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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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.

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.

Review: Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales, Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury

Freckle ProductionsTiddler and Other Terrific Tales is a show packed with delicious ingredients that needs just an extra bit of spice and more care in the mixing stage. At its best it teaches children the joy and simplicity of make-believe play with everyday objects. A big plus point in a world obsessed with screen-time. At its worst, it struggled with timing. Four favourite bedtime tales were muddled and cut down in order to squash and squeeze them into the hour run when three would have been plenty.

Having seen Emma Bright’s super fun marketing and the energetic cast on the video trailer and in the media images (a different cast to the current 2018 tour), I was excited to take my toddler along to enjoy the stories she loves live on stage. I had expected bright and inventive storytelling, which we got in part, but the non-linear explorations of the books’ events made for a jittery audience.

The well-known stories by Julia Donaldson (illustrated by Axel Scheffler), of Gruffalo fame, are written with fun rhythms and well known catch phrases. Unfortunately, much of this word play disappeared in the switching in and out of the Monkey Puzzle story and the back to front telling of Tiddler. Some of the storytelling seemed to lack the pace that the audience, familiar with the texts, expected, whereas other parts of the performance raced by. As a result, the new material was tricky to follow and the well-known stories lost some of their energy. A more pacy delivery of Donaldson’s well-loved rhymes could have whipped the children along to chime in with their favourite phrases and the titters of laughter would have filled the room. Obviously some distraction is expected in a room of little ones but the Tewkesbury audience were far from rapt and it was a shame that the few invitations for audience participation were met with only a handful of replies not the buzz of an enthralled crowd.

Having said this, there was much to love: the star of this vibrant production is the aesthetic. We entered the auditorium to see a climbing frame of excellent intrigue. A platform rested across two A-frames which sat either side of a long table surrounded by boxes and baskets. On top of the platform sat three of my toddler’s favourite things: hats. In three different colours. The set up was simple but enough to keep little eyes searching for clues about what mummy meant by ‘theatre’.

The actors appeared and picked up the hat that best contrasted to their already multi-coloured outfit. While the costumes were of suitably muted colours, the bags they carried were bright and held great potential. From inside the actors drew an array of everyday objects and presented their versatility to the audience by ‘playing’ to explore all the shapes they could make. This setup engaged and paved the way for the invention of the storytelling that would follow. By the end of the opening routine, the stage was full of coloured objects hung, perched, balanced and filling all the nooks and crannies of the climbing frame.

Over the course of the hour, these items were utilised to create various jungle animals as the Monkey Puzzle monkey searched for his mum. The elephant’s flapping pillow case ears and slinky trunk were delightfully genius. We giggled at the scarf snake and the rope monkey himself was adorable.

It was great fun to see the platform adapted to create the Old Woman’s ‘tiny for one, titchy for two’ house in A Squash and a Squeeze. The use of the stage during this sequence was particularly engaging and the the chicken hat was another simple pleasure for the small people around us.

George the giant wasn’t quite as engaging in The Smartest Giant in Town. By this point, the audience were flagging a little and the cast felt less invested in this particular story, George in particular, although Alex Tosh redeemed himself with his saxophone playing; my little one loved the live music.

The story of Tiddler was a riot of colour. I loved the bright yellow fishermen coats and the use of the table as a rowing boat. The fish-topped hats were a fun gimmick and there was plenty of invention by combining lights with the found objects to create jellyfish.

In short, I would have liked the patter of the language to be more recognisable for the children but that’s a personal preference. It was a fun piece of children’s theatre but not the most engaging that I have seen. The well illustrated found object play will be the highlight we will take away to explore at home and that will do just fine.

Photos of the original 2017 cast from https://freckleproductions.co.uk/shows/tiddler-and-other-terrific-tales/gallery

Review: Hamilton, an ovation for understudies

It is not a lightly given remark when I describe the production I saw tonight as ‘epic’. The vast scale of what the script deals with alone is magnanimous. And the presentation smacks of daring and absolute reverence in an oh-so-appropriately irreverent way.

