Review – A Christmas Carol, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 6th December 2017

A Christmas CarolIn the absence of Mrs Chrisparkle, who was called away on urgent business in the States, I was graciously accompanied by Lady Lichfield to see the RSC’s new production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by that fantastic writer David Edgar (Yes! Nicholas Nickleby! Destiny! Albie Sachs! Author of so many superb contributions to our stages over the past forty years or more). There are few books that have lent themselves so effectively to adaptations over the years as A Christmas Carol – from Alastair Sim to the Muppets, and not forgetting Tommy Steele’s regular reappearances in Scrooge The Musical.

Phil DavisAnd here’s another one to add to the canon. David Edgar has taken the familiar redemption story of Scrooge, the Cratchits, Marley and the Ghosts and framed it inside the creative mind of Charles Dickens. Many of the more exhilarating works of art are about the creative process that brings about that very same work of art. Consider the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is about the film crew making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Or Elton John’s Your Song, which is about how he came to write Your Song. Now we get the chance to observe how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

The CompanyHis original notion, according to Edgar, was to create a hard-hitting tract on the poor and the workhouses. But as his editor and friend John Forster, who accompanies Dickens on this creation-fest, points out, it’s Christmas and no one wants to read a gloomy but worthy pamphlet. Forster makes Dickens think again. Brainstorming names, Scratch becomes Scrooge and a legend is born. Dickens then himself appears in many of the scenes as he tries to imagine himself in his own story, encouraging his characters to reveal themselves as truthfully as possible. It’s a fresh and enjoyable approach to the story and helps to place it in the context of early Victorian poverty.

Phil Davis and Gerard CareyNevertheless, I was still surprised by how very sentimental I found it. Of course, it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing, or not. Some people like to wallow in it; personally, I find the story rather mawkish. It’s not often that one looks to Agatha Christie for a critical assessment of someone else’s work, but I can’t help but agree with her character Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, when talking of the snowdrift, says “takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim. So bogus.” When the adult (not so Tiny) Tim emerges at the end, alive and well due to the generosity of Scrooge, Lady Lichfield confessed to releasing a few sobs. Sentimental? I rest my case.

Nicholas BishopIt looks as authentic and ravishing as you would expect from an RSC production, but with your imagination having to do a lot of the work to fill in the blanks – which I always think is more rewarding anyway. A couple of movable doorframes suggest a maze of corridors at Scrooge’s offices or at the Cratchits’ grim digs. A few lush furnishings create a comfortable environment at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s place. Palely lit windows in the sky are all that’s needed to conjure up a densely populated living city; and with a mere gesture Dickens can cause the snow to fall – because, after all, everything we see is in his imagination.

John HodgkinsonPhil Davis is every bit as good as you would imagine as Scrooge; viciously arrogant and miserable when at work on Christmas Eve, his mouth curling with disgust at what he interprets as the weak laziness of others, who expect to be given a day off work and for him to bear the financial loss. His unease turns to genuine fear as he encounters the three (female) Christmas ghosts; and there’s a lovely, funny scene where, invisible, he observes the games they play at nephew Fred’s and how he is hurt by the things they say about him – all this, while the Ghost of Christmas Present (a surprisingly hilarious performance by Brigid Zengeni) is tucking into their candied fruits. And I did like the not-so subtle dig at Boris Johnson.

Vivien ParryScrooge’s transformation to a paragon of charity is very nicely done and contributes to another excellent scene with Gerard Carey as Bob Cratchit, where, at the end of his tether, Cratchit finally plucks up the courage to tell Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him….and then realises how the miser has changed his tune – very funny. Among the rest of the cast, Nicholas Bishop is an amusing Dickens, John Hodgkinson a hearty Fezziwig, Vivien Parry a scary ghost and a comic aunt (Is it a Bison?) and Emma Pallant a singularly unamused Mrs Cratchit. But the whole cast work together splendidly as an ensemble.

Brigid ZengeniThere are a few musical and dance interludes that I found a little self-indulgent; one early in the show seems to go on for ages, long beyond what I felt the story required or could sustain at the time. And there was something about the show overall that for me didn’t quite soar. It’s sentimental, but in a very shallow way; I didn’t get a pounding of emotion at anyone’s plight. But there’s no doubt that it’s a classy show with an excellent central performance and an unusual approach which gives it an extra kick. If you’re a fan of the story, you’ll definitely want to see this blend of the traditional with a quirky modern take. It’s in repertoire at the RSC until February 4th.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Twelfth Night, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 9th November 2017

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.

Orsino and CesarioChristopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.

Sebastian and ViolaIn more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.

MalvolioAs seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.

Malvolio crossgarteredAs in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.

Sir TobyWhere this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.

OliviaI absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.

MariaVivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.

Sir AndrewThe press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?

