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Review: Sweeney Todd – Festival Theatre, Chichester

Beware the quiet ones. The most chilling and dark murderers tend to be those you would never suspect and, in Jonathan Kent’s sublime revival of Sondheim’s Gothic opera, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber journeys from the everyday to maniacal with alarming quiet.

Sondheim’s darkest musical takes a look at a wronged barber who quietly plots revenge on corrupt Judge Turpin for the loss of his family and as a by-product manages to supply his landlady, Mrs Lovett, with a plentiful supply of fresh, if somewhat unorthodox, meat for her ailing pie shop.

This is a Sweeney who lets revenge bubble and simmer just below the surface until his desire for revenge and retribution results in a feast of blood letting and gore. Cool calm and calculating, Sweeney seems to the outside world the model businessman but inside the rage is burning.

Alongside the anger there are also raging passions. Todd still passionately in love with his lost wife and daughter, and Mrs Lovett is willing to go along with the most heinous of crimes just to be close to the man for whom she bears unrequited love.

Kent’s suitable shadowy monochrome production lifts the piece from its traditional Victorian setting to the 1930s. It is a transposition not fully free from problems with some anachronistic references but it does add an air of timeless quality to the piece, moving away from melodrama to a contemporary, if chilling, realism.

Anthony Ward’s slick industrial staging adds a sense of decay to the piece, while Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical direction draws out both the grand operatic and intimate.

Michael Ball in the title role proves to be a revelation; virtually unrecognisable and at a polar opposite of the more loveable roles he normally plays, Ball delivers a performance of chilling intensity, a brooding presence that shifts from the almost whisper to the operatic. There is malevolence in his eye but also a sparkle of fun and charm that engenders trust in his victims and makes this coiled spring a danger that could explode at any moment. It is a hypnotic performance that commands the stage.

There is also a delightful return to her musical theatre roots by Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, commanding the audience from her initial entrance and proud proclamation of selling ‘The worst pies in London’. Staunton’s comic pedigree is in no doubt, relishing the gore with unashamed glee but here is a women driven by her passions, barely repressing her infatuation with Todd and an inner yearning to be loved. There’s also a sense of poignancy and despair here, a loneliness that drives her to seek escape in any form. Here is a woman who has an abundance of love to share, an outlet that when it finds no response from Todd diverts itself towards an adoptive son, Toby (an impressive James McConville)

It would be easy for these towering performances to overwhelm a production, but the grandness of scale allows plenty of space for the supporting ensemble. There are strong performances from Luke Brady as Anthony and Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford but John Bowe’s Judge Turpin and Lucy May Barker’s Johanna seem oddly undersung.

Although close, this isn’t quite a faultless production. Jonathan Kent’s direction never gets to grips with the Chichester thrust stage, resulting many in the side seats looking at the back of the actors for most of the show. Given the pedigree of the show, one suspects this has been designed with a London transfer in mind, and it will be a worthy addition to the London stage; it is just a shame that the blocking has been compromised for its current location.

Despite the niggles this remains a dark, chilling and soaring Sweeney Todd and a reaffirmation of the power of this dark gothic opera.

Review: Wretch – Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester

Better the devil you know. But when that devil is in ourselves, and a dark inner demon that leads us down a tortured road, is it wise to listen to that voice?

Gari Jones’ solo show is a dark, abrasive examination of the inner voice of a deeply disturbed individual. How much is real, how much is fantasy – a product of the disturbed mind – is subject to question.

Peering into this mind is never a clear view, a view reflected in the opening scene of Jones taunting his audience through a wall of plastic, distorted and partially hidden. The plastic is soon ripped apart, slashed with a knife to reveal a squalid room and an equally squalid man. It is a confrontational start to a relentlessly confrontational play that never lets its audience relax. Drug abuse, self harm, cross dressing, auto-erotic asphyxiation, and physical violence all feature heavily.

Is this one man, a montage of men, or indeed is the man even real at all? Wretch doesn’t provide easy answers and in many ways that is how theatre should be, but here while you admire the strength of the performance the end result is as hollow as the dark eyes that stare out at the audience.

