Review: Hard Places – Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester

We think as national borders as a permanent feature, something immovable and solid. In reality though borders frequently shift as political factions come and go. What happens when one such border devides a community and a family?

Farhad Sorabjee’s Hard Places, receiving its UK premiere at the Colchester Mercury, looks at one such border. Although the story is officially not set in one particular location, Sorabjee was inspired by the Shouting Valley in the Golan Heights, a place where the Israeli border divides families. These families stand atop hill either side of the border, shouting to each other and carrying on as if the divide didn’t exist. Between them though is a deadly no-man’s land, covered by snipers and a mine field.

For Saira and Aziz, life one side of such a border is not complete without their mother, trapped on the other side of the wire. Each sibling though has their own motives for wanting their mother freed. For Saira there’s desperation to fill an emotional need, to be seen to do the right thing and reunite the family. For Aziz though there is a more political overtone, the sense that his mother can become a figurehead for some political movement.

As the practicalities of crossing the closed border hits home though, it seems there are secrets hidden by all three parties.

Sorabjee’s writing digs deep into the soul and it’s not always an easy ride. Patience and some work by the audience though are rewarded through a rich, textured look at the impact distance, however tantalisingly small can have on individuals. It’s a slow burn of a production that releases it secrets bit by bit, but this in turn builds the requisite tension in the piece.

There are beautifully observed portrayals from all three actors. Shernaz Patel’s intense yet moving daughter Saira, Nabil Stuart’s rage filled Aziz and Jasmina Daniel’s quiet, reflective mother. There’s a real sense of family cohesion despite the many differences and physical separation all suffer.

Chris White’s production, played against Paul Burgess’ simple, yet effective, set, teases out detail a stand at a time, never losing focus or momentum. Without wishing to give away any plot twists, in a way it seems the final scene is somewhat superfluous and the piece may probably be stronger ending 15 minutes earlier on a dramatic cliff-hanger. As it is the piece perhaps ends too neatly for such a tangled situation – sometimes it’s more powerful to leave things hanging unsaid.

It’s a small quibble with an otherwise powerful and moving piece that delves deep into the human spirit. Regardless of its location, the divisive nature of barbed wire, fences and deadly no-man’s land echoes in many communities across history, these Hard Places a blot on many countries history books.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Starlight Express – Cliffs Pavilion, Southend On Sea

It can’t be often that a small child has a West End musical dedicated to them. It’s even rarer when that child ends up writing a new song for the show’s revival a couple of decades later.

When your surname, though, is Lloyd Webber such things shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. As Andrew’s 1984 railroad musical Starlight Express takes to the road again, son Alastair has penned a new pivotal love duet for the score.

Let’s rewind though – Starlight original opened as one of the 80s mega musicals, a show you came out of humming the set as well as the score. The Apollo Victoria was transformed by designer John Napier into a giant skate park with actors hurtling round the auditorium just inches away from the audience.

A touring production can’t, of course carry out a major rebuild of every venue it visits but this poses a problem for Starlight Express. Without the full-on spectacle the plot is woefully exposed and here the plot of the show is paper thin. An (unseen) child is staging races with his train set, as competing trains battle, literally in many cases, to become the world champion. What normally sustains interest is the spectacle, the sight of a cast performing daring routines on roller skates while belting out Lloyd Webbers rock/disco infused score. Without that spectacle it’s all a bit lacklustre. Twenty-eight years on and Napier has had to scale back his original designs to the bare minimum. It’s left to Nick Riching’s rock concert inspired lighting to lift the piece but without a set to light it often seems a bit barren.

On the confines of a traditional proscenium stage, the skating effects are limited to a couple of ramps and, even while those are well-executed, they seem somewhat cramped. Sightlines from the front stalls also detract, with the high stage rendering much of the skating footwork invisible.

There are clever technical touches though. Without the engineering in place to stage the required races, audiences are handed 3D safety goggle to watch filmed excerpts. It’s a well-staged workaround and shows some genuine thrills but it also serves to remind viewers of what could have been.

There are still moments to enjoy, however. Lloyd Webber’s score is arguably his most tongue-in-cheek, parodying a whole gamut of musical styles from rock to country. Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics provide another level of wry humour but, sadly, the weak diction from the ensemble and a poor sound mix renders much of those lyrics incomprehensible. Arlene Phillips’ direction is oddly static and, apart from a couple of large scale set pieces, never really takes off.

