Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

(L-R) Jay Varsani (Riaz) and Hareet Deol (Suf) - Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual - Photography by Ellie Kurttz (5)

Curve Theatre presents
Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual
Adapted by Dougal Irvine from the book by Riaz Khan
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Memoirs Of An Asian Football Casual, a Made at Curve production currently enjoying its “world première”, has the feel of a play of two halves, both in terms of mood and content, but also its power to engage.

Dougal Irvine’s adaptation is based on Riaz Khan’s KHAN—Memoirs of an Asian Casual; born in Britain of a Pakistani father and Afghan mother, Riaz and his family negotiate the aftermath of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in Leicester’s increasingly multicultural community. Thanks to the colour of his skin, a beating is never far away and, as Riaz is often reminded, “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack”.

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual - Photography by Ellie KurttzSeduced by the designer clobber of the well-turned-out casual (Fila, Ellesse et al), Riaz (Jay Varsani) and his brother Suf (Hareet Deol) are brimming with energy and testosterone but with little in the way of career prospects. As a means of escape (particularly from the National Front), they fall in with the Baby Squad, a notorious gang of Leicester City football supporters comprising a diverse mix of white, Asian and Afro Caribbean members.

It’s less about football, more about the gear and the fighting; fists and kickboxing moves graduate to knives and Riaz serves several stints at Her Majesty’s pleasure. With his life spiralling out of control, something has to change.

Performed in traverse on an 8 metre, rectangular platform—an audience surrounding a pitch—the stage is illuminated by a similarly-sized “flying” lighting rig which tilts and shifts position as different pressures are applied to Riaz’s life. Grace Smart’s set design gives the actors plenty of scope to bound from end to end. Period detail is spot on; the 15 or so props strategically placed around the edge of the stage are key to the piece—a brick used as an ‘80s mobile phone is an amusing touch.

Varsani and Deol, fresh out of drama school, are excellent and deliver riveting performances. Deol portrays an extensive array of characters, from elderly female relatives to prison officers, National Front supporters and rival gang members and displays an impressive mastery of different accents. The space buzzes with their energy as they dodge, weave, dance and fight.

(L-R) Hareet Deol (Suf) and Jay Varsani (Riaz) - Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual - Photography by Ellie Kurttz (5)Nikolai Foster’s direction is dynamic without seeking to judge, trivialise or glamorise: actors are rarely static, humour is just right, with nice moments of dramatic irony throughout. The bounce and vigour of the first act is not reflected in act two—certainly the mood darkens as the violence increases and intensifies, however, this second part seems at least 10 minutes too long.

The ‘80s may well be remembered fondly—didn’t we just “heart” those shoulder pads, the perms, those New Romantics—but these were also racist, violent times. There are uncomfortable echoes of where we find ourselves now: the treatment of immigrants, the rise of the far right, leading to question just how much progress have we made as a society in the last 35 years?

Endings can be problematic. In this case, it is good to discover Khan has now made a success of his life as a lecturer and family man. Appalled by the re-emergence of racism and the far right, he also spends time educating young people away from hate and mindless violence. In the play, Khan appears as himself, gives a precis of his life now and talks with and appears to reject his younger self. This came across as rather self-indulgent, and the “telling” style of this conclusion seems out of kilter with the majority of the play.

That said, Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual delivers a contemporary kick up the ’80s, is well produced, directed and performed and confronts disturbing attitudes and behaviour with verve and style.

Images by Ellie Kurttz

 

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The Wipers Times – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre present
The Wipers Times
by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Curve Theatre, Leicester

And so The Wipers Times arrives at Curve, continuing its 2018 UK tour of duty and presenting another facet to the remembrance of World War I in this centenary commemoration period (barely two days after Akram Khan’s Xenos reflecting the contribution of non-white soldiers to the Allies’ war effort).

Written by comedy big guns Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, The Wipers Times is a homage to the men of the 24th Sherwood Foresters who, in spring 1916, chanced upon an old printing press in Ypres (pronounced Wipers by the Tommies) and served up a regular dose of satire and humour to keep the soldiers at the Western Front amused.

This has been something of a slow burn for Hislop and Newman, who, after years of rejection, were finally commissioned by the BBC to write a 90-minute TV film about the paper, culminating in a BAFTA nomination in 2014. Acknowledging its theatrical qualities, they went on to create this touring stage version, first performed at The Watermill Theatre in 2016.

Charismatic, whisky-loving Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton), suave Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) and civvy-street printer Sergeant Tyler (Dan Mersh) managed to get 23 issues of their satirical magazine out to the soldiers in the trenches between 1916 and 1918, keeping up morale with puns, poetry, and spoof adverts and articles.

