RENT – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Robert Mackintosh and Idili Theatricals Ltd for Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd present
RENT
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
Pygmalion
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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Pixie’s Project – review

chloe-siezure-1

This review first appeared in Western Park Gazette

Leicester Theatre Group and TheNaked. present
Pixie’s Project
Sue Townsend Theatre, 3 and 4 March
Artistic Director and Choreographer Charley Benns
Guest Choreographer Matthew Lambden

Leicester Theatre Group, one of Leicester’s most well-respected children’s theatre companies, has collaborated with DMU Dance graduate Charley Benns of TheNaked. to create Pixie’s Project. Through devised dance, and as Eating Disorder Awareness Week draws to a close, this is a powerful production which aims to increase understanding of and break the taboos surrounding eating disorders, in this case, anorexia.

An uncompromising performance, Pixie’s Project makes for uncomfortable viewing, telling the story of Chloe Shelton as she becomes engulfed and controlled by the monkey on her back, Ana Anorexia. Well-meaning friends and family try to release Chloe from the grip of this condition, and from the dark recesses of despair, Chloe ultimately finds the strength to confront Ana Anarexia thanks to caring for her kitten, Pixie.

Sophie Baker as Chloe is at times heart-wrenching, and ably conveys the struggles and conflicting emotions, both with her own mental health and the effects her condition has on her family and friends.

Ana Anorexia is portrayed by Georgia Penney with sinister menace, and together with the other ‘Anas’ (Chelsea Partridge, Olivia Mahan and Amelya Tonge), are a dark presence in Chloe’s mind.

img_8577Chloe is supported by friends and family (Bethany John, Ruby Jacques, Lottie Wade, Amina Hillyard and Annabelle Tarrant), all concerned with their own journeys of frustration and understanding. Some of the key pas de deux are upsetting – between Ana and Chloe, and Chloe and her mum – or beautifully moving, with Chloe and her best friend, and also her boyfriend Josh (Ben Culleton).

Issues with mental health, eating disorders and body image are increasing and worrying concerns, particularly amongst teenage girls. Clutching at and assessing and re-assessing her appearance is an almost constant motif throughout the choreography, showing Chloe’s ongoing battle with her ‘self’.

Effective lighting (David Hately) and contemporary music assist the storytelling, although on occasion, the sound is ear-splittingly loud.

The aim of this production is to tour, ideally in schools and colleges, and Chloe’s story, told in this simply staged yet powerful production, can only help to serve as an all-important focus for challenge, discussion and hopefully, greater understanding.

An emotional and absorbing production, performed to a high standard.

This production was supported by BEAT, the charity for eating disorders.

Images by Dirty Diamond and Stef White.

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Matt Watts: Playlist – review

playlist-by-matt-watts

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Written and performed by Matt Watts

Matt Watts’s Playlist considers the role music plays in our lives, particularly now we are set firmly in the Age of the i-Pod.

Appearing on the final day of the Leicester Comedy Festival, Matt muses on music’s power to bring people together (or otherwise) through a series of rather unorthodox mixed media vignettes.

Matt has created a unique instrument to aid his storytelling. I’m not sure if it has a name, I’d go with ‘Pimped-up i-Pod Playlister’ or even just ‘Pimp My i-Pod’, but thanks to Superglue, a hacksaw and velcro, Matt has welded a launchpad on to his brother’s Rock Band guitar, carved out a space to connect his i-Pod and da-dah, a pretty impressive machine is born.

Matt is immediately engaging, with a quietly confident, deadpan but amiable delivery and after a brief introduction, including a confession of his love for the Arctic Monkeys, he tells the tale of Ryan and Ann.

Sampling and voice-looping songs and riffs via shuffle on his i-Pod, and with an amusing interpretation of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ (including a new line for the children: “The racist on the bus shouts “go back home”), Ryan and Ann engage in a ‘will they, won’t they meet’ kind of dance.

Jade and James’s story follows, with:

First kiss, teenage bliss
and a mutual appreciation of Oasis

Using the premise that your i-Pod is a window to your soul, Matt looks at how a playlist can chart the course of a relationship. This story showcases the multi-layering effects of Matt’s Pimped Up i-Pod; who’d have thought Oasis and Bon Jovi would sound so good together?

Whilst clever, this story could do with a little tightening up in its telling –  inevitably, there are moments where music and effects need to be set up, and with a sometimes rambling story there are periods where momentum in the story is lost.

Matt includes some pre-recorded stories and the fight over Female Siri by what sounds like Male Siri and Stephen Hawking draws some of the bigger laughs of the performance.

The final story features Sandra and Dan, two individuals at opposite ends of the musical spectrum in terms of taste but who allow each other their ‘identity’. To the outside world, they enjoy their first dance at their wedding in silence; they dance together but are listening to their preferred version of the same song via headphones. Funny as that image is, I can’t help thinking this is a sadly prophetic statement.

Matt’s spoken words are lyrical, that is resembling song lyrics rather than the poetic interpretation, with a reliance on end rhymes and rhyming couplets.  I felt further exploration of the sounds Matt can create might add more to the overall performance, playing more with the interplay between voice, words and instrument; there are occasions where an excerpt of a song or manipulating effect had just got going when it came to an abrupt end.

Matt is clearly an inventive artist. A little more work on timing and content and his show will travel well (as long as he has access to at least one charging point). 

