arched grandeur, as well as the cranes and metalwork of Tyneside’s skyline. On-stage projections are an effective addition to many shows currently, and this is one of the best I’ve seen.

A busy stage, the cast of 18 (and just-on-stage band of five) all deliver strong performances, dynamic and full of energy. Whilst this is very much a male-dominated industry, I found the female relationships and performances of more interest, particularly Frances McNamee’s independent, proud Meg nuanced with her fears for her daughter Ellen, a spirited performance by Katie Moore doubling as narrator.

Charlie Hardwick as Jackie’s wife Peggy is tender, but strong when she needs to be, and her scenes with Joe McGann (Jackie) are sincere and convincing as a long-married couple. Richard Fleeshman (Gideon) sings in a similar style to Sting, not a bad thing but an interesting reflection of his position as returning local boy having made his name elsewhere in the world.

As the musical nears its end, the plot is in danger of floundering on the rocks of cliché and implausibility, however, a rousing speech by Moore (notwithstanding a rather left-field plea to “save our NHS”) and a storming, stomping finale bring this ship home to a heartwarming conclusion.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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The Siren Club – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Young Company presents
The Siren Club
Written and directed by Sarah Ingram
Choreography by Melanie Knott and Darren Bennett
Musical director Stephen Waterhouse (CYC) and Lucy Wass (RSA)

“Let’s sing, dance and fall in love like tomorrow never comes.”

These are the inviting words of MC and host at The Siren Club, Archie Wells. When tomorrow does come for Archie, he’ll leave his tuxedo and Blighty behind for the uniform of the 8th Army and the Second World War’s latest recruit.

In this second production by CYC Musicals, one of the Curve Young Company programmes for 7- to 25-year-olds, the cast and professional creatives supporting them have devised and choreographed The Siren Club; it’s 1942 and the last night of freedom for the 8th Army’s new recruits. Predominantly through song and dance, moments of lives on the cusp of huge change and danger are presented—a rushed proposal, a young soldier besotted with a nightclub singer, young beaus and their girls enjoying the music to help them forget what’s coming.

Set out like a dance hall with cabaret seating and walls adorned with cheeky posters of the period (“Let’s catch him with his panzers down”), the cast of 33 perform around us, dancing to the Siren Club band (the accomplished Robert Smyth Academy Big Band).

Writer and director Sarah Ingram, together with choreographers Mel Knott and Darren Bennett (currently busy at Curve, combining this with his performances in An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical) wanted the cast to experience performance beyond the fourth wall, encouraging performers to research and devise their characters and remain in character throughout. Actors sometimes ask for the pleasure of a dance with an audience member, or swing and execute the odd acrobatic tumble to many classics of the era: “Little Brown Jug”, “Pennysylvania 6-5000” and “In the Mood”.

There is something of a backlash currently to use of the word ‘immersive’, yet many productions now boast an immersive element to their shows; it will certainly be a useful skill for aspiring triple-threaters. As an audience member, I found this immersion a thrill to be in amongst the energy of this group of talented performers, dancing to the big band sound and getting proceedings after the interval off to a pulsing start with Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”.

Finlay Watkinson plays a smooth and debonair Archie Wells, in control of the night from the start. Mialuca Backus is mature and sultry as nightclub singer Miss Ruby, and Carmen Farrell’s performance of a poem leading into the “White Cliffs of Dover” cuts through the nightclub vibe with a poignant yet beautifully optimistic delivery to bring the evening to an end.

There are two stark reminders of why we’re all here: suddenly ushered out at the interval as the air raid siren wails (a chilling sound no matter your age), and closing with young men marching out to their fate as their girls cry and wave them off, the actors themselves not far in age behind those who did it for real.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Jamie Wilson with Galvin Kalin, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Anthony Clare and Broadway Baby Productions with Curve present
An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical
Book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen
Directed by Nikolai Foster
at Curve Theatre, Leicester

Iconic’ has become one of those over-worked words used to describe just about anything, however, the final scene in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman fits the definition: a giddy mix of a man in uniform, his motorbike and a kiss-and-make-up moment, all set to the karaoke favourite “Up Where We Belong”. It gets me every time at least.

Douglas Day Stewart, writer of the original screenplay, has joined forces with co-writer Sharleen Cooper Cohen and Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster to bring this tale of emotional muscle and US military might over here and onto Curve’s main stage for its world première as a musical. The show is soon embarking on an extensive UK tour at 19 venues, banging on the door for a West End transfer.

Set in Pensacola, Florida in 1982, as Reaganomic policies sowed the seeds for those now feeling forgotten and left behind by their government, this is a gritty examination of relatable characters trying to escape drudgery and demons.

Any worries that using pop hits from the 1980s as the basis for the musical numbers would show jukebox musicals at their worst are soon dispelled. Musical supervisor Sarah Travis with George Dyer’s orchestrations and musical director Michael Riley have, in the main, successfully woven songs such as Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Blaze of Glory” into the narrative in new, sympathetic arrangements. Even Madonna’s perma-annoying “Material Girl” now works for me in this interpretation.

