Review: Shrek, on tour, Bristol Hippodrome

William Steig’s picture-book cartoon character, Shrek!, shot to fame in the 2001 DreamWorks animated film and reserved his iconic place in family-favourite history. Boasting a larger than life cast of characters, including a zealous talking donkey and subversive princess, the colourful story was a super selection for musical conversion in 2008.

Click photo to see the Shrek trailer

Ten years on, the musical is touring the UK. It was a shame to see such a sparse audience at the Bristol Hippodrome. No doubt it’s a demoralising challenge when the energy of a production is zapped by an empty auditorium in such a large space. And yet there are several huge performances deserving praise.

Steffan Harri greens-up to play the lovable stink with wry humour and a bouncy step. He is well-matched by his furry friend, Donkey, played by Marcus Ayton, who oozes with cheek and sass. It’s great to hear many of the classic lines from the film, which is rife with layers – like onions, like ogres, in fact – but, at times, the writing seems to hold these characters back and there are some poorly managed, purposeless entrances and exits that left the performances a little ropey around the edges. Part of this is to do with the simplistic set design, pared down for the tour. Although effective and usable, it doesn’t wow like other big musicals on tour and some of the stripped-back stand-in features mean that the fairytale magic is lost.

The pantomime villain is always a gift of a role and Samuel Holmes stands up (ahem!) to the demands of Lord Farquaad’s ‘small’ part. His appearances keep the audience tittering at his comical lines and brilliantly funny attempts to cross the stage at speed on his tiny legs -a gimmick that never seems to get old.

Unfortunately, reality TV star, Amelia Lily is the one who falls short as Princess Fiona. Her vocal talents are well showcased but not matched in her dancing or acting ability, clarity and precision being the main concerns. She is overtaken by some excellent work from the saving-grace Ensemble though and it’s this super bunch whose appearances make the show.

This is a fantastic show for the Ensemble who each assume their own supporting role in the brigade of misfit fairytale creatures, cast by physically and psychologically dwarfed Lord Farquaad into the squalor of Shrek’s swamp, due to their oddities. Tim Haley impresses here with super costumes for all the proudly freaky fairytale creatures, each charmingly unique and full of style. The Ensemble do a credible job with their many costume (and shoe and hair and make-up) changes to also play villagers, guards, tapping rats, blind mice and the cutesy chorus line of Dulocians. (There are some super time-lapse videos of these quick changes on the twitter feed). Their appearances are punctuated with Josh Prince’s choreographic arrangements, under Hugh Vanstone’s fun, colourful and engaging lighting design, bringing the ‘Big, Bright, Beautiful World’ to life.

Among them, Lucinda Shaw’s vocals – behind Tim Haley’s four-man dragon puppet – are on fire. And tiny Jemma Revell also packs an awesome punch flipping between the dainty Sugar Plum Fairy and the hearty belt of the adorably silly Gingerbread man. Jennifer Tierney, as Mama Bear, is another vocalist to note, while her fun-loving on stage husband, Kevin Yates, entertains with some groovy dad-dance moves.

The music has some real highlights with winning references to a host of other shows to satisfy musical geeks in the audience: the Les-Mis inspired ‘Freak Flag’ was a great ensemble number, as were the Duloc parodies of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line. ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ appealed to the masses for its primitive, coarse humour contrasting to the classic musical sing-off duets such as Annie Get Your Gun’sAnything You Can Do, (I Can Do Better)‘, a slightly less gaseous take on competitive flirting. It was a shame to see the wonderful trio version of ‘I Know It’s Today’ omitted in favour of interaction with tacky puppets. This was a great number in the original and exemplifies several cuts that haven’t seemed to benefit the revamped tour. But we left the theatre on a high after the keenly-awaited karaoke-swamp party finale, which drew the better half of the performance to a neat close.

This was a mixed bag of a musical, showcasing a number of hardworking and talented performers, but not quite living up to the original west end production.

Media sourced from https://shrekthemusical.co.uk

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Putting the metaphorical pen to paper

Some days writing comes easily. Some days you can’t even fathom the first word. As I sit here in front of a job application form, I can’t find the right words and my attention has drifted to the awesome card that my lovely mum bought me last week:

Starting a blog and sharing your writing publicly takes courage. You open yourself up to exposure and criticism; share very personal thoughts and reveal your weaknesses; all on a very public stage.

It’s true that ‘the water does not flow until the tap is turned on’ so here I go, exercising, experimenting and making merry mistakes to learn from.

