Tuesday, 14 November 2017

"The Wipers Times", Glasgow, Theatre Royal, 7/11/17

Written for Backstage Pass:


In the midst of the centenary of the Great War it is surprising to find that there are few current theatrical efforts on the subject underway; the National Theatre's War Horse gallops apace, of course, and now The Wipers Times is also on hand to address the imbalance in its UK tour.

Adapted by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman from their television film, the play tells the story of the creation of the journal named "The Wipers Times" (from the Tommies' inability to correctly pronounce "Ypres"), a precursor to modern satirical magazines that forwent the route of detailing sombre events and endeavoured to raise the spirits of troops in the front lines with jokes, limericks and the like, often parodying the mainstream media of the time.

Translating the story from its historical routes via television and onto the stage, Hislop and Newman have skillfully crafted a funny, witty and truly moving play that utilises material from the original newspaper that they turn into theatrical pieces that pepper the true-life story of the newspapers' creators, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson. Simultaneously, Hislop and Newman raise these two men and their soldier-appreciated product from the bottom drawer of history.
Forming a backdrop to the frivolity, the Great War's progression poignantly comes to the fore at various points throughout the play and the tragedy of war becomes all the more striking when contrasted with the humour that soldiers themselves created as relief. For the most part, the jokes feel fresh and modern rather than a hundred years old and they further reinforce connections between the past and present (none more so than in the jokes that revolve around the Daily Mail).
Hislop and Newman's script captures the bravery, camaraderie and humour in the face of adversity that evidently saturated the soldiers' lives and director Caroline Leslie's production manages to balance the sober with the ridiculous, with a hint of the amateur nature of the newspaper's production in the skits realised in mock music-hall style. This is furthered by the creative unit set of Dora Schweitzer and the atmospheric lighting of James Smith. The sound design of Steve Mayo also breeds an appropriately disturbing soundscape and the musical settings by Nick Green, incorporating actual poetic content from the journal, furthers authenticity.
The cast are nothing short of superb and they are equally hilarious and tragic as apt and they form an authentic company ably led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson, respectively. They deftly portray the underlying fear masked with humour adroitly and their performances become all the more tremendous for it.

A powerfully moving yet heartily humorous play, The Wipers Times is strong stuff and serves also as an informative document of a forgotten piece of Great War history. Employing contemporaneous material composed by serving soldiers adds a depth to the humanity of such people not often seen in material written after the fact and this extra dimension creates a fresh take on a grim period of history.
Buy a ticket - history is rarely as concurrently moving and entertaining!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

"Hairspray", Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/10/17

A massive success when it premiered on Broadway 15 years ago, Hairspray is based on the cult John Waters film and revolves around the rotund Tracy Turnblad who refuses to let her size stand in the way of her dreams and inspires those she meets to stand for what is right. Along the way she falls in love and becomes a driving force for good in a story that deals with race, integration, acceptance and dance.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book is respectful of the original film and is filled with humour and warmth whilst the music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman perfectly encapsulates the bouncy, soulful sounds of the 1960's with a few anthemic numbers to boot.

The cast, led by Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy, Matt Rixon as Edna and Norman Price as Wilbur are pretty much faultless with stirring vocals, precise comedic timing and sterling performances throughout with standout moments from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle including her rousing rendition of I Know Where I've Been.

As Seaweed, Layton Williams exhibits true star power in his lithe gymnastic performance which plays perfectly opposite his love interest Penny played by the charming Annalise Liard-Bailey. Jon Tsouras also stand out in his role as Corny Collins presenting some brilliant faces in his asides. The remainder of the cast are no less appropriate to their characters and purvey rounded performances.

The direction by Paul Kerryson is unfussy but it is the choreography of Drew McOnie which really brings events alive. Given that Hairspray is a vibrant and uplifting show set in the 60's it is unfortunate that the production is so ugly. The design by Takis is dull and uninspired and is rather unsympathetic with the nature of the musical. It is a clumsy design of unattractive angles which inhibit staging and sight lines and comes complete with dodgy projection and, sadly, the lighting of Philip Gladwell can do little to redeem it. Takis' costumes rarely do any better and, frankly, the production deserves better.

