Featured post

Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Avenue Q (DAOS)

Lots of my theatrical friends, I have one or two, say I do not like musicals. It ain’t never, ever, been true. I love a good one as much as anyone. My problem, particularly on the amateur stage, was that many were devoid of imagination in choice or presentation. Or, even worse, both. If you are regurgitating an Annie or Oliver for the umpteenth time you need to put a special twist on it to grab me by the fundamentals. But old or new, spin it with verve and creativity and I can be as hooked as the biggest musical fan. My favourite musical evenings have ranged from Stephen Sondheim to Lionel Bart, from The Drowsy Chaperone to Chorus Line, from Carousel to Chess. All different, but all with the commonality of gobsmacking style. Took one in this week. An everyday story of young folks searching for that elusive American dream in a downmarket New York City borough. The human condition writ small and detailed. Absolutely loved the whole evening and, disturbingly, went home thinking deeply about their emotional frailties and traumas. So what, you may say, good theatre does that. But this was a group of woolly puppets, a bit of colourful cloth with hands up their imaginary backsides, for God’s sake. Avenue Q, the smash hit puppet musical and its richly rounded and flawed characters surprisingly touched me as deeply as any in a well crafted drama. I really should get out more. Or maybe less. Am seeing my shrink tomorrow. In saying this I am applauding the actors who were on stage with them. They were the ones saying the lines and singing the songs, but it was the colourful puppets you concentrated on. Those actors would not have had it any other way. You felt for Kate Monster (Lucy O’Hare) as she desperately and willingly threw herself at the man of her dreams, the likeable and troubled Princeton (Ashley Mead). He searched frantically for his purpose in life and, along the way, had the most amazing on stage bonk with his Kate. You could only do it with puppets. My favourite character Rod (Simon Rollings) was so uptight about his obvious homosexuality that his pitiful self denial led to him throwing his flat mate Nicky (James Halling/Helen Maile) on to the streets. You have made that nice boy homeless, you bastard, I felt like shouting. And homelessness, like racism, homophobia, internet porn and money were key features of this Sesame Street for adults. Even Schadenfraude, look it up, got a mention. It pleases me immensely not to tell you what that means, unhelpful soul that I am. But I will tell you that as well as the main puppet characters we got a wonderfully gross and foul mouthed Trekkie (Joshua Thompson/Anna Woods), the neighbour from hell, and a feisty Scottish schoolteacher with the super name of Mrs Thistletwat (Alana McKenna). Billed as Mrs T in the programme but I am sure I heard this right. I sincerely hope so. I wasn’t a big fan of Blue and Yellow Bear (Kim Albone/Katy Elliott). Nothing to do with those ladies, both fine actresses, but their screechy bad idea consciences for Princeton interfered with an absorbing story of street folk. Just my opinion but I reckon those characters would appeal more to kids and a kids show Avenue Q is not. You wouldn’t get Lucy the Slut (Jenna Ryder-Oliver) at any kiddie’s party. This diva flaunted sex as a weapon of choice and necessity. And she flounced offstage in beautiful symmetry with her shadowy puppeteer. Two flounces for the price of one cannot be bad. Perhaps, on second thoughts, modern, computer savvy, five year olds would like that. They flounce around a lot in Waitrose. In a show rich in ethnicity it is hardly surprising that we also had humans in a variety of shades. Only three, but they mingled well with those of the puppet races. Oh that real life could be like that, he says wistfully. Paul Rogers was a little too underpowered as the well meaning but pretty useless comedian Brian but Susan Young made for an interesting slant as a Japanese Christmas Eve and Damien Winchester was an engaging Gary. Childhood success followed by dismal adult failure was the downward theme of Gary’s troubled life and in a show with many subtle and not so subtle messages this young man’s was one. Mr Winchester sang brightly and acted sprightly. His is a local name to watch. Remember you heard it here first. I shan’t list all the songs. Too many, and if none are hit parade material all were relevant and jolly and all sung with style and energy. I particularly liked ‘If You Were Gay’ (Nicky and Rod), ‘The Internet is for Porn’ (Trekkie Monster), ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’ (Kate) and ‘The Money Song’ but none jarred and the lyrics were clever. Click, click, hold your dick, won’t win any literary prizes but it appealed to my dirty mind. Overall director Chris Young and Choreographer Lynette Driver did a super job with a show which must have been fraught with technical and presentational difficulties. They had the essential tool in Paul Jomain’s quintessential puppets but, helped by a clever technical team, they had to sell it to an audience in which disbelief has to be suspended and a special narrative embraced. That they succeeded owes much to their precision, let down only briefly in act two scene changes, and the commitment and talent of the actors controlling the puppets. After the first few minutes on stage I was not conscious that they were there. I was in thrall to the joys and frustrations, the pleasures and the pain, of the lives of Kate Monster and Princeton, of Nicky and Rod. That is the heart of the success of Avenue Q. Do it right, and DAOS did, and we believe in and love those bits of cloth. I am telling my psychiatrist tomorrow. I think she will change my tablets. Roy Hall

Wendy Says - ' I just loved the Trekkie Monster, so wonderfully foulmouthed.'







