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.