In the lead role of steam train Rusty, Kristofer Harding impresses. Harding’s rendition of the title track a highlight of the evening. Rusty’s love interest, Pearl, is also well sung by a sweet voiced Amanda Coutts, although their love duet by Lloyd Webber Jnr is perhaps a weak replacement for the original number, sounding more like a Eurovision entry than a strong piece of musical theatre.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Haunting Julia – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

One doesn’t normally associate Alan Ayckbourn with horror. The prolific writer, normally more familiar with suburban comedy, has though turned his hand to a chilling thriller. First performed in 1994 and revived in Lichfield and London in 2011, Haunting Julia now stretches its spectral legs on a first ever national tour.

While the territory may be unusual for Ayckbourn, those familiar with his work will find plenty of resonance. The monologues that delve deep into the characters psyche, the plot twists and even the wry humour are all here. While the writing may seem familiar, the plot however is a departure from his norm.

A musical prodigy dies tragically young and 12 years after her death her father has converted her student digs into a museum to her memory. As with all good museums the centre has an interactive audio guide but when disembodied voices start to be heard on the soundtrack it seems that young Julia may not have completely left the scene.

As her father, former boyfriend and a local physic gather in her former room, the possible motive for Julia’s death begin to unravel. Was it suicide or murder or did the pressure of being hailed ‘Little Miss Mozart’ become too much to live with?

We never really get the answers. There’s a feeling here that there is more left unsaid than explained and despite its age there is a feeling that in some way it is an unfinished piece. An exploration of a possible darker departure from his normal cannon but a journey that is never fully completed.

Andrew Hall’s production has great fun in building up the tension, causing the audience a few necessary jumps along the way, but seems somewhat lethargic. Ayckbourn’s exposition to deliver the requisite backstories slows down pace and robs the piece of the chill it needs.

Richard O’Callaghan reprises his role from the 2011 production; his mortuary attendant turned psychic the key to revealing Julia’s troubled past. O’Callaghan’s vocal delivery though can only be described as eccentric and, while it perhaps parodies many celebrity physics, it adds an unnecessary comedic edge to the character that dilutes the darkness. O’Callaghan is joined by two new cast members for the tour and it’s not a wholly successful casting.

Joe McFadden’s Andy, Julia’s former boyfriend, seems suitably spooked by the possibility of the musician’s presence, but again Ayckbourn’s tendency to launch into lengthy exposition makes it hard to fully understand the character.

Duncan Preston seems unsure where to pitch Julia’s devoted, even obsessive, father Joe. Preston veers from emotion to emotion wildly and it’s hard to emotional connect with this man who has lost his daughter, and on some level marketing product. Preston’s portrayal seems overblown in a script where a more subtle, darker edge would pay dividends.

There’s real potential here, and the staging does provide a few scares but overall it all seems somewhat unsatisfactory. We are left with far too many questions about Julia’s death and her relationship with her family and friends and while the bumps and bangs may elicit a few squeals, the whole piece needs to be much darker in tone. Ghost stories are notoriously difficult to pull off on stage and here it’s a case of a minor tremor rather than a full spectral spectacular.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Five Finger Exercise – Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh

Even the most genial of family groupings can feel the strain while on holiday; when the holiday is in a small, remote, cottage the pressure can build to explosive result.

Despite what Louise, the refined matriarch of the family may think, the Harringtons are a somewhat dysfunctional bunch. Louise has ideas above her status. Her tales of a French ancestry may, or may not be, wholly truthful and her obsession with high art and culture seem somewhat false. That she is married to a cultural philistine, Stanley, is a source of continual frustration to her. Instead she seeks hope in her protégée, their son Clive.

There’s something dark and disturbing lurking with this family though. Hints of something incestuous between both Mother and Son but also between Clive and his teenage sister Pamela show this is a family destined for destruction. Clive further fans the flames of sexual confusion with his barely hidden latent homosexuality.

Into this maelstrom of emotion is pitched an innocent young German tutor, Walter. Endlessly charming, Walter becomes the catalyst for many of the family’s secrets being brought into the light.

Peter Shaffer’s early writing hints at the darkness many of his later works would explore but while there’s some hint at underlying menace it’s a script that never really ventures into those dark corners, leaving the audience to overlay their own interpretations.

Richard Frost’s naturalistic production allows the family demons to surface slowly. At times it seems slightly too slow but that’s more to do with Shaffer’s early writing rather than direction.

