The Tempest @ Cockpit Theatre – July 2014

Formed in 2012, Tree Folk Theatre prides itself on breathing new life into classic stories, filling them with inventive touches with the use of puppetry, masks and live music and song. The company’s first two works were derived from folk tales, but what better Shakespeare play for them to tackle and lend such innovation to than The Tempest, with its diverse collection of characters, multi-layered imagery and supernatural overtones.

Presented in the round, this production places emphasis on music and physicality from start to end, beginning and concluding the action with sequences which are presumably intended to depict the wedding of Alonso’s daughter to the King of Tunis or that of Miranda and Ferdinand, or both. James E. Anderson’s original score is intelligently crafted, contrasting airy ballads with crashing, dissonant chords to match the varying moods of the piece.  Lauren Cameron’s set design is simple yet effective and the cast make energetic use of the space throughout but particularly at the beginning when the entire area becomes the storm-battered boat.

IMGA0302Tree Folk’s Prospero consists intriguingly of a large mask with an aged face and mass of seaweed tresses sported by Maia Kirkman-Richards who pulls off the dialogue and the paternal side of the character surprisingly convincingly. Other gender-bending touches include Amy Lawrence’s flighty, feathery Ariel and Ellen Butler’s impish, amusing Trinculo, with the same actress doubling up as Gonzalo. Worthy also of particular mention is Stuart Mortimer who creates a hilarious, belching Stephano, but the real show-stealer is Caliban, a puppet in four or five parts operated by several actors, the disjointed, fluid nature of which IMGA0330combined with Jannik Archer’s deliberate yet dulcet delivery  serves perfectly to enhance the character’s chaotic, troubled existence.

The renunciation of Prospero’s magic at the play’s conclusion consists not only of the removal of his gown but of the mask to fully expose the actress, and the gradual return of Maia Kirkman-Richards’ voice to its natural pitch in Prospero’s final soliloquy enhances further his submission to normality. This is not only a brilliantly original and creative touch on the part of director Alice Sillett, but testament to the skill of the actress because despite being a strange and unconventional deviation it seems a natural conclusion and serves perfectly to heighten the feelings of reconciliation and resolution.

This delightful production is a must-see for anyone who likes their Shakespeare with a twist and will appeal particularly to younger theatre-goers.

Photographs by Chris Jones: Maia Kirkman-Richards as Prospero and Jannik Archer as Caliban.

The Tempest @ Edward Alderton Theatre – June 2014

Shakespeare’s famous tale of betrayal, love, redemption and reconciliation is thought by many to have been his last solo effort and was brought recently and beautifully to life by Mark Campbell at Bexleyheath’s intimate Edward Alderton theatre.

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The play’s action is set on a remote island where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using both magic and clever manipulation. He conjures a storm to gather his usurping brother, Antonio, King Alonso of Naples and a collection of others on the island. There, he engineers the revelation of Antonio’s lowly nature, the redemption of the king and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.

This production kept things simple, staying true to both a traditional interpretation of the play and the romantic genre into which it falls, yet incorporating several inventive twists and devices. The attractive, modern sparsity of the set with its wooden posts for trees and curved flats was offset with Campbell’s own sophisticated lighting design, complimented always by Michael Taylor’s inspired sound effects but most memorably in the opening scene to create the striking illusion of the tempest itself. The choice of ‘A Winged Victory for the Sullen’ for the show’s central musical theme worked fantastically well, providing a dreamy backdrop.

Richard Self’s Prospero was a delight from beginning to end, embodying every ounce of forgiving warmth and compassion that the character should, combining it with the requisite strange and eerie magic. Young Ciara O’Hare was an absolute revelation as Miranda, managing a perfect combination of wide-eyed innocence and innate wisdom beyond her years. Steve Padgham’s Trinculo and Matthew Friett’s Stephano made an excellent comic duo, with Friett’s timing and command of the language particularly impressive. The decision to cast both Ariel and Caliban as females was a brave one, but more enlightened in the case of Caliban, Prospero’s troubled, deformed slave, with Maureen Hardwen delivering a truly chilling performance and throwing an intriguing genderless light on the withered character. The tender removal of Prospero’s face paint on renunciation of his magic by Ariel (Louise Ody) created a particularly poignant feel to what was already an emotive conclusion.

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The credible and convincing staging of a Shakespeare work remains an enormous challenge for any company and is quite a rare undertaking for an amateur one, however this creative and memorable piece provided a perfect example of how it can be done well.

