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Posts Tagged ‘Sheila Hancock’

This is the second production from Wise Children, Emma Rice’s new company, following the show also called Wise Children. It wasn’t scheduled to come to London, so I went to Cambridge, which probably guarantees it will now come to London!

It’s based on the first of Enid Blyton’s books of the same name, set in a girls boarding school in Cornwall soon after the Second World War. Six schoolgirls arrive for their first term, joined by another held back a year. Each represents an archetype – the bully, the bossy one, the class clown, the timid one and so on. The clash between these very different personalities is the source of much of the story, though there’s an unplanned adventure and a school play to put on. It became a bit darker, with an injection of feminism, in the second half, which I liked. We don’t meet any of the staff, though the Headmistress is represented in animation, voiced by Sheila Hancock.

There are songs, including a handful of new ones by Ian Ross & Emma Rice and standards like Mr Sandman, with live piano accompaniment from Stephanie Hockley, occasionally joined by members of the cast on other instruments. There are clever projections and animations onto the second, classroom, level of Lez Brotherston’s set, with the front stage the dormitory. The seven performers are excellent, perfectly capturing the archetypes and the period. Yet there’s something missing – it has less of the inventiveness we’ve become used to with Rice’s work, it’s a bit slow to take off and it lacks some sparkle. That said, there’s a lot to enjoy and it was a somewhat nostalgic, chirpy show, if not not vintage Rice.

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If you want a musical with showstoppers, dance routines and jazz hands, you’ll be disappointed. Tim Firth’s show is more musical play than musical – quirky, charming and ultimately moving, as warm & cosy as a duvet on a cold winters day. I loved it.

Thirteen-year-old Nicky enters a competition to write about her family – older brother Matt, a seventeen year old goth full of teenage angst, parents Steve and Yvonne, who both seem to be having their own mid-life crisis, grandma May, showing signs of dementia, and aunt Sian, single, carefree, loving life, serial girlfriend. The prize is a family holiday to anywhere in the world, but when she wins she chooses a camping trip!

The holiday proves to be a bit of a disaster, largely because of the weather, though Steve’s handiwork as a bodger is partly to blame. By now, Sian has another boyfriend, Matt’s intense relationship with his girlfriend becomes more on-off, May’s ability to look after herself comes into question and the parents mid-life crises continue. Nicky seems to be the only sane, balanced one, but when the significance of the location to both Steve & Yvonne and May becomes clearer, it brings out the best in the whole family.

There are lovely tunes interwoven with the dialogue, but I wouldn’t call them songs. They do add a lot, though, because feelings and emotions are better conveyed by music. Both book and lyrics (Firth does the lot) are very funny. You really do get to know and love this family of six in a very short time. Richard Kent’s design is a great use of the Minerva space, with a two-story house as a backdrop, but an intimate playing area in front, and in the interval the stage management team work wonders turning it into a muddy wood.

Nicky is the beating heart of the piece and Kirsty Maclaren’s performance is delightful, a totally believable thirteen-year-old. Scott Folan is superb as teenage Matt, often having to change style and behaviour, as teens do. Rachel Lumburg is lovely as the singleton determined to live life to the full, and Sheila Hancock gives us another of her late career character acting gems as May. For the third time in less than a year Clare Burt has captured my heart, with Yvonne hot on the heels of Mrs Harris and Miss Littlewood. This is a rare stage appearance for James Nesbitt who proves what we’re missing in a role which suits his natural charm and likability.

Like last year’s wonderful Flowers for Mrs Harris, this started out in Sheffield. Daniel Evans is at the helm again, creating a feel-good, heart-warming show which deserves a life beyond this second eight-week run, but you’d best get to Chichester just in case.

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The 1971 film was a flop, as was the 1980 English language stage adaptation, though the film went on to become a cult hit and turned a profit twelve years later. There was also a French TV adaptation, which itself was adapted for the stage in Canada. It’s been described as a romantic black comedy, the romance being between an eighteen year old boy, with a bit of an obsession about death, and an eccentric 79-year-old woman.

Harold lives with his widowed mother in middle-class American suburbia. She’s a social climber who is set on finding Harold a wife using computer dating. He stages fake suicides and attends real funerals where he meets Maude, an Austrian Countess who lives a Bohemian lifestyle seemingly without money. Cautious at first, Harold is drawn in by her infectious love of life and they become good friends. After rejecting the three suitors his mother introduces, he realises Maude is the love of his life and plans to propose at the 80th birthday party he is planning for her, but she has other plans.

Michael Bruce has added musical accompaniment which the actors play live on instruments including double -bass, cello and accordion, in character, just like those actor-musician musicals, though it isn’t a musical. It gives it the feel of one of those charming French films. Francis O’Conner’s set has an equally lovely other-worldly quality and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are a delight, Harold in seventies style, Maude in Bohemiana and Harold’s mother power dressed.

