Saturday, 5 December 2015

A Revisitation - 'Jesus Christ Superstar', King's Theatre Glasgow, 9th and 10th Sept 2010

In 2010 I witnessed two performances of an amateur production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (it was double cast so I saw both) and, as was usual, I decided to write about it. Upon publication I received quite a bit of hate from members of the cast. Originally I wrote a review after seeing the first show but after seeing the second cast in the next performance I decided to rewrite the review to combine impressions from both shows.
For some reason I never published the review or the responses to it here on my blog (to be honest I thought I had) so do so now:

Let me point out here and now - these are my opinions and I stand by them.

I think 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is one of the most exciting scores written for theatre and I have always loved the piece.
The Orpheus Club presented an enjoyable show which had things I liked and things I didn't.
If any company aspires to professional standards then I shall view the production as such. I think amateur companies far too often get a bad rep and for all misconstrued reasons. Amateur performers are probably amongst the most dedicated that exist - they have to juggle full time careers, funding shortages and never have the technical rehearsal time given to pro shows. Yet they never fail to entertain. I have seen far too many disappointing pro shows in comparison to amateur ones and often find the vigour and passion of amateur performers out-weigh those of the professionals.
So - onto the show itself; Walter Paul's direction is adequate if uninspired at times with some scene transitions being quite clumsy (transitions are important to the flow of a production and Joshua Logan was a pioneer in this field in his direction of 'South Pacific' in the late 40s) and I do wish these had been dealt with better. That said there are moments in the show which are quite exciting and thrilling. His use of the large impressive set, designed and supplied by Scenic Projects Ltd in a similar style to the original London production of 1972, varies but the highlight was the leper scene which was especially creepy as hordes of the lame came crawling up the steps to overwhelm Jesus. There are other times, however, when the set seems to overwhelm the cast giving one the impression that the stage is half empty though the entire cast may be onstage. The trial scene was another highlight for me with an impressive emotional build up. It's in scenes like these that the ensemble cast really comes up trumps; though their staging may be a bit too simplistic for my tastes the reactions of many of the cast feeds into the power of such scenes overcoming any directorial handicaps. The temple scene might be a case in point here; it was during this scene that I felt the direction was at its weakest with the scene portrayed as some quasi-holiday camp. There was certainly not enough sin on display to warrant Jesus' objections to the goings on (seemingly approved of by the priests who were in attendance - another directorial error methinks) and it was here that my mind wandered and thought I was witnessing, albeit briefly (thank god!) a performance of 'Summer Holiday' (ugh!). Thankfully the leper scene that followed pulled things back onto the right track.
The 'Herod' number was incredibly funny and a welcome reprieve. I have seen previous productions where Herod has been played almost straight and others where he was played as a clown and here he was certainly portrayed as more of the latter - a welcome choice brought off by an exuberant cast. The following scene was a marked contract, and another highlight, where Jesus' is beaten by the Roman soldiers during 'Could We Start Again, Please?', always one of my favourite numbers.
Paul's direction of the 'Superstar' number was a bit of an anti-climax for myself, more so as it follows the heart-wrenching trial scene; instead of an overwhelmingly powerful musical segue into the crucifixion it came across almost as an afterthought. Only my opinion but, as the final musical number, I have always felt that something impressive should be made of the scene and Paul had decided to use a minimum number of singers with a small chorus of dancers. Judas' appearance here as an outright rocker was impressive but the soul girls attired as 1940s club singers jarred, even if their voices were divine. The lack of a true finale to the number, replaced with a fade out here, also weakened the sequence for myself.
As for the crucifixion itself; I was actually impressed with most of it and the cast certainly added to the emotional intensity of the scene. My one quibble with this finale was that the director decided to introduce the character of Mary, Mother of God when Jesus asks about the whereabouts of his mother. As the character was never mentioned or seen previously in the production it seemed a dramatic error of judgement on Paul's part to introduce her for this one moment.
Costuming was primarily modern summer dress which  worked for most of the production (and really seemed to suit the apostles) whilst Herod and his court were attired in 1920s garb appropriate to the ragtime nature of the music in the scene. The priests were dressed in suits and leather coats giving the production a little of the variety it needed. Looking very much at times like members of a mafia the priests were amongst my favourite characters in this production and gave the production an added air of darkness and mystery.
Judas stood out dressed in dark quasi-emo clothing later transforming into a true rocker for the 'Superstar' number which really suited.
The Musical Direction of Andrew S. Nicol was well done although I did lament the cutting of some musical sequences and felt the temple number was too slow; draining the scene of some essential energy (a similar tempo was used in the 2000 video production and I felt the same there).
Choreography was simple and effective if a little un-original and was sparsely used. 'Hosanna', normally one of the choreographed numbers, was actually left dance free and I'm still unsure if that was a good thing or not.
Lighting by Ian Irving was a little too broad at times for my liking and I felt some scenes could have been lit better (especially to delineate space given the large space) but the leper scene and 'could we start again, please?' stood out as some excellent lighting. Here I might as well say that I felt the overall production was too light and I felt it could have done with more variety of shade, in the trial scene for example, although the priests were often given a darker lighting scheme.
The cast themselves generally excelled with the ensemble giving some verve to proceedings and the apostles forming a well rounded group of individuals who one felt truly were a brotherhood. James Thom's Peter came across very well and his vocal quality is something I really enjoyed. Steven Struthers as Simon gave a vibrant and energetic performance in the role being not too wild and not too subdued as the 'zealot' of the group.
The priests were, as said previously, well executed by Kenny Reid, Andrew Forrest and David Blackwood with Matt Bingham and Alex Robertson being equally impressive as Caiaphas and Annas.
Sean Stirling's Herod was a joy and his innuendo and comedy were excellent drawing heavy laughs from the audience whilst Kris Haddow as Pilate was truly impressive with a resounding voice and presence that commanded and drew your attention. For me he was certainly one of the highlights of the show, especially during the trial.
Judas Iscariot as portrayed by Tommie Hart, frontman of Zener Diode, had an impressive roll-call of vocal pyrotechnics to hand but I did initially feel his Judas wasn't varied enough, although in the second show I saw I did see more variety of emotion. Whether it was a decision taken by actor or director I felt that what is, to me, the most interesting role in the show was simply not given a believable story arc and almost seemed super-imposed on the production at times (actually, thinking about it, if this was a deliberate choice, if executed a bit better it could have been exceedingly interesting - almost like an 'Ariel' character; observing and dipping in and out of the action - but i detract). Hart's voice impressed the audience certainly but was not always to my taste although he really came into his own as a rocker during 'Superstar'.
Walter Paul does have a tendency to double cast some roles and he has done this again with Mary and Jesus. Both of the women playing Mary Magdalene, Jennifer McLardy and Lynsey McLaughlin, gave the role some emotional finesse albeit in different ways. McLaughlin brought an innocence and sweet voice and subtlety whilst McLardy brought some interesting vocal styling though at times her performance became a little too forceful. But both ultimately excelled as the single female role of note in the show.
John McLarnon and Ross Nicol played Jesus on alternate performances and ultimately I felt McLarnon's performance was more successful having a voice more suited to the role and also bringing a charisma and power that drew attention to the character; although his diction could have been a little better he excelled throughout and his lashing in the trial scene was something to behold.
Nicol as Jesus, at least for me, didn't quite have the same presence or vocal ability though his 'Gethsemane' and crucifixion were excellent. In the case of Nicol I felt I paid more attention to others around him whereas I was more drawn to McLarnon's Jesus who seemed a bit more natural.

