Review – The Color Purple, The Musical, Menier Chocolate Factory, 3rd August 2013

The Color PurpleSaturday night saw another trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory, one of my favourite theatre venues. One thing you can say about the Menier productions, they’re never bland. Usually they come up with something really good and entertaining; occasionally they offer you a real stinker; and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to witness something mega-wonderful. The Color Purple (The Musical) is, I’m delighted to say, in the latter category. Full instant standing ovations are, I think, becoming a little more commonplace nowadays, but for the performance of The Color Purple on Saturday night it was absolutely deserved. Something I’ve rarely seen is that the emotion of the show and the quality of the performances were so strong that mini-ovations were breaking out around the audience during the second act, responding almost organically to the thrill of the show. That tells its own story.

Cynthia ErivoDo you remember the 1985 Spielberg film? I can vaguely recall it – I know I enjoyed it, and found it moving; I seem to remember Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss Duncansby as she was in those days) dabbing away at the tears in the car park afterwards. If the synopsis on wikipedia for the film is accurate, then the musical is very faithful to the original plot. Briefly, it’s the story of Celie, forced to marry a violent farmer (“Mister” is all she knows of his name) and her beloved sister Nettie, who goes to Africa with some missionaries; of Celie’s cruel home life and her will to survive, how she regains confidence and love through Shug Avery, and how the two sisters are finally reunited.

Nicola HughesIt’s based on Alice Walker’s novel, of course, and has music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who between them have inter alia written such notables as Earth Wind and Fire’s “September”, “What Have I Done To Deserve This” by the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, and Madonna’s “Into The Groove”. For this show they have created some superb songs – jazzy, lyrical and showbizzy – which are played with great funkiness by the band. The book is by Marsha Norman and is tight, clear, intelligent and packing an emotional punch. The show opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for over two years, where it was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It’s taken some time for it to reach the UK, but, boy, was it worth the wait.

Christopher ColquhounOne of the great things about the Menier is that when you descend the steps into the auditorium you never know how they are going to have re-jigged the acting space. It’s such an incredibly flexible venue; it must be a dream come true to an innovative director. For this production the seating is on three sides and the acting stage is a bare platform that juts massively into the available space and dominates the room. There’s no other scenery, and a few basic props only, which leaves it all up to your imagination to fill in the gaps. The stark bareness of the set emphasises the harshness of the day-to-day reality for the main characters, and it works beautifully.

Sophia NomveteJohn Doyle has assembled an incredible array of talent in the cast who work together as a terrific ensemble but it’s also studded with several star performances. The demanding main role of Celie is played by Cynthia Erivo, who we really enjoyed in Sister Act last year. As “Sister” Deloris she came across as a big powerful lady; in The Color Purple, it’s extraordinary how actually she is quite a diminutive presence, her stature reflecting both her youthfulness in the early part of the show and her lowly position in the pecking order of life as it proceeds. What she lacks in height she absolutely makes up for in power – in droves. She feels, and projects, all the emotions of Celie’s rollercoaster life; her face can light up with childish joy or be tortured by the agony of torment. Her rendition of “I’m Here” in the second act had the audience delirious with pleasure. It’s a superb performance and she wins all our hearts; absolutely top quality.

Abiona Omonua and Cynthia ErivoAnother star performance comes from Nicola Hughes as Shug Avery, Mister’s on-off girlfriend, who also becomes Celie’s on-off girlfriend. Full of confidence and exuding a “look-at-me” je ne sais quoi from every pore, Miss Hughes has a cracker of a voice and an innate sexiness that makes her perfect for the part. She too lives every emotion throughout the show, and I actually thought she was going to burst into tears at the finale. There’s a remarkably vivid and powerful performance by Christopher Colquhoun as Mister, creepily terrifying in his sadism with the young women, but later giving me goose bumps for his “epiphany” moment in the song “Celie’s Curse” which was just sensationally performed. His quiet, defeated and partially redeemed persona at the end of the show was a superb contrast to his prior wickedness. Stealing every scene she’s in is the wonderful Sophia Nomvete as Sofia, the gutsy girl who’s “Hell, No!” attitude usually gets her what she wants but is her downfall too. She’s extremely funny as the self-assertive Sofia when life is going well, but the scene where she has been beaten up was one of the saddest I’ve ever seen on stage; Miss Nomvete struggling to breathe whilst helpless drops of saliva involuntarily escape from her battered mouth. That’s a memory that will last a long time.