The birth and development of the paper is told chronologically, topped and tailed by Roberts’s attempts to land a job as a journalist after the war (his Wipers Times being his first foray into editorship).

Almost constant shell explosions and distant gunfire are interspersed with music hall style sketches and songs, these fantastical scenes bringing the ever-present black humour to life, and Dora Schweitzer’s versatile set really comes into its own here. Claustrophobic and tightly packed with the accoutrementsof life on the Western Front, trenches held up with planks and corrugated metal, coils of barbed wire lit up for the fun and farce of the music hall skits—a visual reinforcement of the contrasts between the realism and escapism at the heart of this true story.

Director Caroline Leslie makes the most of every scene change; they are little routines in themselves and a chance to share more examples of the verse and song featured in the original Wipers Times. Sentimentality is avoided and the scenes prior to going “over the top” are poignant and well-paced.

The cast are all excellent, timing the comedy to perfection, yet delivering sincere portrayals of ordinary men caught up in far from ordinary events over which they have little control. The potential minefields of stereotypical caricature are mostly avoided and it should be remembered the jokes and stories are the voices of the men who were living and dying in the thick of the war. The humour, quite gentle by today’s standards, is a big hurrah for the British mastery of the understatement, love of puns and the pricking of pomposity wherever it appears (usually in the form of the commanding officers).

There are now many culturally significant plays, TV shows, literature and poetry reflecting this period (Oh! What a Lovely WarBlackadder Goes ForthWar Horse and Journey’s End to name but four) and comedy is born of tragedy and hardship—it’s how we get through things.

The Wipers Times is a well-produced addition to the pantheon of remembrance and a respectful, tender tribute to soldiers clinging on to their wits in the midst of mud, whizz bangs and the watery misery of the trenches.

Images by Kirsten McTernan

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XENOS – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Akram Khan Company presents
XENOS
Director, choreographer and performer Akram Khan
Music Vincenzo Lamagna
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Inspired by Prometheus and featuring a fusion of kathak and contemporary dance, XENOS—the Greek word for stranger—is a gripping and poignant tribute to the 4.5 million non-white men mobilised to fight in the First World War, 1.5 million of whom were from India.

Acclaimed dancer, choreographer and creator Akram Khan has now called time on his own performing, with XENOS his last ever full-length solo performance. Curve is privileged to feaure Khan as an Associate Artist and these performances will be his last of this piece in the UK. His body has told him “enough is enough”, although this is not evident in this production with Khan’s performance so physical and grinding in its power.

The heart of the storytelling involves an Indian dancer at a wedding, taken to fight a war in a foreign land for “King and country”. The horror, as well as the boredom and exhausting conditions of the conflict, are fully represented here, but there is so much more to this piece. Rich in layers of meaning and interpretation, the idea of a stranger in a strange land and the impact of this on identity reflect our world now, as well as reaching back to commemorate the sacrifice of others.

With house lights up, B C Manjunath on percussion and “kannakol” (vocal percussion) is accompanied by haunting laments sung by Aditya Prakash. Chairs are lashed together by ropes, more ropes snake down a striking slope cutting across the stage. There is a swing, cushions, a table. Khan appears and spirals, twists and stamps his kathak wedding dance, ankles heavy with ghungroo bells. Khan seems to “riff” off the musicians, his movements following the rapid kannakol rhythms.

A match is struck, the musicians fade offstage, and all that is familiar is dragged up the slope, pulled by the ropes and a sinister, unseen force. Khan’s ghungroo bells unravel to become chains or puppet strings, his movements awkward, controlled by another force. Later, his bells become an artillery belt, he lays cables of rope connecting to a gramophone which speaks the names of soldiers, the “voices in the mud”, haunting and poignant.

Khan represents Soldier X, one man but also the everyman, the many unknown soldiers. On stage, five musicians appear “on high”, bathed in golden light, sometimes creating a throbbing, often menacing soundscape, but also a stunningly beautiful sequence to Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D Minor”.

Mirella Weingarten’s monolithic slope stands proud mid-stage, the top of which is both “over the top” in its literal WWI sense, but also the edge of the unknown, the earth’s surface, a tipping point. Sometimes pink, sometimes monochrome, intriguing shadows and mood are cast on the clay and soil strewn across the slope through Michael Hulls’s lighting.

