Review – Ballet Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th April 2019

Ballet BlackAlthough Ballet Black was founded in 2001, I’ve never come across their work before, so when I saw they were having a night at the Royal and Derngate, this had to be the perfect opportunity to see what they are all about.

PendulumIt’s a small company with just seven dancers appearing in the three short works performed in the current tour. I don’t think they’re awash with cash either, so staging and props are kept to the minimum, but that concentrates the mind wonderfully on the quality of the dance and the choreography – and, in this production, some beautifully effective lighting and costumes.

ClickThe programme kicks off with a short work, Pendulum, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, whose work with Richard Alston I have long admired. Originally produced for the company in 2009, it features two dancers, Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November, probing each other’s character and sizing each other up by means of collaborative dancing together and combative dancing apart. It’s arresting, powerful choreography set to pounding, vibrating abstract beats, which both excites and disconcerts the audience, not least with its surprise sudden ending. Pendulum tests the dancers’ skills to the limit and they gave it all the strength it requires.

Click 3No break, it’s straight into the next dance, Click!, which couldn’t be more different. Choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, this is a mainly light-hearted work that examines the various meanings of the word Click – whether it be summoning attention with your fingers, changing from mood to mood, two people just clicking in a relationship, and so on. It’s a smart idea and is carried off with great panache by the five dancers. What really grabs your attention is David Plater’s superbly stimulating lighting design, bathing each of the dancers in their own strong colour that stays with them throughout the dance, whichever part of the stage they occupy. Isabela Coracy leads the group, like a yellow circus ringmaster, dictating the pace and the activity of the other dancers. There’s a wonderfully witty and quirky routine performed by Ebony Thomas and Marie Astrid Mence to The Mudlarks’ Just the Snap of your Fingers, which brought out all the fun of the dancers’ personalities, as well as a beautiful, emotional pas de deux by Cira Robinson and Jose Alves. I thoroughly enjoyed the different atmospheres conjured up by each of the dancers in the different elements of the dance.

Ingoma 7After the interval, the final dance is a new work choreographed by Ballet Black’s own Mthuthuzeli November – and the first time the company has commissioned a work by one of its own team. Ingoma (which translates as Song or Anthem, in Zulu) was inspired by the stories of the South African Miners’ strikes in the 1940s as well as Gerard Sekoto’s stunning painting Song of the Pick, which depicts a row of miners, each with their pick raised high above their heads, ready to work in unison for the gain of the white, pipe-smoking supervisor who gazes idly by. That particular stance is very effectively replicated in Mr November’s impressive and bold choreography.

IngomaI’d be lying if I said I fully followed the story of this dance, but it’s full of emotional and heart-hitting images and sequences. The dancers rap their rubber boots to create a soft thud that reminded me of their trudging through water; there are stunning tableaux, affecting moments between the miners and their womenfolk; and depictions of grief that have presumably come from the miners’ deaths. It’s a fully charged onslaught of the senses, perhaps made even stronger by the lack of obvious narrative. Scenes from lives over many years, perhaps.

Ingoma 4It’s always enjoyable to discover a new dance company – even if they’ve already been going for eighteen years! This is a satisfying triple bill creating a variety of moods and memories. The tour continues to June, visiting Bristol, Cambridge, Derby, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Well worth seeing!

Production photos variously by Rick Guest, Mthuthuzeli November, Tristram Kenyon/The Guardian and Bill Cooper

Review – The Long Walk Back, Underground at the Derngate, 13th April 2019

Chris LewisDo you remember the story about cricketer Chris Lewis? He played in thirty-two Test Matches and fifty-three One Day Internationals for England between 1990 and 1998; was a county cricketer for thirteen years, and came out of retirement to play Twenty 20 matches for Surrey in 2008 – not very successfully. He was also found guilty of smuggling cocaine from Saint Lucia into the UK in December 2008, for which he was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He was released after six years in June 2015.

Martin Edwards and Scott Baylis 2It was quite a cause célèbre at the time. Why did he do it? Surely not for the money? Didn’t he have the world at his feet? Dougie Blaxland’s The Long Walk Back goes some of the way to tackle these questions. Only some of the way though, because it also raises just as many new questions as it answers! With just a bunk bed, a wicket and a toilet as the set, Martin Edwards as Lewis and Scott Bayliss as his cellmate (whether real or imaginary is up to you to decide) act out various short scenes – in a rather stylised, non-realistic manner, that show Lewis’ distress at incarceration, his mental self-examination and his resolve to survive the experience.

