Taking tea with Alan Bennett

This feature first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Who said never meet your heroes? Whoever it was, and whilst they are often right, I’d like to present some evidence to the contrary, specifically a memorable encounter (for me) with Alan Bennett. I greatly admire his work: the pioneering days of Beyond the Fringe, the tragi-comic genius of Talking Heads, the poignancy of The Madness of King George.

Back in May 2013 and just a few months into writing for theatre, I had started reviewing performances for a local publication. Thanks to a generous offer from a contact, I was asked if I would like to attend a regional theatre day at the National Theatre to see Alan Bennett’s People which had opened in October 2012 and was about to embark on a UK tour. There would also be time for tea with Bennett himself. For me, “no” was not an option.

I arranged a day off work, travelled down from Leicester to London, and tried hard to quell the ongoing inner battle between imposter syndrome versus giddy excitement. Arriving embarrassingly early at the NT, I killed time in the café with an overpriced sandwich and nowhere to sit.

Sometime later, the NT’s press officer opened an innocuous looking door and beckoned us—a group of around 25 people—into the inner sanctum of the National Theatre, its grey corridors lined with production images and framed black and white headshots of celebrated actors.

We were led into a large, square room, tables and chairs arranged in a slightly smaller square leaving little room for manoeuvre. Most people had come with a colleague and / or a dictaphone. I felt very alone. My imposter syndrome sensed victory.

Our host, a deadringer for Nicholas Hytner, explained that Alan would come in shortly and be happy to answer questions, although his approaching 80th birthday wasn’t his favourite topic of conversation. Tea and coffee in plastic cups were offered, we were welcome to pour ourselves one.

And then, there he was. Alan Bennett was just like Alan Bennett: witty, chatty, charmingly down to earth with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, unmistakable in his “uniform” of blazer, V-neck jumper, shirt and tie.

Questions came from around the room and the country, his answers were measured but with a light sprinkle of barbs, mainly around the subject of the play: the marketing and monetisation of our heritage and national treasures through organisations such as the National Trust. He gave a modest, self-deprecating response to a question on his status as a national treasure.

We were asked if there were any final questions—my last chance! May, 2013 was “peak furore” between Leicester and York as to who should be burying the recently identified “king in the car park”. I’m a Leicester girl, Mr Bennett is a Yorkshire lad, what was his view of the affair? To my lifelong joy (and relief) he laughed, pondered the question and said he found the whole business “unseemly”. Which is a perfectly Alan Bennett-esque thing to say.

Alan Bennett stood near the door and shook hands with us all as we filed out. Anything after the hour that had just passed was in danger of being an anticlimax, however, what a privilege to see Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett together on the Lyttelton stage amidst Bob Crowley’s towering set of a crumbling old mansion. And, in act 2, an impressive transformation of said set to “luxe” as, against type, Bennett tackles the production of a porn film. Unseemly? No, but, like the day itself, unexpected, humorous and hugely enjoyable.

And how does Alan Bennett take his tea? Milky.

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Stories from Home – review (streamed)

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

In pre-lockdown times, Leicester-based children’s arts organisation The Spark Arts for Children (the Spark) create opportunities for children to get involved in the arts via projects in schools, libraries and venues as well as a seven-day festival of performances and activities in February.

However, that was then. As with many theatre companies, venues and organisations, new ways must be found to connect with audiences. The Spark’s response to our ‘now’ is “Spark at Home”, a range of resources for families. As the country went into lockdown, creatives, particularly those who identify as BAME or Deaf/disabled, were invited to submit proposals for the “Stories from Home” project, to “feed the imagination and encourage you to find the extra-ordinary in the ordinary, and dream endlessly of what can happen at home”.

In an innovative move, and a great way to get children involved in the “backstage” aspect of commissioning work, a panel of 26 children ranked the proposals against set criteria and assembled on Zoom with Spark’s director Adel Al-Salloum and producer Tom Newton. Eight stories were selected, with one released every Wednesday during May and June. One of the stories, Druv’s Magical Land by Santoshi Bobby Mann, has been translated into BSL and is due for release on 17 June.

Three stories are available so far and, at five minutes each, ideal for the CBeebies / early CBBC age group as a bedtime story or to inspire activities during the day.

