The Siren Club – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Young Company presents
The Siren Club
Written and directed by Sarah Ingram
Choreography by Melanie Knott and Darren Bennett
Musical director Stephen Waterhouse (CYC) and Lucy Wass (RSA)

“Let’s sing, dance and fall in love like tomorrow never comes.”

These are the inviting words of MC and host at The Siren Club, Archie Wells. When tomorrow does come for Archie, he’ll leave his tuxedo and Blighty behind for the uniform of the 8th Army and the Second World War’s latest recruit.

In this second production by CYC Musicals, one of the Curve Young Company programmes for 7- to 25-year-olds, the cast and professional creatives supporting them have devised and choreographed The Siren Club; it’s 1942 and the last night of freedom for the 8th Army’s new recruits. Predominantly through song and dance, moments of lives on the cusp of huge change and danger are presented—a rushed proposal, a young soldier besotted with a nightclub singer, young beaus and their girls enjoying the music to help them forget what’s coming.

Set out like a dance hall with cabaret seating and walls adorned with cheeky posters of the period (“Let’s catch him with his panzers down”), the cast of 33 perform around us, dancing to the Siren Club band (the accomplished Robert Smyth Academy Big Band).

Writer and director Sarah Ingram, together with choreographers Mel Knott and Darren Bennett (currently busy at Curve, combining this with his performances in An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical) wanted the cast to experience performance beyond the fourth wall, encouraging performers to research and devise their characters and remain in character throughout. Actors sometimes ask for the pleasure of a dance with an audience member, or swing and execute the odd acrobatic tumble to many classics of the era: “Little Brown Jug”, “Pennysylvania 6-5000” and “In the Mood”.

There is something of a backlash currently to use of the word ‘immersive’, yet many productions now boast an immersive element to their shows; it will certainly be a useful skill for aspiring triple-threaters. As an audience member, I found this immersion a thrill to be in amongst the energy of this group of talented performers, dancing to the big band sound and getting proceedings after the interval off to a pulsing start with Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”.

Finlay Watkinson plays a smooth and debonair Archie Wells, in control of the night from the start. Mialuca Backus is mature and sultry as nightclub singer Miss Ruby, and Carmen Farrell’s performance of a poem leading into the “White Cliffs of Dover” cuts through the nightclub vibe with a poignant yet beautifully optimistic delivery to bring the evening to an end.

There are two stark reminders of why we’re all here: suddenly ushered out at the interval as the air raid siren wails (a chilling sound no matter your age), and closing with young men marching out to their fate as their girls cry and wave them off, the actors themselves not far in age behind those who did it for real.

Images by Pamela Raith Photography

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An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Jamie Wilson with Galvin Kalin, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Anthony Clare and Broadway Baby Productions with Curve present
An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical
Book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen
Directed by Nikolai Foster
at Curve Theatre, Leicester

Iconic’ has become one of those over-worked words used to describe just about anything, however, the final scene in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman fits the definition: a giddy mix of a man in uniform, his motorbike and a kiss-and-make-up moment, all set to the karaoke favourite “Up Where We Belong”. It gets me every time at least.

Douglas Day Stewart, writer of the original screenplay, has joined forces with co-writer Sharleen Cooper Cohen and Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster to bring this tale of emotional muscle and US military might over here and onto Curve’s main stage for its world première as a musical. The show is soon embarking on an extensive UK tour at 19 venues, banging on the door for a West End transfer.

Set in Pensacola, Florida in 1982, as Reaganomic policies sowed the seeds for those now feeling forgotten and left behind by their government, this is a gritty examination of relatable characters trying to escape drudgery and demons.

Any worries that using pop hits from the 1980s as the basis for the musical numbers would show jukebox musicals at their worst are soon dispelled. Musical supervisor Sarah Travis with George Dyer’s orchestrations and musical director Michael Riley have, in the main, successfully woven songs such as Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Blaze of Glory” into the narrative in new, sympathetic arrangements. Even Madonna’s perma-annoying “Material Girl” now works for me in this interpretation.

