Sunday, 29 September 2013

Romeo and Juliet. Reviewed at Reading Minster 19th September 2013.

It must be quite difficult for a company to breathe new life into such an eminent play as Romeo and Juliet, as audiences are so familiar with the 'pair of star-crossed lovers'.

The young teen protagonists fall in love yet their warring families, the Capulets and Montagues, impede their progress. It is their tragic deaths, and not the power of their love, that overturns the feud. Audiences never seem to tire of it. Nevertheless, is it possible to look afresh at this hoary old warhorse?

Based on this frenzied production by Reading Between the Lines, it appears so. They have certainly achieved an element of originality by shifting the action to a dystopian 2023 where, as Director Hal Chambers says in the programme youth inhabits a world where ‘everyday is sex, dancing, fighting, posturing and narcotics.’ To achieve this, he has bolstered   the drama with electrifying physicality emphasizing the animalistic tribal rivalry staining Verona’s streets.

Sadly however, it is, to take Romeo out of context, ‘too rough, too rude, too boisterous’. Don’t get me wrong I do not mean that in any prurient way but refer to the constant and the harsh assault on the senses. The sound, composed by Benjamin Hudson, ‘one half of hip hop/noise duo Baconhead’, distracted from the lyrical splendour of the play, as did Lighting Designer Oliver Welsh’s barrage of strobe and laser.

However, on a more positive note, the cast played well as against the omnipresent spectre of death and the grungy urban set. The prologue had already defined the action and, we know that Romeo (Will Rastall) and Juliet (Emma Ballentine) cannot escape their fate. It concentrates the mind on the rather more satisfying aspects of the drama especially the more vibrant supporting roles. For example, the fine playing of Benedict Chambers’ bawdy Mercutio, belligerent Tybalt (Stephen Boyce), and Pearl Marsland’s garrulous Nurse each in their own way kept the drama from descending into maudlin romance.

Whether the decision to place the action in 2023 was the right one is not up for discussion here. Everyone will have his or her own opinion. Moreover, even though at times it rankled it did bring immediacy and topicality to the play. It will no doubt appeal to younger audiences, who I believe make up a good percentage of RBL’s supporters. If so, that’s a good thing for both the company and the future of professional theatre in Reading.

This review first appeared in Newbury Weekly News 26th September 2013

Friday, 24 May 2013

Murder in Play by Simon Brett, The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke,23 May 2013

Written by Simon Brett, a writer of whodunits, Murder in Play is a comedy thriller with the usual oddballs and red herrings. The main plot device is ‘a play within a play.’ The play opens on  the final rehearsals of  'Murder at Priorswell Manor'.

Things are not going well. There is tension on the set. Then to top it all fiction becomes reality when a leading member of the cast is murdered, a lethal dose of parquet. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Sophie Lawton (Gemma Bissix) and Tim Ferner (Dean Gaffney) to play detective. The stage, a drawing room with all the essential exits, is set for a murder mystery.

There were strong performances all round, however firstly mention must go to Alison Mead as Renee. She remained superbly stalwart despite her treatment by her serial philanderer husband and Director, Boris Smolensky (David Callister). In addition, Katy Manning (Christa D’Amato, Mrs Puttock) and Richard Tate (Harrison Bracewell, Mr Papadopoulos) showed that both have a great talent for both verbal and physical comedy. Their entrances, exits, and subsequent stage play added the necessary comic touch to the drama. If anything, I thought Katy Manning was underused but I cannot argue with Brett’s script. That leads me to another point.

There felt in the final act that there was too much exposition as if desperately trying to fill in the plot holes. It was often confusing, talking of events that we had not witnessed. When was Ginette (Poppy Meadows) arrested for the crime? Who is Detective Inspector Bob Brewer? It felt awkward. It did not have the momentum of the earlier acts.

Many of the cast were in A Murder Is Announced that toured earlier this year. That had some of the same faults. Nevertheless, as I said, that is not the cast or the Director’s fault. Everyone here  worked together superbly performing in dual roles and delivered a great production, even though at times it was baffling, well to me anyway.

Nevertheless, it was entertaining and an excellent showcase for the younger actors who are probably more at ease in front of a camera than being on a stage.

Reviewed at The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke part of Anvil Arts  for Remotegoat website.

