Review – Parable, Joshua Rowlett, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 29th March 2023

ParableThis is how Parable is described online: “James is an average student at University number 1179. However, his world is turned upside down by a series of unexpected and increasingly outlandish events.”

Those unexpected and increasingly outlandish events stem from James waking up one morning and hearing voices. Primarily it’s the voice of his conscience – but for the purposes of Parable, it’s also the Narrator. Or Steve, for short. An unwelcome intrusion at first, James eventually starts to follow the Narrator’s bidding, including starting a friendship with a sword on his table.

Joshua RowlettJoshua Rowlett has constructed an extremely surreal one-man, but multi-voiced, play, with an internal monologue that gets more and more out of hand with the ridiculous events that the narrator and the sword create for him. Although relatively short, it’s a very ambitious piece that relies on split second timing as Mr Rowlett’s words and actions have to dovetail into the pre-recorded soundtrack that provides the other voices we hear. And on the whole it worked pretty well, with just one or two occasions where the timing didn’t quite work – but the nature of the play means we move on rapidly and any errors are quickly forgotten.

It’s very funny and provides several laugh out loud moments for the audience. Does it contribute to our understanding of the human condition and the future of society? Probably not. But it does offer twenty minutes of entertainment and comedy surprises!

Review – Blue Baby Blue, Shark Theatre Company, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 29th March 2023

Blue Baby BlueThis is how Blue Baby Blue is described online: “In their cosy one-bed flat in Essex, Lewis and Anna find their world turned upside down when they unexpectedly become a little family. Follow them as they embark on this new journey that’s full of ups and downs and the harsh reality of young parenthood.”

Vicky DunbobbinIndeed, Lewis and Anna cannot believe their luck – which includes whether it’s good luck or bad luck – when Anna gets a positive result on her pregnancy test. They’re both very young and just starting out in their careers. Lewis instantly has cold feet and suggests an abortion; Anna, on the other hand, feels adoption would be better. But as neither solution suits the other partner, they have the baby and settle down to being a household of three. But when the all-night crying sessions start, and Anna finds she cannot cope, the baby blues set in – full-scale post-natal depression which debilitates their relationship and endangers the baby. Is there any way out for the three of them?

Archy MackillopSensitively written, but never scared of addressing the true issues, this is a moving and frequently upsetting play that examines the effects of post-natal depression on both parents, and the potential harm that the baby risks. Vicky Dunbobbin and Archy Mackillop turn in two excellent performances as the unwilling young parents, beautifully interweaving their words and actions with each other, from the early, heart-warmingly funny days in the past to the bitter, angry present.

Precisely acted, and with a mature understanding of the condition beyond their years, it’s a powerful and convincing two-hander that keeps you thinking long after curtain down. Its bleak and uncomfortable ending shows that there is no easy solution to this common problem. Ms Dunbobbin and Mr Mackillop make a great team and have an excellent chemistry on stage, and can clearly turn their hands to top quality writing too. Great work!

Review – Julius Caesar, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 28th March 2023

Julius CaesarWithout making it sound like an end of the pier revue, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer season kicks off with Atri Banerjee’s production of Julius Caesar. Having started with The Tempest, it’s the second in a series of plays grouped under the theme of Power Shifts, and there’s no doubt that’s highly relevant in these tortuous political times that we’re all facing. I’ve no statistical proof of this, but I think if you got a bunch of Shakespeare devotees in a room together they’d agree that Julius Caesar is one of their favourite offerings from the Great Bard. It’s packed with exciting characters, memorable speeches, impactful incident and more deaths than you can shake a stick at. And it couldn’t be more suited to an examination of power shifting. So it’s a great shame to come away from a production regretting many of its directorial decisions and opportunities lost.

Community ChorusThe production is so heavily stylised that it alienates you from the start. Six members of the Community Chorus come on stage, and you think they’re going to sing something passionate and portentous. Instead they give us some heavy breathing like they’re expelling the bad energy at the end of a Vinyasa Yoga session. The rest of the cast come on stage and start running around; after a while they form into a pack and give what I can only describe as an homage to the Michael Jackson Thriller routine. This leads into some chanting (naturally) and Mark Antony starts to howl like a wolf. It’s at this stage that you realise this production is not for purists. The trouble is, if you’ve already lost the goodwill of the crowd by this stage – and Mrs Chrisparkle had already decided that this wasn’t going to be for her – then you’ve got a big uphill struggle trying to get it back.