Photographs: Richard Self as Prospero, Louise Ody as Ariel, Maureen Hardwen as Caliban and Matthew Friett as Stephano reproduced with the kind permission of and (c) Robert Piwko (http://www.robertpiwko.com/).

Debris @ Southwark Playhouse – April 2014

Debris is Dennis Kelly’s first play and this revival for its tenth anniversary at Southwark Playhouse is OpenWorks Theatre’s debut production.

Painted grey and dominated by a large pile of rocks, the theatre’s ‘Little’ space, complemented by Signe Beckmann’s excellent, minimalist design, serves perfectly as the backdrop to this deliciously dark and often disturbingly comic piece.

debrisPerformed in one act, the play comprises the alternating streams of consciousness of orphaned teenagers Michael and Michelle who, surrounded by the debris of their young lives, try to make sense of a strange, damaging and dysfunctional childhood and struggle to ascertain who they are and where they are from.

The narrative begins violently as Michael (Harry McEntyre) remembers the day of his 16th birthday when he came home to find his alcoholic, Jesus-obsessed father proceeding to commit suicide by crucifying himself in the front room. Michelle (Leila Mimmack) is fascinated with their mother’s death and goes on to give several conflicting, but always captivating, reports of how she died. And things never really let up; the entire 70 minutes comprises monologue after monologue revealing tale after disturbing tale.

Kelly has created a warped, chaotic and often dreamlike atmosphere designed to shock and confuse us into never quite knowing what is real and what isn’t. Under some highly imaginative direction from Abigail Graham, both actors impressively embrace their challenging roles, delivering long and often complicated speeches with just the right amount of weird, unsettling panache.

McEntyre is particularly compelling as he relates the story central to the narrative, that of him discovering a baby boy in some rubbish and deciding to take the child home to raise himself in the hope of giving him a ‘normal’ life. The irony and sadness are overwhelming and this is another absurd account which beggars belief, but McEntyre is poignantly mesmerising as he relates it.

Kelly’s world is disjointed, confusing and murky, and this piece is not for the faint hearted; but it won’t fail to entertain anyone who likes their theatre to challenge and provoke.

Photo © Richard Davenport

Best of Friends @ Landor Theatre – April 2014

Best of Friends started life as The Golden Voice which, due to open last August at the Arts Theatre, disappeared in a cloud of controversy. Reworked, renamed and providing admirable testament to creator Nick Fogarty’s obvious refusal to give up, the piece has finally made it to the stage at the Landor.

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It all starts off quite well, with Mike Chariot (Aidan O’Neill) and Jim Ryan (Nick Fogarty takes a starring role as well as writing book, music and lyrics) rehearsing a song together backstage. Childhood friends who share a passion for music and song writing, they are striving to make their band a success. Everything goes to pot, though, when Chariot wins a tacky reality television show and, abandoning not only his friend and band, but his devoted girlfriend, disappears for 20 years to pursue a life of manufactured fame and cheesy, soulless pop. His return sees him transformed into something of a bitter music mogul wannabe, who attempts to reunite with his friend Jim (now resigned to a life of petty crime) and set up a nightclub designed to scout new talent. Throw a devoted ex and long lost son into the mix and this really should make for a great show.

However, whilst “Stars Falling” is probably the strongest number, and O’Neill’s singing voice is excellent, sadly it is all downhill from here. Whilst Fogarty is clearly a great musician and established song writer, unfortunately he is no actor and, considering they are supposed to be childhood buddies and now teenagers, he would have done far better to cast someone closer in age to the other male lead.  The rest of the music struggles to be remembered, there are aspects of the plot which are confusing and downright difficult to believe and some of the script is pretty cringe-inducing.

The sheer passion is unmistakable, however, and the cast are uniformly excellent, working superbly with what they have. Worthy of particular mention is Rosie Glossop, whose raw, soulful vocals smack with conviction throughout and, quite frankly, steal the show.

Reality television shows and their ability to damage lives is a hot topic at the moment, which should really make a great basis for a musical. However, as things stand, the material on offer here is simply not strong enough to do a promising idea justice.

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes) @ Southwark Playhouse – March 2014

One glance at Katharine Heath’s delightful set which takes the shape of a shabby living room dressed in peeling wallpaper and littered with old hats, coats and all other manner of paraphernalia, and it is immediately clear that this latest Sherlock Holmes adaption is going to be fairly traditional. And indeed, rather than jump on a bandwagon that seems hell bent on depicting literature’s most famous detective and accompanying characters with a contemporary, progressive twist, Tacit Theatre’s production seems to stay true to its source material, depicting a “consulting detective” who, played perfectly by a soave Philip Benjamin, smacks of youthful brilliance, arrogance and swagger.

