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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

If Walt Disney hadn’t adapted this late nineteenth century Italian novel by Carlo Collodi for his second full-length animated film just before the Second World War, it would probably never have become the iconic tale it has, told around the world in many forms and languages. Here we are almost eighty years later seeing a stage adaptation at the National Theatre, and what a treat it proves to be.

The tale struck me as darker (the hand of playwright Dennis Kelly?) and more moralistic than I remembered, with a strong emphasis on the importance of values and truth. In learning these en route from being a puppet to being a boy, Pinocchio encounters a trio of baddies – a sly trickster Fox, puppet-master Stromboli and fairground-master The Coachman. These are juxtaposed with his loving dad, puppet-maker Geppetto, and the Blue Fairy, who adds that touch of magic.

John Tiffany’s staging doesn’t rely on technology, as much modern theatre does, but it is utterly charming and completely magical. Bob Crowley provides a simple, appropriately wooden design of benches, trees and ladders until we move to the puppet theatre’s proscenium and the fairground’s lights. The underwater scene is an understated marvel. Puppets are used for some of the main characters (except the puppet Pinocchio himself!) with Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman twice life size, with three handlers as well as the actor in identical dress; this gives the production a somewhat surreal quality and a period feel.

Tiffany’s regular movement collaborator Steven Hoggett creates an athletic child-like world. and the illusions by Jamie Harrison (whose work so impressed me at the Harry Potter plays recently) are brilliant (though there was a minor nose malfunction on the night I went!). Martin Lowe provides a wonderful score to supplement the film’s original five songs and inspired by its incidental music and Italian and Alpine folk music, including the recurrent standard When You Wish Upon a Star, which sounds suitably lush with a 15-piece orchestra under Tom Brady in the pit.

Mark Hadfield’s Geppetto is very moving (was that a real tear I saw at the end?) and Joe Idris-Roberts is an absolute delight as a very malleable Pinocchio. All three baddies deliver the required badness – David Langham’s Fox, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as Stromboli and David Kirkbride as The Coachman. Audrey Brisson makes Pinocchio’s conscience Jiminy Cricket a lovely companion and Annette McLaughlin is every bit the fairy of your imagination.

Younger kids might be a bit scared, but older ones will love it’s darkness and adults it’s timeless charm and glorious theatricality. One of the best Christmas shows at the National, adding to its impressive seasonal track record.

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The Young Vic main house has had another of its extraordinary makeovers; this time Miriam Buether has recreated Calais’ refugee camp, the so-called Jungle. We walked through one of its houses and a shop to reach our seats in the restaurant in a segment named Afghanistan. The audience are either at tables with benches, or on the sides looking in. The performers are all around, scenes popping up everywhere. This is something only theatre can do.

Though there had been makeshift camps there before, the play concerns the last incarnation, from 2014 to 2016, when the population were largely from Africa and the Middle East. The segments of the space are all named after the countries they come from, as were the sections of the camp. Playwrights Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson were there for seven months, setting up and running the Good Chance Theatre inside the camp, named after the words used for the regular attempts to reach the UK, and the piece feels completely authentic.

Starting close to it’s end, before moving back to its creation, we experience these people’s lives in vivid detail. I hadn’t really grasped before how this was a complete town, with church, mosque, school, shops and a restaurant. Five British charity workers and do-gooders from very diverse backgrounds contribute to the organisation, though there are representatives of the various communities who bring a kind of democracy and promote harmony.

We hear individual stories, witness conflicts, see friendships formed and bonded, understand their aspirations and how they are exploited and abused. It’s deeply moving, but there are many moments of warmth and humour. Both the good and bad in people is exposed, but never judgementally, though the failure of governments and other institutions is. How on earth could humanity allow this to happen?

Everything, from the writing, staging by Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin, all of the design elements and eighteen deeply passionate and committed performances contribute to bringing us the stark truth. I do hope it can be seen by many more than the Young Vic can accommodate by some sort of cinema or TV screening. Though the Jungle has been demolished, there are still refugees in Calais and elsewhere and their stories must be told, in the hope they will be heard by, and will prick the consciences of those who can bring about change.

Good Chance, the Young Vic and the National Theatre have collaborated to create urgent and important theatre.

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Cicero gets nine lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; here he gets a play in two parts, each of three acts, with a playing time of six hours. The RSC have given us a number of two-part epics in recent years. from Nicholas Nickleby through Canterbury Tales to Wolf Hall. Mike Poulton was responsible for the adaptation of the last two of these, as he is for this adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, a big slice of fascinating Roman history littered with contemporary parallels, and it’s brilliant.

