The Lovely Bones seems to have always gathered a bit of a mixed reaction in its previous forms as a novel by Alice Sebold and even more so in the film adaption with Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci. But nonetheless the novel is a number-one bestseller, so surely there must be something in this story to make it be so popular, right?
Well, this stage adaptation by Bryony Lavery and directed by Melly Still is as thrilling as one can hope, surpassing those initial mixed feelings to present this deeply tragic, yet uplifting story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon's encounter in the afterlife following her rape and murder. This production is one of those beautiful moments in the theatre where the script and production work hand-in-hand effortlessly in telling this story in a moving, electrifying and harrowing way.
Charlotte Beaumont (best known to ITV's Broadchurch fans as Chloe Latimer) gives a sensational central performance as Susie. She naturally adopts the mannerisms and behaviour of a 14-year-old girl, with a bundle of energy, naivety, innocence and a sense of humour that wouldn't look out of place on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon from 10 or 20 years ago. Which is of course what makes it utterly heartbreaking knowing that she has had her childhood taken away, watching and being invisible to her family and friends while they cope without her and her killer walks free. Beaumont never leaves the stage being physically trapped in her "heaven" (closely monitored by Franny, played by Bhawna Bhawsar) and her energy and presence is marvellous while she her character suffers this horrible situation, yet bringing an element of optimism into her afterlife.
One's skin can't help but crawl whenever Keith Dunphy enters as the creepy murdering neighbour Mr Harvey. He is obsessive, omnipresent on stage, menacing, scheming and so eerily realistic that we all hope he will receive his comeuppance for his heinous crimes. Interestingly, this story examines how grief can take various forms on different family members, such as Susie's dad Jack, played by Jack Sandle who may be weaker of health but resilient in bringing justice. Her cigarette-puffing mother Abigail, played by Emily Bevan grows more distant and down-to-earth in wanting to live her life along with Len, played by Pete Ashmore the lead cop solving her murder. Her grandmother mother Lynn, played by Susan Bovell is caring, yet one to crack the jokes about alcohol even in this tragic time. The entire company supporting Beaumont including Ayoola Smart as Susie's sister Linsdey, Karan Gill as her love interest Ray, Nathasha Cottriall as classmate Ruth are all individually fantastic, but together show a sense of community and love for this deceased young girl.
On a technical level, this production is first-class and throughout the piece, there is always something thrilling going on. The rock-gig lighting by Matt Haskins can go from stunning and vibrant during Susie's flashbacks of happier times but switches in a moment to the dull, cold blue fog being her heaven. It integrates terrifically with both Helen Skiera's almost horror movie-like sound effects and the awesome 70's to 80's soundtrack featuring hits from David Bowie to Tears For Fears as well as the incidental rock underscore by Dave Price. But the most fascinating aspect is Ana Inés Jabares-Pita effective set design of a cornfield row, dirt surrounding the vast open stage (as the action takes place in the centre, like a coffin) and a large mirror that tilts forward at the back of the stage, reflecting the ground and offering a whole new "other-worldy" perspective of Beaumont and the company.
This is certainly a story that has and probably will continue to divide opinion, due to the heavy nature and adult themes. But it is nonetheless a prevalent and complex story that is happening every day, all over the world - however, Sebold has given us an incredibly human glimpse and a celebration of life which has been adapted so brilliantly well that becomes virtually everything you want in a good piece of drama.
The Lovely Bones runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 10th November.
"Absolutely first class!".
Stoke Repertory Theatre is host to Newcastle Operatic’s production of Titanic The Musical this week. Created by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, this production, with its unforgettable score, won five Tony Awards when it first opened on Broadway in 1997. The iconic 1998 Cameron/Horner movie and the 1958 Negulesco versions of the maiden (and last) voyage of The Titanic cruise ship, were both set around a fictional love story (as if the tragic sinking of such a vessel wasn’t enough!) yet this musical stage version sticks mainly to the facts. It is portrayed respectfully, and with great care, and mainly focuses on the injustice of the class system of the time along with the passionate misjudgements and reckless decisions of those in charge that lead to the avoidable event and death of 1500 men, women and children. The dreams and aspirations of the passengers are highlighted in text and song and individual stories are told – from Irish emigrants in third class to second class passengers dreaming of being in the shoes of the upper classes, and all as warnings about an imminent giant iceberg are ignored and the dangers quietly dismissed in the hope of reaching America sooner than expected by sailing at full throttle.