‘Hamilton’ emancipates the personal and political, a private and a public tale at risk of slipping out of the American consciousness. It is a historical acknowledgement of a founding father of America whose narrative was thrust into the history books (or so artistic licence will have us accept) by the incredible woman who succeeded him by an impressive 50 Years, in which she worked to honour both his legacy and her own. While the power of the political battles at play were the heart of Act 1 (in my opinion), the emotional battles of Act 2 overwhelmed me with affection, dread and sheer admiration for the characters on stage. There is not just one eponymous Hamilton of note that you learn about in this now infamous history lesson – and what a masterclass it is.

Layers upon layers of symbolism are packed in behind the fast-paced lyrics of this high-speed rollercoaster. We are whisked through an encyclopaedia of musical styles from hip-hop and rap to r’n’b and blues; we are chasing the choreographic details trying to decide where and what to look at with so much on offer; and we are challenged by the controversial and deliberate clash of style and substance. Paul Tazewell’s sumptuous costumes track the subtle changes in fashion through the ages: the switch from corsetry to empire lines and from boots to hose and shoes. Authenticity sits side-by-side with contemporary-modern hairstyling and accessories, highlighting that this is a transcendental story about innovation; about a revolutionary with a complete disregard for convention and a need for forward thinking. This thinking is echoed again in David Korins’ monumental set design which harbours the simplicity of a new age, a church-like provenance, and reminds us of the pioneers’ ships that arrived in America, paving the way for the actions of the founding fathers of the nation. Both the set and ensemble costumes (corsets and jodhpurs) are paired-down, stripped-back to uncover details of the story that former Vice-president, Aaron Burr, pains to admit.

The programme reminds us that many Americans know only snippets from his history, though many will recognise Alexander Hamilton from their ten dollar bills. Brits will likely know even less about the historical events he lived through. The inexhaustible Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer) ensures we go away with more than a full picture of what happened – both on a national and, to some extent, international scale – and the role Alexander Hamilton played in these events. Naturally, the soft side of the personal story is included to enchant us. And yet Hamilton’s private life is anything but; it swings to the fore dealing and receiving blows that impact on the political situation and challenge the family bond.

Tonight’s performance was a true reflection of the power of family, which the slick cast have clearly cultivated among their ranks. We saw a number of outstanding understudies stepping into roles with panache and the instant standing ovation (an overused stasis I usually avoid) was absolutely deserved.

Regular cast member, Rachelle Ann Go played the accepting Eliza Hamilton who unveils tremendous inner-strength. This pint-sized performer held proof that great things come in small packages as she delivered the female-empowering punchline of the show with heart and soul to ensure that lump comes to your throat. Michael Jibson’s mad King George couldn’t disappoint. His entrances were met with glee from the audience who hung on his every pun. These regulars were joined by understudies Ash Hunter (Hamilton), Miriam-Teak Lee (Angelica), Gabriel Mokake (Washington), and Sifiso Mazibuko (Burr).

Mazibuko charmed with his smooth smile, constantly challenging our loyalties despite revealing in the opening sequence that Burr was ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Mokake‘s Washington had soul that packed a punch, even as he aged before our eyes with touching grace. An awesome performance to witness.

Miriam-Teak Lee towers, masterfully, over her co-stars with all the strength and superiority of her referenced female counterpart, Lady Macbeth. And well she may. As Angelica she tells Hamilton to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’ giving him the confidence and determination not to fail, in an awful moment where he is escalated on his pedestal before a calamitous, Aristotelian fall. Lee’s voice is as outstanding as her presence and she epitomises the role-model that Angelica became to both of the Hamiltons. Her rendition of ‘Satisfied’, within the beautifully choreographed (Andy Blankenbuehler) rewind sequence, is both haunting and a mesmerising highlight in the first Act.

