Thursday, December 13, 2018

Preview - Jack and the Beanstalk - Royalty Theatre


The Royalty Theatre’s annual pantomime is back, and this year it's Jack and the Beanstalk.

The much-loved kids’ classic has been given the panto treatment by local writer David Farn, and features Royalty Theatre newcomer Erin Moyse. Jack's magic beans cause merry mayhem and a fearsome encounter with the giant who lives atop a beanstalk.

Artistic Director Nikki Slack says “This year’s panto will entertain the whole family, with jokes and songs for all generations. It’s a must-see in the run up to the festive holidays.”

Also appearing is Royalty panto favourite Andy Barella as Simon, and writer David Farn steps into the high heels as Dame Flossie.

Tickets are already being snapped up, with many shows – including the four afternoon performances – already reduced to a small number of remaining tickets.

The pantomime will be performed from Thursday 13th to Sunday 22nd December, with evening shows taking place Tuesdays to Saturdays, and afternoon shows Saturdays and Sundays. 

Get your tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. Book via or on 0333 666 3366. Group bookings for parties of 10 or more can be arranged via

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Cinderella - Review - People's Theatre

The People's Theatre
8th December 2018

Written by Philip Meeks
Directed by Emma Jane Richards

Panto season has started again, and this year The People's Theatre have returned to the old classic Cinderella for their seasonal offering. I first saw Cinderella here back in 2011 with Emma Jayne Richards in the title role. This year she is directing the show and though the basic formula is intact, there are one or two little tweaks to the recipe.

To begin with, the stage doesn't give much away - just the curtain with Cinderella in suitably sparkly letters (so we know what we're here to see!) I admit to be being a touch surprised. This is pretty bare, no hint of a town, no castle in the distance, no branches suggesting a creepy forest? Two doorways either side of the stage draped with pink swags are the only clues to the princessy tale about to unfold. But, oh when the lights go down and the music starts! It's like the build up to the Oscars with music that builds to a fanfare crescendo and lights that dance across the stage and up into the audience like fairy dust...searchlights beam across us, as if looking for the stars on the red carpet! And then a flash and a bang - we screech in surprise and laugh at ourselves as Fairy Moonglow (Lynn Huntley) appears to introduce the story. She doesn't have it all to herself though - her evil sister Countess Malady (Cat White) muscles in to break the bad news that she has just married Count Hardup (Roger Liddle)  and is now Cinderella's new mother. I can't help but feel parents should take more care when naming their supernatural offspring - calling a fairy "Malady" is just asking for trouble.  

You all know the story - Cinderella (Georgia White) is forced out of her place in the family by the new stepmother and the ugly sisters, Buttons (Joe Robson) loves her but she only likes him, a handsome prince comes to visit but swaps places with his manservant and is taken down a peg by Cinders and is immediately smitten by her. He arranges a ball, Cinders can't go, cue Fairy Godmother and pumpkins and glass slippers and romance till midnight. 

Thrown into the mix are the usual panto ingredients:

There are the cross-dressing dames - Calpolla and Covonia, played by Stephen Waller and Dan Dickinson - who bicker and bite their way through the show, arguing with each other, with Buttons, with the audience...with everyone and anyone, except the good looking guys, basically! These two pretty sisters(!) are living examples of why proper blending is SO important when applying your make-up. 
There are helpful woodland animals, played by the ensemble from Jill Errington School of Dance, and the scary haunted bedroom scene (so scary one little girl had to be taken out until the scene was safely over!) 
And of course there is the community singing which this year is the ubiquitous Baby Shark - you know it had to be in there somewhere!

The script is pretty standard, but nice touches that raise this up from standard panto fayre are the ensemble of footmen and Dandini (James Harvey), the prince's right hand man, who are a rather hipster troup, looking very smart in their frock coats and stockings. While Prince Charming (Nick Warneford) is a deliciously swaggering youth. There is a distinct tongue in cheek feel to their scenes and dance numbers. Director Emma Jane Richards has chosen to dispense with the tradition of having a female actor playing the leading man so both prince Charming and Dandini are played by male actors. Only the Dames remain in that traditional comedy role.  

The lynch pin of Cinderella is of course Buttons and Joe Robson does a sterling job of keeping the audience engaged and joining up the dots in the story. On Saturday he gave a mammoth performance clearly struggling with a seasonal bug, and had almost no voice by the end of the show. I hope someone had a hot whisky and lemon ready for him in the green room after the show!

Photo credit: Paula Smart

This is a very colourful, visual production, scenery is at a minimum but the costumes and lighting work to give a sumptuous and glamourous feel and the "awwhhh" factor comes with the young ensemble dancers who are beyond cute, and the real, tiny pony pulling the carriage is a lovely touch. It has everything you need for a sparkly Christmas treat for the family.

