It's a joy to witness the birth of new plays. Enter Stage Write, a showcase of short theatre works, brought five to the Birmingham Hippodrome. Natalie Edward Adele Yesufu created the platform for new writing in 2017; this year her competition once more brought finalist scripts to performance before a sell-out, appreciative audience and an industry panel of judges.
The event was preceded and followed by periods of 'networking', where folk mixed, shared experiences, and fostered new theatre working relationships. A red carpet photograph area was made use of by many in attendance. An atmosphere of bonhomie prevailed.
The evening's pieces, though short in duration, proved their worth. Stephen Davis brought Drop The Gun, a two-hander which see-sawed the position of power between the actors. Guardian, by Thomas Anthony Ellis, revealed with a supernatural twist the catastrophic climax of a fated couple. Louise Osbourne presented Just One Mistake, a fraught conversation in the aftermath of an unconventional death. Jonathan Skinner's dark comedy piece Indignitas placed a euthanasia-with-benefits dystopia under the spotlight. Britain for Breakfast revealed David Bottomley's very human view of the asylum-seeker assessment room. Cast with fine Midlands talent, these works rose off the page wonderfully.
Sophie Aná opened the proceedings in fine song. After the plays, Make It Happen Dance Company took the floor, with the energised, synchronised movements of a fine Swiss watch. In ticker-tape parade spectacle, both audience and panel winner awards were presented for the best writing piece at the evening's close. Writing, the bedrock of quality theatre, needs such explicit appreciation, and it's heartening to see it happen in the nation's second city.
An evening dinner party amongst close friends provides comedy, drama and plenty of surprises.
The friends begin jovial, but after just one joke disagreements, resentment and sibling rivalry surface. The civilised evening soon ends up being a drink fuelled evening, airing some home truths.
The show is well written, unpredictable and it also builds to a big surprise for both the characters and the audience. The comedy helped maintain the pace of the show, providing many laughs and it also helps to balance the tension. All five characters were well suited to their roles, delivering strong acting and comedic performances.
The play includes Vincent, played by Inbetweeners Joe Thomas and Peter, played by Miranda Bo Poraj. There was also Carl, played by Alex Gaumond, Elizabeth, played by Emma Carter, and Anna, played by Louise Marwood. The friction between the characters felt realistic and tense. One of the highlights of the evening was a particularly exaggerated outburst by the character Elizabeth, Emma Carter, showing a woman pushed to the edge.
After an evening of arguments, snipes and surprises, will the firmly close family and friends be able to survive afterwards?
Joe Thomas acts as narrator at the beginning and the end, setting up the story and drawing it to its conclusion. The set (the inside of a house), was impressive and realistic, with atmospheric lighting that flicked from the warmth of a lounge to a spotlight on Thomas as he shared his asides.
It felt as though the audience had been invited to the evening dinner party and we watched the awkward events unfold.
What’s In A Name? is an easy watch, full of tension and laughs.
What’s In A Name? plays at The Alexandra until 14 March
It was a dark, stormy evening outside, as I took my seat for the opening night of The Cat and the Canary at Lichfield Garrick Theatre. The inclement weather had failed to put a dampener on the spirits of the Monday night audience in attendance. Settled by the warm welcome of the theatre staff and the comfortable surroundings, 1930s melodics and atmospheric strings sought to both underpin and undermine that comfort, in anticipation of the murder mystery to come.
This production is bejewelled with recognisable talent taken from across the entertainment industry. Mark Jordon's bumbling vet was particularly well received by the audience, but all brought their prowess to the piece, creating a household of tangled familial relationships. As a whodunnit with supernatural undertones and comedic episode, the show as a whole seemed to fall between too many stools. The exposition-work ran to just shy of the interval. However, some notable action at this point roused the expectations for later, and these were satisfied in the second half with humour, intrigue and discovery, at pace.
One can often expect a touring production to travel light, but nothing was spared in terms of mise-en-scène. Beyond the plush red curtain, this proscenium stage lavishly recreated the two 1930s country manor house interiors in which the action takes place. So extensive were these sets that over two minutes of curtain-close were needed for the scene change after the interval. Nevertheless, the glorious scope and detail of these spaces gave plenty of playability for the cast, and furnished the audience with a believable and enjoyable setting for spooky shenanigans. The soundscape and lighting were equally impeccable.
The Cat and the Canary plays at Lichfield Garrick Theatre until Saturday 14 March.
As far as musicals go, very little beats the power of The Sound of Music for me. Brought up on it from an early age and having performed it twice, it has a very secure place in my heart and I jump at any opportunity to indulge in its music and storyline. For some it may be old-fashioned now, perhaps too saccharine-sweet for modern tastes but I adore it and will happily wallow in it every time Julie Andrews appears running up that mountain on screen at Christmas! How disappointing then to start watching a production with such anticipation and leave feeling completely cold and lacking emotion at the end.
First impressions were promising, this production boasts an impressive opulent set for both the Abbey and the Von Trapp house and the orchestra under the musical direction of Jeremy Wootton brings an excellent pace and vibrancy to the score. The opening Nun’s Chorus paved the way for some excellent harmony singing throughout from the female ensemble, but the cracks in the production began to show when two (rather tall) members of the male ensemble appeared dressed as additional nuns in the back row. Placing them in dimly lit areas of the stage was not enough to disguise them and we left the venue questioning whether a little less spend on the set and more invested in giving two more young actresses their first step on the professional ladder might not have been more worthwhile.
