Friday, 14 November 2014

"Blood Brothers", King's Theatre Glasgow, 13/11/14

This is not so much a review as an opinion on the current touring production of "Blood Brothers" as produced by Bill Kenwright. What follows is an unedited stream of consciousness, so please forgive any ramblings/repetitions etc.:

I'll say this; the show still packs a punch, as evidenced by the reaction of the near-full audience. Sadly, however, the show has also become a mere shadow of itself, as evidenced by the near-full audience whose reactions were those more typically found at a performance of a pantomime.
It's a mark of the state of the production that the weakest link amongst the cast are the two 'name' leads - Marti Pellow, whose name is emblazoned above the title on posters, stars as "The Narrator" and Maureen Nolan whose name, surprisingly, is nowhere on the poster (at least not in Glasgow) as "Mrs Johnstone".
Pellow's vocals are nothing to write home about and both the quality of his voice and his diction often make words unclear - rather detrimental considering his role - but his physical attitude is also wrong. He stalks about the stage with as much threat and grace as if ploughing through mud.
Nolan is better but her voice is unsure in the higher range causing her to be off-pitch at times whilst her acting needs more depth. considering both have performed these roles for some time now it's inexcusable.
The remainder of the cast however are much stronger, none more so than Sean Jones as "Mickey" who is the most enthralling of all onstage. He's also another regular cast member but his performance was just as strong when first I saw him a few years back. Unlike some of the other cast members his is the most un-caricatured performance.
And I think this is where the major problem of the show lies: The staging and direction have become rather tired and unforgiving. Whilst the material is still strong enough to retain power and the ability to wring emotion from an audience, the direction is failing to serve it. Staging is rather pedestrian at times and, perhaps because of the name casting od recent years, the drama comes across as a bit flabby. Given the Kenwright production is over 25 years old and I've no doubt that the show has been tweaked in various ways over the years (not necessarily for the good), including musically (orchestrations have been reduced over the years), it really is doing a disservice to Willy Russell's work and this needn't be the case - other West End long runners such as "The Phantom of the Opera" continue to work because the direction remains tights and exciting and the company and crew continue to respect the audience. It seems that everything about this production of "Blood Brothers" is self-aware and it is guilty of playing to the audience far too much, as if those behind what happens onstage barely think it worth working for a reaction - they merely expect to receive it (which, for the most part, they do).

"Blood Brothers" is not a bad musical. It can be quite good, in fact. But I think director Bob Tomson and producer (and co-director) Bill Kenwright should take a fresh look at the production.
I've nothing against long-running cast members providing they can deliver the goods (especially since given the price people pay these days for a ticket) as Sean Jones clearly exhibits but the continuing reliance (which is not needed) on 'star' names has clearly taken its toll.
Perhaps it's time to start completely from scratch - a new (leading) cast, a new set, new orchestrations (the synthesised drums are really pointless) and, perhaps, even a new director - someone who is able to direct the text with the grittiness it requires, rather than relying on uninspiring blocking.
In other words, it is time for Blood Brothers to enter the new millennium otherwise it is threatening to become an unintentional parody of what it once was.

Addendum: Another issue I have is that the orchestra, besides the musical director, went utterly un-credited in the programme something which, given it's a musical, is rather insulting to the musicians.
Sort it out, Kenwright!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"Black Coffee", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 3/11/14

Review for Backstage Pass:

     Agatha Christie's first foray into playwriting was a reaction to her dislike at previous adaptations by others of her work. Rather than adapt one of her existing novels she instead created a totally new piece for the theatre. Unimpressed by previous portrayals of her creation "Poirot" she elected to place him into her play and show all how it should be done. The result was "Black Coffee" which premiered in 1930 and has been seen on occasion in repertory in the intervening years.
This new production has been running a little while now and continues its steady march around the UK with Jason Durr of "Heartbeat" fame replacing Robert Powell in the role of "Poirot".
     Plot-wise, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are invited to the house of Sir Claude Amory in relation to the theft of a formula he has created. It is fortunate he did so as he is murdered only moments before the two arrive and Poirot is soon putting his "little grey cells" to use. It's quite the usual Christie fare complete with her typical light-hearted digs at foreigners and servants but her first effort at writing for the stage employ the gifts of structure and plotting that she was famed for to good effect.

     Simon Scullion's art deco set is appropriately sleek and contains some fine details such as the geometric rug and artwork while the costumes by Nikki Bird and the lighting by Douglas Kuhrt are appropriate and unobtrusive. The incidental music by Matthew Bugg is essentially pointless but inoffensive whilst his composition for the opening and closing of the acts is reminiscent of the main theme to the "Poirot" television show, complete with saxophone. No coincidence, methinks.
Joe Harmston's direction is assured and generally keeps events moving with only the second act threatening to drag slightly. Act three, however, quickly steps up the pace and brings the events of the play to a satisfying, if somewhat obvious, close.
     The cast are strong and one feels that they are having quite a bit of fun with it all with the humour being brought out of the text as much as possible. Of course, the play is of its time and no real effort has been made to fight against that fact and thus some of the acting can come across as heightened and a trifle melodramatic, if not hammy, but I don't really think this is a negative given the nature of this production. There are some rather dodgy accents which drop here and there but, again, this is part of the charm of the play.
     As "Poirot", Jason Durr was something of a surprise; although his accent is too French for a Belgian and marred a little of his diction, and his physicality needs a little work (his walk is too stiff at times) he is humorous and charming when appropriate and clearly plays the part with sincerity and, despite appearing too young for the role, he is a commanding presence whose interpretation comes across as a darker "Poirot" than one expects. His portrayal, rather than emulating David Suchet, echoes the performance of Albert Finney at times but is very much his own and, with a little more work, shows promise to be a great portrayal of Agatha Christie's most famous character.

     All in all this is an entertaining, glossy and sturdy production complete with enjoyable performances that serves as a wonderful introduction to the world of Agatha Christie on stage, replete with all the hallmarks that Dame Christie excelled at.