Sheila Hancock is perfectly cast as Maude, a beautifully judged, delicate performance, as light as air. Bill Milner’s transition from existential angst to love-struck teen is navigated superbly, with real chemistry with Hancock. Rebecca Caine is excellent as the controlling mother and Joanna Hickman is a delight as all three suitors. in an outstanding supporting cast, Samuel Townsend makes a great seal, as well as a cop.

Thom Southerland’s production is as quirky as the material, which is a touch absurd, a bit surreal, but rather captivating. I wasn’t entirely sold on the story but it’s hard to imagine a better production or better performances. Well worth a visit.

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Has there ever been a musical based on a documentary film before? This 2006 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway show, getting its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is based on the film of the same name, a true account of the mother-daughter relationship of Edith & Edith Bouvier Beale, Long Island socialites with connections to the Kennedy’s.

After a brief prologue looking back, the first act is set in 1941, their heyday hosting parties and mixing with the rich and famous. Young Edie is betrothed to the future president’s elder brother Joseph Kennedy (may be true) and her cousins include a young Jaqueline (Kennedy nee Bouvier – definately true). Big Edie’s dad is an eccentric retired major, perhaps even a bit barking. They even have an in-house pianist to accompany Big Edie in her vocal entertainments. Think Philadelphia Story with eccentricity scaled up 10-fold.

In the second half we move forward 32 years to 1973. Mother and daughter are recluses, living with 54 cats in filthy surroundings unable to look after themselves. The press have made the connection with the former first lady and the neighbours protest. Their only friend is a teenage handyman whose motivation is ambiguous and who Big Edie has an unhealthy attraction to.

The difference between the two acts is extraordinary, very much a show in two halves. For me this is its flaw. I can see the necessity of showing their heyday, but a whole act seems to overplay it and rob us of more depth to the story at the heart of the piece – the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship and how they got that way.

That said, there is so much to admire and enjoy that it’s an unmissable evening. Chief amongst this are the performances. Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Southerland must have wet themselves when they secured Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell for the leads; it’s hard to imagine a pair more suited to these roles and they are both sensational. Russell combines pathos with tragi-comedy and quirkiness to give a performance that is a career highlight, even in her illustrious career. Hancock’s stage presence and audience engagement are extraordinary; she completely inhabits the role.

As if that wasn’t enough, Aaron Sidwell follows his brilliant turn in American Idiot with a brilliant pair of performances, as dashing young naval man Joseph Kennedy and the teenager who befriends the ladies, and Rachel Anne Rayham is hugely impressive as Little Edie in 1941. There’s superb support from Billy Boyle as dad / granddad, Jeremy Legat as the pianist and friend and Ako Mitchell as two generations of household staff. I don’t know which pair of girls played the cousins, but they were superb.

The surprisingly big 10-piece band make a lovely sound (and the venue’s former sound problems seem to have gone, as they had in Grand Hotel). Tom Rogers impressive design is a touch cramped in the first act but suitably chlaustrophobic in the second. Thom Southerland’s staging is as good as we’ve come to expect from him.

Southwark Playhouse starting the year on a high. Don’t miss.

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It’s surprising how much you learn about Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, from a play in which she’s a character who remains offstage. Nicholas Wright cleverly tells the story through her two biographers – Caroline Blackwood and Diana Mosley – and her lawyer & assistant.

The play takes place in the Duchess’  Paris home late in her life when she is a recluse guarded by the somewhat imposing lawyer / advisor / friend Maitre Suzanne Blum. Lady Caroline Blackwood is trying to get an interview with the Duchess for a Sunday supplement, dangling the carrot of a Snowden photo shoot. In the end, she opts for an interview with the secretive but fascinating Blum herself. The play happens before she writes her biography of the Duchess; indeed the events the play focuses on may have inspired her to write it. 

The characters and the play speculate on the relationship. Is she just a gatekeeper? Is she ripping off the Duchess by selling her possessions? Is she just an up-market groupie? Is she in love with her? The rip off theory seems to be dismissed by Lady Diana’s investigations and interrogations (she’s already written her biography) but the rest is left ambiguous.

I’ve seen some stunning performances in the last two weeks – Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Douglas Hodge in Inadmissable Evidence and Tasmin Greig in Jumpy – and Sheila Hancock here as Maitre Blum is another one. With a very authentic sounding French accent, her performance is very nuanced and subtle. Anna Chancellor had less than two weeks between coming off the Minerva Chichester stage (well, floor actually) and her first performance here. I loved her in the first act, but felt she pushed it too far in the second. John Heffernan’s transition from mere assistant to protector was well played and Angela Thorne’s cameo as Lady Diana Mosley was terrific (though she did have some great lines, including some lovely references to her Nazi sympathies). Lord Snowden is another character who remains offstage.

Anthony Ward’s opulent Parisian drawing-room is perfect for both period and station and Richard Eyre’s direction as sensitive as always. I’m not sure its a great play – I suspect I won’t remember it as long as Wright’s best play, Vincent in Brixton – but it’s well worth seeing, for Sheila Hancock’s performance if nothing else.

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