ThriillerAs you might expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company, there’s an abundance of female actors taking on the traditionally male roles and, despite the odd misplacement of a pronoun here or there, it never seems forced or inappropriate; in fact, it helps gain a new insight into some of the characters. The acting is also first-rate throughout, which really gives purpose to the production. The text is spoken clearly and with conviction; in fact there’s very little that you hear* in this production that doesn’t satisfy even the most pernickety Shakespeare fan. (*One exception, that I’ll return to later.)

ClockNo, the problem with the production is with what you see. A blank stage, with a distracting back projection that does little to set the scene. A mishmash of costumes that neither inform us of the status of the characters nor the era in which the play is set. There’s the return of what I think of as the RSC Clock – a ticking countdown that creates a two-minute pause after the death of Caesar – for no discernible reason whatsoever, other than to minimise its impact – and a twenty-minute countdown during the interval. It was the RSC Clock that contributed to the mess that was their Macbeth in 2018, and whilst it’s less damaging here, it’s still a pointless complication. Nothing looks sillier than when a clock ticks down to zero and nothing happens – as at the end of the interval, when at zero hour some people were still queueing for the loo, and it was probably another two minutes of staring at a stopped clock before the play resumed.

CaesarDespite a number of deaths, there are no dead bodies – think about that – nor are there are any weapons. Killings are mimed, and there’s lots of semi-balletic prancing around which certainly takes away from death’s sting, but unfortunately looks rather ludicrous. When Brutus kills herself by running onto Lucius’s outstretched hand, it resembles the kind of game you might have enjoyed in the school playground aged seven. And there’s the blood. Being Julius Caesar, there’s an awful lot of it. “Let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood,” says Brutus, “…and waving our red weapons o’er our heads, let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!””

CassiusThere’s a clue there – red. So why is the blood in this production black? And it’s not blood-like but a thick gooey gunge that gets on everyone’s hands and clothes; and, of course, with no weapons, Caesar is basically patted to death by messy hands, making the memorable “unkindest cut of all” reference redundant. It’s as though everyone is smeared with molasses; maybe Caesar was diabetic and was killed by a high blood sugar surge.

ConspiratorsLet’s not forget the revolving cage of death. As more and more characters get despatched to heaven above, they start to populate a huge cube at the back of the stage. The more people who join them, the happier those already dead seem to be to greet old friends; and I must say, the silly childlike hello wave between Caesar and Brutus is cringeworthy. And the cage revolves; not by some magic stage technology but by two stagehands pushing it around like a broken-down car. Frankly, it’s inelegant and embarrassing.

CiceroYou may not be surprised to see that the ghetto blaster makes a reappearance, so that Brutus can relax to the tune of Caetano Veloso’s song Nine Out of Ten. I know this because the programme told me. I’d never heard the song before and I’d never heard of Veloso, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar it’s contemporary of neither Roman times nor 1599. When aspects of a production only make sense to the audience after they’ve read a programme note explaining them, there’s something not quite right with the production. It’s a little like trying to wade through T S Eliot’s Waste Land and then turning to his notes in desperation. The programme also explains the reason for the RSC Clock; personally, I think it’s pretty tenuous. Banerjee describes the collaboration between the various cast members which led to the structure of the production as being “quite magical”; whereas to us it felt like it was a production that had been put together by committee. And what I can only describe as being far too clever-clever.

BrutusSo let’s turn to those show-saving performances. Thalissa Teixeira is superb as Brutus. Noble, honourable (as Mark Antony will tell us) and with a vulnerable compassion that defines her dilemma of being an unwilling conspirator, she gets all the character’s nuances and conveys them with clarity and authority. There’s a terrific balance between her and Kelly Gough’s Cassius; Ms Gough gives us a volatile and excitable reading of the role, emphasising the character’s motivations and emotions with great clarity. And William Robinson is terrific as Mark Antony, slightly wet behind the ears, turning that “tide of man” with a brilliant performance of the Friends Romans Countrymen speech.

Decius BrutusThe other conspirators are all very well portrayed – Gina Isaac’s Decius Brutus is delightfully deceitful, Matthew Bulgo’s Casca splendidly reserved, and Katie Erich’s Caius Ligarius impressively earnest. Joshua Dunn makes a good job of Cinna the Poet’s untimely death, and there is some light comic relief from Jamal Ajala’s Lucius being made to run on and off the stage ad fatigatum – at least I think it was meant to be comic relief. Annabel Baldwin’s Soothsayer is turned out like they’d just got off the exercise bike at the gym, but nicely delivers their portentous lines with matter-of-fact clarity rather than with Up Pompeii-style wailing.

Mark AntonyNigel Barrett plays Caesar as an atypical military hero; you’d get the sense that he’d rely on his foot soldiers to win any battles, and he appears as a someone more likely to enter a dad dancing contest rather than being a feared General. It’s an interesting reading of the part – not one that I really attuned to, but you can’t win them all.