And here's some of the 'comments' I received from members of the cast (I've included the full conversations, including spelling and grammar errors, but deleted personal details):

From a female cast member:

Female Cast Member
Looking very forward to seeing your next production .... I've got a lot of friends who review for some excellent publications so i'll make sure you get a mention ! Plus I give pretty good critiques too ....I'll make it extra special for you smile emoticon
Nothing like some tit for tat hey......oh and it was such a same that you couldn't get to play ALTERNATIVE JUDAS as it should have been double cast !....... noone could even come close to Tommie's performance though......suck balls !!
Also talking about balls...... I look forward to meeting you at some point with my "unsubtle" foot and kicking yours !
You should behind amateur clubs pal and not putting them down after all you were a part of it for weeks..... will be suprised if you get into another club when your disgusting attitude comes into focus !
Nice to speak to you pet
we are each entitled to our opinions. and believe me when i say i am very much behind amateur companies - but simply because they are so doesn't mean they should get off lightly. in my home town if it were not for amateur groups then there would be little musical entertainment. and each and every one gets professionally reviewed. there was much i enjoyed about each performance i saw - yours included, or can you not read? and as for Tommie Hart, although he was not to my personal taste as Judas, he cartainly impressed many. and Ben Goddard was an exceptional Judas! and by the way i have been known to suck the occasional set pff balls
be well and happy

Female Cast Member
Oh yes sweetheart I can read or i wouldn't have seen the review...... I don't give a flying fuck what you think of me ...those were not only cast members but friends of mine up there and some have little confidence as it is ....luckily enough I know i'm amazing so don't need you to reiterate the fact !
I think you might want to stop sucking balls it is clearly doing nothing for your personality !
Sharman Odd Tobias Prince
you cannot comment on my personality whatsover as you don't know me
Be well ...
Feamle Cast Member
No i don't thank christ ....but i know alot of people who do !! and yes I can comment on whatever I like as " I am entitled to my own opinion and those of others " !!!
same to you !!!
can't wait to see shite I mean spring awakening ...woop x
Sharman Odd Tobias Prince
forgive me, but i am always witness to that which i making an opinion of. ... and happy x
Female Cast Member
in english ??? you mean .... " I am making ??? or" I make opinions of " ??? anyway I'm bored with you now so ........
Sharman Odd Tobias Prince
oops- must remember not to copy and paste lol that should have been 'i am always witness to that which i AM making an opinion of' though tbh - "You should behind amateur clubs pal and not putting them down after all you were a part of it for weeks..... will be suprised if you get into another club when your disgusting attitude comes into focus !" you failed to put a "Be" after "should" and before "behind" but i let it slide
And another from a male cast member:
Male Cast Member
JCS Review
I believe u have already heard from a couple of people regarding ur very harsh and spiteful reviews. Now i appreciate that everybody is entitled to their opinion and i respect that, however I have to say, posting those comments on facebook knowing that the cast would see it at some point is disgusting! Fair enough if u had left it till after the run but to post it during the run of an amateur show which i might add you were a part of is bang out of order! You should be supporting amateur theatre not ripping it too shreds on facebook. Personally i couldn't give a toss what you think about me, but i know a couple members of the cast were extremely upset about your views which before going onto to do another 3 shows is the last thing you need. It is highly unprofessional, disrespectful and to some people who remember do this as a hobby extremely hurtful! Again personally i couldnt care less about your views but keep what i said in mind for future, and if you have anything like that to say again then have the balls to come up to the stage door and let us know. If you have a problem with anything i have said, i would be more than happy to discuss it with you over here or by all means call me on 07*********. Again I would like to express my sheer disgust at your actions, and hope that you face the consequences!

And some other comments from others not involved in the production:

"A review is one person's opinion. We all have opinions and are entitled to voice them. I think it is important to be honest. Some of the reviews I have read overuse the word "good". The scenery was good. The chorus numbers were good. Sometimes, as a performer, you read what you deem as the negative comments and get upset about them, rather than reading the good comments and building on them. If someone reviews me, orally or printed, and says something that I think I can work on, then I try to. Good job it isn't Strictly Come Dancing - have you heard some of Craig RH's comments?"

"I've never heard such a fuss over someone's opinions. Facebook is an open forum for people to express their own opinions. This unnecessary 'backlash' typifies all that is wrong with amateur companies who have lost touch with modern trends and furthermore highlights why such people are indeed amateur and not professional. there you go - there's another opinion that everyone call all have a moment about!"

"I loved the show, both casts and was thoroughly entertained! Don't get too upset by the opinions of others - you can't please everyone all the time! just enjoy what we do and hope that we can all keep on doing for many years to come! We have a fab hobby!"

"I thought your review was written very well and didn't slag anyone off just gave your opinion on what you liked about the production and what you didn't like. I can't believe the abuse you've had - that's ridiculous. If the actors are taking it to heart that much - they'd NEVER in a million years make it in the industry. Truth hurts I guess"

At the time someone also said to me that Scottish Amateurs were not used to being reviewed, which is fine, but my response was that where I come from they are and face the same quality of reviewing as a professional production. I also offered the idea that if you're going to put yourself (or your work) on display then one is open to the opinions of others. I've had some harsh critique of my own work throughout my life but I must say that the vitriol I received from the performers in this particular production (the female cast member was a professional performer at the time and the male cast member was at drama school and has since become a professional actor) was something else.
But I still stand by my verdict and stand by all my writing. Though, at times, my opinion may change after some time (for good or ill) I stand by the fact that these were my opinions at the time of writing and are as valid as anyone else's.

