Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II

How Henry laughed! Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II at the Garrick Theatre

Eight-year-old Henry takes our reviewer on a truth-seeking historical adventure. Birmingham Stage Company’s sensationally-scripted Barmy Britain II proves that satire for kids is in fine shape. At the Garrick Theatre.

The Garrick Theatre was buzzing with the energy of children, eager to see Birmingham Stage Company’sBarmy Britain II, the latest live performance of the popular television and Scholastic reading book phenomenon from Horrible HistoriesAs the wise child, Henry, aged 8, who accompanied me to the event pointed out, having followed HH since his seventh birthday, he knows that he can depend on its storytellers to give him historical facts which school books just don’t believe children can handle. Such wisdom at such a young age. I ask if he will help me rate the show afterwards. He seems unfazed by the responsibility.

After finding our seats in the stalls and, in response to Henry’s prompts, giving minute by minute announcements on when the show is due to start, we scrutinise the theatre left and right, floor to ceiling. When finally, not a moment too soon for Henry, the safety curtain rises, we view the stage set consisting of two long strips of material upstage ablaze with changing colour from stage lights. In front of the towering panels of light stand two ‘trees’, equidistant right and left of each other, loaded with props and costumes. Between them but further down, centrestage, is a multi-panelled cupboard/ cart-like contraption which becomes a source of wonder throughout the show.

I ask Henry what objects he recognizes on the stage. He points to one of the helmets hanging from the costume ‘tree’, upstage right. As natural as breathing, he then continues to say how the lighted panels, now bathed in a deep blue, look like ‘waterfalls of light’. I’m in awe of the description and ask if I can use it in my review!

Beams of dazzling magenta now frame the first performer, Anthony Spargo, of the duo who will play a host of characters between them. Spargo warms up the audience in traditional comic style, with witticisms and word puns. The laughs come throughout his routine of flinging out body parts of scalp, lungs and heart, to signal how the show will be ‘hair-raising’, ‘breath-taking’ and ‘heart-stopping’. He has Henry’s attention, his knowing smile says to me, ‘Yes! You are being as horrible as I know you can be’.

The contract between Anthony and audience is a done deal and the children cheer on the total irreverent hypothesis that Britain it a barmy place and its history proves that it’s so when suddenly and without warning, arrives the second performer, Lauryn Redding, dressed as a City of-Westminster traffic warden. She demands that our irreverent clown and his unlicensed cart ‘move on’. The wrangling between the duo cleverly introduces how the telling of history is mixed up with the social permission to speak in public and how history is contentious and complex.

The rest of the hour-long show consists of representations of key English historical figures: Queen Boudicca, Richard I (the Lionheart), Queen Bess and Queen Victoria. In between the VIPs, the audience also sees representations of ordinary people such as the barrow wheeler of medieval times who goes from house to house collecting the dead during the Black Death and the ‘Groom of the Stool’ of the Tudor era, responsible for wiping King Henry VIII’s bottom!

Terry Deary and Neal Foster craft a sensational script, which is also directed by Foster.  It is punchy and engaging, using many pantomime conventions: cross-dressing, the arrangement of popular songs with adapted lyrics, mock fighting and audience participation. Sound effects, either in the choregraphed action or within the scripted dialogue, never miss a beat and the use of dance styles such as rap, make the routines a wonderful way for the audience to travel between past and present.

Looking at Henry’s smiling face, I know he’s weathered the shocking yarns extremely well. On the other hand, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed when Henry beckons to tell me he gives the show four stars. Only four stars, I ask? He explains, ‘I didn’t like how the smoke was trying to cover up when they were changing their costumes. I could see through the smoke’. I probe a little.  What was so bad about that? Henry sticks to his point about how the smoke, for him, inadequately covers up the actors changing, barely obscured by smoke gushing from the smoke machine.

I have my own reason for giving the show four stars too due to what I feel is the show’s poor ending.  For me, it seems to abandon the dramatically interesting critical stance maintained throughout, for a fairly facile conclusion which attempts to say that our current leaders seem worse than the barmy characters presented in performance. What can the audience do with this historical comparison? Are Deary and Foster seriously putting forward that hundreds of years of English leaders who have worked for justice and democracy amount to nothing in human history?

I would have liked, in keeping with its pantomime style, a reprise that underscores the themes established by each of the Horrible Histories during Barmy Britain II. Each historical vignette was perfect in itself, beautifully constructed and presented by two extraordinarily talented young performers. In the end, I applaud their dynamic realisation of the fun of putting on a critical view of the past to better understand and interact with it in the present.

Date reviewed: Saturday 12th October 2013

The White Witch of Rose Hall

The Chilling Drama of Annie Palmer: The White Witch of Rose Hall at Broadway Theatre

A historical tale, set in the 1830s on one of Jamaica’s largest plantations. A story of power, sex and a fight for freedom, set against the backdrop of William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of slavery.