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William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged) – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play [Abridged] Reduced Shakespeare Company CREDIT Geraint Lewis

Reduced Shakespeare Company presents
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)
by Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin  
directed by Austin Tichenor

Well, hey nonny nonny, you won’t believe what’s turned up next to a pile of bones in a Leicester car park—none other than a long lost first play written by a 17-year-old emerging playwright called William Shakespeare (allegedly).

Thus the “other” RSC, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, presents William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged), a “faux-lio” inscribed with various working titles such as “Breaking Bard” (just two of many groan-inducing puns peppered throughout). While Storm Doris blew and crack’d her cheeks outside, the audience experienced a 90-minute whirlwind of a production at Curve’s Studio, the performance part of Leicester’s Comedy Festival as well as one stop on the RSC’s extensive national tour celebrating the company’s 35th anniversary.

As the self-confessed “bad boys of abridgement” and widely-acknowledged brand leaders of the Shakespearean parody genre, writers Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin assemble many of Will’s well-loved and -loathed characters in one play. Controlled by a feuding Ariel and Puck, all of young Shakespeare’s characters interact with each other; from this work he would later pick out the best bits, give them their own dramas and hence the plays we know today.

For the 10th addition to its successful franchise, the RSC continues to treat its source material with both reverence and irreverence. Employing trademark plot devices including tempests, shipwrecks, ghosts, love potions, cross-dressing and star-crossed lovers, Joseph Maudsley, Matthew Pearson and James Percy zip through this fast-moving and funny homage to Stratford’s most famous son. Throw in topical references, squirty guns and a little working of the audience, there’s something for everyone.

Lady Macbeth is a vamp, we see Richard III with and without his hunched back, Kate and SNOW WHITEBeatrice get it on, the Weird Sisters double up as Lear’s daughters… this is one crazy plot, but it works.

Special mention too for the company and assistant stage managers, Sarah Quinney and Jessica Rice, holding it all together managing umpteen quick-fire costume changes and beautifully-timed sound design.

The multi-talented cast exude bucketloads of charisma, comic timing and excellent delivery, and, whether you’re a Shakespeare scholar or novice, measure for measure, this is a delight of a show.

Images by Geraint Lewis
Reduced Shakespeare Company

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The Wedding Singer – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

the-wedding-singer-jon-robyns-as-robbie-hart-photo-c-darren-bell-2

Dan Looney in association with Pauline Hall Productions, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Tom O’Connell Productions and Tim Lawson presents
The Wedding Singer
Music by Matthew Sklar
Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy
Lyrics by Tim Herlihy
Director and choreographer Nick Winston

Aptly opening its national tour at Curve on Valentine’s Day, The Wedding Singer is all about love, marriage and a “will they, won’t they, oh get on with it” kind of storyline.

The film of the same name (starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore) was a huge hit in 1998; the musical opened on Broadway in 2006, bagging a Tony award nomination.

Thanks to a film trailer montage of the period, we are transported back to 1985 to meet Robbie (Jon Robyns) and Julia (Cassie Compton). Robbie plays in a band, his past dreams of stardom long gone as he earns his living as a wedding rather than a rock singer. Robbie is engaged to Linda but she jilts him at the altar. He takes it badly, moping around like an angst-ridden teenager.

the-wedding-singer-jon-robyns-as-robbie-hart-photo-c-darren-bellNice-girl Julia is a waitress at the wedding venue. She bows to conformity, becomes engaged to her slimy, greed-is-good boyfriend Glenn (Ray Quinn), but feels there’s something missing between them. Cue a series of somewhat contrived events leading to a kiss between Robbie and Julia, who both realise (but of course, don’t tell) that they have feelings for each other.

Throw in a bar mitzvah, misunderstandings and a Vegas wedding complete with ’80s pop lookie-likeys and you have all the ingredients for a cheesy, sometimes cringeworthy musical.

The problem is not with the performances—these are all excellent and there’s good chemistry between Robyns and Compton. Ruth Madoc struts her stuff as Rosie in an almost pantomime turn—and looks like she’s loving it. Soap-throb and X Factor star Ray Quinn oozes bad boy charm, and it’s a shame there’s not more stage time for his role.

Following his success last year with an international tour of Legally Blonde, director and choreographer Nick Winston includes a smattering of references to ’80s dance moves, a regular stream of comedic touches and a couple of stand-out numbers: the Thriller-themed “Casualty of Love” and ode to bachelor-dom “Single”. Tim Herlihy’s lyrics are clever; unfortunately many are drowned out by an over-loud orchestra.

Francis O’Connor’s set design zips around well on Curve’s large stage, although his costume design is less successful—think 1985 loaded with shoulder pads, big hair and Miami Vice suits. I counted no more than two sets of shoulder pads on stage at any point, and the whole look of the show seemed twenty years ahead of its time.

However, the main issue is with the writing. Apart from several topical references shoehorned into the dialogue, it’s hard to tell which decade the two-dimensional characters inhabit. Acknowledging the purpose of The Wedding Singer is not to provide a history lesson, some edge could have been added by breaking out from tired stereotypes and, sadly, it’s another case of if you’re female you’re either virgin, whore or matriarch. The sole desire of virtually everyone on stage is to get married, or at the very least be in a relationship, making for dull and self-indulgent characterisation.

The audience for opening night included a sizeable proportion of ‘VIP’ guests who whooped, clapped and cheered throughout. No doubt this is an entertaining show, but, as can sometimes be the case with weddings, once you’ve had enough champagne, the fizz falls flat and you’re hoping it’s not long for the taxi home.

The Wedding Singer is at Curve 10 – 18 February
Images by Darren Bell

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