Malory Towers. Wise Children at York Theatre Royal. 12-09-19


The cast. Production photograph by Steve Tanner.

“Why are you so unbearable?”
“I don’t know. I just am.”

I sat with my ginger beer watching what seemed like hundreds of immaculate, formally uniformed, small boys and girls being shepherded up the stairs at the Theatre Royal towards the upper circle. Yes this was Wise Children’s much heralded production of Malory Towers and we were all going to have a simply splendid afternoon while remaining well behaved at all times. Alongside the young ones there were women ( and a few men) of all ages ready to revisit their childhood and rekindle memories of a series of books which had meant a great deal to them. We were all in the best of good moods. Nothing could go wrong and it didn’t. We were in for an afternoon of midnight feasts, intense friendships, hateful bullying, wise words and daring rescues. We were all going to do our very best, stick up for what is right and learn our lessons in life and by the end we would be true Malory Towers girls.

The whole cast worked together beautifully and made sure that while they were types which we could recognise and remember they never descended into cliché. They allowed us in on the joke but at the same time we ( and they) believed every word they said. I was lucky enough (being on the front row) to be right next to the two audience members who Rebecca Collingwood chose as her parents and hear her pleading and tears at close quarters as she stood right in front of them, begging not to be sent away, unless it was to a finishing school in Switzerland. Francesca Mills had delightful energy and goodwill as Sally Hope, I loved Rose Shallou as the vulnerable and misunderstood Mary Lou Atkinson, Renee Lamb as the strong minded Alicia Johns, and Vinnie Heaven as horse mad Bill Robinson- my favourite character in the books and a tricky one to get right. Izuka Hoyle was perfect as the hot headed heroine of the books, Darrell Rivers. There was some lovely harp playing from Mirabelle Gremaud who also played Irene Dupont and the whole cast made a great team- a believable group of close knit, hot-housed young girls with all the stresses and joys that will produce.

The speed and agility of the cast, combined with a clever school set on two levels providing a dormitory and space above it to allow space for movement and dance and Emma Rice’s pacey direction and skilful adaptation meant that the show zipped along at a fast rate and the musical numbers were a delight- especially a storming version of Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing.

It’s relatively rare that a production sets out to do something and succeeds so completely. When it happens an audience can relax and enjoy ourselves- we are in safe hands. This production can stand alongside Denise Deegan’s Daisy Pulls It Off and that is high praise coming from me.

Noel and Gertie. Frinton Summer Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 20-04-17

Noel and Gertie, Sheridan Morley’s play based on the close working relationship between two of the biggest stars of their age, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, was a lovely, undemanding way to spend an afternoon at the Stephen Joseph, pay tribute to two great talents and wallow in nostalgia. Sheridan Morley knew his theatre- particularly the theatre of this period- and his show is a carefully selected tribute to the range of Noel Coward’s work. Coward was always known as “the master” and his writing could range from high emotion to sharp light comedy in a single scene without missing a beat, as well as being a gifted songwriter and performer. He could do it all. Gertrude Lawrence, one of the biggest stars of her age, both benefited from his genius and brought her own charm and talent to it which allowed his work to shine even more brightly. They had a close, sparky relationship from the day that they first met as child performers until Lawrence died far too early at the age of 54. This relationship is sketched out in between extracts from their stage performances and forms an engaging thread through the show.

The show arrived in Scarborough as part of a short tour all the way from Frinton on Sea and found a perfect home in front of a mostly older matinee audience who loved it. It was performed with real delicacy and emotion by Ben Stock and Helen Powers who manage to bring two icons back to life. Helen Powers clear soprano voice is particularly beautiful and suits the style of that era perfectly- I loved Come the Wild Wild Weather. The extracts from the plays were a reminder of how much things have changed since Coward was writing. There is unashamed romanticism which we see very little of today and it was touchingly played and very well timed- not easy to do. The extract from Still Life, one of the plays from Tonight at Eight which deservedly went on to be expanded and become Brief Encounter was extremely well done and made me wish that I could see the two of them perform it all. The third member of the trio on stage, Jonathan Lee, who was both musical director and pianist provided some sensitive and witty accompaniment and kept everything moving. In short the show was a real treat, fast moving, witty and heartfelt.