The White Witch Of Rose Hall, at the Broadway Theatre, Catford, proves once again that reality can be stranger than fiction. The historical tale, set in the 1830s on one of Jamaica’s largest plantations, Rose Hall, involves a powerful plantation owner, Annie Palmer, an honourable English supporter of William Wilberforce’s abolition of slavery campaign, Robert Rutherford, and an indomitable, spirited ‘free’ black girl, Millie. The interplay between race and sexual politics that binds the characters fuels this production.

Themes of sexual jealousy and human freedom make for great drama, as writer Simon Collier’s believable characters are brought to life by a strong ensemble. Gemma Rook as Annie Palmer is a frightening figure while Tom McCarron, as the steadfastly principled Robert Rutherford, is aptly vulnerable. Alicia McKenzie’s Millie is engagingly innocent – and yet maddeningly wilful.

Robert Rutherford acts as a catalyst for emancipation when his arrival at Rose Hall precipitates a series of tragic actions, arising from the plantation workers’ sense of injustice. The slave owners exploit their power to the full, and themes of gender, race and class emerge from a brutal household, where the housekeeper is a sexual slave and the plantation owner uses male slaves for her own sexual gratification.

What playwright Simon Collier makes brilliantly clear is that even at their apparent best, the Europeans hold on to their belief of cultural supremacy: for instance, the honourable Rutherford’s treatment of Millie never once hints that he sees her as his equal. Conversely, the black slaves who are movingly characterised as dispossessed African people, show the moral compromises they are forced to make as they learn the ‘benefits’ of European civilization.

The most testing aspect of the production for me was the barbarity shown towards the slave Abraham.  His torture was horrific and I confess to turning away from watching it.  But I don’t think it is just squeamishness that worries me about the staging of the scene. The gruesomeness of showing teeth-pulling on stage challenges Collier’s decision to work in a naturalistic style – as there are inevitably compromises that have to be made. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it would have been more powerful to leave something to the imagination.

Another qualm concerned the unresolved way the play deals with magic and voodoo. History shows us how magic can be a proxy for knowledge – be it of the human anatomy, the human psyche, control of language or the laws of science – in that it can feed power. It has often (along with superstition) been a powerful tool in power struggles and subjugation. This was touched on, but the sense of magic belonging to a culture ‘other’ to European, was not given the depth it could have been. Apart from the customary voodoo doll, we were given few clues as to the powerful magic that has allowed Annie to survive three husbands and maintain her Rose Hall fiefdom. I longed to be surprised by Annie’s skill in creating in Rose Hall a place to trap her subjects and bend them to her will – something which could also have been aided by some more ambitious set design.

Despite these points of criticism, The White Witch of Rose Hall deserves good audiences and much applause.  It is a vital story and a solidly good play. In the fullness of time perhaps it could grow into a great one in which the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular, is imagined as vital to the creation of an English cultural identity.

Date reviewed: Friday 11th October 2013

As You Like It

Comedy turned on its head: As You Like It at the Rose Theatre Bankside

 As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Her re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrativeensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It text.

The Rose Bankside’s As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy in significant ways, mainly by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Instead, Jaques the Melancholic gains a far more central role, with his monologue of ‘All the world’s a stage’ opening the play, cutting the first two and a half acts of the original, and reducing a 120-minute play to 75 minutes.

More significantly, the Bankside production ends with an image of death and the hunt, rather than with the comic convention of marriage, which in As You Like It sees Rosalind present, rather ironically, the woman’s view on marriage: ironic, that is, because the actor and the audience would be in on the joke that the words are spoken by a young man playing Rosalind. Instead, Jessica Ruano’s re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrative, I feel, ensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It.

Of course, license to interpret Shakespeare’s texts has been the prerogative of theatre directors ever since the Restoration of English theatres in 1662. One noteworthy rearranger of Shakespeare’s plays — the American director Charles Marowitz — proudly claimed, in the mid-1980s, that his rearrangement of Hamlet, Merchant of Venice and Othello was about destroying Shakespeare’s plays like you might smash a precious old vase. Speaking of his production of Hamlet at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre he explained that after smashing the vase in a thousand pieces, he intended to ‘take those pieces and put them back together… Shakespeare provides the vase and I provide the glue.’

I am jolted from the very outset of Ruano’s interpretation of As You Like It. I try to imagine the purpose of the production as a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s darker themes of wilful pride leading to social chaos as brother fights brother and rightful heirs are denied the inheritances they’re entitled to.  In eliminating the professional jester, Touchstone, the fools become those aimlessly pursuing true love and personal happiness in the Forest of Arden.

However, I remain unclear about what is gained by the re-arrangement. In the past, I have enjoyed the way that Touchstone, and through him Rosalind, ends up being caught up with the local country folk, Corin, Phoebe, Silvius and Audrey. To my mind, the plot complication this brings to the dramatic narrative amplifies the foolishness of the Court characters. I missed the banter, and in particular, Touchstone’s edgy risk-taking comments alongside his own foolish actions. Without him I believe what we are left observing is the immaturity of the young lovers romping about unimpeded in the forest.

I grant that such an approach may be interesting as ‘performance research’. Consequently, the production holds my interest through its use of space, particularly in lighting and sound designers Sarah Crocker and Luca Romagnoli’s, use of the watery lagoon (which conserves the foundations of the original Rose Theatre) as a backdrop of the drama. Suzanne Marie and Stacy Sobieski do a good job of portraying Rosalind and Celia as both strong and dynamic in showing young women caught up in the conflict between duty to parental demands and personal integrity.

