Review – Miss Saigon, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 8th July 2017

Miss SaigonYou might find it hard to believe, gentle reader, but we’ve never seen Miss Saigon before. How on earth could you possibly have missed it out, you might ask? I think it’s because we weren’t overly fussed on Les Miserables when we first saw it (how times have changed) and productions of Miss Saigon – which was written by the same creative team as Les Mis – have always been atrociously expensive; basically, we always thought we’d get more “bang for our buck” elsewhere. But the news of the new touring production, starting life just up the road at Leicester, was too much temptation. So, Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend Lady Lichfield, decided to take a punt on it.

Red ConcepcionAs you doubtless know, it’s a modern take on the old favourite, Madame Butterfly. GI Chris is out in Vietnam where he falls in love with Kim, a bargirl. They quickly get married but then are separated and he returns to the US without any knowledge of her whereabouts. But she never gives up hope. Three years later, word reaches John, Chris’s wartime colleague, (via The Engineer, the pimp who used to run the Saigon bar) that Kim is still alive – and that she has little three-year-old Tam. Trouble is, Chris has now married Ellen… I won’t tell you what happens next, but if you work it back from the story of Madame Butterfly, then you’ll realise it’s not going to have a happy ending.

Sooha KimMy first reaction was, how could I have let the last 28 years go by and not seen it? It’s not a perfect show by any means, but the story is so believable – this kind of love/separation/fatherless child syndrome must have been very common. This current production is simply magnificent and I was absolutely caught up in it from the start. Our interval Sauvignon Blanc was spent with my being surprised that my theatre companions weren’t enjoying it quite as much as me – not liking much of the music, finding it very samey; to be honest, I thought many of the lyrics erred on the trite side, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. But what a second act! It all becomes immense. After the gloopy Bui Doi scene, which made me think of Michael Jackson singing some kind of “we all love the world and all the children” song, the story gathers pace at a bewildering rate. Hope turns to tragedy, and The Engineer has a show-stopping sensational number which takes the American Dream, wrings every ounce of humanity out of it and renders it fabulously gross. And I genuinely don’t think there was a dry eye in the house at the end of the show – certainly not from any of us three.

Ashley GilmourIt was fascinating to note not only the plotline similarities with Madame Butterfly, but also the structural similarities with Les Mis. Huge scene big numbers like The Morning of the Dragon echo the barricades of Revolutionary Paris, with the stark death of Thuy providing a similar shock value as the death of Gavroche; the role of The Engineer has many parallels with Thenardier’s Master of the House; and both musicals end with a nod toward the future, although there’s a stark contrast between the nature of the deaths of Jean Valjean and Kim.

Ryan O'GormanI don’t think I’ve ever seen the huge stage of the Curve theatre used with such impact as with this show. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s amazing set intimidates and beguiles; it closes in for the very intimate scenes between Chris and Kim, and backs away to reveal a stage area big enough for twenty-four or more burly-clad lads representing a dancing, victorious, communist army. The musical staging is by A Chorus Line’s very own Bob Avian and you can absolutely see his stamp all over it. The lighting is dynamic and dramatic; the costumes are superb and the fifteen-member orchestra is on superb form. There are two stunning visual effects that take your breath away – the helicopter that takes Chris and the other US soldiers into the sky is so realistically represented you can almost feel the wind from its wings; and the disembodied figure of Thuy’s ghost that comes to Kim in a dream and slowly floats into the set, gains form and then walks down the stairs, is spine-tingling. Here you will find all the usual hallmarks of a superbly crafted, no expense spared, Cameron Mackintosh production.

Gerald SantosAt the heart of the show is the tragic Kim, played by Sooha Kim. She has an extraordinarily powerful voice and sings the role absolutely superbly. She has the ability to mess with your heartstrings and you really feel all the emotions she does – the initial disgust at working in “Dreamland”, the joy of her love for Chris, the devastation of realising he is married, the panic that makes her kill Thuy; they’re all stunning scenes and played with total conviction. Ashley Gilmour plays Chris as a GI a cut above the rest, emphasising the decency and honour of the character, which of course only makes his later plight all the more painful. He and Miss Kim have a great on-stage chemistry together and the intimacy of their love scenes is very convincing – and enchanting to watch. There’s also a stand-out scene where Chris and new wife Ellen are in bed together in Atlanta, singing a trio with Kim in the wastes of Ho Chi Minh City; emotionally gripping, musically stunning.

Rehearsal picture1Ryan O’Gorman is a great choice to play GI John, with a great natural authority that gives him absolute credibility in those wartime scenes, as well as the more respectable, mature John who fronts the (still toe-curling) Bui Doi conference in Atlanta, and stands alongside his friend in his hour of need as he comes to terms with finding out about Kim and Tam. Zoe Doano is excellent as Ellen, especially in that painful scene where she and Kim meet in the hotel room and she discovers that Chris has been economical with the truth; and there’s also a fine performance by Gerald Santos as Thuy, both as the wretched North Vietnamese soldier of peasant stock come to take Kim back, and as the clean-cut military commissar out to seek vengeance on those who crossed him. All the ensemble give great performances – I particularly liked the attitude of all those Dreamland girls, very nicely done; but everyone was terrific.

