I’ve moved!

co_uk grab

http://grumpygaycritic.co.uk

After two years as a meagre blog, I’ve pushed the boat out for 2015 and gone and bought me a proper website! Everything I’ve posted has been moved over, and all new content will be published over there. So please, come and join me at my new website!


#Pantomonium Has Arrived!

My YouTube mini-series looking at panto and the state of British seasonal theatre is up! Go on over to my channel, #FreshOffTheStalls, or check back here for updates!

Episode 1: A Very Good Place To Start

Episode 2: Panto After Hours


Musical Review: A Christmas Carol (Middle Temple Hall, London)

Humbug! David Burt (centre) leads the cast. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Humbug! David Burt (centre) leads the cast. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Powerful and tender moments with some great performances, elevating Dickens’ text in this enchanting adaptation.

Overview

Charles Dickens’ tale synonymous with Christmas is given a musical make-over. Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser, is visited on Christmas Eve by four ghost to be given one last chance to change his tight-fisted ways or face eternal doom. Antic Disposition return to Middle Tempe Hall, where Dickens himself studied, with their acclaimed adaptation.

Book & Adaptation

There’s not much that can be said here that people don’t already know about the famous novella. It’s certainly hailed as one of Dickens’ most beloved and most subtly political of works, and has been a cornerstone of Christmas since it was published. In itself, it’s neatly paced with something new, surprising, and interesting at every turn resulting in a deep and incredibly human story that has endured for well over a century. Antic Disposition, or any other adaptation for that matter, need not make any alterations with regards to the narrative and text, and indeed none have been made here; any improvement or addition to the text is completely unnecessary. Dickens’ work is so excellent and succinct to the point that even the dialogue closely follows the original text itself in Antic Disposition’s version.

Whilst this adaptation postures itself as a musical, it’s more a play with music. Christopher Peake, Ben Horslen, and John Risebero’s songs merely colour the action rather than replace it, and no musical numbers are ever felt forced. They never get in the way or convolute the essence and pace of the story and are well placed and rationed. Where they work best, they spark moments of wonder, elevating this already familiar morality tale to find an almost fresh and new take on it.

Christmas spirit. David Anthony (back) and David Burt (front). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Christmas spirit. David Anthony (back) and David Burt (front). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Music & Lyrics

It’s difficult to call the musical numbers in the show “original”. What Peake, Horslen, and Risebero have done is re-appropriate well known Christmas carols and given them lyrics that compliment either the narrative action or the emotion of a scene. It’s a clever device that keeps a familiarity among the audience of Christmas that feels incredibly comfortable. Whilst the lyrics themselves aren’t high poetry, with more than a few predictable rhymes, they create an atmosphere and capture an essence of the book, whilst making them quite accessible for any younger audiences that might be present.

Stephen Peake’s music approached the show with almost a cinematographic mindset, with plenty of underscoring as well as songs to create a constant swell of atmosphere. Within this is an ambitious score with some incredibly rich arrangements, especially with regards to Peake’s choral writing. However, Peake’s fervour has led to some missteps. Particularly the reliance of grander orchestral sound created on synthesisers is something that the show could do without. Not only does this sound far from convincing, it jars against the more natural sound of the violin and cello he’s employed live, drowning them out and bullying them to the side. Furthermore, the sheer volume of the synth sound often eclipses the sound of the cast. The venue, a vast enough space as it is, is already acoustically challenging, giving actors a big enough run for their money in attempting to project unamplified into it without orchestral-electro being pumped into it.

However, these synth arrangements certainly demonstrate Peake’s wider ability for intricate orchestration. But without a larger ensemble, the choice of synth sounds is one that isn’t right for the venue and the production. This is best demonstrated in the fact that the parts of the score that work best is when it’s just piano, violin, cello, and chorus. Peake’s sumptuous arrangements don’t lose any lustre in this scaled-back setting, and is all the better for it being clearer and more natural.

But overall, it’s the score, when in it’s at it’s clearest, that provides some of the most beguiling and tender moments of the show. The rendition of “Silent Night” as The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge just how far reaching his mirth is, is a really beautiful and delicate sequence. Likewise, the scoring of the closeness and love of the Cratchit family really touches upon something heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Direction & Production

The decision behind putting this production on in such a grandiose space is a very easy one: it’s where Dickens himself studied for going into the legal profession, and also it’s appearance evokes the Gothic and lavish nature of the work itself. However, it does pose some challenges. The aspect of the production that overcomes these challenges the most is Tom Boucher’s lighting design. It’s well thought out and executed in lieu of the production being able to put in any significant set aside from a few props, effortlessly conjuring up everything from the warmth of the Cratchit household, to falling snow, or the supernatural and eerie glow of Jacob Marley.

