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Little Shop of Horrors Festival Theatre Studio

June 25, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Little Shop of Horrors Festival Theatre Studio

Markus enjoys a truly monstrous musical

TBC Productions brings this monstrous musical on to the stage as their first endeavour as an amateur theatrical company. Based on the Roger Corman B-movie and adapted into a stage musical in the 80’s by Howard Ashman, it certainly fits into the musical oeuvre of the likes of “Bat Boy” and “Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens”. I’ll admit, the musicals I tend to enjoy most are the rather tongue in cheek trashy ones. I’ve actually seen ‘Little Shop” twice before, but only ever as an amateur production. But what with its macabre mirth and great use of rock songs, I was certainly looking forward to the experience.

The tale involves a rather nebbish and put upon lad called Seymour (Thomas McFarlane) who works in a flea-bitten florist on skid row. A boy who has a penchant for cultivating some rather unusual plants and his current plant might just have a little more bite than those fleas…

I admit this show does have its faults. Sometimes the singing is not the strongest, and the wee bit of choreography we do have can be a bit sloppy at times. But the music performed by Steven Seagaud and his crew is spot on, and when it comes to humour, this truly elevates the whole show. I have to commend director Janice Bruce’s use of visual humour as there were so many little surprise touches. There was one scene involving a bunch of roses that could have been just mirthful. But due to Bruce’s and her actors’ careful execution, it is certainly laugh out loud! Fiona Dawson who plays Audrey, Seymour’s potential paramour, gets the balance just right of being both sultry and sort of naive, which allows for a lot of funny put equally sensitive moments. And then there is the creepy but hilarious dance ‘Mushnik and Son’ between Seymour and his rather grasping boss Mr Mushnik (Charlie Munro). But the bevy of laughs comes from the performance of Steven Smyth, who is not only playing Dr Orin, the truly sadistic dentist boyfriend of Audrey but also pretty much every other incidental character in the show, bar one! His timing is fantastic, and he truly revels in his roles.

There were some other interesting aspects of Bruce’s direction. I was quite fond of the fact that during the first act, Seymour always has a red cap perched on top of his head. It kind of represents his boyish innocence, because pretty much from the moment the cap comes off, are where things truly take a darker turn for this character. Another commendation, I have to say is how well the ending is put together. As I mentioned previously, I’ve seen two productions of this before. One went for a rather upbeat ending, whilst the other one was more creepy and although humorous, still a bit unsettling in a schlocky kind of way. And I’m glad Bruce made the brave move and went with the latter one.

It certainly was a fun filled night with plenty of laughs. And for me, it’s been the best stage production of “Little Shop of Horrors” I’ve ever seen.

Markus Helbig.

Death of a Salesman King’s Theatre

June 25, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Death of a Salesman King’s Theatre

A new production of one of the all time great plays

You know, for most of my life, I always thought that this play of Arthur Miller’s was something of a black comedy. The name itself belies that. It’s not “Death of a Prince” or “Death of a God”, but of a salesman! It sounded like it’s a joke. And for the main character of this piece, Willy Loman (Nicholas Woodeson), unfortunately his life has become something like that. I’ll admit this play certainly does have bits of humour pipped here and there within, but overall it is a tragedy. It’s set in New York during the 1940’s, where the American Dream has been turned into something of a nihilistic nightmare. Mr. Loman (the salesman in question) is getting on a bit. He’s not exactly what you’d call top of his game. The problem is he never has been. Maybe not to the degree he’s at now, but he’s always struggled with his dream. He’s been trying to get by with a smile and being liked but that has only taken him so far. And what with an adoring but long suffering wife and two boys to raise, that doesn’t always put bread on the table either. He tries to raise his boys on his dreams as well, and that can have an even nastier way of backfiring too.

The set design by Georgia Lowe does tend to reflect the overall feeling of ambiguity emitted from this play. It has sort of a minimalist approach, with just a few pieces of furniture upon a grey stage. To be honest, it’s not too inspiring, but I think that this is very much a conscious choice on part of the designer.

