Call me an idiot, gentle reader – no, really, please do – but it never occurred to me that Evolution Pantomimes’ Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, written by Paul Hendy, would be identical (almost) to Jack and the Beanstalk at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, written by Paul Hendy. An intelligent person would have joined the dots, but, somehow, I didn’t. As a result I didn’t enjoy this year’s Sheffield panto – which is an annual event for us – as much as I normally do. But only because I’d seen most of it before. The same set, the same costumes, the same songs, the same jokes. Even the same bits that you thought were where the cast had made a bit of a mistake – not a bit of it, those little errors are scripted and practised to within an inch of their lives; discovering which, was a fascinating lesson in itself. So really I should just point you towards my review of the Northampton panto – click the link above – and that ought to be sufficient.
It’s not, of course. A different cast, and a different emphasis, make for a (slightly) different show. The Sheffield panto is blessed with the presence of Damian Williams as the Dame – the man who put the dame in Damian, in fact (or should that be the other way round) – returning for his 15th year as the star of the show, and he is just insanely funny. Because he is a big chap, his outlandish costumes and huge persona fill the stage more than ought to be decently possible. He owned the Elton John sequence brilliantly, and was also particularly fab in the weather-making machine, revoltingly rubbing his tummy up against the glass door. And he is the main reason we all keep coming back. Damian is Christmas!
Our Fairy Sugarsnap is Wendi Peters, in her third appearance at the Sheffield panto in six years, so she’s becoming almost as much of a recidivist as Mr Williams. She’s bright, confident and a complete natural in the world of pantomime, and does a great job. One of the few differences between this and the Northampton panto is the presence of Maxwell Thorpe as an additional character, Charlie Trot. Sheffield’s answer to Alfie Boe, he rose to stardom from busking in the streets to his appearance earlier this year on Britain’s Got Talent. Alas, I hadn’t heard of him before, and he does indeed have a terrific voice which is put to good use, especially in the singalong sequence Delilah, a pleasing paean to the Pantomime Cow. However, with the greatest respect, Mr Thorpe’s acting skills need developing so that he can hold his own amongst a strong cast, and not look out of place. Still, he is a local lad and the crowd loved him. The other main difference with this panto, by the way, is having two giants. Keeping it in the family – quite a nice trick.
One of the main problems of seeing the same production twice but with two completely different casts, is that it is virtually impossible not to compare individual performers, invidious though that may be. That said… I found Marc Pickering’s performance as the baddie, Luke Backinanger, forced and trying too hard in comparison with the effortless evil of Richard David-Caine in Northampton; although he is excellent in the boyband sequence at the end of the show, which generally worked much better in Sheffield. And, continuing the comparison, Waffle the Wonder Dog beats Izzy the Dog paws down.
Apart from that, there is still a great deal to enjoy in a tremendous show. All the classic trademark elements are there, James Harrison’s band is superb, the song selection is great, the ecological and redemption messages of the text work extremely well, and the Drone of Love continues to bring new technology to Dame Trot’s own version of Bumble. Oh, and how could I forget the giant pea? Absolutely brilliant.
An excellent panto, as always – I just wish I hadn’t already seen it elsewhere! That’s definitely a lesson for me to learn next year.
“So what’s this show about” asked Lord and Lady Prosecco en route to their annual Christmas shindig in Sheffield. “Not sure,” came my honest reply. “I think it might be Sheffield’s answer to Blood Brothers.” And, to be fair, I wasn’t that far off the mark. Both shows offer an insight into living in poor council housing, relocating to somewhere better, and surviving (or not) the Thatcher era, plus a not insubstantial dollop of melodrama, and some fabulous songs. But they’re rather surface similarities, and, deep down, it’s not really a helpful comparison.
Chris Bush loves to portray things in threes, doesn’t she? Only a few months ago we saw her brilliant Rock Paper Scissors where all three theatres within the Sheffield complex were used to tell the same story in the same real time but from three different locations/aspects. Her challenge in Standing at the Sky’s Edge is to tell three different stories over three different eras, but all of which take place in the same flat. Characters from the 60s to the 80s blend with others from the 90s and noughties and more characters from the past ten years. There’s a gorgeously staged scene where all three sets of characters eat a meal at the dining table, striding the decades, in blissful ignorance of each other. I bet Alan Ayckbourn is kicking himself for not having thought of that one.
There’s the young couple, Rose and Harry, starting out, the first residents of the flat, full of hope, ambition and positivity. He prides himself on being “the youngest foreman this city has ever seen” and is thrilled to be able to provide for both his wife and the child they soon hope to have. The 90s bring a family of refugees from Liberia, Grace, George and Joy, fleeing the terror of the Civil War. Unfamiliar with life in Sheffield, they have to learn the local accent, food and customs, not knowing whom to trust. And as the Estate starts to gentrify in the 2010s, a middle class Londoner, Poppy, relocates to the flat to start her life over again, following the breakdown of a relationship. We follow the first two families through their lives in the flat, until circumstances dictate that it’s time to leave. And we observe the progress made by the third resident until she comes to a life-changing moment in the here and now.