Martin Edwards and Scott BaylisPersonally, I can’t imagine how I’d cope with being sent to prison. I guess, somehow, I’d manage it, but don’t press me on the details. The play does make you think how you’d behave if you were in Lewis’ shoes, as it shows how imprisonment affects not only you but your wider family and friends. It also reveals how vulnerable you are – indeed, largely at the mercy of your cellmate in order somehow to get through it all.

Martin Edwards and Scott Baylis 3You get greater clarity on Lewis’ motivations and explanations when you actually meet him after a short break for a Q&A session with Rough House Theatre Director Shane Morgan. Charming, self-deprecating, and extremely honest, Lewis comes across as a thoroughly decent man, who’s still looking for the answers himself, and using this whole theatre experience as a way of trying to sort out his head. The play tackles the question of taking responsibility for one’s own actions and it’s clear that he blames no one for what he did other than himself. A question from the audience asked whether or not the player associations should take more responsibility for what players do both during and after their career – and Mr Lewis’ answer was, basically, no.

Long Walk Back Q&AThis is an unusual way to spend a Saturday night at the theatre, and, whilst it didn’t soar to heights of great tragedy or huge revelations about the human condition, it did give you an insight into what it’s like to be someone who had it all, then had nothing, and then slowly turned their life back into something positive. The production continues to tour small venues in Bristol, Birmingham, Bath, Leicester, Nottingham and Greenwich.

Production photos by Lisa Hounsome

Review – Edmond de Bergerac, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2019

Edmond de BergeracQuestion: What does Speaker John Bercow say when he sees Cyrano de Bergerac in the House of Commons? Answer: The nose have it, the nose have it.

EDB 5I’d like to apologise for that childish opening, but bear with me, gentle reader. Cyrano is normally all about the nose, but in Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, it doesn’t make an entrance until the final scenes. And that makes sense, because this brilliantly funny account of how Edmond Rostand might have written his famous tragicomedy is all about heart; love for one’s art, whether it be writing or acting, and how you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous theatre managements in order to get your masterpiece on stage. It’s a wonderfully positive piece, where love finds its true course, hopeless wannabes find success, and even the villains are funny. So, really, the ayes have it, and in abundance.

EDB 3Rostand is down on his uppers, but does have a magnificent patronne in the formidable shape of Sarah Bernhardt, who’s still a box-office draw despite edging towards her best-by date. She organises a meeting between him and Constant Coquelin, the famous thespian who’s been having legal wrangles with the Comédie Française. Although he hasn’t written anything for years, Rostand somehow impresses the Great Man, who commissions a comedy from him; first read-through tomorrow.

EDB 9Thus comes the first of many nights where Rostand works round the clock, with encouragement from the manager of the Café Honoré, and support from his actor pal Léo. A serial womaniser, Léo introduces Rostand to his latest inamorata-in-waiting, Jeanne, and it’s through Rostand’s mentoring of Léo’s otherwise useless romantic small talk that he discovers the muse for Coquelin’s commission. But there’s an awful long way between that initial spark of creativity and Cyrano’s first night.

EDB 4Edmond de Bergerac joins that small but very special group of works of art (whether it be play, book, music, etc) that tries to shed light on its own creative process – and they’re always packed with insight. The film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example, intersperses the narrative of the story with scenes where the actors play themselves on set whilst making the self-same film. Elton John’s Your Song and Spandau Ballet’s True take us through the pains and motivations of the songwriter getting the words right. Edmond de Bergerac shows us the individual moments of inspiration that get transplanted into the, as yet, unwritten play; the personal relationships, the overheard arguments, other people’s fantastic one-liners that you just have to steal for your own work. By taking us through the creative process, it also emphasises the truth of what lies at the heart of the new created work. Have I lost you? Sorry, it’s one of my pet favourite things in art.

EDB 1From Honoré’s opening Bonsoir, (to which we all replied) to his final introduction of the curtain call, that fourth wall is always open, and we’re willingly drawn into Rostand’s theatrical world. When an idea comes into his head, he confides it to us. We share in Coquelin’s knife-edge relationship with the law. We love it when the star, who never bothers with stage management’s health and safety warnings, plummets through the trap door. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Rostand is always comparing himself with the ultra-successful Georges Feydeau, because the show is crammed with half farce/half slapstick moments. I also loved the inventive staging suggestions (the train sequences are all hilarious), the over-the-top Frenchy characterisations; and the surprise appearances of the likes of Anton Chekhov and Maurice Ravel. It reminded Mrs Chrisparkle of the fabulously successful revival of Mr Whatnot a few years ago; and with aspects of Noises Off, Kiss Me Kate and Nicholas Nickleby in there too.