Cinderella plays until 16th December and booking midweek is recommended - the weekend shows are already sold out!

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Christmas Carol-Review- Northern Stage

A Christmas Carol
Northern Stage 
Thursday 6th December 2018

Written by   Neil Bartlett
Directed by Mark Calvert

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic tale having spawned many a variety of film/tv adaptations. From the more traditional tellings to different spins (including my favourite Scrooged starring the brilliant Bill Murray) and even a Muppets version (also another favourite of mine) so I don't think I need to tell here what the story is. I mean calling people Scrooge at Christmas time is as part of it as eating sprouts and pulling a cracker isn't it.

What was Northern Stage’ production of it going to be like? I'd read beforehand that they wanted it to be a retelling of the story for a new audience, so was this achieved?

In a word ‘yes’.

A full force musical set in the world of the 1920’s,  jazzy and with touches of The Greatest Showman at times and some Peaky Blinders reminiscent costumes was what awaited us last night.

The story was told with a beat to it throughout, whether by through the songs or by the rhythmic movements and actions of the actors. From Scrooge's workshop and bah humbug mindset to the visits of the ghosts of Christmas past present and future, there was always a great buzz on stage.

The stage itself was very lavish and beautiful, and the various costumes, make up, puppetry and even a stilt walker (I always have respect for those that can being someone who can’t manage to walk in high heels without a wobble) made for a veritable feast visually.
The choreography was outstanding and every one of the cast played their parts with great enthusiasm and sang and danced faultlessly.

What stood out for me was the music, including lots of well known Christmas songs, but I really enjoyed the live music side of it which had someone playing the accordion and a drummer to name but a few.

I liked too the prop malfunction at the end of the first half...who hasn't had a Christmas tree that falls over.

Scrooge was played to great effect by Nick Figgis who captured perfectly the journey from lonely miser to opening his heart and yes his wallet,  embracing the season with a changed outlook of kindness, thoughtfulness and compassion for all.

We had snow we had glitter and best of all we had a great time.

All involved deserved the standing ovation that they received at the end of the show

You can see this at Northern Stage until 5th January 2019

Belinda Bekki-Winter 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Dont Forget the Birds -Review- Live Theatre

Don’t forget the Birds 
Open Clasp Theatre
Live Theatre

I saw Open Clasp’s award-winning Key Change -- about women prisoners -- and found it extraordinarily moving and enlightening. so when I heard that Don’t forget the Birds was based on the post-prison experiences of one of the original inmates who contributed to Key Change, I was excited and intrigued.

The closed world of prisons, especially women’s prisons, is outside most theatre-goers’ direct experience, and has a built-in curiosity factor. Would like on the outside miss out on that fascination?

What I didn’t realise, until I scanned the programme notes after the show, to name check the cast, was that the actors, Cheryl and Abigail Byron, were playing themselves. This was their story, in their words. I had admired the bits of banter and the physical tableaux they presented between them. They’re really convincing in conveying this close but fraught relationship, I thought. Well, now I can see why. This is a mother and daughter playing themselves in their own words.

The set is starkly minimal, just stage boxes which serve as seats, cabinets and pedestals to stand on; metal vases of blood-red roses; and a frame which outlines prison gates, visitors’ room, security screening, and provides the hanging for the ‘Welcome Home Mam’ banner.

The focus is all on the two women, mother Cheryl and daughter Abigail. The dialogue is raw and real, sometimes muted with suppressed emotion, sometimes raucous, uncomfortably so.

So, what’s it like for a mother to come out of prison, to rejoin a daughter who’s been forced to grow up and cope in her absence, taking on adult responsibilities and chores?

The title refers to mother Cheryl’s last instruction to Abigail,  as she’s taken away to serve her sentence: “Don’t forget to feed the birds. (And sweep the floor every day)”. Abigail admits she never knew you had to bleach the toilet. It’s through these telling details that the story becomes heartbreaking and compelling. Any mother can empathise with doubts about a newly independent daughter’s housekeeping, even if the independence is not forced by such a brutally imposed separation.

The play opens with Abigail waiting outside the prison for her mother’s release after serving two of her three-year sentence. We see Cheryl’s impatience with a lagging fellow inmate who is slowing down her release, and glimpse the simmering violence that brought her to this point. It’s funny, but also troubling, and that feeling recurs throughout. Should I really be laughing?

We flip back to the moment of sentencing, the shock: “We thought it would be suspended.” This becomes a motif throughout the piece, disastrously misjudged expectations, both in the past, woeful judgements of violent male partners, and in the future when neither woman predicts the difficulties of adjusting to Cheryl’s freedom.
One of the most telling bits is when Abigail relates how Cheryl constantly asks permission to perform ordinary actions. “Can I get out of the bath?” This underlines the reversal that their relationship has undergone. Mother now seems like the frightened child. Abigail finds it surreal, but Cheryl explains how in prison, she has to ask permission for every single act. It’s chilling. And of course we suddenly foresee the future difficulties.