Every so often a show comes along that you can feel in your bones is Something Significant. Standing at the Sky’s Edge isn’t perfect, but Chris Bush, together with Richard Hawley’s music and lyrics, have structured such a heart-warming, thought-provoking, breath-taking piece of theatre that it stops you in your tracks. There’s no doubt that it’s an homage to Sheffield – specifically the Park Hill Estate which I’d never heard of but had to Google. It is an iconic address; a brutalist design influenced by Le Corbusier, that had slowly dilapidated over the years but is now revitalised and upmarket. However, if you’re not a Sheffield local, it doesn’t matter; you’ll still recognise that same sense of belonging that runs through this show like a stick of rock. It also doesn’t matter if you don’t get the local references. I’m not from Sheffield although I have visited the city on and off for the past forty years. Nevertheless, I confess I’d never heard of Henderson’s Relish! But the audience reaction to its mention implies that most Sheffield kids started eating it on their rusks. The opinion about the BBC that it stands for Bourgeoisie Bastards of Capitalism got a big round of applause; this is a text that is absolutely in tune with its audience.
Forget any similarities with Blood Brothers; if there is another contemporary musical with which this can be linked, it’s Come From Away – with its themes of displaced people in a new environment, relying on the kindness of strangers, emphasising all that’s good about human nature. The show takes us from 1960 to the present day, but of course the flat at the centre of the action doesn’t necessarily stop there. In forty years’ time there could be Sky’s Edge 2, with at least two new generations of residents with their tales to tell. If there’s one thing that this show tells us, it’s that, no matter what, life goes on.
When you enter the auditorium you’re greeted by Ben Stones’ delightfully expansive set, a corner edge of an apartment set in the sky (which houses John Rutledge’s excellent band) and looks down on the flat below. Suspended in the sky are the words I love you will U marry me, the famous graffiti that graced the Park Hill Estate for twenty years from 2001; they will give you a lump in your throat at the end of the show.
One of my pet hates in musicals is where a song doesn’t follow organically from the action that proceeds it and doesn’t move the story on; you should always come out of a musical theatre song in a different place from the one where you went into it, imho. Otherwise, the musical becomes all stop-start and the songs are just spacers separating one piece of action from another. Standing at the Sky’s Edge proves the exception to the rule. Remarkably, for the most part, the songs are extremely stand-alone and come across more like an ancient Greek Chorus observing and commenting on the action, rather than emerging naturally from the plot.
Yet they work brilliantly. Fortunately, this cast is blessed with possibly the best collection of singing voices you’ve ever witnessed in a show, so each number has a massive impact. Even on first hearing, there are a few songs here that will become absolute musical theatre standards in the years to come. The glorious I’m Looking for Someone to Find Me, the emotional For Your Lover Give Some Time, and the stirring Open Up Your Door are already timeless classics. But all the music is truly beautiful.
And the performances are sublime, from the main roles right down to the supporting cast. The ever-reliable Alex Young is brilliant as the middle class Poppy, coping with the culture shock of bringing Ottolenghi Aubergine to South Yorkshire; Rachael Wooding and Robert Lonsdale are terrific as the 1960s Rose and Harry, bursting with vim and vigour until fortunes turn against them; Samuel Jordan is superb as the kind-hearted Jimmy (I saw him when he was a University of Northampton student!); Maimuna Memon sings sensationally as Poppy’s ex, Nikki; and, a real star of the future, Faith Omole is stunning as Joy, with the most extraordinary voice and a performance that will break your heart. But everyone works together brilliantly – this is show is the definition of ensemble – and there isn’t a weak link in sight.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you about my slight reservations. First – from a production point of view – there are a couple of sequences where the sound balance between the band and the vocals was totally out of whack, and you couldn’t hear one word of what was being sung – most notably in the final song of Act One, There’s a Storm a-Coming. I also thought that the two deaths that take place in the show – no spoilers, I won’t say who – weren’t really necessary, and that, especially with the younger character, Chris Bush has created something deliberately tragic; it was almost Thomas Hardyesque in its fatalism. The same observational point could have been made without the characters dying. Perhaps, also, the show is 15 minutes too long, and some of the storylines could have progressed a little niftier. And we were also unconvinced by the plot resolution in the 2020 timeline; it’s a gloomy observation that a character who had developed so far forward would allow themselves to regress into a toxic relationship – and we just didn’t believe it of her.
All that said, there’s no doubt this is a landmark show, that absolutely puts Sheffield on the map and is fully deserving of its transfer to the National Theatre in the New Year. Congratulations to everyone on a piece of theatrical history!
Funny how things work out. In the same way that every pantomime I expect to see this Christmas will be Jack and the Beanstalk (London Palladium, Sheffield Lyceum, Royal and Derngate Northampton, etc), every other Shakespeare production this summer has been Much Ado About Nothing – RSC, National Theatre, and now here at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, with a co-production with Ramps on the Moon. Its Sheffield run closed on Saturday, but we were lucky enough to get tickets for its final day. You’ll be pleased to know, gentle reader, that there is a UK tour to follow so you still have a chance to see it!
We were part of a big family outing, some of whom pronounce Much Ado to be their favourite Shakespeare play. I must confess that over the decades I have slowly come around to the belief that this is one of his better shows – but it has taken me a long time to get there. Perhaps I’ve just seen some not-so-good productions in the past, because the storyline never remains in my brain for long and I frequently get confused when I watch it. However, not this time; Robert Hastie’s production tells the story clearly, humorously, and, as I think it will turn out to be, memorably. After all these years, I finally “got it”!