EDB 7It’s all performed at fantastic speed and pinpoint accuracy by a hugely likeable and talented cast of fourteen, playing something like fifty or sixty characters. At the still point in the turning world, Freddie Fox is outstanding as Rostand, clearly a devoted family man but unwittingly caught up in what looks like (to his wife at least) an illicit affair. Robin Morrissey is hilarious as the empty-headed matinée idol Léo, and Josie Lawrence uses all her fantastic vocal skills to create a very grande Bernhardt, a grumpy Duenna and a West Country prostitute who saves the day (in a number of ways).

EDB 8Chizzy Akudolu gives great comic presence to the diva-ish Maria, Simon Gregor steals every scene as the camp couturier and the pompous hotel receptionist, whilst Nick Cavalière gives great support in a number of roles including (with Mr Gregor), Coquelin’s creditors, the two menacing Floury brothers. Delroy Atkinson is superb as always as the assertive Honoré and the ham old actor, Harry Kershaw is terrific as the awful actor Jean, David Langham makes for a wonderfully pompous Feydeau, Sarah Ridgeway a kindly, put-upon Rosemonde, and Gina Bramhill a sparkling yet spikey Jeanne.

EDB 6Top of the shop is a superb performance by Henry Goodman as the ebullient and vain Coquelin, the demanding boss who needs his script double quick and insists on a duel scene because he’s quite handy with a rapier. Even though he’s potentially difficult and a nightmare to work with, we support him absolutely in his attempts to see Cyrano on stage. It’s a lovely comic performance but with plenty of serious tinges. But everyone gives a performance of top-quality commitment, and the result is an evening of sheer delight.

EDB 2Michalik’s original production opened in Paris in 2016 and is still packing them in after 800 performances. Of course, Cyrano de Bergerac is second-nature to the Parisien theatregoer; he’s like our Hamlet, but with added proboscis. This short touring production – the play’s UK première – courtesy of Birmingham Rep, in a translation by Jeremy Sams, still has dates at Cambridge and Richmond to follow, and I’m sure will do a lot to raise the profile in this country of not only Cyrano, but also Alexis Michalik. A marvellous tribute to Rostand and a fabulously funny night out. Don’t miss it!

Review – The Nubian Sky, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Looking Glass Theatre, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalAfter a packed week of dramatic highs and lows – almost entirely highs, actually – we come to the last show in this year’s Flash Festival – The Nubian Sky, a solo performance by Shemelia Lewis. It’s an examination of what it is to be a black woman today. Part celebration, part revelation, Ms Lewis takes us through a number of scenarios, including a child growing up in Montserrat with strict but loving parents and only appallingly racist cartoons on TV to watch; and a grotesque TV game show, hosted by the revolting Dave, where we’re asked to judge whether a black woman who has been subjected to domestic abuse should get justice. Fortunately, our audience agreed 100% that she should; but the TV judges, whoever they were, disagreed. And at the end we see the woman in question struggling as a result of the nationwide TV disgrace – unable to keep down her job, no longer able to study, crying out to God for some comfort. Ms Lewis painted a very disturbing and uncomfortable picture on which to end the play.

The Nubian SkyThe performance is full of contrasts. On one hand, Ms Lewis is a joy to watch. She comes across as a very likeable, rather wacky individual; her characters like to dance, to have fun, and simply, quietly, to get on with their lives. Set against this is a constant undercurrent of racism; the hideous cartoon, the denial of justice, the racist terminology in the media and around her. And whilst you sense that the spirit of survival and overcoming the odds will always prevail, that final scene of despair and abandonment tells another story.

Shemelia LewisI think it could have been even more successful if Ms Lewis had taken some of the ideas further. That cartoon, for instance, could have done with some deconstructing, rather than just showing the little girl getting bored with it. There was a scene where the schoolgirl got into trouble because of her hair; I’d have liked to understand a little more about what drove the teacher to raise the issue, and how it made everyone feel. Just a thought.

It sounds odd – and lame – to say that a play about how racism affects someone can be enjoyable, but strangely this performance was very enjoyable, because of the thoughtful and amusing characterisations and Ms Lewis’ warm sense of communication. Congratulations!

