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Posts Tagged ‘Sally Cookson’

The 2011 illustrated children’s novel by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobahn Dowd, who had cancer at the time, has already been made into a successful film, released only 18 months ago. It’s harder to imagine a stage adaptation, but this has been entrusted to theatre-maker Sally Cookson, responsible for the NT’s Jane Eyre and Peter Pan, also co-productions with Bristol Old Vic, who’s got plenty of imagination.

Teenage Conor is very close to his mother, and is struggling to cope with her cancer. His dad, who visits, is separated from Conor’s mum and has a new family in the US. His grandmother is practically supportive but emotionally somewhat distant. Conor is being bullied at school. He has fantasies revolving around the yew tree visible from his room (a tree associated with death and from which cancer treatments have been derived). It appears to become a monster and wake him with a nightmare at the same time each night, telling him stories to teach him lessons that will help him come to terms with the situation. In parallel, in reality, Conor has violent outbursts trashing his grandmother’s house and severely injuring his school bully.

Cookson places the story on a white stage in front a white wall. The nightmares are created by projections and a soundscape and the yew tree and monster by ropes and shadows and they are both extraordinary. The live music by Benji Power and Will Bower is integral to the piece. A terrific cast of thirteen play all of the roles, led by Matthew Tennyson, who gives a deeply moving performance as Conor. I engaged more with the story of the illness and its impact than I did with the fantasy, though it often took my breath away. Maybe that’s because I’m not the child it was intended for.

This is creative, captivating storytelling that shouldn’t really work on such a big stage, but does, as Cookson’s work has also done in the Olivier. The younger members of the audience were initially their usual fidgety selves, but in the second half were silent, which tells you a lot about the effectiveness of the storytelling. Under Matthew Warchus, The Old Vic is heading in a very different and fascinating direction, and I’m enjoying the ride.

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I have to confess that I’ve never seen the iconic 1957 Oscar-winning Fellini film on which this is based, but it seems to lend itself to adaptation as a musical, and director Sally Cookson weaves the same homespun lo-tech magic she did with Jane Eyre and Peter Pan at the NT.

Gelsomina is ‘sold’ by her mother to strongman street performer Zampano, as her sister Rosa, who died in his care, had been just one year before. She becomes his assistant, drumming up an audience and passing around the hat. He’s a bit of a bully and when they join a circus, clown Il Matto taunts and torments him, ultimately leading to a tragic outcome. Gelsomina eventually breaks free, when Zampano realises what she really means to him.

It’s a simple tale and it gets a simple but delightful production in Cookson’s Kneehighesque style. Mike Akers has adapted it for the stage (he’s called ‘Writer in the Room’ because he writes it during rehearsals, with everyone involved contributing) and Benji Bower has added some excellent music. Katie Sykes’ design has a great sense of period, place and character.

Audrey Brisson, so good in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, is delightful as Gelsomina, her voice shining in a couple of songs.  Stuart Goodwin is excellent as Zampano, with great presence and truly believable rage. Bart Soroczynski’s Il Matto is a contrastingly playful character, with genuinely good circus skills.

It’s an odd show for The Other Palace, it might feel more at home at Southwark Playhouse or BAC, but it sits well in the space and I was glad I caught it.

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When booking opened for this I decided I didn’t need another Peter Pan. Then I realised it was the same team who brought a brilliant Jane Eyre to this very stage. Need became want and all willpower was lost. A good decision and a brilliant 12th night ending to the festive season.

Visually grungy but colourful, all scrapyard and striped pyjamas, Michael Vale & Katie Sykes design gives it a home-made feel. A huge metal frame, to facilitate flying with people as counter-balances, fills the Olivier. There’s a giant white brick wall at the back, with holes smashed through for two spaces for musicians and action. It looks like Jackson Pollock painted the floor, in one of his more cheerful, colourful moments. When the pirate ship sails in, we all gasped. The look is terrific.

Without messing with J M Barrie’s story, Dramaturg Mike Akers and director Sally Cookson have somehow enhanced both the playfulness and the morality of the tale. There’s a great rock and reggae infused score by Benji Bower, with the lost boys food song an absolute joy. The whole thing has been developed by the company and it shows in a tightly knit ensemble.

Anna Francolini is excellent as both Mrs Darling and Captain Hook, played by a woman as Barrie apparently originally intended. I adored Felix Hayes characterisation of Mr Darling (he also plays Smee and a lost boy). Madeleine Worrall is a delight as Wendy, with Marc Antolin and John Pfumojena equally delightful as John and Michael. Paul Hilton is an unlikely Peter but he makes it his own. Saikat Ahamed’s Tinker Bell is an extraordinary interpretation, as is Ekow Quartey as Nana the dog nanny. You can’t help falling in love with the pyjama-clad lost boys, some with brightly coloured woolly jumpers and hats.

It’s a long way from the National’s classic Peter Pan exactly 20 years ago (with Ian McKellern, Jenny Agutter, Daniel Evans, Alec McCowan and Clive Rowe!) and in many ways more magical. Another import from / co-production with the very enterprising Bristol Old Vic. Great stuff.

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Though I’ve seen screen, TV and stage adaptations, I have to confess I’ve never read Charlotte Bronte’s clearly autobiographical book. Sally Cookson and her company and creative team here deliver a Kneehighesque Complicite-like staging. It uses every trick in the minimalist book (apart from puppets!) – bare wooden stage, platforms steps & ladders, frames & lightbulbs, fire & smoke, ‘movement’ & music. It proves to be a highly effective, lucid, nicely rounded production.

It’s a touch slow to take off and to settle, but I was shocked when I realised at the end of the first half that 100 minutes has passed; it didn’t feel like it. Mind you, it took us from Jane’s birth through her miserable childhood with her aunt, schooling and teaching at Lowood to Thornfield and her position as governess, and the seeds of her relationship with Mr Rochester. I thought her period as teacher was rushed and the passion between her and Rochester played down, but it was very good storytelling nonetheless. The 70 minute second half covers a much shorter, more intense period as the relationship evolves as an emotional roller-coaster, returning to birth, of Jane’s child. It held me throughout, though it didn’t move me as much as I would have expected (though the lady next to me was in tears, normally my default position).

Ten actors and musicians play all of the roles. Madeleine Worrall’s journey from feisty child to defiantly independent woman is very well navigated. Laura Elphinstone manages five characterisations including brilliant performances as school friend Helen and Rochester’s French ward Adele. Felix Hayes has a commanding presence as Rochester and Maggie Tagney doubles up as the evil aunt Mrs Reed and the more empathetic housekeeper Mrs Fairfax and does both very well. Oh, and Craig Edwards is a superb dog (amongst other roles)! There’s a very eclectic selection of music from Benji Bower (including Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy!) most played live by his on-stage trio and it adds much to the success of the evening. The wonderful Melanie Marshall’s singing is heavenly.

I was worried that this style might be a bit lost on the Lyttleton stage (I kept imagining it in BAC’s Grand Hall, its natural home), but that was less of an issue than I thought, at lease from mid-stalls. I was also worried the NT audience might not take to it, but the ovation proved me well and truly wrong. A very welcome co-production with Bristol Old Vic, whose Artistic Director brought Jerry Springer – The Opera, Coram Boy, A Matter of Life & Death and War Horse to the NT’s stages – what a track record!

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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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