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Posts Tagged ‘Kneehigh’

I always thought Kneehigh would suit the Globe Theatre space, but it also turns out that Michael Morpurgo and Kneehigh is a match made in heaven. This is wonderful storytelling – funny, moving and captivating. I laughed and cried and had a lovely time.

The backdrop to Morpurgo’s story is a little known event leading up to the D-Day landings in 1944. US forces had arrived on the South Devon coast in order to rehearse on the beaches. In November 1943, local people were evacuated and five months later the preparations led to Exercise Tiger at sea. The lack of a second support vessel and cock-ups in communication led to the death of 946 men. This was hushed up and it was 40 years before the truth became public.

The story is told through the life of twelve-year-old Lily, who’s dad is away in the war. She lives with her cat Tips, mum and granddad on his farm in Slapton. When they are evacuated, London evacuee and Lily’s school friend Barry joins them. Their teacher is herself a Jewish French refugee. They are befriended by young Black American GI’s Adolphus and Harry, who become as fond of Lily as the family is of them. The show is bookended by contemporary scenes where an elderly Lily, now a grandma herself, loses her husband, which frees her to return to her past.

This is such a heart-warming story. The meeting of three cultures provides much comedy, but even more warmth and empathy. There is a lot of music, some original, some well-known songs, with ‘the blues man’ and his band above the stage and the cast joining in with instruments, bottles, spoons and vocals. Lez Brotherston’s design uses sandbags and tin baths to great effect. The telling of the tale of Exercise Tiger is particularly inspired in Emma Rice’s delightful staging (she also co-adapted with Morpurgo).

It’s an excellent ensemble with Kneehigh AD Mike Shepherd as granddad (and contemporary Lily!), Adam Sopp as chirpy cockney evacuee Barry (and contemporary grandson Boowie) and Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe charming as Adolphus and Harry respectively. Ewan Wardrop provides a superbly funny cameo as Barry’s mum. Katy Owen is simply terrific as feisty, cheeky Lily – and an ever so believable 12-year old.

A delightful, enthralling evening that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

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John Gay’s The Beggars Opera may be the first ever musical, written almost 300 years ago. Though called an opera, it was actually a satire on opera, set amongst ordinary folk, in stark contrast to opera’s loftier subjects and settings. It’s had many revivals, notably one at the Lyric Hammersmith nearly a century ago that ran for almost 1500 performances, and adaptations, the most famous of which is Brecht & Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Now Kneehigh have given it a modern setting in our corrupt new world.

The Peachum’s own a pilchard canning business. Mrs Peachum is the power behind the throne and daughter Polly keeps the books. They have a loyal servant, Filch. Mr Peachum hires Macheath to kill the mayor (and his dog!) so that he can take over (via a corrupt election). Much to the Peachum’s horror, Polly falls for, and gets pregnant by, Macheath, who has impregnated quite a few ladies, including Lucy Lockit, the daughter of the police chief (who is also in Peachum’s pay). As Mayor he changes the law so that Macheath can be hung, but things don’t always turn out as planned.

Charles Hazlewood’s new score is a cocktail of many musical styles, from references to Gay’s original to heavy metal and punk! The cast double up as musicians. The setting is a giant metal frame sitting inside the chamber of Shoreditch Town Hall, reminiscent of earlier Kneehigh shows like Don John. It’s good to see some new faces to Kneehigh, particularly Rina Fantina as a terrific Mrs Peachum, the ever wonderful Beverley Rudd as Lucy Lockit and Jack Shaloo as an excellent Filch, jailer and prostitute (very versatile!).

It was inventive and contained many of the Kneehigh trademarks. I thought the first half could do with a bit of tightening, and maybe editing, but overall it was Kneehigh back on form, doing what only they can do.

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Given the reaction I’d picked up in advance, I was expecting to either love or hate Punchdrunk’s new show (and I’ve loved five of the previous six I’ve seen), but in the end I’m rather indifferent, largely because it’s just another Punchdrunk show. It applies the now tried & tested formula to a different setting / story, but breaks no new ground and doesn’t really move them on.