Given the promise contained within the material and the talents of its cast this production rises above mediocrity but could have been so much better again if it were not for such a dire design concept. Perhaps the next tour will look to rectify this.

"The Addams Family", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/10/17

Based on the macabre single-panel cartoons of Charles Addams the revised version of the musical tours the UK in its premiere professional production. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice we join the Addams clan just as turmoil is about to hit the (un)happy household when eldest child Wednesday announces that she is - bizarrely - in love with a typically all-American boy and plans to marry. Cue a meeting of the parents and revelation of secrets to disturb one and all and anarchic chaos ensues.

The book is appropriately simplistic and relative to the nature of the original Charles Addams cartoons whilst Lippa's songs have suitable variety and wittiness and include some really heartfelt numbers.
The set by Diego Pitarch is economic yet elegantly shambolic and is used well throughout whilst his costumes are quirky and reverent to the original cartoons. Ben Cracknell's lighting design perfectly compliments both and adds dimension to the rotting visuals.
Matthew White's direction is affirmed and creates many interesting visual pictures though there are times when some of the jokes fall a little flat and he could tighten some places within the first act. The second act, however, moves at an extraordinary pace and is near perfection. Add to this the vibrant choreography of Alistair David and the parts make up a sumptuous whole, even if the King's stage felt a little cramped at times.

The production boasts an excellent cast led by the dynamic Cameron Blakely as Gomez and the resolute Samantha Womack as Morticia. Blakely is a bundle of energy on the stage and cements his prowess with ease whilst Womack is suitably stone-faced and economic until the role demands otherwise when she reveals just enough of the underlying passion within the character. Carrie Hope Fletcher's Wednesday is ostensibly the catalyst for the evening's proceedings and she handles the role with aplomb and gives Wednesday a depth and variety to match her outstanding vocals. The other members of the family shine equally in the smaller roles with Valda Aviks' Grandma a visual and dangerous treat to behold and Grant McIntyre making Pugsley a rather tender character mourning the potential loss of his sister to another boy. Oliver Ormson plays that particular boy, Lucas Beineke, with verve and gloss and Charlotte Page and Dale Rapley as his parents also add a dynamic that enhances the drama. The ensemble who play the various (un)dead clan members who flit in and out are varied and add much to the production with their dedicated and assorted characters. One of the long-running jokes within the production is the mute butler Lurch, played stoically by Dickon Gough who has a number of surprises in store. Special mention must also be made of understudy Scott Paige who played Uncle Fester at this performance. His performance was exemplary with superb comedic timing and charm and it's hard to say how Les Dennis, who usually plays the role, could be any better.

Though not perfect, The Addams Family is a wacky and thoroughly enjoyable musical treat with a life-affirming heartbeat at its core. With strong performances and a suitably grubby visual style this is another case of a top-rate production doing the rounds once again proving that one need not journey to London's West End to enjoy a cracking production.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

"Sunset Boulevard", 3/10/17, Edinburgh Playhouse

Sunset Boulevard Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's musical, based on the Billy Wilder film, portrays the story of hard-up screenwriter Joe Gillis and his fateful encounter with former silent movie goddess Norma Desmond. Desmond ostensibly employs Gillis to rewrite her comeback return whist he elects to make the most of the situation while alternately engaging in another partnership.
The original movie contained elements of film noir and melodrama and these are retained for the musical's book and are promoted in Nikolai Foster's stunning production.

The production boasts an orchestra of 16 which is quite an exception these days (but would be seen as small some years past) and is all the better for it; Lloyd Webber's score is inherently cinematic and as such relies on string and brass orchestration for emotional and physical prowess which pulsates throughout the piece. The sound design further enhances the power of the live musicians.

This production is blessed with a beautiful design which is both evocative and striking and perfectly encapsulates Foster's concept of a theatrical film production; with the set moving fluidly, cinematically at one time; then physically, theatrically the next, the mix is a sublime blend. Added to that are exceptional projections brilliantly used to add further depth as well as some contrasting lighting which furthers the experience. In tandem they create some exciting sequences including the care chase which was at once both cinematic and theatrical. Foster is a director who really knows how to work a set and his use of space and dimension is second to none and I am always excited by his production, even the ones that don't quite hit the mark.

