Wednesday, November 6, 2019

There's Someone Coming Through - Review - Northern Stage

There's Someone Coming Through
Northern Stage
Nov 1st 2019

Presented by Find the River Productions
Written by Lee Stewart
Directed By Andrew Barella

Michael Luke
Mik Richardson
Jacob Hughes
Olivia Bowern
Amy Herdman-Burns
Dolores Poretta-Brown
David Armstrong
Vanessa Bowern
David Farn

"There's Someone Coming Through" takes place in the space of one evening - before, during and after one of Neville Vaughan's clairvoyant stage shows. The venue is the ballroom of a rather downmarket hotel, and with less than half the tickets sold Neville (Michael Luke) is forced to come to terms with the fact that his career is not what it once was. As he prepares himself for the show his able assistant David (Mik Richardson) reveals snippets of the truth behind Neville's fall from grace - unpaid taxes, a costly divorce, and that unfortunate incident in a store cupboard...
But while he may point out Neville's faults for the benefit of the audience, David is also the grounding force for Neville, keeping the shows going, and massaging Neville's ego while simultaneously keeping him firmly grounded.

The show lends itself well to the intimate setting of Stage Two at Northern Stage - and the staging is very simply done. The hotel room is set out throughout, while Neville performs his own show in a spotlight front of stage, bringing him very close to the audience. As members of the cast are part of the audience this all works to make the whole thing feel very inclusive and we can squirm with embarrassment as Neville tries and fails to make the connections with the spirit world and members of the audience (as passed to him by David on a radio mic).  Naturally things don't go to plan - neither the audience members nor the spirits are entirely co-operative. The situation get more and more out of control as the evening progresses leading to much hilarity for us as observers, as Neville struggles to keep the pretence going.

Michael Luke is excellent in the role of Neville Vaughan, slipping in and out of character from disgruntled has-been to smiling superstar as easily as he dons his white suit and wig. His performance in the spotlight smacks of the semi-desperation of a man teetering on the edge yet refusing to fall. It put me in mind of Les Dawson playing the piano - it takes skill to be so convincingly inept.
He is supported in the role by a very able cast, most of whom are scattered through the audience.  I especially liked Jacob Hughes as the simultaneously obsequious yet pompous hotel manager and Dolores Poretta-Brown and Amy Herdman-Burns as the two grieving women desperate to make contact with their loved ones and both giving Neville a hard time for very different reasons!

This is a very funny play. Though based on the premise that mediums are not all they purport to be, the humour comes from Neville's incompetence and discomfort on stage, rather than from the characters seeking solace from the other side -  their grief is never in the firing line. And just as you think Neville Vaughan is a complete charlatan Lee Stewart surprises us with a moment of openness and honesty - and a killer of a twist in the ending.

I hope "There's Someone Coming Through" comes back for a further run so that more people have the chance to experience the wonder that is Neville Vaughan.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Diary of Anne Frank - Review - People's Theatre

Diary of Anne Frank
People's Theatre
29th Oct 2019

Dramatisation by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Directed by Gordon Russell

The Diary of Anne Frank is one of those books you are supposed to have read. People exclaim in surprise when you confess that you have not. Prepare to gasp - I have never read The Diary of Ann Frank. It is on my "ought to read" list. I have read other books about the death camps, some fiction, some autobiographical. I cried buckets over Corrie Ten Boom, and I think my expectation was that Anne's Diary would be equally traumatic. The surprise is, that while it is emotional, this adaptation of her story shows a girl who is full of optimism and zest for life. She chafes against the confines of the attic, yet despite the awfulness of their situation, she still looks for the good in people.

I suppose the first challenge when staging this play must be in recreating the cramped, claustrophobic space. The stage at The People's Theatre is a great expanse of space, and there is rarely an unnecessary prop used in their sets. Would this spaciousness and minimalism work against them for Anne's compact attic? How would they create a set that spoke of claustrophobia and crampedness? Not by reducing the space with unnecessary staging, but by sticking to their tried and tested philosophy of less is more - or in this case less is less. A simple black backdrop, and a selection of raised platforms are all that is needed to create the attic and its four tiny rooms. A table, some chairs and a blanket roll and pillow for each character completes the stage. Recorded sounds of marching feet, and armoured vehicles, a clock chiming and voices talking or shouting provide the hustle of town life outside, and the ever present threat of discovery. And that is all it takes to build tension. A truck pulling up outside, marching feet coming to an abrupt halt causing the inhabitants of the attic to stop whatever they are doing and freeze, barely breathing until the threat is past.

