COAL – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Gary Clarke Company presents
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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Dr Frankenstein – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Northern Stage and Greyscale present
Dr Frankenstein
Based on the novel by Mark Wollstonecraft Shelley
Adapted by Selma Dimitrijevic
Directed by Lorne Campbell

Casting against gender is currently something of a hot potato in theatre, and this Northern Stage and Greyscale co-production takes things in a slightly different direction: re-imagining Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein with the scientist Victor Frankenstein now a woman.

Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and when a woman’s place was certainly not in an educational institution, this gender swap raises a new layer of questioning of long-established patriarchal practices.

Director Lorne Campbell gets the story off to a good start with mounting Gothic portent: storms, shadows, Beethoven, and a science den of shelf-upon-shelf of glass bottles and flasks. Tom Piper’s mirrored, multi-doored set, Lizzie Powell’s lighting design and Nick John Williams’s eerie sound design fuse together well.

However, as the play unfolds, other distracting questions materialise and the central premise of this production remains frustratingly underdeveloped.

Dr Victoria Frankenstein (Polly Frame) goes against her family’s advice and leaves her father, also Dr Frankenstein (Donald McBride), her sister Elizabeth (Victoria Elliott), housekeeper Mary (Libby Davison) and maid Justine (Rachel Denning) for Ingolstadt to attend university and further her scientific studies.

Here she works on her technique of bringing a dead body back to life after initial success with a rabbit. Then, a cadaver jerks into life, the Creature (Ed Gaughan) is “born”, he connects with Victoria then makes his escape. Overworked and feverish, Victoria is brought back home to recover by Elizabeth’s fiancé Henry (Scott Turnbull), but the Creature finds her, bringing tragedy to the Frankenstein family.

Things just seem conveniently easy for Victoria; born into a wealthy family, her father tells her, almost jokingly, “the more expensive your education, the less useful it appears to be”. And with that she leaves the family home, oblivious to all but her work thanks to the funding provided by her “disapproving” father. Fighting for her right to an education, as well as operating at the forefront of scientific discovery, is something of a damp squib here.

Frame is dynamic and charismatic as Victoria, always questioning and unshakeable in her quest to discover the secret of life. However, her singular purpose and almost casual treatment of the execution of an innocent maid and murder of her brother is difficult to accept. We are back to the “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” argument, rather than any new perspective on science and its moral dilemmas.

The other female roles are more traditional, but ultimately more rounded and believable. Davison’s Mary is more like a surrogate mother to Victoria and provides calm comfort. Denning’s portrayal of Justine’s moral dilemma and the conflict between religion and science is moving and inevitable in its stubborn denial of logic. Elliott’s Elizabeth provides a strong counterpoint to Victoria’s singleminded approach to family life.

Ed Gaughan is a creepy, sinister Creature, although he draws sympathy as he tries to make sense of his world and the reactions from those he encounters. In terms of his relationship with Victoria, she responds coldly, apparently unsure of what she has done and no real sense of any kind of bond as his ‘creator’. After realisation that her experiment is doomed to failure, the Creature offers himself back to science and matters come to a rather abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.

The fact that Victoria and her father are intellectual equals in a time of supposed enlightenment remains unexplored and any female response to the Creature and Victoria’s own situation is largely ignored. Sadly, another female opportunity passes by.

Images by Pamela Raith



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RENT – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Robert Mackintosh and Idili Theatricals Ltd for Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd present
Book, music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Bruce Guthrie

Jonathan Larson’s La Bohème-inspired, AIDS-themed urban rock opera Rent is now well into its twentieth anniversary tour, directed by Bruce Guthrie and with a strong, young cast singing as if their lives depend on it.

Focusing on the progress of three relationships from one 1990s Christmas Eve to the next in New York’s East Side, the characters live with the triple threats of homelessness, addiction and AIDS. You may be forgiven for thinking this might not be the best recipe for entertainment, however, the mood of this musical is less relentless misery, more live for today, tomorrow comes soon enough.

Part of the intensity of emotion surrounding Rent is compounded by the sudden death of Jonathan Larson; he wrote the book, score and lyrics, saw the final dress rehearsal off-Broadway in January 1996, but died later that night from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. The show went on to critical and box office acclaim, bagging a Tony and Pullitzer Prize.