The ability of theatre to shock and offend is a powerful tool and can be wielded with real impact. In Wretch however, one often feels that it is shock for shock’s sake and the relentless brutality would have been better served with more light and shade rather than the continual onslaught. There are attempts at comedy interjected; surreal karaoke interludes, but these only serve to drive the narrative down a darker, twisted route.

The relentless depravity could work if the writing was stronger to support it; however Jones’ script lurches from subject to subject so much that it’s difficult to ascertain what we are supposed to take from it. The combined role of writer, director and performer needs a ruthless editorial streak but here it looks like Jones’ hasn’t had the courage to step back from his monster creation to question the choices made.

Vanja Sheremetkoski’s projections onto Amy Yardley’s filthy set add some depth to the piece and are well executed but, ultimately, they serve to highlight the fragmentary nature of the rest of the piece.

Jones does deliver a performance of chilling intensity, a man both held together and torn apart from the voices in his mind, but we never really get to understand the man behind the barrage of words. The promotional material gives two definitions of Wretch; a despicable person or a person pitied for his misfortune. Sadly we never really get to examine this duality in a production that offers much but ultimately is as obscured as the filthy windows the protagonist peers through.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Passion Of Trojan Women – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

The most chilling tales in the aftermath of war and conflict often come from the civilian population. Across the centuries we hear repeated anecdotes of suffering from the women and families far away from the front line. Euripides captured the suffering of Cassandra, Hecuba, Clytemnestra, Polyxena, Helen and the rest of the unfortunate Women of Troy, but it’s a tale that has been retold, revised and revisited across the generations.

Now Italy’s Cantieri Teatrali Koreja has taken an international ensemble to explore these tragic themes through movement, percussion, music and drama. Multiple languages merge and fuse to create a work full of rhythm and ritual, a feeling that this is a timeless tale repeated through the ages.

There’s a strong sense of ritual but, alongside the controlled and processional precision, there is also a Bacchic frenzy, whipped up by passion and frustration. The two are intricately balanced with a sense that, despite the desire to conform and maintain normality in the face of horror, the primal urge to scream and fight is just below the surface.

There is also a strong sense of the power of women when united. Despite the oppression of individuals, there is a resilience and strength when acting as a whole.

There are strong performances across the multi-national ensemble of Gina Isaac, Vladimir Tuliev, Tanya Gigova, Alina Czyewska, Antonella Lallrenzi, Vito De Lorenzi and Mariarosaria Ponzetta. Giorgia Maddamma’s movement creates a rich, multi-layered visual feast while De Lorenzi’s percussive underscoring is integrated into the drama seamlessly.

The ensemble staging does make it difficult to fully engage with individual characters at times and the comedy climax slightly detracts from the power of the piece but, overall, this is an engaging piece of physical theatre that transcends language barriers.

Orginally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Eve Ryman – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

The one journey we all face is that inevitable journey towards our final moments. It’s a journey that every man must take, or here that Eve Ryman (think about it!) takes. A woman who finds the sum of her life’s work being examined and tested as she faces death.

A collaboration between six women and six languages, Eve Ryman takes the familiar tale and gives it a contemporary twist. Regardless of our culture or beliefs, this is the final confrontation we all take, giving a shared understanding of the piece.

Devised and written by Janice Dunn, in collaboration with performers from Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, Denmark, Macedonia and England, this female ensemble guides an audience both physically and metaphorically through this fateful journey.

This is a journey of discovery as the audience are led through areas of the Mercury Theatre not normally associated with performances. We meet Eve first as a strolling balladeer in outside the main building and, as we progress through the building, we discover more of the characters in her life and indeed Death herself. The studio theatre, the foyer, the box office counter, the main auditorium, backstage and the exterior, all utilised to give a sense of progress and journey.

