Review – Henry VI Rebellion/Wars of the Roses, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th May 2022

Rebellion and Wars of the RosesLate to the party for these two History plays which opened in April whilst we were gallivanting on holiday around Scotland, but very happy to have caught up with them now. You might not recall Shakespeare writing plays called Rebellion or Wars of the Roses; that’s because they are, in fact, distillations from the great man’s Henry VI Parts Two and Three, which I was fascinated to discover were written before Henry VI Part One according to the programme, so presumably Part One is an early example of a prequel.

The Cast of RebellionPicture the scene: Young and easily manipulated, Henry VI has married Margaret of Anjou. At the wedding breakfast, he’s chuffed that he’s got the girl; she’s even more chuffed that she’s got the country. But when Uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, reads the marriage treaty, he falters and can’t believe what he’s reading. It’s like the Northern Ireland Protocol but even harder to swallow. The concessions the King has made are worse than expected but Henry defends them as robust and oven-ready. Hang on, am I confusing this with News at Ten?

Arthur HughesAs a result all sorts of machinations get underway to make a play for kingship. Enemies are got out of the way (normally fatally), the crown gets passed from pillar to post; there’s even an uprising from the masses under Jack Cade. The Duke of York is the chief pretender; his three sons support his claim, although not consistently, and, by the end of the second play, (spoiler alert) young Richard Plantagenet, who would become king twelve years later, confronts the weak and mentally disturbed King Henry, and despatches him with a very vindictive knifing. Looking ahead, the RSC’s next production will be Richard III, with a continuation of the same actors in the roles that appear in both plays; I’m loving the continuity.

Oliver Alvin-Wilson and castBut that’s a matter for later in the summer. Owen Horsley’s magnificent double-production is slick, smart, haunting, and riveting. The biggest design idea, for want of a better word, is to have a roaming camera that creates a huge projection on the backdrop that closes in on the faces of the protagonists at telling moments. It’s a risky practice, but it works brilliantly, especially if you are seated in the front section of the audience, so you see it head on, as we did for Rebellion. Seated on the side, as we were for Wars of the Roses, the projection is a little harder to make out, and the camera operators on stage are a little more noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s a master stroke. It works particularly well when the camera is on the actors off-stage, such as when it follows Cade and his entourage encircling the building – very conspiratorial and alarming!

Al MaxwellAll the usual aspects of the production are done superbly, as you would expect with the RSC. Hannah Clark’s costumes, Simon Spencer’s lighting, Steven Atkinson’s warlike sound effects (I bet they make you jump) are all first rate. Sometimes I find the live music in such productions a little intrusive, but in this case it’s just perfect, performed live by six great musicians to Paul Englishby’s compositions. And – something you can’t always say with modern day Shakespeare – it’s strangely comforting to see a production that hasn’t been reset in a different time or location from what Will originally planned.

Mark QuartleyThe cast are superb throughout. Central to the whole six hours is Mark Quartley as Henry, portrayed as a man who’s never at ease. A man who never wanted to be king, but longed to be a subject, this Henry is slow to react to victory, cautious in the face of adversity, prone to depression and looks to his Bible for support. Minnie Gale’s brilliant Margaret is a perfect opposite to him; demonstrative, sarcastic, not remotely reticent about showing her sexual preference for the Duke of Suffolk, to the extent that she cradles the latter’s disembodied head after it has been sliced off by a very upbeat band of pirates. Henry’s passive acceptance that his Queen is mourning the death of Suffolk more than might seem appropriate works well as a sign that he’s got bigger things to worry about. It’s worth noting that you’ll never see a larger collection of disembodied heads on stage than you do with these two plays. Kudos to the props department for making them look so like the equivalent actors. It made me wonder if they have a whole second selection of heads for when understudies are performing.

Richard Cant and Lucy BenjaminThe vast supporting cast is full of excellent performances too. It’s great to see Paola Dionisotti with the RSC again and her performance as Winchester in Rebellion is a pure joy, as she carefully enunciates every word he says to the fullest richness of expression; not a syllable is wasted. Oliver Alvin-Wilson is an imposing York, Ben Hall a sneaky Suffolk, Nicholas Karimi a forceful Warwick, and Minnie GaleArthur Hughes a manipulative and snide Richard. There’s brilliant support (amongst others) from Richard Cant, Lucy Benjamin, Daniel Ward and Peter Moreton. Among the minor roles, Aaron Sidwell stands out as a charismatically terrifying Jack Cade, an alarming combination of Pol Pot, Arthur Scargill and Edward Scissorhands. But everyone is on top form, and the big scenes of battle impress you with their power and their sheer drama.

Minnie Gale and Ben HallIt’s a very intense production; we saw both halves on the same day, but I would recommend seeing them over two separate days, just to catch your breath. If there is a problem with it all, it’s that you can see one too many battle scene. I guess the only person to blame there is Shakespeare. But with so many alarums and excursions, there’s only so much warring one person can take before the appreciation of it all starts to shut up shop.

You haven’t got long to catch up with these plays; Rebellion runs in repertory until 28th May; Wars of the Roses until 4th June. Definitely worth it though!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Loserville, Garrick Theatre, 3rd January 2013

LoservilleI had fleetingly seen good feedback about this show and had heard that despite this it was due to close early – and so, with the unexpected opportunity to see a couple of London shows shortly after New Year, we thought it would be worth a try. After I’d booked the tickets, I saw an advert on the underground for it, where it was described as “Grease for the 21st century”. That worried me a bit. If you’ve read our reaction to the real Grease that we saw last April, you’ll understand my concern.