Rehearsal picture2But the show belongs to Red Concepcion as The Engineer – a dream of a role for the right performer and Mr C certainly is that. Manipulating everyone with whom he comes into contact in the hope that he might somehow obtain an American visa, he gleefully doesn’t care who suffers in the process. Deliciously slimy, sexually ambivalent, willing to degrade himself in any way in pursuit of the Yankee Dollar, his highlight comes with the American Dream number where the luscious fruit of his ambition grows disgustingly over-ripe with this mesmerically self-indulgent paean to riches. You’ve never seen a man love a car in the way he does. He’s completely gross and completely brilliant.

Rehearsal picture3Yes, some of the music might be a little generic-musical, and yes, in comparison with the stimulating and intense lyrics of Les Miserables, some of these lyrics are over-simplified and trite; but all this is nothing as to the emotional surge that the story, the setting and the performers provide. I absolutely loved it. This production is only just starting and it has a long national (and international!) tour that goes on till September 2018, visiting Birmingham, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol, Plymouth and Norwich. Get booking now, you won’t regret it.

Rehearsal picture4P. S. It’s great to see the Curve Café used by the cast both before and after the show. I was waiting for my two teas and a cappuccino and was aware that I was standing next to Mr Gilmour and Miss Kim. Mr Gilmour was obviously hungry: “feed me” he implored of the waiting staff; “feed me, Seymour, feed me now” replied Miss Kim, which is precisely the same thing Mrs Chrisparkle and I say when we’re starving. She went on to ask Mr Gilmour whether the plant in Little Shop of Horrors has a name. Neither of them could think of it. I had to stop myself from butting in with “it’s Audrey! Audrey II in fact, because the first Audrey dies early in the show” – because that would have meant I was listening in to their conversation, which of course would have been rude of me.

Rehearsal picture5P. P. S. After the matinee, a number of the ensemble came out and spread over one of the refectory tables, and had lots of well-deserved food and drink. A plucky family from the audience approached one of the cast and asked for selfies and had a chat and the cast member (I couldn’t quite see who it was) was extremely obliging and friendly. And then I saw something I’d never seen before. The lady from the happy family gave the cast member a £5 tip. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly….” started the ensemble lady, “oh yes, you must”, insisted the happy punter. Well, we do it in a restaurant, why not at the theatre?

Production rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Pick of the Fest, Leicester Comedy Festival, Curve Studio, Leicester, 10th February 2017

leicester-comedy-festival-logoI think we can all agree that festivals are fun. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? Whether it’s something massive like Edinburgh, or something tiny like the Northampton Flash Festival, the idea is that you go and see shows that may be quite short (so you can see lots in a day), financed on a shoestring, possibly for low ticket prices, at no frills venues. We’d only dipped our toe into the Leicester Comedy Festival once before, three years ago when we were amongst a lucky few to see Kevin Dewsbury’s final outing (no pun intended) of his one man show Out Now, in a back room at the Belmont Hotel. For me that was what “festival” was all about – intimate and informal, with “backstage” just as clearly visible as “stage”.

And I wonder if that’s why last Friday’s Pick of the Fest show at the Leicester Curve Studio didn’t quite work for me as a whole. We’ve seen several productions at the Studio and I’ve always really liked it as a venue – especially when we sit in the front row, because you really feel at the heart of the action. But for this show we were seated in row I (no idea why we were so far back because I’m sure I booked the tickets on the first day they became available), and the stage seemed an awfully long way away (even though it wasn’t), and that comedy club atmosphere just didn’t reach as far back as our row. Perhaps the staging was too formal, too theatre-y, and insufficiently festival-y. It just didn’t feel very relaxed.

carly-smallmanThis is one of those “compilation” shows when a number of performers come along and do some material as a promotion for their own shows on elsewhere at the festival. It’s a tried and tested formula which works well – especially with our favourite Edinburgh comedy ritual, Spank. Our host was the ebullient Carly Smallman, whom we have seen many times before and is always good value. She excels at getting to know the front few rows and poking kindly fun at their weird little ways – never cruel, unless it’s against herself, when she can indulge in devastating self-deprecation. Carly has two more shows in the festival coming up on the 17th February and the 26th February.

elf-lyons-2Our first act was someone completely new to us – Elf Lyons. She comes across as a posh girl obsessed with how she interacts with her even posher mother, who, I think we can all agree, sounds a bit of a nightmare. I enjoyed her act and she had lots of good material, although I confess I didn’t always catch all the punchlines – because I was sitting too far away, I expect. She gave us twenty minutes or so of neurotic insecurities and built up a nice rapport with the audience. Her show, Pelican, was on later that night, so if you missed it, you missed it. However, you can see what other shows she’s doing here.

paul-sinhaOur next act was an old favourite – and I hope he’ll forgive the use of the word “old”. It’s Paul Sinha, whom we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder shows before and he’s always a joy. I’d forgotten quite how dour and laconic his delivery can be; it’s almost as though the backstory to every line he says is “I know I’m a failure, but I’m surviving nonetheless”. He tells of the trials and tribulations of being a gay British Asian man who doesn’t bake, and how thrilled his parents were when he gave up his medical career to follow comedy. His material is both funny and telling in the way it challenges preconceptions and stereotypes. Of course, he has a lot to say about his appearances on TV’s The Chase; but I preferred his general observations of life, including discovering the best App to meet Asian men, and his alarming but hilarious account of being out on the loose in Barnsley. He’s a top class comic and he has a new work in progress show at the festival on Saturday 18th February.