There are moments of breathtaking beauty around the building, strong uses of imagery, movement and sound climaxing in Eve’s eventual death in the theatre’s garden. Surrounded by burning tapers and draped in crimson silk, the audience are invited to pay homage with a plethora of white roses. It’s a moving climax to the hour we’ve grown to know Eve. This though is a celebration of life, rather than a dark journey into death – as the show ends we are urged to make the most of our lives and as the cast enter into a euphoric Eastern European folk dance its an oddly life affirming moment, despite the chill damp air.

Dunn’s direction copes well with the constantly shifting locations, shepherding the audience and performers along with pace without ever feeling rushed. The ensemble cast of Clare Humphrey, Maria Lohmann, Emanuela Pisicchio, Aleksandra Gronowska, Iva Ognianova and Sanja Arsovska overcome any language barrier with performances full of conviction and fun.

There are moments where the ad-hoc locations cause some sight line issues and there are moments that leave you confused as to the message being portrayed. In many ways, though, that just reflects our everyday lives, often an obscured view and a confused path.

A strong start to the Mercury Theatre’s International Festival and a clear demonstration that drama can easily cross national boundaries to create a tale that resonates with every man and woman.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Top Hat – Theatre Royal, Norwich

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance. And dance away any troubles they certainly do in a spectacular that doesn’t put a foot out of place.

Irving Berlin’s musical first aired as the 1935 movie vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but now makes its overdue stage premiere. Unlike many film to stage adaptations, however, this one fits well, perhaps aided by the sheer showbiz theatricality of the original.

American song and dance man Jerry Travers heads to London to star in his first West End musical but, on arrival, in the UK his head is distracted by an infatuation with the woman of his dreams, Dale Tremont. Travers’ seduction technique is somewhat unorthodox – tap dancing in the room above Miss Tremont’s through the night, terrorising her on a horse and carriage, and swamping her with an entire florist’s stock.

It’s hardly surprising then that Tremont’s stock reaction is to slap Travers.

The course of true love is further frustrated by a misunderstanding of Travers’ true identity but, despite the hurdles placed before him, he’s determined to fly across Europe to get his girl, whether she likes it or not.

This is a gloriously unashamedly old fashioned musical, though here that’s not a derogatory term; a celebration of bygone style with Hildegard Bechtler’s Art Deco sleek set and Jon Morrell’s opulent costumes evoking the period perfectly.

Matthew White’s direction makes great use of the fluid set, whisking from location to location and mixing show stopping spectacle with the intimate love story. As befits the Astaire/Rogers heritage, Bill Deamer’s choreography literally taps up a storm with enough references to that golden age of film choreography but still kept fresh and relevant. From the lavish tap precision extravaganza of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails through to the sweeping romantic Let’s Face The Music And Dance, Deamer’s spot-on routines perfectly complement Irving Berlin’s classic score.

The Astaire and Rogers shoes are daunting steps to follow, however Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen more than rise to the challenges.

Chambers may not be the strongest singer on the stage but it works with the character. He oozes charm and masters those Astaire steps with flair. Summer Strallen’s West End pedigree shines through with soaring vocals but there is also an inner torment here of a woman torn between her affections and her perceived barriers to love. There’s a nice chemistry between Chambers and Strallen and both manage to stamp their own identity on the roles to avoid comparison with their famous predecessors.

Top Hat, however, is more than a two-person show and the entire company shines. There are strong supporting performances from Vivien Parry and Martin Ball as the warring Hardwicks and a show stealing comic turn from Stephen Boswell as Hardwick’s put upon valet, Bates.

In true ‘the show must go on fashion’, a technical issue with the set didn’t faze the company on the first night in Norwich but, apart from this slip up, this is a smooth, slick and sumptuous production.

The 1930s and 40s were seen as the golden age for glamorous movie musicals and this lavish production brings that glamour and spectacle to stage with panache. Here is a show that isn’t afraid to be traditional and wear its heart on its sleeve. It is lush, lavish and doesn’t put a foot out of place. As one of the characters says in the show ‘everyone loves it, even the critics are laughing’ and this critic, along with the rest of the capacity audience are likely to be taping their feet for days.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Jack Sheppard – New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich

Rogues, vagabonds and thieves, and that’s just the legal profession in 18th Century London town. Allegedly based on a true story, Ken Campbell’s Jack Sheppard is full of larger than life characters that inhabit the shady corners of a crime-ridden London.