The staccato effect of the earlier kannikol appears later as gunshots, as Khan reels from a round of sniper fire. Vincenzo Lamagna’s sound design and music score is pounding and atmospheric, although unfortunately parts of the small amounts of dialogue (written by Jordan Tannahill) aren’t audible, being frustratingly faint at times.

Khan refers to himself as instinctively collaborative and whilst he is in effect, Xenos, alone and stripped back to his core self, the combination of musicians, props, design, lighting and sound create a mesmerising whole, but each a character in the story.

This is a performance which spans ancient and modern, the mystical and brutal realism. Prometheus-like, Khan gives us fire and clay but his body, expertly and movingly, speaks the language of burden and tragedy.

Images by Jean Louis Fernandez

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Fiddler on the Roof – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Young Company and Community present
Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein based on the Sholem Aleichem Stories, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Sarah Ingram
Curve Theatre, Leicester

A lone fiddler on the roof plays Tevye the Milkman on stage, forced into dragging his milk cart thanks to his de-shoed horse and chastising God for his bad timing, causing problems just before the Sabbath. Through the rousing opening number “Tradition”, we are introduced to the villagers of Anatevka, one of the few Shtetl areas permitted within Imperial Russia at a time of violent pogroms, antisemitic tensions and the forced eviction of entire village populations.

Weary Tevye (Bill Hinds) yearns for a simple life, but with five daughters, a formidable wife, and an unreliable horse, he struggles on, guided by his faith both in God and tradition.  Hinds settles in to his role, his bittersweet remonstrations with God and his wife Golde (Debbie Longley) providing much of the gentle comedy. You don’t need to be Jewish to recognise and empathise with the tribulations of family life, getting by day to day and coping with adversity.

Tevye’s faith in tradition is tested by his three elder daughters, all spurning the services of Yente the Matchmaker (Suzanne Barlow) to marry for love. Tzeitl (Lauren Russell) wishes to marry poor tailor Motel (James Cottis) rather than the match of older, wealthier butcher Lazar Wolf (Ken Huggett). Hodel (Hannah Willars) leaves home to be with the passionate revolutionary Perchik (Matthew Deane) and Chava (Rose Caldwell) breaks her father’s heart as she elopes with Russian soldier Fyedka (Luke Pillai). The actors playing Tevye’s daughters and their respective husbands perform with strength and conviction and provide the emotional heart of this story.

The big numbers—particularly Tevye’s wlidly surreal dream scene and Tzeitl and Motel’s wedding—are enjoyably exuberant, with Melanie Knott reproducing much of Jerome Robbins’s distinctive choreography from the original production.

Reflecting the lives of a poor Jewish community, Fiddler on the Roof has been one of theatre’s most popular and profitable musicals. Since its first performance in 1964 on Broadway, it was the first show to run for more than 3,000 performances, winning nine Tony awards, a successful film adaptation in 1971 and umpteen revivals and tours worldwide. There’s not a weak song in this impressive musical and Stein, Bock and Sheldon’s book, score and lyrics are classics for good reason.

Director Sarah Ingram has done an impressive job guiding a 100-strong company (through Curve’s Young Company and Community brands) with this production part of Curve’s 10th anniversary celebrations. She successfully creates a strong sense of community, from the performers themselves to Al Parkinson’s rickety, raked set of tightly packed family units. Yes, some performances are a little rough around the edges, however, this is a production which should be applauded for achieving its objectives of commitment to performance and community inclusion.

Although set in 1905, this is very much a story of our time, of any time. Today, anti-Semitism rumbles on in the headlines and, on a wider level, 2018 marks a new post-World War II record of 60 million displaced people throughout the world (according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees).

Fiddler on the Roof could represent many communities around the world today, clinging to their way of life and traditions but with change and turmoil thrust upon them.

Images by Pamela Raith

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Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Sarah Earnshaw as Betty & Joe Pasquale as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Av 'Em, credit Scott Rylander

Limelight Productions presents
Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em
Written and directed by Guy Unsworth
Based on the TV series by Raymond Allen
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Ah, the halcyon days of the 1970s: power cuts, the three-day week, joining the EEC. And on TV (amid the horror of just three channels and no remote control), the British sitcom was the dominant force as shows such as Dad’s ArmyThe Good Life and Fawlty Towers perfected the art of the half-hour situation comedy.

Raymond Allen’s Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em ran for three series and three Christmas specials between 1973 and 1978, regularly attracting audiences of over 20 million. Michael Crawford played the mac-and-beret-wearing, well-meaning but woefully accident-prone Frank Spencer, performing increasingly elaborate stunts and pratfalls to the horror of his long-suffering wife Betty.