Another key component of this musical is Douglas O’Connell’s projection design, representing vast areas of land, sea and air effectively and with style, as well as a useful vehicle for several flashbacks.

US Navy Officer Cadet Zack Mayo (a brooding Jonny Fines) is wound tight, scarred by his abusive father and nomadic upbringing, and now squaring up to Drill Instructor Foley (Ray Shell). Hooking up with Paula Pokrifki (Emma Williams), she’s just looking for fun and escape from her factory job and thwarted dreams of becoming a nurse. It’s a rocky road, but they fall in love. Williams is edgy and believable, and delivers a storming performance of Heart’s “Alone”.

Zack’s cadet buddy Sid (Ian McIntosh), weighed down by family expectations, doesn’t read Lynette’s (Jessica Daley) signs that she’s after an officer to fulfil her dreams of status and world travel. These four characters’ scenes during “I Wanna Know What Love Is” with their varying connotations are beautifully staged, and McIntosh’s performance in “Family Man” is heartfelt and tragic.

There are moments, however, where it feels static and “stand and deliver” a song. That said, events move at a cracking pace and Fines in particular copes well with a supremely physical role. Choreography is a little patchy, although “Jody Call” is clever (and contains my first experience of equations set to music).

Fans of the film and 1980s poodle rock are likely to help this tour sell well and, judging by its reception so far in Leicester, is going down well with audiences. The focus on characters you care about ensures that those not familiar with life in the ‘80s should also get something from this show.

Raunchy and raw and remaining true to the film, this story has bags of ambition—not only the characters’ aspirations and Michael Taylor’s technically challenging set, but Curve’s own hopes for the tour (and the latest in their film-to-stage musical adaptations).

Whatever your feelings regarding the musical interpretations, (spoiler alert), the finale is a real crowd-pleaser as Zack appears—his white officer’s uniform free of motorbike oil and beautifully pressed—to carry Paula off and up where they belong. Bring tissues.

Images by Manuel Harlon

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Handlooms – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Rasa and Contact Theatre present
by Rani Moorthy
directed by Alan Lane
at Anokhi House of Sarees (via Curve Theatre, Leicester)

“A chaos of colour” is how writer Rani Moorthy describes the traditional sari shops she remembers on her arrival in Britain in the mid-1990s.

She aims to incorporate this in her new play Handlooms, programmed by Curve Theatre but performed as a site-specific piece at Anokhi House of Sarees on Leicester’s renowned Golden Mile (and following performances in March in their sister shop Alankar House of Sarees in Manchester). The Golden Mile on Belgrave Road is widely recognised as the centre of Leicester’s Asian community, and is home to a multitude of shops selling silks, gold jewellery, and Indian sweets and savouries.

As an immersive (and non-seated) piece, we wear headphones during the hour-long performance and are encouraged to wander around the shop whilst the actors tell the story of Rajesh (Ashraf Ejjbair) and his mother Neeta (Rani Moorthy), owners of their sari business Handlooms.

Times are hard as customers now take their business online, and women now seem to wear their sari on special occasions, no longer an everyday garment “to do their chores”. Worried about the state of Handlooms’ finances, Neeta is frustrated by her son’s idealistic focus on creativity and craft over volume of sales. Matters come to a head when Neeta takes on Seeta, a young refugee from Sri Lanka, to make sari blouses, even though this runs the risk of a visit from the Immigration Office.

This could not be more pertinent, considering our treatment of immigrants and refugees and how this is portrayed in the media, but Handlooms also provides an opportunity to consider the cultural shifts in life as a British Asian across the generations. Clashes within cultures feature regularly in drama, however, channelling this through the sari and its changing place in Asian communities makes for an interesting new take on a familiar theme.

The majority of the play takes place on the natural stage provided by the raised, cushioned platform, normally used by shop assistants to show off the vast array of fabrics to brides, mothers, mothers-in-law et al.

Throughout the performance, Rajesh and Neeta take sari silks in a rainbow of colours, sequins and designs—throwing them out to reveal their detail to then carefully re-fold them, sometimes dressing themselves in the sari or returning the fabric to a neat square, working individually or together, mother and son; a mesmerizing love song to the sari.

Ejjbair plays Rajesh as calm and empathetic towards his female clientele, particularly in an amusing scene in the changing room with one of his more senior customers. He is a quiet foil to his outspoken, practical mother, and Moorthy’s monologue describing Seeta’s eventual deportation has emotional power. Scenes with Rajesh’s childhood streetwise friend Asha (Riana Duce) add humour and further examples of changing views within Asian communities living in Britain. The dénouement, as Rajesh fully embraces the freedoms he feels are represented by the sari, is handled sensitively (although perhaps a bit too tidily).

I am not convinced the headphones are necessary; yes, they add to the idea of an immersive performance, however, I found them uncomfortable, the actors are miked and the shop isn’t so large the actors are ‘lost’. There are also places where exposition tells rather than shows, however, the poetic language is enjoyable throughout, especially when combined with the dazzling sari fabrics, whose “silk is as soft as cocoa butter”.

Images by Lee Baxter

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