Walsall Operatic Society
A production of professional standard that would not be out of place on any West End stage
Stephen Sondheim’s Tony and Olivier award winning musical thriller is set in 19th century London and comes to life in Wolverhampton this week.
Former barber, Benjamin Barker, has returned to his apartment above a pie shop in Fleet Street with his new identity of Sweeney Todd, having previously been banished from England by crooked Judge Turpin and his servant Beadle Bamford. The Judge’s intention had been to pursue Todd’s wife, Lucy, who later poisoned herself leaving their young daughter, Johanna, in his care .
Todd (Richard Poynton) meets the lively Mrs Nellie Lovett (Steph Coleman), the proprietor of a pie shop in Fleet Street. Mrs Lovett laments about the scarcity of meat, describing her crusty offerings as the worst pies in London. She soon discovers Todd’s true identity and, enamoured, confides in him, revealing the fate of his wife and daughter. Todd swears revenge and Lovett presents him with his old collection of glisteningly sharp, silver razors. Todd is persuaded to take up his old profession only this time with the intention of cutting more than beards. Lovett and Todd embark on a new business venture - the killing of all future customers, which in turn conveniently boosts meat pie sales as Mrs Lovett takes to the kitchen with her tasty, new pie filling as Todd plans a way to finish the Judge and rescue his daughter.
For a so-called amateur production this really is a triumph. Directed by Tim Jones it is a production of professional standard that would not be out of place on any West End stage. With a smoggy and powerful two-tiered set, beautifully sung and richly costumed throughout, it is an absolute joy to witness. Every minute of direction and choreography is carefully considered to ensure that quality of both performance and showmanship remains at the top of its peak throughout. Sondheim’s musicals are wordy, complex, and fulfilling, to be tackled by only the most competent of companies and Walsall Operatic have produced the goods to perfection. Well played and musically directed, with seamless scene changes, the shortest of humanly-possible blackouts (given the array of set pieces), the show is set to a pace that ensures surprise after surprise and delight after delight.
Richard Poynton as Sweeney Todd commands and appropriately darkens the stage with his creepy and powerful psychopathic personality and singing. In contrast, Steph Coleman, as the perfectly bubbly and wicked Mrs Lovett, livens the stage with her music hall style portrayal and exceptional vocal. Craig Smith as Adolfo Pirelli, brilliantly plays the persona of the flashy Italian barber with just the right amount of flamboyance and later turn of character. Meg Hardy as Johanna and Chris Room as Anthony pour out their hearts with passion and fear, treating us to some excellent singing, and Neo Hughes lights up the stage with his portrayal of young simpleton Tobias Ragg, playing the character with conviction and humour, warming the audience with his initial vulnerability then suspicion as the story unfolds. Katy Ball plays the Beggar Woman brilliantly, with exuberant expression and madness, and the arrogant Judge Turpin, played perfectly horribly by Simon Docherty is the man we love to hate, who we long to see in the meat grinder as we bizarrely take sides with Sweeney. Judge Turpin’s loathsome side-kick Beadle Bamford, played assuredly by Nick Hardy, happily accepts the offer of a free shave, only to have his screams joyfully accompanied by Mrs Lovett on her harmonium, all resulting in a seemingly effortless, wonderfully crazy, musical production in a magnificent theatre, supported by a strong ensemble and a competent technical team.
As stated by Richard Poynton, this is indeed a "razor sharp production". Suitable for everyone and well worth a ticket. Runs to 17 March.
“To die would be an awfully big adventure”.
Strange to be quoting Peter Pan at the start of a review of another play about a soldier in World War 1. But in Paul Nolan’s very personal, meticulously researched, portrayal of his own great-uncle’s desire to sign up, serve and “do his duty”, James O’Neil actually utters this line out loud. And in the context of seeing an energetic, vital young man take on this responsibility, the quotation makes perfect, grotesque, sense.
In Rory Nolan’s vibrant and visceral performance he perfectly encapsulates the boy in the young man at the start of the story, growing into the soldier, but never the hero. This war is real, and both writer and actor demonstrate, through word and gesture alone, both the camaraderie, but also the horror and, maybe most surprisingly, the boredom of war.
