Whether it is from his late 80's series Talking Heads, the recent film adaptation of The Lady in the Van, or his smash-hit plays The History Boys, The Madness of George III and most recently Allelujah!, most of us are all familiar with Alan Bennett's tone of voice which is full of both wit and intellect. One of his more recent plays, The Habit of Art is no different in displaying that tone, since its opening at the National Theatre in 2009 with Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings.
For the two hours, we are the fly on the wall for a rehearsal of a play called Caliban's Day - which shows a fictionalised meeting between the poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in their later years. We are immediately faced with the strikingly realistic set of a local church hall, designed by Adrian Linford. It is a spacious with tall walls, noticeboards, fire exit signs, black curtains and hanging LED lights which are switched on by the cast both at the start and end of the play (and virtually the only source of lighting in this performance). But what is fascinating is the amount and use of props around the stage, like a clutter of resources for our actors to rehearse with.
The performances from this company of seven are individually terrific and work masterfully with Bennett's writing and Phillip Franks' marvelous direction with pace, intricacy and charm in this humorous piece. Leading the cast is Olivier-winning actor Matthew Kelly as Fitz an actor who plays Auden in the piece. There is initially something a bit diva-ish about Fitz's rehearsal process, constantly asking for the next line due to his old age, but Kelly gives a delightful performance as Auden, a decrepit old man who pays for rent boys and is full of ego. Star of screen and stage David Yelland also gives a great performance as Henry, who plays Britten. He is more reserved and nervous than Kelly's Auden but is sharper and full of expertise in his craft as a composer.
As the title may suggest, the whole piece is about the practice of art and how we as human beings tend to use or create it. The supporting characters personify brilliantly the need to feel purpose with their art, or in this case acting. We tend to both laugh and sympathise with John Wark as Donald, who acts as an omnipresent narrator in the Caliban's Day, but bevomes full of frustration as merely a device, not knowing where to stand and desperation leads him to entering the second half in drag to feel needed among the company. Benjamin Chandler also provides a lot of laughs as the rent boy hired by Auden and at the end of the piece also begins to feel frustration of his purpose as an actor. Robert Mountford who plays Neil, the writer of Caliban's Day as someone who is protective of the piece he has written and having to make do with misbehaving actors and script cuts or changes beyond his control.
Alexandra Guelff and Veronica Roberts are both superb as George and Kay the stage managers ensuring the production goes ahead as planned. They also have funny scenes personifying Auden's furniture and help deliver the context of Britten's music and Auden's poetry. Roberts in particular ends the play with a moving monologue that helps us the audience understand the craft that actors and theatre makers bring to an evening like the one we are watching.
There is plenty to enjoy in this profound and multi-leveled play that is packed with many themes that will survive for as long as great theatre, such as this, will survive as well as all other forms of glorious art.
The Habit of Art runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday.
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.
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.
Many of us will already be familiar with the 1987 cult classic film version of John Updike's novel The Witches Of Eastwick. However, John Dempsey's translation of the story into a stage musical offers a new and exciting journey through the lives of the small-time inhabitants of Eastwick as their otherwise perfect lives are blighted by scandal, indecency and unintentional witchcraft. This is a story that ultimately needs commitment and Stafford & District Operatic Society deliver that commitment in absolute abundance, providing the audience with show-stopping ensemble numbers and attacking the more risqué elements with confidence.
The show is opened by a character simply called Little Girl - played entirely convincingly and charmingly by Charlotte Hernandez. She is soon joined by the rest of the ensemble cast who treat the audience to an opening number worthy of any West End show. Throughout the performance, they continue to deliver, teaming their wonderful vocal skills with expert choreography, particularly in Dirty Laundry which was a clear audience favourite.
Will Wood took on the role of Darryl Van Horne, surrounded by three leading ladies who were a pleasure to watch. Tracey Brough as Alexandra is perfectly sarcastic and treats us to beautifully jazzy and seductive vocals throughout. Jessica Smith achieves an excellent balance between stuttering shyness and sweetness as Sukie and Katie Phizacklea provides the audience with plenty to talk about as Jane, transforming from utter repression to unstoppable passion in the passage of a single song (Waiting For The Music To Begin). Her amazing operatic overtones gave the song the perfect element of manic abandonment. All three ladies blend their vocals and characters together seamlessly and their close harmonies are a joy to listen to. Make Him Mine and Another Night At Darryl's are numbers to definitely watch out for.
Special mention must also go to Hannah Morris and Sam Parton as Jennifer and Michael, portraying a very innocent picture of young, fresh-faced love. Jon Wilson delivered well as the hen-pecked yet adorable Clyde and Jane Steed's Felicia also had great potential with her prim and busybody attitude.
Stafford & District Operatic presented a stellar show with such impressive vocal talent, this is a tantalising little slice of musical theatre that should definitely not be missed.
Stafford & District Operatic Society’s The Witches of Eastwick will be at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre until 18 April. For more information and to book click here, or call the ticket hotline on 07817 215 420.