Fiddler on the Roof. Liverpool Everyman. 11.03.17

Patrick Brennan as Tevye. Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great show. It has one of the greatest opening numbers- Tradition- and one of the greatest lead characters- Tevye- and it draws you into the heart of a small, tight knit community before breaking your heart as you watch that community being torn apart. In a world where we have been watching this happen too often in recent years it has great resonance and poignancy. It’s a wonderful choice for the opening production of the Everyman’s new repertory company, popular and familiar without being trite or hackneyed and perfect for a small, intimate space- especially when it is set up in the round. Great writing doesn’t date and nor do characters whose humanity and relevance still remain strong. It is just over fifty years since it opened in New York, won nine Tony awards and went on to become what is still the second longest running show on Broadway. It is set in Imperial Russia in 1905, but the kind of human tragedies that it deals with have never gone away and they never will and this truth has led to it being performed all over the world ever since.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

There are no great West End voices here and no star performances- that would have unbalanced a delicate, spare production set in a small, intimate space. It is an ensemble piece by the newly formed repertory company and it is this company- and above all the theatre itself- which is the star. The actors know their characters perfectly and their energy and conviction is both charming and utterly believable. At the heart of the show is Patrick Brennan’s Tevye, a fine performance which shows us a real, conflicted man whose humour and warmth sits alongside a deep, uncompromising faith. He has the best lines, especially when talking to his God, and we are allowed to see what he is thinking.

The staging, by director Gemma Bodinetz, is simple and direct and the audience is close to the action, so close that we can almost feel part of the community that we are watching. This is not musical theatre as spectacle, where we watch from afar and marvel at lumbering stage machinery and great set pieces, it is musical theatre with heart and soul where people sing because words are no longer enough and we see the concerns of real human beings- our own concerns- reflected on stage.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

This is the first production in the new, award winning theatre by a company who have big boots to fill. Last time the Everyman had a rep company it produced a group of young actors and writers who became household names and the delight of the audience was obvious. Even for those who had been regulars at the old theatre this will still have been one of their first sightings of the new space in action and there was a real sense of joy in the air as they found that their beloved rep company had been given back to them in a theatre made magically young and beautiful again. For those involved in that process it will have been a delicate task, but they have given Liverpool back one of its treasures. It was very moving to be part of the standing ovation at the end, an ovation for the cast and the show- of course- but it was also a welcome back for the Everyman rep from a delighted city of Liverpool.

The World Goes Round. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 17-08-16.


Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Kander and Ebb have written two masterpieces of musical theatre, Cabaret and Chicago, and a lot else besides including the New York anthem, New York, New York. Their work is an absolute gift for a songbook show. It is funny, dramatic and sassy with a heartbreaking humanity and truthfulness at the centre of it all- much like life. Very American and very Broadway. Who would have thought that five performers in a small provincial theatre out on the coast in the north of England would ace their songs with such talent, confidence, joy and conviction? Well they did. The Stephen Joseph’s summer musical offering this year is an absolute corker. All the cast are hugely experienced. We don’t often get to see musical theatre performers of this quality in Scarborough- if ever- and I was left wondering how we had got so lucky. Maybe they just wanted to have a chance to sing great songs.