I’m told it’s the biggest, but it didn’t seem any bigger. There’s the disorienting start, the finely detailed rooms with letters and open books to read and characters emerge and enact a scene or dance or fight, then disappear again. We’re told in advance it’s based on Wozzeck, and as we enter we’re given a little note of a story about William & Mary, but you have to work hard to find whatever links there are to either. This one’s got a whole square of shops set around a fountain, lots of sand, a forest and a disused trailer park. There’s brilliantly choreographed bar room brawls and dancing and, as we’re in Temple Film Studios, a casting office, wardrobe and dressing rooms. As ever, there’s a brooding, atmospheric soundscape.

Of course, it’s another astonishing artistic and technical achievement, but it again favours the pick-and-mix approach, which means that everyone has an individual experience (except the couples and groups who just won’t split up) but it means that some leave thrilled and some leave dissatisfied. Their one ‘linear’ show – It Felt Like A Kiss, in Manchester in 2009 – was the most satisfying because it was linear. Yes, everyone got the same experience, but everyone got a rewarding experience.

If Punchdrunk continue to do more of the same, the law of diminishing returns will apply. You know what to expect, so there’s little surprise. Veterans get savvy and develop tactics rather than going with the flow (some of them were even running on Saturday!) and virgins destroy the atmosphere because they don’t know how to engage with it……and it becomes ‘another Punchdrunk show’.

It must be hard for companies like Kneehigh and Punchdrunk to ditch a formula that has brought them so much success and so many followers, but ditch it they must. The Borough at Aldeburgh last month, on a much much smaller scale, proved that they can and for me provided a more satisfying and rewarding experience than this. I’m not angry like some (I think I saw a lot), I’m just indifferent, which is probably worse. I didn’t want to leave their earlier shows, but when I got to the bar last night I was thinking ‘oh, good, a sit down and a cold beer’.

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For the second year running, the most original and enjoyable Christmas show in London hails from Bristol. Last year it was Swallows & Amazons from the Old Vic; this play with music (no, it’s not a panto) is from the Tobacco Factory, in a co-production with Travelling Light.

Similar folk tales exist around the world, and this adaptation is a mash-up, with the German (Grimm) and Chinese one’s to the fore. It’s darker and quirkier than what we’re used to. Ella’s mum dies in childbirth and her dad soon after he marries his obnoxious second wife, who has a son & daughter rather than two daughters. Ella first meets the prince – a twitcher – in the forest and a flock of magical birds replace the fairy godmother. The wicked stepmother puts her son in a frock for a second chance of bagging the prince as a son-in-law and the slipper becomes a rather cool jewel-encrusted boot.

It’s a little slow to take off, but when it does it charms you. Two multi-instrumentalists, Brian Hargreaves & Adam Pleth, provide a superb soundscape, music and songs. Katie Sykes design is shabby cool, with trees made from plywood, a lot of large paper lanterns & a mirrorball and everyone wears Doc Martens. The costumes, particularly the ball gowns of the step-mother, sister and son, are great. Sally Cookson’s staging has echoes of early Kneehigh – creative, minimalist, captivating.

The five performers play all roles (and birds) brilliantly. Craig Edwards is as nasty a step-mother as you could wish for, Thomas Eccleshare is a terrific nerdy prince (who handled the audience’s impromptu but inappropriate panto interruptions with wit and aplomb), Lucy Tuck & Tom Godwin take the step-sister and step-brother on a journey from nasty to nice and Lisa Kerr is a sweet tomboyish Ella.

This is far too good for kids; get yourself there pronto.

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Apparently, Wah! Wah! is what an Indian audience calls out to show appreciation. At the end of this show, it was about the last thing I felt like saying. They spent 2 hours 40 mins trying to beat me into submission and failed. Subtle it is not!

It’s a good idea. A Bollywood musical set in present day Britain with flashbacks to India and a very current issue in forced marriage. It starts well as Bindi says goodbye to husband Mansoor, off on a business trip, and occupies her enormous armchair and uses the remote control to switch on the TV to bury herself in a Bollywood movie.

