Scrooge The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Made at Curve in association with Michael Harrison and David Ian present
Scrooge The Musical
Book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Christmas has come early to Curve as its latest production Scrooge the Musical opens, a month before Christmas Eve.

Stuffed-full with Victoriana, carol singers and Gawd-bless-you-guv’nor cheer, director Nikolai Foster and his creative team have pulled out some major crackers with their main show for the festive season.

Heavily based on Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, Leslie Bricusse composed the score for the 1970 film Scrooge for which he received an Oscar nomination. Bricusse subsequently wrote book, music and lyrics for the stage version; it opened in Birmingham in 1992, transferred to the West End in 1996 and has enjoyed relative success in the UK over the years.

Dickens, master storyteller and creator of instantly recognisable characters, pretty much wrote the template for our Christmases since 1843 when A Christmas Carol was published.  Wisely, Bricusse stuck to the core story of Scrooge’s redemptive journey, and in these days of austerity and our issues with how we treat our fellow human beings, it is a message worth hearing again.

As the clock strikes 7PM on Christmas Eve, 1843, mean and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge reluctantly allows his clerk Bob Cratchit home for Christmas to his poor but happy family. During the night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley, followed by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, giving Scrooge the opportunity to re-consider his wicked ways. I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, however, Scrooge plumps for being nice from now onwards and everyone is happy—hooray!

Jasper Britton gives a satisfyingly curmudgeonly performance as Scrooge; his comic timing is perfect and he commands the stage, his expressive face doing a lot of the work. So what if he’s not the greatest singer on stage, he personifies what Scrooge is all about. Nathaneal Landskroner doubling as Young Scrooge and Nephew Harry provides an excellent counterpoint to Scrooge’s older self as we gain an emotional glimpse into his earlier life.

From stage to ceiling, upstage and downstage, Curve’s vast space is fully utilised by Michael Taylor’s exceptional set design, complete with nightshirts festooned like bunting across Cheapside’s dark and gloomy streets. Ben Cracknell’s lighting design is breathtaking, greatly enhancing the story’s depiction of darkness and light in character, setting and mood.

However, all the tricks can’t disguise the lack of strong musical numbers, save one or two, particularly “Thank You Very Much”. The score is good but not great, and I often had a sense throughout of phrases from other songs from other musicals, and several just don’t seem to get going. In “The Milk of Human Kindness”, the ubiquitous “jolly number with the ‘poor folk’ getting drunk”, it’s “Oom Pah Pah” without the oomph; Oliver-lite.

A shame as, visually, the set pieces are exuberantly choreographed (Stephen Mears), and there is colour, humour and fine performances by the company in “December the Twenty-Fifth” and “Toy Ballet”.

This is a family show, however, I should warn those attending with young children: you may have trouble whenever memories of Marley’s ghost and entourage of chain-thrashing, wardrobe-hiding zombies recur.

With its pies and plum pudding, the haves and have-nots, this sumptuous production also serves up an opportunity for audiences to re-consider some of the messages behind the festive season.

Images by Pamela Raith

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Find the Right Words – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Find the Right Words
Upstairs at the Western, Leicester
15 November 2017

A review of one of Leicester’s regular spoken word events, Find the Right Words (FTRW), is long overdue*, having appeared on the Sabotage Awards long lists for best regular spoken word show in both 2016 and 2017. Created and compered by performance poet and playwright Jess Green, FTRW – on the 3rd Wednesday of the month – has been going for five years now, four of them based at pub theatre Upstairs at the Western.

Jess secures some of the country’s top spoken word performers, and uniquely, offers a free, hour long workshop before ‘curtain up’ run by one of the two featured artists. With a roll call of past performers including Buddy Wakefield, Hollie McNish, Jemima Foxtrot, Inua Ellams, Paula Varjack and Elvis McGonagall, these workshops are a gift from the word gods.

After the free workshop, FTRW follows this format: ten open mic slots, two headline guest poets, and a coveted speed poet slot (not forgetting a raffle).  With support from Apples and SnakesFTRW keeps going through ticket sales  – a price of £8/£6 concession is pretty fair for a good couple of hours of quality spoken word.

Part one: Lego, Barbi and Jeremy Corbyn

There’s a supportive, relaxed feel to this show, and boasts a hardcore of regulars. Initial business of the night involves the audience deciding on the three topics the speed poet must feature in a poem, and tonight it was the turn of James Ward to disappear downstairs, notebook and pen in hand.