The most poignant failure of adjustment is when Cheryl admits her guilt at not keeping up with friends she made in prison. We can understand the wisdom of not wanting to be drawn back into contact with people from her old life and yet also the awful personal cost of such caution.

What the play excels is in is avoiding easy neat answers and excuses, choosing instead to stay with the real -- at times alarming -- truth. This is not a simple narrative of persecutory violent men and poor women victims. When we get the back-story of Cheryl’s previous violent relationship with ‘Dale’ in wincingly graphic detail, we see also Cheryl’s violent self-defence. We laugh at  her account of splitting his head open with a rake and him needing 17 staples, but it is an uneasy laughter of mixed relief and self-disgust. What are we complicit in here?

These are real people both in the sense that it’s their actual story, but also in that we see them in the round,with flaws and failures but also with their own unique history. For example, Cheryl’s pride in her background: that she was Miss Pears Soap, aged five; her father was one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival. We learn what it was like to grow up as part of a tiny minority of black people in the North East. “I never knew I was black, until some kid referred to me as that ‘darkie’, and I looked round to see who he was talking about.”

I came away heartened by the resilience of these women, happy that they had found their way to rebuild their relationship after prison, stronger and closer than ever. It was a glimpse into lives we don’t often see, especially told in their own words. What the writer and director have done is step back and offer a vehicle through which marginalised women can tell their own stories. Plenty of food for thought about our prison system and what little support is offered for those coming out, but always embedded in a true personal story, without preaching or worthiness.

Gerry Byrne

Monday, November 19, 2018

Othello - Review - Northern Stage

Northern Stage
13th November 2018

Presented by English Touring Theatre in association with Oxford Playhouse and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Directed by Richard Twyman

Othello at Northern Stage was a sell-out show, perhaps with good reason, considering the very contemporary themes it portrays. I doubt any other of Shakespeare's plays could be quite so pertinent to the current political climate. A Moor, in a Christian society. At once accepted for his military prowess, praised for his success in battle, sought after for his skill on the battlefield, and yet not quite welcomed wholeheartedly into society. He is befriended by Brabantio, brought in to his household as an honoured guest...and yet it seems he was more of a trophy than a friend. He falls in love with Brabantio's daughter and they marry in secret. Surely, if he was held in such high regard, the secrecy should not matter? And yet it does. When the marriage is made known to Brabantio he is furious, claiming Othello must have used some drug or witchcraft to beguile Desdemona. There has been no guile - after hearing his tales of survival in life and in battle, Desdemona has fallen for Othello as surely and completely as he has fallen for her gentleness and acceptance of him. The pair are aware of their worth - he as an asset on the battlefield, she as an asset in society. Brabantio's anger stems from the loss of his daughter as a bargaining chip to further his family's fortunes, and his perceived loss of face.

Alongside this is the jealousy and anger of Roderigo - a "knave" far below Desdemona's social standing who had sued for her hand and been rejected, only to see the object of his desire married to a Moor, and infidel, someone he sees as his inferior.
And through it all there is Iago, self-serving, underhand. He has been overlooked by Othello who has promoted Cassio younger, and less experienced to be his lieutenant. Iago sees only that a boy has gained preferment due to privilege of family and rank rather than experience and proven ability. In addition, Iago has imagined himself cuckolded by Othello and so seeks to ruin the happiness and love he has found with Desdemona. Iago is an opportunist, driven by envy, he sees men's weaknesses and uses them to his own advantage. He feigns friendship and loyalty and manipulates with such skill that a single word from him creates a devastating chain reaction.

Victor Oshin is a younger Othello than you might expect, but the discrepancy between his age and battlefield experience is a small hole in the plot. The joy he shows in the love of Desdemona is much more befitting a younger man than an old general. The relationship between the two is bright and beautiful, and filled with passion, which makes the later betrayal all the more shocking.

There are no small or shallow emotions in this play - the jealousies writhe around each character, passions run high, from the love between Othello and Desdemona to the fury of Brabantio, the lustful desire of Roderigo to the seething envy of Iago.

The male characters bring dark and foreboding passions - love turns to lust, the celebration of Othello's marriage turns from the beauty of the wedding dance to the debauchery and drunkenness of the soldiers. The women bring colour and light to the stage - in their brightly coloured clothes, their chatter and singing. The openness of the friendship between Desdemona and Emilia is in sharp contrast to that of Iago and Othello. Kitty Archer as Desdemona and Kelly Price as Emilia give  natural and convincing performances.