In Truls, the Turtle by Ines Sampaio (released 6 May), Ines sits on an inviting pile of plush cushions and through a combination of enthusiastic straight-to-camera storytelling, animation and music, tells her story of Truls, an intriguing turtle with a penchant for chillis. This has the feel of an old folk tale, mixing magic and everyday life, and Ines’s use of a handpan (similar to an upturned steel drum) adds to the escapist magic, thanks to its resemblance to a turtle shell.

In Lizzie’s Lockdown, David Parkin tells his story straight to camera, aided (sort of) by his cat Benji who does exactly what cats on the Internet do, i.e. not what their owner wants. Lured by butter, Benji hangs around on screen just long enough to hear about Lizzie, her grumpy Grandma Jean and Benji himself. This is a fun story, told in a relaxed style and with some nice poetic touches.

The latest release, The Fox’s Journey, is by mixed-media artist Tia Chand-Corey. We hear but don’t see Tia as she shares her story about a fox making its way through the much quieter city in lockdown in the early evening. Beautifully illustrated with simple yet sharp images, their colours and fluidity really bring this relatable and thoughtful story to life.

The five-minute format of “Stories from Home” works well, not least to accommodate young attention spans but also long enough to inspire; the Spark is also encouraging young people to create their own stories and submit them for sharing online.

After weeks at home, many parents may well be running low on inspiration on how to keep young children entertained and engaged while living through lockdown. Although well over the target age group, I welcomed the brief escape from the uncertainty and bad news into the writers’ various imagined worlds.

Images by The Spark Arts for Children

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It’s East To Be Dead – streamed review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Bréon George Rydell in association with Amanda Castro for the Finborough Theatre present
It’s Easy To Be Dead
by Neil MacPherson, based on the poems and letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley
Directed by Max Key

Finborough Theatre
 to 

Charles Hamilton Sorley was considered by Robert Graves to be “one of the three poets of importance killed during the War”. Unfathomably, Sorley’s writing has been somewhat overlooked during the later analysis and study of the lives and literature of World War I, however, Neil MacPherson’s play It Is Easy To Be Dead goes a long way to redressing the balance.

Performed as part of the Finborough Theatre’s GreatWar100 series to mark its centenary, MacPherson took Sorley’s letters and poetry to create a fitting tribute to this talented young writer. It Is Easy To Be Dead, a line taken from his no-holds-barred sonnet “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead”, opened at the Finborough in June 2016 to wide acclaim, was nominated for numerous awards and a tour of Scotland followed later that year.

A recording of the performance on 14 July 2016 is now being streamed on YouTube, the first Finborough production to be shown online during the lockdown.

We begin with Sorley’s death in October 1915, as his parents Bill (Tom Marshall) and Janet (Jenny Lee) receive the dreaded telegram from the Front. Originally from Aberdeenshire, the Sorleys now live in Cambridge where Bill is an academic and Janet a supporter of the suffrage movement. All they now have of Charlie are his letters and poems and these, along with music of the period by British and German composers, video projection and Sorley himself (Alexander Knox), are used as devices to provide a fascinating and poignant glimpse into Sorley’s short life.

As his parents face his death with contrasting emotions—his father stiff-upper-lipped and withdrawn, his mother coping with her grief by sharing her son’s life through his writing—we meet Sorley as a schoolboy at Marlborough in his poem “The Song of the Ungirt Runners”, exalting in the exertions of a cross country run, full of energy and optimism.

Before taking up a place at Oxford, Sorley travels to Germany to spend a year enhancing his education. Not enamoured with the public school system and interested in social work, he blossoms here, his love and enjoyment of this new culture shining through in his descriptive and entertaining letters home, along with revelations of a tentative affair with his married landlady, Frau Beutin (onstage pianist and musical director Elizabeth Rossiter doubling in this unspoken role).

But this is Germany, 1914 and Sorley’s eyes are wide open, his perception and clarity of thought demonstrated by observations on the anti-Semitism and “obsessive” efficiency coursing through the country. Briefly imprisoned as war breaks out, he makes his way back to England to join up, already convinced of the war’s futility, but obliged to do his duty. He hopes for a time when the two warring nations can shake hands once again, “as pilgrims of the Earth who renounce their country”.