And unequivocally excellent, Ash Hunter (the alternate Hamilton) took the lead with every ounce of his being. His Americanised Jean Valjean-esque transition from entertaining, quick-witted youth to broken father is heart-wrenching. As a new-parent watching, his irreparable despair and stillness in ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ stole the show for me. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Yet to have seen the writer himself in his place is a thrill too much to even contemplate. That standing ovation – hugely warranted by tonight’s cast – was, for me, first and foremost for the exceptional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating such an incredible 2 hours and 45 minutes of quick fire, mind-blowing, intertextual mastery. Shakespeare, Jason Robert Brown, Boubil-Schonberg… the list of honours is endless and Miranda certainly earns his place on the pedestal with the geniuses he applauds.

Script Reading: Sea Wall by Simon Stephens

During a brilliantly informative lecture at the RSC’s Big Director’s Weekend last month, Rob Swain (Programme Director for Birkbeck’s MFA Directing course) advised us on the first reading of a script. Read it free of all pretences and without making notes, overthinking or planning, he said. He admitted the challenge in this; directors and creatives naturally want to start imagining the world of the play and how it would be conveyed. However, Swain’s point was that we ought to sit and read straight through, uninterrupted in order to receive the play for the first time as an audience will hear it for the first time. Never again, he warned, after that first reading, will you be able to hear it afresh. And first impressions do count in theatre. Very much so. For first impressions in theatre are often, also, last impressions. And when all the elements of an exceptional play come together, they have the potential to make lasting impressions too.

Simon Stephens

So, having marvelled at numerous Simon Stephens plays, I decided to pick up one I hadn’t yet read and to follow Swain’s directive. I knew that Sea Wall has been critically acclaimed for a recent revival (I don’t have the luxury of being able to get to half the things I’d love to see over in London) and I had recently read Lyn Gardner’s column on the value of short plays. This, I thought, would be the perfect play to trial the exercise.

So, I sat and read.

Swain’s follow up instruction was to reflect on my initial reaction to the reading: the potential first reaction that an audience would experience on receiving the same information.

*Spoiler alert* If you haven’t read the play, it’s 9 pages long and worth stopping and doing so now. (It’s available online via a very easy search).

The following details my responses while reading but recorded after completing the read. Details about the play may be referenced.

Response 1/ You can’t stop your mind from wandering. My mind, although attempting to focus solely on the story Alex was telling, slid into the age-old question over monologues. How long can you expect an audience to sit and listen to a monologue for? Especially a monologue where the playwright (“always honour the playwright’s intentions” said every drama teacher in the land) requests a bare stage and natural light. A monologue that’s well formed but where, let’s face it, not a lot happens.

Response 2/ Two thirds of the way in, the Director in me was itching to work with an actor to really explore the naturalistic dialogue that Stephens crafts so effortlessly, tripping into tangents, ebbing and flowing between topics, like the waves lapping the sand, and elaborating on randomly inconsequential details. However, I knew that this was the reaction of my inner directing-geek, hungry to chew on some gentle, unsuspecting prose. Whereas, my aforementioned wandering mind was well aware that the direction would need something special to keep the audience engaged. That is, unless the last three pages had something different on offer to, say, stir things up…

Then WHAM! Response 3/ Forget directing. Forget anything. How was I going to sleep tonight after reading that? How could I rest easy with an overactive imagination and my own daughter lying asleep in the next room? How could I possibly consider directing this when the thought of it happening makes me feel sick? Fills me with dread. Touches a nerve way too close to home. How could you advertise this production to an audience without giving away what happens? Because Swain was right. This. This is how the audience feel on first encounter and this is what the director is responsible for: the creation and preservation of this immediate, unexpected response. I really hope you stopped and read the play so you know what I’m talking about.

A lesson from my own drama teacher sprung to mind: you cannot play Juliet as a tragic heroine. Juliet is a young girl in love who does not know her fate. As an actress, you need to let her live in the moment, blissfully unaware of what’s to come.

