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Posts Tagged ‘Kneehigh Theatre’

Kneehigh may just have the best party in town this season. The combination of storytelling, creative immersive staging and willing participation is irresistible.

They’ve set it on an election night when the sitting president gets a second term, but Ubu and Mrs Ubu turn up, stage a coup and the tyranny begins. When the Ubu’s fall out over his oppression, war ensues, then revolution. Written by Carl Grouse, co-directed by him and his fellow Kneehigh AD Mike Shepherd, and based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play, it’s all accompanied by a great selection of pop and rock songs, played by a superb live band, whose lyrics contribute to the story.

The participation isn’t in the slightest bit enforced or uncomfortable, partly because a party atmosphere is created as you arrive, and partly because of their ingenious ways of engaging the audience. We sing along like crowd karaoke, with surtitles to help us, there are games and battles and some audience members get inflatable animals to create a zoo! Host Jeremy Wardle, brilliantly played by Niall Ashdown, keeps it all on track, and Katy Owen and Mike Shepherd are terrific as Ubu and Mrs Ubu respectively.

The design aesthetic spares us Kneehigh’s trademark white Y-fronts, but instead we get collar & tie on white vests with braces. Mrs Ubu only needs her hat to come alive. There’s a giant loo which is put to great use, and we fall in love with the magic bear. It’s very funny, but with a bit of a satirical bite and an underlying message, and of course rather timely, but above all its huge good-hearted fun and another tonic to divert us from the madness. Don’t miss it !

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Though I wasn’t a fan of Emma Rice as Globe Theatre Artistic Director, I am a big fan of Emma Rice, theatre-maker, and this is something like my eighteenth show. It’s her first production since leaving Shakespeare’s Globe and the first for her new company, named after Angela Carter’s 1991 novel, on which this show is based, somewhat ironically inspired by Carter’s admiration for Shakespeare.

The story concerns a theatrical dynasty. Our narrators, twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, look back to the generation which preceded them, and forward to the ones that followed. It starts on their 75th birthday, which is also their father Melchior’s 100th birthday. Flashing back, we meet him and his twin brother Peregrine, his various wives, daughters and son, the sisters half-brother and Grandma Chance. It’s a complex, and very adult, story involving ambiguous parenthood, incest, child abuse, suspected murder and more, interwoven with the everyday story of theatre folk, for which there is a troupe of singing actors.

You’d know it was an Emma Rice show within seconds. All of her customary ingredients are here – puppetry, music, dance, inventive staging, men playing women & vice versa and above all child-like playfulness – which was part of my problem with the show. It seemed to be recycling things she’s done before and therefore felt a bit stale. I also didn’t engage with the story and characters, which was the other problem. I’m afraid I felt I was at an Emma Rice show for people who’ve never seen an Emma Rice show and it wasn’t a patch on recent gems like Romantics Anonymous, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and the revival of Brief Encounter. I suppose this is a problem when you have such a distinctive house style. In all fairness, most of the audience seemed to love it.

There’s no disputing the talent on show, including many Kneehigh regulars. Vicki Mortimer’s excellent design feels at home on the Old Vic stage, and though it’s probably the biggest theatre I’ve ever seen one of her shows in, I didn’t feel that was a problem. Etta Murfitt (who also plays Nora – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her act before) has choreographed it very well. I wasn’t so sure about the cocktail of original music with standards and contemporary songs; they did signpost the periods, but seemed a bit of an inconsistent rag bag.

A bit of a misfire for me, but don’t let me put you off, particularly if you’re new to Rice and Kneehigh.

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This is what Emma Rice does best – creating theatrical magic. It’s her 4th such show in the last 2 years – Romantics Anonymous, 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and this revival of her 2007 masterpiece, four of the best of her seventeen shows I’ve seen. It’s back in the same cinema, just down the road from the location of the film’s world premiere in Regent Street seventy-two years ago.

It interweaves the film’s story of the relationship between Laura and Alec with playful scenes involving the other characters at the station – Asst. Station Master Albert and Refreshment Room Manager Myrtle and her assistants Beryl and Stanley, two other rather less serious couplings. It takes us from the moment Alec removes grit from Laura’s eye in the refreshment room at Milford Junction station, through their regular meetings at the station, in the cinema, the cafe & restaurant and in the flat of Alec’s colleague Stephen, to the crunch will-they-won’t-they denouement back at the station.

It flows beautifully from scene to scene, location to location, using film footage, songs with lyrics by Noel Coward and music by Coward and Stu Barker, and every trick in the inventive staging book. The cleverest thing about it is that the fun scenes don’t contaminate the love story, helped by the fact Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec play it straight throughout. Lucy Thackeray’s Myrtle, Dean Nolan’s Albert, Beverley Rudd’s Beryl and Jos Slovick’s Stanley are all an absolute joy to behold, and if that isn’t enough they play another seven roles between them.

It’s a respectful homage to the film, which doesn’t for one moment send it up. The fun scenes add bucket-loads of charm and humour, and the two interwoven parts add up to one hell of an entertaining show. Though its hard to remember how you felt ten years ago, first time around, if anything I felt it was even better this time. Whatever you think of her two years at Shakespeare’s Globe, we’ve got Emma Rice back to create theatrical magic like this. I for one can’t wait for her next show.