Jess performed a poem from her forthcoming Burning Eye Books collection Self-Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn (due to be published July 2018); it is both plaintive and amusing, with faint echoes of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Adagia’.

And now, the first five open mics. At any spoken word event I inwardly cringe when a poem is introduced with words along the lines of ‘I wrote this on my way here, it’s not very good’ (and which happened several times during the show). I know it’s a confidence thing and scribbled notes in a book may not seem much, but they can transform into magic when read or performed – poets, please have faith!

Moving effortlessly between humour and anger, Jay performed a couple of poems on transgender life with amusing thoughts on moving from use of the ladies to the gents, and a great re-working of the adage ‘our aim is to keep these toilets clean, your aim will help’.

Singer, songwriter and poet Grace Petrie read a ‘just-written’ poem but it had a polished feel – thoughtful and moving, and with astute points about her relationship with the word ‘butch’.

Dickie-bowed Poetman read his recent musings on artificial intelligence and Merrill presented an unusual (and effective) contemplation of his life when looked at as a series of stairs.

With themes including Kristallnacht and Afghanistan, Michelle read two excellent poems, both packing an emotional, but well-controlled punch.  Her first considered her prized Afghan coat from the 1970s and what it means to her now having recently taught an orphaned Afghan boy, once a goatherd in the mountains but now a refugee in a strange land.

First headliner of the night, and leader of the earlier workshop, was Louise Fazackerley (a 2016 Sabotage Awards long-lister with her show Council House Poetry).

Louise’s warm, reassuring style of delivery and Wigan vowels contrast with the jagged edges of the lives of the protagonists in her poems. Her collection Love is a Battlefield, the result of a BBC3 The Verb New Voices commissionconsiders the effect of war on soldiers (and their families) who served in Afghanistan, and, as is often the way at readings, coincidental connections appear throughout the evening  – Louise’s work showed another side of the same ‘war changes lives’ coin, a counterpoint to Michelle’s earlier poem about the Afghan refugee boy.

Louise creates some wonderfully concrete imagery:

Sweat glands seep
Lego men and workwear Barbis

‘RSVP’ is a love song to rain:

Let hoods fall while the streets become streams, the roads become rivers,
riding waves down to the call of woods and beck.

and good advice worth taking in ‘Fly’:

there’s only one life we’re living
so let’s fly

Part two: weddings and waving

Jess opened the second half with ‘Innuendo and Hotpot’, a heartfelt plea to the current producers of Coronation Street.

James the speed poet returned to the fold to perform a lovely tribute to Jess following her recent wedding to Dave – the randomly selected themes of weddings, sequins, Bonfire Night and the Australian vote fitting nicely together.

The next set of five open mics began with Gill who energised her poems with movement, and a lovely wry observation of what it’s like as the stationary waver and watcher of family members enjoying the many revolutions of a carousel.

Mike alerted us to the dangers of homonyms off-page – his poems on mourning and morning were delivered with quiet care, heightening their emotional power.  In contrast, Sammy performed her intense poem about love and addiction with good control of pacing and delivery.

Christine’s amusing reactions to visiting a bird fair at Rutland Water this summer also informed, with a line many of us are unlikely to write:

we learnt about the dragonfly
squirting water from its anal passages

Her delivery had great comic presence, and put me in mind of Josie Lawrence.

Shruti is working on her show Sky Diaries, and she performed two poems which examine her cultural heritage, particularly how she has come to embrace, and love the meaning behind her Sanskrit name.

Caroline Teague, also known as Caroline Smiling, was the second headliner of the night, and brought beautiful music into the intimate space. Another engaging performer, her rich, soulful voice wraps you up like a warm hug – she is also an expert giver of hugs, which is always a good thing if words ever fail.

She is inspired by place, particularly her life growing up and living in London; ‘Good Earth’ describes the richness of cultures in Harlesdon:

Dialects bounce off the walls

Accompanying several of her poems with her ukelele, Caroline’s performances and poems are sensual and her final poem, ‘On the Bad Days’ is melancholic yet uplifting – the description of her work as tragic optimism is beautifully put. 

And what words would I use to describe FTRW? Welcoming, warm, witty and wise.

Image supplied by Find the Right Words

* A confession: as co-founder and a director of Upstairs at the Western from 2012 to December 2016, I attended many Find the Right Words and have watched it grow and develop. I am no longer involved in the running and programming at the venue, and therefore delighted to now be free to enjoy the show as a ‘normal’ audience member.