The ensemble cast lend great vocal power to the musical and portray many varying roles, including the stagehands who lurk about the sound-stage set, silently observing an occasional moment before engaging in the next scene-change. There are occasions when an older actor would be more appropriate (as in the studio figures Norma recalls from previous days) but this is a small niggle.
Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer, a wannabe screenwriter, lends an amiable yet determined air and a sweet voice that manages to harden as the plot reaches its resolution. Adam Pearce is a strong and centred Max with a voice that is both powerful and tender. His precise movements are appropriately attuned and something that leading man Danny Mac should learn from; Mac is too energised as cynical Joe Gillis with lots of arm gestures and bouncing throughout the production. There is an economy of stillness that he should learn which would make his performance all the more powerful. As it is he is adequate in the role even if his vocals are unremarkable for the most part.
Ria Jones however has an awesome presence and exceptional vocals in the role of Norma Desmond, the part she originated in the musical's early workshop. When she sings As If We Never Said Goodbye she really means it. Jones captures the melodramatic elements of Desmond with aplomb and the only negative is that she really doesn't play the various descents in to melancholy with enough darkness until the final scene. That said, she stalks the set and hovers over all her scenes like some decrepit vulture eagerly anticipating the next opportunity - be it in Joe Gillis or her reunion with Cecil B. DeMille. Hers is a mesmeric performance and she demands attention every time she opens her mouth to sing.

The production is nearly perfect aside from a few small issues; I was surprised to see that the scene for much of the Act I finale - Artie's apartment - was replaced with Schwab's Drugstore requiring some slightly clunky dialogue changes and though the use of projection was, in the main, inspired there were occasions where it was overused and none more so than in the sequence where Betty journeys to Norma's mansion where we are treated to projection that was reminiscent of The Matrix's falling letters. Here the chosen images were out of place with the remainder of the production. At other occasional moments the amount of projection threatened to become distracting from the onstage action. There is also a need for the final scene to be played at a more suitable pace as it felt too rushed and it should be where we see Norma completely deconstruct, and the audience should have the time to appreciate the awful tragedy of it all. Elsewhere in Act I pace could be picked up here and there, though in reality this may be an argument for some trimming of the musical's book/score (There is at least one small part that I feel could be cut without any damage to the piece's structure at all).

Sunset Boulevard remains one of the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber's canon and this production is as near perfect as such a production can be and extols how, with the right director and design team, a touring production can match - even excel - much of what London's west End can offer. Exquisite design and conception matched with (for the most part) exceptional talent has created one of the best productions to emerge for many a year.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Letter (On Externalising) 26/9/17

The Residence

I ask, and am asked, why self-harm? First, though evidently an appropriate term, "self-harm" is also not; I cannot speak for others but, in my own interests, it is a release, an escape: 
To put it succinctly - feeling such pain, frustration and anger as I do, there comes a time when one feels constricted, suffocated and trapped and I reach such depths of mood where things have compressed so tightly that some effective relief is needed and the ideas I have on such relief are not the best to have. For others, as well as myself. Thus the safest release I can enact incurs some mild danger of its own and I attempt to externalise this internal suffering. Is it totally effective? Of course not, but it does - albeit briefly - abate that tension and oppression. The residual pain is also something of a device that serves to render the act effective.

I do not undertake such actions lightly and resist as I may. Others may say that such actions serve as a reminder, for those who live in the depressive void, that one is alive, that they can feel. Yes, I'd have to agree with that but, for me, the liberation of the inner anguish that I endure is my primary thought. Frankly, feeling is something I can be all too capable of and I often try not to feel.

There is nothing perfect in this world. And I hope it's the last.


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

"IT", 9/9/17, Odeon Glasgow

Based on the Stephen King novel which sees a group of young teenagers (known as The Losers' Club) fight against the otherworldly child-killing evil in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown that looms over their small town of Derry, Maine, and their later return as adults, this new adaptation elects to concentrate on the children and their encounters in the summer of 1989 when the creature they come to know as It awakes from its cyclical slumber to once again feed.
The film has reset events into the years 1988/89 whilst the original novel follows King's own childhood years of the late 50s. The reason for this change is obvious, and the proposed follow up film (which will primarily follow The Losers' Club as adults) will be set in the present, as the novel was when it was published in the 1980s.
No doubt there are those who will compare it with the 1990 television mini-series that starred Tim Curry, but that is really unfair if only because of the inherent limitations a television series must face. Rather, I look upon the film as a new, original, take on a great novel and here treat it as such.