And despite the small space, there is always much going on, reading, sewing, Anne sings and dances while the Van Daans argue. The effect of the sudden ceasing of these activities is profound - nothing could convey the sense of dread, the fear of discovery better.

There are solid performances from all of the cast. Abigail Martin shines throughout as the exuberant Anne.  Rachel Kilburn as Mrs Frank, and Pete McAndrew as Otto both give moving performances as her parents: in the scene where they discover Mr Van Daal stealing the food and Mrs franks finally losses her temper! They have tried her patience for almost two years - her anger is magnificent! And Otto Frank's final speech after he has read Anne's diary is incredibly moving:  a father rediscovering his daughter through her own words and morning her loss.

The strength of this production is in its simplicity, and its integrity. It tells this tragic story without fuss and with great compassion.

The Diary of Anne Frank plays until Sat 2nd November.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Cooking with Elvis - Review - Royalty Theatre

Cooking with Elvis
Royalty Theatre
28th Oct 2019

Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Corinne Kilvington
Cast: Beth McAneny, Corinne Kilvington, Wayne McCutcheon, Tom Kelly

Cooking with Elvis is not a play for the easily offended. A black comedy centred on the family of a former Elvis impersonator who has been paralysed in a car crash. Two years after the crash his wife and daughter are still trying to come to terms with the situation. Jill, the daughter, has developed an unhealthy obsession with food, while her mother has found solace in vodka and younger men. The two women clash constantly over their respective coping devices, and the latest love (lust) interest, the hapless Stuart, is caught in the middle.  Meanwhile the father sits in his wheelchair and dreams his own Elvis fantasies.

It's a strange mix of dark humour, farce and pathos as the actions of the love triangle of mother, daughter, and lover develops.  Emotions are charged, jealousy and guilt twist their relationships and tempers boil over. Roles are reversed as the child takes on the adult responsibilities of looking after the invalid and trying to control her mother's excesses. She finds comfort for herself in cooking, and eating. Faced with these two forceful women, Stuart never stands a chance. He gives in to his own temptations with drastic repercussions.

Wayne McCutcheon.  
Corinne Kilvington, Tom Kelly, Beth McAneny
Credit: Royalty Theatre

Beth McAneny is completely convincing as the tortured teen, desperately trying to shoulder responsibilities that are too great for someone her age. Tom Kelly plays a gauche, and naïve Stuart, manipulate by the two women in different ways - I feel he doesn't quite deserve the fate that befalls him. Corinne plays the vodka-soaked, man-eating mother well, but her curves don't quite match the view of her character as verging on anorexic, and a complete contrast to Gill - the foodie.
Wayne McCutcheon leaps into action as Elvis in the fantasy world inside his head, gyrating his hips and doing a passable impersonation of the King. The set and tech all work brilliantly to create the Las Vegas feel for the Elvis numbers, and watch out for the finale! 

The play is darkly funny, shocking (we were sandwiched between two groups of ladies old enough to be my granny which certainly added to the experience for the shock factor), and it has a killer twist ending. Don't go to see it if swearing and scenes of a sexual nature will make you blush, and definitely don't take your granny, no matter how big an Elvis fan she might be! Cooking with Elvis plays at the Royalty until 2nd Nov.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, October 18, 2019

I have met the enemy (and the enemy is us) - Review - Byker Community Centre

I have met the enemy (and the enemy is us)
Byker Community Centre
17th Oct 2019

A Common Wealth/Northern Stage production

Staged in the upper room of Byker Community Centre, this is a theatre experience with a difference. There is no stage, and no seats, we are invited to move around the space, interact with the actors and each other, but not to touch anything -unless specifically asked to do so... I enter the room, soft music is playing and there are structures with lights dotted around. "Hello, I'm Alex, how are you? Have you been to an arms fair before?" Within minutes I have been greeted by four people, and given advice on personal security by two of them, invited to look around, sample the refreshments and enjoy... Audience participation is not my thing - unless you count booing at the baddie in Panto, but I go with the flow as best I can. I hope I won't be called on to do more than make small talk.

This is not going to be your average theatre show.