Blogging has made me braver about sharing other work too and I’m relishing being the learner (as opposed to the teacher) in receiving feedback. I thoroughly believe we are all able to learn if we can open our hearts to hearing criticism constructively and using information practically and purposefully in order to improve our skills.

I have really appreciated all the blog viewings I have received so far, especially those who have taken the time to comment on here or elsewhere to give feedback and advice. Although I’m only at the beginning of my journey, I wanted to share a thanks to some of the great blogs and people that have helped me to make that leap. I hope this list will be helpful to others (including some friends who I know are keen to have a go and might find these fabulous examples as helpful as I have):

  • Aliventure’s writing blog and email newsletter is full of advice and friendly encouragement. Despite her popularity and busy life, she even finds time to reply personally to email responses to her newsletter. I discovered her network via google when I read some of her excellent blog posts and articles. You can find her on Facebook or this is her blog page.
  • I was inspired to take the leap when reading the brilliant book blog of a friend and ex-colleague who worked her way through maternity leave reading and reviewing books. Her lovely blog is articulate and engaging but costly as I come away wanting to go and buy everything she reviews to read!
  • I love reading children’s books as I am always looking for inspiration for theatre ideas and youth workshops. Another great book reviewer that I’ve discovered is Julia who dips into adult and children’s books on her blog and Twitter.
  • It’s been great to start uncovering some of the theatre blogging community, particularly regional or specialists in their field. Flossie Waite is an excellent blogger whose Children’s Theatre Review blog is important because it actively promotes children’s theatre in order to spread the word and help the movement grow. This is yet another blog that makes me want to spend to go and see all the glorious productions developing across he UK. Please do take a gander at Flossie’s blog and be sure to read the paragraph at the bottom of each of her blog posts which explains how we can support her cause.
  • Another great theatre blogger I enjoy reading is Debbie at Mind the Blog. who is currently on an Edfringe reviewing mission that I am enjoying via twitter (@mind_the_blog) while harbouring Fringe withdrawal symptoms myself!

And so onwards, bloggers, novelists, playwrights, letter writers, note-takers, notebook-fillers and ideas collectors because, whether you are blogging a review of Hamilton, a response to your latest read or writing a letter, script or book, remember that ‘you can always edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page.’

Review: The Meeting, The Minerva, Chichester

It is widely acknowledged that silence speaks when words can’t and that silence is a source of great strength.

Please. Don’t spoil our good silence with your thoughts’, pleads Adam.

Scenes later, Rachel responds, ‘I fear that sitting in silence is not enough‘.

Therein lies the predicament of theatre and the achievement of Natalie Abrahami’s inspirational direction of Charlotte Jones’ The Meeting, which closes at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, on Saturday.

In theatre, so often, the audience are asked to remain quiet and listen. Although the twentieth-century saw the development of theatre that demands a reaction, Natalie Abrahami allows us to make our own decisions as to how far we exercise our minds in the offered silences. As theatre-goers, our challenge is to close our minds to the outside world and to follow the characters into the world they assume. At times in The Meeting this became all consuming and yet Charlotte Jones’ masterful and elegant dialogue can’t help but speak out beyond the world of the text.

In The Meeting, that world is ‘a rural Quaker community in Sussex in 1805′ and here we learn the values of quaker rituals: pacifism, openness, simplicity and truth. Quaker meetings honour stillness and the silence in stillness. As we enter the auditorium, birds chirrup and the cool colours of the polished stone circle absorb our distracted thoughts and focus our minds on the space. The neat circular plinth centre stage sits beneath two concentric hoops in the air, like giant lampshades, concentrating the light onto the plinth and the circle of eleven chairs evenly spaced around it. At the edge of the circle, chalky soil and stones litter the space. Further chalk has been quarried and placed into large cages at the back of the stage, creating a wall of stone: the fortification of the Sussex coast facing invasion; the fortification of the Quaker community against violence; the fortification of the heart against conflict.

As the audience gathers, hushed into contemplation and reverence, so do the meeting attendees. Dressed in natural hues – creams, greys and blues – they resonate with the landscape, a picture of calm and serenity in the pool of god’s light. The simplicity of Quaker life is abundant in every aspect of Vicki Mortimer’s design. All distractions are removed, allowing focus on the importance of listening. This is a world away from our complex, technology and communication fuelled lives.