This advice struck me for the poignancy of its severe opposition to Alex’s tale. Alex confronts the audience directly to tell them his story. The very raw story of what happened to him, three weeks before. There is no hiding from his fate. His fate is the beginning, middle, end and reason for the story. The important factor in his telling of the story is that, while he knows the outcome, the audience do not. Unless they are returning for a second time and, thus, filled with the dread of knowing what will happen and that nobody can stop it. And therein lies the importance of Swain’s first reading, in parallel to Alex’s discovery of the Sea Wall… Once you’ve seen it, once you know, you can’t un-imagine it or deny its existence. Your perspective is tainted.

So, now I’m ready for a re-read with all the things I now know in mind. It will change the way I receive every word. I’m not even sure if I can handle this.

What a gloriously brilliant, harrowingly difficult and clever, clever script.

I have since read this review of the revival, which sums up the stunning performance. Now to find that downloadable recording!

Review: Sardines, The Drayton Arms, London

You can tell when a person is having a conversation in their head because of the movement in their hands. Creative people are prone to gesticulating a great deal, even when thinking. I know because I do it too.

What other habits have you noticed when observing people on the tube? We all do it. Watch people. Have you ever leaned closer to read an article in someone else’s magazine? Or tried to see what book they are reading or what bit they’ve got to because you’ve read that book too? How about listening in on conversations? Perhaps the choice wasn’t yours because that public display of affection was a bit too in your face. Or that boastful description was a bit too loud and a bit T.M.I.

Rumble Theatre have clearly spent a lot of time commuting to prepare for their performance based in the underground ‘tin can’ observatory. Their recreation in the black box studio above the Drayton Arms offers the audience a prompt to look at the theatre in everyday life and see ourselves as both performer and audience on the public transport stage.

Jenna Kamal’s conversational montage dips in and out of interactions giving us the briefest snapshot of each character’s life as they pass us by. Some return like regular commuters and others are seen and gone almost unnoticed, as they would be in life. The dialogue is coupled with well choreographed staging from directors, Alice Wordsworth and Erin Blackmore, whose cast manipulate the three trucked tube seats of the set with thoughtful precision, shifting between episodes and characters as quickly as the journey between stations.

The pace is well maintained and the dialogue is delivered with humour in mind, although the actors could rein in for a more natural delivery where the comedy could speak for itself. Or perhaps that is just my claustrophobic-self speaking as I dread meeting some of these larger than life characters on the tube.

Moments of physical comedy add to the entertainment between scenes when the passengers find themselves in ever decreasing spaces, dealing with the unavoidable invasion of personal space in rush hour journeys. There are some wonderful facial expressions in these moments and the audience squirm with empathy; they’ve been there.

But Sardines is not simply an observational muse, entertaining the audience with the hilarity of situations they know and recognise. It also reaches out into the realm of ‘what if’ and we are asked to consider how we might react if someone stepped into our carriage ride and challenged convention. What if someone offered you a hug on your way to work? What if a stranger asked you a deep and personal question? What if we suspended the ‘don’t take sweets from strangers rule’ and accepted the offer of a piece of cake as just an act of kindness? ‘Would the world be a less lonely place as a result?asks Rumble.

In Sardines, the company present us with a host of questions to consider on our own journeys, prompting us to look beyond our sun-orbited little lives to consider the multi-dimensional thought processes of the seemingly inert stranger in the seat opposite or the sophisticated and together, girl-about-town who must be so careless and fancy-free that she has no worries in the world. Rumble even suggest (by the proxy of one character’s suggestion to another) that we “feel and not judge” our emotions. That is, recognising how we feel as a statement of fact and not wasting thought on how we should or could be feeling, fostering negative self-criticism. By giving ourselves more headspace, we could actually open our eyes to our fellow passengers. Or are we too nosey already?

