When? Tuesday 9th April 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Crispin Redman, Michael Matus, Tony Boncza, Indra Ové, Simon Holmes, Jonathan Kemp, Elliot Chapman, Paul Fuller, Sarah Lambie
I am (naturally) too young to remember the hit BBC television show Yes Minister which, along with its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, were considered must-see comedy television in the 1980′s. Lauded by critics and adored by viewers for the best part of a decade, the satirical – often biting – political comedy’s legacy lives to this day. The new 2013 television reboot, running presently on digital channel Gold, follows hot on the heels of this stage production, which is fresh from a critically and commercially successful West End run.
British Prime Minister and European something-or-other Jim Hacker (Tony Boncza) is a troubled man. The economy is collapsing around him, half of his own coalition government want his head and – worse luck – he hasn’t got a clue what to do about any of it. He depends on his Cabinet Secretary, the cunning and devious Sir. Humphrey Appleby (Crispin Redman), for answers. Answers which are always tinged with a healthy dose of self-interest and unquestionably laced in brutal cynicism. Aided by his slightly awkward and bumbling Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley (Michael Matus) and his shrill but loyal Special Policy Advisor Claire Sutton (Indra Ové) the PM must step up and deliver for his public by any means necessary. Even if that means chartering the Royal Helicopter to courier some very unlikely passengers!
All the action takes place on one very striking set (Simon Higlett), that of the PM’s office at Chequers. Beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, the set design marks just one of the wonderfully realised pieces of symbolism in the production. A stuffy, old-fashioned room. Filled with stuffy, old-fashioned men sipping fine whiskey, who have been forcibly pushed into the 2013 political world against their will. A huge flat-screen LCD television sticks out like a sore thumb in the opulent surroundings. The men poke awkwardly at their Blackberry phones as if prodding a dead rat and mention Twitter as if it were a futuristic technology they, as old Etonians and born millionaires, could never possibly need to bother themselves with. In the real world Sir. Humphrey, the sly old dog that he is, could well have hired Youth PCC Paris Brown personally; as a diversion, to hide a multitude of other sins…
Co-writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have crafted a beautifully balanced evening of contemporary satire – and I absolutely adored this production. The laughs are numerous, hearty and most importantly varied. There is some incredibly sharp wordplay, particularly from Sir. Humphrey, mild slapstick, sleaze, parody, satire and serious political comment. A vehicle for some wonderful characters? Yes, undoubtedly – but a worthy vehicle fitting for the fine bottoms gracing the upholstery. The story was engrossing and opened up some wonderful opportunities for classic situation comedy. The clearly non-religious PM signing off a desperate prayer to God as if he were writing to his bank manager springs immediately to mind.
The dreaded white-slip-of-doom greeted us with news of Tony Boncza covering the indisposed Michael Fenton Stevens as Jim Hacker. But what a performance he gave. Beyond confident – nuanced, even – Boncza played the part of the well-meaning but rather hopeless PM to perfection. He shared wonderful chemistry with his co-star and, unfortunately for him, show-stealing counterpart Crispin Redman as Sir. Humphrey. Whilst I have nothing to compare the performances to, I honestly can’t imagine a better pairing than these two. Redman is a tour-de-force as the sly but eminently likeable would-be fascist. I never thought I’d type that sentence! Redman is beyond good; he really owns the role. I was frequently reminded of Kevin Spacey’s performance as Richard III, due to the almost Shakespearean quality the actor gives the part, with dry wit oozing out of every pore. Yes, the writing is outstanding on both counts, but without the world class actor delivering the lines expertly, even the best writing can fall to mush. The support from the ensemble cast was also very strong, but against Redman’s Humphrey, it is hard to be seen.
I honestly can’t recall a comedy play offering so many laughs – nor one which captivated me so thoroughly for two solid hours. The new touring cast are outstanding and I cannot recommend this production highly enough. See it while it’s hot!
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 4th March 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Julian Forsyth, Anthony Eden, Audrone Koc
The late Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost novel The Woman in Black has been thrilling UK audiences for over twenty-five years. Robin Herford’s replica touring production, returning to haunt the Alhambra, absolutely does justice to the atmosphere and charm of the West End original, which is still going strong at the Fortune Theatre. Even today in 2013, The Woman in Black provides an evening of storytelling flair and high-drama to which no other ghost story can compare on stage.
The elderly Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth), a retired solicitor, has enlisted the services of a skeptical but enthusiastic young Actor (Anthony Eden), to help him tell a ghost story – a true story, and one which has given him nightmares for decades. Kipps seeks closure, which he plans to get by recounting his terrifying tale for his friends and family on stage. The action takes place on a single static set, that of an empty theatre, as the two rehearse and form a bond together. With the framing device established, the story proper is allowed to begin; a wet-behind-the-ears Kipps, played by the Actor, is dispatched to the desolate Eel Marsh House to retrieve and examine the legal documents of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow. Searching an old chest, amongst an old bundle of papers, he encounters a terrible secret – one which ultimately changes his life forever.