Lydia Leonard leads the cast as Rachel Young, a wife, daughter and mother to three still-born sons: a woman ‘burdened with too much language‘. ‘Born into her mother’s silence’, Rachel is a communicator from birth, providing a stable rod and a voice for her deaf and electively mute mother, Alice, played heart-warmingly by Jean St Clair.  Despite their being accepted into the Quaker community when Rachel married Adam (Gerald Kyd), no efforts are made to interact with Alice. The community deem her to be sweet and doting. Adam blesses her for treating him well in preparing his meals and yet he makes no effort to sign with her as we see Rachel doing. The intrinsic parent-child bond is palpable. ‘Without me‘ says Rachel, ‘her thoughts are nothing – they go nowhere‘. Alice, like her daughter is a strong and loyal. However, she is the observer of the play, cast to the periphery of the community, and it is clear that her heart pounds with loneliness: Rachel’s channelled communication not fulfilling her need for acceptance.

Rachel struggles, not only with her mother’s silence but with her own unyielding thoughts. She is compelled to speak out in meetings and minister to her people, permitted to do so as Quaker communities entrust fairness and equality to all, regardless of hierarchy or gender. And yet, concerns are raised about her overzealous need to share. As some try to stifle her, Rachel wrestles with Nietzsche’s belief that all truths that are kept silent become poisonous. 

Rachel’s defiance is a catalyst for division in the community. She brings a new member into the pack and with him come lies and sin. Unable to contain her untruths in silence, she attempts to run from her sins, leaving ‘stone deaf‘ Alice voicing the horrors of pain when a parent child bond is snapped. This exquisite scene is sensitively handled to drive the audience’s reaction without a sniff of sentimentality.

Our emotions are guided throughout by a rhythmic soundscore echoing heartbeats, time ticking away and the uneasy chime of the pick against the chalkface; the audience is carried from tranquility to terror. I laughed, I cried, I held my breath, felt peace and welled up with emotion.

Charlotte Jones deliberately places every word in testament to the power of language while Abrahami ensures the well picked cast deliver each with reverence to the significance of voice.

Leonard’s presence is rooted by an intense humanity that echoes Rachel’s loyalty to truth. Her voice is weighted with candour, her stature strong with veracity. Her hands tell Rachel’s story – when she walks, when she talks without signing – they quiver with unrest, desperate to be heard themselves. Alongside Kyd, the pair epitomise strength; a couple toughened by their experiences and emboldened by their unity. This only makes it more harrowing when they crumble like the chalk around them, sending St Clair’s Alice into unbearable agony – a silent cry that we do not want to witness.

The supporting cast bring warmth and humour to the story. Olivia Darnley’s rebellious Biddy is pitched with sharp attention to detail in every eloquently presaged word. ‘Do not peace and harmony begin in the home? In the love between a husband and wife, a mother and her child?‘ she asks provocatively. Jones constructs such brilliant contrasts through themes of love and war; truth and lies; belonging and expulsion; isolation and community; silence and communication. Each magnified in the conceit of three powerful female characters.

The Meeting cannot rest in silent transience. It twitches, like Rachel’s unsettled hands and heart, eager to speak out. So let’s hope a transfer will be announced soon. Jones writes: ‘For another person it might be an ordinary stone – with absolutely nothing to recommend it.’ But there is plenty to recommend about this play and I hope it speaks out to others as it did so powerfully to me.

The work-life balance of a piano playing bear

A slightly different reflection for today’s blog post. This week’s trip to the library led to bringing home a copy of David Litchfield’s picture book, The Bear and the Piano, to read at bedtime with my toddler. This is a touching book in so many ways and one I would definitely seek out to buy as a gift for a child of any age.

[Spoiler] A bear cub finds a piano in the woods and investigates it, returning to explore the funny object over days, weeks and years and eventually becoming a proficient player to all his friends. Some visitors to the forest hear him and invite him back to Broadway where he becomes a celebrated concert pianist. But he misses his friends back home and fears they may have forgotten him. On a return visit he discovers quite the opposite to be true.

The story deals poignantly with remembering your roots and appreciating those who are behind you while you chase your dreams. It also hints at the need for perseverance and practise in order to hone a skill and that bright things come to those who work hard.

David Litchfield peppers each page with musicality through harmonious splashes of colour and three-dimensional texture, encouraging an adult reader to reflect on perspectives and how we view situations from both close up and afar. These atmospheric illustrations are exquisitely beautiful.