The rest of the first half is fairly inconsequential. There’s some nice humour involving an Asian shopkeeper, a black handyman and a Polish handyman (though his accent seemed American to me!) and a lot of scenes set in a dancing school. The routines seemed more MTV than Bollywood to me and the sound was turned up to ‘this is almost hurting me’ levels. It was colourful, it had its moments but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere until, towards the end, we realise that young Sita has run away from her family.

Much more happens in the second half as we return to India to discover what happened to dance teacher Soraya that brought her to the UK and Sita’s story unfolds (a bit, but holding back, I thought). This all seemed so contrived and clumsily staged, by Emma Rice no less, the relentless MTV routines continued and by now I was rather hoping it would all end soon so that we could go for an Indian meal in peace.

This is the second show in World Stages London to disappoint. Like Babel, it seems like a good idea that gets the sort of resources that would keep the Finborough going for about a decade, and a creative team so big that they cease to be creative. In the programme, it lists a team of 13 to match the cast of 13, then a whole page of others who contributed – some 50 people and organisations. More is less? I think so.

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This macabre tale of a man who inadvertently sells his daughter to the devil (and her subsequent journey) is a welcome return to form for Kneehigh after four disappointments in a row.

The starting point is a faustian pact (with a touch of Robert Johnson’s crossroads brought to the fore by the blues soundtrack) where the devil visits a poor farmer and offers him fancy clothes and bling in exchange for everything in his back yard. He makes the exchange enthusiastically, not realising his daughter is in the back yard. After the devil makes her father chop off her hands, she escapes and goes feral until found by a prince who falls in love and whisks her away, but the devil hasn’t finished yet; he creates a war to send the prince (now king) to and fakes correspondence between him and his mother which effectively sends the girl back into the wilderness.

It took too long (45 minutes) to take off, though in all fairness my companion didn’t agree, so maybe it’s just my impatience (if a book doesn’t grab me in 100 pages, I put it down!), but from the point at which she goes feral I was captivated. There’s a terrific blues inspired score from Stu Barker with enough songs to qualify as a musical, though in style it’s a play with music. The girl is played at different ages / stages by three actresses and Etta Murfitt’s choreography has them moving brilliantly in unison. The usual Kneehigh inventiveness is here (though we’ve seen most of it before now) and Bill Mitchell’s design around a central tree is highly effective.

The acting honours belong to Stuart Goodwin. who is terrific as both dad and prince / king; the latter a superb comic creation in kilt with a spring in his step. The three girls / women – Audrey Brisson, Patrycja Kujawska and Eva Magyar – are all excellent and Stuart McLoughlin’s devil is suitably smarmily satanic.

I still think it would be great to see Kneehigh stretch themselves again beyond gothic fairy tales like they did with their film adaptations of Brief Encounter and A Matter of Life & Death and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, but for now it’s ‘welcome back’ (and an evening free of men in Y-fronts and vests at last!).

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The producers, co-producers and associate producers of this show – and there’s 12 of them – deserve to lose every penny they are about to lose because they didn’t do their job. What upsets me so much about this is that it is a shocking waste of talent and seems to me to be both predictable and preventable and it will tarnish the reputation of Kneehigh and their director, Emma Rice. One week after opening to mediocre reviews, the theatre was less than a quarter full and, in the first half at least, the show fell flat on its face.

To the producers, I’d say this:

1. The Gielgud Theatre is too big for this show. Not only is it a lot of seats to sell, but if you don’t sell them there is no atmosphere. The cast will have to work very hard, they probably won’t succeed and the word-of-mouth that has given Kneehigh their success so far won’t be there – or will work in reverse.

2. Kneehigh and Emma Rice are hugely talented, but they are musical novices. They know how to fill a 250-seat studio theatre for six weeks with delightful small-scale shows at £25 a seat from a strong fan base; that’s less than 1.5 weeks at this 900-seat theatre where you’re charging twice as much. Their biggest West End show was not a musical, it was in a much smaller theatre and it benefitted from being the first of this type. Where’s the experience with musicals coming from?