Woodeson does imbue this character with a rather hang-doggedness, that spreads to his posture. And he truly does sell it to you in his role. Mind you in equal contrast when he’s exuberant about life or it’s potential, you end up buying that too.

Abigail Graham’s direction truly shone for me in certain places too. There’s a scene with Mr Loman in a restaurant where he’s not in a good state. He gives the waiter, Stanley (Thom Tuck), a tip. But Stanley slips it back into to Loman’s jacket pocket without him noticing. It was altogether rather discreetly done.

Also, the decision to make Willy’s young neighbour Bernard (Michael Walters) into a shrill geek, is an interesting choice when we see by contrast later on the man he becomes.

I also liked the choreography of Jennifer Jackson, in relation to a scene change. Although these people were moving furniture off stage, it did show the frenetic nature of that very night.

Overall, although this is a moving play, and one that very much reflects the unrest of our time, it does tend to drag a bit in the second half, particularly towards the end. I think this is more on Mr Miller’s head rather than this production. I know he wrote the first half in about a day and a night, but the latter part was written in six weeks. And it kind of shows. There is a vitality to the script in the beginning, which is rather mired by the second half, where things get repeated too often and can sometimes drag it down into a more long winded state.

But overall, that doesn’t take away from this very relevant tragedy.

Markus Helbig.

Milonga Festival Theatre

June 15, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Milonga Festival Theatre

An evening of sensuous dance at the Festival Theatre

Tango is an integral part of Argentinian culture, it’s a social activity as well as an art form and it’s in the blood and the soul of its people. A milonga is a dance party, a place where locals can gather and practice the art. At the Q and A after the show, it was fascinating to hear from an audience member who had left his native Argentina some fifty years before and who had come across this show by chance on his short visit to Edinburgh. The dancing had reawakened memories of his youth and he had been blown away by the intricacy and complexity of the moves – was this the new form of tango being danced in Argentina? In truth, as Nelida Rodriguez de Aure, Assistant Choreographer confirmed, you are highly unlikely to get dancing of this high standard at an actual milonga. The dancers in this company are highly skilled professionals who have danced for years with their partners to achieve this level of perfection. Add to the mix a couple of excellent contemporary dancers, choreography by renowned choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, some new and exciting musical compositions and a small group of talented musicians and the result is stunning.

Cherkaoui was commissioned by Sadlers Wells to explore the world of tango, having already had celebrated success with his previous diverse explorations of flamenco and with the Shaolin monks. He went to Argentina, not only to observe and immerse himself in the music and culture but also to learn to dance tango himself. In his own inimitable way, he has taken the dance form apart and put it back together again, retaining and building upon traditional tango elements then taking it to its extremes and adding new twists. There is still that same wonderful sensuality and passion between the dancing couples, the intertwining of limbs and coordinated flicks and kicks but here it is taken to a different level with breathtaking lifts and leaps and a complexity of moves which leave the audience in awe. Cherkauoi’s stated aim in his choreography is to challenge boundaries, to experiment and explore. “I want to find out where (tango) reaches, how far it can go before it becomes something else..”

Milonga has been touring across the world to critical and popular acclaim since it premiered in London in 2013 and the company hope to continue to perform it for many years to come. If you didn’t manage to catch this short run, look out for it in future – you will be enthralled.

Irene Brownlee

La Boheme Festival Theatre

June 2, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on La Boheme Festival Theatre

A magnificent spectacle from Scottish Opera

In recent years, budget constraints have resulted in many Scottish Opera productions looking somewhat spare and intimate rather than grandiose. No such problem here, with a full orchestra and chorus, and a fabulous set so full of colour and wonderful detail that I’m sure I didn’t catch the half of it. It opens onto a modern day Paris street, full of bustling cafes and little shops, street singers, musicians, artists, children, locals and tourists all mingling to soak in the bohemian atmosphere. A woman sits to one side, observing the goings on but not participating. Lost in reverie, she is perhaps imagining days gone by and the lives of the people who once lived here. On cue, the modern day hubbub gradually fades away, we are transported to the freezing garret of Marcello and Rodolfo and the opera begins.