LuciusI was so looking forward to this production; but in the end I was so disappointed with it. To say this is a curate’s egg is to be kind to curates. Worth seeing for the acting, especially Ms Teixeira and Ms Gough’s verbal sparring and Mr Robinson’s oratory. As for the rest, I’ll draw a veil. Julius Caesar is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th April, and then goes on a nine date tour until June, to Canterbury, Truro, Bradford, Newcastle, Blackpool, Nottingham, Norwich, York and Salford.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Two Disappointing For More!

Review – Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Jonny Russo, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 28th March 2023

Stuck between a Rock This is how Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place is described online: “a solo comedy play exploring the theme of marital divorce from the children’s point of view. It is set as a mountaineering incident gone wrong and as Frankie awaits his fate, his thoughts cast back on the events of his life.”

Frankie is indeed “on the edge”; after an accident that separates him from the rest of his mountaineering party, he has turn to his inner resources to survive, and depending on what happens he could be facing a life or death situation. They say your memories come flooding back to you when you die – and maybe that is what is happening here. Certainly, Frankie takes us back through his school life, his inadequate and unhelpful experiences with counselling and therapy, and his imagination of what his parents’ happy wedding day would have looked like (had he been there). But, in the end, there’s only him – and will he survive?

Jonny RussoThis delightful one-man performance by Jonny Russo is a joy to watch. In complete control of the stage, he holds our attention through some laugh out loud moments and others when you can feel your breath tighten in your chest. He delivers the piece with absolute conviction, never for a second breaking out of character, allowing his (and/or Frankie’s) personality to shine through at several moments, making it even more believable. He has a sure-fire way of delivering off-the-cuff remarks to their maximum comic effect, but also a piercing gaze that lets you see straight into his soul.

If I have a criticism, which is of the play rather than the performance, I felt there were one or two of Frankie’s relived moments in the past that could have been pushed even further for even more character insight. But that is a quibble. Mr Russo is obviously going to be One To Watch. The audience all loved it.

Review – One Day Son, Full Circle Theatre, Flash Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA Acting Students, Northampton Playhouse, 28th March 2023

One Day SonIt’s a pleasure to be back watching the University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students present their Flash Fringe Festival plays! This year they are taking place at the little Playhouse Theatre on Clare Street, as well as at the Creative Hub on the Waterside Campus. If all goes well, I hope to see all ten plays that are at the Playhouse.

This is how One Day Son is described in the programme: “A naturalistic play where 2 families must battle tragedy: both the ordinary and the extraordinary. This piece presents a world identical yet very different to our own, and we learn as our characters do that not everything is at it seems.”

Dylan MorrisIt’s a suitably intriguing description for a distinctly intriguing play. Written by cast member Dylan Morris, it’s a neatly structured, thought-provoking and highly emotional piece. Teenage friends Ashley and Izzy suspect that their fathers – who work together felling trees – are not telling the entire truth about the nature of their work; but if they question them, Ashley’s father Marcus clams up and Izzy’s father Eli gets angry. Marcus’ wife Rose is expecting another baby, but their happy plans turn to a nightmare when the birth is premature. Can some kind of external pressure lead the way to a successful birth?

Stephanie Eva RadcliffeMr Morris has a great ear for domestic conversation, and how sometimes the important message within a conversation is left unsaid. I enjoyed how our understanding of the unfolding situation grew with each scene, so that what is deliberately confusing at first becomes clear as a bell at the end. The play doesn’t shy away from grappling with some very difficult subjects, and its themes of trust and betrayal, and the nature of “playing God” is very well handled.

George HastrupSimply, but well staged, the play also boasts some excellent performances; George Hastrup as Eli has terrific stage presence and performs with great assurance and authority, and I really enjoyed the emotion-packed performance of Stephanie Eva Radcliffe as Rose, sorrowfully trying to keep her family together in the face of the most unexpected adversity.

It was a shame that the camera that Marcus uses to capture his training video with Eli still has the lens cap on – that took away from what had otherwise felt like a very realistic production. Nevertheless it’s a good production of a great piece of writing, which absolutely held the audience’s attention throughout. And yes, I did shed a tiny tear at the end!