What makes this production stand out is the diverse mix of actors who make up the cast, including disabled, deaf and neurodiverse performers as well as non-disabled actors. It’s a production for everyone; it’s made very clear at the beginning of the performance that if any audience member wants to get up, move around, or do anything else that will help them enjoy the performance, they are welcome to do so. All the cast introduce themselves to the audience at the start, explaining who their character is, how they are dressed, and how they will communicate: some of the cast speak their lines, others sign them, or do a blend of signing and speech. The whole production is captioned as well; it’s a veritable feast of communication!
It’s set in the modern era – in Messina, allegedly, but it could be anywhere that’s reasonably well off. Leonato, the Governor of the province, has a very nice pad with what we suspect is a lovely conservatory at the back of the stage that leads out into the garden, where “much ado” takes place. There’s a charming start to the show as the various members of the cast congregate in the conservatory, only for Don Pedro (Dan Parr, excellent) to realise that whilst they’re inside looking out, we’re all sitting outside looking in at him and his friends, so he leads the cast out onto the stage with a friendly hiya. Yes, you might say this production probably isn’t for purists, but then again, Much Ado is hardly likely to tease out many purists from the general theatregoing public.
Hastie’s vision for this production, apart from the general intention to make it as accessible as possible, is to bring out the classic scenes for maximum emotional or humorous impact. For example, everyone loves those favourite scenes where both Benedick and Beatrice overhear talk that the other one is rapturously in love with them. Here, in a hilarious scene, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato all receive professional massages whilst ostentatiously chit-chatting about Beatrice’s love for Benedick, who ends up hiding underneath one of the massage tables. In her equivalent scene, Beatrice hides in a few vacant seats in the stalls to overhear Hero, Margaret and Ursula’s gossip about Benedick’s love for her. It’s all lightly, beautifully and believably done, right down to Beatrice’s involuntary outburst of Oh Shit! when she discovers the news and realises that she has to act upon it.
But there are plenty of dark moments in Much Ado – life really isn’t just a bowl of cherries. Are they able to carry off the serious aspects of the play with the same aplomb as the comedy? As it happens, yes. The simple force of Beatrice’s forthright delivery of her instruction to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” has the effect of sending a shudder right through your bones. Taku Mutero’s Claudio changes from being a wet-behind-the-ears romantic sop into a furious brute when Hero’s alleged infidelity is revealed; he certainly knows how to spoil a party. Gerard McDermott’s avuncular Leonato, too, switches from being a rather lovable old sot into a nobleman humiliated and offended by his daughter, dismissing any sense of affection or trust in her. And Claire Wetherall’s Hero herself is remarkably eloquent in her silence – she signs all her lines; somehow it makes her plight even more tragic and unjust.
There are a few modernisations to the text that work really well – re-imagining Dogberry and Verges as Wedding Planners is a stroke of genius, and both Caroline Parker and Lee Farrell bring terrific characterisation to the roles. There’s a brilliant sequence when Dogberry threatens the villainous Borachio and Conrade (terrifically played by Benjamin Wilson and Ciaran Stewart) with an assault by hydrangeas and hops – you had to be there. There are a few other delightful throwaway moments – for example, when Seacole (the excellent Amy Helena) signs a passionate description of two lovers, Benedick is forced to remark “a bit graphic, Seacole!” to much hilarity.
Of course, so much of Much Ado revolves around the presentation of the main duo, Benedick and Beatrice, and both Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells put in terrific performances. There’s no question that this B and B have both seen a bit of the world and are nobody’s fools; they’re past pandering to anyone else’s whims and just in it for their own self-protection. Mr Rhys is hilarious as he coyly relaxes on a massage bed, accidentally-on-purpose letting a bit of leg show to boost up Beatrice’s interest in him; and Ms Etchells has a range of fantastic facial expressions, as well as a powerful confident delivery, that leave you in no doubt as to Beatrice’s state of mind at any given point.
In a production such as this, with perhaps more people on stage at a time than you might expect, visually it does occasionally get a little messy. There were a few blocking issues, and I felt that one or two of the actors underperformed at times. But there’s no doubting the sheer joy of the production and its extraordinary sense of freshness and liberty. Now that it’s done its time at Sheffield, the production is on the road, visiting Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich, Stratford East, and Salisbury. Not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like it! Hugely rewarding, and great storytelling.
Our traditional post-New Year weekend in Sheffield as a Christmas present to Lord and Lady Prosecco just got bigger. This year, also joined by Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and their assorted offspring, twelve of us descended on the St Paul’s Place Pizza Express before hitting the Crucible to enjoy this year’s Christmas show, Guys and Dolls.
Guys and Dolls was, is, and always will be, one of the great American musicals. Jam-packed with memorable songs, outrageous characters, a heart-warming plot and great dance opportunities, it’s guaranteed to bring a smile to the stoniest of faces and an entrechat to the most lumpen of feet. This is the fourth time I’ve seen the show, most memorably the first time in 1982 when I saw a preview of That Famous National Theatre production starring Julia McKenzie, Bob Hoskins, Ian Charleson and Julie Covington (so when I say starring, I mean starring). Least memorable was the 2007 touring production with Alex Ferns and Samantha Janus (as she was then). There was also a fabulous 2014 Chichester production with Peter Polycarpou, Clare Foster, Sophie Thompson and Jamie Parker. Comparisons are of course odious but irresistible; so I’ll try to ignore the earlier productions!