Movement and pace are well judged, and director Max Key makes effective use of the limited space. Phil Lindley’s inventive set design and Rob Mills’s lighting and video design combine to evoke the calm of a Cambridge study and carnage of the battlefield, and yet more reminders of the lives affected as images of Sorley’s fallen comrades remind us of the individuals behind the appalling statistics.

Nathan Hamilton’s sound design is also impressive, the final relentless machine gun bombardment does not drown out Sorley’s words as he describes the scene of what was his final battle. The use of music of the day, beautifully sung by Hugh Benson and sometimes Knox, adds additional context and reflection. The cast are superb, but Knox is outstanding as Sorley, portraying his playfulness and intellectual maturity with engaging charm.

Watching this performance on the day the country marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day adds another layer of poignancy—World War I, after all, was the war to end all wars.

It Is Easy To Be Dead is a respectful and revealing portrayal of a remarkable young man. Caught in the most tragic of times, he clearly had great empathy for his fellow humans, and we are fortunate now to meet him through his and MacPherson’s writing.

Images by Scott Rylander

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Frankenstein – review (streamed performance)

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

National Theatre presents
Frankenstein
by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley
directed by Danny Boyle
Available via NT at Home until 7pm 7 May

The revolutionary concept of NT Live was still in its infancy when Danny Boyle’s acclaimed 2011 production of Frankenstein opened on the Olivier Stage at the National TheatreRiding the crest of the Benedict Cumberbatch / Sherlock pandemic sweeping the nation at the time, audiences flocked to the cinema (over 800,000 worldwide) to see Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swap roles, alternating as The Creature and Victor Frankenstein.

As we continue with life in lockdown, the National now brings us NT at Home (free), and this week, another chance to see this imaginative production. I saw Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature back in 2011 thanks to NT Live (and whose performance can also be seen on NT at Home until 7PM, 8 May). For this review, I saw the performance with Miller as Frankenstein and Cumberbatch as The Creature.

Instantly summoning a gothic vibe, a huge bell tolls as a figure inside a veined, pulsing ‘womb’ paws and pushes its way out, slithering onto an otherwise empty stage. What seems like a million light bulbs crackle and surge with light and energy as the newly born Creature appears to mirror human evolution before our eyes: from flapping fish to reptile to crawling and then upright human.

This is a stunning physical performance by Cumberbatch; his combination of joy and concentration as he staggers, toddler-like—stiff-legged and arms raised—while trying to learn to walk is hugely impressive. Rejected by his creator Frankenstein, The Creature escapes into the outside world, enduring taunts and cruelty over his appearance. Finally finding shelter, food and an education with the blind old academic De Lacey (Karl Johnson), The Creature learns to read, to talk and consider the concept of original sin, courtesy of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The Creature blossoms and carries out good deeds unseen and unknown by De Lacey’s son and daughter-in law, however, when they meet him they reject him. Hurt and betrayed, The Creature begins his path of cruelty and revenge—and to find his creator.

Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s seminal novel focuses on the ‘journey’ of The Creature. Whilst a powerful and thought-provoking play in itself, this focus comes at the expense of a fuller understanding of Frankenstein, and thus an underdeveloped character. Miller is excellent in the role but we have no real insight into why he created The Creature, or indeed why Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) would remain engaged to such an arrogant and unfeeling man.

Elizabeth is one of the few people who genuinely tries to connect with The Creature beyond his appearance and shows him kindness, adding fuel to the suggestion that maybe Frankenstein and The Creature are just two sides of the same person, rather than father / son or master / slave.

Theatrically, this is a thrilling production. Bruno Poet’s lighting design pulses with power as the huge chandelier of lightbulbs hovers majestically above the stage. Mark Tildesley’s set design also impresses: the evocation of the final icy landscape and dingy darkness of Frankenstein’s Orkney hideaway as he creates The Creature’s ‘Eve’ is made all the more sinister with Underworld’s menacing and eerie soundscape. An ingenious revolve allows the contrasts between the splendour of Frankenstein’s family mansion and the bleak frozen polar wastes to be effectively realised. It must have been quite something to be in the front few rows as the sparking beast of an industrial train comes to a hissing stop in your midst, the steampunk-clad workers hammering and moulding metal.