Friday, 27 November 2015

"The Importance Of Being Earnest", 24/11/15, Glasgow Theatre Royal

Unexpectedly written for Backstage Pass:

"The Importance of Being Earnest" brims with the wit and humour for which Oscar Wilde is famous and class, social standing and identity are key elements in this famous comedy with Simon Brett's 'framing device' of a group of aged amateurs staging a revival of their most successful production allowing some of Britain's most respected middle-aged actors to play parts usually reserved for those half their ages.
What we witness is a rehearsal for their forthcoming production taking place in the home of leading lady "Lavinia Spelman" (Siân Phillips) which also turns out to be the perfect setting for this interesting take on Wilde's comic classic. All cast members take the role of a member of the "Bunbury Company of Players" and portray either the actors rehearsing or the crew supporting them. Brett's 'backstage' material hints at shenanigans between the company members which could be really quite humorous but his material is left sadly underdeveloped. Brett's conceit is a little uneven and there are moments when it intrudes on the play proper to negative effect, although this is by no means a constant issue and it is ultimately unfortunate that the framing device isn't followed through to the very end of the production. Indeed in the second half it is very easy to forget the play-within-play concept and enjoy Wilde's play for what it is.
Lucy Bailey's direction is assured, elegant and witty and her unfussy work allows the cast to shine fittingly. Bailey keeps the pace driving along for the most part and, although there are one or two moments which feel a little slack, the momentum continues on like the proverbially oiled wheel and there are some lovely and well staged moments throughout. The humour and wit inherent within both Wilde and Brett's material is drawn out almost effortlessly and to great effect by Bailey and the excellent cast she directs.
William Dudley's set design is opulent and detailed creating a space of great value to the production adding to the wonderful lustre of the production as a whole and his costumes are equally excellent and perfectly attuned to the production both on and off the Bunbury stage.
The jaunty music and sound design of Tom Mills is equally appropriate and unobtrusive and the lighting design by Oliver Fenwick is subtle yet mood-appropriate and compliments the setting gloriously, especially in the latter half where the effect of colour and shadow is sublime.
The cast is uniformly superb, equally adept at portraying their Bunbury character and, where appropriate, their Wilde character. Nigel Anthony as "George", husband to "Lavinia", is underplayed to perfection and his dual Wilde roles of "Lane" and "Merriman" have some lovely, humorous moments. Likewise Rosalind Ayres whose "Wendy" plays the essential part of "Miss Prism" whose interactions with the "Rev. Canon Chasuble" of David Shaw-Parker (as "Paul") are engaging and charming. Her ultimate reveal at the climax is wonderfully timed and performed.
Carmen Du Sautoy as "Maria/Gwendolen Fairfax" and Christine Kavanaugh as "Ellen/Cecily Cardew" capture the spirit and energy of their roles and they shine appropriately, performing with abandon and to perfection, taking no prisoners with their delivery of sharp and witty lines especially in their face-off over the titular character(s). They also manage to capture the perfect balance between real acting and the over-acting attributed to amateur companies (often mistakenly) such as the Bunbury Company. It is this juxtaposition that is a little unsettling in Brett's concept but, regardless, they - and everyone else - perform it quite brilliantly.
Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis both sparkle in their parts and they are ebullient, spirited and youthful, demonstrating the prowess of true talent and they effervesce as "Dicky/Algernon Moncreiff" and "Tony/John Worthing" respectively. Theirs is clearly a job they love and enjoy doing making the audience's enjoyment all the more fulfilling.
Special mention must be made of Carole Dance's prop-lady, "Sasha", and her escapades involving cucumber sandwiches: a wonderful addition by Simon Brett captured brilliantly by an under-used actress.
But the production belongs, appropriately enough, to the glorious Siân Phillips whose theatrical magic still burns bright and who delivers a stellar performance epitomising the ideal of stage presence. Exuding class and sophistication she deftly switches between the Bunbury character of "Lavinia" and Wilde's indomitable "Lady Bracknell" commanding the stage with the slightest of movements, effortlessly conveying the wit of Wilde's work with deliberate effect and completely inhabiting the theatre with her complete performance. It is a joy to watch her in such an entertaining and well written role and she continues to prove what a great and talented actress she really is.
Much like Phillips, the whole production is redolent of class and style and is in stark contrast to a number of recent touring productions where such strong production values are not so evident. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is full of verve and energy and is a chance to see some great actors at the peak of their craft and, although not a perfect production, one could do worse than to experience such a wonderfully superb cast working with some of the strongest material ever written for the stage in one of the most beautiful productions seen for a while.


Friday, 6 November 2015

"An Inspector Calls", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 3/11/15

Written for Backstage Pass:

23 years since its premiere at the National Theatre this touring production of Stephen Daldry's production of J B Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" still retains its awe-inspiring magnetism whilst remaining ever more politically relevant. First produced in 1945 in Moscow, Priestley's play is a treatise on social responsibility illustrating how one person's acts can have significant consequences.

Daldry's production created a mini-revolution when first presented with its theatricality, from lighting to set design, releasing Priestley's text from the confines of the somewhat dated drawing room drama it had become. From the arresting air-raid siren that announces the opening of the play through to the pregnant expectation of the final still moments, the drama unfolds in a stirring whirlwind of revelation as one by one the Birling family, celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling to Gerald Croft, are presented with the events that culminate with the suicide of a young woman apparently known to all present. Interrupting their celebrations, the mysterious Inspector Goole proceeds to relentlessly coerce each individual to confront the truth of their part in the tragedy, unravelling the hypocrisy of the façade they each present along the way.

Director Daldry, whose work also includes "Billy Elliot" (both movie and stage musical), together with Ian MacNeil's design and the lighting of Rick Fisher, establishes an environment that crystallises the fragility of the Birling household surrounded by the bleak landscape of a reality they purposefully choose to ignore whilst the musical score by Stephen Warbeck is evocative, dramatic and suitably underscores the emotional impact of the events unfolding onstage. Daldry's total use of staging, design and text epitomises the trend of "director's theatre" with each element combining to create a whole that only an assured, confident director with a clear "vision" can execute with such surety and he never allows his cast, nor Priestley's text, to become a secondary factor. Everything functions to serve the drama and the cast that conveys it and they remain the primary focus in a production that could easily have been overwhelmed by other elements. Daldry's greatest achievement is in stripping away the barriers of time so that the themes resonate to a modern day audience; whilst the events of the play are set in 1912, Daldry establishes an audience of "Supernumeraries" (in 1940s dress) to bear witness to the Birlings' confessions whilst also having moments where the theatre audience is addressed. Time is blurred but the relevance is not.

The cast are uniformly excellent and perform in a slightly heightened aspect that is entirely appropriate to the nature of the production whilst remaining completely honest and real throughout. Liam Brennan's "Inspector Goole" dominates proceedings and his wonderful voice is only one aspect of his commanding performance whilst Caroline Wildi's "Sybil Birling" is a model of control and regality. Tim Woodward as her husband, "Arthur", offers a contrasting attitude. As the more socially-aware younger "Birlings", Katherine Jack and Hamish Riddle are spirited but equally as fragile as they are self-aware. Matthew Douglas' "Gerald Croft" presents an assured confidence that even the truth finds difficult to shake at times and Diane Payne-Myers, as the predominantly silent maid, "Edna", establishes a complete performance with her constant scuttling about the stage, subtly reacting to the eventual unravelling of the Birling family around her.