If you don’t know the story of Guys and Dolls, where have you been all your life? Inspired by the stories and characters of Damon Runyon, meet the sniffly song-and-dance artiste Miss Adelaide, whose symptoms get worse throughout the show due to her fiancé, Nathan Detroit’s, inability to commit. Detroit tries to organise an illegal crap game without Miss Adelaide’s knowledge – she wouldn’t approve – but the one thousand bucks, as demanded by the Biltmore Garage to host the game, he ain’t got. Meanwhile, at the Save-a-Soul Mission, Sergeant Sarah Brown is trying to attract penitent punters to her hymn gatherings, but without much success. Enter Gambler Maestro Sky Masterson, a man with charisma bursting out of his wallet. To meet the Biltmore’s demand, Detroit bets $1000 that Masterson won’t take a girl of his choosing on a date to Havana, Cuba. Masterson accepts; Detroit chooses Sarah Brown; and if you don’t know the rest of the story, I’m not going to tell you.
Designer Janet Bird has created an intriguing set with walls that slide in and out of place, and with outer revolving tracks that suggest busy sidewalks, to leave a usefully empty space in the middle for crap games, Hot Box dances and mission hall meetings. Will Stuart’s excellent band are perched aloft, inside what looks like an attic bar (nice for them). Intricate choreographer Matt Flint, back from last year’s Kiss Me Kate, has risen to the challenge of creating those big set piece dance numbers that are often a feature of the Crucible Christmas show. The Crap Shooters’ Ballet followed by Luck be a Lady is powerful and hard-hitting, as it should be; even more entertaining is the marvellous Havana salsa scene, which tells an entertaining story of a couple out for the night, except that he dances with Sarah and she dances with Sky and by the end of the evening they’re having a full-blown argument – all to enticing salsa rhythms, of course.
Robert Hastie has assembled a tremendous cast who all give great performances throughout. Natalie Casey emphasises Miss Adelaide’s camp cutesiness with some wicked facial expressions and vocal deliveries and brings bags of fun to the role whilst still recognising the character’s genuine inner sadness. Alex Young is superb as ever as Sarah Brown, with her magnificent voice taking on Frank Loesser’s iconic songs with supreme ease, her eyes summing up all the imperfections of Sky Masterson’s character with an instant loving scorn. It’s a great portrayal of a good girl gone not necessarily bad, but revelling in her defences being down.
The remarkably versatile Martin Marquez (whose abilities range from musical comedy in Anything Goes, farce in Boeing Boeing to contemporary drama in Blasted) is a mature Nathan Detroit, hiding desperately from his responsibilities to Miss Adelaide. He’s a great singer and provides a more romantic interpretation of the song Sue Me than I’d previously encountered. Kadiff Kirwan impresses as the suave Sky Masterson and also sings and dances terrifically. I’d not come across his work before, but with a great stage presence, Mr Kirwan could definitely be One To Watch for the future.
There’s another superb partnership between TJ Lloyd as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Adrian Hansel as Benny Southstreet; their rendition of the song Guys and Dolls is a highlight of the whole show and of course Mr Lloyd is brilliant in Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat. I’d enjoyed Mr Hansel’s performance in Hairspray several years ago but Mr Lloyd is new to me – both actors lit up the stage every time they came on and I can’t wait to see them again in the future.
Elsewhere in the cast there’s a kindly performance from Garry Robson as Arvide Abernathy, with a moving performance of More I Cannot Wish You; an enjoyably intimidating Big Jule played by Dafydd Emyr; and a spirited Hallelujah of a performance from one of my favourite actors, Dawn Hope as General Cartwright.
Perhaps a slightly curious staging choice came at the end of the cheeky Marry The Man Today, when Detroit and Masterson appeared on stage and stopped Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown in their vocal tracks; rather than having the two women enjoy their moment of girlish fantasies they were forced to face the reality of their husbandly destinies in person, which made the female characters feel subservient to their men. The Countess of Cockfosters wasn’t impressed with this staging decision and on reflection I have to agree.
Nevertheless, although it’s almost a three-hour show the time simply flies by. Guys and Dolls maintains the high-quality tradition of the Crucible Christmas shows with its spectacle, skill and artistry, superb music and dance elements and provides plenty to talk about it the bar afterwards. Recommended!
Every New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.
This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.
I’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)
Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.
It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.
We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!
Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.
Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.
The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.
But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!
For the second production of our day seeing all three of the Acting Students’ final plays in London, they gave us their performance of Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, The Crucible. This piece is one of the defining moments in the history of 20th century drama. Perceptive, shrewd, and enormously powerful, it took the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and presented them to its 1950s audience as a reflection of the Macarthyism that was decimating American society at the time. In these current days where, once again, society is being tested on both sides of the pond, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to revive it.
As it is such a significant play, and almost uniquely amongst the best drama created in the last 100 years, I think there is a tendency to treat The Crucible with great reverence. I’ve seen it a few times now, both on stage and on TV, and it always comes across exactly the same; dark, portentous, gloomy, – a true recreation of the 1690s in all its desolate desperation. There’s a huge temptation to concentrate on the supernatural spookiness of witchcraft as a force for evil and the triumph of darkness over light; to be honest, I’m not sure if it is possible to do it any other way. Certainly, Nadia Papachronopoulou’s production is as traditional as ever.