Orlando and Jaques are also well portrayed as counter-balancing characters, by Matthew Howell and Andrew Venning. While Orlando believes in ‘true love’, Jaques has only contempt for it. However, the role of Oliver, played by Tom Hartill, was weakened by the simplified plot, so that his attraction to Aliena/ Celia seemed only to contradict his darker purpose. Similarly, the omission of Duke Frederick weakened the representation of Duke Senior and his band of forest outlaws and their need to continue to live away from the deathly advances of the younger Duke.

What we are left with is an arrangement of scenes showing that we live by sheer human will, mostly alienated and alone. With Touchstone nowhere to be seen, the space for the fool and foolish arrogance is also eliminated and the phrase ‘as you like it’ is emptied of its ironic meaning. When the play ended, with a deer being killed, I was disappointed — I’d been looking forward to hearing how laughter might sound in a re-imagined Forest of Arden.

Date reviewed: Saturday 5th October 2013

The Spanish Tragedy

An Appetite For Revenge: The Spanish Tragedy at the Blue Elephant

Lazarus Theatre productions never fail to grab you from the moment you enter the theatre. You step through into a world of mayhem as if stepping through an invisible membrane that divides you from where you’ve come. At the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is the fifth production I’ve seen by Lazarus Theatre since seeing Don Carlos at the Blue Elephant in 2011.  Now, as I come to anticipate coming to see another Lazarus production directed by Ricky Dukes, I find myself thinking: “Surely he is NOT going to use the smoke machine again?”

I also find myself wondering about Dukes’ strategic choice of working with only one style and form of theatre, albeit historically significant to English and European cultural identity. Then I come and view the show and once again I’m blown away by Dukes’ inventiveness, which in no small way includes assembling a cast and crew of creative people that work together like a magnificent orchestra, tensely tuned and stunningly dynamic.

So far, Lazarus Theatre productions have never failed to grab me from the moment I enter the theatre. I feel I step through into a world of dramatically interpreting Elizabethan and Jacobean mayhem as if stepping through an invisible membrane that divides me from where I’ve come.

This happens again for me as I move to my seat for The Spanish Tragedy and find actors “warming-up” on stage with a playful name game, revealing the names of the fifteen cast members. I note the piles of books strategically placed to signal the thinking as well as the acting work for the production. I also note how the design of calico drapes and red, white and blue bunting carry me further into of an imaginary Spain and Portugal, rather than any real geographical place.

I shift my gaze as the lighting reduces space through the use of a single spotlight directing me around the black box theatre. I hear the clarity of the actors’ voices as they speak Thomas Kyd’s lines, bringing meaning to each phrase, word and pause. And that’s only the first ten minutes into the production!!

Yet at a rational level, I know that this rather cumbersome play shouldn’t work. It should be dead and buried, along with its raw desire for bloody revenge dressed up in the poetic language of Elizabethan drama. But once again, I see how Dukes turns a seeming dramaturgical weakness into strength in a performance that shapes the dramatic action poignantly and melodramatically. I find myself viewing the actions, simultaneously knowing they are preposterous and criminally tragic.

The size of the cast carries the energy to fever pitch, showing how killing gives rise to more killings: Andrea’s ghost and Revenge (Joseph Emms and Maria Alexe) are the play’s master and mistress of ceremony for the act of revenge itself. Yet, as MCs, even they don’t seem to be able to predict the plots and counter-plots of vengeance. I find it an interesting choice that Revenge is a woman, referring back perhaps to the furies of Greek tragedies. The fact, however, that she is dressed in black, rather than, say, the red of Aeschylus’ furies, fits more aptly with Maria Alexe’s presentation of a colder and more strategically aware form of revenge.

What begins with the Spanish Andrea seeking vengeance for his own death at the hands of the Portuguese Balthazar in battle, however, in no time turns into the murder of Horatio in a courtly plot devised by the Spaniard Lorenzo and Portuguese Balthazar.  This in turn spurs Hieronimo’s avenging of his son’s, Horatio, death. Throughout it all, Dukes’ direction makes it startlingly clear how ineptly vengeance works as an instrument of justice. By the end of the play, the audience is no clearer than at the start whether justice has been done for Andrea’s ghost by Revenge, or, whether it is Hieronimo’s arrangement of the play-within-a-play for the Spanish court which, in setting up Bel-Imperia’s deathly blow, is the real cause of Balthazar’s demise. As I’m viewing the blood bath, I remember, too, why academics have argued that the play inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

All acting performances are strong and impressive, beginning in the play’s opening with Rosanna Morris portrayal of the King of Spain as the picture of pomposity at the centre of a morally suspect court, which seems out of its depth in international affairs. Spain might have won the war at the start of the action, but the audience sees it lose the peace as courtiers willfully brandish their ambitions pursuing the court’s top prize, marriage to Bel-Imperia. The courtiers Lorenzo and Balthazar, played by James Peter-Bennet and Jamie Spindlove, give solid portrayals of the awful willpower required to win at all cost. I view how the direction also makes very clear that it is love and death that couple in this court in alliances made on bad information of who did what to whom.