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The Secret Keeper – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

ClerkinWorks and Ovalhouse present
The Secret Keeper
by Angela Clerking
directed by Angela Clerking and Lucy J Skilbeck
Curve Theatre, Leicester

ClerkinWorks and Ovalhouse’s production The Secret Keeper takes the homespun advice of “a problem shared is a problem halved” to a new dimension: share a secret and you will be totally free of your terrible burden, providing your confidant keeps mum.

Written by Angela Clerkin, The Secret Keeper is billed as a “political fairytale for adults with songs, magpies and a murderous gothic heart”.

There are indeed a handful of songs and a murder of magpies, however, the murderous gothic heart needs coaxing out.

The Good Daughter’s father, the Dolls House Maker, has suffered with a terrible melancholy ever since the murder of his brother nine years before. To make her father happy, The Good Daughter listens to his darkest secret and vows never to tell a living soul. The relief of passing his secret to another causes him to encourage first his wife, then the rest of the village to unburden themselves to his daughter (now wearing her official Secret Keeper outfit of hooded, lamé cloak and giant ears).

Suffice to say, the weight of the village’s secrets make her unwell and The Good Daughter frees herself of her own burden by revealing all. Revenge is swift and conclusive.

Performances from the four-strong cast playing many roles are excellent, with Niall Ashdown and Anne Odeke perfect as the conniving parents and Hazel Maycock’s hapless Chemist and imperious King’s Right Hand Man are amusing. Clerkin is an amiable narrator and plays The Good Daughter deadpan.

Some nice macabre touches include a severed doll announcing the scene changes and Colin Grenfell’s lighting design adds to the mood. In the second act, apart from an effective opening scene (a trade union meeting of crows verging on Pythonesque absurdity), the stark lighting prevalent has the effect of dispelling the magic. In contrast, act one’s darkness pierced by beams and starry sky really add to the fairytale aspect.

The piece as a whole seems unsure of exactly which style to stick with; the humour is knowing and savvy, although there are times when it relies on out-of-place expletives. The darker moments work well, particularly the mysterious ending, but there are too few of them.

Although “other-worldy”, there are many topical issues which are touched on but, frustratingly, skirt around rather than confront, not least the consequences of the transference of guilt and public outing of information that is not yours to divulge. In 2017, we’re up to our retinas in secrets, with data protection and privacy, leaks and fake news and the differing fortunes of whistleblowers, yet the hints at this are unsatisfying.

A quirky, creative piece which grazes rather than feeds on a topical subject.

Images by Sheila Burnett

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The Leftovers – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Sheep Soup presents
The Leftovers
Book by Nic Harvey
Music and lyrics by Nic Harvey and Rob Green

Sheep Soup’s The Leftovers is the first musical to be commissioned for performance at Curve’s 250+ seater Studio space and is performed as part of the venue’s Inside Out Festival 2017.

Over two years in development, The Leftovers is an examination of different responses to grief via “a musical in a naturalistic setting”. The team behind this project are graduates of Nottingham’s BAFTA award-winning Television Workshop which specialises in naturalistic performance and improvisation.

Set in a recording studio, five people gather, some know each other, some don’t, but they all knew Jodie at different points in their lives. Jodie has been dead for a year but they have gathered to record a tribute to her and honour her memory. Trouble is, Jodie didn’t seem like a particularly nice person which is fair enough, we don’t have to like characters, but as a central, unseen presence there needs to be something about her to make you care.

Fortunately for Yaz (Philippa Hogg), Jim (Ben Welch), Hayley (Sarah White), Angie (Wreh-asha Walton) and Russ (Tim Murphy), Jodie was a prolific documenter of her thoughts and, as the group delve into her papers, drawings and Facebook account, each of the characters attempts to resolve their feelings towards Jodie, and to each other.

And that’s it as far as plot is concerned. Unfortunately, the book of The Leftovers (Nic Harvey) is clichéd and lacks any real drama; naturalism has been taken too far in many instances with a narrative that includes too much of the mundane minutiae of life.

Conversely, Harvey and Rob Green’s original score is accomplished, beautifully sung and includes a variety of styles and moods. The paean to the ’90s is amusing and witty, and the lyrics throughout are clever. As meta-musical theatre, these elements work best as individuals apparently improvise the creation of a musical tribute.

Russ has most of the best lines and Murphy delivers them with a nice mix of sarcasm and surreality. Ben Welch has great comic timing and a stunning singing voice, as does Wreh-asha Walton; her solo numbers are soulful and delivered with impressive control and power.

