Cyrano ~ New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-u-Lyme & Watford Palace Theatre ~ 25.02.2017 & 11.03.2017

Two visits to this beauty of a show – and I’ll be back home in Manchester the week the production visits the Lowry, so I would imagine I will drop in on this again.

Clearly I enjoyed the show, to see it twice, so I won’t hold out for suspense here and I’ll be upfront about it – if this show is coming to a town near you, go and see it. For me, it is the best all-round I’ve seen in a long while. I’ve been fortunate to see plenty of very good shows but this one has a great combination of everything I love.

Set in the 1640s for the most part, the poetic verse gives a Shakespearean feel to a play which was written two and a half centuries later, the baroque-style musical interludes throughout keep pace and add to the atmosphere, the humour of the central character accounting for several laughs in his witty ripostes. Not to mention some swashbuckling swordfighting scenes and physical comedy sequences which have the audience captivated.

The role of Cyrano is portrayed exquisitely by Christian Edwards – no stranger to anyone who  has read this blog over the past couple of years. I have enjoyed seeing him in a number of roles and he has never disappointed. This one, perhaps, has been his most profound performance. Cyrano Hercule Savinien de Bergerac as a character is the right combination of wit, humour and tragedy – and the play follows that lead superbly, with what is essentially a tragedy intertwined with a sweet romantic narrative and punctuated with genuinely uproariously funny moments.

My disclaimer at this point is to mention that romantic storylines usually bore me to tears – but consider this production a rom-com (of sorts) where the com actually features!

Edwards is ably supported by an incredibly versatile and talented cast, with many of the group playing instruments at various points. More a play with music, rather than musical theatre, the songs are used sparingly but to great effect in showcasing the verbal dexterity of the noble Cyrano – indeed we are treated to a pacy number shortly after first meeting him in the Theatre, where he outwits and out-fences a stooge for the cunning Count de Guiche whilst delivering a series of verses in rhyming couplets. Stylish.

A good mix all round, with Francesca Mills delivering some fine physical comic routines, Jessica Dyas with an understated but brilliantly funny turn in a number of ensemble roles, and Adam Barlow and Robert Wade combined beautifully to sing a nostalgic song, which was wonderful.

Notable mention also goes to Michael Hugo as the drunk poet Ligniere, who provides an entertaining narrative voice throughout. His interactions with the audience were a delight as much as his raucous drinking song which served as the show opener.

The show – adapted by Deb McAndrew and directed by her husband Conrad Nelson – is produced by Northern Broadsides – see their website for details of the remainder of the tour.

 

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F*cking Men ~ The Vaults Theatre ~ 29.11.2016

You might be forgiven for thinking at first glance that this re-imagining of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde as a series of scenes portraying 21st Century gay relationships is playing on and reinforcing some of the harmful stereotypes which still persist around homosexuality. That’s certainly some of the noise I had heard prior to seeing the show, but entirely unfounded when you watch the piece as a whole.

If you take any scene out of context, yes, you might get that impression. But the show exists as a series of short scenes between various couples, each scene connected to the previous one, in a way that becomes obvious fairly early on.

So what you see in this fast-paced show is ten singular scenes which are fairly straightforward and two-dimensional, but when the the scene regenerates into the next skit, the overlapping character becomes instantly more developed as we see the dynamics change. Every scene drops a reveal which recasts the previous scene in a different light. Not necessarily tipping it on its head, but giving enough to understand more about the motives of the characters in the previous scene.

Of course, the title and the nudity onstage will always give people a reason to cry out “controversial” – let’s remember that the original was considered scandalous upon publication, so no harm in following traditions there. But in reality the concept has been really well adapted and made relevant for a modern audience.

The cast of three –  Richard De Lisle, Harper James and Haydn Whiteside – effortlessly switch between roles throughout the show. It’s no mean feat to try and convey a depth of character in two scenes, but they handle that superbly across the scene changes.

It’s not a ground-breaking show – I think mainly because the central themes aren’t a shocking as 100 years ago – but it is a show which, across the series of skits, showcases a broad range of experiences, and delivers some witty barbs along the way. It’s an enjoyable and well put-together 90 min experience, and I look forward to seeing the next projects for this team.

 

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Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theatre ~ 10.05.2016 and 17.05.2016

 

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A cast of five recreate the key plot points from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 60 minutes – what could possibly go wrong? Oh, did I mention, one of the cast members is drunk? Yeah – that’s what could possibly go wrong.

After hearing great things about this show for years, I finally got the chance to see it live – and it was worth the wait! So much so, as soon as the show finished I booked myself in for a second visit.

With the character list reduced to the two couples – Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander – and Puck, we had time aplenty to see what damage drunk Hermia (and latterly – drunk Lysander) could do to proceedings. It seems plenty!

