Review – Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2nd June 2019

Orpheus DescendingIf Tennessee Williams knew one thing, it was how to write for, and about, women. His plays always (as far as I can make out) feature a few vulnerable, essentially noble, world-weary, mentally tortured women affected by one lone humdinger of a rough-and-ready sexual male. Think the triangle of Blanche, Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chance and Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth. There will be others, I’m sure.

Hattie MorahanOrpheus Descending, which was first produced in 1957, after Cat and before Bird, also follows this structure. Lady runs a dry-goods store whilst her ailing husband complains upstairs, when into her life drifts the itinerant musician and ne’er-do-well Valentine Xavier (you couldn’t create a more exotic stage name if you tried). Val has already had knowledge of local harlot Carol, and is also caught playing up to Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife – never a wise move. Nevertheless, (or, maybe, as a result,) Lady invites Xavier to move into a storeroom downstairs in the shop, ostensibly as a clerk and to save on hotel bills, but, in reality, to be engaged on additional duties.

Seth Numrich and castBriefly Lady enjoys a new lease of life. But guys like Valentine never stay in one place too long, and, encouraged to leave town by the sheriff, he makes plans to save his bacon. However, someone else takes matters into their own hands in a surprisingly catastrophic ending, that represents an irrepressible surge of the emotions that have been bubbling under the surface. Whilst it might not be clean and classic, it’s certainly effective; and if you don’t know what happens, I’m not going to spoil it for you!

Seth Numrich and Ian PorterAs the title suggests, the play is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, although I don’t know enough of the Classical story to identify quite where the crossovers lie. I know that Orpheus visited the underworld, so I guess that’s the descent that’s alluded to in the title. Trouble is, if Val represents Orpheus, he never quite gets around to leading Eurydice (Lady, I presume) out of the underworld. Or maybe that’s the point? I’m not going to dwell on it, I’ll leave that to others more intelligent than me.

CastDesigner Jonathan Fensom has very sensibly created a Spartan set, with only a few tables and chairs, a magnificent old till (either beautifully recreated by a workshop somewhere or well sourced by the props department), with the back of the stage enclosed by a decrepit wooden-slatted back screen. This design approach, which allows our imaginations to run riot, is perfect for this kind of play; one that has a large cast of characters and could otherwise get bogged down in trying to present a realistic setting.

Hattie Morahan, Seth Numrich, Jemima RooperHattie Morahan gives a great performance as Lady; she’s that rare combination of strong and fragile, assertive and vulnerable. Although Lady may be in charge of her business, she’s not really in charge of her life, and Ms Morahan’s portrayal deftly reveals that conflict. She is matched by a very good performance by Seth Numrich as Valentine; a tad clean-cut to be loafing on the road perhaps, but then, appearances can be deceptive. Because he comes across as an essentially decent type, when his transgressions are variously revealed it makes them all the more shocking.

Ian Porter and Carol RoyleJemima Rooper is brilliant as the louche and couldn’t-give-a-damn-about-it Carol, face painted with artless excess, someone who’s used whatever it took in order to survive. Carol Royle is also excellent as the slightly deranged Vee, desperate to peek out from under the thumb of her controlling husband, and a lone figure of creativity in an otherwise repressed environment. And there’s a great partnering of Catrin Aaron as Beulah and Laura Jane Matthewson as Dolly, the gossipy locals who love to sniff out any scandal.

Valentine Hanson and Jemima RooperIn a nicely Brechtian touch, the role of Uncle Pleasant, played by Valentine Hanson, is enhanced so that he recites Williams’ stage directions as an introduction and towards the climax of the piece. Mr Hanson hangs around portentously, on and off during the performance, creating an ominous reminder that there is a world outside. Williams often has a minor, but authoritarian male figure who calls the shots – or at least tries to; here given a strong performance by Ian Porter as Sheriff Talbott. But the whole cast do a great job in bringing this slice of southern melodrama to life.

Jemima Rooper and CastThis is definitely one of Tennessee Williams’ Championship-level plays rather than one of his Premiership big-hitters, but nevertheless this excellent production gives us a good chance to see one of his works that isn’t performed that frequently. Powerful and riveting performances win the day! It’s on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Wizard of Oz, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Wizard of OzIt has become our habit over a number of years now to go up to Sheffield for the first weekend of January to enjoy whatever is their Christmas show and also the Lyceum panto all on the same day. Tradition also has it that we are accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco as their main Christmas pressy from us. However, in a break from tradition, shock horror, this year we switched the panto from matinee to evening, so we started off by seeing Robert Hastie’s new production of The Wizard of Oz.

DorothyA few confessions; when I read that this was to be their Christmas show I wasn’t entirely filled with enthusiasm. There’s something about the whole Wizard of Oz concept that doesn’t really appeal. Maybe because it is such a hardy perennial I feel that it’s an unadventurous option? I’m not sure. Another confession; I’ve never really seen the film. Of course, I’ve seen clips, and I know what the Cowardly Lion is all about, and I’ve seen Judy Garland follow the yellow brick road. And I know why people want to see the wizard – because, because, because, because…..because. Nevertheless, it’s always fascinating to see the full show of something you’ve only ever caught extracts from before. It’s like being familiar with old show tunes but never knowing their context within their original musical show, which is something I love exploring – it’s great for stopping gaps in your general knowledge.