As I read to my little Pickle, my mind twisted around my own predicament on shifting from being a stay-at-home mum, dabbling in theatre projects, to launching myself back into the working world. I thought about the wonderful women like Tamara Harvey, the impressive Artistic Director of Theatre Clwyd who is also promoting the challenges and massive successes of the #workingmum via Twitter.

I thought about the inspirational Kate Cross MBE, director of The Egg, creating theatre with and for children whilst being an awesome role model to her own. I thought about how lucky I am to have a supportive family to help with child care and to always come back to at the end of the working day, whatever time that might be.

And I thought about the incredible workers – not just in theatre – like my husband, who is often travelling for work and doing exceptional things to make our family lifestyle possible, even if he is not able to be at home with us everyday.

Finding a work-life balance is tricky in any profession but what a stunning reminder David Litchfield’s book is to the importance of remembering the supporters back home.

Hooray for libraries but also for writers, illustrators and publicists. Here is a link in case you want to pick up a copy of The Bear and the Piano for yourself or as a present for someone special who will also appreciate this beautiful book.

All images are from David Litchfield’s The Bear and the Piano published by Lincoln Children’s Books.

Review: The Great Gatsby, The Immersive Ensemble, London

‘There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away ready in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It is a brave move when a theatre designer agrees to recreate an interactive set for an American classic which demands Hollywood glamour and a hefty budget to go with it. It is an even braver move when (creating for an immersive audience who can scrutinise every detail close up) the brief requires creating the ‘purposeless splendour’ of Jay Gatsby’s house when Gatsby himself is described as ‘a regular Belasco’.

David Belasco was a famous director and theatrical producer of the 1920’s. His notorious set designs introduced a new expectation in terms of naturalism with his exquisite attention to detail being the paramount feature of his work. His demands for accuracy and extravagance matched his personal flamboyance in a way that only the pocket of ‘a Jay Gatsby’ could afford.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella, The Great Gatsby, is iconic for its depiction of the splendour of the Jazz era. The story follows Nick Carraway’s observations of Gatsby whose demise came after ‘he had committed himself to the following of a grail’, flaunting his wealth, paying attention to his ability to ensure nothing is forgotten, and no expense is spared in the pursuit of Daisy Buchanan. Rich with description (the ‘glimmering’ of ‘the world’s fair’ against the ‘dust’ of the ‘valley of ashes’) and poignant in its presentation of the ‘savage frightening dreams’ of America against the ‘grotesque reality’ of those dreams, the source material is ripe for the picking; the lure of lavish sets and the intrigue of auspicious secrets begging to be unwrapped in dark corners.

The Immersive Ensemble in association with the Colab Factory makes a good effort to create this shallow world for us in a gutted carpet warehouse in Long Lane, SE1. And, although not as detailed and opulent as Gatsby might have demanded (or a Punchdrunk budget might have allowed), the artifice of the set design boasted plenty to tempt the explorer off the beaten track.

As we wait in the staging area – both the piano bar and an american drug store veneer for the party-proper, we observed the confused but magical space dripping with filament bulbs, hung manuscript paper and copper piping, not knowing quite what to expect from the immersive evening. Half the audience had followed the invitation request to dress for the era and it made all the difference to the atmosphere that they had. If you can catch the performance, do make the effort to invest in being a part of the evening’s events.

After a mysterious introductory speech from Nick Carraway (the narrator of the novella but not necessarily of the theatre experience), who has been lingering unnoticed in the crowd, we are ushered into a glorious party where the small but quick-tongued cast circulate the guests with chit-chat and ‘pleasant, cheerful snobbery’ before succumbing to the appealing cadence of the recorded ‘orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes’(Fitzgerald).  A simple but high energy dance routine forced us to clear the floor and observe from all around and above, if we could snatch prime position on the balconies, before being picked off to converse once again with the flirtatious cast. Unlike the flamboyant Belasco, Gatsby is quietly modest and charming, traits that Max Krupski owned in every ounce of his terrific performance as an observer on the periphery of his parties; on the periphery of Daisy’s current life. He charms us away from the dancing to introduce himself and find out our names before calling out to the crowd that he ‘will be down in a minute, [he’s] just having a drink with’ – and he flatteringly remembers our correct names. Who can resist clinking glasses with Gatsby as he tells you his night is made now that you have arrived?!

Like Nick’s narration of the book, the whole ordeal is very casually shared throughout the evening. There is no rush into the story. And so the shepherding begins and the crowd are siphoned off, some to witness secret trysts, some to share in solicitous gossip and some left behind to learn the charleston routine. Time is but a care for the outside world.  As we shift between the main party room and hidden corridors, bedrooms and dens, characters are presented and we fathom their duplicitous secrets before tripping along behind another protagonist to see what they might willingly reveal.