Review – Guys and Dolls, Bridge Theatre, London, 22nd March 2023

Guys and DollsFew experiences in the theatre are more thrilling than immersive, promenading staging. Ever since as an 18 year old I found myself exactly halfway between Jesus (Mark McManus) and Judas (Jack Shepherd) having a staring contest in the National Theatre’s Return of the Passion in the old Cottesloe Theatre, there’s nothing quite like that frisson when you find yourself in the thick of it, in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. In their five, brief but successful years of mounting productions at the Bridge Theatre, we have enjoyed three promenade productions, and they’ve all been superb. There’s something about that acting space that lends itself to a standing audience so well. We were part of the Roman Mob in Julius Caesar; we cavorted with fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and now we’ve lived life on the streets of New York in Guys and Dolls; each of them directed by Nicholas Hytner.

HotboxEveryone knows the plot, based on Damon Runyan’s stories The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure, so it’s redundant for me to regurgitate here; however, I will. In a nutshell, Nathan Detroit, long engaged to cabaret artiste Miss Adelaide, is trying to find a location for his floating crap game. In the same neighbourhood, Sister Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission is trying to rescue sinners into the arms of Jesus. Top gambler Sky Masterson is in town; he accepts a bet from Detroit that he can take a woman of Detroit’s choosing to Havana, Cuba, for dinner. Detroit chooses Sarah; and whilst in Havana they fall in love. But will it be a double wedding with Nathan and Adelaide too? Of course it will!

Sky and SarahThere have been many productions of this show, and I don’t think it has ever been anything other than a big success. Nicholas Hytner’s vision to create an immersive version of the show works extremely well, as we get truly close up and intimate with the cast. We have a front row view at the Hotbox club; we’re shooting crap with all the other gamblers, we’re part of the meeting at the Mission, we’re shaking our funky stuff in Havana, and we’re propping up the bar with Adelaide and Sarah. Our involvement in each and every part of the show feels like a privilege. Even so, I felt that the production involved the promenaders slightly less than either Caesar or Dream;  especially in the second act, where we basically stood our ground on the theatre floor and barely needed to move at all with the action. Not a criticism, merely an observation.

Crap Shooters BalletFew musicals have as many stunning songs as Guys and Dolls. Even the weaker songs are standards; honestly, why wouldn’t you love the simple kindness of More I Cannot Wish You? And this production brings out all the razzmatazz of the amazing score, with Tom Brady’s magnificent band working overtime with some truly lush arrangements. Everything about the show is spectacular, from the costumes to the New York neon signs, to Arlene Philips’ choreography and the incredible set that emerges up on platforms from out of the ground. You have a wonderful sense that you’re witnessing something special. And if you’re promenading, what otherwise might be just special becomes magic.

Sarah and AdelaideWe loved Marisha Wallace in last year’s Oklahoma! and knew that she would be perfect as Miss Adelaide – and she is. Her voice and presence are sensational anyway – but she has just the right level of sassy knowingness combined with a vulnerability that absolutely suits Adelaide’s resentments against Nathan’s procrastinations but also knowing she can’t do without him. She’s wonderful in all the numbers, but perhaps especially so in Take Back Your Mink (including something of a surprise for one of the audience members) and in collaboration with Celinde Schoenmaker’s Sarah in Marry the Man Today. She, too, has an extraordinarily beautiful, pure voice which lends itself well to Sarah’s starchy respectability, and is all the more delightful when that facade of respectability takes a tumble.

Sit DownDaniel Mays is an excellent Nathan Detroit, bringing out all the humour of his desperate need to placate all his gangster customers whilst furiously trying to make a profit too. Andrew Richardson is a fantastic discovery in his West End debut as Sky; another glorious voice and terrific stage presence with a lovely feel for the comedy in the role. Other standout performances include Cameron Johnson’s imperious Big Jule and Cedric Neal’s charismatic Nicely-Nicely Johnson; it’s no surprise that Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat gets the biggest and most prolonged cheer of the night.

AdelaideOne of those productions that makes you want to pinch yourself to believe it’s true. I can’t imagine we won’t return for another helping of New York thrills this summer – Guys and Dolls is playing at the Bridge until 2nd September. What are you waiting for?!


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Noises Off, Phoenix Theatre, London, 11th March 2023

Noises OffWith so many family members who – unbelievably – had still never seen Noises Off, we had a big trip up to London to catch the last night of the current run of Lindsay Posner’s new production of this classic comedy – and it was worth every penny and every minute. I’m sure you know the premise; TV star Dotty Otley has sunk her money into a touring production of Robin Housemonger’s latest sex comedy, Nothing On, opening tomorrow night at the Grand Theatre Weston-super-Mare. Unfortunately, they’re all a bit behind with their rehearsals.