Aaron SidwellI can appreciate the comparison. There’s a bunch of older school kids teeming with hormones and you can split them into bespectacled geeky nerds (our heroes) and spoilt, bullying, shallow, good looking Grease-types (the baddies). Into this mix arrives the geeky but fanciable Holly – an outsider with a past as it turns out, and in Grease terms, she is Sandy. The baddies blackmail Holly into betraying her nerdy friends, but she double-crosses them at the end, and good prevails. That’s where it really departs from Grease, as Loserville is actually a very moral tale. In Grease, selling out leads to success. In Loserville, honesty is the best policy, be loyal to your friends, act for the good of society, and you will win the day. Cheats don’t prosper in Loserville.

colourful sceneIt’s all set in a 1971 technical college, although there’s nothing Please, Sir! or To Sir With Love about Francis O’Connor’s lively set, which reminded me of a cross between Happy Days (Richie Cunningham’s as opposed to Samuel Beckett’s), and Tron. Mathematics whizzkid Michael Dork (note the subtle use of surname) is on the brink of creating the first email and all he’s missing, were he but to know it, is the final ampersand. His best mate is trying to write a book set in space and populated with characters called Leia, C3PO, and other similarly recognisable monikers. His name is Lucas Lloyd (note the subtle use of first name). Dork and his awkward pals have just discovered girls and their loins are positively throbbing at the prospect of putting theory into practice, but they have yet to learn the art of “asking out”. The baddies, of course, all exude sexual confidence and probably learned the art of seduction through the placenta. When Holly turns up, she is distinctly dorky but at the same time sassy too, so is the perfect fuel for Michael’s cockpit. She starts to help him find the email missing link but it’s not long before they get a thang going on; and while supporting chums Francis and Marvin pillock around with pretend spaceships and a similarly barmy lady enters their life, no one wants to go out for Thursday night bowling with Lucas, who is left home alone.

Eliza Hope BennettFor me, this was a stumbling block in the storyline. Gentle reader, I have been Lucas. I have been that stalwart gang member, who without noticing it, discovers that his best pal and everyone else in the set have moved on to pastures new, and, sadly, he has been left behind. No, please don’t cry for me, I’m well over it now. Lucas’ solution to the problem is to get angry (yes I understand that) and then betray his friends (no! There’s no way he would do that!) Lucas reveals how to break into the safe that holds the details of Michael and Holly’s research to the ne’er-do-well Eddie’s henchmen, Eddie being too lazy and thick to come up with the science that will gain him a lucrative position in Dad’s business. Lucas does this in exchange for a half-arsed promise of book publication. Realising his manuscript has been dumped and that he has been well duped, Lucas eventually gets reintegrated with the gang and – also extraordinarily unlikely – ends up with Eddie’s ex-girlfriend. I’m sorry, I just think that whole sequence of events is ridiculously unlikely! I also found the “laughing at foreign accents” sequences – with the two Yugoslav girls struggling sexily with their English – immensely tedious, but that’s just me; remembering that dreadful old TV programme “Mind Your Language”, it’s probably a highly accurate represention of what was funny in 1971.

Another colourful sceneThese aspects of the storyline aside, it’s an entertaining tale and performed with huge commitment and style. The young and talented cast perform their socks off and the songs, written by ex-Busted member James Bourne, are all very jolly and accessible. To my ears, they all sound like variations of Busted’s “Year 3000”, but that’s ok. The last song of the first half is the very catchy “Ticket Outta Loserville”, which audience members in the interval bar couldn’t resist but sing along to whilst quaffing a Cabernet Sauvignon. This is all good stuff.

Richard LoweThere is another problem though – despite this huge enthusiasm on stage something about the show does not get conveyed to the stalls. It’s not as though you feel like an estranged onlooker, but that obvious joie-de-vivre on stage does not catch. It’s a little like that massive firework that you know is packed full of noise and colour, but whose blue touch paper simply won’t light; or like there’s an invisible firewall blocking the energy before it reaches the audience. I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week and I still can’t identify why. I would hate to think that it’s because I’m too old for the show – that couldn’t possibly be the reason. I did get a sense early on in the evening that I had missed out on some important piece of plotting and I worried slightly that I wasn’t going to understand what was happening – but as a problem that lasted no more than the first fifteen or twenty minutes. So it’s not that. For Mrs Chrisparkle the main problem for the show was that it wasn’t Hairspray. She felt it had the enviable possibility of turning into “Son Of Hairspray”, but regretfully it comes nowhere near that other show in terms of entertainment and engagement. It’s true – in the comparison stakes, Loserville is a bit of a loser there.

Yet another colourful sceneThere’s a quite cute presentation of the cast at the beginning and to a lesser extent at the end of the show, where cast members hold a board with their character names and their own names on – or those of their friends – to identify who they are. If you’d known they were going to do that, you could have got away with not buying a programme. The sequence put me in mind of the opening credits of a TV show or film. It was inventively done in a cartoony and jocular style and was rather amusing to watch. Brecht would have loved it.

Stewart ClarkeThe whole thing was charmingly done, and I reckon the majority of the cast – for whom many Loserville was either their professional debut or not far behind it – will go on to have excellent stage careers. Aaron Sidwell as Michael was a superb geeky hero, with a slick stage presence and a great feel for the song and dance; Eliza Hope Bennett as Holly brought out all aspects of the character really well and was extremely watchable throughout; Richard Lowe as Lucas had just the right amount of goofiness and vulnerability to shine in his role; and Stewart Clarke conveyed brilliantly the vain despicability of Eddie – we loved his curtain call dressed in combats. Don’t forget the band – six guys who filled the sound waves like musical geniuses. I wonder if, with a little tweaking, this could come back another day?