The two-hand cast, armed with just a handful of props on a simple yet effective period theatre set (Michael Holt), and some dramatic, eery lighting (Kevin Sleep) create some of the most iconic and lasting imagery in popular British straight theatre. Who could forget the recreation of a horse and trap, rattling its way through freezing fog in soggy marshland? Or the spine-tingling rocking chair scene? The imagery, with the aid of a few naff projections and ‘recorded sounds’ to seal the ‘play within a play’ set-up, is as memorable as some large-scale productions I have seen produced on ten (fifty?) times the budget. After all, as the Actor explains to Kipps, the audience does have an imagination after all.
Fascinatingly, original director Robin Herford still clearly takes pride in directing each new cast of The Woman in Black as if he were directing a new production. Albeit, perhaps if partly for his own personal financial security – but who can blame him? It is perhaps this freshness, with actors generally being re-cast every nine month season, which keeps the play feeling as fresh and dynamic as it does. Despite being billed as a ’25th Anniversary Tour’, the production is identical to previous tours, so those expecting new effects or major directional changes will be disappointed. Despite this, the production feels and looks fresh as a daisy and the casting as enjoyable as any previous visit I have made to the West End or touring production, of which I have made several. Julian Forsyth is terrific as Arthur Kipps and does a splendid job of playing the bumbling yet stoic victim; Forsyth’s Kipps is one you can genuinely feel for. Anthony Eden is a good deal less hyperactive than some of the previous incarnations of The Actor I have seen, and is all the better for it, drawing off the audience’s fear – his timing expert. Both actors have West End prior with the play and their experience showed beautifully. Finally, Audrone Koc takes the hardest-to-review turn as the Vision – but I won’t say more, as I don’t want her coming after me!
Much like fellow long-runner Blood Brothers, The Woman in Black certainly packs in the schoolchildren and regularly features as a GCSE text. This, combined with strong repeat business (I certainly plan to see it again some years in the future) and the 2012 motion picture adaptation (for what it was worth) almost guarantees we’ll be seeing The Woman in Black for many more years to come. Great news for theatre lovers, terrible news for a certain Mr. Kipps…
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 26th November 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Steven France, Thomas Howes, Karl Howman, Bruno Langley, Graham Seed, Jemma Walker, Jan Waters, Clare Wilkie
2012 has been a quite extraordinary year for Britain. Completely apart from the world of theatre and performance – a remarkable half-sentence coming from me – it has been a year we can be rightly proud of. The remarkable success and legacy of the Olympic games is plain for all to see – and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular in particular was a joy to behold (well, that didn’t take long!). 2012 also marked a very special 60th anniversary for someone, a certain lady on the throne, known the world over as a British institution. That’s right, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is celebrating it’s first ever full UK tour – and the Queen of Crime’s masterpiece is in positively majestic form.
Set exclusively in the grand hall of the newly established guest house Monkswell Manor, the set-up is classic Christie. A grisly murder has been committed in London amidst a huge snowstorm which is battering southern England. Newlywed couple, The Ralstons, are preparing to receive their new house-guests – each with their own secret reasons for visiting the isolated retreat. Before long, a police sergeant arrives – on skis – bringing news of the London murder, with the belief that one or more of the guests may be involved…
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen and Adam Spiegel’s tour is a very timely tonic for the UK straight play touring circuit. One which is guaranteed to fill venues up and down the country for as long as the noted producers wish I suspect – but agreeably for all the right reasons. Director Ian Watt-Smith is no stranger to The Mousetrap, having directed the 38th, 41st, 58th and 59th years of the West End production and his intricate understanding of the piece is the key to this production’s success. Christie’s writing is sharp and witty, but in the hands of the wrong director can tumble into parody or, worse still, a ham-fest. Watt-Smith’s genius is in understanding what to play straight and what to send up; amusing and dramatically thrilling in all the right places, The Mousetrap absolutely flies by – and yet feels dense, tense and emotionally engaging.
The Diamond Anniversary tour of The Mousetrap is a brilliant, timeless and iconic production – and Monkswell Manor is positively lit up by one of the finest casts I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a straight play in recent years. The entire company are strong: Steven France gives a hilarious performance as a flouncing, but deeply vulnerable Christopher Wren; Jemma Walker and Bruno Langley make a likeable and convincing Mr and Mrs. Ralston; Mousetrap regular Jan Waters makes a softer and funnier Mrs Boyle than I’ve seen previously and Clare Wilkie makes far more of Miss Casewell than could be reasonably asked of her, with a far subtler and considerably less angry vibe about her than many other actresses who have played the role previously as, to be blunt, ‘an angry lesbian’. Graham Seed as Major Metcalf shares some amusing first act banter with Mrs Boyle which earned hearty laughs from the audience; Karl Howman’s half-baked Italian-ish accent as Mr Paravicini is so ropey as to actually work in his favour, casting doubt on the character’s true identity…
The undoubted star-turn though comes from Doncaster born Thomas Howes as Detective Sergeant Trotter. Howes, known to television audiences for his performance as William in ITV’s Downton Abbey, shows his versatility and brilliance as a character actor and leaves a lasting impression on the audience with an outstanding performance. He looks, sounds and adopts mannerisms so far removed from his noted television turn that he is barely recognisable. And his performance is certainly not identikit, in fact, with director Watt-Smith, Howes adds quirks and traits to the character which help make the role truly his own – Howes will be a big loss to the production when he leaves the show at the end of the Bradford run. His replacement is yet to be confirmed.