Dotty, Belinda, SelsdonSo Act One of Noises Off is the dress rehearsal of Act One of Nothing On; Act Two is backstage during the midweek matinee at the Theatre Royal, Goole, a few weeks later; and Act Three is the last night of the tour at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton on Tees. Although everyone is sweetness and light at the beginning (apart from the super-stressed director), it doesn’t take long for relationships to become a little strained; and when one member of the cast gets jealous of the attention paid to others, it becomes too much to bear.

Contact lensesThere’s so much to enjoy in the show. The mistimed curtain announcements. The dilemma of too many sardines. Lost contact lenses. Sudden nosebleeds. Stuck doors. Tied laces. Concealed whisky bottles. It’s a never ending list. I’ve now seen Noises Off five times over the decades, and I challenge anyone to come up with a funnier individual Act within a play certainly over the last forty years than Act Two of Noises Off. You inevitably end up with your eyes streaming with happy tears and your voice hoarse from cackling. You also think you’ve always seen the best ever cast – until the next time you see it.

DottyThis delightful production has a cast to die for. Felicity Kendal brings all her immaculate comic timing to the role of Dotty Otley, unable to tell her newspaper from her sardines, mouthing obscenities at other cast members and truly nailing the killer lines that Michael Frayn provides her. Alexander Hanson is fantastic as director Lloyd, again with brilliant timing, wonderfully tired with not only this ghastly play but life in general. Joseph Millson gives us a superb physical comedy performance as the neurotic and furious Garry, with some amazing pratfalls and vocal athletics. Matthew Kelly is joyfully doddery as the oft-inebriated Selsdon, Jonathan Coy beautifully brings out all Freddie’s anxieties and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the role of Belinda Blair played with such inventive humour as here by Katherine Kingsley. In fact, occasionally one can feel that Act Three is a tiny bit of Belindaan anti-climax after the high octane hilarity of the middle act – but not a bit of it here, I’ve never seen Act Three played so brilliantly.

The production has already had a brief UK tour before hitting the West End, and will be returning for a new tour later this year. Considering the whole genre of the sex comedy is pretty much a thing of the past, it’s amazing how fresh and recognisable the comedy is. Should be compulsory viewing for everyone! A sheer delight from start to finish.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Henry V, Headlong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th March 2023

Henry VWasn’t it Bonnie Tyler who said, I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night; he’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight? I think it was. And if there’s one thing Britain could do with right now, it’s a national hero. Someone to lead us once more into the breach, someone to get their hands dirty in the fight scenes. Someone to stir our desires, raise our spirits, smack our heads together and put us back on the right route. We need a King Harry!

Oliver JohnstoneAnd Headlong, in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe, the Leeds Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, have done their darndest to give us one, in the form of Oliver Johnstone as the eponymous warrior King. But this King Henry is no straightforward military machine. He’s a complex soul. Quirkily opening with a scene from Act IV of Henry IV Part II, we see that he’s hungry for power, taking the crown off his father before he’s even dead; but he’s also riddled with self-doubt. In a fascinating reading of the role, every time the king makes a great decision or rallies the troops with a stirring speech, afterwards, he doubles up in internal agonies.

Oliver JohnstoneHis famous breach speech at the siege of Harfleur starts with him cowering on the floor, slowly daring to build in confidence as his words hit home. Not so much whooping up his fighting men, he’s actually using the speech to bestow strength on himself. It’s only when the French are fully defeated, and he’s taken the land he wants, that he relaxes – to an extent; his self-doubt is replaced with a short temper and an even shorter fuse. Normally, that final scene where he woos Katherine is treated as light relief and an insight into the more human aspect of Henry’s personality. Not in this production. He’s as snappy as a crocodile that’s just been given bad news.

CompanyBut what am I doing, starting at the end? Let’s go back to the beginning. Holly Race Roughan’s production has sliced away many of the unnecessary fripperies, to bring us a Henry V that’s lean, direct, clear and in your face. None of this muse of fire nonsense, that’s out; no Archbishops and bishops nattering on the sidelines. Instead, it concentrates on the action, the motives, and the arguments. A few words with his brothers and his uncle and it’s straight in with the French Ambassadors and the mocking tennis balls. To help us keep up with this extremely pacey production, the cast frequently announce the change of scene and tell us which characters they are playing. Brecht would have loved it. And it’s a simple device that works incredibly well. Traditionally Henry V has been considered the most patriotic of plays, right down to Churchill using Lord Olivier’s famous performance in the 1944 film for wartime propaganda purposes. This production excels at bringing out the question of responsibility in war, and the consequences of marching into other countries’ territory – it reveals the nationalistic pettiness that can have so much influence on people’s behaviour.