Shelley subtitled her novel “A Modern Prometheus”, and this idea of the dangers inherent in the quest for knowledge resulting in unintended consequences, together with the argument “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is not lost in this production. It is gothic on an innovative, theatrical scale and a gripping couple of hours—and worth seeing Cumberbatch and Miller in both roles if you can.

Images by Catherine Ashmore

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A Hard Day’s Night – thoughts on the film

(Original trailer for A Hard Day’s Night, YouTube)

I should state at the outset I’m a huge fan of The Beatles (I own and wear three Sgt Pepper-era T-shirts for starters): their music, their innovation, their quirky humour.

I saw A Hard Day’s Night (1964) via iPlayer recently. This is a rather odd film, and so much more than what we might dismiss now as a boy band love fest. Widely regarded as a classic, and as with much of The Beatles’ output, often sited by other artists as an influencer of their own work.

Directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day’s Night incorporates documentary, surrealism and realism, and charts 36 hours in the life of The Beatles. They travel down from Liverpool to London by train for a TV performance, with Paul’s mischief-making grandfather John (Wilfred Brambell) coming along, supposedly to get over ‘a broken heart’. The Beatles’ manager Norm (Norman Rossington) also tries to keep the boys in check as they find ways to mix business with (innocent) pleasure.  The press party for their performance gives the lads a chance to reveal their cheeky humour, and vindicates The Beatles’ request for the screenplay to be written by Liverpudlian playwright Alun Owens as they felt he ‘got’ their dialogue.

Throughout, the four lads are there but somehow apart from reality, a sort of floating presence. The other characters treat them both as ‘normal’ and acknowledge them as the popstars they are, but never by name; Ringo’s drumkit, the opening titles and helicopter at the end the only clues. The film’s presentation in black and white adds to the ‘otherness’, for audiences today at least.

Ringo is a revelation though, his dazzling smile whilst dancing exuberantly in the nightclub is a marvel, playing his imaginary maracas for all he’s worth. The sequence where he ‘escapes’ from Grandfather John and wanders down by the canal rather wistful and melancholy.

Other points to note: the hotel sandwiches! A 1960s-era British sandwich did not look appetising.

The celebs! Look, there’s Charlotte Rampling and Pattie Boyd. And Lionel Blair. Hang on, there’s Deryck Guyler (being a policeman).

The running!  Murmurations (or screamurations?) of girls chasing the lads in and out of stations, cabs, round corners, and up and down streets.

Perhaps it’s unfair to view this through a 2020 lens, however, where are the women in all this? Either backstage as performers, all sequins, feathers and fishnets, as occasional devices in comic sequences (a galant placing of a coat over a puddle type of thing). Or tearful, screaming teenagers in the audience. The way things were, I guess.

But, hearing ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘If I Fell’, ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘All My Loving’, ‘She Loves You’ (and the rest), seeing them perform their perfect pop songs in their perfect suits, their perfect hair, the cheeky smiles – it’s all such a joy.

John, Paul, George, and Ringo: I still love you (yeah, yeah, yeah).

 

 

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Plock! – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Grensgeval presents
Plock!
Concept and direction by Hanne Vandersteene and Mahlu Mertens
Curve Theatre, Leicester
 to 

Art and performance combine in myriad meanings in Plock! by Belgian company Grensgeval, creators of “visual circus-sound theatre”. This production is part of The Spark Festival, the arts organisation based in Leicestershire for children aged 0 to 13 years, and now coming to the end of this year’s week-long programme of festival performances.

Donning protective, full-body PVC suits and plastic shoe protectors, we push through paint-splattered screens into the performance space. Sitting on benches arranged in thrust, we watch as Jakob Lohmann (not the performer featured in the images) assesses his blank canvas: about 4 metres long and 1.5 metres wide secured to the stage floor with small pots of paint and roller trays placed at intervals around it.