In the prologue of the Arms Fair, we are introduced to the latest technological killing machines by a series of salesmen with slick sales patter where names such BAE and Rolls Royce are dropped into the conversation. And then the narrative moves to the more personal stories - of Alex, a British soldier, veteran of the Afghan conflict, Mo'min, a Palestinian from the West Bank, an actor, now living in London, and Shatha, an artist in Yemen, who appears via a pre-recorded video. They tell of their own experiences of war, of air strikes, of guns and bombs. Each one told from a different perspective, each one very personal. Each one painful. And each one the direct result of British arms deals.

Their stories are enhanced ad illustrated with the strange ticking light box props. These it transpires are metronomes. There are seventy two of them, representing the seventy two Eurofighter jets sold to Saudi Arabia and used in Yemen. The ticking of the metronomes echoes the Domesday Clock, ticking down to the destruction of mankind.

I Have Met The Enemy is hard -hitting, political theatre. It does not pull punches. But it is also compassionate and human, even as it highlights the inhumanity of the arms trade. These are real people, and their experiences are real. Their losses are real. Their fears are real. Their stories draw you in, you are delighted by the thought of Alex's mother walking her dog in Wales, of Mo'min out with the sheep and the horse, and of Shatha dancing at a wedding. But, they pull no punches - just as you settle into the stories, a gun is levelled, or a grenade is thrown, or an airstrike hits. Blood mixes with jasmine flowers.

It raises so many issues, asks so many questions, and leaves us uncomfortable, thinking about the consequences of war, and our part in it.

You can meet the enemy at Byker Community Centre until Saturday 26th Oct.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Vicar of Dibley - Review - People's Theatre

The Vicar of Dibley
People's Theatre 
2nd Oct 2019

The People's Theatre have chosen a crowd-pulling TV favourite for the first show in the main theatre this season. This stage adaptation of the Vicar of Dibley offers some key moments from the original series, while the developing romance between Alice Tinker and Hugo Horton provides the thread hat holds it all together. This makes it into a cohesive play rather than a series of funny sketches.

As always with an television adaptation, the cast are faced with the dilemma of reproducing beloved characters on stage. There is little room to put their own stamp on the characters for fear of alienating the audience, so it seems to me it must take a different approach to the acting and directing. Luckily, the original writers of the Vicar of Dibley created a set of the most eccentric characters. Each one has a foible which essentially defines their character. This eccentric band of villagers are more like caricatures and if the actor gets that foible right, then the rest is plain sailing. Happily, People's team have this spot on. All the favourites are there, quite lovingly recreated, from unconventional vicar Geraldine Granger right through to the dippy Alice Tinker and hilariously stuttering Jim Trott.

The large People's Theatre stage is perfect for the zoned staging which allows characters to move seamlessly from the Vicar's house, to Horton Manor, to the Church (for those all important Parish Council Meetings!). Each set area is lit individually, to ensure we focus on the scene in hand while some very funny freeze framing lets us know that a change is on the way...full marks for holding the pose!

It's impossible to pick out one performance over another -  each one is hilariously accurate in the portrayal, but I did love the trio of Tony Seghal as Jim Trott, Mike Smith as Frank Pickle and John MacDonald as Owen Newitt.   There were plenty of guffaws and giggles from the audience throughout - and obviously the knock out scene is Alice's Wedding. No spoilers - you have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate its beauty!

It's fun, it's silly and it is an hour and a half of escapism - which is heartily needed at the moment. The full auditorium is testament to the love we have of our sitcoms. The laughter during and the chatter afterwards are testament to another great production at the People's Theatre.

The Vicar of Dibley runs until Sarurday 5th October. I recommend booking tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. It will tickle your funny bone.

Denise Sparrowhawk

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Wasteland - Review - Northern Stage


Northern Stage 

25th Sept 2019

Wasteland is Gary Clarke's interpretation in music and dance of the rise of the rave music scene in the 90s. In aftermath of pit closures we are given a glimpse into the lives of a father - the last miner - and his son as they each try to cope with the empty prospects left to them by the destruction of the mining industry. 

The Last Miner sinks into alcoholic despair while his son finds an escape in the euphoria of the illegal rave scene - losing himself in music, dance and drugs. The father and son don't always see eye to eye, they fight often, but all they have is each other. there is conflict, but there is also affection - and this is movingly illustrated in the final scene.

This is more than dance piece, it is a piece of social history. The contrast between the miners with
their male voice choirs and brass bands, clutching their UB40s and the manic energy of the youth with their manic, bass beat music is stark and telling. Yet the hypnotic, trance-like dancing is just a different form of escape from reality to that of the miners.