Dane BaptisteIf Paul Sinha’s an old favourite, our next act, after the interval, was a new favourite – Dane Baptiste, whose Reasonable Doubts show we saw last year and really loved. I’m completely taken in by his slightly reserved, slightly authoritarian, slightly controlling style; the emphasis of his act is on quiet observation and making ridiculous contrasts, like when he is jealous of girls for having “gay best friends”, and wishes he could have a “lesbian best friend” as well. He, too, can make you challenge yourself on your preconceptions, and his humour also appeals to your own sense of intelligence – which it’s always nice to recognise. I can’t recall many of the ins and outs of his routine, I just let them wash over me. I’m sure he’s going to be a really big star one day. His Work in Progress show took place last Saturday, but he’s doing many more gigs over the next few weeks as you can see here.

Josh HowieOur final act is someone we’ve seen twice at Screaming Blue Murder clubs and both times I’m afraid I can’t pretend to have enjoyed his act much. This is Josh Howie – and there’s something about him that brings out the politically correct in me, as I bridle at his material that challenges the PC brigade. So if you like your comedy un-PC, you’ll probably love him. In fact, I was enjoying his routine (up to a point) until he started his material about hoping that his two-year-old son won’t turn out to be gay. And if he is gay, he’ll tell him how it’s particularly wrong to be a bottom. In fact, he’ll watch porn videos with him in order to point out which sex practices and roles are acceptable, and which aren’t. I know this is a ridiculous subject, and one which he hopes will be funny; and, to be honest, I wish I liked him more, but I found him borderline homophobic and, anyway, I just don’t get humour that hates people. His solo show was on the previous night, so again if you want to catch him, he still has some dates elsewhere on his UK tour.

So something of a mixed bag for our first venture into this year’s Leicester Comedy Festival, but I have very high hopes for the four shows we’re still to see… watch this space!

Review – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 5th March 2016

Breakfast-at-Tiffanys-PosterThere are few more iconic images in 20th century culture than that of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sexy, cute; the ridiculously long cigarette holder adding a touch of posy extravagance; cosseting her pussycat to show that she’s kind to animals too. Delicately unreal; almost – but not quite – attainable; forever to escape labelling or compartmentalising; teasingly aloof; charmingly kooky. It’s a character that should be full of life and extremes; full of light and shade. Funny and tragic. Confident and timid. Gazing vacantly one minute, then teeming with motivation the next. You can get all that from the poster. We’ve never read the book, and we’ve never seen the film. We saw the Lost Musical of Holly Golightly a few years ago, and looking back I remember it was a rather unsatisfactory experience, neither giving us a decent insight into the character of Holly Golightly nor telling a good story, lacking, as it was, in both drama and substance. Surely, this new full length play adaptation of Truman Capote’s original book will fill in the gaps.

Breakfast at TiffsThe story is somewhat slight. Holly lives in a brownstone apartment in New York, with no discernible job nor way of funding her lifestyle. She’s totally unpredictable, sometimes going away for weeks on end, unannounced; often in the company of more mature men and other insalubrious companions. She clearly likes a good party; she allows her neighbour to get part way into her life but she still keeps him at a certain distance. In the end, she suffers a downfall in fortune, loses an unborn child but follows her heart by escaping to Brazil. I was struck by the many similarities with Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; a charismatic, extravagant but elusive central character; a slightly misfit narrator commenting on the side of the action; scenes of New York excessiveness; and ending up with shattered dreams.

Pixie LottI should point out that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the third (I think?) public performance of this production which still counted as a preview, so it was definitely still bedding in and maybe there was still some scope to make a few tweaks here and there before press night. But let’s first look at the ingredients that make up this production. The adaptation is by Richard Greenberg, an experienced American author who won the Tony Award for best play in 2003 for Take Me Out, and who also adapted Strindberg’s Dance of Death to critical acclaim. It’s directed by Nikolai Foster, Artistic Director of the Curve, who last year gave us two stunning productions with Beautiful Thing and A Streetcar Named Desire – he also directed Jodie Prenger in the fun revival of Calamity Jane. The enjoyably detailed set is by Matthew Wright, whose work at the Menier is a series of delights; he also designed the eye-catching costumes, and Miss Golightly obviously makes it a rule never to be seen in the same outfit twice. The original music is by Grant Olding, he who gave us the tunes in One Man Two Guvnors, and created the stunning Drunk with Drew McOnie. Heading the cast you have Pixie Lott, with three number one singles under her belt, nominated for four BRIT awards, quarter finalist on Strictly Come Dancing, and having sold 1.6 million albums worldwide. What could possibly go wrong?

Matt BarberI’ll tell you. A complete lack of energy, and a total lack of drama. It’s almost paralysingly dull. Mrs C had to check Wikipedia when we got home in order to verify what kind of story it’s meant to be – and the answer seemed to be romantic comedy. Well there’s not a lot of romance, and even less comedy. I’ve hardly ever seen such a packed audience (and believe me the Curve Theatre was absolutely packed) react so quietly to a play. And it’s not that “I could hear a pin drop” type of intense quietness; it’s the aghast quietness that says “I can’t believe I paid £38 to see something so totally bland”. It’s almost as though after the first couple of scenes we had united in a communal “glazing over” of all our senses. I think I gave a slight chuckle three times in the entire show. You could tell the lines that were meant to get laughs, as the cast had built in useful pauses in the proceedings to deal with them. However, they were met with silence. I almost wondered if we had gone on a work to rule and weren’t going to react to any of the lines until our demands for free half-time ice-creams had been met. Desultory applause at the interval and curtain call told its own story. Yes, there were of course some whoops for Miss Lott, but they were clearly out of appreciation for her back catalogue rather than anything to do with her performance.

