Stafford Festival Shakespeare’s annual production in the shadow of Stafford Castle is fast becoming one of the foremost annual Shakespeare productions in the country, and for good reason. Not only does the castle create a truly impressive backdrop, but the creative and imaginative approach to Derek Gask’s production in placing each narrative in a different point throughout history brings a unique take on some of Shakespeare’s most performed work.
This year’s production, The Tempest, has been lovingly shaped to drop the audience right into the 1930’s Italy. We are treated to a more modern opening featuring music and dance, used to great effect to invoke the atmosphere of the calm before the eponymous storm. When the storm does hit the unfortunate travellers, the traditional dialogue begins in earnest, sharply contrasted by the modern dress, set and effects. For the remainder of the opening act, we are introduced to Prospero, deposed Duke of Milan, (Coronation Street's Stephen Becket) who rules his remote island kingdom alongside his daughter, Miranda (Grace Carter) and his two servants; the son of the witch Sycorax, Caliban (Zephryn Taitte) and the seemingly all-powerful spirit, Ariel (Gavin Swift), who does Prospero’s bidding in return for the promise of freedom. As we watch the marooned travellers discover the Island one by one, the drama more or less unfolds in the traditional sense, with the exception of vivid and colourful costume choices.
The second act reaches a fine dramatic climax and is well acted by all of the principals. In particular the comedic punctuations of Stefano (Jonathan Charles) and is relationship with Trinculo (James Hornsby) and Caliban, who decides to take Stefano as his new God and master.
Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most definitive characters and has been portrayed by some of the brightest stars in the British theatre pantheon. TV Veteran Stephen Becket is a worthy addition to this long line and gives a fine performance, capturing all the different facets of the character’s personality. The sudden transitions between doting father to embittered exile to menacing sorcerer were all well-judged and he commanded the stage from start to finish. Another highlight was Gavin Swift’s menacing lurking performance. He spent much of the play in the background yet was always a presence which it was hard to ignore. Swift is also a talented musician and dancer and uses the latter to bring a great physicality to the role.
Setting the play in the 1930’s was extremely creative and was done so with an extremely deft touch, the bulk of the that which marked the setting as being in this period comes at the beginning.
The costuming is an eclectic mixture of period costume, military uniform and shaman-esque robes and props which represent all of the supernatural elements of the story. The special effects and illusions bring a different aspect to it which definitely pleased the packed house.
The Tempest is an imaginative take on Shakespeare’s classic and will hopefully delight both real Shakespeare aficionados with its contemplative exploration of the shows themes, as well as first-timers who will undoubtedly enjoy the humour in this fine production.
If the audience’s reaction this evening is anything to go by then QMTS have brought this classic show back to life with energy and enthusiasm this week at The Core.
An impressive (if a little bulky) set, colourful costumes and some imaginative choreography from Stacey Cornes, in the limited space the company had, all added to a great evening’s entertainment.
The young people in the cast opened the show with a rousing rendition of Food Glorious Food and they were clearly enjoying themselves from the start. A well-drilled chorus brought life to the wonderful musical numbers in the show such as Who Will Buy? and Oom-Pah-Pah. Their singing was polished with some impressive harmonies and the pictures that Director Michelle Faruggia (Director) created on the stage were lovely to see.
The company had a great line-up of principals and it is always good to see that there is a wealth of talent within the chorus to allow several of the cast to have solos and cameo roles and to perform these with confidence and professionalism.
Oliver (Billy Stait) grew in confidence throughout the evening and showed real emotion throughout. He won the audience over with his rendition of Where is Love. He worked well with Leah Haddock as Dodger.
Gareth Knipe portrayed a thoughtful and rather melancholy Fagin and one of the highlights of the show was his performance of Reviewing the Situation. Whilst, Mr Bumble (Roy Vears) and Widow Corney (Sharone Williams) brought the humour of their scenes out well with clear and confident singing voices.
Paul Stait owned the stage as Bill Sykes from the moment he entered and had the audience gasping in shock at his treatment of Nancy. The role of Nancy was portrayed wonderfully by Emily Fouracre. Her rendition of As Long As He Needs Me brought the house down, and rightly so. She was also ably supported by Mary Johns as Bet. Other strong supporting performances came from Erik Olsen and Karina Harris as Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, being creepy enough to represent the undertakers of old London Town and yet bringing out the humour of their song That’s Your Funeral well.
