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Review: Abigail’s Party – Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich

Long before Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me threw five mis-matched party guests together, Mike Leigh had beaten them to it, creating the cocktail party from Hell.

Abigail’s Party may now be over 30 years old but, in Two Rivers Theatre Company’s production, Leigh’s brutally dark comedy remains as fresh as ever.

In late 1970s suburbia, the dresses are nearly as loud as the wallpaper and, for hostess Beverly, her guests are little more than flies caught in her spider’s web.

There’s little to bind these five together apart from living on the same street and, fuelled by Beverly’s incessant pouring of alcohol, it’s not surprising that tensions are high and sparks begin to fly.

New neighbours Angela and Tony may initially seem happily married but there’s something missing in their relationship. She, the slightly dizzy nurse eager to impress, he, the target of Beverly’s predatory advances. Long term neighbour Susan is taking refuge while her rebellious daughter, Abigail, holds a wild party next door but would rather be anywhere else and Beverly’s long suffering husband, Lawrence, would rather be anywhere else.

It is all too easy to play these characters as monstrous caricatures but the real success of this production is to play the characters as totally believable, over the top and unlikeable yes but characters that the audience can painfully identify with.

Brian England and Jon Pettman’s Lawrence and Tony may think they wear the trousers in their respective marriages but it’s the women who have the strongest hand here.

Petra Risbridger’s dizzy Angela is delightful comic creation, easily led and gullible but with an openness to say what perhaps the others are only thinking. Val Eldridge’s Susan would rather be anywhere else than here, uncomfortable and out of place, it is a beautifully subtle observation.

Then there’s Georgy Jamieson’s Beverly, a turquoise eye-shadowed horror. Casting away any shadow of Alison Steadman’s iconic original, Jamieson is mesmerising, it is like watching an accident unfold, appalling yet gripping. Predatory, aggressive and shocking – this is a woman used to getting her own way. Yet, on the other hand, there is a sadness and vulnerability about her, unloved and insecure, her bullying is perhaps compensation for an inner sadness.

Dennis Bowron’s direction keeps the action, as well as the drink, flowing playing the action straight and allowing the laughs to come from the characters rather than gimmicks. There are moments in the second act where the pace drops slightly but this is easily rectified during the run.

Barry Eldridge’s design is full of spot on period detail, from the compulsory fibre optic light to the gaudy large print wallpaper.

Though audiences are unlikely to ever willingly admit it, there are many character traits on display that we can all recognise and, unlike the ubiquitous cheese and pineapple sticks, as long as people are hosting neighbourly gatherings, Abigail’s Party is unlikely to go out of fashion.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Sherlock Holmes..The Last Act, New Wolsey Theatre

For an address that doesn’t actually exist, 221b Baker Street is one of the most recognisable addresses in London. Recent films and TV adaptations have of course added to the allure, but in truth the appeal of one of literatures most famous fictional detectives has never really gone away.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novels have also spawned a number of sequels, plays, and adaptations and David Stuart Davies’ Sherlock Holmes.. The Last Act looks at a fading Holmes at the end of his life.

Part biography, part flashback, this one man show sees Holmes return to that famous Baker Street address one last time for the funeral of long term friend and assistant Watson. It is an address filled with ghosts and memories as Holmes recounts the long history the duo had and the challenges they faced fighting fiendish crimes.

For those expected the trademark Sherlock Holmes mystery though, they may be in for a surprise. This is a much more personal look at the character of Holmes and a man struggling to come to terms with a loss of sharpness. For a man used to relying on his razor sharp intellect, the decline into old age, accelerated by years of cocaine abuse, is hard to take.

There are flashbacks to Holmes’ past glories including the notorious Hound of The Baskervilles and an appearance from arch nemesis Moriarty, but at its heart this is the tale of the sometimes strained, but always admirable relationship between Holmes and Watson.

As a renowned Sherlock Holmes expert Davies’ script does, at times, assume that the audience are familiar with the Conan Doyle cannon. For those not familiar with the work there are moments that confuse and, while the monologue format does suit the vocalisation of Holmes’ internal thoughts, it is hard to sustain attention over two 45 minute acts.

