The only time I have been left speechless at the end of a film was when I watched 'The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas'. The horror of what had just played out, added to the fact that it was based in truth, rendered me gawping like a guppy fish at the screen.
That is exactly how I was struck after watching 'The System', written by Edward Loboda, who also starred as one of the characters, Blake.
Where to begin?
Firstly, I was amazed at how well the plot and the characters played out on the screen. This was recorded on Zoom due to Covid restrictions, and it was astonishing how powerful it was via a recording. In fact, some of the elements of live theatre which can prove cumbersome ie.slow scene changes and prop malfunctions, were not an issue, and led to a seamless, smooth performance.
Secondly, the originality of the writing made an immediate impact. It ostensibly appeared to be about an ordinary family, parents and a grown up son, chatting about the challenges of their day and how stressful and overwhelming their daily jobs are. The son has just returned from a job interview, and there is a clever exchange of dialogue about how the interview has gone etc.. All this gives it a completely contemporary feel, and brings it slap bang up to date. It will also resonate with most people, as it is about everyday life and everyday things which we all experience, and our usual responses to them.
Thirdly, the cast is incredibly small, only 6 characters, and there is an adage which says 'keep it simple'. The plot is simple but extremely effective, and the fact that there are only 6 characters makes it move effortlessly between scenes, and also introduces the audience to the storyline and the characters instantly, which just adds to the professional feel of the whole performance.
Where it truly scores, however, is in the tension -filled, jaw dropping revelation of the plot by the characters as they appear. It opens with what appears to be a mundane work based conversation between over worked Maisie, played superbly by Dawn Butler, and her slightly harassed looking husband Danny, played with distracted, 'stressed out' aplomb by Morgan Rees-Davies. Their son, Blake, played by the writer of the piece Edward Loboda, then makes an entrance, having just been for a job interview. Loboda strikes just the right balance between slightly arrogant son who's parents seem to do everything for him, and slightly vulnerable son who wishes he could be more independent.
On the heels of this exchange, we are introduced to Claire, who is Maisie's assistant. At this juncture, their work discussion just evolves around a pile of files which, at this point in the story, appears to be large in volume and which are causing some consternation as to how they will be processed. The exact nature of their work is not disclosed.
Finally, we are introduced to outgoing, outspoken seventy year old Iva, played to perfection by Ellie Darvill, and her grandson, a grandchild any grandparent would be happy to call their own, played brilliantly and sympathetically by Liam Alexandru.
Upon the revelation that Maisie and Danny work for a Government department called 'DOSE', I found myself clenching my fists, and sitting on the edge of my seat. There was something chilling about the way this was dropped into the dialogue, and it had a sombre and doom-filled edge to it, an Armageddon feel, which, as the plot is divulged, is completely borne out.
Phrases such as 'It's for the good of everyone' 'These laws have been around for centuries' and the inference that the State has a Big Brother style control to it, gives it a spine tingling parallel to a post -Covid world, and when the acronym DOSE is finally explained, the fist clenching is turned into eye widening horror.
Normally in a review, more of the plot would be revealed, but I can only say that a 'spoiler alert' is absolutely necessary here. It has to be that audiences see this without much prior knowledge of the plot line.
This piece is so beautifully and expertly crafted that it has all the tension of something like 'Time', written by Jimmy McGovern. It has an originality and modern feel to it, which is one of it's powerful hooks as a production.
The reason why some pieces make such an impact is because the scenario which they portray could be totally accurate and could actually happen in real life, and this is the key to the success of 'The System'. It is one hundred percent believable. As the viewer, you begin to think you grasp what is happening, but do not want to contemplate it. The way the plot is released is so cleverly done, as to make you convinced that you know what the outcome is going to be, but equally it is truly too awful to acknowledge, and, when your worst fears are confirmed, the real horror of what is unfolding leaves you cold.
Whilst this piece worked well online, I should imagine on stage it will have the brilliantly terrifying tension of 'The Woman In White', and it will be a crime if there is not a film made of this by 2025. You heard it here first!
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.
Nearly 80 years since it hit Broadway and 65 years since its hugely successful film adaptation scooped an Oscar, Oklahoma remains a firm favourite for amateur theatre companies everywhere.