Corinne Emerson, as older sister Ivy, shows us family life in Coventry before 1914, and we get snippets of life back home while the boys were away. This was a real family, emphasized by projected pictures of the O’Neil family.
There are no special effects here. No charges across no-man’s land, no dismembered bodies to jar our view. Nolan and his two actors let the words tell this very personal story. Personal to them, as Coventry people, telling a local story. But that makes it all the more universal for all of us.
And, no, this is certainly not just “another play about World War 1”. It’s far more intimate, and the lack of spectacle forces you to concentrate on the individual story being told.
The Window will return to The Albany in November to mark the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day. It will be a fitting tribute to both one man, and all the young men who did their duty.
The Window runs at The Albany Theatre until Saturday 17th March.
2018 marks the 250th anniversary since the creation of the circus. And what better way to celebrate this form of entertainment than seeing it bought into the 21st century?
Combining traditional circus elements with contemporary theatre, Cirque Beserk! is a joyous, upbeat spectacle that should be witnessed by everybody of all ages. The whole evening is eye-popping, jaw-dropping, filled with acrobatics, stunts, danger and thrills, but above all fun. Yes, we may have seen a lot of it all before on the global Got Talent shows, but nothing compares to being in the same room as the action, knowing there is a risk of it going wrong. While I could not keep my eyes off what I was watching, my heart stopped at various moments in anticipation – heaven knows what I would have been like sitting on the front row.
These international performers are terrific at what they do in their acts. The Timbuktu Tumblers wow us with their incredible street acrobatics and limbo with fire. The bushy-haired Bolas Argentinas throws and spins his weights around creating highly-skilled rhythms as they hit the floor, accompanied by Gabriel and Germaine Delbosq who also join in and play the drums. Germaine also amazes us with her brilliant juggling skills using her feet and flames. But another sensational act is the Tropicana Troupe who, with the giant seesaw, have us on the edge of our seats as they backflip and somersault at incredible heights. Speaking of heights, the aerial acrobatics of Jackie and Laci Fossett have the audience gasping in astonishment, with the knowledge that there is no safety net underneath. Also the knife-throwing of Toni and his assistant is something that doesn’t fail to impress us.
However, The Moustache Brothers are the ones who carry the show, combining acrobatics with physical comedy, like watching an incredibly energetic silent film. They are hilarious and likable, providing a delightful, intimate contrast from the other larger acts.
The epic finale is the one we’ve all been waiting for; The Motorcycle Globe of Death. At this point we know the risk of danger has increased when it needs stagehands with fire extinguishers on stand-by. But it does not disappoint. And just when we are impressed by the Globe, it one-ups itself bit by bit and the cyclists absolutely deserve the cheer that they get by the end, in what is a death-defying stunt.
Running at only 1 hour and 45 minutes, it is a short and sweet show, but the fun never stops or drags out. I’ve never had an evening in the theatre quite like this before. This is simply entertainment at its best and this is what we need for pure escapism right now.
Cirque Beserk! runs at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham until 18th March.
Written by Anthony Horowitz, Mindgame is a psychological thriller that certainly lives up to its name.
Mark Styler is a novelist, writing true crime stories, who wants an interview with a serial killer as research for his new novel. He is granted access to Fairfields asylum where he meets Dr Farquhar before his interview with the infamous Easterman. As the meeting progresses Styler starts to wonder what is actually going on.
The small cast of three keep the audience intrigued as the story develops. Andrew Ryan (Mark Styler) and Michael Sherwin (Dr Farquhar) both give strong commanding performances throughout, displaying a range of facets to their characters. Nurse Paisley (Sarah Wynne Kordas) is the third character, also with hidden depths. With some difficult moments to portray, Kordas more than holds her own against the rest of the cast as her character too expands.
There are subtle changes to the set during the play that add to the air of confusion, this is also aided by the strange music that eerily plays and cuts out for no reason.
Mindgame will leave you questioning all you have seen during the play, it’s the kind of thing you want to see twice to pick up all of the nuances that you will inevitably miss the first time. All of this combines to make a truly gripping evening.