Brought to the stage by Ian Dickens Productions Directed by Ian Dickens

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie. The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke. 28th February 2013.

Agatha Christie has managed to stay popular despite her anachronistic English village domain. Audiences and readers still adore her labyrinthine plots. Ian Dickens’ touring production of ‘A Murder Is Announced’ is the latest adaptation.

From the outset it is unmistakably the nineteen fifties and to be more precise, 1953. A notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette stating rather oddly ‘A murder is announced and will take place… at Little Paddocks at 6.30pm’. This soon fires the curiosity of the villagers and Jane Marples. All gather at Little Paddocks, the home of Letitia Blacklock. At 6.30 precisely, the lights go out, someone fires a gun, and a murder has occurred.

A fitting introduction to an ingenious spider’s web of deceit and plot twists. Just when you think you have cracked it, there is another startling revelation to add to the complexity. Sadly, when it gets to this point, exposition too often gets in the way of dramatic tension. On a few occasions, there were forced efforts to get through as much dialogue as possible to clarify the narrative.

Despite this minor hurdle, all the actors worked well together. Of particular note were Katy Manning as Letitia Blacklock and John D Collins as Inspector Craddock. Both dominated the stage with dramatic presence. Geraldine Newman probably had the most challenging task in bringing anything fresh to the role of Miss Marples. As a result  she was so often overshadowed.

A functional stage set convincingly recreates the period detail as did  the musical extracts – ‘Knightsbridge March’, ‘Sleepy Lagoon’, ‘The Marching Strings’ and ‘Barwick Green’ – all quintessentially English pieces.
As one would expect from Christie the plot is ingenious and taut. Moreover, despite its focus on death, it is also witty, extremely gripping, and satisfyingly entertaining. It left the majority of audience guessing to the end. We see very little of this kind of work since the demise of ‘rep’. The fact that this house was full and the production is selling out demonstrates that there is a demand for these popular plays. I hope that we will see similar in the future.

From Agatha Christie’s Novel.
Directed by Ian Dickens and David North | Stage adaptation by Leslie Darbon
Brought to the stage by Ian Dickens Productions
Reviewed at The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke part of Anvil Arts for The Flaneur

Monday, 28 January 2013

Birdsong Adapted from Sebastian Faulks’s novel. The Haymarket, Basingstoke, 24th January 2013

Dramatist Rachel Wagstaff is quite right in saying “Birdsong is in an incredibly powerful novel”. As a “literary novel”, it’s a haunting piece set across different times and locations. Sadly, this adaptation does not do the book full justice and leading inevitably to a disappointing theatrical experience.
The Amiens pre-war scenes where Stephen Wraysford meets and takes as a lover Isabelle Azaire lack credence and sexual charge. It was too brief and never satisfying. Both this affair and the factory strike had great dramatic possibilities – possibilities woefully squandered.
On the other hand, the visually stunning and superbly lit Western Front episodes captured the tedium, the fear, and the comradeship of soldiers living in death’s shadow Two years into the war and  still there. Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace, the strong character, broke down as he learnt of his young son’s imminent death. He obstinately prayed to a god that, in reality, had abandoned him. It is an achingly heart-breaking moment. If only Isabelle (Sarah Jane Dunn) and Stephen (Jonathan Smith) could have reached such heights.
Undoubtedly, it is hard to translate the power of a book. A book is personal. This adaptation was an honest and valiant endeavour but I personally found it, at times, deficient and unmoving. Sebastian Faulks who, when approached about the possibility of dramatization replied, “Why try to make a sculpture from a painting?” Maybe he had a point.

Birdsong is adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Sebastian Faulks.
Directed by Alastair Whatley | Stage adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff
Brought to the stage by The Original Theatre Company & Birdsong Productions Ltd
National Tour, 22nd January to 3rd August 2013

This review was written for and first published  on The Flaneur website.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Great British Folk Festival 2012 Skegness. 30th November 2012 – 3rd December 2012. Review first published in The Flaneur.