One finds oneself longing to just hear the songs, a good thing in a musical, however,  a musical also requires songs that drive the narrative forward and unfortunately, this is where the talented cast are let down. All good stories begin at a crucial point in key characters’ lives; we want to get behind them, share the impact of their decisions and desires and care about what happens to them. Why not start in the immediate aftermath of Jodie’s death, for example, and see for ourselves how the characters react and change over time?

The improv feel to this is good, however, it should be noted this is a professional production with Arts Council funding. Running 25 minutes over the stated time is not a good thing, and there appear to be no production images. Notwithstanding the creative side, this stuff also matters, especially if you are given an invaluable opportunity to perform in a leading theatre’s key space.

The programme sheet name-checks over 30 individuals and organisations who assisted with development of The Leftovers and I can’t help wondering if the lack of underlying narrative has been raised at any point—it does need addressing.

During the spoken elements of the show, there is a sense the audience is intruding on a private conversation, only it’s a conversation I don’t particularly want to be involved in. A shame, as the music is wonderful.

Image supplied by Curve

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Hedda Gabler – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

UK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

National Theatre presents
Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen, new version by Patrick Marber
Director Ivo van Howe

The National Theatre’s 2016 production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is now on tour, directed by Ivo van Howe and with Patrick Marber’s revision of this classic text.

Power games, manipulation and an apathetic view of life are this play’s poison, along with some unoriginal takes on the male gaze and women’s place in the world (and which disappointingly, considering this is a revision of a play from 1890, doesn’t seem to have progressed very far). Marber ensures there is humour in this bleak piece, however, it could be blacker—it often feels flippant and jarring rather than a welcome release.

UK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Hedda Gabler (Lizzy Watts) is beautiful, bored and just back from honeymoon with her academic husband Tesman (Abhin Galeya). He is distracted by his career and already seeming uninterested in his wife until she says she is pregnant. Tesman’s rival Lovborg is on the brink of publishing a major work he has been writing (longhand—see below) with Mrs Elvsted (Annabel Bates): another unhappily married woman, and in love with Lovborg (Richard Pyros).

Hedda plays with men and she has history with judge Brack (a dangerous and rather unjudgely Adam Best) and Lovborg. She tests and pushes them as far as she can, happy to tempt the alcoholic Lovborg back to drink. Not stopping at the men, Hedda is also no friend to Mrs Elvsted, continuing on her mission to destroy all around her, including herself.

Sheathed in a flesh-coloured silk dress, Hedda prowls barefoot around her vast and virtually empty apartment, save for a beautifully lit glass balcony door and a few items from Ikea (set and lighting design by Jan Versewyveld). The balcony door is symbolically boarded up by the cast later in the play, cordless power tools shutting out the light as Hedda descends into darkness.

Throwing flowers in anger and nailgunning them to the walls, Watts’s portrayal is petulant, impetuous and brings to mind a stroppy teen, complete with eye-rolling and sarcasm. She puts up something of a fight with Brack but it is clear he alone holds her interest, ultimately the cause of her undoing.

UK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

There are several elements of this staging and re-working which don’t add up. With its camera door-entry system, ably policed by omnipresent maid Berta (Madlena Nedeva), this is a contemporary setting. Why then stick to a handwritten manuscript of which the only copy Hedda sets alight? Memory stick, iCloud anyone?

Ibsen highlights the plight of women trapped in marriage—a groundbreaking issue in the 19th century—however, Marber may have stuck too rigidly to Ibsen’s preliminary notes for the play, specifically, “women have no influence on public affairs. So they want to influence individuals spiritually”.

Hedda’s only power over the characters in this play relate to her body and sexuality—men want her physically, Aunt Juliana (Christine Kavanagh) is nurturing and fixated on Hedda’s fertility. Berta is treated appallingly by everyone (because she is a servant) and Mrs Elvsted helps a man using her brain only for him to “own”  the work and dismiss her contribution. Welcome to the 21st century.

Another of Ibsen’s notes for the play was, “men and women don’t belong in the same century”. Whilst I’d been led to believe they are also from different planets, either way, this Hedda Gabler is cold, unsettling and nervy, but, regrettably, not a play for our times.

Images by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

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Last Resort – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

2Magpies Theatre presents
Last Resort
Created and devised by Tom Barnes and Eve Parmiter

Performed as part of Curve Theatre’s Inside Out festival, Last Resort is the most recent production by innovative Nottingham-based company 2Magpies Theatre, developed with The Lowry and supported by Curve Theatre, Leicester.

Now in its fourth year, Inside Out festival celebrates “leading and emerging East Midlands artists”, showcasing writers, theatre makers and artists from around the region.