But more than anything, I am carried away by Danny Soloman’s Hieronimo, a portrayal of a father driven mad with grief. Soloman makes plausible the terror Hieronimo enacts on the court. I’m particularly impressed by the timing with which he shows the character’s abandonment of reason, beginning with his unwillingness to act then growing into to his role as a Master of Ceremony who brings death and mayhem through the play-within-a-play.

However, its hard to imagine how any of the actors’ strong performances or the designers’ symbolic use of props, costumes and lighting could be realized without Ricky Dukes’ understanding of the dramaturgical significance which The Spanish Tragedy might still hold for us today. Ultimately, I applaud how another Lazarus Theatre production resurrects past meanings of a play about how vengeful actions continue to live today. As I walk towards the exit I speculate with myself how the play might be renamed “The Tragedy of the Middle East” or “The Syrian Tragedy” or, even, by the name of some gangland tragedy in which spilling blood is mistaken for Justice.

Only great directors provoke us into such understandings. I believe Ricky Dukes to be one such director.

Date reviewed: Thursday 26th September 2013

Land of Our Fathers

The holy ground of the working class: Land of Our Fathers at Theatre503

Engaging from the outset, the play hits the audience with a mining disaster only seconds after an explosion that traps six miners. The fact that it is 1979 adds even greater tension. At Theatre503.

There are locations in every country that are invested with special significance because they symbolize a profoundly important event, like a battle or a religious experience. Arguably, English and Welsh coalfields, with their direct links to bringing about the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s ascendency as a global power, have come to signify both locations of bitter class warfare and places that call up mythologies about the character of the British working class.

So far, the most notable literature representing the lives of the miners who face almost perpetual danger underground has been the subject of such works as D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier and, more recently, playwright Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters. Now young playwright Chris Urch’s Land Of Our Fathers brings the coalmine once again to our attention, as he locates his first major work set in a collapsed mine site in South Wales.

Engaging from the outset, the play hits the audience with a mining disaster only seconds after an explosion that traps six miners. The fact that it is 1979 adds even greater tension as the audience listens to allusions of Margaret Thatcher’s impending political victory in the men’s conversations throughout the play. With ironic acuity, the playwright sets up another kind of disaster for the men, even if they manage to survive their current life-threatening crisis. It is this double threat which Chris Urch expertly crafts as his six characters face their lives on the brink of ending forever.

The result is the portrayal by an ensemble of six actors of characters trying to name what will be lost if they and their way of life disappear forever: the personal is political and visa versa. The cast is exceptionally strong and realise this intention with stunning truthfulness: Clive Merrison portrayal of Bomber is unforgettable in its understated way of showing a highly flawed yet honourable man; Patrick Brennan’s Chopper shows the ethical contractions of a Union leader who grows into the realization of the “poisoned chalice” he drinks from in order to fulfill his personal ambition; Paul Prescott’s Hovis is exemplary in playing the foreign Polish worker who, despite his brutalizing war-time experiences, retains a gentle humility; Kyle Rees as Curly is perhaps the most overtly entertaining as his oversized personality demands an end to the troubles the men find themselves in; Taylor Jay-Davies as Chewy works well as a freer spirit in opposition to more conservative characters and Joshua Price’s Mostyn is suitably innocent and awkward as the latest recruit.

The mood of the play is superbly created by designer Signe Beckmann and lighting designer Hartley Kemp. Viewing the dramatic action in the glittering black cavern makes me feel as if I am looking at a giant dirty pore of a living organism referred to as “the mine”. The trapped men continually indicated areas above them where other men with drills are supposed to be coming from to rescue them. At other times, they speak of other passages and caverns that might be reached by digging. These spaces within the mine hold the tantalizing, unreachable promise of release. Then somewhere, way above, exists a kind of promised land of homes, shops, pubs, families and friends. The audience comes to appreciate that it is the place from where the men draw their motivation to return each day to the punishing work underground.

To show this even further the playwright uses magnificent Welsh choir singing and Union camaraderie. Yet this is perhaps the most poignant irony built into the structure of the play, because rather than creating a compelling sense of the coalfield as a edifying source of human struggle, the tribal loyalty of belonging shows up how the miners censored each other’s ambitions and expectations in order to keep each man working in the mine. This is powerfully presented, for instance, in the arguments between the two brothers, Curly and Chewy, who begin the play in conflict due to Chewy’s decision to leave mining and go to Art School in London.

This is made even more powerful as the dialogue shows the depth and breadth of the men’s relationships through surprising twists and turns in their overlapping histories. For instance, Bomber and Chopper share a long friendship tinged with many betrayals, which involves Chopper’s difficult choice to abandon Mostyn’s young mother when she decides to keep and bring up their baby on her own. This is then connected in the drama with Mostyn’s sense of independence as his mother’s choice to give him life is linked to his own courage to come to know his father. One of the most moving monologues in the play is when the Mostyn tells Chopper that the fantasies of childhood are over and that he is prepared to accept the fact that he has been rejected by him because “…there’s nothing you could possible give me that I don’t already have”.