Adebayo BolajiThere’s also great support from the rest of the cast. Abiona Omonua is very convincing as Nettie, Celie’s kind-hearted and loving sister, and she and Miss Erivo have a great on-stage relationship; Adebayo Bolaji as Mister’s son Harpo has a great stage presence and brings out both the humour and decency of the role; and Lakesha Cammock makes a lively and funny Squeak, the new waitress at Harpo’s juke joint who gets delightfully jealous at any opportunity. But the entire cast is brilliant; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musical sung quite so superbly from start to finish by every single member of the company.

It’s not often you see people openly weeping in their seats; the power of the emotions that this show creates is electric. This surely must have “transfer” written all the way through it like a stick of rock. You just have to see it. It’s a no-brainer. Book now!

Review – The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre, 3rd August 2013

The Cripple of InishmaanIt’s back to the Noel Coward Theatre for the third play in the Michael Grandage season, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. We’d not seen anything by Mr McDonagh before, and I think I was expecting something rather dour and dismal, a tale of Old Aran out of J M Synge; Riders to the Sea meets Brian Friel, that kind of thing. What I wasn’t expecting was to be in convulsions of laughter before the first minute was out.

Christopher Oram’s set is suitably sparse and gives a credible impression of the cold poverty and drabness of the Isles of Aran in 1934. The grocers shop that has everything you need provided it’s peas or unpopular sweets, the shore with the fishing boat, the featureless bedrooms and the makeshift cinema with a sheet for a screen are all quietly impressive, help the story move forward and provide a sense of intimacy.

Daniel RadcliffeThese Michael Grandage productions are promoted as star vehicles – Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Sheridan Smith, Jude Law; and for this production, Daniel Radcliffe. There’s obviously a huge temptation for members of the audience to take sneaky pictures of the stars, which of course as we all know is Strictly Forbidden. To emphasise the fact, as the curtain was about to rise, two of the ushers stood at the front of the stage and held up little laminated sheets with a picture of a camera crossed out and the words “no photos”. They held them there, defiantly, in silence, for what seemed an age. In an act of civil disobedience, the lady behind me said to her companion, “go on, take a picture of them”. Spelling the message out in this rather laborious and atmosphere-killing way looked terribly out of place. Presumably it’s ok to take a picture with a phone, as mobiles weren’t crossed out on the laminate.

Ingrid Craigie & Gillian HannaOnto the production. I’m not going to outline the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s a constantly surprising and delightfully honest development of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the work of Martin McDonagh and it’s a thrill to find out that this play is so exquisitely written. It’s full of subject material that is really located where angels fear to tread but McDonagh’s lightness of touch and incredible ear for the Irish lilt of language makes humour possible in the darkest areas. It’s a gift not dissimilar to Ayckbourn’s, to make you laugh at something savage; the Aran Islands in 1934 were obviously not the most “politically correct” of places, and there is a lot of poking fun and discrimination against “Cripple Billy”. Mind you, all the characters seem to poke fun at and discriminate against everyone, so to an extent Billy is no different from anyone else.

Pat ShorttIt’s also a very exciting and entertaining story with at least two coups de theatre. Just when you think it might become mawkishly sentimental McDonagh surprises you with an amazingly powerful twist. Inishmaan is not a sentimental place. It’s home to serial bullying, disrespectful behaviour and physical violence, so it is. Life is tough, when the threat of TB or a liver eroded by drink is never far away, so it is no surprise that the glamour of Hollywood might become just too tempting a prospect.