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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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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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I’ve always liked the work of artist Marc Chagall, the subject of this play, but that turned into a love affair when I visited the Musee Marc Chagall in Nice eighteen months ago. Daniel Jamieson’s play is a beautiful, captivating biographical homage to him and his first wife Bella.

Chagall was born in Vitebsk, then Russia, now Belarus, to a Lithuanian Jewish family. He fell in love with Bella aged 22, just before he left for his first spell of four years in Paris, and this is where the story begins. He returned just before the outbreak of the First World War and they marry and begin a turbulent ride through the war, when he works in the war office, the Russian revolution and the pogroms, while he is running an art college in his home town, before they escape to France via Lithuania and Germany. They’re on the move again seventeen years later, escaping from occupied France to the US, where Bella dies and our play ends.

Jamieson’s play captures the child-like charm of the couple in a clear narrative (you always get a clearer narrative from a playwright experienced in writing for children!) to which is added feather-like movement by director / co-choreographer Emma Rice and co-choreographer Etta Murfitt and the most delightful original music by Ian Ross. It’s all set on an extraordinary wooden construction designed by Sophia Clist that they climb over and occupy various parts of. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the most perfect venue, with its candlelight adding more warmth to that already generated by the words, music and performance.  Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson are each terrific, and wonderful together; their singing is gorgeous. The composer and fellow-musician James Gow accompany and occasionally add vocals.

Emma Rice’s final production as Kneehigh AD, now in her new home, was a delight from beginning to end; another fine night in the SWP.

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Well, Emma Rice certainly knows how to make her mark. Her inaugural production (and only her second Shakespeare) at The Globe is exuberant, anarchic, irreverent, cheeky and packed full of ideas. It’s populist stuff and the audience loved it.

She starts by making her mark on the venue. There are a dozen opaque green tubes hanging over the groundlings (damaging the sight lines in the middle and upper galleries!) and even more giant white balloons providing an (incomplete) roof. The actors are miked and there’s a fair bit if artificial light. Four round tables occupy the front of the groundling space so that the action can spill off the stage. She also takes a lot of liberties with the play, chief amongst them is that Helena has had a sex change and is now a man called Helenus. The rude mechanicals are members of the Globe Team, including the cleaner and the Health & Safety Officer (the only man). Puck has also changed sex and is now an impish punkess with horns. There’s a lot of music and dance routines, notably a short Bollywood Beyoncé, and a lot of changes to the text (together with a snipe at those who would want it as written). It was a few too many liberties for me, I’m afraid, burying Shakespeare’s play in too much funny business and losing its magical quality.

I like the idea of a Bollywood version, but it’s a bit half-hearted in that mission, and the differing styles of the lovers (Hoxton cool), the fairies (punk gothic) and rude mechanicals (theatre staff) didn’t combine into a cohesive whole for me. There are some lovely performances, though. Edmund Derrington, Ncuti Gatwa, Anjana Vasan and Ankur Bahl are a fine quartet of lovers. Amongst another fine set of performances as the rude mechanicals, Ewan Wardrop shines as Bottom, and Katy Owen is a delightfully cheeky Puck. Zubin Varla is the best verse speaker as Theseus / Oberon and it was good to see Meow Meow as his (burlesque) queen. Stu Barker’s music covered too many genres for me; I’d rather have a uniform style, perhaps Indian.

You expect a new Artistic Director to bring their past with them, but this felt like they’d moved Kneehigh in, rather than appointed Emma Rice. Notwithstanding my reservations above, it’s a good first show, but she must move on and embrace diverse approaches and talent. I enjoyed it, but it bothered me coming soon after her negativity about Shakespeare plays in the press.

 

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Five years ago, I was blown away by a Polish theatre company called Song of the Goat who took Edinburgh by storm with an indescribable but beautiful show of graceful organic movement with polyphonic singing.

The opportunity to see them again has been a long time coming and this time it’s a version of Macbeth (I’d call it ‘scenes from Macbeth’) with dialogue in English, but the same physicality, movement and singing. 

I think they are one of those companies, like  Kneehigh and Punchdrunk, where your first time may always be the best, but it was still a thoroughly original and enjoyable ride nonetheless.

It’s so hard to describe what they do that I’ve dried up!

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Well, the Edinburgh buzz was right again. I missed this during the fringe so followed my instincts (and whatsonstage.com’s recommendation) and headed to Croydon Warehouse Theatre (Croydon? well, it’s only 20 mins away!) and boy am I glad I did.

I can’t remember the last time I saw something so inventive. This young company zip through Ovid’s tales using every theatrical trick in the book from mime to puppetry to projections with great use of  songs and music by Lucy Egger. It took me a short while to get into it (I think it would have been a good idea to remind myself of the stories in advance) but when it gets hold of you it never let’s go.

There’s a simplicity to much of the staging, but that takes nothing away from the creativity of Peter Bramley’s direction and design. The Second World War setting is inspired, as is the use of screens for all sorts of purposes including scene changes. The props have a charming home-made feel. The seven performers are so good they all deserve a mention – Jonathan Davenport, Jo Dockery, Mabel Jones, Joseph Mann, Alex Parker, Hannah Pierce and Eloise Secker!

I think they should drop the unnecessary interval, which might improve the bar profits but hinders the flow a little, and maybe take a look at the ending to see if  they could make it less abrupt. Otherwise, a treat which reminded me of the first time I saw Kneehigh (I mean the excitement not similarity) and I can’t wait to see Pants on Fire (what a great name for a theatre company!) again.

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