Mark (Billy Cullum) acts as narrator, a would-be filmmaker recording his friends’ comings and goings. Mark shares a squat with struggling musician Roger (Ross Hunter) who meets dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani). Their relationship is complicated by her other relationships with drugs and the landlord Ben (Javar La’Trail Parker), who in turn is looking to evict them to turn the space into a studio. Mark and Roger’s friend Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) falls in love with Angel (Layton Williams), a drag queen with a warm heart (and great shoes).

Mark’s ex, Maureen (Lucie Jones), is now with strait-laced Joanne (Shanay Holmes) and sparks fly during their on/off relationship, nicely exemplified in their cat-fight duet “Take Me or Leave Me”. Jones has shaken off her last role at Curve (as nice girl Elle in Legally Blonde) with an out-there performance as avant-garde Maureen, particularly in her signature over the top “Over the Moon”.

So far, so complicated, but characters and relationships are quickly established and the harsh realities of life in Bohemian Alphabet City are centre-stage. Anna Fleischle’s sparse scaffold of a set provides many levels for Lee Proud’s inventive choreography.

The look is grunge, there is crack and promiscuity, tragedy and comedy, but the strength of this story is how the friends all look out for each other, with Angel as their inspiration, and loving “glue”.

Williams owns the stage as Angel, adding sass by the spadeful and total commitment to the wincingly adventurous moves in “Today 4 U”.

Fans of the show know very well that act two begins with the achingly harmonious “Seasons of Love”, and this is the first time I’ve experienced an audience clap and whoop before a song begins, such was the anticipation.

Rent is more shabby chic than penthouse in terms of overall content; matters haven’t progressed an awful lot by the interval, with most of the rest of the year condensed into act two. A wordy musical, act two particularly could do with an edit, and seems unwilling to come to an end.

But we get there eventually and, despite these limitations, the entire cast each put their mark on their characters, performing with energy and raw passion. The standing ovation is well-deserved.

Images by Matt Crockett

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Pygmalion – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Headlong, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nuffield Southampton Theatres present
by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Sam Pritchard
Designer Alex Lowde
Sound Designers Max and Ben Ringham
Lighting Designer Jack Knowles
Video Designer Will Duke

“Finally, and for the encouragement of people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment, I may add that the change wrought by Professor Higgins in the flower-girl is neither impossible nor uncommon.”

So says George Bernard Shaw in the Preface to his 1913 play, Pygmalion.

There is often much discussion in the media as to whether Britain is now a classless society. Another common content piece is a “listicle” detailing the UK’s top five favourite call centre accents (Geordie often scores highly, Cockney less so).

Whatever time period under consideration, there’s no avoiding the fact that we humans still judge each other on accents, with linguistic studies a-plenty to back this up.

Headlong, in conjunction with West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, has reimagined Bernard Shaw’s classic and placed it in present day Pygmalion-land.

A plot refresher: Professor Henry Higgins (Alex Beckett), a hirsute professor of phonetics, places a bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering (Raphael Sowole) that within three months Higgins will have successfully transformed flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Natalie Gavin) from talking and behaving like a “guttersnipe” to a duchess. He views this merely as an experiment and intends to discard Eliza once she is taken as a “lady” in society and he has won his bet. He hadn’t bargained on falling in love with her.

This is certainly a re-imagining of the more common Edwardiana productions; director Sam Pritchard and the creative team present a minimalist Shavian experience. Higgins is a hipster, his workplace a studio complete with sound booth, voice loops and changers. Alex Lowde’s design adds many theatrical touches and his placing of Mrs Higgins’s (Liza Sadovy) drawing room scene in a large, raised vivarium leaves her and her guests cramped and stilted with their cut-glass accents. She almost blends into her surroundings with her leaf print dress coordinating with the wallpaper.

Action is interspersed with film sequences projected onto a large screen, stage front. The opening sequence immediately challenges our expectations as actors stand front of screen, lip-syncing the words of others in different accents and genders, sometimes slowed down or speeded up, and with script fragments projected as surtitles. Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, together with Will Duke’s projection and Geej Ower’s film sequences, add greatly to the sensory experience of this production.