Following success working with Joe Pasquale in the 2013-15 West End and touring production of Spamalot, writer and director Guy Unsworth has, with this touring production of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, created a superb vehicle for Pasquale to demonstrate his considerable comedic skills.

However, this show is hardly a gimmick, and while still set in the ’70s and fusing several TV episodes to form a 110-minute stage play, Pasquale avoids a straight-up impersonation of “Michael Crawford playing Frank Spencer”, bringing his own interpretation to this much-loved character.

Sarah Earnshaw as Betty, Moray Treadwell as Mr Luscombe & Joe Pasquale as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Av 'Em, credit Scott RylanderStunts rely mainly on interaction with Simon Higlett’s inspired set, Matt Haskins’s lighting and Ian Horrocks-Taylor’s sound design, all three forming a character in its own right as Frank and Betty’s home pulls with and against poor old “I’ll fix it tomorrow” Frank. Dodgy plumbing, bodged wiring and a hodgepodge of quick fixes bring the house down, both comedically and literally.

Although Pasquale has the lion’s share of stage time and action, the whole cast are superb and clearly all love this show. Sarah Earnshaw as Betty is very much the straight man / wife, but the tenderness and love between her and Frank add warming contrasts to the slapstick. Susie Blake expertly delivers withering looks and comments as Frank’s mother-in-law, as well as a spectacular stunt of her own.

Joe Pasquale as Frank Spencer, Christ Kiely as Constable & Susie Blake as Mrs Fisher in Some Mothers Do 'Av 'Em, credit Scott Rylander

Great support also from David Shaw-Parker as Father O’Hara, Moray Treadwell doubling as pompous David Worthington and exasperated TV producer Terry Luscombe and Chris Kiely as Desmond and sitcom mainstay of “bemused Constable”.

There is a danger a re-make of a hugely successful show from the past could wallow in a syrupy pool of nostalgia, clinging on desperately to a bygone era. Pleasingly and reassuringly, whilst this production is certainly a loving homage to the original TV show, it works in its own right on stage in the 21st century, thanks to expert pacing, spot-on comic timing and delivery, and some great belly laughs.

This is British quirky humour at its best, packed full of pathos, puns, pratfalls and some nice ‘n’ fruity postcard humour.

Images by Scott Rylander

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Crazy for You – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Jamie Wilson, Gavin Kalin and The Watermill Theatre present
Crazy for You
Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Paul Hart
Curve Theatre, Leicester

If you can cope with lashings of cheese and schmaltz and you’re crazy about corny, old-style musicals, then it’s your last chance to see the Watermill Theatre’s revival of Crazy for You, now hoofing it at Curve, the final venue on its current UK tour.

The reference to corn, cheese and schmaltz should not detract from the fact that this is a wonderfully produced show, featuring a clutch of TV stars and 19-strong company of supremely talented quadruple threats.

All instruments—from baritone saxophone and xylophone to flute and flugelhorn—are played live on stage by the cast, who also sing, dance and act their way through this celebration of the great Gershwin songbook. Even the programme is a thing of beauty (although more briefcase than handbag-sized).

Let’s not dwell too long on the plot; it is the barest of skeletal bones on which to hang the fineries of Diego Pitarch’s period-perfect costumes, his equally impressive set design and Nathan M Wright’s fun, flirty choreography.

Rich banker’s boy Bobby Childs (Tom Chambers) dreams of performing on the stage. His domineering mother demands he travels instead to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on the unused Gaiety Theatre, the owner of which is refusing to sell. Bobby sees Polly Baker (Charlotte Wakefield), the theatre owner’s daughter, and falls instantly in love.

In the instant immediately after, Bobby decides to help Polly and the initially reluctant locals put on a show, sell tickets, pay off the mortgage and, hooray, problem solved. Conflict and drama are added in the shape of Bobby’s fiancée Irene (Claire Sweeney), a case of mistaken identity with “hilarious consequences” as Bobby impersonates impresario Bela Zangler (Neil Ditt) and a lack of an audience.

Wakefield is a sensible, practical foil for Chambers’s relentless charm and cheerfulness, as they spar and make great music together, particularly “Embraceable You”. Wakefield’s performance of “Someone to Watch Over Me” is sublime—a shame she seems to end up with the least appealing costumes (frumpy and a bit too Calamity Jane).

Ditt and Chambers’s routine to “What Causes That?” is great fun and a perfect example of excellent comic timing, slapstick and stage presence – all hallmarks of this show, Chambers in particular. Claire Sweeney adds a zhuzh of glamour; her spats with Bobby, Polly and Lank Hawkins (Christopher Fry) are nice and catty and she flounces on and off stage like a good ‘un.