The production values are superb and no expense has been spared in recreating the West End production for tour. Whilst the Diamond Anniversary tour is technically a new production, it is in essence a reproduction – Anthony Holland’s original sets, the costumes, lighting design and so forth are almost identically replicated from the West End, where the production is re-directed once a year – regardless of the frequency of cast changes – to help ensure freshness. From experience though it doesn’t, as the West End production housed less than a few hundred people the last time I attended, most of whom were tourists. The tour production feels infinitely fresher, the regional audience frankly better.
Admittedly, it does take a few scenes to adjust to some of the follies of ‘an Agatha Christie’ as one integrates oneself into her universe. Christie’s fictional settings are ones which surely felt old-fashioned even in her day, so in 2012 a fair amount of willing suspension is necessary for any audience. One such example are accents; most of the company adopt the tried and trusted attempt at 1950′s ‘BBC newsreader’ RP – a rather stifling necessity for an actor with a natural regional accent, perhaps straining to imbue their performance with credibility. It is fortunate, then, that Watt-Smith’s focus is on delivering fully fleshed out incarnations of each and every character and is hugely successful in doing so. The Mousetrap is more than a play, it is a tradition – a staple of British theatre. This sense of tradition is enforced by the company’s request to the audience at the curtain call not to reveal the identity of the killer.
I appreciate that The Mousetrap is not without its critics; many commentators have bemoaned the sixty-year West End policy of refusing to discount tickets for a show that frequently struggles to put bums on seats – and some simply find Christie’s famous ‘cosy’ trademark style simply too, well, cosy for a 2012 audience. But there is no denying that in front of a packed Bradford Alhambra audience, some sixty years since it embarked on its West End run, we were caught up in a very special Mousetrap. A true masterpiece, dare I even say with Howes heading the company for his final few performances, in its prime.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 29th October 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Beverley Callard, Ray Quinn, Philip Andrew, Jess Robinson, Duggie Brown, Sally Plumb, Cerie Hine, Lisa Howard, John Cockerill
Although I have never seen the warmly received, star-studded 1998 movie adaptation of playwright John Cartwright’s successful 1992 play, I arrived at the Bradford Alhambra for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice with high expectations. After all, the movie – as I was assured by friends and colleagues – was an amusing, yet poignant tale of one painfully shy girl’s reluctant journey to stardom. Her one means of expression comes through the small collection of LP records left to her by her beloved late father – and the (sometimes) uncanny impersonations of the various artists she adores.
Considering the time of the year, it would be apt to say that what could have been a whimsical treat of an evening, turned into a one trick pony. The underlying core of the play has oodles of potential for exploration, but sadly is realised in a disjointed, clunky and, at times, distasteful way. Impressionist Jess Robinson as ‘Little Voice’ stands out, but this potential star-turn is generally underused in the book. Thankfully, she is given a brief opportunity in a second act medley to show her full range of impersonations, ranging from an uncanny Cilla Black, to a passable Julie Andrews.
The play centres around Little Voice’s mother Mari Hoff (Beverley Callard), whose surname seems to have been chosen for one cheap first act joke. Despite delivering a performance almost identical to that seen for the last 21 years as her long-running Coronation Street alter-ego Liz McDonald; Callard failed, at times, to convince in her portrayal, often coming across forced and making numerous mistakes delivering the text. Her strongest moment comes in an Act II monologue, where the character ruefully evaluates her own life choices. Unfortunately, this segment is so alien to the would-be whimsical style of the rest of the play, it feels entirely out of place. A hard-drinking factory worker, who calls her daughter a ‘slit’ throughout and regularly uses the term ‘twat bone’, is suddenly found on the floor crying ‘I beseech you!’, as she begs for redemption. This bizarre turn of events is entirely unconvincing.
Criticisms of some of the acting and direction aside, my biggest problem was with the script, which I found at times distasteful and exploitative – not a word I would use lightly, but I feel is necessary in this case. Next door neighbour Sadie, played by poor Sally Plumb, is the ongoing figure of ‘fun’ and I must admit I felt rather uncomfortable with the jokes made at her expense. She is insulted throughout the play due to her size; the content of such jokes I found wholly unnecessary and actually bordering on malicious. Cartwright takes every cheap laugh on offer – we see the ‘fat girl’ dancing around stupidly, straddling a sofa, being called ‘fat’ names throughout with no retaliation, eating mouldy cornflakes, drinking ‘cups of sugar with bit of tea in it’ and vomiting on herself ‘for laughs’ – the latter humiliation being particularly disgusting and hardly referenced in the script. I fail to see how that particular ‘joke’ was either funny or expositional. Largely, this infantile humour is at odds with any feeling of whimsy or empathy built up with any of the characters.