Beckett’s Higgins is selfish and egotistical, exposing the arrogance of his experiment. Gavin’s transformation from broad Yorkshire to RP is moving, at times funny and empowering but her sense of the loss of her identity is the sad thing here. Sowole cuts a cool figure as the more caring Colonel Pickering, and Ian Burfield as Alfred Doolittle makes a great case for the “undeserving poor”.

Whereas act one focuses on the de- and re-construction of Eliza’s vowels and consonants, aided by voice loop and some funky phonetics, act two gets down to the heart of the piece. The final scenes, where Beckett and Gavin remove their mics and confront each other and their respective journeys, are raw—the shift in power in their relationship combined with Higgins’s reticence to admit his true feelings bring matters to a poignant conclusion.

This is an imaginative revision of a classic, and poses the question, in the past one hundred years, just how far have we come as humans in terms of our response to our cultural differences?

Images by Manuel Harlan
At Curve Theatre, Leicester 21 – 25 March

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What the Butler Saw – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Theatre and Theatre Royal Bath present
What the Butler Saw
by Joe Orton
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Designer Michael Taylor
Lighting Designer Ben Cracknell
Sound Designer and Composer Adam McCready for Poetical Machines Ltd

In July 1967, Joe Orton completed What the Butler Saw. In August he was dead.

Nikolai Foster directs this latest revival on Curve’s main stage, prior to its transfer to Theatre Royal Bath. It is well documented that Leicester lad Orton was keen to get away from the city as soon as he could, and would likely be tickled to learn that fifty years since his death, What the Butler Saw is on the stage at Leicester’s main theatre (and whose address features a square bearing his name).

Does this subversive, pre-Theatres Act 1968 farce have a best before date? Much has changed in the world since then, particularly society’s attitudes to sexual politics, gender identity and mental health – all key themes of the play. How does it “sit” in 2017?

A camera shutter retracts, inviting us to look through the lens at the absurd sexual shenanigans taking place in Dr Prentice’s psychiatric facility. Young Geraldine Barclay arrives, thinking she is being interviewed for a job as Dr Prentice’s secretary, he tries to seduce her, Mrs Prentice makes a surprise entrance followed swiftly by an enterprising bell boy, Nicholas Beckett, with whom she has had a dubious encounter at the notorious Station Hotel.  Enter Dr Rance to sort it all out, with the help of the fine but dim Sergeant Match.

As Dr Prentice tries to cover up his misdemeanour, confusion reigns, flesh is exposed and copious clothes- and identity-swapping ensues. This is Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare on some sort of mind-altering drug as Orton throws caution, taste and logic to the four corners of the set. Michael Taylor’s set is in fact beautifully rounded, bright, white and perfect for the many exits and entrances.

Foster has gathered a strong cast who don’t over do the preposterous text. The Prentices’ lot is not a happy one, and Rufus Hound as Dr Prentice and Catherine Russell as his “nymphomaniac” wife, spar with venom.

Dakota Blue Richards and Jack Holden as Geraldine and Nicholas (and then as Nicholas and Geraldine) are excellent, as they make the best of their predicament.

Ravi Aujla plays it straight as the hapless policeman but it is Jasper Britton’s magnificently pompous Dr Rance, whose arrogant pursual of the “truth” whilst keeping an eye on his academic reputation, stands out in this production. His declaration: “I am a scientist, I state facts,” has resonance today; his authoritative air makes you believe what you know to be untrue.

This What the Butler Saw is attractive to the eye, with Taylor’s stunning set and Ben Cracknell’s impressive lighting design, together with some excellent performances. Some may be offended by Orton’s devil-may-care treatment of subjects for which we now handle with much greater sensitivity (rape, for example), but this play is meant to shock and challenge.  What still works though, is Orton’s distaste for the hypocrisy of those who abuse their authority and power over others.

Although not what I would describe as hilarious, and the humour is very much of a one-track mind, there are still many laughs to be had in this bawdy farce.

Images by Catherine Ashmore
At Curve Theatre 3 – 18 March 2017

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