Roger Llewellyn’s performance however does impress, switching between multiple characters, yet always maintaining the dignity of Holmes. With minimal set and props Llewellyn moves us from his very first encounter with Watson to their final meeting. Never leaving the stage it’s an impressive solo performance that manages to shake of any pre-conceptions from previous adaptations.

The ending would benefit from some work as the emotional climax is lost by a somewhat cheesy final few moments and there are sections that could be cut without any great detriment to the whole. Sherlock Holmes fans will find much to enjoy here but for those less familiar with the source material, while they may enjoy the skill of the performance, the overall impact may leave them feeling slightly cold.

A case of unanswered questions never being fully explained.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: The Debt Collectors – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

There are certain constants in theatre. Latecomers will always have tickets in the middle of a row, the person behind you will always have the noisiest of sweets to unwrap, and a glance at the cast biographies in the programme will reveal several ex-cast members from The Bill.

Now that esteemed TV drama has come to an end, have you ever wondered what all those actors are now doing when not on stage?
John Godber’s latest comedy, The Debt Collectors, looks at two out-of-work actors – one a former star of The Bill – who resort to becoming door knockers for a backstreet debt collection agency.

It’s a topical subject and one that offers much potential for a wry look at both the credit crunch and also the fragility of the acting industry. Sadly Godber’s script is one of his weakest and can’t decide on what it is – political commentary or slapstick farce.

This two-hander is inherently theatrical; a set of discarded scenery flats and props providing a playground for the actors and the structure of a play within a play adds to the theatricality, though ultimately it’s as flat as the stacked up scenery.

Loz is, at least it seems, the more stable of the two new collectors, a soft heart not really cut out for the hard-nosed world of money collection. His oppo, Spud, is more hot-headed, still living on his past glories from The Bill and waiting for that call that will whisk him away to new stardom.

It all sounds promising and the trademark Godber machine-gun-fire dialogue initially sounds promising but it’s all paper thin, the lines could easily belong in his earlier work, Bouncers. While Bouncers successfully mixed the comedy with a darker edge, here the two sides are less successfully married. Scenes that shed light on the human impact of debt and the pressure of collectors are thrown away in favour of quick laughs and, by the time lights come down on Act One, it is difficult to see where the plot can head.

In fairness, the second half is slightly more accomplished, finally revealing a glimpse of what drives these two actors but it is all too little, too late and, ultimately, the dramatic climax, though impressively performed, makes for an unbalanced evening.

Rob Hudson and William Ilkley do try their best with the material and there is some nice chemistry between the two but the characters are drafted as little more than stereotypes rather than fully-rounded characters.

Over the years John Godber has created some of really inventive comedies that reflect our current times; sadly, this debut of his own producing company is likely to leave audiences feeling short-changed.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Driving Miss Daisy – Wyndhams Theatre

It is the moment theatre-goers dread, those ominous slips of paper in the programme and the announcement of ‘due to the indisposition of…’. When the show in question is only a three-hander and has an acclaimed international cast, the sense of foreboding is only heightened.

One also feels sorry for the understudy, doubtless nervous already but also facing an audience disappointed about the non-appearance of one of the leads, and also possibly depleted in numbers as some seek redress and exchange.

For Jenny Lee, stepping into the daunting shoes of an indisposed Vanessa Redgrave in the transfer of the Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy in the very first week of previews, the weight of expectation must be immense. It turns out however that for those who queued at the Box Office for exchanges missed a performance that made Ms Redgrave’s absence immaterial.

Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play is perhaps best known for the 1989 film adaptation but this piece works well in its original stage setting, a touching and poignant three-hander charting the relationship between elderly Southern Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan, and her African-American chauffeur, Hoke. Set in Atlanta and spanning 30 turbulent years of changing attitudes to race and class, Driving Miss Daisy manages both the epic political and social themes while also becoming deeply personal and intimate.

David Esbjornson’s production sensibly focuses on the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, with the tense relationship between Daisy and her son, Boolie, providing the catalyst for change.

It is in many ways a subtle play, looking at the shifting balance of power that age brings. To reach the far reaches of the cheaper seats it does however need big characters and while the play itself may be slight, the characters do manage to fill the space.