FarmhandsYou, of course, gentle reader, are totally au fait with the story of the Wizard of Oz, so there’s probably not much I can tell you about it. Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her “only friend in the world”, Toto the dog (not entirely true; she gets on fine with the farmhands, Hickory, Zeke and Hunk, but that’s by the by). Horrid neighbour Miss Gulch accuses Toto of having bitten her (and if you were Toto, so would you) and she has a lawsuit for the dog to be taken away and dealt with – that’s one helluva euphemism. But Dorothy’s not going to take that lying down. After a futile attempt at escape she hides in the farmhouse where a massive storm tornado destroys the building and Dorothy wakes up in the land of Oz. As you do. In Oz, the farmhands have become the tin man, the scarecrow and the cowardly lion; Aunt Em is Glinda the Good Witch of the North; and Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West. Good of course triumphs, the Wizard is curiously revealed as something of a fraud, Dorothy manages to get back to Kansas and we all live happily ever after. Well maybe not Miss Gulch.

OzDespite my initial lack of enthusiasm, within about three minutes of the show starting I absolutely loved it and that feeling of wonderment didn’t let up all the way through, even with a couple of minor reservations. Having read a synopsis of the film I believe this is a very fair and faithful representation of that MGM masterpiece; so if the story isn’t perfect then I guess the film isn’t either. On reflection, it’s quite a slight tale, and a disproportionately long part of it is taken up with Dorothy meeting her three companions along the yellow brick road, and for me that did sag a little. Trouble is, that’s probably also the most famous part of the film so it wouldn’t be right to make a few cuts here and there along that particular journey to the Emerald City. There’s also a song number – The Jitterbug – that I believe was dropped from the film but has been reinstated in later stage versions. Whilst the staging of it was exquisite – more of which shortly – the song itself was one of those rather self-seeking stagey shindigs performed for its own benefit and not really furthering the story along. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have minded not seeing it.

Off to see the wizardHowever, that staging… hats off to Janet Bird for her design because it’s superb in its simplicity and effectiveness. I won’t give a detailed description of it because the transformation from Kansas to Oz is one of the show’s best surprises. Suffice to say, in a world of special effects and CGI it’s a delight to see something that is basically very straightforward and almost old-fashioned work to such a tremendous effect. She must have also had a plenty of fun creating all those different types of costumes; the farmy, Midwest domestic clothes, the outrageous witches, the scarecrow, tinman and lion, and of course the Munchkins, who all looked adorable – which is what Munchkins are meant to do, or so I understand. Richard Howell’s lighting also plays a significant and inventive role in creating with world of Oz – especially with its delineation of the Yellow Brick Road, and also in the almost disco-style ultra violet light of the Jitterbug scene. And Toby Higgins’ backstage band of ten musicians thwack out these well-known tunes with razor-sharp vitality and beautiful arrangements.

Cowardly Lion and palsAt the heart of the show is Dorothy; it’s a very big role and she’s rarely out of the action. Gabrielle Brooks impresses right from the start with her wide-eyed innocence and firm sense of justice and kindness. She has a wonderful singing voice and reduced Lord Prosecco to tears with her rendition of Over the Rainbow (oops, that’s me in trouble). I’m sure Ms Brooks can no longer be classified a “kid” but she really conveys a moving illusion of childhood in her performance. I already knew that Sophia Nomvete was a great performer, having had her move me to tears in The Color Purple, and once again she gives a beautiful, gutsy, funny performance as Aunt Em and Glinda. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Jonathan Broadbent again as he had been so toe-curlingly hilarious The Norman Conquests last year in Chichester, and he was just perfect as the Cowardly Lion, a genuinely funny and touching performance. Andrew Langtree and Max Parker as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man also give very good performances as did Michael Matus in his roles, particularly as the Oz Gatekeeper, a maniacal Rottweiler if ever there was one. Catrin Aaron is a terrific baddie as both Miss Gulch and the witch, and Ryan Ellsworth a rather mysterious Professor Marvel, and suitably understated Wizard. I’m not sure whether we saw the Yellow Brick Road Team or the Emerald City Team of munchkins, but they were great, throwing themselves into their song with true relish. And the adult ensemble too were excellent with their enthusiasm, their musicality and conveying the sheer joy of this very positive show.

GlindaBut for true grit and determination, and a performance like few others I’ve seen, Rhiannon Wallace, the puppeteer who performed Toto in Oz absolutely stole the show. Oz Toto is a scruffy urchin in comparison with Kansas Toto, who struck me as being rather superior. Ms Wallace’s facial expressions constantly changing to portray the dog’s emotions was such an effective method of fully creating this character who, after all, is very central to the plot. Ms Wallace must be a contortionist to bend down constantly and get herself into all the little nooks and crannies that Toto finds home. A memorable performance!

Wicked WitchThe Wizard of Oz has been new Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s first Christmas show at the Crucible and, on this form, the tremendous standard set by Daniel Evans in the past looks very likely to continue. Demand has meant that the production is extending by a week, so you have just over a week to try to get to see it – and it’s really worth your effort. Congratulations all round for a great show!

Production photos by Johan Persson