Taking the art of Jackson Pollock and his abstract “action painting” style as inspiration, Jakob seems nervous and unsure, wanting to get his painting right. After a few tentative brush strokes, he becomes more adventurous, overcomes a few accidents with overturned paint pots and grows in confidence using his body: twists and flicks with paint brushes between his toes, handstands, backflips, even using his head as a brush along the canvas. With the help of a volunteer “human” paintbrush literally dipped into a paint pot, his masterpiece is finally complete.

There are several levels of engagement with this entertaining production: the joy of messy play, the audience as part of the performance as we help each other into our protective suits to join the “art”. We go with Jakob on his journey from uncertainty to his exuberant enjoyment of creativity, admire his physicality and strength as he flicks and splatters us with paint.

Subtle changes in lighting by Jeroen Doise and Saul Mombaerts indicate different moods and “turns” in the process. Stijn Dickel’s sound design of drips and rattling brushes in tin pots keep an insistent and suitably random rhythm.

With its slapstick and “naughty” feel (you’d never be allowed to do this kind of thing at home!), this is ideal for children around five and above, and their accompanying grown-ups had just as much fun as the children, safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t be clearing up this particular mess.

It is also refreshing to see, in the current educational landscape of tests and learning by rote, a representation of the world where it is okay to be unsure, to learn from mistakes, to experiment and create.

In just under an hour, Plock! explores some big themes: art as performance, the artist as performer, the audience as performers and co-creators. In summary, a work of art.

Images by Bert Grietens

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Nest – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Akin Theatre in association with artsdepot present
Nest
written by Anna Beecher
directed by Rachel Lincoln
Attenborough Arts
10 and 11 February 2020

“This is the world and you are in it,” say our two performers Emma Bentley and Louisa Hollway as they guide us—an audience of around 15 babies and their accompanying grownups—through a multi-sensory journey through the seasons in Akin Theatre’s production Nest.

This performance is one of the opening productions in The Spark Festival, the largest children’s arts festival in England and Wales running from 10 to 16 February. Born in 2003 as a 10-month project, The Spark Arts for Children has developed into a year-round children’s arts organisation with a multi-art form programme of theatre, dance, music, visual arts and digital media events for young people aged 0 to 13 years and their families.

In one word, Nest is a joy. And words are important. Writer Anna Beecher with director Rachel Lincoln ensure that the aural pleasures of language come alive and combine with gentle sounds and visual and textural stimuli from the opening ting of a triangle to the final twinkling star-scape.

Aimed at the 0 to 14 months age group, Beecher and Lincoln’s past experience as early years facilitators feeds into their work, and throughout (save a few inevitable frets and fusses), babies are mesmerised, keen to touch, explore and listen. Babies are fun to watch and this is no exception—babbling along with their individual responses to the sounds, their laughter, tears, and surprise, with eyes following the performers’ every move.

The poetry throughout this 35-minute performance is alliterative and lyrical with lovely clusters of words and imagery: candy floss soft, blushing blossom, featherlight leaf, a russet rush. A red, feathery bird emerges in spring from a cracked egg and takes us through the colours, sounds, and textures of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Small fingers scrunch a soft green grass carpet, see themselves in a shiny mirror pond, feel chiffon rain on their faces and hear the buzzing of little woollen bees.

In performance, the terms “immersive” and “inclusive” can be rather liberally applied, and off-putting to some. Here, though, they are exactly right and to enter the dome, Nest’s safe, relaxed space, and sit together cross-legged in a circle is to fully immerse oneself in this sensory delight.

There is a magical quality to this creative and well-crafted piece which hones in on what babies respond to and evident in the smiles and reactions of the grown-ups. Nest stimulates and soothes and is a charming way to connect and reconnect both with the very young people in our lives and the world around us.

Main image – Akin Theatre
Audience image – James Allen

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Holes – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

The Children’s Theatre Partnership and Royal and Derngate with Nottingham Playhouse present
Holes
by Louis Sachar
directed by Adam Penford
Royal and Derngate, Northampton
 to 

If you’ve read Louis Sachar’s 1998 novel Holes, winner of the Newbery Medal and worthy fixture on reading lists at secondary school upwards, then my advice is to try and forget it to fully appreciate the stage play.