Among the episodic, quirky encounters are little gems hinting at solutions to the battle of isolation that many feel in the densely packed underground carriages. Kamal’s characters offer riddles, debates, intimate and intellectual conversations. Is communal living the answer? poses one of the passengers.

The questions, like life, are left unresolved and although a through-line to the play might have boosted the structure, so much is packed into the hour that the audience have plenty to think as they depart the ride. If Rumble have done their job right, the audience will get talking about these thoughts and break down at least a little of the silence in the ranks. Or are we already victims of a world that has no privacy of thought? Are we, in fact, too consumed with sharing on our introverted social media platforms that we are left longing for real contact in the underground tunnels that deny us this faux world of connectivity? Or can we find contentment in the quiet solitude of a train journey away from the even faster pace of the world above ground? The questions go on…

Rumble is a fresh, fringe group from Exeter. Led by a talented creative team provoking thought through theatre, they are definitely one to watch out for.

Sardines runs until Saturday 7th July at The Drayton Arms Theatre.

Review: Miss Littlewood, RSC, Stratford

How apt that the culmination of the first day of the RSC’s Big Director’s weekend should end with a preview of Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman’s Miss Littlewood. And what a treat it was.

Performed on the beautifully intimate thrust at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford Upon Avon, where a mock platform slides back and forth from behind the pros arch to become the meta-stage for Littlewood’s story. The evening tiptoes down the path behind theatrical pioneer, Joan Littlewood, dabbling in the highlights of her working and personal life and drawing on autobiographical material, with a suitable touch of bias that is not permitted to go unnoticed.

The set is not lavish but deceptive in its seeming simplicity and put to good use through the incredible number of transitions that Whyman has wrestled into refinement. Whyman’s direction is thorough and impressive. The cast are kept busy and are endlessly resourceful. Actor-musicianship and multi-rolling are showcased with a superb sense of tongue-in-cheek, not least by the talented supporting cast including Amanda Hadingue, who takes on a number of male and female cameos, while adding musical accompaniment on her violin. There is more than a touch of Brechtian influence and an honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style. Having said this, the attention to authenticity in the time-appropriate costumes was a real credit to the Wardrobe department and I can’t begin to imagine how many shoes were used in this production, not least by the delightful Emily Johnstone in her ever-changing roles.

An honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style.

Littlewood is played by seven actresses in total. Each superb in their own right and supported by a small but well-versed ensemble company. True to Kenyon’s script note, the seven Joans ‘should be diverse in a number of ways – age, ethnicity, appearance, accent -and no one should be concerned about doing an impersonation’. Each assumes the role through the gestic application of a hat (‘a costume. Or a weapon.’) and delivers their character as directed by the real Joan (played by Claire Burt with tenacity, scrutiny and a naughty twinkle in her eye) who presents her life as she wants to see it, even attempting to avoid the moments she wants to forget. Each Joan represented a different era and was charmingly replaced with the same careless attitude that the real Miss Littlewood adopted in recasting her plays at the last moment. Their harmonious co-existence was a lesson in depth of character as each actress presented so much more than just one of the multi-facets of Joan and served to remind us that Joan Littlewood was a representative of the people, an anybody, with a desire for theatre to be seen by and represent every man and woman.

Kenyon, no doubt, had a battle selecting what to keep and lose from Littlewood’s dense biography. While some audience members felt aspects were missing, the teacher in me was delighted to see this inspirational figure immortalised in a production that reflected her own working style. A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

Although dubbed ‘a new musical’, I fear that musical theatre fans would be disappointed. The songs are poignant but not moving and some of the individual singing voices are full of character but not finesse. This is not a criticism – style over substance fits the bill here and, like the era-influenced dance routines, the audience can enjoy the lightness of touch rather than an over-choreographed showcase. Littlewood was a fabled communist after all: ‘Profligacy is in bad taste’, offers Joan 2, flirting with language.