Carpenter Jack Sheppard (not to be confused with the lead in TV series Lost) turns to a life of petty crime. Soon he is mixing with such colourful characters as Wozzy Fields, Dribbling Wilf, Porty McFigg and Edgeworth Bess. In the Black Stallion dastardly deeds are afoot with double crossing leading all too easily to the hangman’s noose.

Such colourful characters are an actors dream and for young actors such as the New Wolsey Youth Theatre the opportunity is one to relish.

Campbell’s anarchic style, however, comes with the temptation to overplay the surreal, when to be really effective the trick is to play the absurdness straight, letting the humour come from the characters. Sadly the production this time falls into that trap, overplaying the mania and turning the comedy into pantomime.

It is a real shame as there are some nice performances amid the madness. There’s nice character detail from Ben Horrex as innkeeper Joseph Hinds and Matt Styles as simpleton sidekick Wozzy Fields, while Morgan Evans’ Dribbling Wilf certainly lives up to the name.

There’s also strong performances from Jordan Harrington as Jonathan Wild, a foppish Thief Taker General and a scene-stealing James Adams as the urchin narrator.

George Harvison as Sheppard exudes a cheeky charm but perhaps needs a darker edge to convince as the chancer criminal.

Elsewhere the tendency to turn to pastiche detracts and the exuberance sometimes comes at the expense of character development and dramatic clarity. This energetic style also results in some lack of vocal diction, which in a space as small as the New Wolsey Studio becomes all too noticeable.

Rob Salmon’s direction would benefit from dialling back the anarchy a few notches and allowing the chaos to develop more organically.

Salmon also designs the production and it’s an impressive themepark setting that makes great use of the space to conjure up an authentic tavern and courtroom.

The New Wolsey Youth Theatre can always be relied on to come up with the unexpected and that bravery and ambition in programming is to be commended but, sadly, the choice of Jack Sheppard proves not to be their finest hour.

Campbell’s anarchic style may echo with the young cast but the final result is less than the sum of its parts; you admire the spirit and effort but not the overall whole.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

The phrase ‘lost classic’ is often enough to strike fear into any theatre critic. Often there is a reason these plays have been sitting on the shelf but just occasionally that cynicism is unfounded and the discovery turns out to be a true gem.

Such is the case with Eclipse Theatre Company’s vivid reclaiming of Don Evans’ 1980 comedy One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

One the face of it this is your typical run-of-the-mill comedy of manners, a preacher and his wife try to climb the social ladder in middle-class Philadelphia – a situation found in countless comedies across the centuries. Where Evans’ script plays the trump card, however, is the twisting of the expected norms.

The Averys are a black family in a predominantly white suburb, though the culture clash is with other sectors of the black community. The Reverend, though outwardly preaching fire and brimstone, is tormented by sexual frustration, and the women are not as naïve as first appear. Sparks fly as repressed emotions are finally unleashed to great comic effect.

Evans’ script works well and deserves revisiting on its own merit but what makes this production truly fly is Dawn Walton’s inspired decision to stage the entire production as an episode of a sitcom. Think The Cosby Show meets Sheridan’s The Rivals and you get the idea. The staging, complete with TV pantograph lighting, on-air signs and canned laughter creates a perfect environment for the comedy to unfold. The concept somehow makes the over-the-top heightened comedy seem conversely real and allows room for the on-form cast to create some wonderfully vivid characters.

Jocelyn Jee Esien’s upwardly aspiring Myra is a pure delight, awfully snobbish despite her tendency to drop in inappropriate Malapropisms and cod French, each movement and inflection a masterclass in how to create a believable comedy creation. There is also fine work from Roger Griffiths’ repressed Avery, Issac Ssebandeke as wayward son, Felix, and Daniel Francis as rebel of the family, Caleb.

