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.

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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

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).

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.