If I had any slight criticisms, it would be that the lighting relied too heavily on follow-spots and was often distracting from the performances of the principals’ songs – a general lighting state would be more effective and allow us to concentrate on the performers themselves. I would also like to see a little more pace in the more dialogue-heavy scenes to move the story on and keep the momentum of what otherwise was a lively and colourful show.
Special mention should go to Steve Greenway (Musical Director) and his wonderful orchestra who made a great sound and maintained a good balance with the singers throughout.
All in all, a show for the company and the dedicated production team to be proud of!
As something of a Dickens obsessive, I have struggled to ever find anything on stage which comes close to his timeless characterisation and superb naming of the wealth of personalities who appear in his works. The eccentricity and perfect parodying of some of the characters in his novels have never really been replicated with any degree of success for me.
Until Saturday night.
Performing for just one night at The Old Joint Stock in Birmingham was LoveHard, a comedy duo who write and perform their own work.
Tyler Harding and Jacob Lovick's latest tour de force, Murdered By Murder, is set in the home of Lord and Lady Titan in 1930's Devon, ominously named Drenchblood Heights. The production is about 5 guests who turn up to attend a murder mystery evening at the aforementioned creepily named residence, who number Mayor Turnbridge, the local Vicar and Reverend Bellsniff and his rather strange wife, and an extremely annoying, rather dim and pretentious couple called Fortescue Butch Cassidy and Arabella Aribata.
They are all ably attended by a butler appropriately named Shivers and later on we are introduced to the detective who has to come to the residence when the murder mystery evening turns sour, Alistair Bye, nicknamed Ali Bye.
As a backdrop to the murder mystery, there is some consternation among the guests about a jewel thief who is on the prowl in the vicinity.
There is some well performed and appropriately arranged keyboard music in the background at the right moments, which adds to the quality of the production, provided by Nick Charleworth.
The two writers/performers portray all the parts between them. It is an absolute masterclass in characterisation; they move between all the characters which they are playing with ease and professionalism, leaving the audience alternately rolling with mirth and in genuine suspense awaiting the next twist in the tale. There are some beautifully choreographed moments (such as the comedic flash backs which help the audience remember the different elements of the story) and some quite hilarious ad lib-ing and improvisation, which includes them both reminding each other where the fictitious door is on the stage.
What is also astounding is the depth of characterisation which is achieved by the superb writing. As the performance unfolds, we learn of all the different foibles affecting the guests, and all the secrets which they are hiding. With shades of 'Abigail's Party' ringing in our ears, we watch as all the lives of the people unfold before us with excellent comic timing and pace, and there are no 'loose strings' at all by the end.
I must confess to never having seen anything quite as unique as this. The energy which they both inject into the performance is astounding, and it truly seems like there more actors on the stage than just the two of them.
It is not surprising that they won awards at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe runs in 2016.
It was said of Dicken's masterpiece 'The Pickwick Papers' that there was a 'sense of the Gods gone wandering in England'. 'Murdered By Murder' is right up there and wandering alongside those same Gods; I'm sure Dickens himself would have been full of praise for this production.
A trip back to the 80’s is on offer this week at the Belgrade. The stage adaptation of Footloose leaps into town with a show packed full of energy.
Ren moves with his mother from Chicago to the small backwater town of Bomont. He finds life as a newcomer and outsider difficult, he struggles to be accepted no matter how hard he tries. As he gets to know Ariel, the daughter of the local preacher, he starts to learn the secrets of the town, including the reason that dancing is banned. Ren makes it his mission to bring back dancing to Bomont and breathe some life back into the town.
The cast double up as the band with some of the actors playing more than one instrument. Keeping in character and often executing dance moves, at one point they were even on roller skates.
For a relatively small cast, the sound coming from the stage is incredible, a testament to the strong voices of all the cast. Hannah Price played Ariel with conviction and depth. Ren (Joshua Dowen) was always full of passion and extreme energy, his lively numbers were as strong as the quieter moments.
The scene between him and the Preacher (Reuven Gershon) was filled with tension and emotion. With a more developed part in the show than the film, Gareth Gates was Willard, one of Ren'a first friends.