James Earl Jones’ Hoke is a masterclass in repression, hunched and head bowed as his boss would expect only to grow in stature and confidence as the social situation changes and his relationship develops with initially hostile Miss Daisy. Boyd Gaines as Daisy’s son is the voice of reason in the play, perhaps less fully drawn than the two other characters.

It is of course Miss Daisy herself that draws attention – a chillingly accurate look at the ravages of aging. While Ms Redgrave won plaudits for her restrained and detailed performance on Broadway, Jenny Lee more than hold her own here, a performance of immense care and thought – every motion, ever inflection showing a woman in her advancing years imbued with great pride and decorum. As her faculties fail, the sense of frustration and confusion is palpable.

With star names comes star demand for tickets and it’s understandable that producers have gone for a 4 tier theatre but, in many ways, this is a production that would be better served by a more intimate venue. In the cheaper seats, some of the more subtle moments are lost and some of the staging choices result in large sections looking at the tops of the leads’ headwear rather than facial expressions.

Review: Romeo And Juliet – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Our destiny may be written in the stars and, for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it seems their fate is certainly being guided by the wider cosmos. Suitably for this pair of ‘star-cross’d lovers’, Night Light Theatre’s thrilling adaptation, moves the action, from its traditional Verona setting, onto the celestial plane; the fateful couple guided across an astrological astrolabe by spirits, sprites, and the heavenly bodies.

It’s a magical, almost dreamlike, world where actors and musicians blend with puppets to create a world of rich and vivid storytelling.

This is a Romeo and Juliet unlike any other, condensed into 85 minutes but losing none of the drama or impact of this oft-told tale. Rich Rusk’s adaptation and direction retains the power of Shakespeare’s verse but manages that difficult task of making it sound fresh and contemporary without resorting to ‘dumbing down’. It is testament to the power of the production that one doesn’t actually notice the cuts as the dramatic narrative is so utterly engrossing.

While Romeo and Juliet (Christopher Tester and Samantha Barron) are very much passionate flesh and blood – hormonal youth, rampant and defiant – they are led by more ethereal elders. Parents of both Capulet and Montague clans, the sage friar and the impish nurse all brought to live with impressive puppetry. This mix of live action and puppets works well, reinforcing the timeless quality of doomed young love but also providing a nice touch of cross-generational conflict.

The ethereal setting also frees the production from traditional confines of story-telling with imaginative effect. Gone are the traditional sword fights, here the brawling youth fight with balls of light, more akin to Star Wars than traditional Shakespeare, but a device that serves well in this timeless production. The fateful poison draught still remains and, as fate moves the young lovers to the inevitable tragedy, the mood darkens and the true power of this story to still move an audience after 400 years becomes apparent.

Night Light Theatre’s production is visually stunning; a faultless celestial design by Rhys Jarman, one of the finest atmospheric plots by Matt O’Leary, Dom Coyote’s evocative, Gregorian chant-based, score, and impressive puppets from Max Humphries, combine to provide a timeless world, both classical and modern, realistic and dreamlike.

To tell such a well-known tale, when most people know the ending, in a new, fresh and utterly gripping manner is a challenge for any company but Night Light manage that near impossible task of making this seem like a piece of new writing. For those new to Shakespeare it is a wonderful introduction that will draw them into the richness of the Bard’s work; for existing fans they will revel in the sheer inventiveness and clarity of the production.

This is one Romeo and Juliet that you will fall passionately in love with. Simply heavenly.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews.

Review: Cool Hand Luke – Aldwych Theatre

Although best known for the classic film starring Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke actually started life as a partly autobiographic novel by Donn Pearce. Now, 46 years after the novel was first published, the story makes its way to the stage in its first ever theatrical adaptation.

Comparisons to the film are likely to be inevitable but as one of the small number of people never to have seen the cinematic version, this was a fresh viewing of the tale.

In post-war Florida, Luke Jackson is sent to jail after vandalising parking meters. This petty crime leads to a life of brutality in the authoritarian regime in the southern state. Under the unforgiving sun, any resistance from the prisoners is broken by sadistic guards.