The four young men who share the attic flat are broke, cold and starving but are full of life and vigour, determined to live life to the full – sounds just like a student flat today. Rodolfo’s world is changed forever when he meets his neighbour Mimi, an impoverished seamstress, and they fall in love. However, their happiness together is fated not to last as Mimi is gradually succumbing to consumption. Their initial meeting and subsequent parting give rise to some of Puccini’s most tender and poignant love duets – Che gelida manina, Si mi chiamano Mimi, O soave fanciulla, Addio, O Mimi tu piu non torno. Unfortunately Rodolfo (Luis Gomes) is drowned out in the early stages as the orchestra is so overwhelming. Thankfully, whether the orchestra calms down a bit or Rodolfo’s voice grows stronger, we are able to hear and appreciate the later duets. Hye-Youn Lee is strong and clear as Mimi and Jeanine De Bique is a wonderful Musetta, inspired by the famous Twenties chanteuse Josephine Baker. The opera and this production in particular, captures perfectly Parisian life in the roaring Twenties – the excitement, the vitality and the artistic buzz of the bohemian quarter.

Puccini apparently stated that he wanted his audiences to weep and, in the end, this simple tale of impoverished lovers and a dying heroine is guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts. I must have seen it a dozen times over the years but it never fails to move me to tears. Thank you to Director Renaud Doucet and Designer Andre Barbe and the rest of the creative team and cast for such an excellent production.

Irene Brownlee

Shirley Valentine King’s Theatre

May 31, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Shirley Valentine King’s Theatre

A one-woman show delights the King’s audience

I first saw the stage play of Shirley Valentine in 1989 on Broadway with Ellen Burstyn in the title role. Burstyn made no attempt at a Liverpool accent but carried it off nonetheless with her humour and personality making the role her own. Jodie Prenger does attempt a Liverpool accent and, while she doesn’t always manage to sustain it, she does manage to thoroughly inhabit the role and keep us engrossed and entertained throughout.

Prenger is a hugely talented musical theatre performer who shot to fame after winning the public vote in the BBC’s I’ll Do Anything in 2008, landing her the role of Nancy in Cameron Mackintosh’s West End production of Oliver. She is a larger than life character with an engaging personality and we instantly warm to her and her predicament as a bored housewife in her Liverpool semi, trapped in a marriage gone stale and bemoaning her loss of identity. Her only confidante is Wall, the kitchen wall to whom she pours out her inner thoughts – she could never reveal to her husband and family how she feels. The prospect of transformation is dangled in front of her when a friend buys her tickets to fly to Greece with her but will she have the strength to go ahead with it?

Unlike the hugely successful 1989 film, starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti, the stage play is a one woman show, and Prenger has to portray all the other characters using reported speech and an array of hilariously accurate voices and accents. Written thirty years ago by Liverpool playwright Willy Russell, the references are a wee bit dated now, but the central themes still resonate with the mainly female audience cheering Shirley on as she travels on her road to self discovery and finds that elusive land of “Clit-oris” on the way.

In all of his writing, Russell shows an uncanny insight into the female psyche and while his main focus is on his strong female characters, he is not unsympathetic to the men – they are also victims of their circumstances and need understanding, not vilification. In the end, Shirley finds inner peace and new hope for the future on her Greek island and there is even the prospect of reconciliation and a new beginning for her marriage. This is a great feel good show, with plenty of laughs and some poignant moments too, and the rapturous applause was well deserved.