Robert CalvertFair’s fair – Pixie Lott absolutely looks the part. She’s radiant, she’s stylish; you’d have to be a very hard-hearted chap not to get some warmth in your soul from looking at her. In the course of the show she sings three songs: Grant Olding’s Hold Up My Dying Day which I thought was a very classy number, Oklahoma’s People will say we’re in love which just seems The Wrong Song from The Wrong Show at The Wrong Time, and Henry Mancini’s Moon River, in a version so laid back that it can barely stand upright. This is patently not a musical – it’s a play with music. I thought it was very revealing that a packed house watching Pixie Lott perform three songs on stage only resulted in one very half-hearted round of applause – for Moon River, when you could sense the audience guiltily relent into it as though it were a kind of obligation. With looks like that she doesn’t have to be the world’s finest actor but I couldn’t help but feel that she hadn’t really got into the part at all yet. It felt much more like she was doing a vocal impersonation of Audrey Hepburn – or, actually, to me it sounded more like she was channelling her inner Zsa Zsa Gabor, darrrlink.

Matt Barber played Holly’s neighbour Fred – although that isn’t his name – and again I didn’t really get a full impression about how he actually felt about Holly. The character’s ambiguous sexuality was quite subtly played out in many scenes, with his more than usual delight at meeting Jose, his looking twice at the sailors home on leave and the initial suggestion that Doc was stalking him for a very different purpose. But I couldn’t work out if that made him Holly’s Gay Best Friend or what, really. Many of the other characters succeeded in featuring somewhere on the irritating scale, with some rather over the top performances; maybe they were just trying to compensate for the overwhelming dullness of the whole thing by goofying-up these minor characters. Mrs C’s main criticism of the show – during the parts where she stayed awake – was that a lot of the acting was very shouty – one of her pet hates. Only Robert Calvert as Doc – Holly’s rather sad and confused husband from the early days – struck me as getting the tone of his character right. They say never work with animals – couldn’t agree less. The cat was one of the best things about this show.

I really wanted to enjoy it; I so wanted to enjoy it. But in the first few scenes it offers the audience nothing to latch on to that can carry them through the rest of the play. No intrigue; no humour; no suspense; no characters with whom you can identify or admire. It ends up being two and a half hours (or more) of supreme irrelevance. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Review – A Streetcar Named Desire, Leicester Curve Studio, 24th October 2015

A Streetcar Named DesireI’ve been an admirer of the plays of Tennessee Williams for as long as I can remember. I recall being blown away by a TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was about 16, then I took a young lady to see The Glass Menagerie when I was 17 (what a romantic gesture that was!) and the only other time I’ve seen A Streetcar Named Desire was at the Oxford Playhouse back in 1978, directed by Nicolas Kent. So it was high time I got reacquainted with the play. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never seen it, nor had our friend, Lady Lichfield, who struggled up to Leicester by train on the most circuitous of routes, but that’s another story.

Blanche arrivesI had forgotten what a simply magnificent play this is. It is so beautifully written, creating an uncertain air of mystery with almost every new plot progression, that you, as an audience member, can interpret it in many different ways. These basic plot details are for certain: Blanche Dubois has come to visit her sister Stella who lives in a dingy downstairs flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche seems used to a more refined lifestyle, dressing in lace and assuming an almost unnatural politesse. Stella, however, has married Stanley, an uncultured Polack (Blanche’s word), and appears content to live with (indeed emotionally and sexually satisfied by) his violent and brutish behaviour. The Grand Estate – Belle Reve – where Blanche and Stella were brought up has been “lost”, and Blanche is now homeless. Stella hasn’t forewarned Stanley that his sister-in-law is coming to stay, and it’s fair to say that they don’t hit it off. In the following months, Blanche gets courted by one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies, Mitch, who’s less Neanderthal than the rest of them; but her past catches up with her and none of it ends happily. I could go into more detail about the plot but a) you probably know it already, b) maybe you don’t want to know it, and c) there’s a fine line between what you see on stage and what might just be figments of Blanche’s imagination. Although Blanche is taken away by a doctor and nurse at the end of the play, it’s debatable at which point her mental instability takes control. It could be at the end of the play, it could be much earlier; and what you see may be a hazy blend of reality and fantasy. That’s just part of the play’s mystery.

Dakota Blue RichardsIt was first produced in 1947 and had its first UK production in 1949, directed by Laurence Olivier and with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Of course, back in those days, drama was censored on the British stage and the producer had to apply to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for a licence to perform. This must have provided more than a few difficulties for the censor, as the play deals with – amongst other things – insanity, victim mentality, suicide, rape, and paedophilia. But none of this was, apparently, a particular problem. The only thing that almost caused the production to be banned at the last minute was the story about Blanche’s late husband Allan, whom she found in flagrante delicto with someone else: “Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty – which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years”. For the censor, this was the bridge too far. The reference to homosexuality had to go. Bizarrely, the censor himself suggested it should be replaced so that Allan should have been caught at it with a black woman. Eventually a cut was agreed, with the line now just reading “which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…” And that is how it reads in my Penguin edition of the play and how it is currently spoken in this Curve production. Oddly, by not spelling out precisely what it was that Blanche saw her husband doing, it actually adds to the play’s overall air of mystery.