Mindgame runs until Saturday 17th March.
Within the wonderfully intimate confines of the Old Joint Stock Theatre, this week they have joined forces with Illuminate to present a re-staging of City Love, which played at the Fringe last year.
Set in traverse, the simple yet effective staging immersed the audience from the get-go with a reimagining of the London tube network forming the backdrop. The intertwining tube map serves as a metaphor for the relationship we see unfolding on stage, the twists, the turns and the inevitable collision of these two characters.
Elizabeth Lloyd-Raynes fizzes as Lucy. She’s the one embracing her independence, she lives on her own just about making ends meet and makes sure she pops to buy her Fairtrade coffee before work to show her colleagues she cares about the environment. Meanwhile we have Sam Blake, who delivered a fine performance as Jim. He’s the guy living in the basement of his sister’s place, he does his job, pays the bills and gets by. Nothing particularly special. Yet these two, rather different characters on the surface share many of the same hopes and fears, and their love story is a delightful whirlwind.
The beauty of this show lies in its simplicity, it isn’t necessarily a ground-breaking storyline, but it has real heart. Running at just 60 minutes, you are taken on a journey through the lives of Lucy and Jim, who first meet on the Number 12 night bus, following a series of awkward glances. The audience at times become the fellow bus passengers and at other points they are the best friend Kim, Lucy’s Mother or Lucy’s Father. It’s clever and utterly compelling. You are sucked into their story as you see them fall in love and then watch as their lives begin to crumble.
There are moments when the plot feels a little overpacked, especially as the storyline spirals near the end. Nevertheless, the performances delivered in this two-hander are convincingly beautiful and an even greater achievement is that in this mere 60 minutes you become emotionally invested in their relationship. From humour to tragedy, so much joy and hurt was captured in the short space of time.
Littered with many a laugh throughout, both actors really did shine and the direction from Karl Steele meant that this raw and touching piece of theatre glowed in the Old Joint Stock Theatre’s space.
City Love plays at the Old Joint Stock Theatre until Saturday 17th March.
Writer: Simon Vinnicombe
Carousel remains a timeless classic with a strong message of hope that still resonates in today’s world. No matter how dark or difficult life can be, there is always hope for a brighter future. Astwood Bank Operatic Society certainly brought that message loud and clear to a very appreciative first night audience!
David Steele (Billy Bigelow) led the cast with presence and charisma as the rough-talking Carousel barker. His voice was extremely well-suited to the lyrical songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Indeed, his performance of Soliloquy was a real highlight of the show. Performing alongside him was the equally talented Sophie Grogan (Julie Jordan) who put all she had into the role and gave an extremely emotional performance. She was able to show the turbulent journey of the character throughout the show and many a tear was shed when she began to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone and broke down on her cousin Nettie’s shoulders.
Great laughs were provided by Jo Hargreaves as Carrie Pipperidge. Her excellent comic timing gave us much-needed lighter moments in this dark storyline and she certainly delivered! A special mention must go to Michael Treagust (Enoch Snow). I learnt from the programme that this was his first ever part in a musical – I can assure you we would never have known! His assured performance gave us laughs and his confident singing voice suited Mr Snow’s character well. Will James was perfect as the mean and moody Jigger Craigin but also showed a lighter side, bringing out some more excellent comic moments.
I would have liked to have seen more of the story told through the extended sections such as the Prologue and the Ballet as I felt some of the meaning of these pieces was lost. I am also unsure as to the success of moving the action of Carousel to the 1950s as the final, emotional scene being played in a school gym lost some of the timeless magic. However, the projections were an excellent idea and Carole Massey’s production was full of both fun, laughter and pathos.
A wonderful orchestra accompanied the performance, under the baton of Musical Director Austin Poll. There was not one issue of the balance between voice and orchestra all night!
A large chorus (although there never seem to be enough men!) were well-drilled and added some great harmony singing to the larger numbers. However, a special mention must go to the small group of ladies, including Melanie Hart (Nettie Fowler) who performed the backing harmonies to What’s the Use of Wondering – a really poignant moment.
