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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My Country; a work in progress – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

National Theatre presents
My Country; a work in progress
In the words of the people across the UK and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
Directed by Rufus Norris
At Curve Theatre, Leicester 27 – 29 April

“My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it”, “far more unites us than divides us”, “Brexit means Brexit”.

Flashback to those heady EU referendum days of 2016, and now heard in the National Theatre’s verbatim piece My Country: a work in progress, currently touring the UK.

Too soon? As soon as it can be, and the “work in progress” part of the title is more to indicate we are nowhere near the end of this particular experience; it is impressive that this imaginatively crafted, polished piece is on tour less than a year after the result.

Immediately post-referendum, the National Theatre went back to the constituencies of Britain to gather their views, and, using the combined literary and artistic forces of Carol Ann Duffy (writer) and Rufus Norris (director), My Country is a snapshot of a turbulent, still-rumbling British political storm.

Britannia (Penny Layden) calls the meeting of regions to order: Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie), Cymru (Christian Patterson), South West (Adam Ewan), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), East Midlands (Seema Bowri) and the North East (Laura Elphinstone). Together, they bring the “spirits and hearts” of their respective regions to life, with Britannia voicing the politicians’ words, particularly Layden’s cringingly accurate, headline-seeking Boris Johnson.

A diverse pot pourri of views are represented, straying into territories including bananas, benefits, immigration, integration, Trump, and trust. Duffy weaves poetic threads between them, with Britannia a character desperately trying to keep the disparate voices within regions together.

Differences abound however, with jovial rivalry providing many amusing moments, which contrast with the more sinister expressions along the lines of “they aren’t like us”.

One enjoyable scene sees a shared meal, a Great British picnic and knees-up, and each region proud of its own delicacies (plus a welcome blast of local ’70s legends Showaddywaddy for us Leicester folk). Maybe a shade stereotypical at times, this is still imaginatively staged and tongue-in-cheek.

The excellent cast clearly define each of their many voices; a heartbreaking moment is Christian Patterson’s plaintive pleas amongst the shouted wars of words: “be happy … don’t argue”. The pleas are those of a 13-year-old Welsh boy.

Desks moving from straight line to crescent to cross evoke the twists and turns of opinion and momentum, sometimes in ordered rows, sometimes in chaos.

Some reviewers have bemoaned the fact London or the South East aren’t represented as one of the few overall “remainers”. Isn’t that just it, though? A key point to emerge in the fall out from 23 June is that elsewhere in the country, voters felt their voices are never heard. The North West and West Midlands are also not represented.

Although the feelings of shock, frustration and bewilderment are clearly voiced, I got little sense of the views of the younger generation when the demographic splits in voting became known, or from those a few months too young to vote but relying on others to vote for their future.

Eighty minutes is clearly not enough to cover the whole of the Brexit behemoth, but as a contribution towards something as British as a Blue Peter time capsule, this is an effective piece doing theatre’s good work of holding a mirror up to society. Parts of the text and sentiments behind them are, surprisingly to me, profoundly moving.

A common theme of Duffy’s is to hear “human music”, and respect the “sacrament of listening”. Britannia’s final words before blackout are that we should “seek and search and strive for good leadership”. Those in power, and everyone, would be wise to remember this as we stumble forwards on the road to Brexit.

 Images by Sarah Lee

 

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The Unknown Soldier – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Grist to the Mill Productions Ltd presents
The Unknown Soldier
Written and performed by Ross Ericsson
Directed by Michelle Yim
At Upstairs at the Western, Leicester  26 April

So, it seems we have Michael Gove to thank for The Unknown Soldier, the Grist to the Mill production currently mid-way through a UK tour after achieving critical success in Edinburgh last year.

During his time as Education Secretary, Gove expressed his opinion that, where World War I is concerned, there was an “unhappy compulsion on the part of some [that is, left-wing academics and media] to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.

This got Ross Ericson’s dander up and inspired him to write this taut response to the war meant to end all wars.

After doing his duty during the fighting, Jack (Ericson) has stayed on post-Armistice to pick up the pieces, literally. He has lost his best pal Tom and is determined to keep a promise to find him and bring him home. During one exercise, Jack takes a chance and gets Tom home in the coffin destined to be buried in Westminster Abbey as The Unknown Soldier.

Addressing the audience as his comrade, Jack recounts their experiences as well as his current grisly task of gathering and identifying (where possible) the fallen, scattered around what were, two years previously, the No Man’s Lands of France and Belgium.

Viewing row upon row of neat, white headstones in military cemeteries is shocking enough, particularly to highlight the scale of slaughter, but what isn’t often pointed out is how the bodies got to their final resting places. Someone had to return to the battlegrounds, retrieve the bodies and give them an honourable burial, constantly reliving the destructive force of the war now the guns are silent.

The originality of this idea is part of The Unknown Soldier’s power, and provides a vivid example of another way in which virtues such as honour and courage can be displayed.

Ericson totally engages and convinces as a soldier just trying to get along, in turn plagued and comforted by ghosts and memories. The intimacy of Upstairs at the Western is the ideal venue for this performance—a simple set of a chair, side table and camp bed and effective use of lighting as we move from night to day, battlefield to rest.