The portrayal of the character was always on point and added some moments of humour. His number Mama Says was one of the stand out moments of the show, as was the surprise removal of his dungarees for some of the female audience members, whilst Maureen Nolan delivered a very heartfelt solo Can You Find it in Your Heart?.
With a stage so full of energy from beginning to end, it was hard to know where to look at times as everyone was giving 110%. The dancing was sharp, fast and a joy to watch.
By the end audience members on their feet dancing, ollowed by a deserved standing ovation.
While there are substantial differences to the film, the main elements are there, enough to please fans. This is a feel good show that is guaranteed to get your feet tapping and leave you smiling.
This 1980 musical, based on the 1933 film of the same name, is known to be difficult to stage because of the casting of the lead characters, and especially because of the amount of tap dancing needed to bring Harold Arlen’s sparkling score to life.
Quarry Bank Musical Theatre Society tackled this show with confidence from the opening curtain, rising as it does to show 13 pairs of chorine legs mid-rehearsal for the show-within-a-show Pretty Lady.
From the off Zoe Russell’s choreography paid homage to the Golden Age of both Broadway and Hollywood, with large vibrant chorus lines and also dancing patterns that made me wish there was some way to see the Busby Berkley inspired shapes from above.
The four leads are very well cast. Dominating the first half of the show – quite rightly – is the magnificent Natalie Baggott as the quite frankly monstrous Broadway diva Dorothy Brock. She possess a wonderfully engaging stage personality and a remarkable voice, full of warmth and humour. Alongside her Fleur Petford shines as young Peggy Sawyer who, at the start of the show is just desperate to obtain her first job, but grows, following an accident to the star, Brock, to assume the leading role in the show. It is a transition that Petford handles very successfully, shy and engaging at the start, and fully leading the show by the end.
As the show’s director Julian Marsh, Carl Cook is both the hard-nosed business man, but also very warm and human, and Richard Cope, as leading man Billy Lawler, demonstrates both good tapping skills and also full throated top notes reminiscent of old style leading men like Gordon MacRae and John Raitt.
Excellent comic support comes from Gillian Horner, Adrian Raybould and a raft of well-drawn supporting characters. The excellent music comes from a well-balanced 14 piece band under the expert direction of MD Richard Ganner.
One slight caveat; during the climactic 42nd Street number there is a very sudden dramatic event (no spoilers here!). However there was no narrative in the dance to lead up to and explain this event. The music certainly reminded me of the Girl Hunt ballet from The Band Wagon, and some of that storytelling would have helped to clarify this moment.
However this was a small moment in an otherwise very enjoyable evening. I was accompanied by my two junior reviewers, both dancers and musical fans. I only had to look at them regularly during the show to see that they were thoroughly engaged in the show, especially during the big dance numbers.
More than sixty years after the original production of The Pajama Game hit Broadway, the show is still a regular on the am dram scene.
Bournville Musical Society does the classic musical justice in a charming production at the Crescent Theatre.
Quaint and old-fashioned – The Pajama Game is everything you’d expect of a 50s Broadway musical with a plot about as simple as they come.
Sid Sorokin (Steve Kendall), the new, no-nonsense superintendent at the Sleep-Tite pajama factory, falls for factory worker Babe Williams (Rhian Clements), who also happens to be the leader of the grievance committee.
The couple’s blossoming romance gets a little complicated when factory owner Mr Hasler (Jonathan Eastwood) won’t give the workers a raise and Sorokin is forced to side with him – much to the dislike of Babe.
Steve Kendall is charmingly self-assured as the cocky but ultimately good-hearted Sorokin and he and Rhian Clements, who plays Babe with real maturity, make a thoroughly convincing pair.
Elsewhere John Morrison stands out as the bumbling Vernon Hines – a man who keeps the factory workers on their toes and drives his girlfriend Gladys Hotchkiss, played thoughtfully by Natalie Buzzard, insane with his jealousy. Morrison’s characterisation is always particularly strong and this performance here is no exception.
Jonathan Eastwood is entertaining as the factory’s miserly boss Mr Hasler and Jill Hughes is a joy as his long-serving secretary Mabel. Elsewhere Rebecca Lowe’s characterisation as ditzy factory worker Poopsie is delightful too.
The society won the NODA award for best musical for an exceptional production of Jekyll and Hyde last year and the society admirably tackles an altogether different animal this time round.