Every action performed by every actor serves to further events and there is virtually nothing that is presented as a triviality.

There are few socially relevant plays which are as thrilling and exciting to witness as this theatrically stunning production and it is a testament to the writing of J B Priestley and Stephen Daldry's execution of it that the play remains a relevant and powerfully thoughtful one especially given the political times in which we reside.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

"The Smallest Show On Earth", Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 26/10/15

Written for Backstage Pass:
Based on the 1957 British Lion comedy, The Smallest Show On Earth is the story of a pair of penniless newlyweds, 'Jean' and 'Matthew Spenser' (Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley) who learn they have inherited a cinema in Sloughborough. After setting out to view what they hope will be their financial salvation they discover that the 'Bijou Kinema' is anything but. Faced with stiff competition from a rival cinema run by 'Ethel' and 'Albert Hardcastle' (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham) they set out to restore the 'Bijou' to its more successful days. Faced with its quirky staff, including alcoholic projectionist 'Mr Quill' (Brian Capron - of 'Coronation Street' fame), and sabotage attempts from the 'Hardcastles', the 'Spensers' must formulate a plan to make their little flea-pit into a success before it is bought out and turned into a car-park.

It seems an odd juxtaposition that the British plot should be united with Irving Berlin but the marriage is a happy one and his songs are used to serve and further the story which has undergone some happy adaptation from the original film: Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander's script captures the feel of those Ealing-period British comedies and is peppered with great one-liners and develops some appealing relationships not necessarily in the original film.
Musical supervisor/arranger Gareth Valentine and Orchestrator Mark Cumberland ensure that the songs are weaved into and around the dialogue and the sound produced by the six-piece orchestra is spot on. All of these elements consolidate to create a fully formed piece of musical theatre that feels organic and sincere. Of course, it was not unusual for composers to create new musicals from their own back-catalogue and Berlin was amongst those who elected to pick and choose numbers when creating a new musical for stage or screen, so the idea of using pre-existing numbers is not a new strategy here but it is a successful one.

David Woodhead's set and costume design is elegant and witty and is beautifully complimented by Howard Hudson's lighting design. Thom Southerland's direction is energetic, tender and precise and he is adept at creating interesting, exciting transitions whilst never neglecting his cast with whom he creates some lovely sequences although some tightening could be undertaken in places. The musical staging is entertaining and the choreography by Lee Proud is perfectly suited to the style and nature of the piece, evoking an age long since past.

The cast are led by Liza Goddard as 'Mrs Fazackalee' and Brian Capron as 'Mr Quill' and both are pleasing to watch whilst also providing some of the more moving moments in the production. Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley have a delightful and believable chemistry as the newlyweds and both are blessed with glorious vocals. Christina Bennington and Sam O'Rourke are unrelentingly charming as the youngsters from opposing families whose sweet, adolescent relationship adds a youthful energy and warmth to proceedings whilst Matthew Crowe, as reluctant solicitor 'Robin Carter', has some of the most fun onstage; he proves to be a truly entertaining all-round performer and gleans all he can out of one of the most amusing parts in the show. The supporting ensemble is strong in all aspects and the entire company shines consistently.

"The Smallest Show On Earth" is a charming, amusing and ultimately entertaining heart-warming little show that harkens back to a more nostalgic time and it is a bit of a dark horse amongst the more monolithic productions that are also currently touring. The theatrical equivalent of a hearty Sunday roast this understated yet tenacious and robust production is perfect fare for many an audience member and the opportunity should be taken to enjoy it while you can: It is a lovely little show.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

"Sunset Boulevard", King's Theatre, Glasgow, 24/10/15

One of the last of Andrew Lloyd Webber's mega-musicals, "Sunset Boulevard" is based on the classic Billy Wilder film that presents the story of Joe Gillis, struggling screenwriter, who happens upon the mansion of Norma Desmond, 'famed star of yesteryear', who has spent the last twenty years of her life reliving her past glories on celluloid whilst cobbling together a screenplay that will mark her 'return' to the fans who, she believes, have never left her. Gillis soon becomes entrenched in Norma's crazed life and she quickly falls in love with him, whilst her ever-present manservant, Max, looks on passively. The tragedy soon reveals itself, however, as reality starts worming its way into Norma's world and her fragile existence starts to unravel.
Lloyd Webber's score is, appropriately, his most cinematic and contains some well-known numbers including 'With One Look' and 'The Perfect Year'.

The nature of the story presents inherent difficulties in staging the celluloid story and is a challenge for any company. Amateur group Glasgow Light Operatic Club should be praised alone for attempting such a demanding production.
In lesser hands the staging could have been an outright disaster but Alasdair Hawthorn is a more than competent director. It's true that not every sequence comes over successfully and that the exposition becomes a little turgid but, for the most part, the plot and staging is fluid and concise and the demanding transitions are handled appropriately.
The musical direction by David R Dunlop is a bit wanting in some areas; there are some numbers which are performed at a slower rate than appropriate whilst others feel a bit rushed. It is also unfortunate that a score orchestrated with strings replaces them with synthesisers thus rendering the score inappropriately synth and brass-heavy. This also has the effect of dulling some of the musical impact and phrases. That said, the musicians present did a great job with some of David Cullen and Lloyd Webber's most moving work.
Choreographer Antony Carter did a fine job in creating enjoyable dance sequences that never seemed to intrude upon the dramatic action
A lot of amateur companies are also guilty of somewhat neglecting lighting but this cannot be said for this production; here it was a considered aspect and an integral part of the whole, delineating space and mood effectively.

The cast rose to the challenge of "Sunset Boulevard" amiably and were led by Ross Nicol as 'Joe Gillis' and Aileen Johnston as 'Norma Desmond' and both held themselves well. Whilst there may have been a few too many moments of 'armography' for my liking, both Nicol and Johnston have a commanding presence with strong vocals to match and Johnston especially has moments where she surpasses herself, none more so than her triumphant return to Paramount Studios with the number, 'As If We Never Said Goodbye'.
Johnathan Procter's 'Max' stood as a pillar of strength epitomising the power of stillness whilst his vocals appropriately echoed the emotional that lay within. His was a most charming and moving performance. Kirsten MacDonald also has moments as 'Betty Schaefer' where she shines and she has a lovely tone to her voice, if only she let it out more confidently as she was a little reserved at times yet clearly has the pipes for the part; a fact in evidence come her duet with Nicol, 'Too Much In Love To Care', where she soars beautifully.
Also worthy of mention are Greg Reid's naive 'Artie Green' and the 'Manfred' of Iain G Condie who provides a wonderfully delivered number replete with comedy and underlying disdain. Director Hawthorn also makes a brief, uncredited, cameo in the appropriate role of 'Cecil B DeMille' adding a sense of reality to proceedings.