Directed by James Freeman, a full cast of of 34 performed. The simple, clever set structure created a ship’s deck, rooms and walkways, with two levels and a balcony, all constructed on a revolving stage. The team demonstrated great use of the space - we were taken into a silver service dining room, the Captain’s office, third-class quarters and even a steamy boiler room. The two full-width screens, up and down stage, gave the show that extra creative arm and imagery was used wisely to enhance emotion and create extra depth and scope as required.
The 1912 costumes were glorious, from first class silk finery to black-gang stokers’ workwear. Wigs, fascinators and ballgowns sparkled, gentlemen in black tie played cards and smoked cigars and the crew of The White Star Line were clad in service dress. The actors were convincing and the singing was just out of this world. The show, musically directed by Allison Fisher, with an excellent off-stage orchestra, was bordering on operatic in style with Sondheim-esque similarities and the show featured some very complex vocal arrangements, harmonies and counter melodies that only a very competent MD who knows exactly what they are doing would take on. And this was clearly the case.
Overall, this was a dedicated undertaking, with the story building slowly and the characters winning sympathy even before the ‘iceberg’ word was mentioned. I was curious to see what effects, if any, would be used for the sinking of the ship and the illusion of the ship going up as the lifeboat was lowered was engaging.
Fabulous lighting, sound design and effects; a few headset crackles were soon remedied and didn’t distract and scene changes were quickly and stealthily executed by a proficient back-stage team.
It is very tricky to mention any particular performer when such a large, competent and talented cast is in charge of your entertainment, but I was drawn to the strong stage presence of Gareth Lee Ridge as Fred Barrett and the superb singing voice of Oliver Joseph Davies as Ismay. Matthew Murray as the Bellboy bought lots of enthusiastic energy and expression to the stage and Mike Johnson as Captain Smith was excellently cast and played the part just as one would expect.
Everyone in the Society should be congratulated for this huge production, which is most decidedly a resounding success. Absolutely first class!
Runs to 27 October
The nativity story is something that The REP is no stranger to, having produced the highly successful Nativity! The Musical as their pre-Christmas treat last year. This year they have certainly taken a whole different view into the biblical story for this production of The Messiah. But Bah Humbug! Don’t worry all you Grinches who can’t stand the anything festive before December, there is nothing explicitly Christmassy in this show as this comical re-enactment of the nativity is so masterfully done.
Playwright and comedian Patrick Barlow is now taking the helm as director (with associate director Tom Latter) of his own 80’s comedy play which he wrote back in the days of the National Theatre of Brent, and which he also starred in alongside partner Jim Broadbent on TV. While this production is superbly directed, the writing seems just as fresh and timeless as it would have been 30 years ago. One could say it is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian meets The Play That Goes Wrong (Even the title can’t help but prompt the quote “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”). However, I wouldn’t say that this piece is as side-splittingly funny as those two examples as at times, the humour is a little thin and drags on longer than it needs to. But overall, and thanks to the marvellous trio of actors it is sure to bring a grin to your face, maybe even a dozen or so chuckles.