My heart sang with gratitude as I smiled my way through so much of this utterly fun production. A lesson about a director and, indeed, a meta-lesson in directing itself. Whether it will extend to enchant beyond those in the industry is the question. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as Joan says to her first appointed actress ‘don’t like what you see? Do something better.’

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August 2018 at The Other Place, RSC, Stratford.

Doing what I love: a personal how and why of Directing

Where do you even start? It’s a question I’ve often been asked by audience members who enjoy their own role in the theatre set-up but find it hard to work out quite how and what the director does to create what the audience sees on stage.

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I recently enjoyed the honour of directing Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady for The Cotswold Savoyards, working alongside the terrifically enthusiastic cast at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. I had grown up loving the film and had seen the show on stage as a child. As a teenager I devoured George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, which inspired me to learn about phonetics and language and then, a decade later, to dissect and analyse the play with my Year 8 English students. By the time I came to direct the musical, in my 30s, I knew my favourite lines, the overarching themes and metaphors, the character objectives and motivation – and yet I was still hungry to delve further through physicalising the world that the characters inhabit.

Read, read, ponder and read

My starting point is always to read aloud and hear the voices of the characters so that I can start to understand what they want and how they interact. Before casting, I like to have drawn up character sketches and an overall vision statement for my aims in producing any show. I have seen numerous shows where directors or companies have penny of ambition but where ideas jar because they lack a core understanding of what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters and, importantly, the playwright, pinning it all together.

In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle undertakes a series of lessons to improve her prospects of becoming a lady in a flower shop ‘instead of selling flowers on the corner of Tottenham Court Road but they won’t take [her] unless [she talks] more genteel’. Eliza’s lessons bring about a change that Shaw saw as a metaphor for the time: the world poised for great changes instigated by the two world wars which served to break down the class divide and lay the foundations for a future with improved gender equality.  My Fair Lady really is a musical underpinned with substance!

I was so excited to work, not only with a very able and committed pool of actors in the leading roles, but with worthwhile material that we could get something from. Don’t misunderstand me, My Fair Lady has its imperfections but, in musical theatre, you don’t often find the depth of character or well-shaped dialogue that it boasts either.  In rehearsals, we really could unpick the meaning behind the dialogue, the songs and the relationships to highlight that Eliza Doolittle is so much more than a rags to riches Cinderella. She has the ambition of a suffragette and only lacks in society’s definition of intelligence because she is a product of her experiences. In her, we see both rebellion and submission but also a flame that keeps burning quietly and refuses to let her be overlooked. Just as Pygmalion violated his ‘ivory maid’ with his sculptor’s hands, Higgins’ abominable behaviour towards Eliza is a violation that is equally undermining. We side with Eliza out of sympathy and investigate whether we can eventually warm to Higgins as he (along with Pickering) goes from being ‘a pretty pair of babies playing with [their] live doll’ to an ‘ordinary man’ who is very much ‘accustomed to her face’?

Visions of visions

Watching theatre, I love to see beautifully constructed, impactful stage pictures oozing with stories and brimming with life. I knew that this was what I wanted to create and that the iconically stylish My Fair Lady would be a dream platform for such a goal. The importance of status in the Edwardian era was a gift in terms of showcasing the use of stage positioning to deliver a message and I was itching to draw out the obvious contrasts and underlying similarities between the Cockney gatherings and the elegant arrival at Ascot and the Embassy Ball.

At the opening of the show, the classes are brought together as the rich and wealthy depart the Royal Opera House, while the working class prep1043064are fruit, vegetables and flowers ready for the morning hustle and bustle of the Covent Garden market place. For me, this epitomised the premise on which I wanted to base the show – two worlds colliding – and  an image from a Renior painting stuck in my mind. So, it was at this point that any directing proper began and I sat down with my sketchpad and cast list and listened to the overture on repeat while I created my own ‘stickman Renior’ that would later become a still, revealed behind the theatre gauze, allowing the audience time to cast their eyes over the pregnant image ready to burst into action.