Now in its third year The Great British Folk Festival held at Butlin’s Skegness resort has now become an established part of the festival scene. Forget any preconceptions of the ‘holiday camp’. The images lampooned in programmes such as Hi-Di-Hi are outdated and have absolutely nothing to do with the modern first class visitor experience. Comfortable and welcoming Accommodation is included in the package, the stages skilfully managed, and the music takes in all aspects of  loosely defined ‘folk’ – a chance to want to have a good time while maybe unearthing something new. This is why GBBF wins.

Friday’s line-up included Pie, Feast of Fiddles, The Fureys and Davey Arthur, The Travelling Band. All estimable talents however some of the other acts that day did not deliver. Fake Thackray would have been better suited to a smaller venue as would Oh Susanna. The Travelling Band sadly lost some of the The Fureys large audience. Although To be fair, the Fureys must be a hard act to follow. Meanwhile Feast of Fiddles dazzled the audience on the Centre Stage with their eleven fiddler players.

Saturday afternoon and Babajack shook the Centre Stage with an intense mix of blues, roots and folk. Becky Tate’s cajon (box drum) and   Trevor Steger’s semi-acoustic ‘winebox’ guitar invoked a past area of raw and unpolished blues and roots. Not for the faint hearted.
The session’s other bands and singers – Deborah Bonham, Shinjig, and The Billy Mitchell Band rewarded the audience in a more traditional style. In contrast, the band Moonshee took on a global slant with Sitar, tablas, fiddle and harp. OK so it’s not unique these days but nevertheless a band definitely worth catching.

Saturday evening was probably, for the weekend’s audience, the best with Show of Hands, Thea Gilmore, June Tabor and The Oyster Band, Merry Hell and Fay Hield and The Hurricane Party.

June Tabor’s reunion with The Oyster Band after a twenty-one year gap and now on tour was the highlight of the weekend. Tabor has a startling and compelling presence yet never overshadows the band. Their take on Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic ‘White Rabbit’ was electrifying. The gig ended on a high with ‘Put Out the Lights’. Merry Hell – “Folk-rock with punk attitude” (their words) closed the evening on Reds with firm favourites Show of Hands closing Centre Stage.

Finally to Sunday afternoon on Centre Stage with a welcome diversion for tired heads – Animals and Friends with their   storming session of nostalgic R’n’B. Gallagher’s keyboards were much to the fore offering a driving rhythm through many of the old standards but were nicely contrasted by Barton’s deep booming voice. That evening saw amongst others Ashley Hutchings & Morris On, Steel Threads, Gigspanner, Gordon Giltrap, The Gathering and headliners ,The Albion Band on Centre Stage and on Reds Stage,  King Arthur’s Dream.

So over, for another year and clearly all of the above is both subjective and selective and not under any circumstances definitive. Therefore, I offer apologies to those missing their favourite artists or wanting a complete set-list. Overall, a fantastic weekend and already bookings are being taken for 2013!

If you want to see some of this year’s performances take a look at Peter Simmonds’ You Tube Site.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Animals and Friends at The Great British Folk Festival, Skegness, 3rd December 2012.

Without doubt, The Animals were one of the most important bands originating from England’s R&B scene during the early ’60s, and second only to the Rolling Stones in bringing hard faithful R&B-to British audiences. I suppose it was some unease that I approached The Animals and Friends thinking that like so many of those sixties “resurrections” they would only appeal to the achingly nostalgic. However, I am glad to say that the band delivered a satisfyingly rock solid performance.

For this gig drummer John Steel, an original member of The Animals, was joined by Peter Barton on bass and vocals, Danny Handley on lead guitar and Mickey Gallagher on keyboards. It’s worth noting that Gallagher has historic connections with The Animals having replaced a departing Alan Price in 1965 – so no stranger to the band or the music.

His excellent playing was much to the fore offering a driving rhythm through many of the old standards but always effectively contrasted by Barton’s deep booming voice to great effect – especially on Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home” and Bennie Benjamin’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” .
After that the numbers came fast and furious – Bright Lights Big City, “We Gotta Get out of This Place”, John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and ending with an passionate “House of the Rising Sun”.

That afternoon The Animals and Friends showed that they have the power to capture an audience with their coruscating mix of blues, rock, and soul. It’s great to see that they are taking it on the road throughout 2013.
Moreover, to add to that Animal magic the ‘legendary’ Steve Cropper will be guesting.

Article originally appeared in The Flaneur online magazine.