Kudos must be given to a company in taking a risk with such a demanding production but, for the most part, a company that succeeds. It is always important that theatre - at whatever level, amateur or professional - takes risks, embraces danger and offers something new to its audience and GLOC have certainly done that.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

"And Then There Were None", Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 19/10/15

Written for Backstage Pass:

Arguably considered Agatha Christie's masterpiece, And Then There Were None remains amongst the most well known of all crime fiction and is Christie's best-selling title. First staged in 1943, and adapted by Christie herself this production has been set in 1939 and has been slightly adapted from Christie's original script by the production company to surprising, positive effect.

The plot revolves around a group of strangers lured as guests to an isolated island where a mysterious voice announces judgement upon them for their apparent past "crimes". What follows is an excellent showcase for the plotting talents of the Queen of Crime as murder follows murder and paranoia blooms among the remaining guests. Of course, trying to work out whodunit is all part of the fun of an Agatha Christie plot and the play offers much for the avid audience member/armchair detective.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company has been creating fine productions of Christie's plays for the past decade and this is no exception. With assured, confident direction by Joe Harmston, who plays up the humour in Christie's writing, the play is never lax in engaging with its audience. It is true that there are moments when the laughs may be unintentional but the style is, at times, almost tongue in cheek and this is rather welcome in this spirited production where such amusement offers contrast to the sudden shocks that Harmston delivers. He handles the pace of the production easily and uses the space very well, investing the production with deft touches not inherent in Christie's script.

The set design by Simon Scullion is attractive, evocative and well suits the Art Deco period and are a perfect backdrop to the elegant costumes designed by Roberto Surace. The  lighting by Douglas Kuhrt is atmospheric, redolent and subtle as is the sound by Matthew Bugg. The only excess in these departments is the heavy-handed use of Latin chanting at the climax of the play.

"And Then There Were None" is blessed with a strong cast led by the dominant performance of Paul Nicholas whose strength and stillness capture the character of "Sir Lawrence Wargrave" whilst his voice drips authority. Mark Wynter is equally as charismatic as "Doctor Armstrong" and is utterly striking as the flawed professional. Eric Carte, as "General Mackenzie", is another performer whose characterisation is perfectly balanced and whose delivery elevates Christie's text to near-poetry quality at times. Indeed, all the cast deliver the dialogue with ease and imbue the text with a quality that raises it above the sometimes dated language that typifies Christie's writing. Deborah Grant as "Emily Brent" is a prime example; surpassing the potential limitations in the period text effortlessly whilst Kezia Burrows overcomes the language in a more physical manner as "Vera Claythorne". Mark Curry, Colin Buchanan, Ben Nealon, Judith Rae and Jan Knightley all serve the play in an excellent manner whilst Tom McCarron, as "Anthony Marston", succeeds in overcoming the most stilted, archaic vocabulary present in the script, turning it into the most natural expression within the environment created onstage.

The build up of pressure and tension does threaten to enter over-the-top territory before the dénouement and it is here the play could be refined as could the slightly overdrawn ending, but the production is never boring, flat or uneventful and is a considered, consistent, thoroughly enjoying, often thrilling production that will appeal to more than just die-hard Agatha Christie fans.
There is a reason that And Then There Were None is one of the most famous stories in crime fiction and this sumptuous production showcases it well. Discover it for yourself ...

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

"All My Sons", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 2/9/15

Written for Backstage Pass:


Arthur Miller's first successful play, All My Sons, is presented by Rapture Theatre Company in a production that seems to have something of a curse upon it; not only was leading actor Paul Shelley hospitalised before opening night (though expected to return to the production for the Inverness run), but Trudie Goodwin very nearly followed him after collapsing a third of the way through the second half of the performance. Okay, not quite - but it did seem that the heat within the Theatre Royal was too much for her and her collapse mid-performance prompted a ten-minute delay. But, ever the trooper, and epitomising the maxim, "the show must go on", the performance was resumed with renewed vigour.

Miller's unflinching play, inspired by true events, is the story of a family, already dealing with the absence of one son, who are forced to confront the terrible truth that has been hidden for several years when figures from their past re-enter their lives. Recalling Greek Tragedy with its father-son relationships and the idea of resolution through reckoning, it's a moral play replete with definite opinions and outcomes. The principle of karma is also apparent and the conclusion, although somewhat shocking, is inexorable.

The design by Neil Murray is, on first impressions, a basic clapboard house and its backyard although, upon closer inspection, it appears that one corner of the building is covered with mould and appears to be rotting. It is a rather hollow and empty design which could be said to reflect the state of affairs of the people who dwell within - their lives are something of a façade and one shouldn't look too closely at the details. It could also be said to represent the nature of the production as a whole - unrefined and not quite detailed enough. The lighting by Sergey Jakovsky is serviceable but unexciting and the sound design by Craig Johnston needs more honing and could be more consistent and subtle.

David Tarkenter, understudying the part of Joe Keller, is very good in the role, as is Robert Jack as Chris Keller. Both are able to grasp the basic principles of each character and deliver them in an assured way. As Lydia Lubey, Pauline Turner also holds her own, albeit in a smaller part. Trudie Goodwin is quite excellent as Kate Keller and hers is the most thorough, nuanced and honest characterisation in a company of actors who exhibit moments of great promise but who seem to be restrained by tepid direction and thus are never really able to create thorough character arcs and sustained through-lines leaving the performances a little uneven complete with some laboured dialogue. And whilst the cast, as a whole, are never less than competent there are a number of dodgy accents and moments of stilted acting, although the humour is always delivered with aplomb, and one gets the sense that the actors on-stage are able to give even more than is in evidence if only given the chance.

Michael Emans' direction is somewhat lacking in consistency, often being clunky and stale and he is guilty of some obvious and uninspired handling of the performance space and it's his labours that are the predominant cause of flaccid performances and the creation of a production where energy and pace fluctuate for the most part, although the second act does trundle along with more fluidity than the first.

All in all this is a flawed production containing elements raising it beyond the mundane but it is nevertheless a fair effort of a powerful and demanding play. Should the producers and director revisit the production any time soon they would do well to build upon the successful components already present to create a more thorough and even production.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

"Twelve Angry Men", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 22/6/15

Written for Backstage Pass:

     Imagine you are one of a dozen men tasked with the responsibility of whether a young man is executed or not; that his fate relies on the choice you make; guilty or innocent. Now imagine you stand alone in your choice - would you give in to the pressure of your fellow jurors to agree with them or fight for what you believe to be true? This is the basic premise of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men where we see twelve jury members tackle the evidence presented before them, their personal prejudices, and each other to reach a unanimous decision that will seal a sixteen year old boy's fate.

