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: 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

Edfringe preview review: Darlings, Alma Tavern

Eleanor Hope-Jones is a rising talent to look out for. In her second penned play, Darlings, which previewed at the Alma Tavern in Bristol last week, she demonstrates a flair for colloquial writing that is both exacting and full of metaphorical substance.

The subject matter itself will perhaps appeal more to the twenty-something generation but the skills invested in both Hope-Jones’ writing and directing make it worth a watch.

The small cast are an able young crowd. Katie Anderson plays protagonist Eve, who lives up to her Biblical namesake’s downfall, having succumbed to temptation when in search of comfort from her unfulfilling life. In a simple but well used studio set, Eve’s garden of Eden roams about the spotless white bath tub around which the play centralises.

Growing up in the shadow of her father’s critique, that foreshadows a life of lustful sin, Eve is marked right from the innocent days of childhood. She grapples with her past and present selves and relationships with her father and ‘we’re not together’ ‘friend’, Gabriel, played by Toby Robertshaw. Wrestling with her imperfections, she attempts to escape the mould that her perfectionist father cast for her despite his recurring absence as she grew up.

She spends scenes climbing in and out of the tub attempting to cleanse herself and wash away Eve’s sins, her body, her mind and her loathed self-image. While the bath is a symbol of purity, the garden winds in the complexities of growth and maturity: references to the suggestively mundane, ‘adult’ task of cultivating an orchid finally defines her acceptance of her own relationship with sex.

Anderson moves beautifully and has a great sensitivity to the music and time, using stillness effectively in her physical repertoire. Gabriel, unable to be the support that Eve covets, struggles with his own hangover from childhood experiences. Robertshaw and ‘third-wheel’ waitress, Annie Philbin, show good sensitivity in their interaction with the haunting puppets that convey these anxieties.

Philbin’s role is complex and sparks questions. She is both present and not present in Eve’s situation. An imagined threat to her relationship (with Gabriel) that Eve can’t get out of her head.

The actors are sharp, slick and well rehearsed although a little attention to greater naturalism in the delivery of the easy dialogue would add to the quality before the Edinburgh run.

Palomar Theatre can be found at C Aquila, Venue 21, in Edinburgh from 2 – 27 August (except the 14th).

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.