The monologue, which comes at the end of the play, feels like a declaration of independence of a younger generation who has nothing to gain from their fathers or from the “land of their fathers”. What the play shows is that it is more than broken bodies that are inflicted in the underground mines, it is a way of life in which intelligent men have no scope for further education and so also often break their minds and spirits in sticking to such harsh work. The ghosts of absent and alcoholic fathers who die on retiring from their mining work haunt the men, leaving their widowed mothers struggle on in dire circumstances.

The play ends halfway between truth and myth, with the vision of release, and symbolically a new life, remaining thwarted up to the very end. This is a great achievement by a young playwright with wisdom far beyond his age, whose understanding shows that the emancipation of workers from exploitation is still a work in progress.

Date reviewed: Friday 20th September 2013

London Stories

BAC-london-stories-33web_viewEpic storytelling: London Stories at Battersea Arts Centre

It is not like any festival I have ever attended, this festival of personal stories experienced intimately between the storyteller and just myself, plus another audience member. The revelations it brings about the power of stories will stay with me, possibly forever.

Battersea Arts Centre’s London Stories: A 1-on-1-on-1 Festival is uniquely positioned to become a most powerful form of participatory theatre. The idea is simple: begin with a sprawling building, like old municipal offices; invite in local people who feel they have life-changing experiences to tell about living their messy, complicated lives (that’s pretty much all of us), and organise ushers and staff to direct the moving traffic of paying audience members from story to story around the building.

The festival begins matter-of-factly enough. The audience stands at the foot of the marble staircase of the BAC, waiting to be called into the show. But then the black drapes barring the entrance onto the stairs serve as backdrop for BAC Artistic Director, David Jubb, to welcome us with a short explanation of how the A4 coloured card is our “ticket” and timetable for the evening’s performance of six stories from six storytellers. David further explains that we will experience the stories with three different audience members only (i.e. we share two stories with the same person), who are most likely to be no one we know. He informs us that the stories are performed all over the building, on the ground and first floor and in the basement, and quickly reassures us that we will receive assistance at every turn. I note how many of us are studying our coloured timetables with the same anxious look I feel I’m showing: “Right, what is it that he just said? Where do I go?”

With the curtains drawn, most of the audience walks up the staircase. A small group, of which I’m a member, is asked to move around to the right of the stairs and reach the first floor by an alternative route. I arrive before two seats outside a door displaying the title of the first story listed on my coloured card. The usher directs me to sit and wait to be shown into the room. This becomes the established pattern: the journey to the storyteller’s location, the short wait before entering the room, followed by the extraordinary intimacy of sharing a story with just a stranger.

What strikes me first on encountering the storytellers is their rawness and nervousness: these are not professional actors but well-rehearsed presentations. In this sense, the stories seem simultaneously both theirs and not theirs, created as they were through three weeks of workshop rehearsals and shaped for the purposes of this festival.  But nonetheless, I feel myself “just” listening: I’m listening to someone who like me has confronted illness, the death of a parent and the ethical dilemma of not knowing whether the way you acted was the best you could have done.

The storytellers I listen to, whose names I carry now in my memory as Hannah, Eleanor, Susannah, Lakeisha, Jane and Conrad, bring me into their lives. The “arts centre”, however, is their silent partner, making it possible for me to hear their voices. Each location with its “staged setting” supports their efforts to communicate their truth: for one story I sit in a dark space on one of only with three chairs: one occupied by Susannah describing her mother’s hospital bed.  For another I sit on the edge of one of two single beds with Jane sitting opposite me telling us of her love for her troubled husband whom she watched jump to his death, and  in another I sit on a bench in a passageway, looking at a young man, seated on a doorstep, telling how he has so far risen above the fate of men in his family who all seem destined to end up in gaol.

These are not just people chatting self-indulgently about their lives: these are storytellers practising an epic art form. I feel the stories like revelations. I feel their words hit my skin and I see my emotional responses flow back to the storyteller affecting the emotional tone of what is being said. I can only find compliments for any workshop rehearsal process which has given them the clarity with which they have shaped their stories: the economic use of language, the calling up of original metaphors and verbal dynamics are completely artful.

Wisely, the artistic director has designed a “spill out” room as the last destination, a space to just sit and have a cup of tea (free of charge) and speak about or write responses on card. David Jupp stands before us again, inviting us to place our written responses to individual stories on the artfully decorated boxes, which he calls “monuments” created by each storyteller. He reads a poem assembled from the workshops by the storytellers working as a collective.

The importance of London is held before us; lots of cities have a river flowing through them, but only London has the Thames. So I reflect on how the stories I have heard were told as if they flow through their London locations, carving out their unique path in the life of the city. The poem hits me as I recognise the edgy, messy wonder of the place.