The show features both a pre-show and interval performance, in the form of cabaret acts, an interactive raffle and bingo which went down quite well with the Alhambra audience. Duggie Brown plays the role of the compere Lou Boo and is convincing in a sparkling gold number. The remaining cast perform admirably. As Ray Say, Philip Andrew acts well throughout, but is perhaps a touch too nice – indeed, he is arguably the most likeable character – in spite of the predictable second act heel turn. The nicest moments in the play come with the interaction between love-struck Billy (Ray Quinn) and Little Voice; one scene involving an on-stage cherry-picker was well-acted and visually impressive. A memorable fire effect also stands out in the memory from designer Morgan Large and lighting designer Jason Taylor.
The plot is interesting, as are some of the characters who certainly have room for development. This could’ve been a charming story with a first-class star turn; but the final product sadly left me cold.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 25th September 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Jeffery Kissoon, Ann Ogbomo, Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri, Joseph Mydell, Andrew French, Chinna Wodu, Mark Theodore, Segun Akingbola, Ewart James Walters, Ray Fearon, Ivanno Jeremiah, Ricky Fearon, Marcus Griffiths, Theo Ogundipe, Mark Ebulue, Jude Owusu, Samantha Lawson, Simon Manyonda
In the last few years, my patience had worn rather thin with the RSC, if truth be told.* It is therefore a surprise and a delight, in equal measure, to see a production as thrilling and inspired as Yorkshire born Gregory Doran’s Pan-African Julius Caesar, a play given a new lease of life against the backdrop of a civil-warring African republic. Featuring an all-black British cast, pre-show fears were quickly allayed as to any similarity between the 2009 The Tempest, which was incredibly the last RSC Shakespeare production to visit Yorkshire. Doran, directing his last production as Chief Associate Director before replacing outgoing Michael Boyd as Artistic Director, has set the benchmark very high for his tenure as RSC boss.
Whilst the African Caesar concept has been visited previously, Doran sets a precedent by not bludgeoning the idea on the audience; his is a production of subtleties and, in many ways, Shakespearean traditionalism which defies the modernised setting. Doran finds the perfect balance between accessibility and artistic credibility, keeping the bus loads of Year 8/9 school children, at times, as rapt as the invited and paying guests in the rows behind. It helps, of course, that the play has oodles of conspiracy, intrigue and treachery which needs little signposting. The plotting senators, initially fronted by Caius Cassius, are a wonderfully clandestine society of hooded figures who meet under the cover of darkness, whispering in the shadows; all literally behind the back of the would-be victim of assassin, Caesar, whose giant stone statue towers over the west of Rome, referencing the fallen monuments to Lenin, Saddam Hussein and other ‘dictators’ from recent history.
Yet the Caesar we meet is not the would-be dictator described by the conspirators – or indeed the turn given frequently as directed on stage. The returning war hero, greeted by a band of supporters who sing his name, is an aging, portly, slightly deaf has-been who looks about as ambitious as a teacake. Jeffery Kissoon finds the insecurities of his ‘Northern Star’; some may question whether he provides the ambition to match that which was touted by the conspirators – but this is almost definitely the point. His speech at the Capitol was less brutal tyrant than minor hissy-fit; all of which sits beautifully with the notion that Brutus himself was the one most deceived.
The action takes place on Michael Vale’s grand set, dominated by the enormous statue positioned and facing upstage. As is the norm now, guns have replaced swords as the weapon of choice for modern stagings (although I have never, ever seen one used instead of the dagger Shakespeare prescribes in the text). The costumes, initially fairly neutral tribal wear, latterly camouflage and military uniforms, are entirely convincing and appropriate throughout. The attention to detail is superb, right down to Calpurnia’s kanga, defining her as one of a higher standing.
With Julius Caesar considered a particularly simple Tragedy, the tiniest nuance in a performance is likely to come under scrutiny – and largely the cast are aware of this, with the acting generally of a good standard. Jeffery Kissoon is perhaps rather too likeable as the bumbling Caesar (a few in the audience audibly reacted to his murder with sympathy) but gives a steady turn; Paterson Joseph is about as ambitious as they come in a Brutus, his ear is visibly turned as Cassius suggests he be a far more worthy leader; he has some lovely moments, particularly in his asides, but there is little doubt that his posthumous status as ‘noblest Roman of them all’ is extremely questionable. It is Ray Fearon as a charismatic Mark Antony who gives the outstanding turn and grew from strength to strength with his character over the course of the evening. There was even a certain swagger to Fearon at the curtain call, which was hard not to find well suited to his dominating, confident frame. Elsewhere, there are some very large-scale performances from several, with Cyril Nri particularly memorable for being the wrong side of ‘legs apart and shout everything’. The entire cast adopt African accents, all of which are spot on and a potential banana skin averted.
A few missteps aside (an awkward pre-show** and later what appeared to be a completely unnecessary and noncontexual ‘black power’ salute from Mark Antony) Gregory Doran’s Julius Caesar is one of the best new productions I have seen from the RSC in many years – and a fantastic reason to get yourself to the Bradford Alhambra for a quality night of straight theatre. May it be the first of many quality RSC productions to visit the region in the coming years.
- Harry Zing
*The last RSC production to visit the region was the dire 2009 The Tempest starring Antony Sher and John Kani, which was an RSC co-production which originated in South Africa, again with a central African setting.