Stella and StanleyI had read some very disappointing reviews of this production after press night – none of which are remotely recognisable to the show we saw on Saturday – so I can only assume that the team have continued to work on earlier criticisms, because we all thought the show was quite brilliant. Michael Taylor’s set cleverly encompasses the several acting areas of the play – the Kowalskis’ two roomed apartment, the bathroom, the porch area, Eunice’s flat upstairs, even the streets around New Orleans. There’s a very realistic rain effect right at the end of the play that might get your knees and legs wet if you sit in the front row (as we did, but it’s great to be almost part of the action). There are lots of off-stage music effects that confront and unsettle you, the emotionally moving image of the flower vendor selling her flores para los muertos, and, of course, there are some magnificent performances.

Natasha MagigiThe character of Blanche is so central and so iconic that it is vital to get it right – and Charlie Brooks gives us a terrifyingly stressed Blanche; jittery, anxious, and clearly disturbed right from the start. Mrs C and Lady L both thought that her characterisation made the first act rather frenetic – you were constantly being so bombarded by her words and her anxieties that you hardly had time to reflect. I think that’s possibly true – but I also think it’s entirely justified. In fact, I found it virtually impossible to take my eyes off Ms Brooks all the time she was on stage, so vividly and profoundly did she inhabit the character. I thought it was an amazing performance. We’d seen her a few months earlier in Beautiful Thing and she was terrific in that too – she’s not putting a foot wrong at the moment.

Sandy Foster and Natasha MagigiHer anxiety makes the perfect contrast with Dakota Blue Richards’ portrayal of Stella – calm, collected, accepting, practical, and surprisingly assertive. When Blanche tries to load the emotional blackmail on her she simply rejects it; when Stanley behaves badly to her sister she remonstrates with him. Nevertheless, she’s no match for Stanley’s brute force, and the simplicity of her return to him after he’s assaulted her speaks volumes about what she wants from life – and we the audience watch disapprovingly at her contentment with her victim status. Ms Richards gives us a Stella of great clarity and warmth; and turmoil too, when she wonders if she has done the right thing by bringing the doctor to Blanche. That was the moment when both Mrs C and Lady L reached for the Kleenex.

Stewart ClarkeThere’s also a wild and brilliant portrayal of Stanley by Stewart Clarke; loud, cruel, calculating, and intimidating – a really strong and intense performance, never straying into an over-the-top pantomime, but always unpleasantly believable. There are also some great supporting performances from Sandy Foster as Eunice, and Patrick Knowles as Mitch,Charlie Brooks both caught up in an environment where survival of the fittest and not rocking the boat is an imperative, even if you have to do things of which you are not proud.

A stunning production of what is still a very moving and important play – one of those theatre experiences that will live on long after you come home. It’s on at the Curve until 7th November – strongly recommended!

Production photographs by Manuel Harlan

Review – Beautiful Thing, Leicester Curve Studio, 30th May 2015

Beautiful ThingAt the risk of repeating myself, gentle reader, back in the Dark Ages I undertook postgrad research into the effects of the withdrawal of stage censorship, and, as a result, potentially censorable (or just plain naughty) plays have always held a certain fascination for me. That was one of the reasons I wanted to see Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. If it had been produced in the mid-1960s it would most certainly have been censored – although primarily, I think, for its frequent use of the C word. However, the play first saw the light of day in 1993 and by 1994 was winning awards in the West End, long after the abolition of censorship. Just as that was a very different time from the 60s, it’s also a very different time from today. I can’t imagine nowadays a repeat of the incident that apparently happened in 1994 where a local councillor from Bexley went to see it at the Duke of York’s then left after twenty minutes, saying it was misleading to call it a comedy, that they were intimidated by gays in the bar and that it was sickening to see older and younger homosexuals in public together. Three different eras indeed.

Charlie BrooksBut the themes of the play are timeless. Bullying, self-discovery, addiction, and above all, young love; creating a beautiful thing out of a wasteland. 15 year old Jamie lives with his barmaid/pub-managing mum Sandra who rules the roost as any good pub landlady would. When the play opens she is furiously ditching all his childhood games and ephemera as a punishment for his continually bunking off sports afternoon at school. A slightly misleading start, actually, because, as you know in advance that it’s a play about two boys falling in love, Sam JacksonI wondered if this was her initial reaction to discovering her son was gay. But no, it’s not; that discovery comes much later. In a close-knit, working-class community, Jamie’s neighbours are 16 year old Ste, very much his opposite as you can’t keep him off the sports field, but whereas Sandra is an essentially loving parent (although you can’t always tell), Ste’s father is an abusive alcoholic and his family basically treat him as their laundry slave, merrily assaulting him just for the hell of it. Jamie’s other neighbour is Leah, expelled from school for drug-taking and other misdemeanours, who whiles away her hours listening to Mama Cass.