3. The director is clearly smitten with the film (as you and the composer are clearly smitten with her). This is a show not a film and even though she’s got a track record in adapting films, it’s still a very different challenge to anything she’s done before. To allow her to double up as adapter and choreographer is criminal; there will be no healthy creative tension, no questioning, no challenge. If nothing else, you should have hired a musicals choreographer (or promoted your very experienced assistant choreographer).

If I’d been the producer, this is what I’d have said to Emma Rice during the Leicester try-out / London previews:

1. However inventive you are, you will never succeed with a big musical where the book, lyrics and score don’t work. This isn’t a musical theatre score.; it’s two songs, sung dialogue and some incidental music – it’s monotonous and repetitive and it won’t carry a full evening sung-through show. In opera, they’d say ‘all recitative, no arias’. Turn it into a play with music (you know how to do that) by replacing some of the singing with dialogue.

2. Nothing happens in the first half. By the interval, the audience (those that are still there ) will be so disappointed you will have to work very hard to get them back. Cut the first part by half and dump the interval and you just might get away with it.

The show’s already dead, which is sad as I really do think it could have worked. There are some great ideas (as always with Kneehigh). The ‘Maitresse’ is a great idea; her opening turns are fun if a little long and her French song is the best musical moment of the show. The sailor chorus, with their scene changing signs and bells, are a great idea. Lez Brotherston’s design is fine (oops, I’m not supposed to mention him in a blog….). The performances are fine.

This is the third Kneehigh show in as many months to disappoint. If I were Emma Rice, I’d take a sabbatical to rejuvenate my creative juices and let the phone ring out; she may damage her career forever if she doesn’t. This may all sound very arrogant –  but I suspect I’ve seen a lot more musicals than Emma Rice and invested in nine of them, so I consider it helpful and constructive – and free!

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The second Kneehigh production in three months to underwhelm and now I realise why – the material isn’t good enough for their extraordinary talents. Their best work has always been meaty – Tristan & Yseult, Cymbeline, A Matter of Life & Death and Brief Encounter, to name just four. These slight tales – Hansel & Gretel and The Red Shoes – just aren’t substantial enough so it’s all style and innovation and little substance.

The former council chamber at BAC, without the usual black drapes but with wood paneling and faded paint revealed and the external windows exposed, is very atmospheric (and the use of the balcony entrance / exit is terrific). With three rows of seats on three sides, it is also very intimate. The production’s look and musical style owes a debt to Shockheaded Peter which preceded its first outing, but it’s a great gothic feel all the same (but maybe they’ve done the white vest and y-front look once too often?).

It’s hard to fault the design, the staging, the music or the performances, but it’s just wasted on a slight tale and doesn’t sustain a 90-minute running time. To be frank, I became distracted and bored. Hopefully, the month’s other Kneehigh show (are they over-stretching?), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – will be substantial enough. Fingers crossed!

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A lot of ‘seasonal entertainment’ to pack into the last four days of 2010 and first up comes the usually reliable and often wonderful Cornish company Kneehigh, though I wasn’t saying that at the interval after a very slow chunk of story-telling lacking in their trademark inventiveness!

Things looked up in the second half, with a lot more creativity and much more pace. Carl Grose lived up to his name as a positively gross witch and Edith Tankus came into her own as The Bird, both now bringing a balance to the occasionally overly twee charm of Chris Price’s Hansel and Joanna Holden’s Gretel. In this second half, the set comes alive and the music truly complimentary – in short, the Kneehigh we expect.

Hansel & Gretel is a slight tale to spin out to over hours, and an intimate piece of storytelling to fill the QEH. When it’s good, its great, but Mike Shepherd’s production desperately needs some editing and needs to pull a few punches earlier on before the audience contemplates giving up and leaving at the interval. 

It’s advised for 7+. What is it about parents that makes them think they know better? The number of bored and scared under 7’s was extraordinary – no doubt their parents queued up to complain at the end…..

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