Cicero may be the most significant Roman you don’t know much about. That’s because he was an orator and lawyer rather than an Emperor or military figure, but was considered the father of the republic and the go-to man for legal advice and rhetorical coaching, becoming a philosopher in later life. His life was extraordinarily well documented by his slave-turned-confidente & biographer Tiro. Though his papers were lost, they were known to Plutarch, who was the source for Shakespeare’s play, so Harris’ books and these plays have a solid foundation in fact, based on Plutarch.

When it starts, Rome is a republic, with democracy of a sort, two consuls elected annually by a senate made up of the great and the good of Rome, most rich patricians, but some self-made plebeians like Cicero. Cicero is a Consul and protector of the republic, but Julius Caesar is due back in triumph intent on turning Cicero’s precious republic into a dictatorship. Cicero is sent into exile, but is allowed to return before Caesar’s assassination, in which he doesn’t really play a part, though he does approve of the return of the republic, or so he thinks.

Next up is Mark Anthony, whose wife Fulvia is ‘the power behind the throne’ and he seems permanently pissed. Cicero is their biggest critic but he fails to take the Senate with him in his plan to deal with Mark Anthony, and ends up in exile once more, while Mark Anthony & Fulvia continue their life of excess and corruption. Cicero is approached by Julius Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian, who he takes a shine to and decides to help, but he too is more than meets the eye. and when he forms an alliance with Mark Anthony, Cicero is violently dispatched. Octavian will go on to become Augustus, the next dictator.

Like his other adaptations, this is rich in story and narrative and is a real theatrical feast. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the third act of the first part you’re in its grip, until its subject’s head is on a pole! In Anthony Ward’s design, the Swan has stairs behind, a pit below and a giant globe above, which provide a brilliantly flexible but evocative setting. Paul Engishby’s music, heavy on brass, is particularly good at accompanying the triumphant entries into Rome. This is the sort of production director Greg Doran does so well – lucid, well paced and often thrilling.

Cicero is a huge part and Richard McCabe is magnificent, a career high I’d say. I loved Joseph Kloska as diffident but loyal Tiro, whose journey takes him from slave to assistant to confidente to advisor and biographer. Peter de Jersey has great presence as Julius Caesar and Joe Dixon shines as both Catiline and Mark Anthony, two power hungry chancers, as does Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s protege Rufus and Octavian and Eloise Secker as Clodia and Fulvia. A terrific ensemble of seventeen actors play all of the remaining roles.

It was a difficult trip to Stratford, where I almost got stranded in the snow, but it was a real theatrical banquet and I don’t regret the travails one bit. This is the sort of theatre you remember for years.

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In my experience, you rarely see a show at it’s best on press night – too much pressure – and this one appears to have had a bad one. Well, based on a performance two days later, even though it has its faults, I’m much more positive than the critics.

When I first heard they were going to do it at the Menier, I thought it was an unsuitable venue. I first saw it 35 years ago in the Palladium, then 4 years ago in a big top outside Chichester Festival Theatre, so this is on an entirely different scale. As it turns out, in the round, with a big floor to play on, it combines spectacle and intimacy, and there’s a certain frisson having a man juggling with knives inches away from your face!

It’s a very American story, about a real life showman and proprietor of a circus and ‘museum’, which seem to be more like ‘freak shows’, featuring as they do the world’s oldest woman and tiny Tom Thumb. He goes on to promote (and bed) Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, and later into politics, though not quite as far as President Barnum – this is the late 19th century, not the early 21st! He eventually returns to the circus in partnership with James Bailey to form the very successful Barnum & Bailey.

Cy Coleman’s score has some great tunes, with some particularly good ensemble set pieces such as One Brick at a Time, Come Follow the Band and Join the Circus. It is here we find the real strength of the show, and this production, with a terrific ensemble who can sing and dance and is full of circus skills, some of which take your breath away.

Laura Pitt-Pulford is excellent as Barnum’s wife Chairy and it’s great to see another Corrie exile, Tupele Dorgu, prove to be as good on stage as the small screen. In truth Marcus Brigstocke isn’t a good enough singer or a seasoned enough performer for the role of Barnum, but his likeability means he pulls it off, just, and he stayed on the tightrope the night we went!