Sadly it also felt very static; which is no way to describe the escalation of events that happen during the four acts of this play. We go from childish pranks and secret relationships, through the questioning, distrust and imprisonment of various innocent bystanders, to individual acts of heroism and unjustified instances of capital punishment; that hardly sounds like a static play. But I got very little sense of plot progression and I must confess at times I found it very hard to stay focussed. True, it wasn’t helped by the noisy chattering and giggling of a group of students in the audience. It may well have been their first experience of live theatre; no better time then, to learn how to behave when you’re out. But I just felt that the production was a little risk-averse and very predictable; it might have benefited from some big, bold, unexpected statement that never quite happened.
Nevertheless, there were some good performances; I very much enjoyed Farrah Dark’s portrayal of Abigail Williams, a defiant woman although still little more than a child herself, concealing past indiscretions by employing the old tactic that attack as the best form of defence. Oliver Franks also gave a strong performance as the grim Reverend Parris, a man driven by self-interest, way in excess of any Christian love. The main role of John Proctor was given a determined and powerful performance by Alexander Forrester-Coles, bringing out both the character’s nobility and fallibility. His wife, Elizabeth, was played with immaculate sensitivity by Ceara Coveney; D B Gallagher gave a truly menacing performance as the wicked Judge Danforth; and there was a nicely understated performance by Naomi Ell as Ezekiel Cheever, the diligent but essentially kindly court clerk. Surprisingly, a few cast members seemed a little imprisoned by their roles rather than liberated by them – which was unfortunate because I know they’re great actors from their previous performances! There were also a few instances where some lines were garbled and just weren’t delivered in the assured manner that I would have expected.
Not an outright triumph, but nevertheless enjoyable, and it told its story clearly and with some memorable scenes.
I must have been a very mature teenager. Why else would I have read voraciously almost all Eugene O’Neill’s plays during the long summer of 1976? I’d seen Olivier’s famous Long Day’s Journey Into Night on TV and thought to myself Now That’s What I Call Drama, Volume One. There was a revival of The Iceman Cometh by the RSC that year – I didn’t see it, although the title intrigued me so much – so I decided to read up on O’Neill’s back catalogue. No one else I knew was reading him. Mourning Becomes Electra became my favourite. Eugene O’Neill sure knew how to create a fancy title.
O’Neill’s introduction to Desire Under the Elms states that it’s set in a New England farmhouse in the year 1850. No coincidence this date, as it’s the beginning of the Gold Rush to California, the newest state to join the United States, and as much a beacon of hope and inspiration as Moscow is to Chekhov’s characters. The play opens with brothers Simeon and Peter fantasising over what it would be like to leave the miserable farm behind and go hunting for gold in Californi-a (pronounced Californ-eye-ay). But their father, 75-year-old Ephraim, is out west and they feel they have to stay at home until he returns.
They share the farmhouse with their half-brother Eben, who’s lamenting the death of his mother, and has no love lost for his father. When Ephraim returns with a young wife, Abbie, less than half his age, it’s clear she’s got her eye on inheriting the farmhouse. Simeon and Peter sell their shares in the farmhouse to Eben and head off to Californi-a to seek their fortune. This just leaves Eben and Abbie at the farmhouse. With Ephraim out working all day long, Abbie falls pregnant, and Ephraim assumes it’s his, but the truth may be somewhat different….
Like many of O’Neill’s plays, it’s based on Greek tragedy; in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra attempts to seduce Theseus’ chaste son Hippolytus, but when she fails she commits suicide, not before having left a letter accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus banishes Hippolytus as a punishment, but Hippolytus is killed by a bull, after which Theseus discovers the truth. Unlike Phaedra, Abbie’s attempts to seduce Eben are perfectly successful (not that he was chaste anyway) and it isn’t suicide that she considers but murder.
It’s actually a very simple plot and could easily have been written for just three actors. Simeon and Peter are purely introductory characters helping to set the scene, and the other villagers are just there to fill the stage and act as Rumour. As I remember from my teenage years, Desire Under the Elms is one of the more difficult of his plays to read, because O’Neill wrote it in that interminable North American dialect drawl. Everything is “purty”, parents are “Maw” and “Paw”, they eat and drink “vittles” and “likker”. On the page it’s dry and dusty, but on the stage of the Crucible it really comes to life. I don’t have the sharpest ear, but the speech patterns came over (to me at least) as though they were from the Southern states – I clearly don’t know my American accents. By contrast, all Mrs Chrisparkle could hear was an Irish twang, which would, at least, probably accurately reflect the characters’ heritage. But none of that matters when you’re dealing with the raw emotions of an inevitable love triangle, and someone who commits an unlikely crime passionel to resolve it.