The historical context of the story is explained with projected newsreel scenes showing the closure and destruction of a pit, the men leaving and the iconic pithead building being destroyed, and later footage of the break-up of an illegal rave by the police, and the supercilious voice of a newsreader describing the scenes. I was stuck by the similarity between these scenes of police intervention and the those from the picket lines during the miner's strike.

The dancing is energetic, manic - as it should be - and at times painful - Alistair Goldsmith as the
Last Miner contorts his body into shapes that echo the agonising heartbreak of the losses that pit closures brought - not personal but national. A way of life, was destroyed, but also the livelihoods of the following generations.  The beat of the music is relentless, a form of escape, but perhaps one with no real exit.

I found the show incredibly moving. Though I lived through the rave scene era I was not part of it - too conservative (with a small "c" and timid) but I do remember it - and I remember the miner's strike and the sense of desolation that followed. The rave culture was a reaction against that desolation and depression. I don't think we have found a way out of either state yet.

Emotional and emotive stuff. Find out more here

*Photographs by Joe Armitage

Denise Sparrowhawk

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Blackadder Goes Forth - Review - Royalty Theatre

Blackadder Goes Forth
Royalty Theatre 
23rd Sept 2019

Kicking off this year's season with Matthew Hope's adaptation of Blackadder  Goes Forth, the team at the Royalty have chosen a play that packs a punch in more ways than one. This satirical look at the first world war rattles through a season of Blackadder in just under two hours, presenting key scenes in a series of vignettes. It has elements of just about every type of comedy, from slapstick and bawdy farce, through to high end intellectual wit. It is at once very funny, and heartbreakingly dark.

The roles are demanding for the cast - quickfire repartee and tongue twisting wordplay, combined with physical humour mean that delivery and timing have to be spot on for it to work. And of course, these are well known and much loved characters for the British public; portraying them on successfully stage is a whole other challenge. Thee is always the danger of mimicking the TV characters rather than bringing them to life in their own way. Would the cast and directors be up to such a challenge? There was quite a bit of speculation in the foyer as to whether it would be achieved.

First impressions as we entered the auditorium were encouraging - a selection of war time songs played us in, and the curtain raised to reveal the set - the typical trench dugout was perfect.

And the cast did rise to the challenge. Jacob Hughes as Blackadder, had just the right level of crippling disdain for his fellow soldiers, who were - with exception of Capt. Darling, and Lord Flasheart -  completely oblivious to both his disdain and his cutting sarcasm. Alex Parkin-Goodchild was suitably ingenuous as George. His scene as Georgina, describing his date with General Melchett is a classic and almost stole the show from Private Baldrick, however Lee Wilkins recitation of "War's a funny thing" and "German Guns" may just have edged the balance back in his favour and his treatment at the hands (and foot) of Capt. Blackadder elicited sympathetic gasps from the audience.
James Errington explodes onto the stage as Lord Flasheart and successfully lowers the tone with his rampant libido and huge personality.

John Appleton and Andrew Barella both gave excellent supporting performances as  General Melchett and Capt Darling. The General typically bombastic upper class military and completely insane and Darling, obsequious, self-serving and underhand and yet still in the final scenes we felt sympathy for him, ironically double crossed by his eccentric superior officer. Of all the roles Capt Darling is the most understated - the humour of this character is much more sublte, conveyed through body language and facial expressions, and could easily be lost among the mayhem of rest of the crew.

Newcomer to the Royalty, Michael Alexander was able to try out his German accent as Baron von Richthoven - arch enemy of Lord Flasheart and as Brigadier Smith the undercover spy. I actually liked him best as the Brigadier - quietly funny as he spied on the hospital inmates.

I did feel for the two female characters - Emma Thomson as Bob and Olivia Bowern as Nurse Mary - as they did seem to be there purely to provide the eye candy in a very "blokey" scenario, which is a shame because other Blackadder females have been stronger characters.

Lorna Breeze's direction has produced a play worthy of the fourth incarnation of Edmund Blackadder. The cast were clearly enjoying the experience on stage (we did note Baldrick's near corpsing in the second act, he held it together well!). Lots of laughter from the audience throughout and we were suitably subdued in the final scenes which were emotional, and very well executed.

The general consensus after the curtain came down was that the team had indeed risen to the challenge. A great start to the new season at Royalty Theatre.

Blackadder goes forth until Saturday 28th September. Book a ticket.

Denise Sparrowhawk