**The production features a live music pre-show and tribal dancing, while audience members – many of whom were visiting the theatre for the first time, awkwardly filed to their seat, unsure if they were allowed to talk/get up, and so forth.
When? Wednesday 12th September 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Ace Bhatti, Don Gilet, William Ilkley, Ian Reddington
When Yorkshire playwright John Godber‘s hit comedy Bouncers debuted some 35 years ago at his beloved Hull Truck Theatre, it proved an instant hit. The production has seen numerous re-writes and updates in the decades which followed its 1977 premiere, including the fantastically-named ’1990′s remix’ – and presently – the 2012 tour from Watershed Productions, for which Godber has again taken the reigns as director. The play is widely regarded as being culturally significant; its legacy reinforced by its status as a GCSE text today – indeed, Bouncers proves just as watchable for a seasoned theatregoer as for a large group of difficult-to-please teenage students.
Bouncers is an observational piece telling the story of four lads and four lasses on a night out as they try to dance, drink, vomit, urinate and fart their way to ‘happiness’. Night after night, weekend after weekend, the Bouncers watch on; they’ve seen it all before. Ralph and Les are passive – normal; Lucky Eric is very strange – Judd is a psychopath. The roles are played by the same four actors, dressed in plain black suits; when playing the girls, a limp wrist, a mince and a glittery handbag are deployed as visual aids; the lads swagger their way into Asylum Nightclub and the Bouncers grimace, banter and otherwise wallow in their self-loathing. There are laughs aplenty throughout; the hilarious ‘sex scene’ was wonderfully executed (though be warned, strobe lights are used for this segment) and, although it might be considered cheap laughs by some, the performances as the girls on their night out were surprisingly genuine. There was something oddly amusing about the characters simply announcing their names when they entered – ala the Teletubbies – and I will never look at a Smurf the same way again.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities of Godber’s writing to that of fellow popular playwright Willy Russell; both men are from working class backgrounds (Godber is the son of a miner from a West Yorkshire mining town) and both write with a belt of much-needed humour, with younger people firmly in mind. They also both clearly have a fondness for rhyming couplets, which are used at the beginning and end of the play as a simple framing device which brought closure to the ‘night out’ in a very apt manner. The play is observational in a very literal way; there is little exposition or plot over the course of the two hours, neither is there too much fleshing out of the characters. The Bouncers are the most developed; Lucky Eric, who breaks into monologue throughout the play, arguably takes on the mantle of creating dramatic impetus. Part amateur philosopher, large part pervert, I was unsure what to make of his rambling speeches about young girls ‘soft, tender thighs’ and his witnessing of what appeared to be a serious sexual assault in a pub, which he claimed ‘ … aroused him more than ever before’. Whilst the content was not shocking by modern standards, it felt strangely out of place in the context of an otherwise amusing comedy and left me squirming in my seat in places; like listening to bad ‘sexual fiction’, read by a fifty year old on audio book.
Godber’s 2012 updates are plentiful and a mixed success; thumping modern club music is pumped out throughout the evening with Rhianna, Jessie J (and the Outhere Brothers (?)) – and the like – setting the scene very much in the modern day. There is a half-hearted stab at social and economic commentary, which I found quite hard to swallow; Godber’s belief that young people are victims of the society they have grown up in was always certain to divide an audience who didn’t pay to see social comment – from either end of the political spectrum. Some changes (or lack thereof) are simply factually incorrect; the opening verse implies patrons need to wear a suit to enter a 2012 nightclub, that young girls go to a salon to get a large beehive perm for a night out (or young men go to smokey, terrifying barber shops to get a ‘Joey Barton’ do) – or, for that matter, that groups of young women dance around their handbags in the middle of the nightclub dance floor and groups of men compare the size of their penises and urinate on each other for laughs in the toilets. I’m not sure I’ll ever know what a ‘large shot’ is either. These may seem small inaccuracies, but for a play which is not narrative driven but based on Godber’s interpretation of young people’s actual lives in 2012, these are errors which need correcting to ensure credibility with the people Godber is attempting to portray.
The cast do well across the board, but William Ilkley gives the stand-out turn as wind-up merchant Judd, making the most of his one-liners and truly looking the part to boot. Ian Reddington is fine as Lucky Eric, but for reasons of keeping my dinner down I can’t dwell on the speeches he is given to recite. Ace Bhatti is hilarious in a brief cameo as a Club DJ and is wonderful as Suzie, particularly in the nightclub scenes. Finally Don Gilet as Les isn’t given a lot to do, but earns plenty of laughs when given the opportunity.
Bouncers is an amusing few hours which zip along nicely; it doesn’t work as a piece of social commentary but as a light-hearted comedy, accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, it proves a successful revival. John Godber, who was in attendance himself, will be delighted with the ovation his ‘baby’ received – and I’m sure this isn’t the last incarnation we will see of Bouncers in the years to come.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 16th July 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Hambi Pappas, Sydney Smith, Kate O’Mara, Jennifer Bryden, Max Hutchinson, Vanessa Morley, Mark Wynter, Susie Amy, Ben Nealon, Denis Lill, Chloe Newsome
“It’s intolerable!” shrieks actress Susie Amy as Kay Mostyn, drawing audible gaffaws from several members of the audience around me. This ill-advised first act exclamation of disgust and hopelessness echoed around the majestic Alhambra theatre, almost daring an ironic rebuttal from a pithy, fed up theatregoer.