When you enter the Crucible auditorium, there’s a huge visual impact from the amazing set that Chiara Stephenson has created. Long tufts of grass, wheat maybe, lurk in the distance, suggesting fields or dunes; sand covers the foreground. The simple mechanism of sweeping sand away in straight lines creates separate acting areas on the stage; most notably a demarcation wall separating the farmhouse from its grounds. Jon Clark’s moody lighting suggests different times of day and different emotional impulses at work. Nick Greenhill’s portentous sound design evokes the most realistic and invasive thunderstorm since poor Tom was on the blasted heath. There’s even a working water pump at the very front of the stage – which I have to say somewhat obstructed the view from seats B20 & 21, especially when people are seated at the dining table.
Matthew Kelly is a fantastic Ephraim. He looks every inch the grizzled old man, wayward hair and beard unkempt through so many years of toil. If this is how he’s smartened himself up for scoring himself a 35-year-old woman, heaven knows how ragged he must have appeared before. Bellowing at the world for all its failings, and belligerent towards Eben for his perceived weakness and inadequacy, this is a man with a strong sense of his own importance and not a clue about how pathetic he really is. This is captured in his grotesque over-the-top final Act dance; he’s got a lot of life in him but no ability to shape it into something positive. It’s a mark of Mr Kelly’s great performance that you can both despise and feel sorry for him at the same time.
Michael Shea plays Eben as a man with few principles – a thief, user of prostitutes and happy to steal his father’s woman off him for the pleasure and the power. You feel that he has so much pent-up anger inside him that he will explode at any moment. He’s a wretch, though; and Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is no better, instantly falling for this grim chap with no ambition or style. Ms Duffin really brings out all Abbie’s remorse, confusion and horror at what she’s done at the end of the play. She and Mr Shea make a truly agonised and agonising couple, as the horrendous consequences of what’s happened dawn on them. I also really liked Sule Rimi and Theo Ogundipe as Simeon and Peter, very convincing as the old hands who’ve seen it all and can’t wait to get away to a new life. In a sense, it’s a shame that we never find out what happens to them; on the other hand, that just proves how focussed O’Neill is on his menage à trois.
An excellent opportunity to catch a great cast perform a hidden classic. It’s important to keep Eugene O’Neill’s creative spirit alive! Desire Under the Elms plays until 14th October.
Mothers-in-law, eh? We’ve all got them. Well, no, I realise we don’t all have them. I have one, and she’s a queen amongst mothers-in-law (she’s reading this). Mrs Chrisparkle had one; and like most mothers-in-law, the Dowager Mrs C had her moments. Daniel and Oliver both have mothers-in-law, in Chris Thompson’s new play Of Kith and Kin, currently playing at the cosy Studio theatre at the Sheffield Crucible. We never see Daniel’s mother-in-law; but we do meet Lydia, Daniel’s mum, a woman who can extinguish all hope out of both her son and his husband, with her subtle manipulation, deliberate use of gently antagonistic language and both hurt and hurtful expressions.
Of course, she doesn’t feature that highly in Daniel and Oliver’s domestic arrangements. They’re much more focussed on the fact that they’re expecting their first baby any minute now, courtesy of their friend and surrogate-mother-to-be, Priya. Priya’s already been a surrogate for another couple so she knows the ropes. However, when Lydia arrives unannounced at the baby shower, tempers flare, things are said that can’t be unsaid, and the general stress of the situation causes Priya’s waters to break.
So far, so good; a modern family situation deftly created by Chris Thompson, with lots of comic moments and perhaps room for an underlying tragedy lurking somewhere ahead. Come Act Two – still before the interval, it’s a traditional three Act play and the cliffhanger moment comes at the end of the second act – and we suddenly realise the play has gone in a direction that’s completely unexpected. That black comedy of the first Act has turned into challenging and thrilling drama that doesn’t let up until the end. Think you’d got to know the characters quite well? Think again.
It’s hard to discuss the play in depth without giving away the plot and I’ve no wish to ruin it for you, gentle reader. Anyone can have a bad mother-in-law day, when she identifies your weak spot, pushes all the buttons and detonates an explosive response. However, not many people would experience the same disastrous fall-out as Daniel and Oliver, which is the main substance of the plot development. The play is full of fascinating and compelling themes like honesty in relationships, manipulative behaviour, loyalty, and “doing the right thing”. It’s a very grown-up piece of writing, in that it never criticises or casts doubt on the desire of a gay couple wishing to have their own child through surrogacy; not even Lydia sneers at that. It raises the issue of the inherited nature of abusive relationships, and subtly explores it in an unexpected way. In the end, only one character actually gets what they want; and it’s a very revealing insight into that kind of character.
But there was just one thing we didn’t understand in this play – and it’s quite a big one: Priya. Priya makes a number of decisions through the course of this play and we could not understand her motivation for any of them. Maybe it’s because the play is very much written from the perspective of the character of Daniel, and perhaps Oliver too, that there’s no real attempt made to get inside her brain and emotions and examine her motives. Still, at least it makes for an unexpected and constantly surprising play.
It’s beautifully acted throughout, with James Lance as Daniel and Joshua Silver as Oliver forming a very convincing couple, bright and relaxed on the surface, bubbling with tension on the underneath. Chetna Pandya’s Priya comes across as a sensible but fun-loving best friend, although her anxieties begin to show toward the end of the first Act. Joanna Bacon turns in two superb performances, both as the sullen and difficult Lydia and the hard-nosed, manipulative Carrie; and I really enjoyed Donna Berlin’s performance as Arabelle, a character in a position of authority but with a devilish streak of unconventional humour.