It is thrust into this macho world that Luke finds himself though, not one to take to conformity easily, he soon sets about carving his own niche, either through impressing inmates with his gambling skills and his determination to eat 50 hard boiled eggs within an hour, or by testing the boundaries of his guards. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of Luke’s military past and the impact the horrors of war had on this former rising star of the US army.

Emma Reeves’ adaption of the original novel works well on stage, although the short scenes do mean that some momentum is occasionally lost. A device of having a narrator hold the piece together through the use of spirituals and gospel numbers gives an authentic Deep South feel.

In the title role, Marc Warren more than shakes off any comparison to Paul Newman in a quietly assured performance. There’s an inner torment bubbling barely beyond the surface here and a convincing look at the struggle of a man raised on discipline and military routine now having to come to terms with a very deferent regimented regime. There is also an impressive performance from Lee Boardman as Dragline, desperate for parole, initially wary of Luke’s threat to prison seniority but in the end the closest Luke gets to a friend. In a predominantly male cast, Sandra Marvin also impresses as the gospel-singing narrator Mary, providing soaring commentary on the developing action.

Andrew Loudon’s direction does drop the pace in a couple of places in this early preview, though that is easily corrected as the run continues. Edward Lipscomb’s design conjures the multitude of locales well, aided by Matthew England’s sun-drenched lighting.

The final 15 minutes do lose some punch and the ending, while moving, would benefit from ramping up the emotional hook a couple of notches but, overall, this is an impressive book-to-film-to-stage adaption. A cracking tale.

Caveat: This is a review of a preview performance. Press Night is Monday 3 October

Photo by Alastair Muir

Review: King Lear – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

In the now infamous words of Ann Widdecombe, there is ‘something of the night’ about West Yorkshire Playhouse’s King Lear. In what, in many ways is Shakespeare’s darkest play, this is appropriately a nocturne Lear, played out in moonlight and shadow.

In a pagan land influenced by seasons and nature it seems an apt setting and in Ian Brown’s striking production the moon itself almost takes on a character of its own, looming large as it tracks across a pitch black backdrop.

This Lear is, in many ways, a highly traditional Lear, no radical retelling here, just a strong focus on character and verse.

Despite its traditional approach this is no minimalist or staid production. Staged with an almost operatic feel, a combination of classical costume, stark setting and lighting combine to provide a sumptuous yet subtle setting. In a slowly shifting colour palette, the piece moves from sumptuous regal red to more subtle shades as the mood darkens. An initially simple set also slowly transforms, mirroring the pieces revelations.

It is a subtlety that is reflected in Tim Pigott-Smith’s gripping portrayal of Lear, genuinely hurt and confused by his daughter’s betrayals yet still full of rage and torment. It makes for an achingly human Lear, vulnerable yet with a steely core.

There are however fine performances across the entire company.

Neve McIntosh and Hedydd Dylan as the cold, calculating, Goneril and Regan, together with Olivia Morgan as exiled sister Cordelia, work well. There is also impressive work from Sam Crane as Edgar and Tim Frances as Kent. While Richard O’Callaghan’s Fool lacks some vocal diction in his fast -paced delivery, it is compensated by well observed physicality.

Ruari Murchison’s design works well to frame the piece, providing a simple yet regal backdrop, complete with Arthurian overtones. Richard Taylor’s score provides an evocative accompaniment, while Chris Davey’s lighting casts atmospheric moonlit shadow across the piece.

There has been a rush of King Lear’s recently and it is inevitable, however hard one tries, to make comparisons between the productions. While this is more of an ensemble showing than Derek Jacobi’s recent Donmar Lear, and with less technical wizardry than Greg Hick’s RSC monarch, it is a rich, tightly focused approach that delivers much and arguably gives a more rounded view of a court in crisis. This Lear is no one-man show, instead a cohesive ensemble digging deep into the complex interplay between Crown, State and family. A noble, elegant and powerful Lear.

This is a review of a preview performance at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Press Night is Wednesday 28 September.

Photo: Hedydd Dylan and Tim Pigott-Smith. Photo by Keith Pattison

Review: Terrible Advice – Menier Chocolate Factory

In many ways it’s a headline writers dream – naming your new play Terrible Advice is just asking for unflattering headlines. In the end, the play itself isn’t terrible, but it gets uncomfortably close.