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Whilst I know the overall plotline, I’m not overly familiar with the in-depth dialogue of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as it turns out, this isn’t a problem! The show’s plot is clearly signposted by Puck, and by keeping to the core characters, it keeps the storyline here very simple and easy to follow, unlike the slurred speech of our dear Hermia, who, at times, seemed to forget she was even onstage.

A more cynical audience member might suggest this was simply acting, but if it was, it was acting of the highest order, as the other cast members struggled to restrain their giggles at times, and the erractic delivery of Shakespearean speech came across genuinely as someone who knew the text but was struggling to recall large segments due to the fogginess of an alcohol-riddled brain. It’s more likely the combination of being given free reign to improvise around the play, breaking the fourth wall, and the addition of alcohol to help loosen things up – but all the time it’s clear that these talented performers know the script inside out and are capable of still delivering key plot moments, and for the sober ones able to bend with such flexibility around the new portrayals of their drunken counterparts.

I enjoyed the performances by all the players across the two nights, but special mention has to go to our two drunks on their respective ‘drunk’ nights – Beth-Louise Priestly as Hermia and Saul Marron as Lysander. Despite the core cast being rotated, these two played the same roles on both occasions that I saw them perform, so it was fascinating to see the difference in their scenes – and to see the once-slightly-smug Saul having the tables turned when Beth-Louise was no longer the drunk one. All in good humour, of course, and it simply reiterates the point that this company are a tight-knit bunch with strong improvisation skills.

John Mitton was the third performer to play the same part both nights – as Demetrius. I think I’d really enjoy seeing him play the part drunk too, as he had a great energy about him. Interestingly he also played the part differently when dealing with his two drunken colleagues. Undoubtedly this would be related to the types of scenes they shared – as Demetrius’ scenes with Hermia were of a distinctly flirtacious nature, and his encounters with Lysander more aggressive, but still John’s interactions with both as they strayed from the scripted dialogue was different, a more soft and gentle guiding of Hermia, and a more playful encouraging of banana-throwing with Lysander (at one point the duel is reduced to one man with a sword and another with an inflatable crocodile, so this gives you an idea as to the barriers to serious Shakespearean acting he faced).

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea – often improvised performances can be divisive among audiences – but for those who enjoy seeing formats being played around with, and exploring different ways of portraying theatre in a fun way, this show is a great one to have a look at. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but the folks behind it are seriously good.

Sh!t-faced Shakespeare presenting Midsummer Night’s Dream is running at the Leicester Square Theatre until mid-June, before the team head over to the Udderbelly for a few dates in June and July performing The Merchant of Venice.

Edit 05.06.2016 – there is an extended run of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Leicester Square Theatre, now running on selected dates up until 27th August – this will run in rep with their Udderbelly dates.

 

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Animal Farm ~ Courtyard Theatre ~ 08.03.2016

It’s been a long time since I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the principles have remained with me over the years. Orwell’s talent for relating complex ideas in such a simple manner really shines in this book more than any of his other works, and in the Tree Folk Theatre’s production, I found the perfect staging for the story.

The production is kept fairly minimal in terms of set and costuming, with the scenery just giving a hint of the animals and their environment. It feels very classical in terms of staging – the bulk of the work in portraying the animals comes from the actor’s themselves, whose physicality throughout the show was simply rather splendid and wholly believable. Simple mask-like props are then added to great effect to complete the ‘transformation’ onstage of each and every creature. For the key moments, larger puppetry set-pieces helped convey the drama, with three or four people joining to represent the whole animal – as witnessed by Boxer’s fall.

By producing the piece as an acted-out narration, the show kept the feel of the storytelling ever present. It is perhaps the most effective way to deliver Orwell’s work when there is so much commentary in the book which serves as opposition to the dialogue within. The cast expertly switch between their animal roles and crucial points of narration with such ease, making it always clear as to their current characterisation. The narration being split among the cast kept the story flowing smoothly too.

The pacing of the show throughout is pitched just right by director William Vercelli. The first act comprising the rebellion and the setting up of Animal Farm has a gentle side to it, a little more humour, contrasting to the tense thrilling sequence of events in the second half.

The entire cast deserve commendation for their work in producing such a captivating piece of theatre, and for an ensemble so young, I’m sure they will all go on to achieve so much more. Special mention ought to go to Tom Manning – whose portrayal of Napoleon was just the right level of menacing for the part – and his sidekick Squealer, played to great effect by Mitch Howell. His characterisation was superb and kept the pace of the production continuing forward, especially in the second Act when he really came into his own. Additionally, Bethany Blake and Jerome Millington-Johnson as the two carthorses Clover and Boxer- with Boxer’s fierce loyalty and dedication, and Clover’s caring nature – provide the heart of the piece.

Animal Farm is running until 13th March at the Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton. Do catch this show if you can. See here for tickets.

 

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The Winter’s Tale ~ Live Screening at Empire Cinema, Leicester Square ~ 26.11.2015

With such an accomplished cast as Kenneth Branagh has managed to secure for the first part of his year long season at the Garrick, it’s not difficult to see how tickets for the entire run sold out so far in advance.

That’s where the joy of the live cinema screenings come in, and how grateful I have been for their existence. I know many are not in favour and I completely understand concerns of not wanting to take people away from attending the live events – but I feel that schemes like NT Live and KBTC Live have been managed correctly and are respectful enough to the shows they are broadcasting to not announce these broadcasts until tickets have been on sale for quite some time. I think it’s a great way to provide geographically and financially convenient access to people to great theatre – but perhaps that debate is for a different day.

Despite the fantastic opportunity that live screenings afford, it’s tough to feel as connected to the show as you would being sat in the same room. However, with as stellar a cast – including Dame Judi Dench, Hadley Fraser, Miranda Raison and Tom Bateman – as Kenneth Branagh has assembled, and some beautiful staging, who could not fail to fall in love with this production, even through the camera lens?

I saw most of this cast in the same venue a few weeks ago, where they are performing Harlequinade in rep with The Winter’s Tale. This was as beautiful and moving as that show was funny. I wasn’t overly familiar with The Winter’s Tale prior to watching the production, with the exception of the infamous “Exit, pursued by bear” line perhaps, but is a rather bittersweet tragedy indeed – King Leontes’ descent into a jealous madness contrasts beautifully with the lightness of the budding romance between Florizel and Perdita, the inspirational and stoic bravery of Hermione in the face of false accusations against the deep sadness her death brings upon the court.

Branagh’s Leontes is equally matched by Hadley’s Fraser’s Polixenes, whose own journey within the play threatens to mirror that of his once-friend-now-enemy Leontes, when his rage surfaces at his son’s romantic pursuits of a girl of ignoble birth, Perdita. Instead of ordering the death of his son, as Leontes did of his beloved wife, Polixenes forces the couple to flee for safety – and in true Shakespearean style, it all neatly tidies up with the couple arriving at Leontes’ court, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. You’ve gotta love Bill, right? Anything for a neat and tidy ending. Speaking of which, this denouement wasn’t one of my favourites. It’s a play which has so much to offer and is so enjoyable, but could be vastly improved by the removal of the final 10 minutes or so. If you’ve never seen this play before, I shan’t spoil it for you, but in terms of utilising plot devices to surprise an audience, he does it much better in other works. Having said that, Miranda Raison was simply sublime as long-suffering Hermione and entirely faultless with regards to my dislike of the final scenes.

Of course a real star of the show was the inimitable Dame Judi Dench. The wisdom and calm her portrayal of Paulina brought to the cursed King shone throughout, and it is Paulina who becomes the heart of the piece during this troubled time. The Branagh-Dench partnership being a major draw to this production for many certainly paid off, with two phenomenally strong performances. And ably assisted by a very talented cast, who were so aptly suited to their roles – a very special mention for John Dagleish’s Autolycus, who was a wonderful mix of charm, wit and cunning, the perfect combination for a conman, I would have thought.

It’s a timeless piece, and the production understands this – indeed I tried to gauge at what era this particular production may have been set. The Christmas scenes at the start felt very much early 20th Century, with the Christmas tree set up and grainy video footage projected onto a sheet. But in the lazy summer in Bohemia, time is harder to place and could be anywhere from mid 1800s to perhaps 1930s. But none of it felt out of sync with the Shakespearean language and the ideas he put forward.

It is a play which doesn’t know what it wants to be – and perhaps it becomes a more honest and holistic snapshot of humanity because of it – but it makes it hard to categorise. The idealist start followed by sharp descent into a fit of jealousy very reminiscent of Othello, the romantic nature of Florizel and Perdita – children of warring families (although not aware of this) could be likened to Romeo and Juliet, the mystical elements also present in a number of Shakespearean plays. Shakespeare’s search for the happy ending sadly somewhat discredits the drama and intrigue the first half of the play gives us – but certainly this is a criticism of the original text and not the performances.

As I mentioned earlier, the run is sold out, but no doubt there will be encore screenings of the live broadcast over the coming months, so keep an eye out for news on the KBTC Live website.

 

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As You Like It ~ National Theatre ~ 31.10.15

I’m not entirely sure I was prepared for this show before seeing it.

I confess, I hadn’t actually read this play or even a synopsis prior to purchasing my programme on my way into the theatre. But in addition to that, I wasn’t prepared for it being a modern setting, or even that the cast would be onstage as the audience entered the theatre.

So I walked through the doors to be greeted with a bright and quietly bustling office scene, with workers at desks, making notes, typing things, walking over to the shredder, having quiet discussions with colleagues. It made for an odd fifteen minutes as people were finding seats, but made for an effective start to the show when the bell rang and the workers scattered off home.

As You Like It tells the story of Rosalind, the daughter of a banished Duke, who is then banished by the same person who exiled her father – but not before meeting a young lad Orlando, himself the son of nobility and brother to the rather selfish heir to their father’s fortunes. In his quest to seek a better life for himself, he manages to rile the wrong people and is forced to flee for safety. In true Shakespearean style, these coincidences begin to add up and they stumble across each other in the forest, only with Rosalind in male disguise, Orlando does not recognise her but speaks poetically about his lost love. Rosalind, as her assumed identity of Ganymede, then decides to test Orlando’s love for her each day by offering to “cure” Orlando of his affliction.

It’s not overly hard to see where this goes, but the journey is very enjoyable nonetheless. There are some great comic moments in the play, mainly through Rosalind’s straight-talking and through Jacques the melancholic’s bleak take on life.

With an outstanding performance by Rosalie Craig, as Rosalind/Ganymede, it is hard not to absolutely adore the character she plays. It might just be my favourite female part in Shakespeare that I have seen performed, and whilst that will be down in some part to Shakespeare’s witty writing and well-rounded characterisation in Rosalind, it is Craig’s performance that really brings life to the character. So understated but entirely believable and perfectly delivered.

The production features one of the most visually stunning set changes mid-way through – no spoilers here, but the transformation from the office dwellings of the city to the Forest of Arden is something that has to be seen to be believed. It is fairly impressive that with such a modern setting the Shakespearean dialogue does not feel out of place, but more impressive is how natural an atmosphere is created within the forest of suspended fixtures and fittings – here, the ensemble can be found lurking amongst the tangled mess mimicking all aspects of nature to great effect.

In addition to Rosalie’s outstanding performance, notable mention goes to Paul Chahidi as Jacques and Patsy Ferran as Rosalind’s sidekick, Celia. The strong chemistry between the two women are the core strength of the production and help show the audience the inner machinations of Rosalind’s mind.

As You Like It is showing until the end of February, with a live screening across the UK on 25th February. I strongly urge you to go and see this wonderful cast – sit back, be transported to the faraway Arden, and listen to the dulcet tones of Fra Fee as he sings his a capella folk songs to the forest.

 

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Harlequinade / All On Her Own ~ Garrick Theatre ~ 27.10.15

Once again, I’ll show gratitude to the Today Tix app for these tickets, which I won on their daily ticket lottery. I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the day, with a fantastic double-bill from playright Terence Rattigan delivered by the very capable Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company over at the Garrick – they have a season of plays with some fantastic casting so do take a look.

This particular double-bill is presented in one act, which makes for an interesting contrast in pace and really unites the faces of comedy and tragedy in theatre. The first piece, All On Her Own is a one-woman monologue by the wonderful Zoë Wanamaker. A widow sits alone at home at a late hour, talking to her deceased husband. A masterful performance by Wanamaker as her grief takes hold, raking over details of his death, drawing conclusions which she may or may not truly think. The piece is short but incredibly insightful as to the nature of grief, the things you do to try and remember people, the silly things you forget which become important in those moments.

Then comes a gear change as the rest of the cast join Wanamaker for Harlequinade – a farcical behind the scenes view of a theatre troupe struggling to bring culture to post-war Britain. Kenneth Branagh and Miranda Raison star as a perhaps-too-old Romeo and Juliet, a fact leaned on for comedic effect throughout in this mis-matched company as Branagh attempts to leap youthfully around the set with varying degrees of success. Zoe Wanamaker delights as a theatrical old soak, throwing out cutting remarks and throwing back the wine as the chaos develops around her. Backstage tantrums, secret children, evading the law and dealing with not being a young, spritely 17 year old anymore are just some of the issues that the ever-stressed Stage Manager Tom Bateman has to deal with. Bateman plays this role to perfection, his character slowly spinning out of control as events unfold around him that he is helpless to prevent.

Perhaps an extra layer of comedy lies in the fact that Harlequinade fondly sends up a troupe who are attempting to put on performances of Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale – the latter being a show which this company is performing in rep, alongside this double-bill.

Hadley Fraser’s cameo as a background artist getting his first break at a speaking role when a cast member walks out is simply sublime. From his shy and subtle waving to his mother in the audience, to endless worrying over how to deliver his one line, for so little stage time in this show, he delivers so much, and his song to bring the curtain down is the perfect end to a wonderfully diverse evening.

Harlequinade / All On Her Own is running in repertory with The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre until 13th January 2016.

 

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