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A Study in Scarlet is Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story and one of only four actual full-length novels about the detective. It documents his first meeting with Watson who, ravaged from war in Afghanistan, joins him in solving his first murder mystery.  By all accounts, this first novel is not the writer’s strongest and presents one of his most intricate and multi-layered plots, jumping back and forth from London to Utah in an attempt also to explain the motives of an avenging murderer. Probably not the easiest tale to adapt for stage, and things do get a little confusing and muddled at times, but the production rises well to its challenge with actors doubling up skillfully to play both the inhabitants of Baker Street and the distant Mormon settlement.

With all of this going on, Holmes and Watson take almost a back seat in the proceedings, but Lila Whelan and Greg Freeman’s enjoyable script gives them plenty of scope for interaction and they have a great chemistry and banter. Edward Cartwright’s Watson has a touch of the Philip Franks and a touch of the Hugh Laurie about him, and he brings a real warmth and excellent wit to the role. Actor-musicians are a welcome addition to any piece of theatre, and all of them handle their instruments with considerable panache, fully complimenting Annabelle Brown’s terrific original score.

A Study in Scarlet does what it says on the tin and what theatre should do, delivering a thoroughly enjoyable evening that has the audience giggling and guessing until the end.

Rift Zone @ New Diorama Theatre – March 2014

I am fascinated with anything to do with Iceland. The Land of Fire and Ice is enigmatic and strange as it is breathtakingly beautiful with its stunning scenery and abundance of folklore. So it was with great expectation that I went along to the New Diorama to review The Rift Zone, a new piece by Night Light Theatre, a company that apparently exists “to bring imagination, creativity and beauty front and centre in the theatre.” The members of the company themselves recently visited Iceland in search of stories, so it sounded like the perfect mix.

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The first minutes of this production are indeed filled with promise. Great use is made of the theatre’s intimate space by Rhys Jarman, his set design comprising flickering light bulbs and planks of wood to create effects that are delightful and eerie in equal measure and which at times mirror the ethereal quality of the northern lights themselves. John Biddle’s unearthly folk score, performed live by members of the company throughout, is also excellent from the off and reaches an invigorating climax at the end of the piece, accompanied by some superb performances encompassing provocative movement to the music.

The problem is, there is just too much going on. The company has bravely and ambitiously tried to fit the spirit of Iceland, its history and all that it encompasses and stands for into 125 minutes, and unfortunately this just does not work. At the centre of the story are a young brother and sister, Olaf and Alfa, who are pulled into the Rift Zone, a kind of alternate reality which pre-empts the future. Alfa meets Bob, an American hydro engineer who woos her and wins a mining contract at the same time. Giants, trolls, Norse gods and Snorri, a bearded Icelandic historian and poet in his y-fronts, are also thrown into what is quite frankly a bit of a confusing hodgepodge.

The production sounds great and is aesthetically pleasing with some strong performances that overall capture the mystery and magic of a great country. It is clear that it has all been well thought through and passionately researched, the problem is that it is impossible to work out what is happening and why, most of the time. If an audience, for all of the fragments of enjoyment they may glean along the way, are struggling to see the overall point, then surely one of the main objects of live theatre, and something this company prides itself on doing well –storytelling – is largely defeated.

The Man Inside @ Landor Theatre, London – March 2014

The Man Inside, with music by Tony Rees and book and lyrics by Gary Young, is a reworked, smaller scale version of Jekyll, the musical based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of dual personality that was staged back in 1996 at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley. Jekyll was an all-singing, all-dancing production; this is a shorter, stripped down chamber piece, a three hander which provides more of an overview of the story and lends itself perfectly to the atmospheric intimacy of Clapham’s Landor Theatre.

Under the slick direction of Robert McWhir, the three actors play out an extraordinary chapter in the life of Henry Jekyll, the doctor who, as part of his research into the darker workings of the human mind, decides to start drinking his own concoctions and morphing regularly into Edward Hyde, his demonic alter ego. All three performances are strong and believable throughout with Dave Willetts on commanding form, in terrific voice and handling the transition between his two characters admirably. Particularly skilful is his management of the trickier moments when Hyde becomes increasingly out of control and pervades Jekyll’s civilised (and frankly, quite boring) life with his fiancé, the resolute and staid Katherine (Alexandra Fisher). Lizzie is both feisty whore and tragic love-seeker, representing the Hyde side of the protagonist’s personality, embodying his sinister, lustful desires and baser instincts. Jessie Lilley embraces the role with zest, with one of the show’s punchier numbers giving her the chance to really strut her stuff and shine.