Irene Brownlee

War in America Old Royal High School

May 31, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on War in America Old Royal High School

An Attic Collective production

Jo Clifford makes an alliance with The Attic Collective to bring her audacious play of political thrilling shenanigans to a very apt stage.

When I first walked into the chamber of where the play was set in the New Parliament House, the first thought that sprang into my head was that of the Roman colosseum! This room that was once used for members of parliament to discuss legislature, with its central arena, tiered seats and it’s patricians podium, did induce my awe and excitement as I settled into my plebian seat before the show began. It did get me thinking that this could be a performance of great intrigue and brutality, and believe me (unlike some political promises) I wasn’t proved wrong.

The play is vibrant in the fact that although it was written about twenty years ago, it’s still very relevant to today. In the past it was considered ‘too offensive’ to produce and what with several rubber penii being whipped out within the first few minutes, it does come across as shocking. There is certainly quite a bit of debauchery to come, but it’s never just done for purely startling sakes. These offensives are weaved in here and there all the better to tell the story. A thriller is supposed to get a reaction out of their audience, so as long as you can seal the deal and don’t compromise on the story, then by all means, have at it.

The drama is about the upcoming inauguration of the new Prime Minister of an unmentioned European country, whilst trouble is brewing Stateside. There is a lot of fun to be had here, as quite an amount is not mentioned and it’s up to us to fill in the dots upon this perilous path. And I have to admit that I thank Jo Clifford, as she imbues this play with an awful lot of humour. Given how dark this production is, it certainly is a welcome quality, as I find far too many political plays tend to lack this and do get entangled within their own hubris.

In relation to this humour, and this mystery the key character who is a lady being elected to Prime Minister doesn’t even have a name. In fact pretty much everybody in office doesn’t even know her name! She’s just referred to as ‘She’ or ‘That Woman’ (Saskia Ashdown). It certainly adds more to the farcical nature of this piece and its secrets.

But although there is much in the way of shocks and humour to be had here, it doesn’t overwhelm the piece, and its voice does get to shine through. There certainly are outrageous evils, with Mr. Fox (Andrew Cameron) firmly affixed in that position (in more ways than one!) But we do have bastion of hope in the form of She. It does bring to light that there are other evils, not one that are glaring and swaggering in your face. But the ones of a more complacent nature, if you just sleep in a chair and let things pass by.

In earnest, these messages are rather deftly ployed throughout this evening’s experience, and only towards the end does it become a little more like one of those “Thoughts for Today” that’d get whacked on the end of one of those old “He-Man” cartoons, but believe me this is not something jarring or overwhelming. Noticeable…Yes. However this never takes away from this enthralling show and the equally spirited performance of The Attic Collective.

Markus Helbig.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? King’s Theatre

May 25, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? King’s Theatre

Rapture Theatre Company production

I remember being blown away by the 1966 film version of Edward Albee’s play, starring acting superstar couple Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Their portrayal of an embittered and frustrated relationship with its unfulfilled dreams and thwarted ambition deservedly earned Taylor an Oscar as well as nominations for Burton and their fellow actors. The play has lost none of its power and ability to shock even after all these years and this production by Rapture Theatre Company and directed by Michael Emans, is uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

The action takes place in the living room of a house on the campus of a small college in New England and George and Martha have just returned home from a party hosted by her college Principal father to welcome new teaching staff. It’s two in the morning but the party isn’t over yet – Martha has invited a young couple, newcomers Nick and Honey, to come over and join them for post party drinks. As the drinks flow, the initially affectionate banter between husband and wife gradually descends into vitriolic verbal abuse and the awful unhappiness underlying the relationship is laid bare.

Robin Kingsland is superb as George, the downtrodden husband who hasn’t lived up to his wife’s expectations and has suffered as a result. He had his own dreams but now he seems resigned to his failure and unhappy lot. Sara Stewart is also excellent as harridan Martha who humiliates and harangues her spouse at every opportunity. She too is a victim of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions and together they have conspired to concoct an elaborate fiction around their relationship, hiding from the truth and unwilling to face up to the reality of their marriage. Young newcomers to the college Nick (Paul Albertson) and Honey (Rose Reynolds) are drawn into the fray and they too have their own issues which they have to confront. It’s a hard watch at times but there are lots of funny moments too, with acerbic and sarcastic wisecracks and put downs a plenty.