Another key component of this musical is Douglas O’Connell’s projection design, representing vast areas of land, sea and air effectively and with style, as well as a useful vehicle for several flashbacks.

US Navy Officer Cadet Zack Mayo (a brooding Jonny Fines) is wound tight, scarred by his abusive father and nomadic upbringing, and now squaring up to Drill Instructor Foley (Ray Shell). Hooking up with Paula Pokrifki (Emma Williams), she’s just looking for fun and escape from her factory job and thwarted dreams of becoming a nurse. It’s a rocky road, but they fall in love. Williams is edgy and believable, and delivers a storming performance of Heart’s “Alone”.

Zack’s cadet buddy Sid (Ian McIntosh), weighed down by family expectations, doesn’t read Lynette’s (Jessica Daley) signs that she’s after an officer to fulfil her dreams of status and world travel. These four characters’ scenes during “I Wanna Know What Love Is” with their varying connotations are beautifully staged, and McIntosh’s performance in “Family Man” is heartfelt and tragic.

There are moments, however, where it feels static and “stand and deliver” a song. That said, events move at a cracking pace and Fines in particular copes well with a supremely physical role. Choreography is a little patchy, although “Jody Call” is clever (and contains my first experience of equations set to music).

Fans of the film and 1980s poodle rock are likely to help this tour sell well and, judging by its reception so far in Leicester, is going down well with audiences. The focus on characters you care about ensures that those not familiar with life in the ‘80s should also get something from this show.

Raunchy and raw and remaining true to the film, this story has bags of ambition—not only the characters’ aspirations and Michael Taylor’s technically challenging set, but Curve’s own hopes for the tour (and the latest in their film-to-stage musical adaptations).

Whatever your feelings regarding the musical interpretations, (spoiler alert), the finale is a real crowd-pleaser as Zack appears—his white officer’s uniform free of motorbike oil and beautifully pressed—to carry Paula off and up where they belong. Bring tissues.

Images by Manuel Harlon

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Handlooms – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Rasa and Contact Theatre present
by Rani Moorthy
directed by Alan Lane
at Anokhi House of Sarees (via Curve Theatre, Leicester)

“A chaos of colour” is how writer Rani Moorthy describes the traditional sari shops she remembers on her arrival in Britain in the mid-1990s.

She aims to incorporate this in her new play Handlooms, programmed by Curve Theatre but performed as a site-specific piece at Anokhi House of Sarees on Leicester’s renowned Golden Mile (and following performances in March in their sister shop Alankar House of Sarees in Manchester). The Golden Mile on Belgrave Road is widely recognised as the centre of Leicester’s Asian community, and is home to a multitude of shops selling silks, gold jewellery, and Indian sweets and savouries.

As an immersive (and non-seated) piece, we wear headphones during the hour-long performance and are encouraged to wander around the shop whilst the actors tell the story of Rajesh (Ashraf Ejjbair) and his mother Neeta (Rani Moorthy), owners of their sari business Handlooms.

Times are hard as customers now take their business online, and women now seem to wear their sari on special occasions, no longer an everyday garment “to do their chores”. Worried about the state of Handlooms’ finances, Neeta is frustrated by her son’s idealistic focus on creativity and craft over volume of sales. Matters come to a head when Neeta takes on Seeta, a young refugee from Sri Lanka, to make sari blouses, even though this runs the risk of a visit from the Immigration Office.

This could not be more pertinent, considering our treatment of immigrants and refugees and how this is portrayed in the media, but Handlooms also provides an opportunity to consider the cultural shifts in life as a British Asian across the generations. Clashes within cultures feature regularly in drama, however, channelling this through the sari and its changing place in Asian communities makes for an interesting new take on a familiar theme.

The majority of the play takes place on the natural stage provided by the raised, cushioned platform, normally used by shop assistants to show off the vast array of fabrics to brides, mothers, mothers-in-law et al.