The show was originally conceived by David Thompson, Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman and staged off Broadway. It has been beautifully directed at the Stephen Joseph by Lotte Wakeham. Each song is a small drama, rather than a song, and the acting is every bit as important as the singing. The cast are very generous towards each other in this, playing supporting roles alongside each performance with great timing and commitment. Marry Me, from The Rink was a fine example, with Shona White listening to Nigel Richards as he proposed and showing us her every thought. I loved Phoebe Fildes and Laura Jane Matthewson’s version of Class from Chicago- perfectly done- and they also did a great version of The Grass is Always Greener from Woman of the Year together. Nigel Richards does a heartrending version of I Don’t Remember You from The Happy Time. He has great warmth as a performer- not something you can teach- and a beautiful tone. I’d love to have heard him do a full out, complete version of the title song on his own rather than just one of the snippets that we heard throughout as a kind of refrain. It was a pleasure to watch Ashley Samuels move- both on roller skates and off- and it would have been good to see more of that as well as hearing him sing. Shona White was best in the songs relishing Kander and Ebb’s sassy humour and it was a joy to see the mostly older audience chuckling away at her in Arthur in the Afternoon, from City Lights. That was one of the less well known songs which it was interesting to hear alongside those which have become standards. The title song from Cabaret could easily have become a cliche, but a stunning arrangement made it seem new and fresh as well as something which just had to be there.

It was one of those times where the set fitted both the show and the space in the round perfectly. This is not always easy. It was simple and made a flexible background for the performers while providing enough Broadway razzamatazz to be going on with. A job well done by designer Simon Kerry.

The matinee that I saw was a relaxed “dementia friendly” performance. Even though it was poorly attended, one look at the shining eyes of the man waiting to be led into the lift behind me would have been enough to make it clear that the whole thing was worthwhile. If anyone had been put off by being told this in advance and thought that their afternoon would be spoiled they needn’t have worried. Those of us who were there behaved impeccably as great songs worked their magic and the very talented cast still stormed it for us. We loved it. There was also free cake in the interval- something that I think should be available at all theatre performances from now on. Well done to the SJT. I hope that they do this again and allow the idea to grow. Theatre is for everyone. When the West End comes to Scarborough and it costs £10 for a front row matinee ticket you’d be a fool to miss one of the few remaining performances.

Sweeney Todd. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 17-10-13


Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit!
And the vermin of the world inhabit it…

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is probably the closest a musical could come to being an opera, in fact I’d find it hard to explain why it isn’t one. It’s a bravura piece of writing with enormous scope, technically hugely demanding, a piece of grand guignol with heart, bleak and unafraid. It doesn’t do anything by halves and nor should any company who attempt it. You either succeed magnificently or fall flat on your face. I love it very much.

Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber of Fleet street” who despatched his victims from his barber’s chair as an act of vengeance against a world which had wronged him terribly and made the bodies into pies, with the help of his accomplice Mrs Lovett, began life in a Victorian penny dreadful. It took hold of the Victorian imagination immediately as stories which play on people’s fears often do. Worries about what might be inside the cheap pies that people bought on the street have modern resonances and anyone who has seen a cut throat razor knows why it received and kept its nickname. Sondheim has added a strange poignancy and beauty to the shocking thrills of the original story.

As soon as I sat down in my front row seat to be faced with a bleak collection of mentally ill people who had been discarded by society, eking out their day to the sound of Karen Carpenter’s angelic voice singing Close To You over and over again, crackling out from a rickety sound system I knew that I need have no worries. It was an inspired choice. The strange juxtaposition of beauty and emptiness which lies at the heart of the score had been understood. The chilling opening number sprung directly out of this world and the tone was set.

The musicianship is very fine throughout and there is some strong singing and committed character work from the whole company. Sweeney and Mrs Lovett are the kind of virtuoso parts which you need to cast before you know whether you have a show or not, parts which an actor will wait all their lives to play. David Birrell is mesmerising as Sweeney and attacks the part with great presence and energy. Vocally he is impeccable. Gillian Bevan gives us a very truthful and astute reading of Mrs Lovett. I could understand exactly why she was doing what she did while at the same time being appalled by it. The pair are a great team and strike sparks off each other, just as they should. There is humour in the song Priest which forms the climax of the first half, but not as much as there can be. In this production it is very clear that the energy and black humour of it springs directly out of the magnificent sequence before it, Epithany, when Sweeney Todd finally declares vengeance on the world and his path of violence and amorality is set. There is a deep sexual tension and desperation behind Mrs Lovett’s invention. Her idea for the pie shop grows out of her own fear of Sweeney and her obsession with someone who is now clearly a monster and this worked perfectly for me. I also feel that I want to single out Don Gallagher’s chilling performance as Judge Turpin and Michael Peavoy is very touching as Anthony Hope but the whole cast are relishing their chance to tackle this score and their characterisation and concentration is a joy to watch.