In the sub-rooms of the Gatsby mansion, hired furniture gave a good sense of grandeur in between the heavy black curtains and swathes of gold fabric. Short of performing in a Stately House, there was little option otherwise but there were some lovely details and many period features nonetheless;

my favourite find being the framed mechanical portrait of the tragic yellow car on the wall of Gatsby’s study that we found when exploring the side rooms at leisure after the show-proper had finished. It’s always such a treat to nose around the set at an immersive production.

There are more dance parties, more drinks, more arguments and more rendezvous. We are serenaded by the well tuned voices of various characters who take to the stage, demanding the accompaniment of the subservient (-but why is he at the parties?-) George Wilson, demonstrating a weak and rare nod to the importance of the class divide of this era and story.  Wherever we go, we thankfully don’t run the risk of missing much as the story itself doesn’t seem to be unravelling with any haste until we are all ushered back into the main room to witness a significant tea party that surmises the root of many of the tales we have been hearing. And what a relief that we don’t miss it! The sumptuous dance duet between Ivy Corbin (as Daisy) and, the exquisitely cast (have I said that?), Max Krupski (as Gatsby) is the epitome of the weightlessness that Fitzgerald endows on Daisy’s virgin-white dress; devoid of all the effort of this demanding production, the pair climb deftly up to the balcony and slip along the gallery in a nimble, lyrical and romantic chase. This beautiful sequence made the audience’s thrill of chasing characters seem cheap by comparison and, for a moment, we idolise the easiness of their love.

In Act 2 (the drinking, partying and merriment continues through the break), the equally evocative dramatic climax is reached and the use of lighting, sound and music is employed most effectively here to bring forth the trauma without the need for any of that meticulous Belasco naturalism. The company, skilfully, drive the scene forwards at a hurtling pace that can only mean the party is coming to an unstoppable end; our only respite – Samuel Hunt (Wilson)’s beautiful but harrowing lament – defying any release before we are forced to face closure, alongside the characters, longing for the opportunity to tie up all the loose ends from the precariously unravelled stories.

On stage, the characters (except Gatsby who has plenty of source material) and script lack some substance. Although very little happens in the original story, there are layers of patterns and symbolism, themes and subtleties that are woven into Fitzgerald’s writing which become lost in translation. The performance is forced to skip over the charade of the characters’ surface stories to focus almost entirely on the overzealous hints at the not-so-secret secrets behind them. It’s a shame because the cast are a very capable bunch who, at times, have nothing to play beyond the weakly scripted ‘I’m here’ (repeat, repeat, repeat) and the tongue in cheek looks of knowing as another character races through the space with their cohort of snoops. Being asked to constantly ‘reveal’ rather than ‘hide’ their privilege to secrets over such a prolonged time challenges their opportunity to play truthful characters. Having said this, we were privileged to see several understudies (again – yay!) in role and, in particular, Toby Gordon (Tom Buchanan)’s ability to sustain well-informed, one-sided conversations was remarkable. The group’s singing voices were excellent, particularly when in mournful unison at the dramatic conclusion. And what a relief it was to see Holly Beasley-Garrigan get to expose a moment of Jordan’s vulnerability in the final scene, proving that she has such depth as an actress and is not just limited to the being able to play the bawdy and condescending hypocrite that she sustained (so well) for the rest of the evening.

The audience’s involvement was a well played feature of the event, epitomising the spirit of the roaring twenties from the top. We were dressed up to the nines; taught to charleston; complimented at every look and turn; smuggled away into back corridors and dark rooms with all the clandestine secretivity of attending a prohibition speakeasy. The thrill of the chase had us flitting giddily like ‘prosperous‘ ‘moths‘ to the Jazz Age.

The evening was such a lot of fun and I would absolutely recommend it to hip Londoners or trendy tourists looking for a night out. If you don’t know the book, the actors will ensure you know all you need to know before the dramatic climax of the story is most effectively unleashed.  If you are a Gatsby enthusiast or literary scholar, leave your expectations at the door and accept the night for what it is: the chance to dress up and party with some very fine actors indeed, old sport.

The run has been extended to December 2018. Tickets available from The Immersive Ensemble but also look out for offers on the Today Tix App as we bagged a bargain.

Do let me know what you thought of the experience, or if you’ve seen or would recommend any other immersive theatre, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.