Sarah GreeneAnd of course this production is full of great performances. We saw Daniel Radcliffe a few years ago when he was in Equus and there is no doubting his extraordinary stage presence. As Billy he gives a superb performance of a young man with cerebral palsy, but a huge determination to make the best of his life against the odds. Technically his performance is faultless – his acting of his disability is 100% convincing and you sense his understanding of his own character is immense. He’s one of those actors who’s just a joy to watch. Nevertheless, it’s also the terrific ensemble of Irish actors who make this production so successful.

Padraic DelaneyI particularly loved the performances of Ingrid Craigie as the slightly mentally fragile Kate and Gillian Hanna as the no-nonsense Eileen, Billy’s two aunts. They work together so well that you really would believe they are a pair of sisters who have lived together in the backwaters of Ireland all their lives. The lyrical nature of their speech patterns really adds to the humour when they are mocking each other, and to the pathos when they are up to their eyeballs in emotions. They’re both brilliant performances, masterclasses in running the gamut A to Z.

June WatsonThere’s also a superb performance by Pat Shortt as local gossip Johnnypateenmike, convincingly bringing out both the loveable rogue and cruel bully aspects of the character. Sarah Greene is a glamorously dangerous Helen, the prospective sexual light at the end of many a local young man’s tunnel; spitting out her insults with childish glee, she tramples over the feelings of everyone with whom she comes into contact. Even Billy hopes he might have a chance with her, despite her hoots of mocking derision.

Gary LilburnI very much liked Padraic Delaney as the seemingly laid back Babbybobby, owner of the little boateen (there seems to be an “een” on the end of half the words in this play) that can take islanders to the mainland – and beyond. And there’s a wonderful performance from June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy; a drunken old sot who ought to be at death’s door with the alcohol she’s consumed but seems to thrive on it, much to her son’s disappointment. Indeed, the whole cast is excellent.

Conor MacNeilYou come away from the play with a sense of real humanity, despite all the dreadful things that get done and said, and a real appreciation for the author’s understanding of his characters and landscape. It got a massive cheer, and not just because Daniel Radcliffe has a sizeable fan base, but because it’s a simply brilliant production. I would definitely count it the most successful of the season so far. Highly recommended.

Review – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 1st August 2013

Merry Wives of WindsorWadham College gardens on a hot summer’s evening; what could be lovelier. A picnic of crisps, salad, fruit and exquisite nutty biscuits; a bottle of Tesco’s Simply Muscadet (weird to think they only charged me £2.51 for it), and front row seats for this year’s Oxford Shakespeare Company production, those Merry Wives of Windsor. It was actually this play that got us interested in the OSC eight years ago. We knew nothing about the company and just bought tickets on spec; and were immediately hooked. It was one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen, and to this day Mrs Chrisparkle and I will hoot with laughter if we recall to mind Doctor Caius and his cuddly Fishy. You had to be there.

Sarah Goddard and Katharine Bennett-FoxMerry Wives is one of those plays that’s hardly ever studied, because Shakespeare rattled it off in a couple weeks to please the Queen who wanted to see Falstaff in love. As a result it contains little of his usual beautiful language, intense concepts and character insights; instead it’s pure sitcom. Consequently it’s one of the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to mess around, change the text and do what you want with it, and no purist is going to give a damn; and that’s one of the OSC’s strengths – they are brilliant at reinventing comedies and redefining characters in new locations and times.