There’s fine performances throughout the company. Ann Wenn as the pretentious mother retains her poise until the bitter end, while Holly Jones as daughter Pamela and Michael Shaw as father Stanley do their best with somewhat underwritten characters.

The true dramatic sparks however belong to Iain Ridley’s tortured Clive and Peter Hoggart’s Tectonic tutor Walter. Both deliver quiet but assured performances that provide the emotional powerhouse of the piece.

With its local connection, it’s somewhat appropriate to watch this play in Aldeburgh but, despite the strength of the production, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a play that is now somewhat dated. A showcase for the skills of Shaffer as a writer but a showcase that never fully explores the themes he raises.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Carousel – Barbican Theatre, London

Purists may sniff at an opera company turning its hand to the work of Rodgers & Hammerstein but, in Opera North’s sublime revival of Carousel, it is the audience who end up sniffing away tears.

Of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, Carousel is perhaps the closest the pair came to writing an opera and so it seems a natural choices. While 20 years ago the National Theatre staged arguably the definitive musical theatre staging of the work, Opera North now claim the piece as a true operatic gem.

If the pair’s work is sometimes seen as light and frothy, Carousel takes a much darker road with a heartbreaking look at undeclared love against life’s hardships. If The Sound of Music is remembered primarily for its saccharine-coated singing nuns, here we have domestic violence, childhood bullying and death prevalent. In those one of their finest scores, the hardship transforms into something beautiful and inspiring.

Jo Davies’ production hits the ground running from the opening strains of the Carousel Waltz prologue, resplendent with the creation of an actual Carousel, blending Opera, musical theatre, dance and staging into a seamless whole. Davies focuses very much on the human relationships, allowing the tension and emotion to build to an almost unbearable finale.

As the lyrics advise, ‘Common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad’ but even with that warning as the massed voices of the large 50 strong company rise into the classic anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it’s only the hardest of hearts that won’t shed a tear, such is the devastating but uplifting power of Rodgers’ score.

Sometimes when casting opera singers to perform musical theatre the dramatic comes second to the singing, but here Davis has assembled a company who not only sing faultlessly but also deliver the vital emotional back up.

Davis’ shift of the timescale from 1890s to 1915 hints at a time when women’s role in New England society begins to change and Sarah Tynan’s Carrie Pipperidge shifts from innocent stay-at-home wife to the hint of a woman in charge of her own destiny. Joseph Shovelton as her righteous husband Enoch Snows sings beautifully with a delightfully understated comic air.

There’s also strong work from Michael Rouse’s roguish Jigger Craigin, John Woodvine’s movie director Starkeeper and Yvonne Howard’s Nettie Fowler, whose soaring preview of the final anthem sends shivers down the spine.

As Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, Katherine Manley and Michael Todd Simpson delight. Manley gives her Julie a softness while never being a pushover, while Todd Simpson shades Bigelow with just enough roughness without losing the audiences sympathy. Both sing to perfection, with their love duet ‘If I Loved You’ a soaring testament to the power of romance.

James Holmes brings out every nuance of the score from the Birmingham Royal Ballet Sinfonia, blending power with a subtlety.

Anthony Ward’s design provides a simple, yet elegant backdrop for the action aided by Bruno Poet’s sunset tinged lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s subtle yet masterly projections.

Those seeking a couple of hours of jazz hand-infused piece of musical theatre lightness should look elsewhere but, for those looking for a celebration of one of the finest pieces of musical theatre ever written, you’d be hard pushed to find a better three hours.

Carousel may now be 67 years old but, in Opera North’s production, it’s never looked or sounded better. An evening of pure joy and emotion.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: London Road, Olivier Theatre, London

It’s not often you get the opportunity to revisit a production, a year apart. Last year on press night for London Road in the Cottesloe theatre, the atmosphere was electric; a sense that we were witnessing a new direction for musical theatre. A year on and the production has transferred to the larger, neighbouring Olivier theatre. Something in the transfer, however, seems to have gone awry as, what was a moving and poignant piece in the small, intimate studio space, becomes somewhat lost and overblown in the expanse of the open stage.

In the interests of openness the reviewer needs to declare an interest here. As someone who lived in Ipswich at the time of the events portrayed in the piece, London Road was always going to have a deeper impact than your general audience member.