But in truth the show feels rather dated - it’s all just a bit twee and lacks pace and energy in places – particularly in a mammoth first act. It’s not the society’s fault though and the cast and chorus handle every piece of singing and choreography that’s thrown at them very well - there’s just not a great deal to work with in terms of the story and, to an extent, the musical numbers.
However, highlights include the hilarious and well-choreographed I’ll Never be Jealous Again featuring Vernon and Mabel and the delightful duet Small Talk with Sorokin and Babe.
Director Anne-Louise McGregor should be proud of this charming production – as should musical director Chris Corcoran and his band for belting out the show’s plentiful score and Sadie Turner for her crisp choreography.
This is a sterling attempt to breathe life into a somewhat outdated show.
Singin’ in the Rain is a wonderfully colourful show, brimming with beautiful music and a host of brilliant characters. Trinity Players have arrived at the Lichfield Garrick this week to bring this iconic show to life.
They certainly pull out all the stops for the title song sequence, with rain pouring onto the stage in spectacular style. With the crowning glory of the show being the finale as the whole cast take to the stage for a rousing closing rendition of the song. Technically there were some issues through the evening, to be expected with such a demanding production. All of which were handled well by the cast and crew.
The cast were enthused from the beginning with a particular highlight being the closing sequence as Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden run into the audience. It was a beautiful moment and really brought the audience right into the heart of the action. There was certainly a lovely camaraderie present on stage, with committed and assured performances from all involved.
The trio of Dan Holyhead, Matthew Collins and Leigh-Ann James led the piece well, with Holyhead in good voice, great characterisation from Collins as Cosmo and a touching rendition of You Are My Lucky Star from James. There was also pleasing comic support from Rebecca Perry and proving that you only need a cameo appearance to make an impression, I thoroughly loved Anne Dempsey as the vocal coach in Moses.
United by a love of theatre, it is always a joy to see local talent on stage and their passion is due also to the direction of Jennifer Mears. Under the Musical Direction from Peter Bushby, the band flitted through the score with ease, although it would have been lovely if the volume had been turned up a little on them, especially in that stirring overture.
Congratulations to all involved. It is clear that this is an audience favourite as the Garrick was packed.
Willy Russell’s celebrated tour of one woman show Shirley Valentine, makes a stop in Coventry to bring smiles to faces and turn thoughts to idyllic holidays.
Shirley is a 42 year old married mother of 2, her life consists of work and providing her husband with his dinner at the approved time. When her friend hands her a ticket for a fortnights holiday in Greece she realises that, somewhere along the way, she lost herself. We follow her as she decides whether to take the trip to fulfil a dream and find her old self, Shirley Valentine again.
Jodie Prenger, probably best known for musical theatre, takes the role of Shirley Valentine. Her personality and confidence shine throughout the performance. As the only person on stage for the entire show it is solely down to her to keep you engaged as she tells her story. She manages this with ease as she effortlessly drops into different accents while she mimics the people in Shirley’s tale. The imitation of speech and accent is accompanied by mannerisms and wonderful facial expressions that bring the varying characters to life. It is when Shirley is herself that you see the depth of character and the inner struggle that rages within, from pride over well cooked chips to annoyance at being taken for granted.
The delivery of this funny and well observed script is perfect, you are with Shirley every step of the way. It feels like an evening catching up with a friend, no topic is off limits and anything goes. It is both funny and heart wrenching at the same time.
Although the audience was predominately ladies of a certain age, who appeared to strongly identify with Shirley and her observations, I feel younger ladies would also enjoy the show and could benefit from the message.
This was a captivating performance sure to inspire you to find yourself and chase your dreams.
Last week saw SMTC take to the stage of the Stratford ArtsHouse once more with their rendition of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into The Woods. This production is almost feared throughout the world of musical theatre due to its demanding and challenging score, though also loved for its amalgamation of Fairy Tale themes and characters throughout. So, imagine the surprise when the audience were immediately thrust into the heart of a refugee camp; a set very cleverly built by local artist Chris Johns.
Director, Richard Sandle-Keys made the brave decision to turn this well-known tale on its head and draw upon the parallels to the world we live in today; a decision that more than paid off. Villages wiped out, children becoming orphans, chaos everywhere, ‘Giants’ leaving a path of destruction, sound familiar?