Thomas LawWhen Ste runs to Sandra for shelter whilst his father’s on a drunken rampage, she insists Ste stays overnight and thus Ste and Jamie end up sleeping top-to-tail in Jamie’s bedroom. When Ste returns a second time, bearing the bruises on his back where he’s been beaten up, he stays in Jamie’s room again, but this time Jamie convinces him to go from top-to-tail to top-to-top, as it were. And that’s how their relationship starts, and the rest of the play covers how they deal with it (Ste is very uncomfortable about it at first), how Sandra finds out, and how they all come to terms with their new situation. At the risk of using the J-word, all the characters undergo their own journey, and over the course of the two hours, nothing stays the same – That’s What I Call Drama. And, joy of joys, it even has a happy ending, with Jamie and Ste dancing together with full glitterball effect, and with a positive eye to the future. Although we always suspected it would end happily – the show starts to the sound of Mama Cass singing “It’s Getting Better”, and you can’t get much more positive than that.

Vanessa BabiryeIt’s a beautifully written, smartly crafted play, with some really meaty characters for the actors to get their teeth into, and this honest and straightforward co-production between the Nottingham Playhouse and the Leicester Curve did it proud. Sadly, you can’t go and see it anymore, as the last three dates on the tour – to London’s Arts Theatre, Cardiff and Brighton – have been pulled due to lack of ticket sales earlier on in the run. As they said in Blood Brothers, an unfortunate sign of the times, Miss Jones. So I’m very pleased we snuck in to see the last matinee, at one of my favourite venues, the Studio at the Curve. For an intimate theatre it has a relatively large stage, so you can put on a full scale show whilst retaining a cosiness that’s lost in the main theatre.

Gerard McCarthyColin Richmond’s set is usefully shabby and conjures up the relative poverty of the environment without ever going over the top. There’s a very nice contrast between the well-worn old baby bike that’s always left outside, on which Jamie and Leah like to play (emphasising their youth) and the aspirational, quality, hanging baskets that decorate Sandra’s front door, which she guards with her life. And one of the stars of the show is Jamie’s bed, magically appearing from below with a simple unrolling of a blanket and sheet – very deftly done. Mr Richmond’s costumes are also very well chosen, with some delightfully tarty dresses for Sandra, Ste’s too-big sports t-shirt (no doubt, he’ll grow into it), and an outlandish creation for Leah when she’s on her bad trip.

A tense momentBut it’s the performances that really make this play work. Central to the whole show is a fantastic performance by Charlie Brooks as Sandra. Strong, outspoken and determined from the start, she lays down the law (or tries to) right from the start, with a cunning blend of heart of gold and utter bitch. Protective towards her boy but definitely into living life to the full and for herself, it’s a really convincing portrayal of someone who has to work very hard, wants to provide a good life for her family, has a sense of fun but is also pretty ruthless with it. Not being a soap watcher, Miss Brooks is new to us, but she’s got an amazing stage presence and gave a walloping good performance.

Jamie and SteShe is matched by two other superb performances from the actors playing Jamie and Ste. Jamie is played by Sam Jackson with quiet confidence and growing charisma, as he develops from awkward little boy to proud young man. Thomas Law as Ste gives a stunning mature performance, as he wrestles with the character’s internal emotions and sexual needs; a boy with a man’s problems. The two actors portray Jamie and Ste’s relationship with great tenderness and integrity, creating a very moving account of first love. Not to say it doesn’t have its humour too; at a moment of early intimacy where Ste is laying down on his front and Jamie is rubbing peppermint cream into the bruises on his back, and you think something significant may just be about to happen, Ste hurriedly dismisses Jamie’s invitation to turn over for further treatment presumably in order to stifle a hidden erection in the sheets. Very nicely done. There’s also excellent support from Vanessa Babirye as the troublesome but troubled Leah and Gerard McCarthy as Sandra’s latest flame Tony, propelled into resolving all sorts of family difficulties when all he was hoping for was a few decent shags.

Leah waiting to be attackedMy only quibble with it – and I’m not sure if it’s a problem of the play or the production – is that I didn’t get a sense of the timespan involved. I couldn’t work out if it all happens over a few days or a couple of years. Certainly the boys are 15 and 16 when they start their relationship – but by the end of the play they are regulars at the gay pub, Sandra’s career is on the upturn, Leah seems to be taking steps to improve her life and Tony has gone from hero to zero. It would make more sense (in my head at least) if the story was set over a reasonably prolonged period – but neither visually nor in the text (I think) was there anything to give us that clue.

Tony and SandraThe performance received a hugely warm reception from the audience in the Studio and, even if it wasn’t a commercial success, artistically and emotionally this will have touched hearts and broken down barriers. A funny and warm play, superbly performed.

Review – Oh What A Lovely War! Curve Theatre, Leicester, 18th April 2015

Oh What a Lovely WarThe words “Oh What a Lovely War”, “Theatre Royal Stratford East” and “Joan Littlewood” are inextricably linked, and have had almost legendary status within British 20th century drama ever since the show first appeared in 1963. It was originally a radio play by Charles Chilton, which was then developed by Joan Littlewood in conjunction with the whole of the original Theatre Workshop cast, to create this iconic, epic musical, telling the story of World War One through song and dance. The show was another on my bucket list of Still haven’t seen it after all these years and it’s about time I did. There is a film, that I also haven’t seen, directed by Richard Attenborough, that Joan Littlewood, apparently, hated. I’m not surprised – he ruined A Chorus Line too.