Overall, there is much to commend here. Martin Thomas’s superb yet simple design sets the scene perfectly, tripling up as study, lab and Victorian street and Matheson Bayley’s astounding musical direction and piano accompaniment is surely worth the ticket price alone, wringing every possible bit of emotion from a score that isn’t always as strong as it could be in places.

However the condensing of such a complex, involved and arguably hackneyed work into just 80 sung-through minutes is a challenge and a half, and whilst the company face this passionately head on, something is definitely lost. The piece seems too fleeting, relying heavily on prior knowledge of the original story and its issues to make its impact. What does work beautifully is the ingenious twist at the end, which throws Stevenson’s universal themes, as important and relevant today as they were then, into sharp focus, and puts everything into context.  I’d like to have seen more of this innovative flash in place of some of the sickly and quite unnecessary romantic exchanges that happen between Dr Jekyll and Katherine, for example.

There is no doubt that this is still very much a work in progress, designed to test the water and see where it can go. Whether it has legs remains to be seen, but, for now, it is a bold, true-to-itself take on a much-loved classic which is well worth a look.

Blue Remembered Hills @ New Diorama Theatre, London – March 2014

Blue Remembered Hills was originally a television play written by Dennis Potter and commissioned by the BBC in 1979 as part of its “Play for Today” series. It starred Michael Elphick and Helen Mirren, broke interesting new ground and won awards galore.

This stage production by New Rep Theatre is just their fifth and comes to the New Diorama fresh from a nomination for a Peter Brook Equity Ensemble Award. The fact this is adapted from television makes perfect sense; this is a one-act play running for just 65 minutes.

The action comprises seven West-Country children playing together in the Forest of Dean one afternoon during the summer of wartime 1943. We see a range of characters from a shy and nervous stutterer, a swaggering bully, a bossy little girl with a pram to a cry-baby simpleton. As the children fantasize and fight through the afternoon all of the elements of typical childhood play are present – soldiers in combat, mothers and fathers, a bit of animal cruelty and some good old-fashioned bullying. The absence of parents is overriding and we are reminded of a time when children were left completely to their own devices; no computers, no social media, just the great outdoors and young, exciting naivety. Yet there is a darker subject matter lurking beneath and the play’s conclusion sees Potter explore what happens when too much freedom is allowed and games descend into unspeakable tragedy.

There are many positives here and most of the elements necessary to make for an enjoyable theatrical experience are present. All of the actors work incredibly hard to exude just the right amount of convincing youthful energy needed to portray children and their accents are spot on throughout. Paul Harnett’s Raymond does well to invoke pathos and Christopher York’s Donald Duck is downright, suitably weird. The set is simple, featuring a beautiful forest backdrop design by Paul Wallis and moveable wooden structures which all combine well to aid the imagination.

Yet, the hour that precedes the chaos that descends as Donald meets his fate is surely designed to build up to this one, devastating episode and whilst it is well-acted, it just doesn’t hit hard enough. I was honestly more concerned about the stamping to death of the squirrel near the beginning– not necessarily a bad thing, since this was an example of one of the play’s grittier, more successful moments, and it isn’t that the piece does not succeed on many levels. It just left me with the feeling that this is perhaps one of those works which does not convert that well from the format for which it was originally intended or at least loses some of its intended impact in translation.

 

Rachael’s Café @ Old Red Lion, London – February 2014

Having had one or two bad experiences with painfully long and badly written one-handers in the past, It was admittedly with some trepidation that I went to review this London premiere of Rachael’s Café at the Old Red Lion. The subject matter sounded rather hit and miss too – potentially disastrous in the wrong hands.

I needn’t have worried.

Rachael’s Café is the heart-warming and inspiring tale of Eric Winiger, a 6ft tall, middle-class, churchgoing husband and father of three from sleepy Bloomington, Indiana, who, about 7 years ago, took the incredibly brave decision to live as a transgender woman. The shock and lack of acceptance in the local community was such that, unable to gain employment, Rachael started her own business, Rachael’s Café. Whilst struggling with no funding at the outset, the café is now a great success, a warm, welcoming and creative place which banishes any form of segregation and where Rachael strives to uphold the ethos “everyone is welcome, no exceptions”.