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Dogfight started its life as a 1991 Warner Bros. picture. Peter Duchan went on to write the musical adaptation with music & lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. MYK Productions are the first amateur company in the UK to have secured the rights to perform this exhilarating show and boy, have they set the bar high! The next production will be a tough act to follow.
The audience are quickly introduced to the 2 leads: Eddie Birdlace (played by Maison Kelley) and Rose Fenny (played by Cecily Redman). A charming pre-show sets the scene and acquaints patrons with the onstage 5-piece band, all incredible musicians who appear to have mastered the show's score to perfection. The young leads prove themselves phenomenal singers and convincing actors and are well supported by the ensemble. Highlights include James Mateo-Salt's portrayal of the socially angry and ignorant Boland, and Lauren Key's sassy and confident characterisation of the call girl Marcy.
Songs are well delivered, each performer appearing to have understood and embraced the pieces thanks to the Musical Direction of Jack Hopkins. Rose's song Nothing Short of Wonderful reflects her vulnerability; she is inexperienced, naive, unsophisticated and idealistic. Eddie sings with masculinity and great vibrato, and there is a natural chemistry between the unlikely sweethearts.
Scenes that pivot around the young "jar heads" feature beautiful harmonies from the "Three Bees": Birdlace, Boland, and Bernstein (played by Aidan Cutler), an audience favourite being Hey Good Lookin', a memorable tune and a great comical scene. The entire production is well punctuated with humour and occasionally ventures into political ground.
The show is expertly staged, with Direction from Adam Lacey. Though the Arena's stage is vast and deep the players maximise the use of all corners, filling the auditorium with an abundance of energy. The finale is powerfully unnerving with bright lights exposing the brutal truth and a harsh reality. Dogfight The Musical is an emotional roller-coaster and a ride not to be missed.
Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is a musical filled with complex harmonies and over 30 musical numbers and Tamworth Arts Club have taken on the challenge of this monster production.
Andrew Bird played the title role, with a strong vocal especially shown in My Friends and the pie-making Mrs Lovett was played by Ruth Harvey, who's excellent characterisation and vocals reminded me of a mash-up between Angela Lansbury and Helena Bonham-Carter. Together, Harvey and Bird worked well, with particular highlights including A Little Priest and By The Sea.
Other notable supporting performances came from Adam Gregory as Anthony, who had a beautiful voice, Claire Chandler played Johanna, Martyn Cotterill was hilarious as Pirelli and Lee Fisher delivered an assured vocal in Not While I'm Around. Jenny Barlow-Jennings was brilliant as Lucy/Beggar Woman and a special mention for James Gorton and Nik Ellis who really stood out in the ensemble.
Clever directing by Karen Wilkes ensured that all possible exits and entrances were used, keeping up the fast-paced nature of the show. All in all an enjoyable production which runs at Landau Forte Sixth Form Centre, Ashby Road, Tamworth until Saturday 11 April. Tickets for Tamworth Arts Club's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (which contains adult themes), are available by clicking here or by calling Tamworth Information Centre on 01827 709618.
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Emteaz Hussain's Blood premiered in the B2 studio space at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry this week. In a collaboration between Tamasha and Belgrade Theatre, this was a beautifully crafted show.
Set in the Midlands Pakistani community, the play looks closely at familial ties and the impact this has on a young couple who are fiercely chasing their own wants and desires. The two-hander saw Krupa Pattani playing Caneze and Adam Samuel-Bal as Sully, and their onstage chemistry brought this heartfelt story to life. You instantly connected to both of their characters and this connection was never lost. The play was sprinkled with humour and, without question, both actors captured the dark and light of the play superbly.
What at first appeared to be an interesting, yet simple set, turned out to be inspired from Sara Perks. With each scene you were transported to a new place, and through clever use of props and lighting you could instantly identify where you were.
Filled with twists and turns, it was a compelling piece of theatre and Esther Richardson's dynamic direction brought this searing play to life.
Blood runs at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 11 April and returns to the Midlands in May, when it plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 19 - 23 May.
The Theatre Royal Stratford East production of Oh What A Lovely War, by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, opened at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry last night as part of its UK tour.
This beautifully poignant musical is still as relevant as ever, illustrated last night by a talented ensemble of performers. Summarising the First World War in just over 2 and a half hours, there is an equal mix of humour and tragedy.
Ian Reddington's comedic narration eased the change of time and place, including a hilarious mix-up with a donkey photo, but the stand-out performance came from Wendi Peters who was utterly brilliant. I'll Make a Man of You and Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts were particular highlights and Peters seamlessly transitioned between a variety of characters expertly.
Other notable performances came from Mark Prendergast delivering a beautiful rendition of When This Lousy War is Over, Alice Bailey Johnson's Keep the Home Fires Burning packed an emotional punch and Lauren Hood's Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser elicited many a laugh.