I loved Paul Farnsworth’s design, and Gordon Greenberg’s staging and Rebecca Howell’s sensational choreography deliver the spectacle the show needs. There were some sightline issues; we missed a couple of key moments on what appeared to be an elevated platform in front of the band but for us behind a pillar, and a few more short ones high behind us, but overall it was a great use of the Menier space, which in this configuration seemed a lot bigger.

Better than the critics will have you believe and well worth a punt.

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Kneehigh have created a large number of very successful stage adaptations from diverse sources, but I think they may have been a touch ambitious and misguided with this one, Carl Grose’s adaptation of a 500-page 1950’s German political novel by Gunter Grass.

The central character Oskar is born with adult capacity but decides not to grow up. He narrates the events happening in the world from 1924 to 1954, a rather dramatic part of the 20th century, to put it mildly, from his perspective. Family scenes and political & social events are woven together to create an epic sweep, though it often comes over as a bit if a ramble.

The problem is that the material doesn’t really suit Kneehigh’s playful style. There’s too much of Charles Hazelwood’s music, often not fully fledged songs, so it feels like more like an opera than a play, and the synthesised instrumentation jarred with me. Together with the vast space, it conspires to make quite a lot of the spoken and sung dialogue barely audible.

It’s a pity, because Naomi Dawson’s design is great (the backdrop looks uncannily like it’s the venue’s real wall), the puppetry is excellent, Mike Shepherd’s staging is full of Kneehigh inventiveness and there are some fine performances, including Nandi Bhebhe and Damon Daunno as Oskar’s mum and dad, and personal favourite Beverley Rudd shining in a number of roles, including a policeman, nurse, Satan and a baby!

It was only the second of two previews, so maybe that was part of the problem, though it has been touring for over two months. I’m more inclined to think it’s the wrong kind of story for the Kneehigh magic.

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This is a breath of fresh air for the West End, full of energy and life-affirming joy, and perhaps the first musical to be inspired by a documentary?

Sixteen-year-old Jamie wants to be a drag queen, and to wear a dress to the school prom. His divorced mum Margaret, her friend Ray and his bestie Pritti support him, but his dad, his school and some of his classmates don’t approve. He’s befriended and coached by Hugo, a former drag queen, now owner of a shop supplying drag outfits, and starts developing an act for an invited audience at the local drag club where three other drag queens also provide advice and support. The showcase goes ahead, followed by the even bigger challenge of the prom.

Dan Gillespie Sells score and Tom Macrae’s book and lyrics are excellent; they bring a fresh pop sound, rather than a bog standard musicals one, the style of songs changing to match the characters. Kate Prince’s choreography is simply terrific, again fresh rather than standard musicals movement. The school scenes in particular have extraordinary authenticity and high energy. I liked Anna Fleischle’s design, with projections by Luke Halls, and it’s staged with great pace by Jonathan Butterell.

It seems like a very happy cast, visibly enthusiastic, many of them transferring from Sheffield with the show. Lucie Shorthouse is outstanding as Pritti, comfortable with both her Muslim culture and Jamie’s personal choices. The relationship between Jamie and his mum is at the heart of the show and Josie Walker invests a lot of emotional energy into Margaret, with her big second act song feeling like a big hug from your mum. Mina Anwar is lovely as the ballsy Ray, who’s love for Margaret and Jamie knows no bounds. John McRea towers over all of this with a supremely confident, passionate performance; an astonishing West End debut.

I watched the documentary after seeing the show and it proves it’s very faithful to Jamie’s story. The show’s message of tolerance, of everyone being allowed to be who they are, comes over loud and clear in what is clearly a populist and critical success. Lets hope it’s a commercial success too, so that we can get more fresh air like this into the West End.

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For an island with a population of only seventy thousand, Anglesey appears to have more than it’s fair share of theatrical eccentrics. First there was Shon Dale-Jones aka Hugh Hughes, ‘emerging artist’ and storyteller, now Seiriol Davis, the composer and lead performer of this quirky show about another Anglesey eccentric, Henry Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, a cross-dressing thespian who lost a fortune and died young.

With the assistance of Matthew Blake and Dylan Townley, Davies tells the story of the Marquess, and in particular his thespian career, performing Wilde and Shakespeare amongst others, touring the UK with his shows, featuring his idiosyncratic dances, and his early death in Monte Carlo after squandering his entire annual income (£11m at today’s value).

The songs are rather good and the whole thing is a quirky camp curiosity which seems to have the spirit of the man who inspired it. It has a cheeky, playfulness about it, a permanent twinkle in its eye, one long wink. All three performances are excellent and the design is a delight. It was impossible not to smile throughout.

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