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.’

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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: 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: Hansel and Gretel (a nightmare in eight scenes), Goldfield Productions

Perusing blogs on theatre and puppetry last week, I stumbled across this blog post about the beautiful puppets under construction for the world premier of Hansel and Gretel at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival. It was sheer coincidence that the event was so close to home but a sure sign that I ought to book a ticket and I wasn’t disappointed.

The pop-up event at the intimate Parabola Arts Centre (the performance venue attached to the esteemed Cheltenham Ladies College) was close to full, even on an incredibly hot summer’s evening. And the attraction hosted a rather more mature and respectful audience than the England match celebrations that echoed outside the building’s parameter.

Producer, Kate Romano’s new UK tour is a performance of layers, harmonising the talents across all areas of the arts: Clive Hicks-Jenkins, author of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Artlog, provided the visual direction, inspired by Simon Armitage’s re-write of the Classic fairytale. Hicks-Jenkins marries stunningly precise and delicate use of table-top puppets in front of a screen that projected a close up live-filming of the puppetry enhanced by paper-cut graphic design sequences. A true multi-media spectacle.

Armitage’s poetry is delivered by narrator and opera singer, Adey Grummet, who arrives on stage with a magical book that lights-up upon opening and battles for attention with the cheeky puppet-children, putting a clear stamp of style on the production as a whole. This, she exudes, is not a children’s tale for the weak or faint of heart.

The spoken word is enhanced by the evocative strains of the five piece chamber orchestra. The compositional work of Matthew Kaner combines the use of clarinets, a horn, a cello and cor anglais with percussion from toy pianos which chime in with the patter of unsettling nursery rhymes and Grummet’s haunting operatic lilt.

The story is as grimly dark as the original. The telling is somewhat clunky, which renders it fittingly uneasy to listen to and, at times, naughty, intended to shock. But where the quirky and suggestive music ties the piece together, it is the skilled and emotive puppeteering that steals our hearts.

Jan Zalud’s creations (designed and commissioned by Hicks-Jenkins) are breathed into life by the masters of miniature subtlety, Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Ford and Wort lead us to be enchanted by the petty rivalry of the bickering siblings vying for the top bunk of the bed. The endearing poignance of the tender love that evolves between Hansel and Gretel results from the helpless plight of two vulnerable children lost in the woods but it is the timing and precision of Ford and Wort that guides us there. A touch, a look, even in miniature, speaks volumes.

The tour, ‘suitable for adults, teenagers and adventurous children over ten’, demands a level of patience from the observer. Parents should be under no illusion that this is a fun and engaging theatrical performance. It is a cultural demonstration of high level skill that requires both acceptance and appreciation of the arts so should be booked with this in mind.

Hansel and Gretel tours the UK until November 4th. Do follow the blog links above to see fabulous pictures of the design process.

Look for the Silver Lining

Neither of my parents are performers so I’m often asked where my love of theatre comes from. The answer is very clear to me. When I was a child, every now and then, my lovely grandma used to send over video cassettes of the musical films that she had recorded off the television for me to watch. They were carefully selected and she would set a timer to remind her to press record after she had scoured the Sunday supplement TV guide for films for me to see. They were always musicals from the MGM golden age of film and ones that she and Grandad had loved watching when they were growing up themselves. I adored them. The musicals and my grandparents. While my peers were educated into the music of 90’s boy bands and girls’ magazines, I was transfixed by these recordings and watched them over and over, learning the songs and dance routines. I grew up alongside June Haver and Shirley Jones, adoring Ray Bolger and Gordon McRae and idolising Gene Kelly and Julie Andrews.

My favourite of these films was the 1949 musical biography of theatre star, Marilyn Miller, entitled ‘Look For the Silver Lining’. It tracks the career of Miller who grew up in a vaudeville family, aspiring to join them on the stage, and makes herself a star despite the numerous trials and tribulations on the way. She discovers the pain of young love and eventually outgrows a persistent, childish naivety by learning from those she has met along her journey.

The real Marilyn Miller (photo from Wikipedia)

Miller is played by the beautiful June Haver who, at the age of 23, played Miller across three decades of her life. While Haver’s ability to be accepted as a convincing child is questionable and Miller’s precociousness somewhat irritating, she is endearing nonetheless and it is lovely to see the interaction between Haver and Charles Ruggles as ‘Pops Miller’ as she grows from child to adult, shedding much of the immaturity but retaining just enough to give her the drive and ambition that the industry demands of her.

June Haver and Ray Bolger (photo from IMDb)

At the start of the film, the youngest Miller arrives on the Vaudeville circuit, from Ohio, to catch up with her performing family because ‘Grandmother has decided she is ready to perform’. Backstage at the theatre, she meets her dancing idol, Jack Donahue, played with charming wit by Ray Bolger, who is every bit the gentleman and not at all prone to scaring off any crows, as he was a decade before… When Donahue gives her the chance to perform on stage, she falls head over heels in love and the career that Pops forbids her is undeniable.

Gordon MacRae and June Haver (photo from IMDb)

As a precocious teenager, Miller meets her match in Gordon MacRae’s Frank Carter, who becomes the third male influence in her life and attempts to render her the Shrew to his Petruchio until he is called away from theatre to support the war effort.

Miller’s life is challenged by tragedies, not least her early retirement from performing and, also in real life, her own untimely death at the young age of 37.

The film documents highlights in Miller’s theatre career, including her appearances in the Ziegfeld Follies, as the titular Sunny, singing the classic song ‘Who?’ by Kern and Hammerstein and as Jerome Kern’s Sally, in which she sings ‘Look For the Silver Lining’, also immortalised in 1946 when Judy Garland played Miller in Kern’s Till the Clouds Roll By.

Click for link to the original film trailer on YouTube

As a child, I loved Haver’s youth, beauty and vivacious energy for the stage. I adored her cheeky tap numbers with Ray Bolger and their festive ditty at the backstage Christmas party. I pined after her beautiful costumes and grew up dreaming of a wedding dress that would move with the same lightness and grace in my wedding dance (which I got and it did!). I loved the symbolism of the good luck elephants, which prompted my own collection. And, more than anything, I loved glimpsing behind the scenes in the theatre world: the dressing rooms, the larger than life costumes, the hammy actors spouting Shakespeare, the demure dressing gowns that the actors wore while applying their greasepaint, the busy and enthusiastic rehearsals, the big smiles and huge hearts. These movies were full of the good old feel-good factor and made me want to be a part of that wholesome, singing and dancing world. I’ve since learned to see the world without my rose-tinted movie glasses but I still love the film, the vaudeville world that it depicts and, above all, I hope I can pass on recordings of precious old films to my own grandchildren one day.

Thank you to Silver Screenings for inspiring this blog post. Do head over to her wonderful blog for links to plenty more films from the golden age.

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.