It’s over three and a half hours long and after it’s finished, you feel like you’ve been through the mill along with the actors. I marvel and applaud them for being able to give these emotionally draining performances night after night. Well worth seeing.

Irene Brownlee

Out of This World Festival Theatre

May 25, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Out of This World Festival Theatre

Markus has a very visual experience at the Festival Theatre

Mr Mark Murphy (Writer/Director) has brought a very visual play to the stage of the Festival Theatre – a show that clings on to death as much as life.

The stage design from Murphy and Becky Minto is very much a reverse black box within a white washed set, but that does allow for some atmospheric lighting (Lizzie Powell) and some stellar projection design from Pod Bluman and his associates. These along with the tremendous rigging work of Alex Palmer are truly the highlights of the show.

The tale does deal with life and death, with the experience seen very much from Ellen’s (Sarah Swire) perspective. Initially we’re not sure if it is her death we’re with dealing with or if it’s somebody elses…

But to be honest much as I liked the visual aspects of this piece, and the amazing wire work that was done, (which had people flitting through the air as well as walking up the walls) alas the script and the acting do not hold true for me. The tale essentially involves the plight of lovers holding on to each other even through the embrace of death. There are some genuinely good ideas here, what with all the wire work and safety harnesses being used as if Ellen and Anthony (Scot Hoatson) are tethered to each other come what may.

But for me, this is not the first time I’ve come across a story like this; of lovers trying to hold off time. It has been done numerous times in films from around the world and TV shows to boot. So for all it’s amazing visuals, it really doesn’t hide this fact. In ways with the mawkish dialogue and that Swire is giving her character an Americanised cadence, I found it very much setting itself for a fall. There are certainly lots of different forms of tragedy in life, as there are different types of love. Had it been a tale of the love between a daughter and her father, two best friends (or even a girl and her dog), I think it would have added something a little different from tales past told.

You can see a lot of work has gone into this and I’ll certainly have the visuals lingering in my head for a while to come, but I think the tale itself will fade fairly soon. And for me, that’s rather a shame.

Markus Helbig

Fantastic Mr Fox King’s Theatre

May 17, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Fantastic Mr Fox King’s Theatre

Fantastic is the word for this show

Roald Dahl’s tale of the rather plucky and pugnacious Mr. Fox is brought to the King’s stage with plenty of energy and brio from Sam Holcroft’s adaptation and Arthur Darvill’s splendid musical composition.

I have to admit out of all the Dahl books that I’ve read, the exploits of a certain Mr. Fox didn’t do too much for me. Maybe it’s the fact that the characters are not really all that well defined that it loses its way for me. I was also a little unsure in the beginning of this show as the creatures don’t look all that much like beasts costume-wise, that maybe the anthropomorphic nature of them had been taken too far. But, I should not have worried, as the acting here is spot on, and you do believe in them as the creatures they perform, with all the little scratches and leg twitches that they add to their characters.

And other details do work very well from Tom Scutt’s costume and set design. Be it the energetic foxes being clad in bright orange tracksuits, or clumsy Mole (Gruffudd Glyn) in his overalls with bright pink cricket gloves put on back to front! The set has a contained and minimalist approach but it’s put to good use. It’s mainly a towering piece in three sections that can spin around and can easily represent the tree the fox family lives in or some heavy duty industrial piping in a warehouse. The set changes happen really snappily, and are probably some of the swiftest I’ve ever seen. But that was nothing compared to the costume changes done by Glyn (who also performs as despicable Farmer Bunce) and his colleague Raphael Bushay (who plays both daft Farmer Boggis and the meticulous Badger). At one stage towards the end of the show, it was truly a head scratching moment as to how they did it so quickly.