SOSage Factory, the youth arm of Solihull on Stage (SOS), delivers this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at a level any theatre group could be proud of.
The group has a pedigree for producing quality shows and it’s impossible not to go with high expectations but this show exceeds them yet again.
Set in the early 1900s, this whimsical tale of love between a cowboy and a farm girl still has a real charm about it. It’s hard to imagine someone more suited to the role of the handsome cowboy Curly than Charlie Loughran, who is simply excellent from the moment he enters the stage singing the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Morning.
Loughran has an effortless voice with a beautiful tone and he holds the stage brilliantly. Every note is bang on and this is an extremely accomplished leading man performance.
He’s well matched by Anna Sutton as the hard-to-get farm girl Laurey, who also has a lovely tone to her voice and portrays her character’s combination of innocence and sass with real skill.
Eliza Clark does a brilliant job of ageing up as the spirited matriarch Aunt Eller and James Newman does a grand job as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, showing real maturity to land his character’s comedy.
There’s a real standout performance from Kathryn Ritchie who is superb as Ado Annie. Her stage presence, voice and acting are all exceptional and this performance wouldn’t look remotely out of place in an adult production of the show.
Dan Bradbury is strong as the simple but good-hearted Will Parker and Ross Evans makes for a menacing Jud Fry, who challenges Curly for Laurey’s affections. Loughran and Evans' voices sound delightful together in Pore Jud is Dead.
Elsewhere there’s strong support from Erin Craddock who gives a lovely performance as Gertie Cummings, with perhaps the most annoying laugh anyone has ever heard on stage. And Ruairi Silcock does well as Ado Annie’s father, who is eager to marry her off to the highest bidder.
Each and every member of the society puts their all into the numbers and the energy and enthusiasm of the chorus is once again one of the production's biggest assets. The Dream Sequence and Oklahoma are both particularly strong numbers.
Sarah Golby’s choreography is not dumbed down for the youngsters and they cope with it really well. And Mel O’Donnell’s band ably belts out the show's familiar soundtrack.
Oklahoma is seen by some as a stuffy, old-fashioned has-been of a production, but this is an iconic show which many regard as paving the way for modern musicals. And SOSage’s production shows there’s plenty of life and entertainment for audience in this old dog yet.
Well done to everyone involved in another triumph.
Lichfield Operatic Society delivered an evening of fun and humour to Lichfield Garrick Theatre. Spamalot is a musical comedy adaption of the Monty Python 1975 film the Holy Grail. Based in medieval England King Arthur goes on the hunt for the Holy Grail with his recruited knights of the round table. Along the journey they meet some killer rabbits and other eccentric characters such as the Lady of the Lake and Not Dead Fred.
King Arthur, played by Pete Beck, delivered a strong lead performance and showed great chemistry with his side kick Patsy, James Pugh. Sir Galahad, played by Adam Gregory, Sir Lancelot, played by Adam Lacey, Sir Robin, played by Patrick Jervis, and Sir Bedevere, played by Cameron Morgan, also worked well together. All cast members delivered hilarious performances and Dan Anketell had the audience in stitches with his version of French Taunter. The comedy highlights included coconuts, Not Dead Fred, and the song “I’m all alone” which showed off Pete Beck and James Pugh’s comedic abilities.
The Lady of Lake, played by Victoria Elliot, embraced the opportunity to showcase her strong vocal talents. The song “Always look on the bright side of life” had the whole of the audience singing on both occasions it was performed. There was also impressive dancing talent and agility from the cast, with all dancing well-choreographed throughout.
Uniquely during the performance the cast members came off the stage and were immersed in the audience. Lichfield Operatic Society also managed to make references to Lichfield within their performance which garnered even more laughs from the audience.
A lot of effort had clearly been put into the set and the stage was made effective use of. The props were also used to great effect and often added to the many laughs of the evening.
Spamalot provides a strong witty script, a devoted cast and many, many laughs.
Spamalot is at Lichfield Garrick until 29th February.
There is something inherently theatrical about the slapstick comedy/silent film period of over a hundred years ago. It is a time when effects and resources were limited in Hollywood causing the entertainment to come solely from the performers on screen. However Told by an Idiot return to The REP to celebrate this glorious form through the fictionalised meeting of icons of the screen; Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
Writer and director Paul Hunter has completely jam packed this (virtually) word-less play with some of the finest slapstick and physical comedy to tell this utterly bonkers story. But essentially it works almost as a dance that is so intricately choreographed design to surprise us and bring a fresh laugh with every movement thanks to Nuna Sandy (of ZooNation)'s choreography and the physical comedy from Jos Houbden.