Another revelation dawns on me. This is the first time I’ve experienced my role as an audience member as essential in the dramatic performance. It is the first time that I am not just part of “the audience”. Remarkably, the three audience members with whom I shared the experience did so as respectful strangers. Nonetheless, I remember them as vital to my experience of the stories: in one story I cried, so too did the other person; in another story we had agreed that, as older women and mothers, we wanted to take away our young storyteller’s conflict with her father. Interestingly, there were many exchanges of short, sharp expressions of “this is great theatre” between us. In the end, listening to stories about my fellow Londoners at the Battersea Arts Centre reveals how “inventing the future of theatre” is being realised there.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 17th September 2013
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Miranda Sings

Miranda Sings & Artful Talent: At Leicester Square Theatre

The phenomenon which is Miranda Sings at Leicester Square is the only show in the vicinity originating from being a YouTube sensation. Colleen Ballinger is a comic genius for creating the world of Miranda, the “relly tallented” star of the bite-size screen.

Miranda Sings, as its creator Colleen Ballinger tells The Times in 2010, is written as a character study of the girls in her college who “believed they could make a career out of putting videos on YouTube… clueless to the fact that they were terrible. The characters were so ridiculous, I wanted to make one of my own.”

And so a brand is born when Ballinger creates her talentless alter ego, Miranda, the presenter of over 200 YouTube videos of helpful hints, pop songs and voice lessons that have been viewed by millions online. The Miranda Sings brand also includes regular tours of Ballinger’s cabaret show around the world in venues like Leicester Square Theatre.

As I take my seat, however, I am only too aware that I am not a member of her YouTube generation, whom she refers to as her “Mir-fan-das”. On the other hand, I am not “hater” either, the term Miranda uses on her detractors who often leave obscene comments online for her to read. Instead, as a critic whose own children are part of her generation, I’m content to sketch out something of what I hear and see in Miranda Sings, as I would after returning from visiting a foreign country.

The first thing that strikes me in the show is how well the audience seems to know every detail about Miranda. I notice this as soon as the opening act gets underway and the presenter, Jason, mentions details about her that mean nothing to me but that are received with rapturous applause by the crowd. This is followed by an invitation for audience members to come up and show off their impersonations of her. Three hopeful candidates appear, all wearing her distinctive red lipstick, and perform her mannerisms in pulling faces, dancing badly and speaking in spoonerisms. During all this time, the communication between audience and presenter reminds me of friends who are sharing their common knowledge about someone they love.

The show then moves onto the second phase of warming up the audience when Colleen Ballinger herself comes out as Miranda’s understudy. Of course, I don’t get the joke at the time so I simply note how the young American performer possesses a magnificent voice. Her enactment of the popular comic song “Taylor, the Latte Boy” is wonderful.

The crowded auditorium, by contrast, is noisy with anticipation as Colleen begins to transform herself into Miranda. Applause explodes at every moment as she clips back her hair and covers up her elegant black lace dress with Miranda’s graceless fashion statement of tracksuit pants and bland long sleeve shirt.

The transformation sets the scene for Miranda to begin to share her unremarkable life through audience involvement, song and dance. For instance, an audience member is asked to read the mother’s part in a script she has written on her mother’s happiness at her birth. After this the audience is enthralled by a ridiculous song in which Miranda plays her baby self with her head through a hole in a bassinet.

I notice that the show is structured not like a variety show but more like a meandering river: the audience floats along through a slide show of Miranda’s childhood and teenage years, stopping to come ashore for intermission after the story of her first and only love. I see heads nodding as if to say “that’s right” and “yer, we know”.

In the second half, the subject moves from autobiography to Miranda explaining her recent successes. We are introduced to her dancers and, as she’s in London, she announces that she’s written a special tribute for the English on how Christopher Columbus discovered Britain! The room erupts at the ridiculousness of the announcement and the use of cardboard hats for props.

The ironic sense of history I feel at that moment makes me feel particularly old. However, the audience has no problem with it. They understand the effort she has made in sharing with them their common heritage of popular musical, films and the like: they are the children of London and Hollywood, of Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and celebrity Royal families. In that context, her ignorance of historical facts seemed infinitely forgivable when compared, for instance, to the righteousness and violent attitudes of her critics, whose hate mail Miranda also shares with her audience.

The final number is a magic trick in which her assistant puts a sword through her throat. Remarkably, Colleen Ballinger’s voice is heard every time the sword moves in and Miranda’s voice returns when it moves out. The audience seems to know that this is a signal to end the show. Farewells and standing ovations are made and given and then Jason invites loyal Mirfandas to form a line and meet Miranda in person. All but a few rush to do. However, I know it’s time leave.

A final irony for me exists in Colleen Ballinger’s relationship to her own talent. Only a good musician and singer could so consistently create the cacophony of sounds she makes alongside the notes of perfect pitch. Only a very good performer has the skills to move so consistently out of step and create the range of spoonerism in her language, more prolific than the original Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals. 

As I look back on the multitude that remains to see more of her, I know it will take me some time to fully understand what I have witnessed. In an intellectual sense, I know the parentage of her comic style: of her big clown-like red lips, of her bungling imperfections in Charlie Chaplin’s humble fool and of her contrived ugliness in the pantomime’s ugly dame. But she is none of these. All I know from seeing Miranda Sings is that between the hundreds of video clips and this “cabaret” exists a new kind of performance making whose talented creators have shown themselves worthy of this critic’s serious consideration.