Georgia FrostYou may have gathered that if you’re a Shakespeare purist, this is probably not the production for you. I’m not sure that the immortal bard would have expected the new King to be greeted with a rousing chorus of God Save Our Gracious King, nor would Pistol have called Fluellen a Welsh C*nt. Nor is it that likely that the Dauphin and Orleans would have had such a – shall we say – close bromance. But Shakespeare’s big and strong enough to look after himself; he’s been performed for the last four hundred years, and he’ll certainly be performed for the next four hundred. So no need to get anxious on his behalf.

Oliver Johnstone and Dharmesh PatelMoi Tran’s simple set consists of two rows of chairs either side of the stage that the cast occupy whilst they’re not actually involved in a scene, in front of a big green ruffled curtain that occasionally rises to reveal a nicely antiqued mirror wall, perfect for the King’s soul-searching speeches. It’s a deliberately small and plain set; you can look around the back and the sides to see the backstage gubbins and people occasionally walking around. It adds to the sense of performance right here right now – tonight, in this very theatre, in front of this very audience, ten people have come together to tell the story of Henry V. It’s up to us to interpret what we see and let our imaginations run riot within the wooden O. It’s what the Chorus would have wanted, if his opening speech had been kept. The artificiality of the presentation is highlighted in the very final scene – again, not written by Shakespeare – which brings the story fully into 21st century Britain. It involves an official, someone trying to take British Citizenship, and a vacuum cleaner. I’ll say no more.

Oliver JohnstoneThe whole show is extremely slickly presented and performed by an excellent ensemble who dovetail beautifully into their respective roles and scenes. Oliver Johnstone is excellent as Henry, at times meek and uncertain, at others bombastic and cruel. He gives a great reading of the text – clear, emotional and nuanced; in the scene, for example, where he realises he has been betrayed by his friend Scroop, he treads the finest of lines between fury and pure sadness. He’s really going to miss his old buddy – but it won’t stop him from choking him to death.

Oliver Johnstone and Josephine CalliesHelena Lymbery is outstanding as King Henry IV, and Henry’s uncle Exeter – a true support and enforcer who will stand for no nonsense. I really enjoyed the performance by Jon Furlong as Bardolph – if there is one stand-out moment of the play it’s probably the end of Act One and the death of Bardolph; a superb piece of theatricality. Joshua Griffin is great as the belligerent Fluellen, and Eleanor Henderson is also terrific as the obnoxiously entitled Prince Louis. And Geoffrey Lumb beautifully conveys the range of emotions faced by the King of France as he at first defends his country but then realises when he has been beaten. But the whole cast do a first rate job of clearly, succinctly, and punchily bringing this 16th century play to life. The show continues in the Royal auditorium until 18th March.

Production photos by Ant Robling

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Review – Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Festival Theatre, Chichester, 25th February 2023

Pride and Prejudice Sort OfIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 19th century book in possession of a good plot must be in want of a modern update. It is also a truth universally acknowledged, that one in every two review of Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) starts with its own clever-clever adaptation of the novel’s famous opening line. Sorry about that. Nevertheless, undeterred, I continue.

MaidsIsobel McArthur has added to the gamut of modernising Austen with PAP* (*SO), her sensationally funny 21st century version of Austen’s classic tale of sisters and suitors. Born at the Tron Theatre Glasgow back in 2018, since then the show has had one UK tour that came to a halt because of Covid, a West End run at the Criterion, and is now halfway through a second UK tour. All this, and winning the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment or Comedy Play. That’s quite some achievement.

The Aust-binThe all-female cast of five play the entire Bennet family (well not quite Mr Bennet, who is built of just newspaper and armchair), all the male love interests, all the peripheral characters and all the servants, switching brilliantly between the roles with just the donning of a jacket or the swishing of a dress. In fact, it’s from the servants’ angle that the story is primarily told; that seems fair, as they point out that there wouldn’t be any courtships or shenanigans if it wasn’t for the loyal service of the maids and attendants. The households simply couldn’t operate without them.

Elizabeth and D'ArcyI have to let you into a secret, gentle reader; I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, which is an enormous oversight for someone with an English degree. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by explaining the plot to you because, well, you know it already. However, I’m happy to confirm that on Saturday night I was accompanied at the Chichester Festival Theatre by seven other people, at least four of whom knew the novel from back to front, and who were able to confirm that Isobel McArthur’s madcap imagining of the book is surprisingly faithful to the original, with perfectly adapted characterisations and reworkings.

Karaoke timeI can, however, surmise that the use of karaoke is probably a new addition. The choice of songs that the characters perform, and which dovetail beautifully into the text, is inspired to an nth degree. The songs are all well known but you would never – in a million years – align them with this tale of marriageable daughters from over two hundred years ago. I Think I Love You, You’re So Vain, Something Changed…  I couldn’t believe the cheesy appropriateness with which The Lady in Red was shoehorned in, and I promise you, you will be singing Young Hearts Run Free all the way home.