The key players of this show are of course Mr. Fox (Greg Barnett) and his main antagonist Farmer Bean (Richard Atwill), a man who becomes completely obsessed with this animal. Thanks to Holcroft’s work we really do get to see what makes these characters tick and our titular hero also does get himself a fine case of hubris as he struts about calling himself fantastic. As for Bean we truly get to see inside his head as to what drives him. At one stage where he’s wearing the fox tail like a bandana it certainly gets into an “Apocalypse Now” kind of mode! This is also in thanks to Atwell’s tremendous performance. He really makes the character utterly vile and gets some of the best musical numbers with his fellow farmers.

Darvill has a fine touch in bringing out these characters sensibilities with his composition and I particularly like Mouse’s (Kelly Jackson) song on cheese. It’s true that at one stage when there is a bit of a caper happening with the animals in one of the warehouses that it does sag a bit momentum wise, but with its knockabout nature it did come across to me that director Maria Aberg was aiming this squarely at the children. Which I think is no bad thing seeing as they are the key audience here. And there is more than enough for teenagers and adults alike in this show with its cheeky, and on occasion risqué, humour and the wonderful medley of tunes that we get from this production. So do get the whole clan together to check out this fantastic night of entertainment about that rather wily fox and his friends.

Markus Helbig.

Charlie Sonata Royal Lyceum

May 13, 2017 Reviews, Theatre Comments Off on Charlie Sonata Royal Lyceum

Douglas Maxwell’s new play is a booze-soaked quest for redemption

I’d guess we’ve all been in this situation at one time or another – due to work or whatever, you arrive late to the party. Stone cold sober when everybody else has been scooping it back for hours. You’re hardly in the door when you meet an old mate, an affable bloke you used to meet in the pub in younger days, the difference between you being that you were a weekend drinker and he was making a career out of it. And for the next couple of hours he attempts to engage you in conversation, a conversation that he can’t keep track of himself, far less comprehend anything you might say to him.
So, enter said bloke in the persona of Chic (a faultless and finely nuanced performance from Sandy Grierson). Back in Scotland from London for a reunion with his university buddies Gary (Kevin Lennon) and Jackson (Robert Jack) only to find Gary’s daughter is in hospital, in a coma after a car accident.
Desperate to do something to help, Chic endeavours to glean more information as to what can be done for her from the consultant, Mr Ingram (Barnaby Power). Getting the brush off there, he meets Ingram’s sister Meredith (Meg Fraser). Dressed as wicked fairy Carabosse from Sleeping Beauty, she is the somewhat unstable press officer for a ballet company. She also bears no relation whatsoever to her brother, either in any physical resemblance or for that matter, in nationality. A rather laborious device to take us to the land of metaphor, where Chic – once he has realised he is not the handsome prince who will wake the sleeping girl – sets out to find the one who is.
This could have been a sharp, concise parable of redemption, and the lengths some might go to in order to find it. But at a bloated two hours with no interval, it takes us back to that situation where you can’t quite shake off your drunken acquaintance. Becoming in the process a bit of an ordeal rather than the joyous occasion it should have been. The meanderings of the plot may give us an insight into the meanderings of Chic’s mind, but it’s hardly the path you’d want to follow.
This is a play that deserves to be better than it is; Sandy Grierson certainly deserves a finer vehicle to match his abilities. I’m sure he must be exactly what playwright Douglas Maxwell had in mind when he wrote this and it’s a shame that the irritations at times outweigh the points he makes on wasted lives and minds and on how we develop in differing ways to the friends of our youth. (On the subject of irritations, when the story cuts to London, Nicola Jo Cully gives Chic’s supposed girlfriend Mo a voice like a cat sliding down a window). Fitting enough for the character, but not an abiding memory you’d wish to take home with you.
Jim Welsh

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