Sachar has adapted his own bleak novel for the stage and, following its initial run at Nottingham Playhouse in 2018, Adam Penford returns to direct this production with The Children’s Theatre Partnership and Northampton’s Royal and Derngate. After Northampton, it heads off on tour to a clutch of other venues around England with further dates and casting to be announced.

Based on Sachar’s quirky, rather dark story, this production is aimed at a family audience aged eight years and upwards and goes for a fast pace and laughs, and worth bearing in mind it was meant to appeal to the Playhouse’s panto audience.

Unlucky Stanley Yelnats (James Backway) always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, following a trainers-related misunderstanding, is sent to Green Lake Camp, a correctional facility for young teen boys in the heat of America’s Deep South.

Stanley does his best to get along with a motley crew of camp mates: X-Ray (Harold Addo), Magnet (Joëlle Brabban), Armpit (Henry Mettle) and Zero (Leona Allen). In turn, the boys do their best to survive the twisted demands of camp warden Linda Walker (Rhona Croker). As part of their rehabilitation, every boy must spend every day of the week digging holes in the desert, 5ft by 5ft. A seemingly pointless exercise until we discover Walker is getting the boys to find the fortune she believes is buried out in the desert. It’s a complex story, but Stanley’s relatives—beginning with his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather” Stanley and Kissin’ Kate Barlow—had beef with Walker’s ancestors, setting them all on a path to a climatic showdown at Green Lake Camp between Stanley and the boys at the camp and the evil adults in charge.

Where the book highlights the desperate futility of digging holes in the hot sun, the sweat, blisters and physical effort, the cruelty of adults abusing children for their own financial end and the pain of the boys’ own lives, the stage production is more cartoonish, with a focus on storytelling and playing for laughs. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of character development and tension, and the dialogue at times is too expositional.

That said, as a theatrical experience, it is rich in creative tricks and touches and certainly moves the story along at a galloping pace. Matthew Forbes’s puppetry designs are clever, and the flashback scenes add warmth and humanity, including a rousing hoe-down and Stanley’s father’s explosively unsuccessful inventions.

Simon Kenny’s design is sparse but effective, with a far-off horizon visible through a slash in the sky. Prema Mehta’s lighting helps to invoke the heat of the desert, and the scene with Zero and Stanley on top of the mountain at night, lights glowing from flickering flames in jars, is stunning.

The relationship which develops between Zero and Stanley is touching, and Allen does a great job in drawing out sympathy and engagement for the enigmatic Zero—the character with the fewest words is most interesting here.

It’s not all larks and laughs though, and the scene where racism is confronted is handled well, its message clear without the need for explanation.

As a performance for families, this is good entertainment but don’t go expecting to relive the mood of the book (like I did).

Images by Manuel Harlan

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Giraffes Can’t Dance – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve, Rose Original Productions and Simon Friend in association with Hachette Children’s Group and Coolabi Group present
Giraffes Can’t Dance
based on the book by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees
adapted and directed by Julia Thomas
Curve Theatre, Leicester 18 December to 5 January

Another Christmas and another stage show adapted from a well-loved children’s story. This year, Curve Theatre together with Rose Original and Simon Friend productions have turned to Giles Andreae’s award-winning picture book Giraffes Can’t Dance (with Guy Parker-Rees’s vibrant illustrations).

Gerald (Sophie Coward) is a gangly, ungainly giraffe who doesn’t think he can dance, his lack of confidence compounded by the other animals in the jungle who mock his dancing prowess. Poor Gerald can only look on as the jungle animals enjoy a variety of dances at their annual Jungle Dance. A kindly cricket (Phyllis Ho) helps Gerald see that all he needs is a different tune to dance to his own music, and Gerald wows the other animals with his unique moves.

Aimed at the three years to infant school audience, this is a bright, busy, 55-minute adaptation with lots of laughs and audience participation. Adult enjoyment comes courtesy of some Strictly-style references and an amusing voiceover by a naturalist (sounding suspiciously like David Attenborough).