The sound design during the battle scene leaves you in no doubt as to the relentless terror endured by the soldiers as they fought for a cause many had no clear idea about.

Michelle Yim’s direction and pacing of the piece is spot on, the hour-long timing just right. The horror and humour of the soldiers’ experience is handled deftly, and Ericson’s poetic and sensory touches, together with his skill as a storyteller make for a compelling performance.

It is true there are already many WWI plays and performances, particularly as we commemorate the centenary years, but The Unknown Soldier stands out for its raw and realistic humanity.

Image by Grist to the Mill Productions

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COAL – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Gary Clarke Company presents
COAL
Choreography by Gary Clarke and the performers
Artistic Direction Gary Clarke
Dramaturgy Lou Cope
Costume and set design Ryan Dawson Laight
Lighting Design Charles Webber
Musical Director Steven Roberts

The miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985 was the beginning of the end for many mining communities in the UK, and the subject is still an open wound; any remaining pitheads stud the landscape like headstones to an industry brought to an acrimonious conclusion.

Gary Clarke Company’s COAL is making its way around the country, and includes brass bands and a handful of women from the locality of the home venue to further cement the community feel to the performance.

Over three acts, the grime of a miner’s lot is presented in contemporary dance, with the final act depicting the impact of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s lasting legacy as Iron Lady to the coal industry’s men.

Beginning with a comedic, if rather over-exaggerated scene of The Miner’s Wife (T C Howard) getting her husband ready for another day down the mine, the slapstick elements are well received by an amused audience.

There is a nice camaraderie during Strauss’ “Radetzky March” as the five miners (Alistair Goldsmith, Nicolas Vendange, Beno Novak, Joss Carter and Parsifal James Hurst) make their way to the mine and change from civvies to workwear. It’s all lads together here, with banter and larking about their way of dealing with what’s to come underground.

Act two is the core strength of this show as the miners then descend into their ‘office’: the cramp and claustrophobia of the coal face. Dancers sometimes mimick the machinery, other times show the sheer muscle needed for such a physical job. Their shapeshifting is stunning;  from a collective mass working together to build, extract and heave, to crawling, ground-dwelling, almost reptilian creatures. Their sweat and dirt is real.

Amongst this hard labour, sensuality and eroticism is accentuated by Charles Webber’s particularly effective lighting, feeling the heat and the lack of space amongst shafts of light. Daniel Thomas’s soundscape design uses eerie recordings from The National Coal Mining Museum for England and is awesome in its noise and earthly power—we are as near to Earth’s heartbeat as we can get.

Dangers are ever-present, with a desperate scene as a miner is overcome by black dust to his lungs and the strong bond between men doing hard, difficult work shows itself. As they return to the surface, their wives are there to pick up the pieces; they cleanse their men to “Have a Game for the Crack”, annointing them with their love and care, and share joy ‘down the disco’ with an exuberant “The Wooly Bully”.

Gary Clarke reflects that this show is “not really political nor is it meant to be provocative.” I disagree; act three becomes pantomime as Mrs Thatcher (Eleanor Perry) strides on stage, her grotesque, cartoonish body language and audience’s boos leaving no doubt as to where allegiances lie. The fate of the scab who crossed the line also hammers home the mood of the miners.

Whatever your political views, the strike was a political event, the ideology of the Conservative Party leaving a deep bootprint on the social history and economics of the country. I do agree with Clarke that it is important shows such as COAL keep this piece of history alive for audiences to remember, but if that is the case, the third act relies too much on assumed knowledge of the other side of the argument and the key events of this long, relentless dispute.

That said, COAL’s sense of community and working together is profoundly moving, and a tough, physical reminder of a time and a life that is disappearing into history.

Images by Joe Oliver

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Dirty Dancing – review

This review first appeared in Western Park Gazette

Karl Sydow, Joye Entertainment and Paul Elliott in association with Lionsgate and Magic Hour Productions present
Dirty Dancing
The Classic Story on Stage
by Eleanor Bergstein
Directed by Federico Bellone

Dirty Dancing at De Montfort Hall does what it says on the tin: there’s quite a lot of dancing and sometimes, the dancing is quite dirty.

The 1987 film on which this is based is held in fond esteem by many, thanks to its enjoyable blend of ’60s soul, the smouldering Patrick Swayze, and the endless summer at Kellerman’s hotel up in the hills.

Set in 1963, Baby (Katie Hartland) is on holiday with her father Dr Housman (Julian Harries), mother Marjorie (Simone Craddock), and sister Lisa (Lizzie Ottley). Baby has a heart and a conscience, and is one summer away from the Peace Corps.

Her holiday becomes more interesting when she offers to help out dance teacher and hotel heartthrob Jonny (Lewis Griffiths) when his regular partner Penny (Carlie Milner – a fantastic dancer) becomes ‘incapacitated’. Assumptions and prejudices festering in both the family and holiday haven surface, and Jonny and Baby’s relationship has its difficulties before the uplifting finale.