This show is pure escapism. Based on Gershwin’s 1930s Depression-era show Girl Crazy, Ken Ludwig performed a major re-write, added new songs from the Gershwins’ impressive back catalogue and Crazy for You opened to award-winning success on Broadway in 1992 and the West End the following year. Ludwig has included a lot of good jokes and a welcome antidote to the sugary sentiment.

I feel the inventiveness and exhilaration of “I Got Rhythm”, which brings act one to an end, has more impact than the show’s finale, as Bobby and Polly descend to the stage on a giant crescent moon ‘C’. All very Hollywood, but a bit much for me.

Has it aged well from the ‘90s? The all-white cast needs calling out and female empowerment is swiftly swept under the carpet (as marriage seems to trump all yet again), but in terms of sheer entertainment and enjoyment, this show has it by the shedload.

Images by Richard Davenport

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Easy and cheesy, plus a take on a wedding cake

I often find myself in discussions with people about the joys of looking through the recipe books of long-missed and loved relatives, particularly grandmothers.  I enjoy their familiar, neat handwriting, the odd splatters of food all jumbled up with memories of school holidays, and comforting tastes, smells and textures.

One such recent conversation with Ruth has resulted in a tasty recipe for cheese straws from a much-loved Be Ro book passed down the generations.

These straws are crisp, cheesy and rolled pretty thinly – so maybe cheese thins? Anyway, delicious. I will try these next with gluten free flour at some point soon, as there are two cheese-loving coeliacs in my family who may enjoy them. Nice served as a Jenga straw stack.

And talking of families, two were joined together yesterday at a lovely wedding, you may have heard about it (and I made a cake in their honour, see second recipe).

Ruth’s cheese straws

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Makes about 50

4oz (100g) self-raising flour
pinch of slat
pinch of mustard powder
2 oz (50g) butter
3oz (75g) mature cheddar or Red Leicester, grated
1 egg, beaten

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180C, 350F,Gas 4. Grease a baking tray.
  2. Mix flour, salt and mustard together. Rub in the butter.
  3. Stir in the cheese and add sufficient egg to make a stiff dough.
  4. Roll out very thinly and cut into strips. Cut a few rings to stack strips into if wished. Place on a baking tray.
  5. Bake for 10-15 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool.

Verdict: nice and cheesey. If making again, I could probably roll them out even thinner and cut longer, thinner strips.

A take on a lemon and elderflower cake 

Congratulations Harry and Meghan. Many around the country were inspired to host a tea party in their honour; an excellent idea, and whilst some may be fed up hearing about the wedding, I’m not one to turn down the opportunity for tea, scones and cake. I understand the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex enjoyed a lemon and elderflower sponge cake as part of their celebrations. Such a lovely fresh, late spring or early summer combination of flavours – here’s my homage to the HRHs.

For the cake
8oz (200g) softened butter
8oz (200g) golden caster sugar
4 eggs
10oz (100g) self-raising flour
juice of half a lemon
2 good tablespoons of lemon curd

Icing and filling
A generous tablespoon of lemon curd
14oz (400g) icing sugar
7 oz (175g) butter
elderflower cordial – about 5 teaspoons

  1. Preheat oven to 170C/Gas 3. Grease and bottom-line two Victoria sandwich tins (7″/23cm)
  2. Cream butter and sugar together until fluffy. Beat eggs and add gradually, adding a little flour if needed. Fold in flour, add juice and lemon curd.
  3. Divide equally between the two tins (I also had enough left over for six cup cakes)
  4. Bake for approx 20 minutes until springy to touch and skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin briefly then turn out onto a wire rack to cool (NB the lemon curd makes this quite a sticky sponge).
  5. For the icing: Beat butter, add icing sugar (sieved) and mix to form a stiff consistency. Add cordial gradually and taste. Add more if you like, but add a little more sugar if it becomes too ‘loose’.
  6. Spread lemon curd on one half of the cake, spread a layer of icing on the bottom of the top cake. Place the two cakes together and cover the top with the remaining icing. (I also had enough left over to ice the cup cakes). You could always ice the sides of the cake instead if preferred.
  7. Decorate with flowers, real or otherwise. I used summery daisies and butterflies from Dr Oetker (I’m no cake decorator).

Verdict: not bad. Perhaps more cordial needed to get more than a hint of elderflower. Alternatively, will try making an elderflower drizzle/syrup next time to pour over the sponges once they are out of the oven.

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