Leading this trio of actors are well-known faces from TV; Outnumbered and Mock The Week’s Hugh Dennis and Doc Martin’s John Marquez as Maurice Rose and Ronald Bream; the “theatre company” of two who present to us the Nativity using their less-than-adequate skills, portraying a cast of thousands. It is surprising how little theatre work Dennis has done over the years as he seems right at home on stage. Maurice Rose appears as the wiser, intelligent character trying to keep the performance afloat until we eventually realise he is merely a man having a mid-life crisis – a character which Dennis wonderfully captures. In every double act, there is a less intelligent, submissive and anxious character, which Marquez brilliantly portrays as Ronald Bream; earning more of the laughs. Ultimately this play is about the two friends who find love in each other through ensuring the nativity goes ahead. They are supported by the soprano superstar Lesley Garrett, who has a glorious voice and a diva-like personality as Mrs Leonora Fflyte. When she sings acapella, there is no need for any symphony orchestra to back her as her voice is utterly divine, providing verses of well-loved hymns and carols. She also joins in some of the comedy routines, playing a third wise man and being the centrepiece of Rose and Bream’s joyous dance routine, among other mayhem.
The set is pretty simplistic, yet highly effective thanks to Francis O’Connor’s great design. A starry blue curtain is our backdrop, while a revolving stage sits in the centre and spins around the ruined pillars. The revolve may not be used until act two, but the scenes that take place on it are well worth the wait. Howard Hudson’s lighting also fittingly illuminates these terrific actors to give a flavour of each scene in the nativity story.
What is great about this production it ultimately has virtually nothing to do with religion, nor politics or any big social issues that may be lurking over our heads in these times, but it is a heart-warming portrayal of friendship and a love for each other. As a comedy; the laughs do come and go, but a huge bravo must be given to this talented trio.
The Messiah runs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday, prior to a UK tour and London run.
Audiences at Wolverhampton Grand were transported to Northampton last night for a sparkling performance of Kinky Boots. With music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein, this heart-warming story is inspired by true events.
After the death of his father, Charlie finds himself taking over the family’s shoe business. However, it's not long before he forms an unlikely partnership with drag queen, Lola. What follows is a beautiful tale about embracing individuality, celebrating sexuality and ultimately realising that none of us are really that different.
This touring cast oozed with talent, delivering a high-octane performance from start to finish. Leading the way was the brilliant Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie, with strong support from Helen Ternent as his selfish, high-flyer fiancée Nicola and the wonderfully hilarious co-worker Demitri Lampra as Don. Paula Lane’s Lauren grabbed many laughs of the night, with her Act One performance culminating in a rib-achingly funny The History of Wrong Guys.
There were some equally hilarious comic turns from Niki Evans (Trish) and Catherine Millsom (Pat), who both stood out in the larger ensemble numbers, particularly their cameos in What A Woman Wants. And a big shout out to the spectacular Angels.
One of the major successes of this show lies in the music. From poignancy to celebration the music weaves effortlessly along with the storyline and I defy anyone to not get up and dance for the finale Raise You Up / Just Be. The stage simply exudes joy.
However, the absolute star of this show is Kayi Ushe (Lola). Commanding the audience from his very first entrance in Land of Lola, he is a force to be reckoned with. In stunning voice, he transported this show to another level. One of the most touching moments of the night was when he finally performed to his father, a tender juxtaposition to his earlier duet with Charlie in the gorgeous Not My Father’s Son.
My advice…don your best glittery boots and get a ticket for this glorious show.
Stoke Rep Players
"This theatre group is certainly one to watch out for."
Ben Hur. Ben Hur? Really? Who the devil would think of adapting Ben Hur for the stage? Well, actor-playwright Patrick Barlow, well-known for his adaptation of Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’, has certainly pulled out every stop imaginable to create a totally hilarious and epic ‘goes wrong’ script and, in return, the Stoke Rep Players have embraced the play with gusto, high energy and extreme silliness akin to the Monty Python team and not far from sublime ridiculousness.
Based on the original Ben Hur novel written by General Lew Wallace, which incidentally has been made into five movies including an animated version, it is a play about a play. Under the strong direction of Laura Harvey, a group of six amateur actors undertake each and every role with countless fast-paced costume, wig and prop changes, ducking and diving into character within seconds, sometimes not having enough time (intentional!) but getting on with it regardless, all in an over-dramatic fashion.
A cinema back screen provides some projected images, motion footage, and ambient lighting, and oddly sized set pieces are pushed, pulled and wheeled on and off by the actors. The early ‘Three Kings’ scene was just about as funny as it gets, with the star of Bethlehem stuck to a ladder and the Kings, mounted on camels, galloping through the night. And the chariot race at the end of Act 2 was just genius (I admit I was wondering how they’d play it)...and the more ‘pathetic’ and needy it gets the funnier and more ridiculous it gets.
The cast play a plethora of roles. Lee Birkin as Judah Ben Hur (and others), Tom Pear as Messala (and others) and James Lawton as General Lew (et al it seems) are all equally an absolute delight to watch with their quick-change accents, delivery of sharp one-liners and cheeky innuendoes. The craft and passion they put into their parts is as energetic as it is brilliant. Same as the girls - Sophie Wood, Sarah Mould and Marie Robinson-Wood portray the girls, oh and sometimes boys (Sarah also plays a galley and Roman captain) masterfully against the boys. And, oh boy, can these girls dance. Not sure who is responsible for the design of the dances but the imagination and work that has gone into the choreography is quite excellent. Hardly a repeated move, strong, cartoonic (if there is such a word) and abundant with characterisation and happiness. The dancing was indeed a highlight for me, but with so many highlights its difficult to mention them all without spoiling the plot.
A good soundscape and effects. Lots of nicely placed silly sfx which worked well with off-timing and overly dramatic 'gasp' moments. A nice, assertive lighting design complimented everything at the right time and in the right place.
Lovers of Carry On, trad. panto, Monty Python and other such nonsense will ‘get’ this. The show is daft but as clever as it gets, and everything snaps to grid as far as things going wrong is right. Get a ticket if you can - this theatre group is certainly one to watch out for.
Runs to 20 Oct
Suitable for everyone
"...this laugh-out-loud play has stood the test of time for a reason."
Mike Leigh’s cult classic Abigail’s Party is delighting audiences at Derby Theatre this Autumn. Well cast and admirably directed by Douglas Rintoul the play, set in 70s home-made Essex, is a hilarious take on suburban, lower-middle-class attitudes, fashion and etiquette. The story features around ex-department store cosmetics girl Beverley (Melanie Gutteridge) and her hen-pecked, boorish estate agent husband, Laurence (Christopher Staines). Bev and Laurence have invited new neighbours, Angela the daft and giggly nurse (Amy Downham) and Tony the computer operator (Liam Bergin), round for drinks. They are joined by the painfully quiet and somewhat awkward neighbour, Susan (Susie Emmet), the divorcee only there to escape her teenage daughter Abigail’s house party in the adjoining semi. The gathering, fuelled with cheese and pineapple sticks, gin and tonics, Bacardi and the occasional olive, starts stiffly as the strangers introduce themselves, yet ends rather dramatically as the alcohol takes effect and Laurence objects to Bev’s shameless flirting with geeky Tony. The cracks in their marriage soon become apparent as its clear Bev and Laurence are far from happy.
Melanie Gutteridge, best known for her roles in The Bill and Not Going Out, portrays the shallow, almost cringeworthy hostess to perfection, comically patronising her neighbours and the performances and comic timing of this whole cast is superb. The set, seriously worthy of an award, is a highly detailed and fully functional lounge-diner with deliciously old-fashioned drinks bar, vinyl record player, lava lamp and more... all encased in a typical 70s design.
A very strong cast and direction ensures a first-rate production. With some marvellous outfits some of us will be taken back to that era in a jiffy and some of us may jokingly view it as a social history lesson. Nevertheless, this laugh-out-loud play has stood the test of time for a reason.
Runs to 20 October
Contains smoking on stage
Right from the moment War Horse opened in London it was lauded with critical acclaim. Now embarking on another UK tour, this month sees this iconic play stop off in the heart of Birmingham at Birmingham Hippodrome, and it is safe to say that this is a triumphant production.
The exquisite puppetry is nothing short of spine-tingling. From the beating heart of these life-like horses, to the head and hind, three master puppeteers dextrously portray each of these wondrous creatures.
The most striking thing is the set (or lack thereof). It’s not even missed. It’s not needed. Instead every single image is painted so clearly in the audience’s mind, that the ‘basics’ are more than enough. But in the hands of this supremely talented ensemble company, the limited set allows the scenes to blend seamlessly together.
Amongst the ensemble of actors, there are some stellar performances. Thomas Dennis as Albert is a sheer delight, with beautiful support from Jo Castleton as Rose, his mother, whilst Gwilym Lloyd is his rather repugnant father, Ted. Special mention to Billy Irving as the wonderfully hilarious goose and Toyin Omari-Kinch as Brummie soldier David, who both provided many of the laughs.
Bob Fox (credited as Song Man) gives a folk-inspired musical narrative to the piece, helping the story to move along. The music, along with the sound design, is simply stunning. It’s the kind of sound design that at moments makes your heart beat faster, then calms you and then haunts you.
The ability to take you through a rollercoaster of emotions is exactly what theatre is about. And from laughter to audible sniffles, it is clear that War Horse is theatre at its finest. With so many breathtaking moments, it is an aural and visual masterpiece.
Catch it at Birmingham Hippodrome until 3 November.
From the very moment that the Top Hat Orchestra struck up, under the baton of Musical Director Rob Murray, the audience were transported back to the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age! The musical accompaniment was impressive, tight and well-balanced with the singers.
Harry Simkin (Jerry Travers) shone during the long and complex dance routines he was challenged to undertake with aplomb. His energetic performance and excellent facial expressions gave a fresh feeling to this classic role. He was wonderfully paired with Fiona Winning as Dale Tremont. At such a young age, Fiona gave a real maturity to the part through both excellent vocals and a fantastic characterisation. A highlight for me was during Isn’t This A Lovely Day when the pair showed real warmth as they fell for each other, showing the vulnerability of the characters at this point. This was one of the many well-directed moments of principal work within the show which director Alf Rai should be proud of.
Excellent performances also came from Roger Stokes (Horace Hardwick) and Nikki Rai (Madge Hardwick) who both provided some well-executed comic timing and laugh-out-loud moments! John Wiley gave a wacky and wonderful performance of the eccentric butler Bates, coping well with the many accents required! A special mention must go to Dom Napier (Alberto Beddini) who gave a truly show stopping performance. A particular highlight which had the audience in stitches was during his number Latins Know How – he certainly seems to know how to get the audience going!
The ensemble, dancers and supporting principals all performed well and worked hard to keep the show moving quickly and maintain the high level of energy needed for a show like this one. I would have liked to have seen more of the chorus during the dance numbers and would have welcomed more harmonies within the bigger chorus numbers, but this is a personal opinion.
The show was fast-paced but would have benefited from some quicker blackouts at times to avoid some awkward moments when actors were frozen, awaiting the much-needed lighting change! I am sure that the pace of scene changes will increase during the run.
Dance routines were well choreographed by Maria Shee and well executed by the small team of dancers – smiles at all times in a show like this are always welcome! The set was minimal at times and sometimes lacked the lavish feel required for such a show, but it was often well-dressed by the chorus in the hotel and lido scenes.
Overall, South Staffs Musical Theatre Company has a show to be proud of and the standing ovation on the opening night was clearly well-received!
Top Hat runs at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 13th October.
“Hearty thanks for your aid and support.”
With those seven simple words one of the most remarkable publications the world has ever seen, at least in terms of the circumstances of its production, ended.
Yet despite the amazing tale behind the production of The Wipers Times, a satirical newspaper put together by a group of soldiers who chanced upon a printing press during the First World War, it isn’t exactly well-known.
The stage version by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop puts that right by bringing the amazing true story behind the newspaper of the trenches to life in this witty and poignant production.
The Wipers Times, so-called because Wipers was the name British soldiers gave to Ypres; the Belgian town well-known as the scene of some of the most gruesome battles in the war, was created by the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters who established it when they stumbled upon a printing press.