Review – Rise, Workbench Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalWe’ve all been there; attending the first meeting of a group, when no one knows how many people will turn up, or what they will be like; whether you’ll get on with them, whether they’ll like you; all those recognisable little neurotic worries. Welcome to the first meeting of Rise Northampton, a non-violent action protest group that wants to raise awareness of climate change. Founder Emma is there to welcome us into the room; her friend Rod stands at the door shaking our hand; Risehe seems a friendly, if simple soul. Who else is there? Hearty well-meaning Martha, who helps at the soup kitchen twice a week; one of Emma’s ex-students, the well-informed if somewhat distant Saff; the aggressive and humourless Jeoph (son of Jeisen); and the flamboyant, cynical and occasionally creepy Freddy.

Franky HarrisAs the weeks go by, their plans for a protest take shape. But when one of them goes too far and causes a public disorder, this is too much for Emma to bear. We are all British and well-behaved, after all. But the controversy does get them noticed; and eventually, as news keeps coming in of water shortages in the major cities of the world, it occurs to them there might only be one option – what you might call the ultimate protest.

Esther BartholomewThis excellent little play succeeds on two levels. First; it was very funny! The relationships between the characters are deftly drawn as we get to know them better, although, in truth, there are some we’d probably like to know a little less! In particular, I loved the “role play” scene which created great comedy directly out of the characters’ personalities. Secondly, the play genuinely made me think more about climate change – Hannah Magrathand specifically how precious fresh drinking water is as a commodity. I personally am aware about how I tend to waste water by turning on the shower long before I get in – quite unnecessarily – and because of this play’s strong message, I’m going to stop it.

Above all, there are six enjoyable, fully-realised characterisations by six talented performers. Joseph Mattingley Franky Harris is superb as the organiser Emma, all polite and choccy-biccy to start with, filling awkward silences with utterings of pure nonsense, and putting her foot down on any language excesses or perceived hostility between the members that could discourage others in the group, just like a well-trained teacher should be. But when the situation gets drastic, she surprises us with her change of spirit. I thoroughly enjoyed her performance.

Daniel HuberyEsther Bartholomew is great as Martha, delightfully self-deprecating, eager to do the right thing, and very powerful when she shows us her true commitment to the cause. Hannah Magrath gives a nicely controlled and mature performance as the aloof Sapphire, gradually warming as she becomes more involved with the group as a whole. Joseph Mattingley is hilarious as the child-like Rod, incapable of hiding his emotions at the slightest confrontation, taking everything literally, writing an appalling song that thankfully we don’t get to hear. This could have been almost a pantomime comic creation, but Mr Mattingley has created a real, very believable and vulnerable character and it is a superb performance.

Chris CutlerI loved Daniel Hubery’s argumentative, no-nonsense Jeoph; the kind of guy who has no time for small talk or concealing harsh facts with comforting lies, and not frightened of treading on anyone’s toes if that’s what it takes. We all know a Jeoph; Mr Hubery got him absolutely spot-on. And Chris Cutler is also excellent as the theatrical Freddy, throwing extravagant gestures and revelling in over-the-top metaphors. His is the character that, perhaps, undertakes the greatest journey; he almost physically changes before our eyes as he shrinks into realisation of the truth.

A very entertaining yet unsettling play with some fantastic performances – and it certainly makes you think. Congratulations all!

Review – The Cost of Freedom, Grapevine Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4th April 2019

Flash FestivalOne of the great aspects of a drama festival like the Flash is the wide range of subjects and styles that the individual companies might choose to perform. You can find introverted little solo shows that concentrate on one event or one emotion; comedy two-handers that give you an insight into other people’s lives through making your sides split; domestic dramas; questions of ethics; or something like The Cost of Freedom, which explores the monumental tragedy of the lives (and indeed, deaths) of those caught up in the slave trade, still rife in America little more than 150 years ago.

The Cost of FreedomIn this play we meet a group of six people – two sisters, two men taken forcibly from the families, and a boy accompanied by an older relative (not his father, as he is at pains to point out). Try as they might to flee from capture, they are taken and threatened by unnamed white men, armed with rifles and shotguns, one of whom we see, the rest are left to our imagination. But the slaves escape from their imprisonment, and whilst on the run we get to know them a little more; their childhood memories, their hopes, their previous work and family lives, and how they got into this perilous state. When one of the men is re-captured, he is threatened with death unless he leads his captors to the other five escapees. Will he save himself, or will he save them? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

D’angelo MitchellBy means of a combination of athletic, physical theatre, unsettling darkness, emotional spiritual music and sheer fantastic acting, this ensemble have devised a haunting, terrifying, shocking recreation of the kind of horror that those poor people would have experienced in the United States during the slave trade. We feel their physical pain – and see the scars. We hear their pleas for mercy – and how they are abused. We long for them to gain their freedom – and are distressed that it doesn’t happen. Sarah AwojobiI feel no disgrace that the events and performances in this play reduced me to tears. This is the kind of production that hits you immediately in all your senses but then gets even better and better the more you think about it.