Between 18 and 28 October, various spaces in the theatre, from its 250+ seater Studio to ad hoc stages in the foyer space, feature free live music, spoken word readings and installations, together with programmed performances at around £10 a ticket.

For Last Resort, our ticket listed ‘Secret Location’ as the venue, and so we were taken a couple of hundred yards from Curve to the nearby Two Queens art studios. Orange deckchairs are arranged in traverse in a cold, empty space—all bleak and exposed brick. However, our hosts Tom and Eve welcome us warmly with Cuba Libra punch, invite us to take a seat in a deckchair, burrow our toes in our personal bag of sand and enjoy a little break at the futuristic Last Resort.

Using the premise of tour guide, this provides the vehicle for passing on a lot of Guantanamo Bay-related facts, from the bizarre and shocking to the depressingly familiar. Who’d have thought Cinderellais on the banned list of books? I suppose it does have a theme of escape to somewhere better.

Devised and performed by Tom Barnes and Eve Parmiter, theirs is a sort of manager-trainee relationship with Eve in charge of the holiday “resort”. This is a multi-sensory experience, with the sand, the punch, a warm flannel, a plunge into blackout and finished off with an unpleasant-to-watch drinking game mimicking the effects of waterboarding.

Whilst thought-provoking, this is a piece heavy with facts and information and stretching an idea as far as it can go. Theatre should provoke thought and discussion of course, but there’s scope to develop this idea further—I didn’t feel I’d got into the heart of the place or the piece, and there are other stories which I would like to see and hear.

2Magpies aims to create visual performances, engaging audiences who don’t normally go to the theatre; another production of theirs, The Litvinenko Project, has been performed in cafés and teahouses around the country. That is perhaps the more accessible production; however, in terms of reaching new audiences, Last Resort is still a strong piece.

The company comes at this subject in a new and interesting way and will hopefully spur audiences on to go back home, get on to Google and make sure this testament to a cruel and unusual punishment is not forgotten.

Image supplied by Curve

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Paradigm Rhymes – Beyond the Dome – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Marcus Joseph presents
Paradigm Rhymes – Beyond the Dome
Written by Mellow Baku
Creator and musical director Marcus Joseph

Curve Theatre’s Inside Out Festival celebrates “leading and emerging East Midlands artists”, showcasing writers, theatre makers and artists from around the region, and is now in its fourth year.

Between 18 and 28 October, various spaces in the theatre – from its 250+ seater Studio to ad hoc stages in the foyer space – feature free live music, spoken word readings and installations, together with programmed performances at around £10 a ticket.

Paradigm Rhymes – Beyond the Dome is set in the future, a dystopian world (the Dome) where the minds of young people are under state control (or at least by DJs – digital janitors). A creative act is a crime, the most heinous being musical improvisation – jazz.

Beyond the Dome is written by Mellow Baku, herself an enchanting performer who relishes the sounds and tones of language, often set to music. The inhabitants of her dystopian world chant this mantra:

Work harder, get tokens
buy stuff, enjoy life

Despite the chilling premise (unless you’re no big fan of jazz), there is a soothing, gentle feel to this piece. Told through projected comic book digital imagery (Natasha DuBarry-Gurr), spoken word (narrated by Sophia Thakur), saxophone (Marcus Joseph, also creator and musical director) and a three-piece band of drums, bass and guitar (Jamie Sykes, Mark Trounson and Joe Egan respectively), the audience is presented with a choice of two options at several points during the show. Beyond the Dome is itself about choices, therefore this is a nice device to determine the direction of the story. However, the choices seem loaded in favour of the much more positive sounding outcome and it wasn’t always clear that the choice made much difference to the narrative – I guess you’d have to hear the alternative but for me, these parts didn’t gel.

In our story, Kaia and her family show determination and resolve to escape beyond the repressive confines of the Dome and creative freedom – a satisfying yet for me rather underwhelming story. What happened if the other choices were made? On this occasion, I must accept the will of a democratic vote and never know.

Another small point: the narrator often read script-in-hand. Whether this is because of the choice aspect of the show or because this is another show in development I can’t be clear, but it does imply ‘work in progress’ (which I didn’t see in the ‘blurb’).

An interesting concept, pleasing if you like jazz and good use of multi media. Marketing states it is aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds; I’m not sure about that – our audience covered a wide age spectrum and I think this has wider appeal, particularly with the musical element.

Overall, an enjoyable if understated experience, and some tightening up of the storytelling and plot would help accentuate the moments of tension.

Image supplied by Curve.

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