What followed was the production of a remarkable 23 editions of a wonderfully subversive, mawkish and hugely funny newspaper which became popular among troops on the frontline.
Of course, it can’t have been all fun and games and the production skilfully balances the joy and exhilaration the soldiers get from The Wipers with the horror of going over the top and losing dear friends in battle.
James Dutton and George Kemp are brilliantly cast as Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson; the creators of The Wipers Times. They make a fine duo as the very British anarchists – fiercely loyal to their cause one moment and mercilessly mocking it the next.
There’s strong support from Dan Mersh as the salt of the earth publisher of The Wipers, Sergeant Tyler, and the wonderfully majorly General Mitford. Meanwhile Sam Ducane stands out as the frightfully correct Lieutenant Colonel Howfield; the antithesis of Captain Roberts and his meddlesome counterparts.
Kevin Brewer (Henderson) and Chris Levens (Dodds) impress too as fellow members of the 24th and Clio Davies turns in some delightful guffaw-inducing cameo performances throughout.
An ingeniously built set allows the action to move at pace from the printing room to the trenches and beyond in seconds, which all keeps the story moving quite beautifully.
Extracts taken straight from The Wipers are brought to life intermittently against the lit backdrop of the stage with great hilarity and it’s quite remarkable that 100 years on the harmless, tongue-in-cheek humour needs no editing at all; in this context it’s almost as funny as it would have been back in the trenches in a war which must have seemed so futile to those on the frontline.
That futility is where the creators of The Wipers found much of their ammunition – it was humour in the face of terror, fun-poking in the face of propaganda.
And that’s where this production finds its true strength - in the incredible capacity of human beings to find humour in the very bleakest of situations. There’s something wonderfully British about the story of The Wipers and Newman and Hislop capture the very essence of the fighting spirit the men who produced it displayed.
Bravo to director Caroline Leslie and her team for taking a 100-year-old triumph and bringing its message of hope, humour and strength to the stage in this delightful production.
The Wipers Times plays at The REP until Saturday 13th October.
Birmingham School of Performing Arts opened in February of this year with the core value that “everyone is valued, and each performer has something to bring to every production.” This was their first production, and each performer was indeed given a moment to show what they had to offer.
Welcome to Theatreland was an enjoyable, if slightly uneven production. But even this uneven quality was commendable as BSPA’s Directors, Jordan and Ralph Toppin-McKenzie took the decision to devise a piece around their young performers, rather than just present a traditional show. The first half of the show was devised in workshops by the students themselves and did have a distinctly student quality to it, being a series of very short scenes (many of which worked quite well) which didn’t always flow easily into each other. The second half, a well-crafted backstage story set in the 1950s, was scripted by the directors, and here is where the real story lies. Jordan and Ralph are prepared to trust these performers to create work, and present what they create. But they are also demonstrating to their students that, if you continue to learn from us, you will hopefully improve to create something of the quality that we can write. And how great it was to see a theatre school really try something different.
The song choices were eclectic (Alicia Keys, George Benson, Sondheim and Kander and Ebb) but all the songs were chosen for the part they could tell in the story, not because they were well known crowd pleasers. And the young cast made a good attempt at the different styles, led by Nicole Spragg, who opened the show with an assured performance of Empire State of Mind, her rich soulful voice very well suited to the contemporary songs in the show. Phoebe Shepherd, on the other hand, seemed particularly at home in the more traditional musical theatre numbers; her performance of the Sondheim classic Broadway Baby was a highlight, showing great maturity in a song normally performed by much more experienced singers. Edie Davies demonstrated a big Broadway sound on several numbers, and Emilie Shephard and Jodie Ince’s performance of Stephen Schwartz’ notorious Meadowlark again showed great control and maturity. All the rest of the cast worked really hard in scenes and songs to bring this show to life, and were greeted very warmly by the audience at the end, justification for all the effort they put in.
BSPA has made a strong impression with their bold decisions and interesting performance in this first production. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for this enterprising theatre school.
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