Alecky Blythe’s verbatim interviews with Ipswich residents at the time of the murders of five Ipswich women could easily become macabre and voyeuristic but her decision to focus on the residents of London Road, a location murderer Steve Wright had only lived for 10 short weeks, moves the piece in a different direction. Wright and his victims never appear, and are only fleetingly named, but their impact is felt on the residents of the road. The media appetite for images to feed the rolling news feeds imprisons the residents and their efforts to rebuild their shattered community provides a genuine uplifting ending but it’s a dark, unsettling couple of hours.

Or at least it was. In the move to the larger stage, the performances seem to have been expanded to fill the space and as such often come across as caricatures rather than the real-life characters captured in Blythe’s recordings. When the audience begin laughing at the opening scene and only really stop to reflect on the tragedy of events when a character says she’d like to shake the killer’s hand and thank him for ridding her road of the sex workers, you know something is seriously wrong.

Scenes that had a claustrophobic, almost menacing, feel in the studio now seem swamped by the space around them and, while Adam Cork’s rhythmic, overlapping cadences for his score impress, the heart of the piece is lost. On second viewing it’s also more apparent that, despite learning the piece from Blythe’s original recordings, the Suffolk accents veer wildly from Norfolk, via Somerset and at times even seem to settle in mid-Wales.

There are still some chilling moments. A long moment of silence as former sex workers explain how they have stopped working the streets still chills, as does the aforementioned recognition of some residents wanting to thank Wright. Overall, though, one can’t help wondering how many watching this production for the first time emotionally connect with the story behind the show or, indeed, how many recognise it is actually based upon real events.

To stage such a show in 2011 was a bold and brave move by the National theatre and, at the time, although uncomfortable for this reviewer it was a decision I applauded and rewarded with a 5-star review. In 2012 something has changed; it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly but the desire to bring the piece to a larger stage has sacrificed its power.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: King Lear – Theatre In The Forest, Rendlesham

Shakespeare productions still appeal to directors, not only for the strength of their writing, but also, despite their age, the ability they have to be constantly re-imagined in new ways.

King Lear seems to have a particular fascination for directors looking to place their stamp on the production. Over the years we’ve reviewed all male Lears, all female Lears, dance Lears, musical Lears and even a Japanese Lear. Johanna Carrick’s production for Red Rose Chain, though, takes a different tact – bringing out the comedy of Lear.

For what is widely recognized as one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies, it may seem an odd choice, but like any of his work, Lear defies straightforward categorisation and alongside the dark there is plenty of shade.

It’s clear from the outset this isn’t going to be your traditional Lear, with the audience asked to stand to greet the Monarch. There can’t be many Lears, though, that have made their entrance full speed on a gold clad mobility scooter, resplendent with monograms and bedecked with jewels.

Carrick’s adaptation strips the epic tragedy down to its bare component parts, focusing in on the central characters. It does allow the plot to hurtle along at break-neck speed but it does, at times, lose some of that majestic sweep.

Edward Day is a much younger Lear than we traditionally expect but revels in bringing out the Monarch idiosyncratic side as well as a darker facet. It’s a radical interpretation that mixes the Madness of King George with Lear. Despite the unusual take, it’s a performance that commands attention.

There’s also fine work from Lauryn Redding’s Cordelia, Scott Ellis’ Edmund and Carrick’s own performance as arch villainess Goneril. Her production makes full use of the forest setting, becoming suitably darker as the dusk falls over the pine trees.

The comic take is certainly inventive and entertaining and for those looking for an entry point into perhaps one of Shakespeare’s strongest examinations of at the human psyche it’s a highly accessible piece. As a concept, though, it’s not entirely satisfying; the lightness of touch robbing some much needed dramatic tension. The comedy makes it hard to fully emotionally connect with Lear and his warring daughters.

Those seeking a traditional Lear may be disappointed but then again this production isn’t aimed at the aficionados. For those looking for an entertaining evening, regardless of authorship, the piece is pure fun. Is it Lear? The jury’s out. Is it entertainment? On that level you can’t fault it – seven actors, the open air, and a minimal set holding and audiences rapt attention for two and a half hours is hard to dispute.

Written originally for The Public Reviews

Review: Fag Ends And Families – Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich

There’s the well-known saying that you know you’re getting older when the policemen start looking younger, but in Simon Egerton’s solo show Fag Ends and Families it’s when the bar owners don’t look old enough to drink that triggers a sense of encroaching age.