Beware of potential spoilers ahead.

There have been some serious alterations from the novel beyond the time period and whilst most are appropriate and purposeful, there are a few which jar with me; given how much of the novel is spent on the childhood experiences of a summer, the film doesn't spend enough time on these, instead choosing to hint at them and omitting sequences which aid in the set up of the future adults whilst establishing the forming and bonding of the group (the iconic building of the dam, for one) though there are some equivalent reinterpretations present. Even small things such as nicknames ("Haystack" and "Trashmouth") are all but omitted, though the film is littered with easter eggs to other events or details from the novel. 
The biggest alteration is the ultimate form and nature of It which, apparently, the film's director never liked (even the term "deadlights" goes unmentioned). Given the Lovecraftian essence of the creature and the form of the ultimate final confrontation in the novel, I am interested how they intend to approach the finale of the story and how they can better the 1990 mini-series' approach - besides in special effects. Of course, readers of the novel will know the confrontation (the Ritual of Chüd) would be exceedingly difficult to present on film, but I ache for an imaginative reinterpretation of them on celluloid. 
Other inventions that don't quite sit right include Beverly becoming the lure for the boys' descent into the sewers, leading to their confrontation with Pennywise. The teenage Beverly Marsh is a strong character, here and in the novel, and this event diminishes her somewhat. The sense of "damsel in distress" is unfortunate and also lessons the role of Henry Bowers who is the novel's original reason for the entry into the sewers. He and his gang could certainly have featured more than they do.
We do learn that the film's full title is "IT Chapter 1" and I do wonder, however, how many of the changes/inventions that I quibble about will come to some sort of fruition of service in the second chapter. I have been reading articles about proposals for the proposed second feature which are positive but these are inevitably subject to change and until the film is made and released I have to - ultimately - reserve judgement as to what the final outcome will be. 

The film, nonetheless, is a superior King adaptation and is a strong movie in other regards. What it is most successful at is capturing the sense of childhood, innocence and its loss which is one of the most powerful aspects of the novel. The camaraderie between the members of The Losers' Club is palpable and it makes one nostalgic for one's own similar experiences. Director Andy Muschietti succinctly builds characters into multi-dimensional creations with surprisingly very little, no doubt aided by a supremely talented young cast.
The casting of the club members is inspired with Jaeden Lieberher leading the way as an endearing Bill Denbrough. Sophia Lillis' Beverly Marsh is an attractive, deep girl on the cusp of womanhood and her approach to the role is beautifully judged. This could be said of all members of the young cast, who manifest the varying aspects of the children with diversity, honesty and commitment, from Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier to Wyatt Oleff as Stan Uris and all the teens between. Despite limited screen time, and through careful script/editing choices by his director, Nicholas Hamilton as Henry Bowers is able to effortlessly give us a complex school bully, though his fellow gang members are less dimensional. The limited adult cast lend on air of danger when one realises that they are but pawns in It's game and it's a positive that the film revolves utterly around the children and so the adults, appropriately, require far less rounding as characters.
Of course, the most iconic character is Pennywise itself and Bill Skarsgård creates a disturbingly alluring, creepy and original take on one of Stephen King's most infamous characters. The sense of age and corruption he exudes in the role is inherent and his physicality is as inhuman as it is perturbing. 

The film is really quite lean and efficient and could afford a little more padding to afford more character development and history, be it for The Losers' Club members or Henry Bowers and his gang but the pacing is generally well judged
The visual palette is dynamic and the production design is beautiful, even in its terror and the re-imagining if It's lair is creative and disturbing, even though it is quite different to what King wrote. Of course, we may yet see even more of It's habitat so there may be surprises yet to come. It is a credit that the use of CGI is actually limited and that the environments were physically created as this lends an air of reality to events, even on their unnaturalness and makes the CGI appropriately more otherworldly when it does crop up.
Another strength is the superb musical score of Benjamin Wallfisch which radiates terror, suspense and - at the opposite end - brief moments of tenderness and warmth and its presence is integral to the success of the movie as a whole.