This show pretty much tracks the film as far as it can, with Roberto Comotti’s multi-faceted, revolving set working hard to depict numerous locations. The famous ‘lady coming out of the lake’ scene is inventively portrayed thanks to screens, projection and sound (Armando Vertullo).

Baby’s journey could be a 1960s pre-cursor to Strictly – minus the spray tan and sequins – as she overcomes her lack of dancing experience, learns a routine, balances on a log and falls in love with her tutor.

Griffiths’s impressively muscular body and mastery of his moves draws gasps and whoops from the largely female audience, and he is certainly an eye-catching dancer. However, he is all mean and moody at the expense of any other personal qualities and there is little chemistry between him and Hartland until the final number. Delivery of dialogue throughout by quite a few of the cast is not far off the performance of the aforementioned log.

The cast have pretty ropey material to work with in terms of Eleanor Bergstein’s script (and writer of the original screenplay), and the underlying messages of segregation, the fall out from the Cuban missile crisis and money equalling power are dealt with dismissively. It feels like Federico Bellone’s direction in the speaking elements of the show lacks any real thought, and the appalling attempt at audience participation should be scrapped immediately.

However, nostalgia for the film goes a long way here and any failings seem to be forgiven by the enthusiastic audience. Choreographer Gillian Bruce sticks to the iconic dance routines and the final number hits all the right buttons, with Billy (Michael Kent) and Elizabeth (Daniela Pobega) performing a fine rendition of ‘(I’ve had) The Time of My Life’ as Jonny and Baby finally look like they are indeed having the time of their life.

So, if Dirty Dancing is your thing, there is quite a lot of dancing, and sometimes, the dancing is quite dirty.

Image supplied by company.

At De Montfort Hall 10 – 15 April 2017

 

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Fantastic Mr Fox – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

A Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Curve production in association with Lyric Hammersmith present
Fantastic Mr Fox
by Roald Dahl, adapted for the stage by Sam Holcroft
Directed by Maria Aberg
Designer Tom Scutt

Master of the macabre Roald Dahl has provided a wealth of tasty material for film, TV and theatre over the years, and the 1970 novella Fantastic Mr Fox is now a Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Curve co-production, in association with Lyric Hammersmith.

In Sam Holcroft’s adaptation, matters get off to a typically dark, Dahlian start: four sweet birds sing a capella until one is blasted from its perch by Farmer Bunce’s shotgun. Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean aren’t terribly nice and, fed up with the profits from their chicken farm being eaten away by Mr Fox and his family, the farmers decide to stake out the foxhole and starve the pesky animals out.

Despite losing his tail during a raid, Mr Fox believes he alone can solve the animals’ food crisis, despite protestations from Mrs Fox, their daughter Kit and friends comprising a mouse, rabbit, mole and badger. The crux of this adaptation is that the loss of one’s tail affects one’s balance and decision-making abilities and Mr Fox eventually realises that, to coin an ill-fated presidential campaign slogan from 2016, we are stronger together. Nature succeeds where guns and humans fail, and the story is brought to a neat, and moralistic conclusion.

There are contemporary political echoes with this production: the farmers want the foxes out and their land back, Greg Barnett’s messianistic Mr Fox preens and prances about, rather full of himself and unaware of his limitations, Rabbit (Sandy Foster) is a blond buffoon with a limited attention span. Rat (Richard Atwill) has a capitalist streak and no thought for society.

Sensible Mrs Fox (Lillie Flynn) waves the flag for feminist earth mothers—heavily pregnant, she ultimately saves the day with her cool head in a crisis. Kit (Jade Croot) also proves her worth, showing that sometimes a kid’s excessive use of technology is worth it.

Perfect for the primary school market, this energetic production has several of the cast doubling well: Atwill is a two-faced, too-sozzled Rat and evil Farmer Bean. Gruffudd Glyn is manic Farmer Bunce and myopic but industrious Mole and Raphael Bushay is an organised Badger and dim-witted Boggis.

Designer Tom Scutt’s three-tiered set, whilst used effectively, doesn’t feel like there is a difference between the cold, exploitative world of the chicken farm and the ‘natural’ environment and it is difficult to shake the thought it is essentially a revolving wedding cake. Costumes are fun and quirky, with an ‘80s vintage sportswear look.

Arthur Darvill’s musical score leans towards rock, including a particularly enjoyable Hendrix-inspired moment when Farmer Bean discovers he is, in fact, feelin’ foxy. A team of four are credited with the lyrics (Arvill, Sam Holcroft, Darren Clark and Al Muriel) and, while there’s a good mix of well-crafted musical styles, the overall feeling is of a not-quite-coherent whole. Such is its cleverness and complexity, though, much may be lost on the target audience.

Director Maria Aberg provides some memorable moments, with set-piece slapstick during Mr Fox et al’s raid on the chicken farm and additional menace from the farmer’s guard dog. Characters are immediately established well and we all root firmly for the animals, whilst laughing at the baddies. Holcroft also includes two Dahl essentials: gross-out humour and a nice line in alliteration.

Grown-ups are catered for with a few amusing references, although maybe worth preparing for the obvious post-show question from young theatre-goers of “if they are so hungry, why don’t the foxes just eat the rabbit?”. Ah, the magic of theatre.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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