Egerton says the piece isn’t ‘exactly’ autobiographical but even so it comes across as a deeply personal account of growing up, our shifting relationships with our parents and our own self-doubt. Merging storytelling, poetry and music, Egerton journeys from childhood memory through to a more sombre reflection of adulthood. It’s the family that shapes the child and here there are three strong influences in the youngster’s life. A chain smoking grandmother who instils a sense of style and grace in her young protégée, a father who has his own heart-breaking secret to hide and a mother in morning after the death of her firstborn.

Egerton cleverly interlaces the humorous anecdote with the darker, off footing his audience who find the piece becoming more intense as the hour develops. The story of the father’s battle with a latent homosexuality is particularly moving and well handled. While the monologues are well delivered and observed, it is perhaps in the more reflective musical numbers that the true narrative really takes flight.

There’s humour though, even in the darkest moments. Reflections on a funeral directors lacklustre attempt to recreate the deceased mother’s make up and a running joke about the posh camp delivery of the narrator provide light to balance the shade.

Director Lawrence Evans keeps the staging simple, allowing the wordplay to come to the fore and Egerton’s natural charm and rapport with the audience shine through.

This is still a preview performance prior to the Edinburgh Festival and it will be interesting to see how this openly personal tale competes with some of the wilder aspects of the Fringe offering. But for those looking for a break from the absurdity of the Scottish capital this August, an hour in the company of Egerton will provide a strong dash of nostalgia and an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of familial relationships.

Written originally for The Public Reviews

Review: Henry V – Latitude Festival, Henham Park

‘May we cram, within this wooden O….’ For the Latitude Festival, Theatre Delicatessen take the wooden reference to the extreme – taking to the Henham woods for an open air performance, split across two days.

It gives the production an air of a military camp, as soldiers mingle among the audience, lines suddenly being delivered next to you. Their original production make have taken place in the BBC’s former headquarters in London but there’s a valiant attempt to make the piece work alfresco.

Despite good intentions, it’s not a successful transportation. The decision to break the action just before the pivotal battle of Agincourt robs the second section of vital dramatic tension and the modern day setting, doesn’t always sit comfortably in the new setting.

The main issue with this staging though is projection.

Latitude’s outdoor theatre can be a challenging environment for a classic play, having to compete with noise from some of the festivals musical stages, but productions such as The Gate’s staging of Electra last year prove that it can be a captivating setting. Here sadly, many of the lines are lost by actors who seem unable to provide that extra level of projection needed for an outdoor performance. The decisson to also spread the action out among the trees also means sections are both inaudible and out of sight.

There are some notable exceptions though to the projection issue. Philip Desmeules’ Henry easily convinces as the charismatic monarch, while Alexander Guiney’s Chorus provides the glue holding the entire action together.

The second section shows some lessons had been learnt from the first half but while it’s a brave telling of Shakespeare’s state of the nation play, the technicalities let the overall whole down.

Written originally for The Public Reviews

Review: Circa – Latitude Festival, Henham Park

Circa’s self-titled show should come with a health warning. The feats that these seven Brisbane based artists perform induce a feeling of pain just watching. One can’t help think that the human body shouldn’t be able to endure the things these talented acrobats inflict on themselves.

The seven-strong company takes us on a physical, but also personal, journey. There’s no through narrative as such but there’s a strong feel that we are looking at an examination on what it means to be human, our loves, life and the pain our bodies go through.

A mix of acrobatics, contortion, aerial work and dance, the piece is a constantly shifting visual feast. There’s also though a more subtle edge to the piece, with the company imbibing each section with heartfelt emotion and expression. It’s a punishing performance, necks, limbs and torso put under extreme pressure that would send untrained performers straight into A&E. There’s also grace and beauty though as balance and control create fragile tableaux.

There’s a real mix of circus styles and disciplines but these meld into a beautiful and uplifting whole. It is also clearly an equal opportunities company as a female performer finds herself as the support for a male counterpart balanced on her head. Before any complaints of sexism are raised, she later exacts her revenge balance precariously in red sequined stilettos on the bare chest of a man.

Music, lighting and staging combine with the physical feats on stage to create a wholly engrossing evening. The rapturous response from the capacity festival audience clearly demonstrated the admiration of the skill on show. A fitting showcase for the impressive skills of these Antipodean Acrobats.

Written Originally for The Public Reviews