But it also the sheer energy and boundless professionalism from the cast that keeps this piece moving from A to B. It is phenomenal how these four performers can keep this style of silent comedy and slapstick going for 90 gloriously funny minutes without it getting repetitive or nothing short of pure brilliant fun. Amalia Vitale's performance as Charlie Chaplin is one that shines just as bright as he did himself alongside Jerone Marsh-Reid equally comical and wonderful performance as Stan Laurel (among a few other characters). Vitale and Marsh-Reid have perfectly captured some of the hints and subtleties to incorporate into their performances but also present us with something fresh thats purely designed to entertain us from the get-go. Nick Haverson likewise also shines and has all eyes on him in the many supporting characters such as Fred Karno, Oliver Hardy and Charlie' dad and later the butler. But a special mention must go to Sara Alexander who spends the majority of the evening (as well as playing Charlie's mother, Hannah Chaplin in a couple of scenes) performing some of the most incredible piano music. Not only does it provide some quintessential underscore for the silent style, composed by Zoe Rahman, but it also has a lot of character adding both comic effect in places as well as tension for the more dramatic parts.
The four of them have this wonderful ability to transport us to the busy locations within the story and with no doubt makes it look like they are having so much fun on Ioana Curelea's jungle gym-like set design, which is squeaky floorboards, trapdoors, a fireman pole and plenty of suitcases and lifeboat rings to give that early 1900's nautical feel.
Whether you grew up watching these sorts of films or not, there is a lot to be marveled at in this piece that will tickle your funny bone and be impressed by the highly energetic performances by the cast. It is nothing short of pure old-fashioned entertainment that is sure to bring a smile.
As part of it’s 35th anniversary celebrations Lichfield Musical Youth Theatre are presenting a concert series in the city’s new arts venue The Hub, featuring alumni from the company, many of whom have gone on to train professionally in the performing arts and, in many cases, secure work in the business.
This concert of The Music of Stephen Sondheim is the first of these ventures, and sees LYMT’s Artistic Director and MD Oliver Rowe, himself a performing alumnus of the company, take to the stage with four former members of the Youth Theatre. The concert has been put together, as these fundraising ventures often are, with minimal rehearsal time (the guest performers are now based all over the country), and as a result there were a few moments during this first performance where people were not as assured as I’m sure they would have liked to be. But that being said, when things worked well, the audience were treated to some wonderful performances, drawn from the full range of Sondheim’s shows.
From one of his earliest works Nichole Morrin gave a powerful and assured performance of Some People (Gypsy), as well as the sardonic Could I leave you (Follies). Dan Breakwell was especially effective in the title song from Anyone Can Whistle. And his delivery of Hello Little Girl from Into The Woods, with Rebecca Newman as Little Red Riding Hood, was suitably creepy. Mr Rowe himself demonstrated a very good light tenor, especially in the less well known Finishing The Hat (Sunday in the Park with George). And it was another number from that same show, the powerful Move On, performed by Mr Breakwell and the final soloist Lizzie Wofford, which proved one of the emotional highlights of the evening.
Miss Wofford possess a powerhouse voice, but also the acting skills to match it. These were especially well displayed in the sarcastic Ladies who lunch (Company) and the tour de force The Worst Pie in London (Sweeney Todd).
It was good to hear some songs from the less familiar Sondheim scores, especially Unworthy of your love from Assassins (Mr Rowe and Miss Newman) and a couple of great songs written for the Warren Beatty film of Dick Tracy. The ladies all had a whale of a time vamping it up as Mazeppa, Electra and Tessitura, the three burlesque dancers in You Gotta Get A Gimmick (Gypsy).
The evening was supported by an excellent 7 piece band led from the piano by Ian Stephenson, arrangements by Jack Hopkins, and presented in the exquisite surroundings of The Hub at St Mary’s, a venue very well suited for this format of evening.
All in all a great way for LMYT to begin celebrating it’s 35th Anniversary.
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