     Most famous as a 1957 feature film starring Henry Fonda, the play began life as a television play presented in 1954 before the first theatrical adaptation was staged. This touring production stars Tom Conti, Andrew Lancel, Gareth David-Lloyd and Robert Duncan amongst a cast who perform Rose's script with aplomb. The piece relies on a strong ensemble and there really isn't a weak link amongst a cast who confidently grasp the audience's attention, building tension throughout the play until the final decision is made. It is a credit to the actors that they are able to make such a wordy play into such a gripping experience. 

     Rose's script is more or less tight, though a little slow to start and he peppers the dialogue with many a humorous line and insights into the personal lives of the anonymous jurors. Rose creates characters who feel rounded and complete, despite the small clues we are given, and creates believable tension and conflict amongst them when facts face off against personal impressions and preconceptions. His use of logic in having characters deconstruct and evaluate the evidence and witnesses is strong and he imbues the play with a variety of themes that rear their heads at one point or another; such as consensus-building, standing strong against the odds and the potential outcomes of human error. Ultimately we realise that no justice system is truly perfect.

     Christopher Haydon's direction is quite assured and confident although he has some lines fall flat or presented somewhat clumsily. Haydon utilises the stage throughout; moving his actors about fluidly and expressively and thus avoiding the creation of a static and boring theatrical visual.

A drop displaying the Scales of Justice hides the jury room which is soon revealed contained within a steel girder cube complete with more naturalistic doors and windows and a table upon a slowly moving revolve (which adds to the sense of drama). Michael Pavelka's design is enhanced by the sound and lighting designs of Dan Samson and Mark Howett respectively and the lighting is especially moody and subtle further creating a sense of animation about the unit set.

     An intriguing take on a whodunit, Twelve Angry Men offers a chance to have us ask ourselves how we might act in any one of the jurors' place as we bear witness to the struggles and difficulties that such a position offers. And, ultimately, life is created by the choices we make. For ourselves and for others.

Monday, 27 April 2015

"The Woman In Black, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 20/4/15

Written for Backstage Pass:

Based on the novel by Susan Hill, in recent years made into a motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black began as a small-budget seasonal affair in Scarborough and has since became a major stalwart of London's West End, where it is still running after 25 years, thanks to its clever use of economical theatrical storytelling techniques.

Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation intelligently condenses the novel's plot and multitudinous characters into a two-hander play which utilises the medium of theatre itself and the imagination of its cast and their audience to succinctly portray the eerie events surrounding Eel Marsh House and the tragic events of its past.

Robin Herford's direction is clean, concise, sharply effective and he is adroit at building up tension whilst interspersing it with occasions of humour. Contrast is a prime element of this production and Herford's use of animated movement is balanced by moments of stillness. Herford is aided by the simple, atmospheric design of Michael Holt and the precise lighting by Kevin Sleep (and associate lighting designer Tony Simpson) which elegantly uses colour upon the textured surfaces of Holt's design to aid the storytelling. Add to this the sound effects designed by Gareth Owen (original sound design by Rod Mead) and assistant sound designer Richard Carter and all the elements for a thrilling instance of drama are present.
The final, key, ingredient is the cast and Malcolm James and Matt Connor are well suited as the story-tellers who have the audience gripped and engaged from the outset. As the play moves along they become further entrenched in the events portrayed drawing the audience deeper into a story that becomes progressively darker. Running the gauntlet of emotional variety is a skill in itself and both actors are expertly equipped to do so in a play which demands no less of a performer.

Epitomising the essence of theatre and its art in the telling of a tale that speaks to the primal fear within us all, The Woman in Black is a surprisingly strong piece of entertainment and, since fear is a powerful emotion that both repels and attracts many a human, it is further proof that we will always be drawn to forms of entertainment that play to the lure of being scared. 
Given that an audience must buy into what is happening before them at all times - that they must 'suspend disbelief' - it is a credit to all involved, on and off-stage, that such a deceptively simple production can be so effective in eliciting such pronounced responses from an audience and, thanks to the immediacy of live theatre, it's no wonder that the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black has become such a success since its premiere all those years ago. Years now lost to the mysterious mists surrounding Eel Marsh House...

Sunday, 19 April 2015

"Peter Pan Goes Wrong", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 14/4/15

Written for Backstage Pass

     Following the success of The Play That Goes Wrong, which recently won Best Comedy at the Olivier Awards, Mischief Theatre presents another riotous, anarchic piece of theatrical glee: Presented as a play within a play we see a disorganised theatre group present an ostensibly 'straight' adaptation of J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan".

Creating a follow-up to The Play That Goes Wrong must have been a truly daunting task but, for the most part, Peter Pan Goes Wrong is as enjoyable as Mischief's original play although it, inevitably, lacks a little of the former's originality and freshness. Peter Pan Goes Wrong does manage, however, to find new variations, built within the plot of Barrie's play, which allow for further explorations of farce and physical comedy including, of course, flying!

     Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have written a script that manages to keep the essential points of Barrie's original story whilst allowing themselves leeway to orchestrate a production that is appropriately chaotic and shambolic and is in keeping with the "... Goes Wrong" idea of the off-stage shenanigans regularly interrupting the 'play' being presented. Indeed, this piece goes further and references more off-stage happenings than the writers' previous work and they have  stretched the possibilities that lie within the various disciplines that create theatre - lighting, sound, visuals and even text are all potential hazards in live theatre and here what can go wrong does go wrong. The authors even manage to address the idea of "Peter Pan" as a pantomime - something which Barrie disliked - to comedic effect.
Adam Meggido's direction compliments the shoddy, am-dram nightmare of the script although some jokes are drawn out a little too long onstage and some sequences feel a trifle laboured and may benefit from further work. 

     The set design by Simon Scullion recreates the worst kind of amateur performance space with flat, two-dimensional, artwork and clumsy furniture. It is, naturally, a very intelligent, clever design that is based on a revolve which is also used to utmost comedic effect. In fact, there is nothing that is not prone to 'accident' in this production and the costumes, by Roberto Surace, are equally a part of the fun. Matt Haskins' lighting is also excellently used as a comedic element of the play.