Many in the audience may have already been familiar with Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile, a piece made famous to current audiences when adapted for television, first in 1978 starring Peter Ustinov and most recently in 2004 with David Suchet. Agatha Christie was famously dubious that her top protagonist and most famous creation – Hercule Poirot, the hero of Death on the Nile – could be successfully brought to life on the stage. She decided therefore to re-work the piece into Murder on the Nile starring a new cast of characters, some key differences in the plot and, crucially, no little Belgian detective to save the day.
The Bill Kenwright owned Agatha Christie Company’s new production of Murder on the Nile is beyond disappointing. Even by the finale which, as expected, packed at least something of a punch – albeit watery low-alcohol punch – it was frankly hard to care who anybody was, what their alleged motives were or even if the boat they were cruising on sank – just as long as they all died quickly. The plot is a classic Christie cozy; a group of wealthy people are boarding a boat set to cruise on the Nile, through happenstance (or otherwise..?) several of these people know each other – or seem to have an awful lot in common. Unfortunately, things take an ugly turn when a cleverly planned murder occurs and, with the police unavailable it falls on our morally irreproachable hero to solve the crime and bring the murderer/thief to justice.
The first act feels like an eternity; the exposition is clunking and obvious with characters spouting lines such as “But you KNOW nobody can inherit my vast fortune until I am either twenty five or married!”, as one female character arrives on honeymoon with her new penniless, playboy husband. Some forty-five minutes in, the crew (both of them) are still milling around loading luggage aboard the boat, while we are introduced to characters with an absolutely bewildering array of phony accents. When the ship does finally set sail in the second act it is the perfect metaphor, as things do finally get moving in the plot, but by then the damage is done; a lady two rows in front is fast asleep, winning the battle of the visual imagery.
To say the evening is lacking direction is something of an understatement; Joe Harmston treats Christie like a cartoon. Characters are bloated, outrageous parodies of better actors doing parody. Why does “Harun, the Steward” keep opening and closing the bar while surely important (or else, why are they there?) conversations are going on downstage? Why does Musa, the crew member/mountebank begin the play in his pants, only to get dressed seconds later in the middle of the stage? Trying to sex up Christie is a novel idea, at least. Why does everybody speak with very strange accents, with some actors even struggling to keep a solid RP down? The questions are endless and the product hopeless. These questions did, whilst ignoring the distractions offered by the restless and visibly bemused audience by the midway point in the first act, give me a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the beautiful English Renaissance stylings of the Bradford Alhambra’s beautiful ceiling art and proscenium decor.
Unfortunately, the cast are far from blameless for the state of Murder of the Nile. The entire performance was sorely lacking in energy and passion, but without being unkind, several of the cast were clearly out of their comfort zone and, undoubtedly, their depth in terms of talent. Curiously, in a supporting comic role, veteran of stage and screen Kate O’Mara mumbles and bumbles her way to top billing, a position which rightfully should’ve gone to Denis Lill as protagonist Canon Pennefather. Despite his character being a dullard in clerical clothing, Lill at least makes his lines sound like he is having a conversation when he is supposed to be, rather than just exchanging blocks of text in a strange accent and throwing his arms around, as in the norm for the company in this production. The cast are as stilted, wooden and unconvincing as I can recall seeing in a professional production in recent years; to her credit Chloe Newsome as scheming Jacqueline over-acts dreadfully, but at least brings some melodrama to the fore, which engages briefly. The performance was also blighted by unforgivably poor diction from the cast. An unfortunate high-pitched whistle caused by an unfortunate patron’s hearing aid was distracting in the first act, fortunately the venue took swift and remedial action to investigate and resolve this issue for the start of the second act. Murder on the Nile is home to the worst Scottish, most half-baked Eastern European, borderline racist Egyptian and ropiest French (Spanish?) accents on the British theatre touring circuit, no mean feat and a resounding success for director Harmston and the production team.
Simon Scullion’s singular but sumptuous two-tiered set of the observation deck of the Lotus is the saving grace of this production; Mike Robertson’s lighting even feels stiflingly hot – although it is only Lill who considers to dabbing the (real) sweat from his forehead. We’re in Egypt, people! Unfortunately, productions like this do come along now and again and keep us all honest; with so much great theatre so far in 2012 in our Yorkshire theatres and so much more to come*, there is no doubt in my mind the only way is up from here.
- Harry Zing
*Bradford Theatres have just announced their Autumn 2012 line up, boasting visits from ‘international hit comedy’ Bouncers, 42nd Street starring Dave Willetts and Marti Webb (‘Think of Broadway, damn it!’), Julius Caesar from the RSC, Daddy Cool, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and, arguably most excitingly, The Mousetrap on its first ever UK Tour!