Whilst this is still Gerald’s story, adapter and director Julia Thomas has developed the role of Cricket further than in the book; a mentor figure for Gerald, Cricket also acts as Gerald’s cheerleader and narrator for the audience. Ho’s portrayal of Cricket has something of the zen about it, bringing a sense of concerned calm in opposition to the loud antics of the other animals. In this adaptation, the rhyming pattern of the story book has been replaced by dialogue and a handful of entertaining songs (which although didn’t stay in my head, did bring to mind some of the catchier numbers from The Lion King).

Coward is a graceful, rather forlorn Gerald, but his moonlit transformation from knock-kneed non-dancer on his A-frame ladder ‘legs’ to aerial acrobatic maestro is beautifully performed and wonderfully lit by Jane Lalljee.

As the Beetles, and other jungle friends, Joshua Coley, Gracia Rios and Jason Yeboa bring beatbox and a lot of bouncy energy to the stage, encouraging the audience to move and groove along with the show (a hard audience to please, I felt some of the participation responses towards the end of the show felt a little dutiful). Simon Kenny’s costumes add colour and humour, and the shiny Puffa-style jackets as worn by the streetwise Beetles are really effective.

Overall, a lovely show for those with young children, which cheerfully delivers some powerful messages: as well as the story’s overall positive theme that it is okay to be different and everyone is good at something, Cricket and Gerald also reassure us that it is okay to feel sad and lonely sometimes.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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Aladdin – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Imagine Theatre presents
Aladdin
by Eric Potts
directed by Janice Dunn
De Montfort Hall, Leicester 14 December 2019 – 5 January 2020

Imagine Theatre’s production of Aladdin rises high with an enjoyable take on this evergreen classic from the panto pantheon.

All the essential ingredients are here: Christmas cracker-standard jokes, dazzling costumes, well-known songs, and most importantly, an enthusiastic cast who make you enjoy yourself through the sheer force of their broad smiles and exuberant delivery.

Talking of the cast, this year’s draws include past X Factor winner Sam Bailey, now in her fourth year starring in the De Montfort Hall panto. As a Leicester girl, many in the audience already know and love her and as So Shi, she does down-to-earth, relatable humour to a tee—and, of course, has a brilliant voice.

Antony Costa (formerly of boy band Blue) wears Abanazar’s cloak well (the higher the collar, the more evil the character). He strides on stage all mwa-ha-ha and with a sneery disdain for the audience. Boos naturally follow. Many of the gags are at his expense and reference his past career, and he takes it well.

In a deviation from panto tradition, the principal boy Aladdin is indeed a boy, specifically Matthew Pomeroy, an accomplished magician. In something of a straight role (compared to his brother Wishee Washee—more of him in a minute), Aladdin does a lot of the physical work, running around trying to find the lamp, rescuing Jasmine from Abanazar’s evil clutches or encouraging us to wave (sometimes all three at once). It’s his moments of magic though which draw gasps from the audience—fortunately, Princess Jasmine (Natasha Lamb) makes a perfect assistant and their routines disappearing from boxes and levitation are jaw-dropping. Nathan Connor (from Channel 5’s Milkshake!) is a street, rapping Genie with some nice moonwalking moves.

Panto stalwart and BBC Radio Leicester presenter Martin Ballard drags up again, this time as a Les Dawson-esque Widow Twankey, and between him and Wishee Washee (Paul Burling—impressionist and Britain’s Got Talent finalist), they work their puns, gags and general silliness for all they’re worth. I would particularly like to thank them for their entertaining interpretation of Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” and the elephant in the room gag. These two keep everything going, and Burling has a repertoire of excellent impressions to suit all ages and references. Burling and Ballard were also lovely with the four very young—and painfully cute—participants from the audience. Ahhhh.

Writer Eric Potts and Janice Dunn’s direction keep everything moving at a good pace, the set is a fairly simple series of backdrops and curtains with the whole production brought to life with Matt Ladkin’s effective lighting design (and a big “wow” for the impressive magic carpet sequence)Overall, this production does a good job of keeping as many of the audience as possible as entertained as possible with lots for children to get excited by and plenty for the adults in the room (but not too saucy).

I say leave your grumps outside and feel the fun in this family panto: embrace the puns, inhale the aroma of popcorn, ignore the constant flashing light sabres and wands in the audience and sing, shout and dance along like you’re six years old all over again.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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