My sketchpad is my production Bible, brainstorm sink and reference point for every musical number and scene. One of the first actions I plotted was the surge of ‘posh folk’ moving forwards from their waiting place under the arches. Their black umbrellas and dark attire make render them sombre, somewhat intimidating and untouchable to the working class crowd that we grow attached to in the first scene.

It was important to me that every individual had a character and story and there was never a moment when any one person wasn’t doing something. One audience member noted that ‘whenever any member of the Ensemble moved anywhere they had their own journey, their own purpose’. Of course, they did. This was imperative to me. As selfish as I know I can be in life, the world doesn’t actually revolve around me so I was determined that it wouldn’t revolve around Eliza or any other character for that matter. Everyone had to have their own story, even if it wasn’t the one we were bringing into focus. I knew from the outset that Eliza’s first appearance, and Higgins’, should be subtle and unobtrusive. They, like everyone else on the stage, were one of the crowd. Thus, blocking ideas were recorded in my sketchpad with colour-coding, little arrows and meticulous notes against the music to remind me who would move where in the jostling crowd sequence right up until the overture intervenes with its own conclusive response to the ‘two worlds colliding’ when young toff, Freddy, knocks over flower girl, Eliza, prompting the series of events that will alter the course of her life forever.

Impact and outcome

Before watching the performance one night, an audience member asked me what I set out to achieve when I’m directing. ‘Do you like to be different? Do you like to create things that will make people say “that’s clever”?’ My answer is, as ever, multi-faceted. I like sincerity. I like to find depth in the characters so that the actors believe in them, truly discover them and build relationships with others based on what they understand about their own characters. I also like visual storytelling. I am obsessed with stage pictures and the idea that at any moment you could press pause and find stories in every pose, every gesture, every look. And I love symbolism. I love to know that the over-arching theme of two-world’s colliding is present and recurring throughout the play: it starts when Freddy crashes into Eliza; we see it again in Mrs Higgins’ eyes when Pickering reveals that Henry has plucked a flower girl off the curb; and it’s there every time Higgins tries to ‘ram’ his knowledge down Eliza’s ‘ungrateful throat’. I love the parallels that this theme reveals and how this can be echoed in the staging and choreography: Higgins stands lost outside his house in Wimpole Street, hands in his pockets, dreaming of Eliza, exactly where Freddy, who he has mocked, once did; the rich and noble spend their time and money at the Ascot races, where the ladies are paraded around by their partners, showing off their hats, whereas the working class while away the hours in the local pub, where the men show off the ladies and the ladies show off their bloomers in a right ol’ cockney knees up. In the Rain in Spain, a moment of dancing with Higgins is electrifying for Eliza, who has become so far removed from the whirling polkas and can-can of her cockney days. She is believed to be a Princess at the Embassy Ball and no longer fits in with the cockney rabble at her father’s impromptu stag do. 

‘Where is the line?’ asked the audience man. ‘Do you expect the audience to pick all of this out themselves? And if not, at what point is the symbolism just self-indulgent?’ I don’t know the answer. I guess it is self indulgent from the start and no, I don’t expect the audience to sit and analyse and notice. It’s nice when they do but it’s more about the production being a sum of its parts. Drawing out the parallels is an exercise in text analysis, it deepens our understanding, engages the  actors (sometimes) and helps to give greater purpose to the story we are telling. Fundamentally, it highlights the relationships, not just between individuals but between classes, social circles and so on. It highlights the truth, the relevance these happenings have to our own lives and the people we meet. What I’ve loved about our cast in My Fair Lady is their hunger to hear, learn, discover, draw on and invest in these ideas in the creation of a show that another audience member described as ‘empathy demanding… We feel so connected to the characters’.  And that’s what mattered.

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Photograph courtesy of @trevtography