When? Monday 18th June 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Matthew Kelly, Claire Sweeney
It would be simple enough to critique Willy Russell’s Educating Rita as a distinctly 1980′s re-telling of Pygmalion; but that perhaps may be a disservice to a piece which continues to perform consistently on its own merits – in the box office, at the very least – proving that if a play is warm, funny and the public can relate on some level, they will keep coming back. The play has been approved as a featured text on the GCSE national syllabus for almost a decade and, much like Blood Brothers – another GCSE text – Educating Rita, like Pygmalion, has more to give than a simple fictional tale. The story is centred around circumstance, specifically (and, almost universally in Russell’s eighties heyday) about the struggles of the working class in his native Liverpool. But it is nigh-on impossible to examine Educating Rita without sounding like a Year 10 student’s coursework; the ‘subtext’, using the term loosely, is not so much obvious as intrusive at times and doesn’t merit further comment. Only the most generous theatregoer could consider Russell’s sociopolitical work as serious comment; at best Educating Rita is an amusingly written anecdotal reference to his working class roots and own journey of self-development – at worst it is a dated, mildly patronising exaggeration of what he perceived to be the quintessential working class Liverpudlian. Either way, what Educating Rita does deliver is an amusing and entertaining few hours of well-acted fluff.
The joint production between the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Bath incorporates one static but detailed set (Tim Shortall) which fills the central space of the Alhambra’s vast stage; time passing is represented effectively enough by a projected tree outside of the large bay window of Frank’s bar-cum-office. It was a little strange as the lights dropped to watch Kelly scrambling centre stage to change cardigans each time the lights dropped, but in a two-hander needs must! The evening is coated in a thick blanket of whimsy through which no gravitas dare escape; and I say this very much as a compliment. Director Tamara Harvey understands the strengths of the piece – the humour, the accessibility – and thankfully plays to these rather than attempting to make the play any more serious than absolutely required. The acting throughout is of a good standard; Claire Sweeney stands out of the pair as Rita, although it is very hard not to compare her performance with that of Julie Walters in the 1983 movie adaptation, with Walters’ characterisation somehow a mite fleshier. Sweeney possesses excellent comic timing and, particularly in the first act, gets this side of her performance down to a tee. Matthew Kelly gives a fair turn as Frank and wins plenty of laughs; however, a few of these were a touch inappropriate and at the expense of pathos; no more so than in the final scene where I can’t help but feel Russell intended for the actor to play it straight, in a final dramatic realisation that they have reached the end of their respective journeys.
I can’t help but feel that in keeping the action firmly locked to its original setting, director Harvey has missed an opportunity with this new production to bring the piece into the modern day. Unlike Blood Brothers, which is very specifically written for the political and socio-economic climate of the day, the message in Educating Rita is timeless and could resonate more harmoniously with a younger generation if brought into the present. In short, nothing has really changed or likely ever will in what Russell is trying to say in Educating Rita, so there is no reason to intentionally keep the context out of date and lessen the relevance for the audience.
Educating Rita remains one of Russell’s better works and this production is well-acted and worth a visit. It plays at the Bradford Alhambra until 23rd of June 2012
- Harry Zing
When?: Monday 26th March 2012
Where?: Leeds Grand Theatre, Dress Circle
Who?: Lynda Bellingham, Camilla Dallerup, Jan Harvey, Sue Holderness, John Labanowski, Jane Lambert, Ruth Madoc, Joe McGann, Deena Payne, Lisa Riley, Kevin Sacre and June Watson
This is an update of a review of Calendar Girls, published in October 2011; the production has seen a cast change since my last visit. You can find the original review in full here which details the plot and production in more detail.
Having only just discovered the moving, funny and genuinely warm Calendar Girls last October – despite several years of touring and a successful West End run – I was delighted to be given the opportunity to re-review this wonderful play when it opened at the Leeds Grand Theatre last night.
The evening was as poignant and charming as my previous visit, if not more so thanks to the presence of the original Calendar Girls in the audience, who themselves received a standing ovation when introduced by actress Lynda Bellingham at the curtain call. The atmosphere was positively electric and the cast did themselves and the cause they essentially represent proud. It wasn’t the glamour of the red carpet event which the performance so special; it was the genuine sensation of community as the audience and cast came together to both create a beautiful evening of theatre and draw attention to such a worthy cause.
Bellingham as Chris plays it just right; her drive and ambition once in the limelight never wanders into arrogance and her presence alone spearheads the cast perfectly. Sue Holderness, replacing the outgoing Rula Lenska, is a slightly posher Marlene, giving a well-rounded and amusing performance. Deena Payne plays Cora with a straight bat; whilst perhaps the laughs weren’t quite as hardy as with the terrific Jennifer Ellison who preceded her, she is certainly giving her all. I also noticed the changes in the book to accommodate Ellison had been reversed, so that Payne’s Cora and Ellison’s Cora become almost entirely different creations – a wonderful compliment to the work of director Jack Ryder and his team on the production. Lisa Riley makes much stronger Ruth than the meeker, more vulnerable Debbie Chazen – and she really enjoys her payoff in the second act, which almost brought the house down. June Watson is again simply hilarious as retired teacher Jessie, Joe McGann’s performance is exceptional as John and had many of the audience visibly moved. I was one of them.