     Very much an ensemble piece, the actors perform with such flair and energy that they are able to conjure up a feeling of disorder and turmoil so complete yet are able to remain precise in their timing and physical activity throughout. The whole company is strong and vary from the more outgoing “Robert Grove” of Cornelius Booth to the quieter, down-trodden “Max Bennett” of Matt Cavendish. Leonie Hill’s Beyonce-wannabe “Sandra Wilkinson” is a physical spectacle as is Naomi Sheldon’s “Annie Twilloil” who is cursed with several costume quick-changes, whilst Laurence Pears’ “Chris Bean” is a demanding creation who interacts well with the audience and ad-libs with confidence. Once again Mischief Theatre play with the types of character who are drawn to performing and many a type is recognisable to anyone who has been a member of an amateur performing group.

     Whilst not as original as The Play That Goes Wrong Mischief Theatre have created another hilarious, energetic, physical farce in Peter Pan Goes Wrong which is a testament to the talents and creativity of all involved in its production. 

Friday, 10 April 2015

"Jesus Christ Superstar", Edinburgh Playhouse, 9/4/15

One of the problems with a production of a musical (or a play) that is more than 40 years old is that it is always at risk of falling into clichés that have become associated with previous productions or, as is the case with "Jesus Christ Superstar", the various filmed versions. It was thus a surprise to witness a production that clearly tries to do a little more than the obvious with such a well-known show, albeit to varying success.

The first thing to strike you about this production is the monolithic set by Paul Farnsworth which is dominated by several huge pillars reminiscent of Byzantium design and a mammoth back wall in which are two huge doors of similar design. A three-sided catwalk and movable steps make up the remainder of the set which surrounds a central playing area. A steel 'crown' hovers over the action, moving though-out the events of the musical.
Impressive as all this is I do wonder why the pillars were so heavily bas-relieved since most other design elements are more abstract. That said the shadows they produce under the lighting are stunning.
The lighting by Nick Richings is sympathetic to the production. It is moody, atmospheric, precise and creates some wonderful moments onstage, including being used for some excellent transitions (the title of this blog indicates such a use) such as that between "Judas' Death" and the "Trial By Pilate".
Costumes (apparently by Farnsworth) are standard Biblical-like affair and stand up as a little uninspired compared to the rest of the design elements.

The musical direction by Bob Broad is assured, confident and varied. Whilst the orchestra (or rather, band) has been reduced to seven players but the orchestra has evidently been augmented with click-tracks which enable the sound produced to be of a larger, more epic scale than most productions of the last twenty years - there is even some (pre-recorded) strings in evidence. As good a sound as this makes I do wish that full-size orchestras were the norm today as once they were. But the live musicians are really excellent and perform flawlessly, investing the score with energy and a zip that has been missing in most recent productions (especially the Arena tour of several years ago).
The sound design by Dan Samson also aids in creating the sense of grandness present within the show and is used to excellent use in creating a soundscape that is thrilling and deep, be it the vocals/dialogue that comes from all around the audience or the threatening, dangerous sounds of the whip-cracks which are the most unpleasant I've heard. The "Crucifixion" is also made all the more unsettling by Samson's design which has every hammer-fall, laugh and breath echo throughout the auditorium.

Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright's direction is solid and tends to avoid the more bland staging ideas that can trouble some other Kenwright productions; something as simple as having the Last Supper staged on a slight diagonal, rather than straight on, creates a more interesting, dynamic, shape to proceedings and avoiding the over-used Superstar cliché of staging it as a visual copy of Da Vinci's painting is also a *ahem* blessing (pun intended). Throughout it seems simplicity is the key and this works to promote the strength of the score. It does take, however a good ten minutes or so for the show to really kick in to gear; despite staging the" Overture" (common these days) with "Jesus" recruiting his Apostles and also hinting at the friction between the Romans and the natives, "Heaven On Their Minds" is treated with typical "Superstar" staging with "Judas" moving in and around "Jesus" and his followers, although the over-used hand-clapping usually featured in the 7/8 musical section is, thankfully , not present and the first real indicator that this isn't just a paint-by-numbers production. "What's The Buzz" is a little limp vocally and the staging of "Everything's Alright" is also a little pedestrian.
"This Jesus Must Die" is when the show really steps up both staging-wise and vocally and it's from here that the show, more or less, moves along at a steady, energetic, pace. Throughout they pepper the staging with moments that prove that more than the usual thought, for the most part, has gone into the direction of this show; such as "Jesus" shouting at "Caiaphas" to "Get Out!" rather than the usual crowds within the "Temple" sequence is one: The resulting stare-off between the two is another and it's only until the "High Priest" reluctantly leaves that "Jesus" continues with his sombre reflections. Such choices in direction add a more psychological element to proceedings since, for example, they are able to make the audience question what "Caiaphas'" true motivations in wanting rid of "Jesus" are: "Jesus" evidently has a power over "Caiaphas" that the latter is unsettled by, whilst "Jesus" is more evidently angered by the authority figures here.
The staging of "Herod's Song" also varies from the more usual over-the-top camp of most and is here staged within what appears to be a Roman bath-house where "Herod" is less outrageous as outraged (despite his nipple-tassels) and his bath-robed dancers are clearly there under duress and thus take it out upon "Jesus" who is passed around them and subtly beaten by them by the occasional high-kick or the like.
One of their biggest success was in the "Crucifixion" sequence which was amongst the most drawn-out and disquieting (all in a good way) that I've witnessed. It's clear the score has been reworked here but it is to the benefit of the scene where nothing is rushed and the agony of "Jesus" is more than evident making the jesting of the soldiers a starker contrast than is usual. Here is the perfect combination of score, sound, design, lighting and acting and a most unsettling highlight.
Given the size of the set and the staging of some scenes it's a shame that there are not more members of the cast since in certain scenes the stage looks somewhat empty, especially during "The Temple" (where little really happens) and the "Trial By Pilate" sequence.
Carole Todd's choreography may not be the most innovative but it certainly varies from typical "Superstar" fare and is, at times, surprising, funny and energetic and adds a further energetic element to a generally powerful production.