Despite the men’s best intentions it is, however, the women who hold the upper hand. Alongside Esien’s tour de force performance there are strong performances from Jacqueline Boatswain in the dual roles of Mozelle and Mrs Caldwell, and Michelle Asante as Felix’s love interest, L’il Bits. Rivalling Esien’s claim on top honours, however, is Ayesha Antoine’ Beverley, transforming from not so innocent country girl into a strong independent woman, able to steer her own fortune.

Watson’s direction plays the comedy hard and fast and it suits the piece well, building up the energy but counterpointing this with well-observed monologues that give a more rounded view of these vivid characters.

Libby Watson’s set is a visual treat, highly detailed and contrasting the ostentatious opulence of the Averys with the slightly more practical, if run-down, home of Caleb.

A true test of any radical staging of a work is the consideration if it seems radical when watching or perfectly normal and it’s testament to Eclipse’s attention to detail that it is difficult now to imagine One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show being staged in any other manner. Sparkling dialogue, well drawn characters, spirited direction and some of the finest comedy performances you will see this year make this show one that you’d want to see repeated and repeated.

It is hard to see anything stopping this fine show.

Review: Dracula – Claydon and Brantham Village Hall (Touring)

Horror and comedy are inexorably linked. How often in a supposed gothic horror do you find yourself sniggering at the absurdity of the situation? Laughter is of course also an outlet for nervous tension and in The Keeper’s Daughter’s new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, laughter plays a key role.

Part Victorian melodrama, part gothic horror, part farce this is the tale of the Transylvanian Count as never told before.

As young Lucy Westenra receives marriage proposals from three potential suitors, a strange puncture mark on her neck begins to cause strange side effects. Despite numerous blood transfusions Lucy dies but doesn’t stay in her grave for long. Queue a mad dash across Europe, gun-totting Texans, creaking doors, gender swapping narrators and plenty of blood.

Mark Finbow’s adaptation has great fun with the source material. Though played for laughs, there are still moments of chills in true Hammer Horror style. It’s a highly inventive production that takes this highly familiar tale and turns it on its head. The Count himself only makes a fleeting appearance; instead we focus on those impacted by the Transylvanian blood lust.

Played against an almost bare stage with minimal lighting, this inventive production shows that you don’t need huge budgets to create memorable theatre. With good use of shadows there is an atmosphere here of spooky tales being told around a camp fire. There is also great use of that most underused of theatrical tricks darkness, disembodied voices echo out from around the audience building tension nicely. It is a shame more use isn’t made of this building menace to really disorient the audience.

Holly James, Stephen Drury, Alice Motram, Benjamin Willmott and Finbow himself create this hotchpotch of madcap characters, swapping roles throughout to keep the action flowing. With exaggerated gothic make up and a lose grip on reality there’s more than the lunatic Renfield in this asylum.

There are moments when the pace does drop and the ending does seem slightly rushed but at this early stage of the tour these are easily rectified. The performances also seem slightly cramped on this stage; however, that is one of the drawbacks of touring to village halls and non traditional performance spaces.

Although based on Stoker’s classic novel, this is very much a new show, while those expecting a traditional retelling may be disappointed, there’s enough tongue in cheek humour here to please all ages. For those willing to go along with the fun it’s an enjoyable, madcap and even at times spooky ride.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Invisible – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Our society is an ever shifting medley of characters shaped by the influence of cultures from around the world. In the past this influence has come from the countries historical roots as a major seafaring and trading nation, but now it’s just as likely to be shaped by economic migration. Despite centuries of migration communities are perhaps more isolated than ever before, unaware of those around them.

Tena Štivičić’s play looks at two distinct sectors of the community, both interacting but never fully recognising each other until a fateful event throws them violently together. They are indeed, as the title suggests invisible to each other.

There is though another level of obscurity here, the faceless voice of authority – here never seen, portrayed as a disembodied voice behind a frosted screen. Frustrating and rigid, never comprehending the human impact of the procedure.