Throughout the performance, Rajesh and Neeta take sari silks in a rainbow of colours, sequins and designs—throwing them out to reveal their detail to then carefully re-fold them, sometimes dressing themselves in the sari or returning the fabric to a neat square, working individually or together, mother and son; a mesmerizing love song to the sari.

Ejjbair plays Rajesh as calm and empathetic towards his female clientele, particularly in an amusing scene in the changing room with one of his more senior customers. He is a quiet foil to his outspoken, practical mother, and Moorthy’s monologue describing Seeta’s eventual deportation has emotional power. Scenes with Rajesh’s childhood streetwise friend Asha (Riana Duce) add humour and further examples of changing views within Asian communities living in Britain. The dénouement, as Rajesh fully embraces the freedoms he feels are represented by the sari, is handled sensitively (although perhaps a bit too tidily).

I am not convinced the headphones are necessary; yes, they add to the idea of an immersive performance, however, I found them uncomfortable, the actors are miked and the shop isn’t so large the actors are ‘lost’. There are also places where exposition tells rather than shows, however, the poetic language is enjoyable throughout, especially when combined with the dazzling sari fabrics, whose “silk is as soft as cocoa butter”.

Images by Lee Baxter

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It’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again (and a nice soup for spring)

After a recent bout of illness, I craved rice pudding; its creamy warmth, its puddingy comfort.

Perhaps seen as one of those Victorian, nanny-knows-best types of pudding (see also semolina and tapioca), rice pudding in the UK can trace its ancestry back to around the 11th century and the emergence of Asian trade routes.

Recipes and ways of making rice pudding abound, but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to know I favour a no-frills approach to this nursery classic.  I’ve tried various versions, including one with an egg mixed in (the pudding is too firm – bleurgh!), however, the recipe here is low fat, and the ratio of rice to sugar and milk has yielded good results so far.  My household prefers vanilla over nutmeg, and the lemon zest adds a little zing.

Some essential rice pudding rules: you must use short grain or pudding rice. Stir the pudding occasionally during cooking, but if you want a good skin, don’t stir it in the final 45 mins to one hour. You’ll then hopefully achieve a crowd-pleasing dome of golden brown skin as you present your pudding straight from the oven. It soon sinks, but reactions (so far) from eager diners include much ooh-ing and ahhh-ing. And that’s why we cook, people.

Rice pudding

(just enough for 4)
2oz/60g pudding rice
1 oz/30g caster sugar
1 pint/600ml of skimmed milk (or semi or whole if you prefer)|
about 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and/or
lemon zest

Heat oven to 150C (130C fan)/Gas 2  Grease a large ovenproof dish (at least 1 1/2pints). Rinse the rice in cold water and drain. Put the rice in the dish then pour in the milk and let the rice soak for about 30 minutes.

Stir in the sugar and flavourings then bake in the oven for 2 – 2 1/2 hours. Stir the pudding occasionally during cooking (don’t stir for the last hour if you’d like a skin).

Once the rice has absorbed most of the milk it is ready – not to the point of firm ‘cakey-ness’, more thick yet sloppy. As it cools it firms up, so if there are any leftovers you may need to add a little milk or cream to loosen things up.

Another trawl through the fridge using stuff up has yielded a soup I’m really pleased with and will definitely make again. Perhaps as a metaphor for spring, new life was given to some rather tired broccoli.

Courgette and broccoli soup 

(serves 2 – 3)
glug of oil
1 onion, chopped
cumin seeds
1 large courgette, sliced
approx 10 florets of broccoli
1 medium potato, chopped
vegetable stock, approx 750ml – 1 litre

Heat oil, add cumin seeds and stir, cook for 30 seconds or so. Add onions and cook until soft.

Add courgette, stir and cook for a minute or two. Add broccoli and potatoes, stir and cook for a minute then add vegetable stock (enough to cover all veg plus a bit more. Don’t add all of it though – you can add more later if too thick).