P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

Half a SixpenceOne of the albums from my childhood was the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s Music for Pleasure record of Des O’Connor singing songs from Half a Sixpence, the 1963 musical by David Heneker and Beverley Cross, originally written for Tommy Steele. Despite – rather than because of – this recording, I’d always wanted to see the show, and we finally got the opportunity back in 2007 when we saw Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps in Bill Kenwright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I remember thinking at the time that the show itself was quite tame, but that it was an excellent production and I couldn’t imagine anyone better in the cheeky chappie main role than the irrepressible and brilliant song and dance man Mr Wilmot.

charlie-stempThings change, then change again. Fast forward nine years, and, remembering its rather mundane plot, when we made our selections from this summer’s Chichester Festival offering, neither of us particularly wanted to see this new production. Honestly, have we not learned our lesson? Over the past few years we’ve seen cracking good shows like Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel and Kiss Me Kate, so why wouldn’t the new Half a Sixpence – now transferred to the West End – be up there with the greats? (Spoiler – it is.)

pick-out-a-simple-tuneTo be honest, I still find the show itself a little underwhelming, with its somewhat dated subject matter of comedy juxtaposition between the upper and the working class, and its message that you should always marry someone of your own kind. However, Julian Fellowes’ new book and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a well-deserved kick up the backside and created a much more entertaining and better structured show. I think one of the problems with the original version is the relative dearth of musical numbers in comparison with the length of the show. Today your average musical-goer simply expects more – a legacy of the Lloyd Webber approach, where, after curtain up, the orchestra basically never stops till going home time. I must agree with other comments I’ve read though that it is an enormous shame that they chose to do away with the original song All In The Cause of Economy, which a) is a great tune, b) is a very funny lyric and c) perfectly encapsulates the horrendous relationship between the bullying Mr Shelford and his poor troupe of resident drapers. Another problem with the original show is that, as it was specifically fashioned around the amazing talents of Tommy Steele, it’s perhaps just a little too Kippscentric. The new structure, however, is much more balanced – even though, when you look at the list of musical numbers in the programme, of the 22 songs listed, only 2 don’t feature Kipps as one of the singers. He’s at the heart of the original book so it’s no surprise he’s also the heart of the musical.

flash-bang-wallopAs I’m sure you know, it’s based on H G Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which I confess I haven’t read but apparently was Wells’ personal favourite of all the books he wrote. Young Arthur and young Ann share a special friendship, but when Arthur has to move away, they each keep half a sixpence as a token of their young love. When working in the drapery shop he is smitten with the delightful Helen Walsingham, but she is high born and, surely, too far above him to care. But Arthur unexpectedly inherits a great legacy and an annual income of £1200, and can thus transform himself from commoner to toff in one fell swoop. His relationship with Helen blossoms, but then it turns out that Ann (remember her?) is the Walsingham family parlourmaid… And if you don’t know how all that resolves itself, you’ll have to see the show!

half-a-sixpenceNo doubt about it, this truly is a fantastic production. Stunning to look at, amazing sets, perfect costumes, a brilliant band and a large cast of superbly talented performers. As a piece of theatrical confectionary, it is the sweetest, tastiest, zingiest show I’ve seen for some time. Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in the big set pieces, is overwhelmingly, in-your-face ebullient, and gives you that great to be alive feel that musical theatre can sometimes achieve. Even if you don’t take into account the performances, the visual impact of the staging of the new song Pick out a Simple Tune and the perennial old favourite Flash Bang Wallop are among the most exhilarating experiences on stage at the moment; and the “real rain” in If The Rain’s Got To Fall helps give a charming sense of pathos and drama to the end of the first act.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamThere’s been a lot of hype about Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps, a performer plucked from relative obscurity – his programme bio reveals just an international tour of Mamma Mia and ensemble in Wicked. Well, believe it. This is one of those toe-curlingly delightful occasions when you can say “I was there” – I genuinely believe that, with this performance in this production, a star is born. He is the natural successor to the young Michael Crawford, with his engaging stage presence, superb voice and extraordinary dance ability. Hardly off the stage for the entire performance, he invests Kipps with an exuberance that really pushes out into the auditorium. The fact that he is new on the scene is perfect for the role as it reflects the character’s own fish out of water situation – an unknown person in an unknown environment. The production, however, knows he is a winner, subtly (or not so subtly?) lighting him just a little more strongly than everyone else in the ensemble pieces. I had no hesitation in giving him the standing ovation he totally deserved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsBut this is no one-man show. He’s surrounded by a fabulous cast, our personal favourite being the wonderful Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann, nobly and touchingly handing over the object of her love to her mistress. Ms Johnson is also spellbinding in the big song and dance numbers and is the perfect energy counterpart to Mr Stemp. I also really liked Emma Williams’ Helen, a classy, elegant performance that reveals the bravery of her character’s ability to climb out of her social class and become entwined with Mr Kipps. Jane How exudes delightful superiority as the sumptuous Lady Punnet, who really believes her musical evenings are the most fun you can have, and who has a brilliant twinkle in her eye whenever she speaks to Arthur; and there’s an enormously fun performance from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham, her eye on the financial prize, never quite becoming the horrendous mother in law from hell, but not far off.

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempIan Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is a wonderfully larger than life creation, with more than a touch of Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him; one of those few characters who is nothing but decent through and through. Mr Bartholomew brings out the humour of his songs – notably Back The Right Horse and The One Who’s Run Away – with great style. John Conroy, always masterful in authoritarian roles, is chillingly unpleasant as Mr Shalford, and Gerard Carey is splendidly slimy as the villainous James Walsingham and genuinely funny as the camp photographer, even if the characterisation is a little more 1963 than 2016. However, all the cast give terrific support and the physical commitment to the performance from one and all is just magnificent.

ian-bartholomewAn absolute treat from start to finish, we left the theatre beaming from ear to ear. You simply have to see this one!

P. S. A couple of unfortunate examples of bad theatre etiquette couldn’t erase what a wonderful show it was. But why must people be so grumpy and unhelpful when it comes to letting others past to get to their seats? It’s bad enough anyway in the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre where the front stalls are as tight as a [insert rude simile here] without having to make special negotiations and pleadings to get past. There was also a mother and daughter who constantly nattered all the way through the first act. They were just out of reach for me to tell them to shut it, but maybe someone else did because they behaved like proper theatregoers after the interval. Honestly, some people!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan and Michael Le Poer Trench