“This is your story” Lynda Bellingham told the home audience of Leeds – and with the show apparently set to finally hang up the iced buns for the last time later this year, Calendar Girls at the Leeds Grand Theatre is one of the must-sees of 2012.
Calendar Girls runs at the Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 31st March.
- Harry Zing
(Original review published October 2011 by Rebecca the Guest Writer)
When? Tuesday 20th March 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, dress circle
Who? Mark Extance, Colin Haigh, Paul Jesson, Sue Kelvin, Nell McCann, Abigail McKern, Damien Molony, Lauren O’Neil, Tom Peters, Alexander Semple, Antony Sher, Kate Webster, Jonathan Woolf and Alexis Zegerman
The National Theatre remains arguably the most prolific – at least, in terms of volume – producer of new stage plays in Britain, and this new effort by accomplished playwright and National Theatre regular Nicholas Wright is certainly one of the stronger efforts from the National in recent years. Indeed, it is the National’s determination – or, rather ‘obligation’ as the largest Arts Council funded straight theatre company – to portray as wide a variety of theatre to the masses across the country as possible, hence this large-scale big budget tour featuring no less than two knights of the realm, in director Sir. Nicholas Hytner and veteran stage actor Sir. Antony Sher. Indeed, many in attendance at the Leeds Grand Theatre last night had already seen the play – albeit through a live video stream beamed direct from the National Theatre earlier this year.
It is easy to see why they would return for a second helping; Travelling Light is a perfectly enjoyable evening at the theatre with plenty of laughs. The story is told retrospectively from the viewpoint of the elderly Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) in 1930′s Hollywood. Montgomery is portrayed as the classic Hollywood producer; he is wealthy, he is dominant – and he is most definitely Jewish. Montgomery has a story to tell, and within moments we are transported back to the ‘old country’ to meet his younger self, then Motl Mendl (Damien Molony), a slightly arrogant young burgeoning genius of motion pictures. In fact, according to the (entirely fictional*) book, he seemingly invented them. He quickly meets and falls in love with his beautiful assistant Anna (Lauren O’Neil) and a romance soon blossoms as they invent the concepts of modern cinema before our eyes. Aided by the money local patriarchal bully and Tevye-sound/lookalike Jacob (Antony Sher) can provide - at a cost – the story is set up for a dramatically tense second act.
Travelling Light is a smart play with plenty of good ideas; even the title’s dual-meaning is well thought through. Whilst the piece isn’t social commentary, nor is it biographical for such a history-driven piece, it simply washes over you as gentle fiction with an easy charm. As do the performances; the slightly hysterical young Mendl is the perfect foil for the older, wiser Montgomery – whose experiences in the shtetl (“small town” in Yiddish, says the programme) have shaped the man he was to become. Although the role of Jacob was seemingly written as a vehicle for Sir. Antony, his performance is solid if nothing else. The faux-Eastern European accent he affects is noticeable rather than distracting; the usual brand of larger-than-life acting he adopts is present and correct. In fact, there are a bewildering array of accents on show ranging from Sir. Antony’s ‘oy!’ theatrics, to Nate’s very cod-Brooklyn whine with a lot inbetween – and none of them prove terribly convincing. It is Lauren O’Neil who gives the standout turn as Anna, I must be careful explaining why, except to say that the relationship she has with Mendl is the dramatic narrative drive of the whole piece. Her appearances on the mock ‘silver screen’ are impressive to say the least.
Designer Bob Crowley’s work is first class, truly bringing to life the shtetl with aplomb. Credit must also be given to the tour production team for the very successful use of the Leeds Grand Theatre’s accommodating existing setup, with the projected images beamed on to the main ‘back wall’ of the set also being replicated on the large LCD screens normally used for opera productions. The lighting design from Bruno Poet is equally as impressive, managing the tricky task of balancing the use of projections, numerous small interior lights and, in the second act, Hollywood Studio lighting rigs.
But, for all its charm and high production values, there is just one problem with the book and unfortunately it’s a big one – the last fifteen minutes of the play. The finale is a disappointment, being both cliché and cheesy enough to annoy even the hardiest theatregoer. Simply, the play ended fifteen minutes later than it should have done. That is not to say it is too long, it is well-paced and feels about right at 2hrs 30mins with interval; the first, or ‘fake’ ending feels like the perfect conclusion. Instead, I am helpless but to watch as the narrative tension is sucked out of the piece with the cosy, yukked-up finale which is a borderline sleight to not only the audience’s emotional investment in the piece, but also Wright himself, undermining the slow and clever build up that had preceded it. If, like me, you always used to press ‘stop’ when watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ten minutes before the end, you may well share my frustration.
This latter frustration aside, Travelling Light is an entertaining, nicely executed piece which is well worth a visit. A fine example of nice, harmless fiction.
- Harry Zing
*Whilst the play is technically a work of fiction, the programme does allude to many of the inspirations which inspired this look at the Jewish involvement in the early days of film, indirectly comparing the fictional Mendl’s route to success to that of Samuel Goldwyn. It does beg the question, however, why so many concessions were made to the story to allow for more ‘reality’, when, as a work of fiction with no pretence of biographical accuracy, Wright could just as easily have spun a much headier yarn.