Of course, the show wouldn’t have been such a success without its stars and there are many worthy of note. Tim Shackley narrated throughout and kept viewers engaged with his comic and light demeanour. Christopher Dobson stepped into the childless Baker’s character with ease, his voice and acting talent projecting emotion into the hearts of all those in witness. Bardia Ghazelbash provided a silky, husky voice and slick movement to the Wolf. David Bolter and Daniel Denton-Harris admirably played the roles of the Princes, with their performance of Agony being quite the show-stopper.
It must be said though; the show was certainly stolen by its female counterparts! Firstly, Samantha Brown and Charlie Vaughan were the puppeteers behind the infamous Milky-White; their movement on stage and facial expressions cleverly brought to life (yet another) wonderful piece of metal artwork. Judi Walton, no stranger to the stage, portrayed Jack’s mother with flare and know-how. Rapunzel is perhaps one of the lesser characters in this story, though that didn’t reflect in Rachel Connell’s strong portrayal. Georgie Wood took on the tasking role of Jack, her confident presence brought volumes of endearment to the whole performance. Pollyanna Noonan’s portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood was the perfect combination of charm and daring. Karen Welsh as the Witch gave a notorious performance; striking, comical and sultry. Jessica Friend soundly stepped into the role of the Baker’s Wife, delivering a performance worthy of high merit and praise. Finally, Rebecca Walton’s Cinderella was both memorable and moving; a truly flawless deliverance.
All of this was rounded out by impeccable singing talent from all those mentioned and more; the harmonies, power, and tone to all the voices on stage was an absolute marvel; accompanied by the talents of the orchestra under the remarkable direction of Sam Young.
What SMTC achieved with this production left audiences speechless and moved, receiving a standing ovation seemed only fitting upon its end; perhaps it is safe to say that they certainly left happy…ever after.
Adapting a cultural landmark such as Dirty Dancing for the stage poses a very particular set of challenges. Straying too far from the source material is risky as the diehard fans will always judge it against the original. Never straying from the source material is equally risky as what follows is usually a pale imitation. The new national tour, which twirls its way onto the stage of the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham this week manages to just about find the right balance with a vibrant production that stays very faithful to the original, which whilst being a crowd favourite, lacks the punch of the 1987 classic.
The plot is identical to that of the film. Set in the summer of 1963, the Houseman family decamp to the Catskills for a summer of dance and wholesome family fun at Kellerman’s holiday camp, including the youngest daughter, Baby. She soon chafes at the strict boundaries set between guest and staff. When bad boy dance instructor Johnny’s usual partner Penny is forced to hang up her shoes for the summer due to an unplanned pregnancy, Baby steps up and begins private lessons with Johnny, much to her father’s chagrin.
The stage adaptation flows effortlessly recreating all of the most famous scenes from the film, using some clever effects and a beautifully crafted revolving set to recreate all areas of Kellerman’s. There is a fine line between fast-paced and frenetic however, and sometimes it felt that they were rushing through some of the most important scenes, missing the opportunity to properly develop both character and relationships, especially the budding romance between the two leads.
Katie Eccles as Baby gives a good performance, showing the earnest desire to help people and the ability to see past their situation in life, no matter who they are, that is essential to the role. However, there are long periods of the show, especially the training montages (again, very slickly done with some very quick changes), where she plays up the goofy side of her character too much, when the 2 star-crossed lovers should begin to experience a coming together through dance.
Stand-in Johnny, Robert Colvin was very commanding and can certainly dance. There were times when he felt a little too polished, however, and failed to recapture some of the Swayze magic. The main issue was his relationship with Penny, Carlie Milner is actually a lot more convincing than his relationship with Baby.
The 2 leads are ably supported by a strong ensemble, packed with wonderful dancers. Lizzie Ottley provides great comic relief as Lisa, Baby’s sister. Michael Kent and Billy Kostecki provide some great vocals to the few live sung numbers. Much of the music is underscored by the band, or take elements from the movie soundtrack.
Ultimately, despite being slightly confused about what it wants to be, a fusion between dance piece, play and full blooded musical, this is one for the fans. Judging by the number of screams when we finally get to final scene and THAT line and THAT lift, there were plenty of them in the house.
Dirty Dancing runs at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham until Saturday 2 June.
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