Despite the loss of some infamous scenes from the novel, "IT " is its own creation and honours the spirit of King's book, even with the deviations and inventions it makes. It is blessed with a stunningly gifted cast and with creatives who, together, create a real, tangible world that contrasts wildly with the terrifying force that intrudes. The film is not "Hollywood glossy" and has no excessive gore but relies on more traditional techniques to build and execute terror. The script is well-crafted and the direction is lithe and un-fussy, aided by sharp editing and that pervasive musical score. "IT" is a return to the greater form of horror movie, whilst never neglecting the essential human characters at its core.

Monday, 11 September 2017

"Blood Brothers", 8/9/17, Glasgow King's Theatre

Bill Kenwright's perennial production of Willy Russel's Blood Brothers returns to Glasgow with Lyn Paul returning to the central role of Mrs Johnstone.

The show is a moral parable that remains surprisingly moving, despite the somewhat odd structure of the show; being made up of occasion poetry, abstract and Brechtian staging together with gritty realism, all to tell the tale of two twins separated at birth after Mrs Johnstone and the woman she works for, Mrs Lyons, strike an unusual bargain. Russel asks whether it is nature or nurture that influences the path a person can take and, whist he offers no real answers, the diverging paths of the twins makes for intriguing viewing.
Russel's compositions are easy on the ear and though there may not be a huge amount of varieties in melody, his lyrics are witty and moving in turns and he has written two of the most emotionally striking songs in "Easy Terms" and the devastating finale, "Tell Me It's Not True". In the hands (or vocal chords) of such a great singer as Lyn Paul these numbers reach new heights.

The cast feature some old favourites including Sean Jones as Mickey and Mark Hutchinson as Eddie (who I first saw in the role more than 20 years ago in London's West End) and both continue to breathe fresh life in the roles whilst the newer additions are mostly as successful, though Sarah Jane Buckley's Mrs Lyons verges more on the melodramatic than appropriate as opposed to  the Narrator of Dean Chisnell which was suitably subtle with a firm, strong voice. Danielle Corlass' Linda is also another acutely measured performance that shines.
Lyn Paul's Mrs Johnstone is an understated, yet precisely attuned acting and physical performance tightly balanced with her stirring and assured vocals. The emotional resonance in her performance is replete and her song delivery can be equally joyous and heart-breaking.

Sadly, the production is starting to show its age and could do with updating starting with the orchestrations which have occasionally been updated since the 1988 West End opening (which was itself updated from the original - non-Kenwright produced - 1982 production's orchestrations). Typically Kenwright neglects to credit the orchestrator but, regardless, the arrangements have become terribly dated and new orchestrations are in order. Also the various pieces of underscore that have also been added throughout the London run need to be examined as the number and effect is excessive in places.
The design by Andy Walmsley, itself slightly updated from the London version, is perfectly serviceable as is the lighting by Nick Richings but it is unfortunate that the performance was marred by a poor sound balance which left the cast barely audible at times whilst the volume of the band became excessive so I do hope this is rectified sooner rather than later.
The direction by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright remains effective - if safe - and I was left wondering how successful a completely new production would be if Kenwright were brave enough to pursue that avenue. But I doubt he will.

Altogether Blood Brothers remains a stirring, emotional and enjoyable production despite the various negative aspects of its aged production. Ultimately it is Russel's material and the cast that elevate the production.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Letter (On Dreams) 10/9/17

The Residence

I have of late been suffering from what I can only call psychosomatic dreams - dreams that leave residual physical symptoms upon waking. 
The details of these dreams are only clear in that fragile state that exists between sleep and awake and once a step is taken into the latter realm the dream is shattered irreparably and I am lucky if I recall the simplest detail.
The clearest detail I do have is from a dream which has yet to reoccur - in it I am at some point pierced in the testicle with a fine, long needle - for what reason I am unsure, though a sense of female retribution hangs over the event - and I awoke with a throbbing ache in the relevant region.
Other symptoms I have awakened with indicate that I had undergone physical exertions in some of my dreams, complete with racing heart.
At other times I have been left feeling emotionally worn out and compromised as though I had undergone some terribly trying trial. 
What these dreams can mean I do not know. But how I welcome their cessation.