The StaircaseAna Inés Jabares-Pita has constructed a simple, versatile set for the show, dominated by an extensive staircase that leads from the ground floor (of whatever country house we’re in) to who knows where. It’s fascinating how a dramatic pose by a character languishing on the top landing can have such an impact on an audience’s collective funnybone. The plain white costumes of the maids contrast splendidly with the colourful dresses of the sisters, the extravagant outfit of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the military/fashion-conscious garb of the chaps. If there’s one thing that this show proves, it’s that you can get a lot of humour out of costumes and props; it’s obscene how funny the simple use of a portrait frame can be.

SistersThe cast are uniformly excellent. Dannie Harris is hilarious as the slightly estuary Mrs Bennet, whose language gets gradually coarser over the course of the evening, hurling herself on the sofa in a self-centred huff; she’s also brilliant as the pompous and frockcoated D’Arcy. Lucy Gray hits a genuine emotion as Elizabeth’s friend Catherine, condemned not to love her bestie but to be yoked to the appalling Collins instead. Megan Louise Wilson delights as the dashing Wickham and the horrendous Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as the thoroughly decent Jane. For our performance, the role of Elizabeth was played by Ruth Brotherton, beautifully wide-eyed but perfectly capable of standing up for herself, thank you very much. And Leah Jamieson treated us to some genuinely ecstatic physical comedy in her roles as Lydia and Mary Bennet, the revolting Mr Collins, and the kindly Mrs Gardiner. Each of them is also a terrific maid!

PictureThis show probably isn’t for everyone. If you think it might be a good way of getting young Jemima or Lavinia interested in the works of Jane Austen with just a tiny comic twist, think again – none of you might be ready for some of the language used. However, if you like unexpected twists of anarchical comedy, some of the cheekiest percussion around and can be grown up about it, this is the show for you. We all loved it. The tour continues to Cheltenham, Inverness, Cardiff, Nottingham, Eastbourne, Chester, Birmingham, Leeds, Blackpool, Bristol, Truro, Malvern, Exeter and Norwich – so you’ve got no excuse not to go!

Production photos by Mihaela Bodlovic

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Strictly Ballroom, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th February 2023

Strictly BallroomThey say good things are worth waiting for – well, Strictly Ballroom has been a very long time in the coming! Scheduled to start touring in 2020, its visit to Northampton is a mere two years delayed… that cotton-pickin’ Covid ruins everything! However, it’s finally arrived, but is in a blaze of glory? Based on the 1992 Baz Luhrmann film, which I’ve never seen, I was happy not to know anything about the show before seeing it. From what I gather, I’m not sure I’m really Baz Luhrmann’s target demographic; I started to watch his Romeo + Juliet once and couldn’t take more than ten minutes.

Scott and FranOf course the film lent its name to that great TV show that makes people stay in on a Saturday night – Strictly Come Dancing, and there’s a big overlap between the two enterprises. Not only is TV judge Craig Revel Horwood the director of the show, he’s also co-choreographer with Jason Gilkison, one of Strictly Come Dancing’s big number choreographers. The lead role of Scott Hastings is played by Kevin Clifton, one of the show’s favourite professional dancers, and the role of Fran is being played by Eastenders’ Maisie Smith, who reached the show’s 2020 Grand Final. You could say that Strictly Ballroom has Strictly Come Dancing written all the way through it like a stick of rock.

ScottHowever, that magical Strictly Zest was lacking in last night’s performance; primarily due to Kevin Clifton being replaced by his understudy, Edwin Ray. Of course, we all understand that no performer can ever be guaranteed; that’s one of the rules of theatregoing, and sometimes an understudy can throw the audience a sensational curveball with a performance that rewrites the show and their own subsequent careers. But it wouldn’t really matter how good Mr Ray was in the role, I’d say that at least 90% of the audience were there to see Kevin from Grimsby, and that initial disappointment can become a hard nut to crack.

DancingEven more important then, that the show should captivate you from the kick-off. Instead we got a rather cringe-inducing vocal welcome from Craig Revel Horwood indulging in an almost parody Australian accent which went on for too long and made my toes curl. This lead into a directorially confusing opening scene with ballroom dancers all vying with each other for prominence in a competition – but I found it very hard to hear their arguments and resentments over the top of the music, quickly realising I was missing out on important characterisation-establishment, which was frustrating. Nor could I understand why it appeared to be Donald Trump who was chair of the judges – as the show progressed I realised that it was just a coincidence that the nasty head of the Dancing Federation, Barry Fife looks like Trump. Or maybe it isn’t a coincidence?