With 41 songs and numerous scene changes, the direction of this play is no mean feat, but Tony award-winning director Terry Johnson has injected a new lease of life into this revival. The set design from Lez Brotherston was inspired and made for an incredibly touching Christmas Truce scene.
As the number of soldiers died, injured and missing during WW1 scrolled across the screens, the pause in performance made it all the more impactful and was a stark reminder of the horrors of war.
This really is a gem of a play. With infectious energy, fantastic ensemble numbers and stirring harmonies, it is sure to have a successful run at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, as well as the rest of the tour.
Oh What A Lovely War runs at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 4 April and returns to the Midlands in May, when it plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 5 - 9 May.
I was fortunate enough to see The Addams Family Musical last night, presented by Knowle Musical Society at Solihull Arts Complex.
Following the story of the macabre family, Gomez, Morticia, Fester, Grandma, Wednesday, Pugsley and Lurch, they are faced with the terrifying prospect of dinner with Wednesday's fiancé, Lucas, and his parents. The question is, will the evening run smoothly, will love conquer all or will Grandma pee her pants?
Knowle Musical Society are, yet again, presenting a Midlands premiere this year and it was a bold decision. The Addams family was cast faultlessly, with Jonathan Busk as Gomez and Penelope Simpkins as Morticia, heading the weirdly, wonderful family unit. Simpkins exuded a Christine Baranski-style quality and Just Around The Corner was a particular highlight.
Sophia Bailey took the part of Wednesday Addams and she was a delight. Pulled was a sure-fire favourite, as her powerful voice resonated round the auditorium and there wasn't a fault in her excellent characterisation. Wednesday's love interest, Lucas, was played brilliantly by Matt Branson and Wednesday's younger brother Pugsley was played by Sam Cox at this performance. A little star in the making. Excellent voice, excellent stage presence, bloomin' excellent!
It has to be said, the two characters that garnered some of the most hilarious reactions of the night (aside from Lurch who we'll move onto next) was Uncle Fester and Grandma, played by Dan Peet and Joan Ransom respectively. Each were hilarious, with fabulous comic timing. And without spoiling the surprise for those that haven't seen it yet, the fact that you can get a Miley Cyrus and Pussycat Dolls reference into The Addams Family is beyond genius. I was crying with laughter!
However, somehow managing to steal every scene of the show, even though he barely spoke (and when he did it was nonsense) James Gough was utterly fantastic as Lurch. There was many an audience member laughing uncontrollably!
The set design was brilliant, with a strong ensemble of ghoulish characters, and there were no stops or pauses as set was brought on or off, helping with the fluidity of the show.
Kudos to the director Richard Agg, musical director Chris Corcoran and choreographer Rachel Tuton, who together united the cast and crew in a fantastic production filled with marvellous music, song and dance, that all at KMS should be justly proud about.
KMS's production of The Addams Family runs until Saturday 14 March at Solihull Arts Complex. Click here to book tickets or call box office on 0121 704 6962.
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It's hard to write a review when you're speechless.
Wolverhampton Musical Comedy Company (MUSCOM) achieved something special tonight. They unequivocally blurred the lines between amateur and professional theatre. Taking on a musical as beastly and energetic as Legally Blonde deserves to be applauded. But to then pull it off with such style really is something to be proud of. Oh and did we mention, it's the amateur premiere?
Following the story of Elle Woods - who decides to pursue her dream man by doing everything she possibly can to get into Harvard Law School - it soon becomes clear that she has the potential to become a talented lawyer.
Undoubtedly the star of the show was Katie Astbury, who captured Elle perfectly. With some mannerisms not too dissimilar to Sheridan Smith, she could easily be placed into a professional production now and sent out on tour round the UK. Her voice was powerful, crisp and controlled, with comedy timing to match. The West End should watch out for her.
Stand-out performances also came from Harry Golightly (playing hairdresser, Paulette) who's rendition of Ireland (Reprise) was pitch-perfect and Liam Sargeant was charming as Emmett Forrest, with a lovely voice to match. Strong supporting performances came from Tye Harris as Warner Huntington III and Pascale Rollings as Vivienne Kensington.
Hilarious moments from the incredibly talented ensemble, included Emma Marsh as the overly energetic Margot, Adam Starr as Carlos, Adam Partridge as Nicos and Zachary Hollinshead as Kyle. However, we can't forget the adorable dogs, Rufus and Bruiser, who each received rapturous applause at the end!
A massive challenge of this production was the amazing set, but with the help of a brilliant stage crew team (and skilled directing), scene changes were slick and professionally executed. The entire show would have been incomplete without the excellent choreography from Denise Robinson (who is also producer and director), and the fantastic musical direction from Karl Babarczi brought the show to life.
Legally Blonde is a show to lift the spirits and MUSCOM have created an outstanding piece of theatre that could sit comfortably in the semi-professional, or even potentially, the professional theatre scene.
MUSCOM's Legally Blonde runs at Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 14 March, 2015. You can buy tickets by clicking here.
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