Two sectors of society, ‘Fortress Europe’ and ‘The Others’ go about their daily lives virtually isolated. Migrants struggle to integrate and comprehend the workings of their new home while longer term residents struggle with the prospect of understanding new cultural opportunities.

This is an epic, weighty piece with interwoven threads never fully unravelling until the final moments and running at two hours without an interval it is often gruelling viewing.

Štivičić’s script is impressive in its breadth but it feels like it is attempting to cover too much, with the result that some scenes resemble little more than sketchy outlines than fully fledged drama. As such the script could easily be trimmed making for a much tighter narrative and greater impact.

There is some powerful dialogue in the piece and the end confrontation between the two communities is beautifully written but other scenes, such as the comic look at American immigration interviews, though nicely performed, add little to the narrative drive.

The scale of ambition also means that we only ever get fleeting glances of many of the characters. Perhaps this is intentional; to represent the constant see of human traffic, but it makes for fragmentary viewing.

The international company provide an impressive ensemble performance with Anna Elijasz and Jon Foster’s final duet being particularly memorable.

Douglas Rintoul’s direction, together with Darren Johnston’s choreography plays up the ebb and flow motion of migration, though at times the stylised movement does detract the eye from what is essentially the intimate.

Invisible is an epic attempt to capture epic themes and is impressive in its scale and performance, ultimately though the attempt to cover so much results in a weakening of the whole. With some judicious cutting there is potential for a gripping play here. In the current form however, it still seems a work in transit.

Review: Those Magnificent Men – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Fame is fleeting. Ask most people who was first to fly across the Atlantic and they’ll probably say Charles Lindberg. He was in fact only the 104th person to fly the Atlantic. Eight years earlier, two Englishmen made the maiden nonstop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Their names may now be remembered only by ‘weirdoes, bores and Airfix kit freaks’ but, at the time, these aviation pioneers were international superstars.

History also has the tendency to be rewritten, both by those involved in monumental events to boost their appeal, and more common by later generations looking for added glamour and sparkle.

Both this historical tale and the resulting airbrushing of historical fact form the base for Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s warm and witty comedy.

In June 1919 John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown find themselves thrown together in a partnership that sees them cross the Atlantic together with their flimsy canvassed covered Vickers Vimy converted twin engine bomber. As the pair race against other competing teams to claim the £10,000 prize for the first non-stop crossing the English gentlemanly spirit seems at odds with more polished efforts of their competitors.

All seems a fairly straightforward retelling of this forgotten tale, but the problem is our actors can’t quite agree on the story. Alcock believes passionately in historical accuracy while Brown is keen to spice things up to entice a Hollywood action bio pic.

There’s precedence in Alcock and Brown’s own accounts of the flight, both of which contain small, subtle difference.

The tale itself, though, really needs no enhancements; the men’s tale from World War One prison camps, to their historic triumphant 16½-hour flight in a flimsy open cockpit plane is the stuff of pure action adventure but with the twist that this actually happened.

Although Mitchell and Nixon’s script is packed full of comedy it also manages to be deeply poignant and touching, looking at a partnership that only lasted a year but shaped not only aviation history but also had a deep impact on a personal level. It is also a production that remains timeless, dealing with the 1919 flight as well as taking pot shot at the current trend of Hollywood to gloss over historical inaccuracies.

This is a lovingly crafted production, full of beautiful touches, from the news-sheet ‘lavish souvenir brochure’ through to the RP accents – every detail evokes the sense of a golden age in endeavour.

Ian Shaw and Richard Earl deliver faultless performances as the aviators, perfectly balancing the historical facts with spot on comedy. Daniel Buckroyd’s direction moves the piece along at great pace while still allowing time to emotionally connect with the duo.

There is ingenious staging from Helen Fownes-Davies and her packing case strewn set that transforms into a recreation of the Vickers Vimy plane in front of our very eyes. Tragically these aviation pioneers soon faded into historical obscurity and six months after the record breaking flight one was dead and the other would never fly again.

Lindberg may have had his Spirit of St Louis but in Those Magnificent Men it is the Spirit of Alcock and Brown that soars. A first class flight.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews