Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theate ~ 26.05.2017

They’re back! And so am I!

After last year’s outings to see this fantastically fun company pay their own very special tribute to the Bard were so enjoyable, I booked myself in for a visit as soon as I was able for this season’s offering.

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2017 sees Magnificent Bastard Productions return with Much Ado About Nothing – it feels like a bit of a step up from Midsummer Night’s Dream in terms of condensing the speeches and plot, but the cast are more than up to the task.

The obstacle to tonight’s performance was an incredibly giggly Stacey Norris as Beatrice. What we lost in the biting wit of one of Shakespeare’s strongest female roles, we gained in laughs aplenty as an increasingly handsy Norris stomped about stage, drink in hand, bringing a more EastEnder approach to West End theatre with the odd slap around the face and exclamations of “Oh my God!”

The beauty of the concept of this show is not in the drunk actor themselves, although they do provide comedic moments of their own, undoubtedy, but the real joy is watching the rest of the cast having to work around and improvise dialogue, staging and choreography. Special mention here has to go to Saul Marron, a returning cast member, who expertly threw in rhyming couplets to keep at least the spirit of Shakespeare’s writing alive, if not the precise content.

Of the cast I have previously seen perform, Beth-Louise Priestly was a very sporting and patient Hero, as her beloved cousin repeatedly tried to undress her during her speeches. Completing this fabulously funny line up was Victoria Fitz-Gerald, Jack Bence and James Murfitt – the latter of whom received a fair bit of attention when our drunk heroine professed she was “trying him out” for her cousin, Hero.

I’m delighted to see that Louise Lee and John Mitton are part of the rotating cast, as I was lucky enough to see both during the run of shows I saw last year. As every show is different, I’m very much looking forward to dropping in on the team a few times over the summer.

The company are performing Much Ado About Nothing at the Leicester Square until 16th September – see here for details of which days they are performing. Additionally there will be a couple of appearances on 18th June and 12th July at the Underbelly Festival of Romeo and Juliet, in preparation for an Edinburgh run from 2nd-28th August as part of the Festival Fringe. See here for the London ticket info, and here for details of the Edinburgh Festival.

 

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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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Angel Comedy – Raw ~ The Camden Head, Angel ~ 13.11.2016

Blink, and you’re in danger of missing this little beauty of a venue up in Angel. The Camden Head (the one in Angel, not in Camden) sits just off the main road, down a little alley, which gives it a nice ‘hidden gem’ feel without being too much trouble to find, if your being honest.

I’ve heard great things about Angel Comedy – that the venue was a nice atmosphere and the selection of acts fairly decent. I’m not really one for being desperate to see only ‘big names’, but I do like my stand up nights to have a good mixed bill – regardless of how good a comedian is, you don’t want 5 or 6 acts in the same vein. Or I don’t, at least. Variety is important to me.

So, this particular night being advertised as a new act/new material night, I knew we were in for a mixed bag in every sense. I knew there’d be a range of experience and development – by that I mean the experience of the comedian themselves and also the development of the material. This is maybe where I’ll get really boring because I absolutely love comedy and love the craft of it. And personally, I think the best way to appreciate comedy is to see it live – actually in the room. You absolutely can enjoy what you see on television or on a DVD, but accept that is very much a polished and edited version of what the comedy experience is in the most part. As long as you’re aware of that, you won’t suffer too much shock should you ever wander into a pub on a comedy night and decide to stick around.

It was a pretty full bill, 10 or possibly even 12 acts on, all introduced onstage by Barry Ferns – who was an amiable and very capable compere, keeping the audience warm between comics and keeping the energy levels high for what was a packed evening. It was clear from performance to performance that there were differing levels of experience in the room, but all comedians had the workings of some funny ideas. Some landed better than others – some routines just needed a bit of trimming, perhaps going on a beat too long and reducing the effect of the joke.

Of the comics I had never seen perform before, I particularly enjoyed the opening act, Alastair Beckett-King – nice stage presence and funny stories. His skit on historical figures whilst holding up their portraits was a display of creative history retelling not seen since Andy Zaltzman’s last Bugle podcast.

Additionally I have to give a mention to Lost Voice Guy, the act who I primarily attended to see – he continues to deliver a cracking set when I’ve seen him. For those who are unaware, LVG is also known as Lee Ridley, a stand up comedian without a voice. Living with cerebral palsy, he communicates with an iPad text-to-speech program. I know he not-so-secretly revels in the mixed reactions in the audience when he steps onstage. But once the opening lines are delivered, the crowd are on board. Whilst you might think the computerised voice would hold him back, Lee uses it to great comic effect, with deliberate mispronunciations and even adjusting the voice on occasion to deliver the punchline.

I’d certainly recommend the venue – they have a tradition of supporting up and coming acts as well as attracting big names from the live circuit and TV who are running new material through – do take a look at their website for lineups at the Camden Head and at their sister venue, the Bill Murray pub, just a bit further down the road.

 

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Murder Ballad ~ Arts Theatre ~ 08.11.2016

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“Listen and I’ll tell a tale
A tale where good does not prevail
A King, a Queen, a Club, a Knave
One is destined for the grave…”

Those words delivered by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in the narrator role perfectly set the scene for what is to come as we delve into the murky lives of Michael, Sara and Tom. In-keeping with classic ‘Whodunit’ traditions, the audience are aware that onstage their is a killer and a murder will take place, the extra tension builds as nobody is aware who the victim (or victims) will be.

Murder Ballad is set in modern New York City, driven along by a pop-rock soundtrack that brings out the best in the cast’s vocals. As a show with only 4 characters, the fact that two of them are Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo shows the level of talent we are working with here. In fact it was the casting which drew me to this show and the two aforementioned performers were a joy to watch. As Sara and Tom they complete two thirds of the love triangle which reveals itself to be the catalyst for murder. They are joined by Norman Bowman, who puts in a great performance as family man and academic Michael – in stark contrast to Karimloo’s darker, dangerously possessive Tom.

The quartet is completed by someone previously unknown to me, but someone I am keen to see again – Victoria Hamilton-Barritt. Her role as the narrator moves the show along at moments where the intensity drops, and her vocal performance throughout was exquisite. It is her enigmatic presence throughout, standing in the shadows, chain-smoking through the scenes, which evokes classic noir in this modern setting.

It’s a one-act, 90 minute piece, which feels about right. It’s not a plot full of twists and turns – it saves the big reveal for the ending, but it is a fun show and well-performed by the cast and the onstage band. A particular highlight is the reprise of ‘You Belong To Me’ featuring all four performers – the harmonies when they all sing together are a joy to witness live. None of the recordings and promotional clips do that justice.

The show runs until December 3rd at the Arts Theatre, and it’s a bigger crime that it didn’t get a longer run. I’ve seen it twice during its short stay and it was an absolute pleasure both times. It deserves to be seen by more people, so I hope we see it return in the future.

 

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Sunny Afternoon ~ Harold Pinter Theatre ~ 04.10.2016

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I’ll admit to not really being a fan of jukebox musicals but that dislike is not really aimed at them, but more the fact that I don’t want theatre to fall into the trap of just commissioning nothing but shows which lean on high profile bands to sell tickets, at the expense of engaging new writers and encouraging creative talent to come forward with their own stories and sounds.

Having said that, of course there is space in theatre for all types, and I’m very much of the view that it doesn’t really matter where you fall in the spectrum of theatre, as long as you do what you do well, it’s a welcome addition to the fold. Also, I do love The Kinks so I was inclined to go along before it closed at the Harold Pinter Theatre, prior to its UK tour this winter.

It was everything I thought it would be – great music, great performances but a little thin on the plot side – but actually delivered more. Although I stand by my ‘thin plot’ pre-conception, the script was funnier than I anticipated it being, and it was nicely set out with the Swinging Sixties London background. More than that, the songs weren’t all just performed as standard by the band, some of the arrangements were very beautifully performed as stripped back numbers – particularly a mashup of Too Much On My Mind and Tired Of Waiting as a two-hander, but especially with a wonderful a capella rendition of Days, which comes along unexpectedly and hits home how good their music was.

I think the show does avoid the biggest pitfall of jukebox musicals. There is a plot there and there is some drama, and the songs don’t feel crowbarred in either – they sit rather nicely amongst the scenes. But it’s still a little on the light side and perhaps those not already invested in The Kinks might not get as much out of it as those who already know and love the band.

Sunny Afternoon is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until October 29th.

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Lost Voice Guy: Disability for Dunces ~ Royal Festival Hall ~ 07.09.2016

I first heard of Lee Ridley (AKA Lost Voice Guy) on Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe Podcast (or as all of the cool kids call it: RHEFP!) back in 2012 and although you may wonder at how a comedian who is unable to speak can deliver his set on an audio-only format, please don’t worry yourself as his wickedly funny routines translate absolutely fine via a text-to-speech program on his iPad.

In fact, in several cases extra humour is derived by Lee’s utilisation of the software – with pronunciation gags, play on tone and even the voice used – Lee slips into something a little more feminine when the mood takes.

Lost Voice Guy’s appearance at the Royal Festival Hall formed past of a week-long Unlimited festival at the South Bank, celebrating artistic expression by disabled artists and performers.

Disability for Dunces was a great show to include in a festival helping to normalise disability. Lee’s cutting routines and punchlines were delivered off the back of several ridiculous questions he is faced with on an almost daily basis. And he himself makes clear that on many occasions, people’s redundant questions or awkwardness are not borne of malice but purely of ignorance.

His razor-sharp wit shines through his performance, with some great observations, some self-deprecation, and then throws in some twists. You can see he enjoys an unsure audience reaction when he drops contradictory lines leaving the audience having to decide in the moment whether it is more wrong to laugh at a disabled man or to not laugh at a comedian. Delivered with a glint in his eye and a smirk though!

I have seen some people confused by the concept of having the comedian onstage not speak aloud his routine, but it’s not the case of just playing a recording of a gig. There’s far more to it than that – he still needs to read the room and respond. Lee’s selection of routines, live editing with occasional ad libs, reordering the jokes based on audience reactions, and the timing of the delivery are all skills used with spoken comedy and need to be replicated here also.

He performs all over the country so do take a peek at his website to see if he’s gigging near you – his latest set is definitely worth your time.

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