Saul Rubinek’s debut play follows the complex, interwoven lives of two couples. Stanley and Jake are best friends and are dating Delila and Hedda who also happen to be friends. Unfortunately neither set of relationships are particularly happy and, when the boundaries overlap, it causes the whole house of cards to collapse.

Jake is a serial liar, addicted to pornographic sex and disturbingly hinted a predilection for underage girls. His girlfriend, Hedda, owns the house and money and has already taken Jake back after his last infidelity. Stanley, known as Stinky to his friends, is in many ways an innocent in the ways of women, is suffering a breakdown while his girlfriend Delila has her own complicated relationship with his friends.

While there is potentially an interesting tale here, in its current form it just doesn’t work.

Much of this is down to a script that can’t really decide if it is a dark, comic farce or a brutal look at the harshness of relationships. There are comic lines in the script but, despite the efforts of a cast of comedy actors, they tend to elicit a titter rather than all out belly laughs. There is also a problem with the characters themselves. Four thoroughly unlikeable individuals are given only the sketchiest of characterisations. We only ever get hints at what drives them and have to make our own assumptions over much of the plot. While it is of course acceptable to make the audience do some of the work, here it just seems like lazy writing. There are various plot threads that are hinted at, Stanley’s ambiguous sexuality, his inappropriate relationship with a student and Jake’s relationship with Hedda’s daughter, but never materialise.

The writing resembles a television sitcom but watching it is more akin to having missed several key episodes and having to play catch up.

Frank Oz’s direction is efficient but needs to draw out real fleshed out characters rather than the current outlines. David Farley’s design also hinders the production; a series of flat panels tracked on and off cause more than a few unintentional sniggers and fail to evoke any sense of locale or atmosphere. There is an impressive appearance by a car but overall the design fails to impress.

Andy Nyman, Scott Bakula, Sharon Horgan and Caroline Quentin try their best with the material with Nyman and Quentin giving the strongest performances, perhaps aided by the strongest emotional hooks in the script. Bakula provides a thoroughly repellent Jake, though receives perhaps the biggest unintentional (one hopes) laugh of the evening with a misjudged reference to his Quantum Leap past. Horgan’s Delila is perhaps the most underwritten part of the evening and therefore struggles to bring it to life.

This is an early preview and therefore there is opportunity to develop the piece ahead of early night, but in its current form Terrible Advice seems more like an early work in progress script rather than the finished article. There are scenes that hold attention and provide a real glimpse of the potential of the piece but, as a whole, it’s a plot that goes nowhere with a quartet of characters that we really don’t care for. Sadly this seems to be another misfire for the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Caveat: This is a review of a preview performance. Press night is Thursday 29 September

Review: The Baker’s Wife – Union Theatre

If a show is rarely performed, there is usually a reason. Stephen Schwartz has had many successes over the years but The Baker’s Wife has never shared that success, short-lived runs in the UK failed to garner an audience, while the show has never been presented on Broadway.

With a recent string of successful small-scale musicals under its belt, the compact Union Theatre now tries to breathe new life into The Baker’s Wife but, despite a valiant effort by the cast, it’s a production that fails to rise to the challenge.

Based on Marcel Pagno’s 1938 film ‘La Femme du Boulanger’ we follow the lives of a small group of villagers in rural 1930s France. Nothing much happens in the village, so much so that the highlight of the year is the arrival of a new baker. The fact that the baker’s wife is several years younger than him just fuels the curiosity and gossip.

All isn’t what it seems with the new couple however and their marital problems threaten to impact the entire village.

There’s a strong story lurking here, however Schwartz’s lyrics and Jospeh Stein’s leaden book bury the compelling tale of rebounded love under a mishmash of subplots and minor characters that make it hard to care for the main protagonists. At the start of the show, Denise, the local café owner’s wife, stresses it’s such a small town, everyone knows each other. There falls one of the problems, we also have to get to know the entire village, and trying to cram all their characters and plots into 2½ hours means that we learn little about them bar a few passing images. The show does redeem itself when it focuses in on the Baker and his wife, and the ending is truly moving, sadly by this point interest has been lost.