If the audience’s reaction was anything to go by, Astwood Bank Operatic Society should be proud of their achievement.
Carousel runs at the Palace Theatre, Redditch until Saturday 17th March.
More than a decade since the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's hugely successful book received critical acclaim, Giles Croft helps The Kite Runner soar to new heights in an immersive, bold and deeply moving production.
The Kite Runner tells the story of two Afghanistani boys, Amir and Hassan, who grow up together in Kabul against a backdrop of political turbulence and religious division.
Amir's father is one of Kabul's most successful businessmen and employs Hassan and his father, Ali, on his magnificent estate. Despite their contrasting stations and their ethnic and religious differences the boys are friends who take part in kite fighting together. But an encounter with an older boy which ends brutally for Hassan leaves Amir wracked with guilt for doing nothing to stop the attack and he becomes resentful of Hassan's unflinching loyalty.
The boys are forced apart and Amir and his father flee Afghanistan as the Taliban seizes control of the country, leaving them to rebuild their lives as refugees in America. But Amir is unable to forget his betrayal of Hassan and when he hears from a friend of his father's years later, he learns a shocking truth and sets about seizing his last chance at redemption.
This immersive production tells the story from Amir's point of view and Raj Ghatak delivers a simply astonishing peformance in what must be one of the most exacting roles in theatre. His transitions from present day narrator to the character in his own story are seamless. It's nothing short of an acting tour de force and Ghatak is able to envelope you completely in his character's world. The grief, the sadness, the guilt, the joy; you're with him every step of the way. It's all so very real and beautifully portrayed.
The set is genius in its simplicity with a curved stage and revolving backdrop helping the action to move swiftly and convincingly. There are some really clever pieces of choreography and when it's time for the story to move along Amir simply breaks out of the scene and into present day narration with remarkable clarity.
Jo Ben Ayed plays Hassan with intense vulnerability and portrays his character's loyalty to Amir quite beautifully. He and Ghatak are thoroughly believable as two boys whose friendship is doomed by the prejudice around them and the production handles the disintegration of that friendship following Hassan's attack brilliantly.
Soroosh Lavasani is chilling as the snarling villain of the piece, Assef, and Gary Pillai turns in a powerful performance as Amir's outwardly brash but secretly tormented father.
Elsewhere Karl Seth adds an important air of authority and meaning to the tale as Amir's father's long-time business partner and friend Rahim Khan.
This is a production with real heart which brings new depth to a heart-rending tale.
The Kite Runner plays at The REP until 24 March.
Inspired by the role of electricity in the body, Motionhouse’s Charge is an exhilarating evening of dance circus by a company of brave, daring and incredibly skilled performers.
In the third production in a triptych of work from Motionhouse Artistic Director Kevin Finnan, the performers and creative team have worked with Professor Frances Ashcroft of the University of Oxford, studying in detail the science behind electronic charges in the body.
The production explores humans as electrical machines, the energy signals in our nerve fibres that control thoughts and actions, such as the beating of our hearts, our senses, impulses and emotions.
At the start, the lights go up on a performer, swinging upside down above another, still on the floor. The soundscape crackles in – fizzing and buzzing in sharp reminders of its electrical heart. As the performance gets going, the lighting flashes and sparks.
The audience is immersed in a journey of electricity through the human life – from thought, conception, birth and first exploration of the world, to the energy between bodies.
There are moments when the whole audience holds their breath, as the performers perfectly manoeuvre, pulsate, twist around the set, leap fearlessly and drop from huge heights.
The tiniest of electrical signals form the most poignant and touching moments, such as the six dancers coming together within the projection of a human heart beating.
The projection is brilliantly integrated within a flexible and dynamic set, which is at once a huge canvas and a tool that the performers dive into, twist around and hang off. Film footage works with the set to create a clever illusion, hiding or opening up spaces to explore the different possibilities for interaction between film and live performance.
Circus elements, including some athletic aerial and soaring silk work, are intricately choreographed to fit beautifully with the dance to form a thrilling, breath-taking and heart-stopping performance.
Before the show was a five minute curtain raiser, inspired by the main piece, from promising performers aged 16-19 from five colleges across the West Midlands.
On tour until 28 June.
The laughing-stock of Castleford’s Amateur Rugby League Seven-a-Side are The Wheatsheaf Arms, a team of four yet to win a game, it must be down to the team overcompensating for their lack of 3 more players by going to the pub. It is up to coach Arthur to get this team in the best shape to take on the league champions Cobbler’s Arms, within 5 weeks…
The co-production between The New Wolsey Theatre and fingersmiths’ brings a unique performance of John Godber’s award-winning comedy with a cast of Deaf and hearing actors. With a combination of spoken word and British Sign Language, this staging uses the miscommunications between the two as a form of comedy, and does not shy away from poking some fun at the struggles of being deaf, in particular with one character exclaiming how it is better for girls to text than call.
With enthusiasm bursting off the stage, it is clear the cast are having a ball and whilst the energy from the cast is commendable, at times the show did feel too long. The second half being the stronger of the two as we reach the climax of the daunting match between two very different rugby teams, which is executed brilliantly and is a fitting end to the production.
The most enjoyable and humorous moments come with scenes focussed on movement. The rugby match mentioned being an example of this, alongside a dream monologue being a perfect sequence of the bizarre world of dreaming when trying to sleep on a bag of nerves. A highlight from the first half comes in the form of a Take Me Out style introduction to the four main rugby players, giving each actor a chance to shine.
This inventive, comedic piece of theatre is a good example where two forms of communication share the stage to tell the Rocky-inspired story of the underdog.
Up ‘N’ Under plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until March 14th.
Director: Jeni Draper
Cast: Tanya Vital, Adam Bassett, Willie Elliot, Stephen Collins, Wayne Norman, Nadeem Islam, Matty Gurney
Having never been to the Sutton Arts Theatre I had quite the surprise happening upon the small, unassuming venue in the middle of a Cul-De-Sac, only minutes away from Sutton Coldfield Town Centre. For what this little venue lacks in space, it makes up for in character. It is by far one of the most interesting auditoriums I have ever visited. It is cosy and intimate, with a glowing warmth, reminiscent of that old-time, war-time morale. Very fitting, considering the play I was about to see.
Upon entering the auditorium, I was greeted by a dense fog. Atmosphere oozed out of the doors, the red velvet seating welcoming, the dimly lit landscape of an open trench inviting – as the giant does with an open mouth, salivating to swallow you whole.
The play follows several characters episodically throughout the first World War – we see the crushing realities of this period of human history laid bare and how unnecessary this conflict was.
The Sutton Arts production of Birdsong had so many elements that were beyond excellent – The staging, scenery, props, costume and lighting were immaculately detailed. The entire aesthetic of the play was put together with such finesse: the fleeting use of deep blue undercut by the stark amber glow of cigarettes, the claustrophobic representation of the poorly lit, suffocating tunnels, the bright summer days of France. This aesthetic and the intricately created set, helped shaped this performance and the constantly changing location, time and space.
This perfect rendition of a trench during War Time was filled with a highly-skilled cast of dedicated actors – above and beyond any expectations of an amateur stage. The soldiers handled their duty with humility and skill, breathing life into the memories of those long forgotten Tommys. The central characters of Jack Firebrace (Dexter Whitehead) and Stephen Wraysford (Robbie Newton) led us by the hand, showing an honest vulnerability in a structure of 3 parts flashback and 2 parts letters from home – they played their parts with gentility and commitment. Special mention must be made to Tipper, a 15-year-old sign up who was handled excellently by Giles Whorton, portraying arguably the most tragic character in the play.
The quality of the performance presented by Sutton Arts is still in no small way a triumph of amateur theatre making, they have created a play that could easily be housed in a professional setting and are clearly masters of their craft.
Ultimately, I feel that the core message behind this show can be summarised by a line spoken by Wraysford right at the end, that “Future generations will never understand what it was like” – and he was right. I don’t. And as I saw the faces of the actors, smiling as they took their final bow, I was left with the lasting thought that I truly doubt that they did either.
This remarkable play runs until the 17th March at the Sutton Arts Theatre.
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