It’s certainly a play to make you think; and you may come away wondering how you’d ever trust anyone ever again. This smart production runs at the Crucible Studio for one more week until 7th October and then plays the Bush Theatre in London from 18th October till 25th November. Very enjoyable, but also uncomfortable viewing!
Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school. I expect that was true for a number of people. It’s a superb introduction to Shakespeare because it’s very accessible, it’s got loads of everyday phrases that it’s fun to recognise, it helps you with your Latin History; and it’s got some famous characters, and a ghost, and a soothsayer, and a baying mob, and lots and lots of deaths. What more could a fifteen-year-old schoolboy want?
Much to my own irritation, I’ve had to wait all these years to see it on stage. For years it seemed like no one would touch it with an SPQR standard, and now suddenly everyone’s doing it. The RSC are staging it this summer; I’ve already got tickets to see the new version at the new Bridge Theatre in London next February, and now it’s popped up at one of my favourite theatres, the Sheffield Crucible. So I was really keen to see this new production.
I’m sure you know the story; in brief, Julius Caesar is in charge of Rome, a noble man but a bighead, who likes nothing more than to strut his stuff and let the power go to his head. Around him are several politicians whom he believes are all loyal, but insurrection is brewing. Cassius (who has a lean and hungry look) is assembling allies to do away with Caesar For The Good Of Rome and nothing whatever to do with their own personal fortune, of course. Many sign up, but the big name they want is Brutus, and Brutus is an honourable man. Nevertheless, Cassius convinces him to join the merry band of murderers and assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March (nasty). But no one has really taken into account Caesar’s pal Mark Anthony, and how he will react to the dirty deed… which is with mob-altering oratory.
In these days of political intrigue, elections, referendums, Brexit, and what have you, this play seems more relevant than ever. In the UK, with so many of the political parties now led by women and with women in some of our highest governmental positions, it seems a good idea for some of Caesar’s male associates to be played by women: Casca, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Popilius, as well as one of the post-Caesar triumvirate, Octavius Caesar. And, of course, Cassius, who thinks too much. These gender changes not only add an additional level of sexual intrigue (just how friendly are Cassius and Brutus?) but they also really help to modernise the story, and, coupled with Ben Stones’ modern staging, this is very much a Julius Caesar for the 21st century.
When you enter the Crucible auditorium, for a split second you think you’ve come at the wrong time and they’ve laid the stage out for the snooker championships. But no, that’s not a snooker table, but a fine old board table, suitable for grand dining, or devious conspiracy. And the knives laid out upon it are more for cutting a Consul than slicing a steak. This adds an instant inevitability to the whole thing. As soon as you see Cassius and her friends observing Caesar’s showbizzy entrance with distaste, you know his number’s up. The other knock-out design feature is how the front row of the theatre has been converted into UN-style governmental seating, with a phone, a mic, a lamp, a writing pad and a plush chair at every station. This then perfectly represents the Senate House when Caesar deigns to call and pontificate; and just as Caesar thinks he’s as constant as the northern star, he’s dead for a ducat (wrong play, sorry). The sight of all the senators dipping their hands in Caesar’s blood is gruesomely effective, because today we only think of that phrase being figurative, not literal. Other visual highlights include Mark Anthony grabbing the dead Caesar from out of his coffin and the mob tearing the meek and mild Cinna the Poet to death. Never was anyone more in the wrong place at the wrong time.
New Artistic Director of the Crucible, Robert Hastie has really set the bar high with this, his first Sheffield production. The staging is stirring and on a grand scale, using parts of the Crucible that you never knew existed, like the balcony above the stage, or the removed Row E from the seats. The splendid vision for the play deserves some excellent performances and fortunately, this is what it gets. Jonathan Hyde’s Caesar is proud and vain (but not excessively so), mature and a little world-weary; I particularly enjoyed his scene with Calpurnia when she was trying to prevent him from attending the Senate and so at first he declines the invitation to go and get murdered but when he is convinced to do so by Cinna he mockingly turns on Calpurnia for fussing so much. It was like a little snapshot into a private domestic tiff. But she was right. Mr Hyde also turns in a very chilling performance as the ghost.
The splendid Samuel West is a very thoughtful and dignified Brutus, quietly listening and weighing up all the evidence; not vacillating as I am sure the role might sometimes be played. Once he has decided to join with the conspirators he is as gung-ho about the project as anyone, but he still retains his innate honourable status. Even more gripping, Zoe Waites makes a fantastic Cassius; edgy, pushy, manipulative; with an eye for the main chance and not afraid to back track when she’s in trouble. She has a terrific stage presence and a voice that rings out in the darkest depths of the rear stalls. And Eliot Cowan is a magnificent Mark Antony, switching from lager lout in his first scenes with Caesar, through the great oratory scene where he brings the mob on his side by manipulating their emotions as the King of Rhetoric, to his triumvirate appearance where he’s more militant than Labour in the early 80s. All the other roles are played powerfully and intelligently – there’s not a weak spot anywhere. Members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre act as the mob and a fantastic job they do of it.
I really loved this production – it was everything I hoped it would be; relevant, exciting, memorable, and brought superbly up to date with its staging and casting. Congratulations to everyone involved!
For the second part of our Sheffield extravaganza, Lady Duncansby, Sir William, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our esteemed friends the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with friends and family around the New Year, seeing what musical theatre delights the Crucible have arranged each year. In the past, we’ve been spoilt by seeing Company, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Anything Goes, and Show Boat; how will this year’s offering Annie Get Your Gun compare?
I hadn’t seen this show before. It was always a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, having seen it at the London Coliseum not long after the war. I remember her singing You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun with alarming enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. The show is jam-packed with show toons that are long-lasting standards, but I’d forgotten the rare beauty of I Got the Sun in the Morning which I hadn’t heard for decades. I also realised this was the first time I’d seen a musical written by that much-renowned composer Irving Berlin. It would be fascinating to compare his style with his contemporaries like Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein.
Production values, as always at the Crucible, would be high. The choreography is by Alistair David, who had added his touch of magic to all those previous Crucible Christmas shows. Playing Annie is Anna-Jane Casey, who’s always a hit whether she’s lampooning others in Forbidden Broadway or stuck in a rut of a relationship in Company or hoofing her way into the talkies with Mack and Mabel. Feisty and dynamic, but also a brilliant singer and dancer, there’s probably no better fit for the role of sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.
Ah yes, Annie Oakley. I guess this was the aspect that I had overlooked when I enthusiastically booked all those months ago. Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, the original sharp-shooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So the setting is pure Cowboys and Indians, Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, and much talk of redface and paleface. And then you have the arguments. Oh my God, the arguments; they’re so tedious. The show predates Porter’s Kiss Me Kate by two years, but the structural similarity between having cantankerous, nay bitchy, arguments between the two leading characters in both shows is obvious. In real life, Annie and Frank had a long, harmonious marriage. The show, however, is powered by the imagined antagonism between the two caused by jealousy.
I may as well confess it; I really, really wanted to like this show for so many reasons, but I’m afraid I really, really didn’t. It’s not the production’s fault – on the whole – although I think a little more set design might have helped explain and contextualise a few of the scenes a bit more. No, it’s the fault of the show itself. It survives on discord and rivalry. Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song goes. But it’s not portrayed like a schoolyard chant, a little silliness where two assertive people each want to have the last word; it’s portrayed as a serious, permanent rift in a relationship. In Kiss Me Kate, you just know that Fred and Lilli have a powerful physical attraction that’s going to knock everything else sideways. But by the time you get to Anything You Can Do, and Annie and Frank start reopening old wounds yet again, you just want to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up.
That’s at the end – but let me go back to the beginning. The lights dim, and a disembodied voice from the back starts to sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Eventually your eyes locate Frank at the back of the auditorium, singing it with pompous gravity as though it were a hymn. The ensemble come out on stage and sing and dance as the number progresses – but there’s no set so you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who they are, and you wonder why the show’s big song gets such an early airing – surely it’s wasted in this warm-up position? They’ve got a solution to that – repeat it ad nauseam a few more times during the evening. [If you’re interested, it wasn’t the opening number in the original 1946 production; the song sequence changed with the 1999 Broadway revival] Maybe it’s a note of respect to the daddy of all 40s musicals, Oklahoma!, and its unconventional opening with Curly offstage singing about a beautiful morning. That works brilliantly, because we all understand the appeal of a beautiful morning without any further context. There’re no people like show people, on the other hand, just comes across as arrogant and self-aggrandising. We’re show people – you aren’t – therefore we’re better than you. You have no context within the show as yet for this outrageous statement but even so you already resent the characters for their big-headedness.
Now I accept that the first scene after this opening number shows cast members from Buffalo Bill’s show being turned away for accommodation at Wilson’s hotel because they’re showbiz types. They can’t be trusted, so the implied glamour of that overweening first number is turned into a sweet and sour rejection. There’s no business like show business is maybe ironic, after all. But that idea doesn’t get taken any further. Just occasionally, Anna-Jane Casey lets us see a little of Annie’s sensitive side. Ben Lewis, playing Frank, however, gives us a one-dimensional sharp shootin’ suitor, with precious little insight into his motivations or character. Shame – having seen him in Forbidden Broadway and Candide I know he’s capable of much more.
To mirror the front row disharmony between Annie and Frank you have second row friction between the two show manager rivals, Nicolas Colicos’ Buffalo Bill and Mike Denman’s Pawnee Bill. Mr Denman has a go at bringing a little characterisation and magnetism to his role but Mr Colicos gave me no insight into his character at all. Of the other cast members, only Maggie Service seemed to have any real sense of occasion, portraying Dolly as a lovelorn, overlooked but will-stop-at-nothing type who is both villain and object of sympathy. The ensemble gave it all they’d got though, which really helped me get through it, and their dancing was excellent. But, all in all, I’m afraid I found the show quite boring and lacking in theatrical magic. When Annie’s sharp-shootin’ at balloons, one of them failed to burst, which really did nothing for the overall effect. Nevertheless, it was only the presence of Anna-Jane Casey that made the whole show watchable.
It really split our group too – Mrs C and the Sheriff agreed with me that it was lacklustre and dated; Lady L quite enjoyed it but couldn’t get into it; Lady D, Sir William and the young Baron all enjoyed it. You might very well too, and it’s on until 21st January. A good enough production but I think the show should be consigned to the history books. Disappointed!