Bring to boil then simmer for 20 minutes or so until all vegetables are soft. Blend but keep a few small lumps for a thickish texture. Season to taste.

Verdict: Practically perfect in every way

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Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Royal Shakespeare Company presents
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical
book by Dennis Kelly
Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin
directed by Matthew Warchus
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Despite what her deeply unpleasant parents might think, Matilda Wormwood is a marvellous miracle, and for those who have not been able to make the trip to the West End (this show opened at the Cambridge Theatre in 2011), it is now marvellous news that the RSC has begun the first UK tour of their multi-award-winning and widely-acclaimed production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.

Dahl was never one to allow his characters to shy away from pain and hurt, and Dennis Kelly’s book loses none of the injustice and abuse served up daily to Matilda by the two people who should love her most, her parents. The abusive pattern continues when Matilda starts school with her Olympic hammer-throwing-turned-child-throwing headteacher Miss Trunchbull.

Ingenious and inventive, director Matthew Warchus oversees a very special theatrical experience. There’s a nod and a wink to Dahl’s illustrator Quentin Blake in Rob Howell’s design, bookcases and children’s alphabet blocks feature heavily on the spectacular set: a reminder of how books give Matilda the means to escape into a world of stories and nicer people.

Kelly adds a few additional touches to Dahl’s classic, including a charming story within a story of an escapologist and an acrobat—Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and effects in these sequences are spellbinding.

Tim Minchin’s music and witty lyrics strike the right Dahl-istic tone; a high and often complex word count is challenging for actors, but nothing to worry about performance-wise—these are all excellent. The songs themselves, whilst intrinsic to the storytelling, are rather “fiddly” to be memorable show tunes, apart perhaps from “When I Grow Up” and “Revolting Children”. A few more listens to the soundtrack may help here but there is a lot to take in, and I am sure many lyrical gems are missed as a result.

However, this is a story about a strong, independent-minded little girl called Matilda. Of the four Matildas in this production, Nicola Turner gave an astounding performance on press night. Craige Els as a spectaularly bullish (but strangely dainty) Miss Trunchbull has a very good go at stealing the show, however, Ms Turner is a perfect Matilda and takes us with her from the start. We love her for how she deals so mischievously and witheringly with her parents (Rebecca Thornhill as ditsy Mrs Wormwood and Sebastien Torka’s failed wide-boy Mr Wormwood). We love her more for her tender scenes with teacher-turned-guardian Miss Honey (Carly Thoms), as they ultimately find their escape route from abuse.

All the storytelling stars combine in this magical production, a tale of good triumphing evil, of trust and respect overcoming cheating and lies and a celebration of the power of imagination.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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The Fall of Byron Montrose. Poet. Gentleman. Lover – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

The Fall of Byron Montrose. Poet. Gentleman. Lover
written and performed by Ben Macpherson
Upstairs at the Western, Leicester

After the recent UK Pun Championships, Leicester’s long-running comedy festival features another dip into wordplay, this time with Nottingham comedian Ben Macpherson’s solo show The Fall of Byron Montrose. Poet. Gentleman. Lover. Macpherson has crafted 60 minutes of puns, poetry, pastiche and parody and with sell-out shows at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Britain clearly has a penchant for puns (punchant?).

From the vastness of Leicester’s De Montfort Hall – location for the recent the UK Pun Champs – we travel to the more intimate pub theatre Upstairs at the Western, a perfect venue for this ‘one man and his puns’ type of storytelling.

Byron is all breeches, booze and bawdiness with Macpherson in character from the off and occasional, brief forays over the fourth wall.

Our hero has a drink and opium problem, as well as daddy-issues, and is forced to make his escape across 19th century Europe, encountering women, debts, misunderstandings and a brawl.  The puns are a mixture of quick fire and slow burns, the audience needing a few to get into the swing but the height of the bar is soon established, for example, Byron feeling depressed at Maudlin College.

Some puns are a little obvious: 

I could be a barrister,
it’s only coffee

but most are of a good, not-too-contrived standard. Several are set up more as call backs for a later twist in the tale. Clever. And a brave moment of ‘offending the audience’ – it all became clearer about 20 minutes later but brave, nonetheless. 

I turn my feet towards home and sprained my ankle.
Why didn’t I turn my body that way too?

Byron, employing a fine, poetry-reading stance of one leg up on a wooden chair to consult his weighty anthology, reads us a few of his poems – three good parodies of the style of the day; “Ode to Creditors” is particularly amusing.  One small point – I think how the show ends is worth re-visiting, it felt it deserved to go out with more impact.

But the puns and often poetic prose are the enjoyable mainstay of this show:

The heady smell of her hair,
the hairy smell of her head

I lunged through the streets
giving my thighs a killer workout

Her velvet skin
my oiled body,
we emulsified like mayonnaise

A lot of the humour is crude and fruity; brace yourself for what’s coming when reference is made to the poop deck and ‘avast behind’.  Nothing wrong with this in my view though, and the show itself is a well-constructed hour of storytelling told at a pretty cracking pace, and a nice pastiche of the stereotypical fallen Romantic poet. There’s a dash of Lord Flashheart, a large portion of Lord Byron, a nod to Spike Milligan but overall, lashings of cheek and charm.

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The Troth – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Akademi presents
The Troth
based on a short story by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri
Directed and choreographed by Gary Clarke
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Spanning continents and timeframes, Akademi’s powerful production The Troth begins a UK tour at Curve, having first toured five cities in India.

Based on what is believed to be the first Hindi short story, Usne Kaha Tha by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, this production serves to commemorate several anniversaries: the centenaries of World War I, of Guleri’s story (written in 1915) and the birth of Indian cinema, the contributions of Indian soldiers to the Allied war effort and 70 years since India’s independence from the British Empire.

But this implies a war story; whilst the horror and waste of life of World War I is an important element to Guleri’s story, it is more a depiction of human love in its many forms: love at first sight that can never be, love for one’s family and the camaraderie and love between men fighting together in war.

The Troth fuses dance, film projection and music to tell the evolving story of Lehna Singh and his relationship with Leela from their first meeting in an Amritsar market where Lehna, as a young boy, asks if Leela is betrothed to later chance meetings and Leela’s admission she is now betrothed, as of the day before. A victim of unrequited love and with war declared, Lehna promises to keep Leela’s husband and son safe as the 77 Sikh Rifles regiment leaves India to fight in the Belgian trenches.

Gary Clarke’s direction and choreography, Josh Hawkins’s video projection (including original footage of some of the 60,000 Indian troops serving in Europe), Shri Sriram’s haunting score and Charles Webber’s lighting evoke the mood of silent film, resulting in a compelling, cross-cultural and well-paced production.

The sheer physicality of the performance is, at times, relentless. In particular, the drill sequence as the young men from the Amritsar market place are transformed into soldiers pulses with controlled energy. Likewise the confusion of battle.

Combining traditional Indian dance and more contemporary movement, each posture, from the finer gestures of sharing food to the rituals of prayer to bodies forming battlements, serves to move the narrative forward. Subhash Viman Gorania as Lehna conveys great emotional range, although the whole cast are excellent (Dom Coffey, Vidya Patel, Deepraj Singh, Songhay Toldon and Daniel Hay-Gordon).

Guleri’s story quickly became a popular, almost sacred text in India and has long been taught as part of India’s national curriculum. It therefore shows great faith in Clarke’s abilities as a storyteller (and largely on the strength of his production COAL) that the producers have chosen a white British choreographer and director with no previous experience of traditional Indian dance to lead this project; their faith is justified.

Love and sacrifice is at the heart of this piece; The Troth is a surprisingly uplifting addition to the many productions commemorating the Great War, and a welcome creative collaboration between cultures and continents.

Images by Vipul Sangoi and Simon Richardson

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