Each member of this superbly gifted cast endows their role with an incredible sense of humanity and vivid characterisation. D’angelo Mitchell’s Cato, for example,Lyric Impraim is studiously cynical, trying to control the others where possible, bitterly alone and without hope of ever seeing his family again. Mr Mitchell gives us a really strong performance that taunts your emotions and reveals so much about the nature of loyalty. Sisters Jo and Jess, played by Sarah Awojobi and Lyric Impraim, have each other’s company for support, keeping themselves to themselves, trying not to be noticed for fear of abuse. Ms Awojobi’s frightened tears and Ms Impraim’s protective stare will stay with me a long time.

Kieran JamesKieran James’ young Zeke, attempting to make sense of what has become of his life, and so vulnerable without his parents, is a brilliant portrayal of someone who has seen too much too young, and Mr James’ clumsy but heart-warming attempt to chat up the girls was one of the highlights – he is on terrific form in this play. Zeke is desperately attached to Michael Gukas’ Noah, a man who remains assertive in the face of his oppressor, and whose priority is to take care of the boy and try to guide them all into freedom. As always, Mr Gukas gives a sensational performance, combining softness and strength in his amazingly expressive voice and physical presence; he’s surely destined for Great Things.

Michael GukasAnd there’s Nafetalai Tuifua’s Nigel, the sensitive, artistic man who cannot come to terms with his change of status after playing violin for his master, now facing a fight for survival at all costs. Mr Tuifua is always a joy to watch; you cannot help but smile with his happiness and cry with his agony, and, particularly during the musical scene, he is a sublime Mr Entertainer. And a word of congratulation for the unnamed oppressor, who maintained his threatening air of cruelty throughout, even from off-stage. From my front row seat I felt completely wrapped up in every confrontation, tragedy, and indeed occasional moment of humour that befell them all.

Nafetalai TuifuaEverything about this production is impressive; not only the sheer emotion of the plot and atmosphere, but the athletic, almost balletic, physical movement of the cast, their ability to draw you in to their tale, the technical consistency and authenticity of their accents, the musicality of their spiritual, even the choice of their once smart, now ragged, clothing. This production should surely have a life after Flash – I’m sure it would be perfect for Edinburgh – and it’s a play that everyone should see in these divided times we’re facing. Superb stuff!

Review – The Way, Cosmos Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 4h April 2019

Flash FestivalSometimes an uncomplicated, honest, one-person monologue can be more eloquent about the human condition than any classical four-act play. One such theatrical delight is Cosmos Theatre’s The Way. Vicky lies in bed, the morning after a night before, still with her make-up on, head pounding (although it could be worse), with no idea where she’s left her phone. Once she gets her act together there’s the inevitable voicemail from her mother. Which contains bad news. Vicky’s childhood friend – whom she hasn’t spoken to for ages because of some unspecified argument – has been diagnosed with cancer. Vicky’s devastated at what she hears. Is there any way of healing their rift?

The WayBy the time you get to my age, gentle reader, you lose count of the times when you said to yourself, “I wonder how so-and-do is doing, I really ought to get in touch”. But you don’t. And then you discover that they’ve died. And you never get that chance again. If you love someone – even if it makes you sound ridiculous – tell them. Because one day, you won’t be able to; and maybe they never knew. This is the prospect that Vicky faces; can she let her friend know that she held that dispute against her into the grave? Was it really that serious an argument?

Louise AkroydLouise Akroyd is a complete delight as Vicky. All messy and bed-worn at first, you can’t get much more unglamorous than Vicky’s initial appearance; but as we discover her personality, her inner beauty shines through. At times you wonder if she’s simply talking to herself, or if she’s addressing us directly through the fourth wall, or if it’s a mixture of the two. She has a wonderfully honest and confiding way of unfolding Vicky’s history and conflicts. Her performance is a closely-observed study of a young woman shocked into doing something she said she’d never do – and in the end, she’s so glad she did.

Simple, quiet, unassuming but full of integrity and honesty, this is a beautifully written and delivered dramatic monologue that will tear at your heartstrings. A mini-masterpiece!