The minimalist staging means that all the audiences concentration is on the characters - there is actually very little in the way of action. The battles are implied, fight scenes when they occur are swift and sudden. For most of the play they stage is empty with only white strip lights, like the bars of a cage into which the cast carry the sparest of props when needed. This is all about the emotion and the words that convey it.

I found it captivating - not least because it was so different to other productions I have seen. Usually I am silently screaming at Othello for not seeing through Iago, and for not trusting Desdemona. But Paul McEwan's Iago is not what I expected. At first I did feel he had been miscast but as the play progressed he played "honest" Iago so well that I could see why he was so totally trusted by all. Even when he spoke his intentions to the audience, he did so with little guile and succeeded in making us feel that his grievance might be justified. Only in his dealings with Roderigo did his façade slip and we glimpsed him in his truer colours.

It is not a comfortable play to watch - so much dishonesty and distrust among the characters, and themes of prejudice and betrayal, unscrupulous manipulation by those who profess to have our best interests at heart. Shakespeare's Othello holds a mirror up to society and shows us a warped and distorted reflection but one that has an uncanny and uncomfortable likeness.

The production moves on to its final venue at the Lighthouse Theatre Poole from the 20th - 24th November.

Images by Helen Murray

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, November 16, 2018

Blithe Spirit - Review - People's Theatre

Blithe Spirit
People's Theatre
15th November 2018

The People's Theatre production of Blithe Spirit is a delight. Light hearted and fun, it is the perfect pick-me-up for the end of a busy week.

The set is a sumptuous depiction of a country house, complete with leather chesterfield and wingback armchair, drinks trolley and French windows with just a glimpse of wisteria covered garden wall. it is perfect for the setting of Coward's witty comedy.

Charles and Ruth Condomine (Ian Willis and Emma Weetch) have arranged a dinner party with friends Dr and Mrs Bradman (John MacDonald and Karen Elliot) and invited a local medium, Madame Arcati (Maggie Childs) to hold a séance as research for Charles' latest book. Neither the Condomines nor the Bradmans believe Madame Arcati is genuine and they take great delight in making fun of her "performance" during the séance. However much to the surprise of Charles, he discovers that Mme Arcati has in fact summoned the spirit of Elvira (Alison Carr) his deceased first wife. Only Charles can see and hear Elvira and he has to convince Ruth that he is not playing a joke on her, or indeed, going mad!  Obviously there are many misunderstandings as Ruth hears Charles talking to Elvira, and assumes he is talking to her. Elvira, of course is as mischievous - and petulant - in death as she was in life - and creates as much disruption as possible. She wants her husband back - and, since she is dead, there is only one way to achieve this. Charles - flattered by the attention cannot see the danger. Of course it all goes terribly wrong and Charles' life - and his wife's death become even more complicated.

Best performances of the night go to Maggie Childs as the brilliantly eccentric Madame Arcati, and Nicky Dexter who is hilarious as the long-suffering maid, Edith.

The set, costumes, lighting and special effects combined with strong performances from the cast combine to make this a delightful production.

Blithe Spirit runs until Sat 17th Nov. It's proving a popular choice so book your tickets in advance to be sure of a seat!

Denise Sparrowhawk

Friday, November 9, 2018

Under Milk Wood - Review - Northern Stage

Under Milk Wood
Northern Stage 
6th November, 2018

Direction: by Elayce Ismail
Cast:  Christina Berriman Dawson, David Kirkbride

Listen - you will hear the lyrical words of Dylan Thomas spoken, not in his native lilting Welsh but in a soft cadence of North East England. Would this work? Surprisingly, yes it does. Dylan Thomas's words lend themselves well to the softness of a northern accent.

Listen - you will hear the sound of the sea, waves breaking over the rocks, and the sound of the wind, sighing through trees and howling across fields. You will hear bells ring, and clocks tick and birds sing. And you will hear words - an unstoppable stream of them spilling out from the mouths of two actors, playing a multitude of characters, weaving stories and dreams around a room filled with people - listening, listening, spellbound.

Listen - Christina and David will take you on a journey through the lives of a village, transforming themselves into characters - quirky and strange and sinister and forlorn - with the droop of a shoulder, the tilt of a head, or the lowering of a voice. From daybreak to dusk you will love with them, laugh with them, be surprised by them, be shocked by them. You will share in their joys and their sadnesses, their hopes and their dreams.

Picture credit Pamela Raith
Listen - and concentrate! Look at the images projected onto the walls but don't be distracted by them.  They will draw your attention away from the words, with their mosaics of blinking eyes and disembodied talking mouths - as strange as the dreams of the people of Llareggub.

Listen and you will hear and feel and live the life of a village.

Listen, because this play is all about words, and sounds, and feelings.
Listen, because the rest is dressing, clever and interesting and surprising, but ultimately distracting.

Under Milk Wood plays at Norther Stage until 17th November.        

Denise Sparrowhawk