The design by Colin Richmond sets the action in a grubby, almost deserted hinterland of ship containers and grey cold walls, a perfect backdrop full of telling detail. I loved the pie shop counter full of things that you really should not eat- every godforsaken cafe you have ever looked into through the window before you walked on past. The musical direction by George Dyer, a difficult task on a Sondheim show of this kind, is best judged by the flawless delivery of the cast. He must be very proud of them. James Brining has made a brave and accomplished start to his time as artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I am very fond of the Quarry theatre in particular and I am heartened to see that someone has taken it on who clearly understands what it can do. The stage of the Quarry theatre is made for a show like this.

As I walked into the auditorium the usher helped me past a lot of young people. “We’ve got two school parties in” she said apologetically, unsure of how I would react. I grinned at her. “Don’t worry- I think it will shut them up.” It did a lot more than that. At the end of the show those young people were cheering, some of them were on their feet and a few of them will have become theatregoers for life.

Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,
Hugging the blade, waiting the years,
Hearing the music that nobody hears.
Sweeney waits in the parlor hall,
Sweeney leans on the office wall.

Avenue Q. Theatre Royal Bath at Liverpool Empire. 14-06-12

Avenue Q is a much loved musical. It won three Tony awards, including best musical and ran for six years on Broadway. The West End production ran for five years and it has been seen all over the world, so seeing it for the first time via the Theatre Royal Bath’s second tour of the show in June 2012 was coming very late indeed to the party! It is a charming, fun show which is quite hard to describe. Each of the characters in a microcosm of New York street life is played both by a muppet style puppet and the actor who is working it. This works like a dream and it is a genuinely original idea. The characters are mostly young, well meaning and in their early twenties, just finding their way in life and their concerns are ones that we can all understand. We have all been there, even those of us who are middle aged, and we recognise their worries, or at least remember how it feels. The songs and the book are very cleverly written and the writers, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx get the tone exactly right. They could have got it very wrong if they hadn’t. There is a big hearted honesty about the show which is unashamedly sentimental but never tips over into schmaltz. Nothing is off limits, whether it is internet porn, noisy enthusiastic sex, admitting that everyone is just a little bit racist, or worrying about being gay when you really shouldn’t be worrying about it any more. Above all this is a show about what it is like to be young, when you are finding your feet after leaving the cocoon of your university years and wondering what to do with your life. There were two songs which touched a nerve with me, There’s a Fine Fine Line and I Wish I Could Go Back To College, and I’m pretty sure that just about everybody would find something in this show which would resonate with them. The puppets are terrific and give us all permission to be young and silly and have fun. Our worries and concerns can have fun poked at them gently and nothing is really so bad. As the final song points out, everything in life is only for now. If things are good then relish it and enjoy it while it lasts and if they are not then remember that things will get better and do the best you can. Trust me, that message sounds better when you hear it in the show than it does when it is written down in cold print. You really need to see this one, not read about it.

It’s the kind of show which depends on precision and perfect timing, and it is given a good chance to shine by a talented cast, although it is a very American creation and I would have loved to see the original Broadway production. I liked Katharine Moraz as Kate Monster very much indeed, a touching and truthful performance, and Matthew J Henry was full of energy and sparkle as Gary. For once though it is the central idea which is the star and that is what makes Avenue Q unique and worth seeing. The bottom line is that it is enormous fun and there is not enough of that in the world.

Swallows and Amazons. National Theatre/ Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Celia Adams as Nancy Blackett and Sophie Waller as Peggy Blackett. Production photograph by Simon Annand.

Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic Swallows and Amazons, and its eleven successors have some very devoted fans.  I am one of them, so when I sat down in a packed expectant West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon’s new adaptation I was taking a bit of a risk. I was in danger of spoiling some very cherished memories of books which I read over and over again, no matter how glowing the reviews have been. I needn’t have worried. This is a beautifully judged piece of family theatre (something that we don’t get enough of outside of pantomime) and the writing treads exactly the right path, utilising both a gentle irony which never descends into parody and showing great respect for the seriousness of the children’s imaginative life. As an adult, we are allowed to see and understand what is really going on by the use of gentle single line interventions that make us smile as we read between the lines, and as children we are drawn into the powerfully evocative imaginative life of the children on stage, willing them to succeed.

Complex, mature and imaginative outdoor play is something that few children are given the freedom to do today. They are constantly watched over by “barbarians” of one kind or another and it would be an unusual kind of father today who would send a telegram like,”Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown.” Even when Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons back in 1930 there was an element of fantasy about this. The books have always been most read and most loved by bookish children who would never have been given, or coped with, the kind of freedom that the children in the book are allowed. Ransome wrote the book for the original Swallows, his friend’s children who he sailed with on the lakes, and so it is grounded in a real sense of place and an understanding of children.

The Swallows and Amazons. Production photograph by Simon Annand.

The masterstroke of this production is that it understands that this kind of imaginative play is at the heart of the book, however real the sailing and camping which provides the setting for the games may be.  From beginning to end it is shot though with playful flights of fantasy. Given a few bits of wood, a pole, some rope, a ribbon and a blue flag the swallows can sail across the stage on a tiny trolley. The puppet cormorants from Cormorant island can fly on wings made from black plastic, an owl which is nothing more than a few feathers attached to the ends of an actor’s fingers can swoop down, and the reeds of the Amazon river materialise from two constantly shifting rows of poles. There are so many examples of this kind of invention, invention which only works thanks to the accuracy of the mime and some split second timing, that you are able to leave reality behind and lose yourself in the story which is being told. It is a great piece of ensemble work. There is a moment where Titty dives, with graceful confidence, into thin air and is caught by a row of waiting arms which is quite magical. This is a classic drama trust exercise and it sums up how well this company is working together.

Akiya Henry as Titty. Production photograph by Simon Annand.

The children are all played by adults, not that you would notice, and they work perfectly together. The best compliment that I can pay them is that they gave me the confidence to leave behind the cherished images in my head which I have carried for many years and allow them to create something new. All of them came to life in believable and strong performances which steered entirely clear of sentimentality by sheer force of conviction. John Walker in particular has some lines and attitudes which are deeply unfashionable today. He is badly hurt by being called a liar and has a high moral code which he adheres to and Richard Holt manages to play this aspect of him without ever making him look priggish. Katie Moore has fine comic timing and a lively energy which saves Susan from being just a boring little wannabee housewife. Akiya Henry was very touching as Titty. She is by far my favourite character in the books, quiet, sensitive and vulnerable, but by no means a wimp, and I felt for her. Roger is the one Swallow who I would have approached differently but Stewart Wright does what is asked of him very nicely and the audience loved him. Nancy (Celia Adams) and Peggy (Sophie Waller), the two Amazon pirates are a delight, exactly as I would have wanted them. There is great poignancy in both performances as well as conviction. They are not really causing mayhem and destruction- they need to get back for their tea and they adore their uncle who usually spoils them rotten- but we can be well aware of that while at the same time completely believing in the seriousness of their piratical ambitions. The clarity of this dual viewpoint is the payback for having adult actors playing the roles rather than children.

The direction, by Tom Morris, is pacy and clever and the music, by Neil Hannon, is simple and catchy and full of atmosphere. The Amazon pirates are given the kind of song that they deserve and they make the most of it. There is some lovely work from the whole company throughout in the background as well as some nicely sung solos and some lovely harmonies.

I am not going to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book but it was an absolute joy to sit in the middle of seven hundred and fifty people who were relishing the chance to be part of what was happening on stage and roaring their support. And no, it wasn’t just the children………….