Welsh National Opera performer Megan Llewellyn took the role of the Mother Abbess. Undeniably a strong singer, she belted out all her numbers with immense power. Sadly this overpowered the beautiful harmonies of the other nuns in How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria and although her rendition of Climb Every Mountain brought the first act to a climax it was less an emotional one, more a matter of sheer, deafening volume as the final notes played. Her characterisation of the Mother Abbess was the bounciest I have ever seen and while this made for a friendlier relationship with Emilie Fleming’s Maria, it just did not seem to possess the required reverence needed.
As Maria, Fleming sang well throughout but I did not get the sense of her wild, rebellious spirit that underlines the whole reason for her being sent away from the abbey. Andrew Lancel’s diffident, broken Captain Von Trapp brought a refreshing change to what can become a slightly wooden role, but the overall insipid characterisation between the two left the later romantic moments feeling far too tentative. In places the gestures and delivery of the lines was almost mechanical, as if the show was still in the early stages of rehearsal and that the direction had not quite explored the motives behind the movements.
This was symptomatic of the whole production which felt more like a ‘paint-by-numbers’ effort to recreate the film on stage than something which had seen real attention to the emotion and sentiment of the storyline addressed in rehearsals.
The children’s cast were all strong, with well-executed, slick performances throughout and there were enjoyable performances from the supporting company but overall this production feels mis-cast and as if the producers were looking for a quick way to make money.
Given the standing ovation in the audience on opening night, I may be in the minority in my thoughts and I hope that anyone who sees the show this week enjoys the performances. However, if you were thinking of taking someone to see it soon, I would recommend not paying into the commercial tour and instead look to support local amateur companies due to perform it near you. Find a production where every adult and child on the stage has worked hard in their spare time to retell this story for you and hopefully you will find a performance with genuine heart to it.
Usually once every season, there is something special that is the talk of London's theatre scene that seems to shake up its audiences and spread terrific word of mouth. Summer 2018 saw an example of this being A Monster Calls during its Olivier-Award winning run at the Old Vic, following an opening at the Bristol Old Vic. Now, this play is hitting the road in its first UK tour and frankly rightly so as this is an extraordinary piece about the human condition that ought to be seen by everyone.
Following her interpretations of La Strada and the National Theatre's Jane Eyre and Peter Pan, director Sally Cookson is yet again proving to be one of Britain's most exciting theatre makers bringing her devising process to this story concerning a boy facing his mother's terminal illness by Patrick Ness, following on from an idea by Siobhan Dowd before her death. Her theatrical "stamp" on these stories is certainly not going stale as it sheds a whole new perspective in adapting a piece for the stage in a way that only theatre can do, therefore the emotions in the Belgrade Theatre are intensely high, not leaving a dry eye in the house.
Cookson's "stamp" comes from approaching the story fresh without a script as it is collaborated by the actors in the rehearsal room. It is fascinating how a piece that relies mostly on the talented ensemble can feel so contemporary and move us in an extraordinary way. At the centre of this ensemble is Ammar Duffus as thirteen-year-old Connor O'Malley, who throughout the entire play does not leave the stage nor has much resting time. In his blazer, shirt and stripey tie, Duffus embodies the mannerisms of a thirteen-year-old who is carrying the weight and sadness on his shoulders. He also presents great rage and anxiety in his character, allowing the unspeakable emotions of this tragic story to be displayed quite clearly as he deserves all applause for his performance.
Connor's mother, played by Maria Omakinwa despite her deteriorating health is a beacon of hope as someone clinging onto the last moments surrounded by her family, while Kaye Brown plays his Grandma who speaks the more honest reality of the situation but with a great amount of unconditional care. We also see Connor's everyday struggles through his bullies Harry (Greg Bernstein), Sully (Jade Hackett) and Anton (Kel Matsena) and his battle for independance against the forigiving nature of his friend Lily, played by Cora Kirk. But one of the standout performances comes from Keith Gilmore as the monster who brings a skin-crawling, unnerving quality about him as he haunts Connor. Gilmore's performance doesn't require any monster like make-up, costume or effects but his sheer physicality as his moves and climbs around the stage is something of pure acrobatic standard making him both an intimidating monster but also an approachable guardian.
As with Cookson's previous productions, the technical aspects all gel together with the performances to create an undeniably unforgettable experience. Dick Straker's blood and fire infused projections fill the canvas which is Michael Vale's blank set behind with many ropes used by the ensemble to run around as branches of the recurring theme of the yew tree. While the sound design by Mike Beer works well in time with the actors' actions and the soundtrack composed by Benji Bower, who creates a contemporary but epic score performed live by Luke Potter and Seamas Carey.
All these ingredients are the key to this production becoming a mind-blowing piece of theatre, but ultimately it is a story with a long-lasting effect that really hits home. It is a story which explores what it means to be in pain and afraid, showing how we can and should cope with tragedy but explores humanity in all of its complicated forms. Having said that, it is truly an unforgettable night at the theatre worth seeing to provide us with hope and acceptance in life.
A Monster Calls runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday 7th March.
Love Midlands Theatre
Sharing the latest theatre news and reviews around the Midlands.