The decision to hold the show at the entrance to the hall is a well made one, even though it makes it impossible for any audience member to make a late entrance/exit once the show has started. But it utilises the beautiful balcony and doorway providing an impressive backdrop for the show. Risebero’s additional awning sneaks itself in looking as if it’s been part of the hall all along and provides a nice demarcation of space at the back of the performance area which Horslen and Risebero, directing, use well when needed for tricks such as separating the outside of Scrooge’s offices from the inside. Yet, whilst the directors do well to try and ensure that everyone in the thrust space gets a good view of the action, some of the younger members of the cast can’t quite project as well meaning that, wherever you’re sat, you will miss some of the dialogue/lyrics, which is a bit of a nuisance.

The entire production is one that generally fits snuggly into the incredibly imposing and impressive hall. However, sometimes the show does feel a little swamped by its enormity. Sometimes, when characters traverse purposefully around its perimeter or when the cast get audibly lost in the chasm, you’re reminded of the space’s size rather than being compelled by the action going on in the small area of it. It’s certainly a show that would work wonders in a smaller space, but by transporting it away from Middle Temple Hall you would lose the otherwise spellbinding and unique setting that the show otherwise thrives off. For it’s faults, it’s a trade off that is the best punt given the sheer experience of seeing such a slick show in this tucked away London treasure.

Chain reaction. Chris Courtenay as The Ghost of Jacob Marley. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Chain reaction. Chris Courtenay as The Ghost of Jacob Marley. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

Award-winning David Burt is the main pull here, and he really delivers upon his reputation. He plays Scrooge not just as bitter and withdrawn, but a miser with an snivelling ill sense of humour. It’s a mean and animated interpretation of the character, and one that really hooks you. Burt is possible the nastiest Scrooge I’ve seen. Yet, he manages to find time to play personal pathos during his character’s transformation, bringing a genuine sense of profound affect by the scenes the three ghosts play before him. At the end, he’s energetic and unbelievably babbling as the transformed man, bringing an inescapable and hilarious energy and cheer that so easily rubs off on the entire audience.

Other notable performances include David Anthony is a superb Ghost of Christmas Present: larger than life, bounding, and full of mirth. But most beguiling is the quick turn to being terse and condemning of Scrooge at points, bringing a surprising severe and complex side to the jolly giant of the piece.

Elsewhere, the rest of the cast are bubbly and revel in the piece, be they resurrecting a band of ghouls or becoming a scuttle of London townsfolk. But most impressive is that, together, they produce a colourful and luxurious choral sound that really compliments Peake’s excellence in musical writing.

Verdict

A ambitious vision and a wonderful cast makes this a Christmas treat more tasty and filling than any mince pie. Peake’s score, when it works its best, really lifts Dickens’ famous tale. By doing so within such a gob-smackingly impressive building, Antic Disposition add an exclusive extra Christmas enchantment that you won’t find anywhere else.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Middle Temple Hall, London, EC4Y 9AT, until 30 December 214. Tickets are £30 – £40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.anticdisposition.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Lionboy (Tricycle Theatre, London)

Roaring to go. The cast of 'Lionboy'. Photograph:  Courtesy of Sarah Ainslie.

Roaring to go. The cast of ‘Lionboy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Sarah Ainslie.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A show of sound, fury, and splendour. A big top of imagination and ingenuity bringing Zizou Corder’s modern fairytale to vivid life.

Overview

In a future were mobile phones are powered by the sun and cars are banned, corporations are more powerful than countries. When Charlie Ashanti’s parents, who were working on a cure for asthma, get kidnapped by The Corporacy, he enters into a world of corruption, danger, and misapplied science. Oh, and Charlie can also speak to cats…

Writing & Adaptation

Zizou Corder, the alias of mother and daughter writing team Louisa Young and Isabel Adomakoh Young, has created an incredibly modern and current children’s book. Lionboy is choc-full modern issues from bad science, to identity and belonging, to environmentalism, and even a complex lesson in avarice and wealth. An older audience might think that such issues might be a bit too mature for younger audiences. But this is proved wrong given the age of one half of Corder, and, looking at the reactions to some of the more youthful patrons in the theatre, it goes to show that children are far more savvy than we give them credit for. Simultaneously, it gives enough meat for older audiences to get stuck into too. As well as a wealth of colourful imagination and vision, this books’ depth and a complexity is miracle-fodder for acclaimed theatre company, Complicite, in adapting this prize-winning trilogy into a blistering piece of theatre.

Complicite throw everything they’ve got at the show – puppetry, physical theatre, circus skills, and shadow-work – to create a smorgasbord of visuals and energies that inject an overwhelming assault on the senses. This adds a vital variety to the show that will dazzle elders and keep younger ones engaged.

However, this is perhaps the show’s only drawback. Each trope carries it’s own identity and flow, and having so many of these causes the pacing to fly around a little unwieldy at times, also making slower more intimate moments of the show a little sluggish by comparison. Ultimately, whilst Complicite may have found many things which connect with the audience in many ways, there’s not a consistent overall sense of atmosphere and direction.