David AlwynThis Merry Wives takes place at the annual Windsor fete. This must be the apocryphal fete worse than death, with squabbling families, randy publicans, wayward yoof and shameless gossip. When I tell you it has musical interludes that include the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon and Space’s Female of the Species, you’ll realise that nothing is being taken too seriously here. Basically, Sir John Falstaff gets it in his head that he would fancy a sexual dalliance with both Mistresses Ford and Page, so gets his minions to deliver identical love letters to both – schoolboy error there, I’d say – and, appalled by the prospect of a little how’s your father with that revolting gutbucket, the ladies plan their counter-attack, which includes Mistress Ford shaking up her husband a bit as well. When all the plotting is uncovered, almost everyone in the story decides to go in for the kill on Falstaff, making him feel as much of an idiot as possible, with a final humiliating revenge. Whilst all this is happening the unsuitable suitors of Mistress Anne Page take their eye off the ball and she instead gets hitched to dashing gent Fenton; and it all ends happily ever after.

IMG_3227It’s always a delight to see the imagination and commitment of the OSC’s creative team – Gemma Fairlie’s direction and the incredibly talented cast, and the extraordinary amount of effort they put in to make each production a success. This one is no different. Justice Shallow here is a Punch and Judy man, and his cousin Slender is – you guessed it – a puppet, and David Alwyn’s performance as both characters is both funny and immensely skilful. However, the first few scenes are stolen by the appearance of “Panda” – surprisingly absent from Shakespeare’s Folio – a superb example of an OSC liberty-taking that works so well. If they weren’t enough roles for Mr Alwyn he also appears as the suave-and-he-knows-it Fenton, who wouldn’t look out of place in “Made in Chelsea”. More TV references to follow.

David McKechnieMistress Ford and Mistress Page are a great double act and are portrayed here as quite unlikely pals, which adds to the fun. Sarah Goddard’s Mistress Page is a hearty green-wellie brigade member, with a headscarf that makes her look like the Queen off-duty in Balmoral and a booming stage whisper when she’s abetting Mistress Ford trick Falstaff. Katharine Bennett-Fox makes Mistress Ford a pretty posh and well-to-do young thing, who summons her staff with a bell (but so nicely and refinedly); and later becomes a seething mass of vengefulness, cloaked in Fondant Fancies. Aspects of her character reminded me strongly of Miranda Richardson as Queenie in Blackadder II. This being a typical OSC production, everyone doubles up with roles, so they also take the parts of Falstaff’s street ruffians Pistol and Nym, with graffiti on their trousers and a fine line in “innit” conversation. The contrast between the characters only serves to increase the humour.

Rob WitcombHeather Johnson is a great Mistress Quickly, very much the Everyman (Everywoman?) character, a servant to many masters and a gossiper about them all. She has a wonderful connection with the audience, and occasionally put me in mind of Matt Lucas as one of many Little Britain characters. David McKechnie is a marvellously supercilious Ford, with no time for anything but himself until his wife reigns him in; a totally incongruous American cowboy Master Brook (Ford in disguise, hope you’re keeping up), and a delightfully meddling Parson Hugh Evans. Rob Witcomb is both the Archers-theme whistling landowner Page, reminiscent of the Fast Show’s Ralph, if you remember that; and a completely hilarious fey Doctor Caius, all fluttering hands and destroyer of language. Rachel WaringIn the performance we saw, there was one superb awry moment where Doctor Caius became detached from his wig after a pratfall; Mr McKechnie re-wigged him beautifully and Mr Alwyn corpsed for the rest of the scene. Rachel Waring made a bewitching Mistress Anne Page and she and Fenton are going to have beautiful babies together. As Falstaff’s messenger Robin, she reminded me of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy servant Bob in Blackadder II. Right, no more TV references.

Jack TaylorThe only actor who doesn’t double up – and rightly so – is Jack Taylor who gives a tremendously funny and physical performance as Falstaff; lecherous and disgusting but never over the top, he has a superb stage presence and by rights really ought to be a jolly butcher in a farm shop – he has that look. Convincing throughout, and bringing joy to the stage with every appearance, I have to highlight the brief scene where he is felled by Doctor Caius and Parson Evans in slow motion; it’s physical comic genius. A very full audience absolutely loved the production and gave it huge cheers at the end. The last performance is on 16th August – you should definitely catch it if you can. A worthy addition to the OSC’s oeuvre!