Date reviewed: Thursday 12th September 2013


CELL at the Little Angel Theatre


Living with MND, not dying from it: CELL at the Little Angel Theatre

The message of the play is that people live with MND rather than simple die from it. I hope Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre have a chance to fully develop the living which their central character does with the condition. At the Little Angel Theatre.

Little Angel’s Hatch 2013 Festival is a showcase of work-in-progress performances by new and established puppetry performers and companies. The two companies in the mini-festival I viewed were Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre, who combine to stage CELL, the story of a man who goes from being diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease to becoming wheelchair bound. Like the most famous MND sufferer, Stephen Hawking, he comes to rely on a computer-generated voice. That voice is effectively the narrator of the show.

The production is an apt subject for a drama using the art of hand-held puppets. The distinction between the human movement seen in the energy and craft of the puppeteers make each movement by the puppet seem extraordinary. The contrast seems even sharper as I watch the characterisation of a man incrementally becoming less able to move. I note the beautifully contracted puppet as a fitting representation of “everyman”.

Awareness-raising theatre can easily deteriorate into didacticism. Thankfully in CELL the talent and intelligence of co-creators Matthew Lloyd, Molly Freeman, William Aubrey-Jones and Carly Mc Connell avoids the problem. This is mostly because they focus on imaginatively solving how the central character of their drama comes to live with MND. Again, this too might have succumbed to banality except that in choosing to show the quirkiness of a lone man living with his goldfish, the audience is able to watch everyday things slightly off-centre. Turning the life of the goldfish into a metaphor itself, the audience uneasily comes to understand the limits of experience on all of us.

The arrangement of the story shows the man living between his hobby of trainspotting, his home with the goldfish and his dealings with doctors and hospitals. This is effectively done with probing beams of light and the use of shadow puppetry upstage. Then comes a voyage on the Eurostar which takes the narrative to another level. The use of music and lighting is strongly suggestive of a man eking all that he can out of life.

This is not to say that this isn’t a work-in-progress: there’s more to be done on building the narrative and characterising the central figure and other roles in the drama. In particular, I believe that there’s more to be done in showing the progression of MND. The differentiation from first diagnosis to wheelchair seemed to me seemed still too generalised. If anything, like the computerised voice, the final grip of MND seems too uncontested.

Similarly, the events in and between the three locations which the character visits on his Eurostar journey seems very static and time-filling instead of revealing why the character chose to go on the voyage: was it a quest or just a holiday? Its purpose wasn’t clear and only a vague causality is implied between “living with MND” and “going abroad”. Nor does the drama seem to take into account that mobility is so much riskier when not in your usual habitat: why wasn’t this the case for central character in CELL?

I appreciate from the notes written online in the production’s rehearsal journal that the development of the second puppet is still very embryonic, but again dealing with essential motivation did not seem present. It took me some time to understand that the second character was not just another man who was meant to be a “healthy” body, reflecting back to the central figure his desire to be well again.

Nonetheless, this is potentially a very engaging and worthwhile drama of a life embraced by the challenged with motor neurone disease. The final message of the play emphasises that the best course of action is to see yourself living with MND rather than dying from it. If that is the case, then I hope Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre have a chance to further develop the living which their central character does with the condition.

Date reviewed: Saturday 7th September 2013

Gotta Sing Gotta Dance

Only in musicals… Gotta Sing Gotta Dance at Richmond Theatre

See this show. It will allow you to experience the beauty and grandeur of song and dance at its best. At Richmond Theatre.

The title of a theatre production is designed to provoke a reaction; Gotta Sing Gotta Dance had a decided effect on me, leading me to expect the usual fare of song and dance energetically contrived. What a surprise I was in for as I viewed the unfolding of a wonderfully coherent and original production that turned out to be a stunning exposé of the last sixty years of musical theatre.

It was clear to me the show’s success is founded on the knowledge and inventiveness of its director Chris Jordan, choreographer Nick Winston and musical director Chris Whitehead. They are also well supported by lighting designer Douglas Morgan, Clement Rawling on sound and Shelley Stevens on costumes.

Part nostalgia and overwhelmingly memorable, the show’s organisation of chosen songs is a winner. Using some chronological elements (for instance, the show opens with the musicals of the 1930s and 40s) songs are bracketed together for a number of reasons, each achieving an entertaining effect. For instance, there are brackets based on WW2 musicals (This is the ArmySouth Pacific) and others on the “jukebox” musicals of ABBA (Mamma Mia) and Michael Jackson (Thriller). There are even brackets of songs on musicals in which the central characters were nuns! Mostly though, the show delivers memorable tributes to musical theatre composers such as Sondheim, Bernstein and Lloyd-Webber.

The result is an interesting assembly of refreshing contexts for listening to and viewing the well-known musical hits of yesteryear and today. I particularly liked the tongue-in-cheek rivalry built into the presentation of English or American musicals. Using the famous Annie Get Your Gun song of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better”, the medley that followed played an interest contrast between British down-to-earthiness and American glitz. And then just as “The Lambeth Walk” ended the bracket, the subject is undercut with the introduction of “Stars” from Les Miserables and the French musical.