Britain 1914The highly stylised production gets as far away from the typical depiction of war as possible – Joan Littlewood didn’t want it to be horrific in any way. Instead the notion of war and the hard facts of fatalities are juxtaposed with a music hall and commedia dell’arte presentation to create its own, telling, anti-war story. Every barrier is broken down in this production. It starts off with the actors mingling with the audience, chatting about the performance they are about to see. Sadly no one mingled with us, but I overheard one performer explaining that he was wearing a pierrot costume as was traditionally worn in early 20th century revue shows, and as was used in the original Stratford East production. I saw another talking to an audience member and pointing out which one he was in the programme. So you’re starting with a great sense of equality between the cast and the audience, a level playing field where we’re all sharing the same experience, no matter whether we be audience member or performer.

Ian ReddingtonThere is a main MC who addresses the audience throughout the entire show apart from when he takes on a few different characters. He introduces us to the different songs and sketches as though this were some Edwardian end of the pier show – hence the suitability of the pierrot costumes. He encourages us to sing along with the songs if we know them. The majority of the under-lubricated matinee audience weren’t up for that, apart from the man two to my right who bellowed his way solo throughout much of the afternoon. You would have thought self-consciousness would kick in at some point, wouldn’t you? Cast members rush on and off the stage at odd moments and 90% of the material is extremely light-hearted. Act One takes us to the beginning of the war, with actors assuming the roles of nations having agreements and arguments in the lead-up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. It reminded me of a rather trendy history teacher getting the kids up in front of the class to act out war campaigns. I almost expected to see a blackboard rubber representing the Treaty of Versailles. We then see the early stages of the war, and the expectation it would all be over by Christmas. The act culminates in the famous 1914 Christmas trench scene, with the Germans singing Stille Nacht and Tommy and Fritz playing football in No Man’s Land – simply but very effectively staged.

OWALW ensembleAct Two takes us further into the war, where the innocent pleasure of enjoying light-hearted entertainment is constantly shattered by an electronic newsreel across the back of the stage, recounting the numbers dead or injured on individual days or at particular battlefields. Every so often you take your eyes of the performers just to read the horrendous casualty statistics. They bring the simple lightness of the stagey songs and dances into perspective. The audience questions itself as to how it reacts. How can we fritter away our time whilst they’re dying on the Somme? But there’s nothing we can do to stop it. And, actually, isn’t having fun what life really should be all about? Guilt, resignation, and powerlessness are just some of the emotions that overcome the audience. And, as the MC points out at the end, that this doesn’t only apply to World War One. When will the massacre of innocent people in war end? Will it ever end? Sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. The show is still a really forceful weapon in the argument against war, and Littlewood’s and Theatre Workshop’s left-wing bias stands out (refreshingly, in my opinion).

Richard Glaves and the girlsEver since the BBC dropped The Good Old Days, you don’t get to hear these old songs as often as we used to – in the good old days, in fact. Songs like It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the Home Fires Burning remain wartime standards; whilst Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts and I’ll Make a Man of You recollect the best music-hall traditions. A couple – Here Comes a Whizzbang, and Bells of Hell stop you dead in your tracks with the sheer horror of what they convey, and one, I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, brings a lump to your throat with the soldier’s simple plea for the return of his old life. On a personal note, it was lovely to hear Roses in Picardy again, as it was a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, and I used to enjoy playing it on the piano when I were a lad.

This is warIt’s an excellent cast who work together really well as an ensemble, both as pierrot entertainers and in their individual character sketches. Ian Reddington takes on the role of the MC with a likeable blend of cheek and cheese, plenty of knowing looks to the audience, but also full of portent when it comes to the gloomy prospects for the future. I really enjoyed him in the stupid but very funny sketch about the unintelligible sergeant barking garbled waffle at his troops. Taking the lead female role is Wendi Peters, larger than life and with a belter of a voice. In fact, if anything, her voice was a little too loud in comparison with everyone else. She’s one of these performers who simply doesn’t need amplifying. She brought out all the naughty music hall double entendres in her songs and has a wonderful stage presence. But all the cast are excellent; if you come to see the show, watch out for William Oxborrow struggling with an umbrella as a rifle and Alex Giannini’s hilarious “stage fright” moment.

Wendi Peters and the girlsThe show is still to visit Aylesbury, Birmingham, Truro, Hull and Wimbledon on its tour, and I’d recommend it for its emotionally strong anti-war vibe as well as its unusual and entertaining no fourth wall qualities. You come away with a sense of true gratitude and humility for the lives lost in war. Despite the preponderance of WW1 songs and clichés, its message is as relevant today as ever.

Review – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical, Curve Theatre Leicester, 21st March 2015

Adrian Mole the MusicalI don’t think there can be many lives who haven’t been affected by the character of Adrian Mole in one way or another. I can remember when the original book came out, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought it for me as part of my Christmas Present Package. I thought it was brilliant, and over the subsequent years bought and read all of young Mr Mole’s diarised works. The TV series with Julie Walters and Stephen Moore was great too. Moley was one of the author Sue Townsend’s greatest creations, and definitely her most successful. Sue Townsend herself was from Leicester, as is Adrian Mole, and she based his school environment and council estate home on the places where she was educated and lived. So it’s entirely appropriate that The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ The Musical should start life at the Curve in Leicester. Young Adrian would have been so impressed by the artistic and cultural hub that is the Curve.

The original book runs from New Year’s Day 1981 to April 1982 (Mole’s 15th birthday), but the show just takes the full year from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve. In that time Adrian charts a painful course as an adolescent falling in love with the blessed Pandora, watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and coping with their new loves, visiting and being used as a slave by old Bert Baxter, getting on with some schoolmates and being bullied by others, habitually writing to the BBC and generally being a typical, angst-ridden teenager. But this isn’t a simple dramatization of the novel – it’s a musical, with book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, two Bristol University graduates who are starting to carve out a career in the genre. Director Luke Sheppard has brought together a talented team to tell the story of Moley’s early adolescence, and the result is a bright and breezy show with many enjoyable aspects, plenty of drama and some extremely humorous scenes.