And so to the cast:
Present in almost every scene, Tim Rogers' "Judas" is a vocally rough-edged Roger Daltry sound-a-like and he moves around with intention. Whilst he may not attempt some of the higher notes Rogers' is a satisfying performance and his "Judas' Death" is tragically unsettling and emotional.
As "Jesus" Glenn Carter, who played the role on Broadway and in the 2000 film version, establishes himself better than is evident in the film; here he is more subtle, even if he does fall back to playing the same pace and moves that featured in that film. Whether the directors left him to his own devices or felt them to be more appropriate is debatable but it would have been nice to see even more variety within the portrayal of "Jesus" since he is all too often walking around in a ponderous, intentional way. Never is this "Jesus" as carefree as he really could be at times. That said, whilst Carter may not be a favourite "Jesus" of mine he did impress me more than I expected and his vocals were, despite his thin sound, stronger than as evidenced in his film portrayal. Indeed, Carter was stirring in the "Gethsemane" scene (far subtler than his film performance), which closes the first act, and sublime and tortured in the "Crucifixion" and he makes for a physically impressive figure.
Rachel Adedeji was rather a disappointment as "Mary" since she was rather one dimensional in her portrayal. Given to simply moving from one place to the next with little intention even her vocals were a bit of a let down. Only in a few moments in "I Don't Know How To Love Him" and "Could We Start Again, Please" did she really shine, and these when she allow her voice to let rip. For the most part her vocal performance is high, breathy and stunted which serves no purpose in such an important role. Indeed I've never found falsetto singing to be satisfying for the role of "Mary" and it's only when this is abandoned by Adedeji that she shows an inkling of what she could have done with the part.
Tom Gilling's "Herod" was a more thorough interpretation than most, yet still humorous. He gleaned a subtle psychopathic streak from his few minutes in the role which contrasted against the more obvious fun aspect of the song and this is another welcome variation from the norm that this production is blessed with.
The "Apostles" and the "Apostles' Women" are all blessed with good voices (indeed all the males are named in this production) and they create a rather attractive and youthful group, injecting each performance with zest. Edward Handoll's Peter has a lovely voice and becomes suitably pained following his betrayal whilst Kristofer Harding's "Simon Zealotes" number is another highlight and full of verve from all involved including Harding whose vocals are amongst the strongest of the entire company. I was also a bit surprised to find that "Maid By The Fire" has been re-christened "Maid By The River" in this production especially as there is no river present. True, there is also no fire present (at least at that particular moment) so the change of title is a rather pointless one.
I wish I could say that Rhydian Roberts' "Pilate" was also another strong element but sadly he was "indisposed" (once again) and so I witnessed his more than adequate understudy, Johnathan Tweedie, who lent the role an air of dignity with a strong voice to match. During the "Trial" he became suitably more and more unravelled until his final outburst.
The "Priests" led by the "Annas" of Alistair Lee were of powerful, threatening voice whilst Cavin Cornwall's "Caiaphas" was the true star of the show for me. Cornwall's deep vocals were powerful and rich and equally matched by his deliberate, controlled movements. His lithe, tall figure gave the part an added sense of menace and his subtle touches upon "Judas" in "Blood Money" were disturbing: One almost felt that that simple touch upon the head of a kneeling "Judas" from a towering "Caiaphas" was an echo of the thought that, to put it crudely, "Judas" was now "Caiaphas'" bitch. Cornwall's performance was one of controlled power and, together with his strong vocals, created a character vastly different to his portrayal of "Peter" in the 2000 film of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and probably the best "Caiaphas" I've seen.

A surprisingly strong production for the most part and one that surpassed all my expectations. The stronger elements certainly outshine the weaker and make the whole far stronger than most productions of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in recent times. It is an infinitely better production than the muddled Arena tour of only a few years ago.

I thought I'd also mention the lovely coda/curtain call at the end of the show: Following the emotional events of "John 19:41" the orchestra begins a sombre version of "Hosanna" and the cast slowly re-emerge onstage before the "Superstar" refrain rings out triumphantly and the bows start proper. Given that the audience seemed reluctant to commence the typical clapping following the end of the show (no doubt caused by the fact that many an audience member is rendered somewhat stunned by the end) this gentle, yet sad, musical piece is very appropriate to slowly reintroduce an energy appropriate to a curtain call since the suddenness of moving from "John 19:41" to sprightly bows is often a jarring one.

Monday, 9 February 2015

"To Kill A Mockingbird", Glasgow King's Theatre, 3/2/15

The following review was written for Backstage Pass.

     This tour of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" is timely given that it was just announced that a 'sequel' will be published later this year. It is a mark of the power that this tale holds that this announcement has been met with great excitement and this adaptation is evidence that such a reaction is justified.
Dealing with the issues of racial prejudice and justice as seen through the eyes of both children and adults the play is a striking reminder of the flaws inherent in humanity and how the innocence of children is destroyed by adults who should know better. It is this innocence that permeates throughout the production elevating the play into something magical; by seeing most of the events through the eyes of a child they are imbued with an aspect of neutrality whereby we, the audience, are open to accept truth as it presents itself - appropriate given the plot centres around the 1935 trial in the South of an African American man for the alleged rape of a white woman, and the racial tension generated by the fact that he is defended by a white man, "Atticus Finch", the narrator's father and stalwart upholder of what is right and correct.
     Christopher Sergel's adaptation is full of engaging and kinetic language that thrives in a staging by director Timothy Sheader that is pretty much perfect: Sheader utilises the stage in a semi-abstract form whilst retaining the realism of the drama. His juxtaposition of stillness and movement is excellently utilised and creates a strength and energy that both supports and reinforces the text. With Act I establishing the bitter feelings towards "Atticus", as discovered by the children, Sheader fills the stage with movement and energy creating a sense of the discovery that one tends to experience as a child. Act II is more still with attention focused on the trial and on those who take the stand against both defendant "Tom Robinson" (a subtle Zachary Momoh) as well as "Atticus". But even in this adult arena the children are present and their reactions to the inevitable outcome are powerful.
It is to Sheader's credit that he reinforces the story's origins in that the play is broken up by cast members reading 'extracts' from copies of the novel, out of character, and having them 'reading along' when not physically taking part in the onstage action; the story they read is thus flowing out of their imaginations and forming into a gripping physical manifestation before our very eyes. Sheader also has the audience addressed as the trial's jury further involving them in this communal event, forcing them out of being an observer and to become a participant, to become emotionally involved.
Phil King's music, performed by Luke Potter, is an elegant, evocative compliment to a surprisingly moving production that is at once powerful and tender and the scenic design by Jon Bausor is also an excellent augmentation to Sheader's assured vision.
     "To Kill A Mockingbird" is blessed with a company that creates theatre so complete that it allows each performer to excel in his or her roles (most play more than one character) - whatever they may be - and as "Atticus Finch", Daniel Betts is replete with a nobility and restraint even in the face of the flawed reality of the justice that he serves, accepting the wrong-doings around him with a grace that highlights the errors of others. As his daughter, "Scout" - the story's narrator, Ava Potter is enchanting and enthralling, easily capturing one's attention whilst allowing the audience to empathise with her and the situations she encounters: It is her innocence and viewpoint that is so engaging. The other children, Arthur Franks as "Jem" and Connor Brundish as "Dill", are equally as impressive and all three present an honesty that speaks volumes amongst the mistruths presented by bigoted adults.
But despite the power of fear and hate inherent within most characters, the play - like the book - reasserts the notion that good will out despite all odds, that views can be changed - albeit at a slow pace, one person at a time.
     It is no fluke that Harper Lee's tale is still revered and this excellent production is proof positive of the importance of great storytelling which is amongst the most human of creations.