DancersThis is a proficient production rather than an outstanding one, but the downsides do considerable harm to the upsides. The band, under the direction of Dustin Conrad, are great; they probably got the best reception of the night when they joined the rest of the cast at curtain call. The costumes work well; the set itself verges on the tawdry, although I admit that might be a deliberate ploy to portray the rather desperate and down-at-heel environment in which the story takes place. I believe the show is pretty faithful to the original film, so I’m doing my best to forgive the horrendous Aussie/smug dancer stereotypes; but I was surprised how generally unlikeable nearly every character in the show is, even those who you would classify on the side of being the good guys. The book is unimaginative and occasionally lame. There’s one scene where the male dancers are all dressed in their underpants for no reason other than a cheap laugh. And the staging seems cramped, even on a huge space like the Derngate stage.

CompetitionI found myself out of kilter with what appears to be at least one of the messages of the show, namely that in order to succeed, you have to disregard your own personal dreams and obey your parents and authoritarian figures. Our hero Scott Hastings has been learning Ballroom and Latin since he was six, but is now bored of the prescribed steps and moves that are intrinsic to all the dances. He wants to go off-piste dance-wise, and throw in some flourishes and extra pizzazz moves that are not Strictly Ballroom; but that’s his dream and he gets angry when he is thwarted. Everyone tells him that he’s throwing away his talent, and he’ll never win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix that way. Now, to be fair, the world of Professional Competitive Dancing is strewn with rules and regulations, and the scope for going off-piste is fairly limited; so maybe Scott’s plight isn’t that surprising. But it did strike me as delivering a negative message. Those dreams of yours, that creative spark inside you, that thing that makes you special – well, you’d better shelve them if you want to get on.

FranI also found it hard to accept that young Fran, the infatuated beginner-level dancer who makes all sorts of mistakes when she’s first trying to dance with Scott, comes from a family who are so expert in the Paso Doble, and with whom she holds her own in the big dance scene at the end of the first Act. Yes, it’s musical theatre, and you always have to suspend your disbelief to a certain extent, but when Maisie Smith was clapping and stomping along with all the other Paso experts, I could no longer believe that she was still at her Ugly Duckling stage and wasn’t already the Beautiful Swan. Why would you pass up the opportunity to dance with her but pair with Tina Sparkle (no relation) instead?

PasoHowever, I can’t just dismiss that Paso scene. It was by far the highlight of the show and is a stunning sequence, with amazing choreography and music, largely due to the sensational contribution by Jose Agudo as Rico. There were times when it had an almost Riverdance effect, overwhelming you with the movement, the music, the atmosphere. It’s the only time the show soars. To be fair, the choreography and performance that accompanies the curtain call is also tremendous; rousing and exciting but never quite lifting many of the audience out of their seats.

Scott and FranCraig Revel Horwood has a fondness for cramming the stage with too much going on, which often gets in the way of the storytelling. I remember his direction of Chess in 2011 which was frankly poor. It’s not as bad here, but there was one scene that had my head in my hands with fury and frustration at the ill-judged staging. The final scene shows Scott and Fran at the Pan-Pacific Championships. Will they win? Or will it go to the alcoholic Ken and his partner Liz? What will Fife’s decision be? Nail-biting moment. Well, we heard it; but couldn’t see it, because one of the other dancing couples stood right at the front of the stage, blocking our view of the three most important people in the scene. I have no idea what their facial expressions were, or how they reacted to his judgment. Not. A. Clue. I think you would only see that important scene if you were sitting dead centre in the middle of the audience. Talk about an anti-climax.

More DancersThere were some entertaining moments. I enjoyed the sequence that had Fife, Doug and Les all showing us their ballroom moves at the top of their career (despite the awful stereotyping). Maisie Smith is a charming, self-effacing Fran, and you do feel a sympathy for her when she’s side-lined in favour of her more established rival. Edwin Ray has a great singing voice, which perhaps showed how Ms Smith’s is a little underdeveloped; it also took me a long time to realise that when she was singing Beautiful Surprise, it wasn’t (as my ears heard) Pitiful Surprise.

If you’re an aficionado of the film, then I’m sure there will be a lot here that will entertain you; for me, a lot of it just fell flat. You can’t like everything; and I’m not the demographic. Loved the Paso Doble though. Give that man a pay rise. The tour is currently running through till July, but with more dates expected soon.

Production photos by Ellie Kurtz.

3-starsThree-sy Does It!