Lucy Danser’s script recounts Rachael’s story in the form of an hour-long monologue and Graham Elwell’s delivery and portrayal of the protagonist is perfect. The actor creates an immediate bond with the audience with eye contact, direct address and interaction, drawing us into the tale, exuding just the right level of endearing and gentle gawkiness. Moments of extreme sadness and difficulty in the shape of memories of rude and hurtful visitors to the café are intermingled with more joyful moments of kindness, the most touching of which is a phone call from Rachael’s youngest daughter, Gracie, who invites her to attend a school presentation as Rachael, not Eric, for the first time. This loving and innocent acceptance of a child set against a backdrop of adult fear, ignorance and prejudice is perfectly pitched, incredibly moving and just one highlight in an excellent script which delivers some great moments of humour, too.

Martin Thomas’s set design is straightforward and works well. We are simply visitors to a friendly little café one evening, listening in as the proprietor busies herself clearing up after a day’s trade and gets a little lost in her fascinating memories. Effective use of lighting by Owen Evans tracks the mood changes of the piece well, for example the darkened moment when Rachael switches from her calm, genteel self to portray the misdirected anger and over-inflated masculinity and prejudice of a Texan visitor.

This debut by Lucy Danser simply gets it right on every level. You will leave feeling enriched, encouraged and, above all, safe in the knowledge you have spent an hour of your life well.

The A-Z of Mrs P @ Southwark Playhouse, London – February 2014

There is something very intriguing and distinctly admirable about the creation of a piece of theatre from subject matter that is unlikely and unusual. Most people would be completely unaware that somebody actually wrote the iconic London A-Z. They’d be even less aware it was a portrait painter called Phyllis Pearsall who came up with the idea and even less aware again of the interesting twists and turns her life took as she created it. Yet it is Pearsall’s colourful life on which The A-Z of Mrs P, with book by Diane Samuels and music and lyrics by Gwyneth Herbert, is based.

THE A TO Z OF MRS P, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

 The use of the space in Southwark Playhouse’s “Large” is truly excellent and Klara Zieglerova’s design is innovative and inspiring. All manner of paraphernalia – postcards, books, maps, chairs, papers, suitcases – hangs from the ceiling, reflecting a life of thought, travel and work. The audience is seated either side of an oblong space flanked at each end with moveable doors that are controlled by cast members. The band is visible on a raised platform.

Beginning with her decision to leave her husband in Venice and step out into her beloved London to pursue her painting career, the piece explains the inspiration behind Pearsall’s famous map book, cataloguing its creation, introducing the draughtsmen she recruited along the way to assist her, her commendable decision to convert her company into a trust for the benefit of her employees and her later physical decline. All set against a backdrop of turbulent family life which veers from great affluence to bankruptcy and, owing largely to the selfish, misogynistic antics of her father, features the death of her mother in an asylum.

The action is relatively fast paced throughout and Gwyneth Herbert’s score and lyrics are punchy, quirky and decidedly “Sondheimesque”. Pretty impressive for someone who claims never to have seen a stage musical before starting the project. One particular highlight is a song which sees Pearsall (played by Isy Suttie) relay the names of 70 London streets in quick succession as they are recorded in the book. It is often really a fun form of recitative, but Suttie embraces the challenge of her first musical role head-on, giving a performance which manages to be sympathetic, endearing, independent and vulnerable all at the same time. Other casting highlights include Frances Ruffelle, whose Bella is tragic, sexy and gritty and Stuart Matthew Price, who is in beautiful singing voice as Pearsall’s brother, Tony.

THE A TO Z OF MRS P, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

For a piece that is supposed to be largely about the life and achievements of one protagonist, though, this show meanders decidedly off course at times. For example, it allows itself to focus too heavily on Pearsall’s father. Played adeptly by Michael Matus, who is also in fantastic voice, this man not only shapes the lives of his wife and daughter to a staggering degree, but dominates the theatrical proceedings themselves. Whilst this obviously makes sense on some level, he just becomes annoying by the end and, to be honest, I’d rather have seen more time spent exploring further aspects of the life and plight of Phyllis herself.

The highlights of this show are many. Its charm is undeniable, there is much to enjoy and the passion and thought behind it are obvious. However structurally it currently feels a little like an experimental work in progress.

Photos by Jane Hobson