Sebastian CroftTom Rogers has designed a wonderful set, full of quirky corners and jagged angles, with pencils that pierce the sky like chimneys and with ink blots all over the floor. Tantalising glimpses of Adrian’s diary pages frame the stage and everything appears bright in satisfyingly child-like primary colours. Congratulations, by the way, to the props department for sourcing all those old Skol cans and the Woolworth’s carrier bag. It’s effectively staged with the Moles’ kitchen at the front and their living area/bedroom to the side – that area also doubles up as Bert’s Stalinist living room and the school room is towards the back of the stage. There’s plenty of useful space for acting as well as singing and dancing. A small thing, but I really enjoyed the way the child actors opened the side doors for the rest of the cast to come out on stage for their curtain calls. It looked very stylish and showed that the kids were in charge.

Kirsty HoilesI’d been looking forward to this show for ages, as I was really curious to see whether this story would actually work as a musical. The answer is Almost. The songs do fit very neatly into the plot and they’re tuneful and entertaining if not over-memorable. In the schoolroom scenes, I liked the way the adult actors joined forces with the child actors to create a whole classroom of the little blighters, which gave rise to some very amusing moments where age was juxtaposed with behaviour. The climax scene – so to speak – when Adrian and the other kids stage an alternative School Nativity play, was full of bravado, delightfully outrageous and very funny.

But there was something about the whole show that just didn’t quite click for me. It didn’t really engage me. I didn’t feel much sympathy for many of the characters, which never helps when you’re trying to identify with a show. It hadn’t properly occurred to me before just how unpleasant a character Adrian’s mum Pauline is. I thought Kirsty Hoiles showed just the right amount of sentimental detachment and lack of empathy to make the character of Pauline very credible. As Adrian’s dad George, Neil Ditt turned in a nicely downtrodden and “victim” performance, and I thought his scenes with Adrian, the two guys home alone, were often quite moving. I really enjoyed Cameron Blakely’s creepy seduction techniques as the slimy Mr Lucas from next door, and his scenes where he’s wooing Pauline with his Latin moves were hilarious. You just don’t expect that kind of thing in Leicester.

Neil DittSo it wasn’t the performances (for the most part) that caused (for me) the show not to soar. I think the main problem is that in order to condense the book into a two and a half hour show – with songs – they had to omit so much that you only have the barebones of the story to work with and not a lot of depth of character. Doubling up roles also caused its own problems. Amy Booth-Steel is excellent as Miss Elf and Mrs Lucas, but as Doreen Slater she presents a completely different character from that in the book. Miss Booth-Steel is a fine comely woman, but Adrian always referred to Doreen as “stick-insect” in his diaries, and, with the best will in the world, Miss Booth-Steel is never going to achieve that epithet. There’s also no Queenie for Bert to settle down with, no Singh family, no parents for Pandora, and the story stops before Argentina invades the Falklands.

Amy Booth-SteelAdrian himself, in the book, as far as I can remember, wavers between nervous enfant terrible and neurotic sidekick. He’s hypochondriac, hyper-sensitive, self-deludingly confident about his own intellect; he’s patronising, he’s hideously class-oriented; basically, he’s an insufferable little prig. But we recognise our own adolescence in him, so forgive him and laugh along at his mistakes, his foibles and anxieties, as we know that life will iron them all out in the fullness of time. The Brunger and Cleary version of Adrian struck me as being simply far too nice. That’s no criticism of Sebastian Croft, who played Adrian in our performance, who’s an amazing little song and dance man, has wonderful stage presence for someone so young, who enunciated beautifully (it’s a skill, and one to be appreciated), fitted in to the rest of the cast like a dream, and absolutely deserved his very enthusiastic curtain call.

His Pandora was played by Lulu-Mae Pears, splendidly mature compared to Adrian, delicately fluttering into his world and very credibly being the target of the Optimum Girlfriend Award. I’d say Adrian was boxing way above his weight here. The rest of the cast all give very good support; although, unfortunately, there was one actor who, for whatever reason, was considerably below par for our performance. Maybe they weren’t feeling well or maybe they were under-rehearsed; but it’s probably not very fair to make further comment.

Cameron BlakelySo, for some reason, for me this all added up to something less than the sum of its parts. However, the audience enjoyed it and gave it a very good reception, and there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy. Maybe not for purist aficionados of the book, but if you want to see teenage angst set to music, this is a good place to start!

Rosemary AsheP.S. There’s been a creeping trend (and I don’t mind it) that the programme on sale to accompany the show of your choice is basically the printed text of the play but with some biographical details of the cast. Now I like reading plays, and giving you the text to take home with you can only add to your knowledge and appreciation of what you have seen; plus it works as an excellent memory aid should you wish to revisit it in sometime in the future. However, I did think it was a bit cheeky that the programme for this show is an adapted version – not of the book/libretto of the show as such, but of Sue Townsend’s original novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half the households whose families come to see this show already have a copy. I know that at £5 it’s not an unreasonable price, but I think if you’re going to combine the programme and text into one book, it should at least contain the words of the show you’re seeing!