Michael Strassen’s production does little to suggest this is neglected masterpiece that needs resurrecting. While the intimacy of The Union suits the smaller scenes, the ensemble moments seem muddled and confused, with many performances needing dialling back a few notches from melodrama. Stylised choreography and a Münch-like Scream chalk backdrop seem out of place, while some staging gimmicks, such as foil confetti party poppers and a scene revolving around over glazed baguettes, seem inexplicable.

We never really understand the drivers of these characters, partly due to the structure of the piece, but also due to some static direction.

There are some strong performances here, however, Michael Matus sings strongly as Aimable the baker, delivering a emotionally gripping response to his wife’s infidelity. Lisa Stokke as his wife Genevieve sings beautifully but never really shows the conflict of a woman torn apart by her emotional conflict. The strongest performance of the evening belongs to Ricky Butt as put-upon café owner’s wife, Denise, part chanteuse, part narrator.

Other casting is less convincing. Matthew Goodgame as love interest Dominique never really shows a depth to the character, while Mark Turnbull’s The Marquis also falls into stereotype and cliché.

The last ten minutes of the piece show real potential, with a strong emotional beat and some impressive choral singing, something lacking from most of the piece. Chris Mundy’s musical arrangement for piano and cello (Colin Clark) do provide a plaintive, moving accompaniment but overall its individual songs that impressive rather than the dramatic whole.

It’s been 22 years since the last major UK production of The Baker’s Wife and sadly this production does little to convince that we have been neglecting a lost musical masterpiece. A production that needs to back in the oven and turn the heat up a couple of notches.

Review: All The Fun Of The Fair – Cliffs Pavilion, Southend On Sea

There’s something nostalgic about seaside funfairs, you know what’s coming, it may be a bit of a bumpy ride along the way and its never going to compete with the brasher theme parks. In many ways the same can be said regarding All The Fun Of The Fair, resuming a national tour after a run last year in the West End. The script may be as creaky in places as a traditional wooden roller coaster, the singing at times more reminiscent of a fairground barker than pure musical theatre and the sentiment as sickly sweet as candyfloss but it does have an nostalgic charm about it.

Life for travelling fairground owner Levi Lee isn’t easy. His wife was killed in the fairs trademark Wall of Death stunt, distracted by Levi’s affair with fortune teller Rosa. His son risks losing everything at the hands of the local mob while his adopted son has enough issues for the whole cast.

In all honesty the script is little more than a vehicle on which to hang a collection of songs from Essex’s album of the same name. The songs are integrated into the plot and there are a couple of touching moments but for a large sector of the audience it is the opportunity to hear Essex sing that attracts them.

Though the fan-base would never admit it, Essex’s vocals haven’t aged well and the resulting sound is often strained, though in the context of the piece this rough around the edges approach actually works. The rest of the company are equally varied in vocal ability. Rob Compton as Levi’s wayward son Jack seems oddly underpowered and lacking the rough magnetism that the role needs, while Tanya Robb’s Alice sings sweetly enough but lacks any real chemistry with Compton.

More successful is Louise English as fortune teller and narrator Rosa, especially moving in a haunting lamenting rendition of Winters Tale. Outstanding performance of the evening however, belongs to Tim Newman as simpleton orphan Johnny, a trembling bag of nerves but with an infectious desire to belong. It’s a wonderful observed performance matched with an impressive vocal range.

Alongside the aforementioned Winters Tale, fans will enjoy the inclusion of hits such as Hold Me Close, Gonna Make You A Star and Here We Are All Together. Those waiting for Silver Dream Machine won’t be left disappointed with a staging coup that provides a stunning visual climax to the show.

Nikolai Foster directs with simplicity making good use of Ian Westbrook’s colourful designs, complete with working dodgem cars and enough fairground lights to illuminate Blackpool. It is disappointing however that the musical accompaniment is pre recorded, and at times the sound balance does resemble more of a karaoke performance rather than a stage musical.

It’s a fun evening that is never going to really tax the brain, and for fans the plot and staging are secondary to the music but much like many now faded seaside attractions, there’s an air of missed potential here. It’s a rollercoaster ride but on a track that’s a few twists short of a real thrill ride.

Review originally published on The Public Reviews