However, in saying that, the central essence of the show is storytelling. For all the tricks and spectacles they bring out, nothing is allowed to distract from a very pure and glorious focus on this. Everything that makes the show beguiling is the story’s words and how they’re delivered to the audience. All the stagecraft that is used on top of this just grabs your attention and decorates this most crucial element of the show. The simple weaving a world from words is still there, breaking the fourth wall often and regaling the audience directly with enchanting silver tongues. Even without the kaleidoscope of stagecraft, you’d still be hooked by the tale’s delivery.

Direction & Production

There are far too many things going on in the production to try and cover everything. But in it’s very basic form, imagination is what drives the entire show. The steeply raked circus stage and giant flyable screen form a focal point for everything that goes on around it. But otherwise the show creates scenes from very little, such as chrome walls and hidden passages from steel ladders, eels from rubber tubing, and even a pursuit through the bustling streets of London using only boxes and bits of rope.

One thing that is incredibly remarkable and works wonders is the sound design. A collection of deafening soundscapes and soundtracks are blasted into the audience, submerging people aurally as well as visually. In addition, there is a bevy of live percussion that augments the thunderous noise that Complicite produce. It’s literally tremendous, making building and persons shake with its sheer sound and effect.

Couple this with face paced and exotic visuals, peppered with blinding and dazzling lighting, and you’ve got a production that can only be described as “otherworldly”. Directors Clive Mendus and James Yeatman constantly stir the senses, seldom letting the audience have any reprieve until at least the interval: leaving you dumb and astonished for most of the show. If you’re you’ve not found yourself in a stupor for even a small part, then you need to get your humours checked.

Cast

Complicite has an exceptional cast on board for this revival with all actors being expert storytellers of the finest pedigree. Martins Imhangbe particularly, as Charlie the Lionboy gives an exquisite physical performance, switching between him and the felines he converses with, embodying cat and human with astonishing believability and lightning change.

It’s so difficult to pick out any other favourite moments from the rest of the cast without making this review into an essay. Needless to say, each bring their own talent and personality to all the multiple roles they play. They all each have wonderful turns in interacting with interacting with the audience too. As a company they’re a sheer delight to watch.

Verdict

Bombastic and beautiful, Complicite is the cat with the cream of London theatre in the return of their celebrated adaptation of this modern and current children’s epic. A family spectacular like no other, there’s no excuse for “lion” about and not seeing this show!

Lionboy plays at Tricycle Theatre, London, NW6 7JR, until 10 January 2015. Tickets are £16 – £23.50 (concessions and family rates available). To book, visit www.tricycle.co.uk.


Theatre Review: The Collective Project (Camden People’s Theatre, London)

the_pensive_federation_cup1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

The Pensive Federation’s pressure-cooker remit brings out a breadth of variety and ingenuity.

Overview

The Pensive Federation has tasked eight writers to team up with eight directors and twelve actors to create twelve minute pieces inspired by a collective noun and explore power and gender. The result is a really interesting collection of new writing. In Artistic Directors Neil J. Byden and Serena Haywood’s own words,

“…we believe that the time pressure has a an unlocking effect on peoples’ creativity.”

Whilst it certainly has done that, the most interesting element is not so much tapping into a latent talent within each writer, but the clear evidence of each collaboration within each piece, especially with the actors. Across the pieces, you start to see each actor playing similar roles: almost type-casting themselves. But in doing so, both the writing and performance are well delivered and feel effortless when this happens. The same can be said for the direction in certain pieces, where the collaboration has brought out an expert directional vision too.

Whilst only a handful of pieces have managed to create something truly surprising, given the race against the clock, all works are of a solid quality.

Squad, by Martin Malcolm
Dir: Eduard Lewis
Rating: ***

Certainly the most current of the piece, set in a shopping mall during a Black Friday sales. It starts off as a growing and brutal look at small-minded authority, where power corrupts abhorrently. Yet, just as things start to get really dramatic, Malcolm pips in with comic relief that destroys any tension and gravitas, feeling like things are hurriedly tied-up as the twelve minute gong approaches. Malcolm doesn’t quite capitalise on the subject’s potential perhaps because of this imposed brevity, and is something that might be more powerful if it were a longer and more paced piece.

Faculty, by Sherhan Lingham
Dir: Neil J. Byden
Rating: *****

Teacher dramas are nothing new, but none the less Lingham has managed to find a fresh narrative through embracing The Pensive Federation’s remit. Here, she really plays with ideas of separate characteristics, personality clashes, and collectivism, whilst cleverly drawing parallels between bullying among children and adults. Lingham manages to create a story from start to finish that doesn’t feel squeezed into it’s twelve minute window, and remains organic throughout.

The entire cast here also embrace their characters here incredibly well. John Rayment gives a commanding performance as the smug and conniving headmaster. Jared Rodgers, as the member of staff on the fringes of the clique upon who’s actions everything hinges upon, takes the pace to a wonderful apex of suspense.

Chapter, by Alan Flannigan
Dir: Madeline Moore
Rating: *****

Perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Flannigan, like Lingham, has really embraced the remit to create something that’s clever and intelligent as well as pacey. Particularly, the exploration of a sense of togetherness despite the fact that the characters and dialogue are isolated and fractured from each other. It starts off incredibly enigmatic leaving you wondering what the narrative is, until it all starts to slowly piece together with different perspectives from all angles. As the picture slowly unveils itself, a gripping drama unfolds.

This is also a piece where the direction is just as inspired as the writing. Moore isn’t scared of silences to build drama and tension, and manages to keep a sense of pace and activity despite the fact that for the majority of the piece everything is static. Yet, there is one slow crescendo of movement pointing towards the climax, and it’s engrossing.

Bouquet, by Dan Nixon
Dir: Laura Attridge
Rating: ****

A mob family, a partner kept in the lurch, and a black sheep-cum-florist. Nixon subverts the concept of a group by focusing on the outcast of an otherwise tight-knit throng. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, and Nixon’s setting of this among a family of East End gangsters is one that offers drama and intrigue. Yet, as clever and as engaging to watch as it is, you get the feeling that there’s a bigger piece behind the snapshot here. When the twelve minutes are up you really want to see it go further, especially given the relationship you build with the central long-suffering character.

The collaboration between writer and director is also really strong here. There’s a flurry of action that goes on around the central character, for which they’re very much stuck powerless in the background for. Yet Nixon and Attridge write and direct in a manner that mean’s they’re not lost or forgotten about, even if everything that goes on around them doesn’t at all involve them. It’s incredibly meticulous and well executed, with just the right amount of interjections to remind you that the main character is still there, whilst directionally making sure the character is visible and central, though dis-attached, to the action at all times.

Rodgers, again, proves his ability for playing a withdrawing character, this time with a real tenderness and charm that strikes a rapport and an empathy with the audience without really trying.

It’s just a shame the piece feels more like an extract than a microcosm. More of this, please!

Audience, by Isla Gray
Dir: Jessica Radcliffe
Rating: ***

Game shows are ridiculous, and this is something that Gray really brings out. A group of contestants must work as a team against each other. Gray’s rainbow of characters and ridicule of trash TV certainly brings out some great observational jokes. Yet overall, this piece doesn’t seem to say too much or go very far with regards to plot progression. In fact, the build-up to the crux seems to be padded out: one of the pieces where it feels like twelve minutes is a little too long instead of being too short. An amusing diversion, but one that has the least amount of impact in exploring the themes of “collection”, especially when compared to the others. Whilst there would otherwise be some great fodder for character exploration, all personas involved feel a little too shallow to really amount to much other than a few laughs and a flash-in-the-pan comedy.

Bench, by Guleraana Mir
Dir: Neil Sheppeck
Rating: ****

This is a sweet little piece, looking at a bunch of misfits who go to play football every weekend, although invariably mostly ending up on the bench watching their team lose. There’s certainly some charming interactions between the cacophony of characters here, bringing out a homely humanity between them. Even if the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere in the twelve minutes, it’s still a satisfying still-life of how and why six people who couldn’t be more opposite find solace in coming together, even if it never goes the way they expect it to. A great little piece of character comedy.

Murmuration, by Kate Webster
Dir: Rhiannon Robertson
Rating: ***

Another piece that’s very current, looking at homelessness at Christmas. Two volunteers have set out to host a Christmas party for those who have been displaced; one a regular volunteer, and the other there out of circumstance rather than of charity. Webster’s exploration of the different types of people and personalities that make up both the homeless and the volunteers is refreshing and doesn’t linger or labour on any easy stereotypes. Their characters are fully realised and all are believable and interesting people.

Yet, although a nice exploration how group dynamics can bring out different things in different people, it doesn’t offer anything overly surprising, despite one of the characters’ back-stories. What’s more, towards the end the catalysts start to come too quick and too obviously, feeling less than organic. Again, a sense that it’s trying to rush through its epiphanies and tie everything up before time runs out. Otherwise, there’s potential for a something deep and meaningful if it had a bit more space to breathe and develop.

Host, by Camilla Whitehill

Dir: Chloe Mashiter
Rating: ****

Whitehill has created a wonderfully comic titbit despite the stringent remit. She creates a situation and a cast of characters that naturally finds the funny rather than trying to force something through. However, Whitehill still manages to keep it within the essence of the showcase. Playing wonderfully with the title, Host, Whitehill toys with both the singular and the collective meaning of the noun: a strong leader among the group of friends, trying to support one of their own via an intervention.Only one or two of the jokes are over-laboured a little, but otherwise, it’s a strong piece of comedy. It’s tight, it’s funny, and it’s all you can really ask for to round off the evening.

Again, this is another example of where the actors and writer have worked well together to create a piece that capitalises on their talents and personalities. Katherine Rodden is fantastic as the down and out misanthrope; Neil J. Byrden brings out some great visual moments as the fool of the piece, and Helen Jessica Liggat is steadfast as the mastermind and head of the group of friends. A strong piece that really embraces and excels in what the evening has set out to do.

Verdict

Everything showcased here is certainly solid and an achievement given the remit. But some writers have certainly thrived better than others. But even then, whilst some might not have prospered in the twelve day, twelve minute window given, they’ve still come up with potential for developing their ideas into longer works. An intriguing evening of intelligence and ingenuity.

The Collective Project took place at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, NW1 2PY from 17-20 December 2014. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.


News: Meet A Python! Terry Jones to Make Book Signing Appearance This Saturday

Official artwork for 'Nicobobinus'.

Official artwork for ‘Nicobobinus’.

Terry Jones, Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni and children’s author, is the inventive genius behind 5* “…maelstrom of colour, activity, and wonder” Nicobobinus, currently playing at the LOST Theatre, London.

After the matinee showing of Nicobobinus on Saturday 20th December, Jones will be signing copies of his book from 4:30pm. Fans of Jones’ children’s book, young and old alike, should not only miss this opportunity to have him scrawl something on a beloved personal item, but should absolutely, definitely, see Red Ladder and DumbWise’s stupendous musical adaptation.

Nicobobinus plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £15 (concessions and family tickets available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Eric and Little Ern (St James Theatre, London)

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A blissful eulogy to two of Britain’s greatest comedians. Touching, never too sentimental, and roaringly funny.

Overview

We find Ern in a private room in hospital. Out of the blue, he sees a vision of his old comic partner, Eric. They go over all memories and catch up after 15 years since death did they part. Then, Eric makes Ernie an offer he can’t refuse: to do one last show together.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Writing

The process that actors and creators of this piece has been a long time in the making, but good things come to those who wait. What Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens have managed to do in their devised piece is capture an essence of Morecambe and Wise that really does the duo justice. The capture of this essence means that everything about the show incorporates a sense of flexibility and spontaneity which is crucial to who they’re paying tribute to: it’s something you simply can’t portray Morecambe and Wise without. Even in the more obviously structured first act, there’s still a fresh sense of fun and unpredictability that runs through it, driving the comedy at every point.

It’s difficult to think that there are many out there who are unaware or have never seen at least one of their shows or sketches. Even I, almost two generations younger than when they were in their prime, can’t fail to recognise them. But even so, Ashpitel and Stephens put just enough background, seamlessly woven into the shenanigans, to paint a deeper picture of their lives, careers, and relationship, including some much loved material from their shows by Eddie Braben, Dick Hills, and Sid Green. It’s done in such a way that it never feels like a history play, and instead colour their personas making the show more accessible for those who may not know the duo as well as throw in a few titbits of trivia for an older audience.

In the second act, Ashpitel and Stephens have created a 30ish minute front of curtain show, drawing on some of their most memorable routines. There’s really not much to say about it other than it’s a blistering performance that the real Morecambe and Wise would have been proud of themselves. Again, here there’s plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity, meaning it doesn’t feel like a mere emulation but a fluid and living piece of comedy. There are a few references to personalities of their age that will may go over the head of much younger fans, but these are few, and, for the catering-sized pack of laughs they deliver elsewhere, are certainly forgiven if not forgotten.

What’s great though is that, as touching as it is in places, especially in exploring the rich relationship Morecambe and Wise had between them, Ashpitel and Stephens never linger upon sentimentality. Morecambe and Wise are best know for the joy and laughter they brought to the world, and this is how both Ashpitel and Stephens go about creating this blissful eulogy. If you’re moved to tears, it’s not because they’ve purposefully pulled on the heartstrings with maudlin manipulation, but it’s because they’ve touched a deep and personal remembrance through a shared happiness: true justice to these behemoths of entertainment.

Direction & Production

Even though the main focus really is Ashpitel and Stephen, there’s still a solid production behind it. Simon Scullion’s set for Act I believably looks like a private hospital room, and even the curtain for Act II is wonderfully recreated and instantly recognisable. But  detail aside, what Scullion, Director Owen Lewis, and the rest of the production team from musical director to lighting do, is give Ashpitel and Stephens the space and materials they need to perform unhindered, from props to music cues. There’s really not much other to be said about direction and production here because it all works so well that you hardly notice them. It’s Ashpitel and Stephens that are the main focus, and the production steadfastly supports them and never takes attention away from them. This is exactly what a production of this kind should be doing.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Cast

Ashpitel and Stephens are uncanny as Eric and Ernie. Not only are they are near physical doppelgängers to the genuine articles, but they’ve got their physical and vocal mannerisms and ticks down to a ‘t’. But even so, what is most astonishing about these two is that they are far from a stale emulation or tribute act. Whilst both embrace the recognisable personas and mannerisms of who they’re playing, what Ashpitel and Stephens do is find a wonderful rapport between themselves upon with they capitalise. The result is that there’s as beautiful sense of brotherhood between them as there was between Morecambe and Wise.

Furthermore, they are as expert as comic performers as the real Eric and Ernie were. In the second act, in particular, they feed off the audience’s reactions and each others bluffs to create a side-aching routine. Even in recreating established tropes, such as Eric’s famous paper-bag trick, the skits are delivered in such a way that it still made the entire audience bellow with glee: finding a way to make an old joke be delivered as if it were never seen before.

Verdict

A remembrance most remarkable: marvellously funny and heartfelt. As the closest to the real thing as we can ever get since their passing, it’s a must for long-term fans, and a pure comic rush for those less familiar.

Eric and Little Ern runs at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 11 January 2015. Tickets are £10 – £45. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Fear In A Handful of Dust (COG ARTSpace, London)

Jack Morris as Simon. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Jack Morris as Simon. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A powerful and indescribable monolith to the human spirit. Surprising and brutal.

Overview

Simon, an Englishman raised in India, is stuck by himself in a Great War trench in 1916, awaiting his rescue. Then, out of the blue comes Irish private Buck: sloppy, talkative, and exacerbating. Although their personalities and background could not be any more different, each form a strong bond and preserve each other through the horrors of World War I’s front line.

Writing

Sevan K. Greene, discovered through Henry Regan’s support of new writing with Vertical Line Theatre, has written a piece of great visceral and intense energy, but perhaps not quite in the way that you’d expect from a Great War play. As much as it explores some of the more harrowing aspects of the war – lice, rats, and mustard gas – it’s main focus is actually on camaraderie and how the two characters develop a strong bond of brotherhood in the most extreme of scenarios. Greene plays off the characters’ polemic personalities quite well, but always uses the clashes to reveal something deeper and an unexpected. His characters always surprise you: the cocksure and capricious Buck is perhaps not as heroic as he seems, and the uptight and fretful Simon is far more down to earth than his airs and graces would suggest. They are characters born of a deep and empathetic imagination, with a complexity that is incredibly impressive.

But it’s the compassion that these two people develop for each other is what’s heartbreaking, especially as Buck’s state of health deteriorates as the show goes on. It’s an exploration of the human spirit, once pride and prejudices are put aside, that makes this a truly devastating play.

There are just a few small flaws. For starters, Buck barges in boisterous and overbearing trying too hard to quickly break Simon’s rigid exterior at first, which is just a bit short of being easily believable: it’s sort of the point, but it just sits a bit oddly. Also, the pace can jump about a bit too much, from nuanced and deep character exploration to high action drama at the drop of a hat. Whilst this undoubtedly this mirrors just how quickly the situation on the front line can change, it makes it a little difficult to adjust to as an audience when it happens.

Otherwise, it’s a piece of great emotional intelligence and complex character writing, prising something beautifully beyond ordinary from a subject that we already have seen a lot done with this year.

Direction & Production

Traverse productions are a rare occurrence in London, but Director Jonny Collis has transformed the performance area of the COG ARTSpace into a traverse space and has worked wonders by doing so. It makes you feel like you’re trapped in a trench: claustrophobic with two high walls at either side of you. It also helps give a significant spacial depth that Collis expertly spins moments of high drama, with characters cowering far from the enemy line, or putting a physical distance to their personality chasm. It’s a set-up that works incredibly well in this intimate space and one that is particular inspired and well executed, putting the audience at the very core of the text.

Lighting and sound design, by Dan Cornwell, are also superlative. As well as doing well to light up requisite parts of the elongated set in different ways, creating an interesting pallet of hues rather than just a wash, he also plays with lighting from ground level as well from the rigging, creating some striking moments of shadow and colour. His sound design, comprising of high quality sound effects and atmospheric music, are piped through a sound system of equal standard: distant cannons and immediate gunfire and crisp and palpable, drawing in the audience rather than distracting them like the unconvincing effects you can too often find on the fringe.

Put this together with Anne Stoffels and Ed Hollands detailed period costumes and props, and Isa Shaw-Abulafia’s purposefully ramshackle set of corrugated iron and mud, it’s a production that creates a reality the really does Greene’s writing justice, assisting the audience in involving themselves in this stark and terrifying world.

Jack Morris (left) and Henry Regan (right) as Simon and Buck. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Jack Morris (left) and Henry Regan (right) as Simon and Buck. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

Regan as Buck, and Jack Morris as Simon, are two superb actors. Both are utterly convincing and manage to really get to the depths of Greene’s characters, resulting in them being impressively compelling in their roles. Morris really exudes a handsome and formal authority in everything that he does, but also enables a deep underlying compassion to come through un-muddled and uncomplicated. Regan, particularity, commands a hauntingly ethereal performance in the throngs of a delusional fever, really galvanising one of the most powerful moments of the play.

The only thing I could possible pick at is that Regan’s accent is perhaps a bit too thick. Dialect Coach, Michael O’Toole, has done perhaps a bit too well a job, as, if someone is not used to the accent, they can easily lose some of Regan’s lines.

Verdict

Incredibly slick and deeply moving Fear In A Handful Of Dust is a Great War play with surprising heart and intelligence. A heartbreaking and heroic piece of writing with an incredibly impressive production behind it.

Fear In A Handful of Dust plays at the COG ARTSpace, London, N1 3JS, until 9 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.cogartspace.com.


Musical Review: Nicobobinus (LOST Theatre, London)

Official artwork for 'Nicobobinus'.

Official artwork for ‘Nicobobinus’.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An utterly spellbinding adaptation of Terry Jones’ much loved children’s book. Has children and adults alike awestruck and enrapt.

Overview

Nicobobinus is a boy who can do anything! But one day, when a Golden Woman turns his arm into pure gold, him and his best friend Rosie must travel to the Land of Dragons in search of the only known cure: dragon’s blood. But their journey is fraught with peril, including murderous monks, surgeon pirates, and moving mountains.

Aye, you! Eilidh Debonnaire (front) as the Golden Woman, and Max Runham (rear) as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Aye, you! Eilidh Debonnaire (front) as the Golden Woman, and Max Runham (rear) as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Writing

Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni has written a children’s book with wild imagination and whimsy. Characters are flamboyant and improbable who both amuse and wonderfully boggle. John Ward’s adaptation absolutely embraces and matches Jones’ creative mind, but also adds a theatrical imagination that wholly and inescapably charms.

Ward’s adaptation is one definitely aimed at a younger audience. It’s face paced, silly, and larger than life enough to keep the smaller ones involved at every moment of the way: laughing, gasping, and even quivering at dragons and dangers. It’s an epic weave of a tome with tremendous highs and perilous climaxes. Taking on Jones’ novel, Ward seems to tap into a humour that children thrive and love – just the right amount of silly and unpredictable: a posturing precisely honed at the level for small-folk. But simultaneously, there’s plenty for the adults too, including things like Monty Python and even Les Miserables reference jokes intelligently and unexpectedly placed. But most fantastically, there’s a universal comedy and tone that both parties involved lap up with relish.

The only thing that could possibly be lingered upon is that new-age morality that Jones injects, and that Ward perhaps stays on this a little too long at points. But even in doing so, it doesn’t take away from anything that Jones and Ward have conjured, or even dampens the pace and wonderment that the production adds to it. It’s just a noticeable thing rather than anything critical.

But overall, the fact that a two hour long show can keep children’s attention hook, line, and sinker without them fidgeting or chattering, is a mammoth achievement.

Life's a drag(on). Lloyd Gorman (left), Jofre Alsina (centre) and Eilidh Debonnaire. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Life’s a drag(on). Lloyd Gorman (left), Jofre Alsina (centre) and Eilidh Debonnaire. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Music & Lyrics

Eilidh Debonnaire’s score is beautiful, catchy, and energetic. It’s simple enough to grab the attention of the younger audience and to keep it, but complex and varied enough not to sound infantile in the slightest. Her scoring for an eclectic gaggle of instruments, from double basses and various saxophones to accordions, adds a rich and quirky sound which is just as interesting as the songs are sweeping and bouncy. But it’s not just in the songs that Debonnaire excels. There’s also some wonderful underscoring that replicates the imagination, rhythm, and the energy of the rest of the production.

Lyrics are straightforward and easy to understand for children, but still have a basic poetry that makes them skip and aurally intrigue. There’s really nothing bad I can say about the score: it’s pitch perfect for our pint-sized patrons, and also delights the parents.

Row, Rosie, row, Samantha Sutherland as Rosie. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Row, Rosie, row, Samantha Sutherland as Rosie. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Direction & Production

DumbWise and Red Ladder theatre companies have produced a spellbinding production using incredibly resourceful means. All there is by means of set is the stage painted like a giant map, and two moving halves of a bridge that alter their positions to suggest everything from the canals of Venice, to giant walls, and even a pirate ship. Couple with this projected images and textures upon the set and stage, it prompts a fervid imagination among the audience to fill in the blanks. Where imagination can’t quite deliver, Joshua Pharo’s video work keep the pace going using luscious animated illustrations. It adds to further wonder and variation that keeps adults and children engrossed. Elsewhere, Ward, also directing, ensures that there’s rarely a static moment, also using length, breadth, and height of the space to almost dizzying effect!

Everything in this production is spot on and well thought out. A maelstrom of colour, activity, and wonder: it’s captivating.

Golden Boy. Max Runham as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Golden Boy. Max Runham as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Cast

If the adaptation, the music, and the production wasn’t perfect enough, there is also an amazing cast involved. Max Runham as titular Nicobobinus is exceedingly sprightly, bounding about the stage with ferocious energy. Indeed, on press night his fervour and dedication was so much so that he ended up sustaining an injury, coming on for final bows with a bloodied nose! Samantha Sutherland as Rosie matched him stride for stride, and together they’re exude an almost exhausting power and child-like quality between them, perfect for the roles of our exuberant hero and heroine.

But they are supported by a trio of supreme comic talent: Debonnaire, Jofre Alsina, and Lloyd Gorman. As excellent entertainers, they are side-splittingly hilarious to watch. Excelling at everything from facial physicality to physical high jinx and marvellous vocal characterisations, they keep both adults and children in roars of laugher throughout. They also work effortlessly together to create a close-knit ball of comic energy that is unbearably funny.

Verdict

Out-rightly one of the most magical pieces of theatre I’ve seen as both a child and an adult. A dazzling Christmas show that will have each and every member of the family utterly dumbstruck with amazement.

Nicobobinus plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £15 (concessions and family tickets available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play (Bridge House Theatre, London)

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Proof that all you need for great theatre is a good story and brilliant storytellers. The production finds an ineffable charm in its resourcefulness.

Overview

George Bailey is a man with great ambitions. Yet his good nature has meant he has never been able to leave the sleepy up-state New York town of Bedford Falls. And now, things have come to a head and he’s contemplating suicide. But can rookie second class angel, Clarence, intent on earning his wings, be the one to convince him that he really has a wonderful life?

Writing

If I’m going to be upfront about things, I’m going to have to admit that, for all it’s praise, I’m not a huge fan of the film of It’s A Wonderful Life: even though it’s synonymous with Christmas and considered one of film’s all time greats. Yet famed radio-playwright, Tony Palermo, in his scaled back and succinct adaptation, has managed to find a different and hidden magic in the tale through it’s resetting. It might just be actors speaking into microphones accompanied by live sound effects, but he’s managed to still find a pace and an imagination that is difficult not to get drawn into. It’s an excellent radio play, even it’s being performed on stage. Palermo’s focus is, in his own words:

“…presenting theatre audiences with an authentic and delightful experience of radio drama in its heyday.” – www.ruyasonic.com.

He achieves this wholly and effortlessly.  Most astonishingly is, that despite the bareness of the concept, the children in the audience were completely hooked: something I had not expected, and speaks volumes for the show’s ability to engage and enchant.

The production’s setting the show as a local Penge 1949 live radio broadcast adds even more charm, including 1940s style adverts for actual business. Actor Daniel Hill also does a wonderful job of playing the broadcasts’ host too, working the crowd and creating a friendly and festive atmosphere. All in all, it not just create a sense of nostalgia but a palpable sense of time-travel.

Direction & Production

If you think that mainly getting a cast together to speak into microphones would make for lazy direction, you’d be wrong. Guy Retallack ensures that he never drops the ball and adds wonderful nuances throughout the production. There’s still plenty of interaction between characters, and they often ignore the mics and focus on each other, responding directly both physically and emotionally among themselves rather than just at the microphones. Retallack also makes great use of the small stage space, having actors muster and perform at the back of the stage even if it be feet away from the front, as well as make use of the passageway towards the dressing rooms. In fact, you almost forget the microphones are there and are engaged in the action as if it were a play rather than a radio broadcast. Retallack has added myriad visual details to something that doesn’t require it, and in doing so has incredibly elevated it into something extra special.

Elsewhere, Susan Burns on the sound effects is always on cue, adding an aural colour where visuals are missing. Whilst Fiona Martin’s minimal set of retro mics and “On Air” sign, coupled with the beautifully tailored period costumes, add further suspension of disbelief that the theatre space is a time casual fresh from 70 years ago.

It’s an incredibly resourceful production, but it has ensured that at every step of the way it’s frugal necessity is converted into inescapable charm.

Cast

I really can’t think of anyone to pick out in particular from the cast as they’re all top notch. Each and every one of them are not just great actors, but brilliant storytellers. Working with nothing but themselves and very few props, they manage to conjure up a lost era of a small town far overseas without having to force anything or try too hard. They’re as integral to the magic as the script and the production, and have the audience hang on every word and command their every attention when executing their craft: it’s utterly bewitching.

What’s more, as many of them play several characters, they switch instantly between them, not just in voice but in stature and physical characteristics that gives a striking visual difference as well as an aural one.

Verdict

It’s a Wonderful Life – The Radio Play is a wonderful time-warp. A warmth and heart that’s moving, unfathomably cosy, and steadfastly brilliant. Palermo’s writing and Retallack’s cast and production add an unexpected and surprising magic to, and perhaps even bettering, a story that has long been a pinnacle of Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play plays at the Bridge House Theatre, London, SE20 8RZ, until 4 January 2015. Tickets from £10. To book, visit www.bhtheatre.co.uk.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,643 other followers