Undoubtedly for me, the strongest element that carries the show is the energy and versatility of its cast: Simon Adkins, Alison Dormer, Lucinda Lawrence, Rebecca Lisewski, David McMullan and Adam Rhys-Charles are stunningly talented individuals of musical theatre: they demonstrate why London is such a respected destination of viewing it. Even taking into account the latest in near-invisible microphones to amplify the voices, the quality of each cast member’s voice is noteworthy. This enabled the director to arrange the presentations as solos, duets, trios and other configurations with gusto.

The emotional effect of the selected songs works its magic on the audience. Encountering
some songs felt like meeting dear friends again. I found myself remembering when and where I’d heard the song in other productions over the years. Such a reaction said to me that the real “star” of the show was “the musical” itself and the way it so economically yet powerfully tells stories by creating deeply emotive moments for audiences to experience.

Gotta Sing Gotta Dance successfully steers away from cliches and shows us the way that musicals carry us into another world, like when in presenting Singing in the Rain it allows the audience to see behind the filming of Gene Kelly’s famous tap dancing routine. It is a very honest show which plays with the limits of the musical theatre form as much as its strengths. The three minute arrangement though West End musicals shows up how easily satire can be applied to it: it’s possible that everyone knows that life can’t be that easily condensed or stylised… except of course in musicals!

Date reviewed: Thursday 5th September 2013


Profumo The Musical

A musical about a scandal: Profumo The Musical at Waterloo East Theatre

Unfortunately, the Profumo The Musical gives us nothing new on the Profumo Affair. Everyone, including the Kray Brothers, seemed perfectly nice and ordinary. Can anyone remember what the fuss was about? At Waterloo East.

Profumo: The Musical, produced and written by Gordon Kenny, presents the events around the 1960s Profumo Affair in which John Profumo, Minister for War in Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, embarks on a scandalous love affair with young nightclub dancer, Christine Keeler.

Staged on the 50th anniversary of the “Profumo Affair”, the key question is why the scandal is worthy of attention given that it is only one of a very long line of sex scandals during that time. Even just a cursory overview of the last 50 years reveals that the mix of politics, power and crime around the Affair has to judged unremarkable given the recent depth of depravity around the Jimmy Saville affair,  the sheer shamelessness of Silvio Berlusconi and the stunning staging of the trial of former top Chinese politician Bo Xilai.

Maybe that’s just it: Profumo The Musical exploits our continuous appetite for the scandals & affairs reported on in the media. As its opening number “You’ve Never Had It So Good” shows in its frenzied interpretation of the 1960s, there is a ready audience to voyeuristically view the sexual appetites of powerful men. In fact, according to the show’s press release, the musical is a celebration of the anniversary of the affair. However, as I viewed the musical, I became more and more unconvinced that it came anywhere near exploiting the controversies around the historical incident of how powerful men like Profumo have a habit of straying into the world of desperate young women, sleazy nightclubs and the criminal class.

Instead, the musical constantly chops and changes its viewpoint through its fourteen songs, more like a collection of tracks at a concert: each song giving the audience a glimpse of something potentially interesting, but none building towards a climax or finding a sufficiently strong denouement. I noted at least seven different themes that were left hanging by the end of the show: the exploitation of runaway young girls; the sexual appetites of powerful men; post-WW2 black migration; 1960s anti-establishment ideology; English class warfare; espionage & Cold War politics; and London’s criminal class.

Using such a rich mix of themes and episodes should be a strength in a production: unfortunately, inProfumo, the basic dramatic elements such as the set, lighting and costume design neither located any of the scenes nor give them an aesthetically satisfying feeling. A blandness hovers around the characters on stage. This impacts on the characterisation of key figures particularly badly: resulting in the unfortunate effect that the characters of Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies are neither particularly sexy or desperately manipulative. Instead, they moved from cliched fame-seekers in songs such as “Movie Queen” to deliverers of moral messages in other songs such as “Bloodsuckers”. They also compete for the limelight with John Profumo and Steven Ward, who give their own side of the story in “Porno Blues” and “Jack in the Box”.

There is nothing to cry or laugh about in the show. More to the point, there is absolutely nothing that seems even vaguely shocking in the drama. The musical’s parodying of the Krays and Labourites Harold Wilson and Barbara Castles is simplistic. If only the Krays were a pair of buffoons knocking around London, spreading their charm. If only political events could be summed up over a cup of tea! Except for a couple of moments in the show, namely “Order In The House” and “Jack In The Box”, the mercilessness of criminals and politicians were bypassed for an easy sentimentality.

I felt in the end that Gordon Kenny did not believe in the strength of his own subject matter. The Profumo Affair offers a brilliant subject matter to created an edgy, hard-hitting drama but it requires the writer, director and the designers to break out of any ready-made musical genre formulae. The Profumo Affair is nothing if not complex and sordid: perhaps Profumo The Musical exemplifies the extent to which we have become desensitised to that sordidness.

Date reviewed: Thursday 29th August 2013