Sunday, 23 March 2014

Out of Order (Dunstable Rep)

I have been doing a lot of thinking this week. I often do a lot of thinking. Usually along the lines of ‘Where have I put my bloody car keys?’ or ‘Why has that stone cold certainty at Haydock Park come stone cold last, gasping for breath?’ Doesn’t do to be too cerebrally demanding at my age. But, as I say, I have been thinking. Mainly about farce. Seems appropriate in budget week even if, for a change, that annual event was less farcical than usual. Except for the spat surrounding a beer and bingo poster. That was fun. But I digress, as they say in the best circles. No, the farce I have been thinking about is those of a theatrical variety which seems appropriate seeing as this is a theatre blog. Notwithstanding those occasional intrusions about horses gasping for breath. Oh do get on with it for God’s sake; her indoors is losing the will to live.

Get on with it I will. Farce, of the theatrical variety, is bloody difficult. Do an Ibsen or a Chekhov or a Rattigan and there are various degrees of satisfaction. Outright misery at an excruciating turkey to unbounded joy at a masterpiece of presentation. And in between, subtle levels of appreciation. It ain’t like that with farce. It either works or it doesn’t. You either fly or fall straight off the cliff. Hit the heights or sink without trace. Choose your own metaphor. Just my opinion of course but I have been certified. This one, Dunstable Rep’s Out of Order, for those of you who have lost the thread, worked beautifully because it had leads who were completely believable, support that worked as a team, and a director who knitted them all together with first class pace and verve. Rarely were we allowed to think over the couple of hours of nonsense fun. That was vital. If the laughter stops and the audience grey cells start working, a die of doom can be cast. Have seen it many times in theatres up and down the land. They think farce is easy. It might seem so but it’s not, and that is why I take my hat off to director Roger Scales and his team. Good job really. It’s a pretty battered, unflattering, black one. My hat that is.  And it clashed dreadfully with Mr Scales’ colourful shirt in the foyer.

Hang on? Is that it? Aren’t you going to say anything about the plot? About the actors? About that team who toiled so hard and well? About the set? Well yes if I must but it is all so glowing I might get a bit boring. We like blood on this blog, if only of the theatrical kind. No bloodshed here. Joe Butcher was absolutely superb as Richard Willey MP, junior government minister bent on a clandestine hotel tryst. I cannot think of a local actor better suited to such a fruity part. He does harassed comic blustering with effortless aplomb and yet, crucially, always works as part of a coherent team. And that was a must in Ray Cooney’s frenetic piece on thwarted sexual coupling. His Willey, if you will pardon the phrase, was well matched by Anthony Bird’s cleverly observed portrayal of the hapless assistant, George Pigden. His was the sort of part you could imagine Claude Hulbert or Jonathan Cecil, you won’t have a clue who they are, lapping up. Well meaning and useless. If I would have liked a little more panic to be flashed in Mr Bird’s eyes at times that was my only nitpick. He was a simple and floundering foil for an increasingly stressed political master and together he and Mr Butcher spun the farcical script with style. And he jumped into sundry welcoming arms with gusto.

I shan’t regale you with the plot. Suffice to say, on an Alan Goss realistic and pleasing hotel suite set, a supposedly dead body and an over active sash window put paid to any prospects of horizontal activities. Hayley Vaughan impressed as the object of a politicians very non PC desires, Richard Garrett for an elderly waiter making unseemly fortunes at every opportunity, and Dave Hillman for a harassed hotel manager gleaming with liberal tins of Westminster polish. But with practically every daft entrance and exit from a variety of characters, including the delightful flashing of naked bottoms, there was not a serious weak link in a well drilled cast that fired with energy and pace. Alex Brewer, as the dead body, had neither naked bottom nor energetic pace but he made for a richly convincing corpse. It was all a load of rubbish of course, but if the play ran slightly out of steam at the end the playing never did. Nonsense of the highest order and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is nice, occasionally, not to have to think. Roy Hall

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Out of Order (Preview) - Dunstable Rep

The Rep’s latest production is a joyously funny romp from beginning to end. An inconvenient body thwarts promised sexual couplings in Ray Cooney’s classic farce. Joe Butcher superbly leads as a harassed and philandering politician and Anthony Bird makes for a splendidly fey and hapless assistant. Richard Garrett, Hayley Vaughan and Dave Hillman add fun to an accomplished supporting team which effortlessly serve up the mayhem. Knitted almost to perfection by director Roger Scales, this nonsense of the highest order was an absolute tonic. Grab a ticket if you can. Roy Hall

Runs to Saturday 22nd March (7.45pm - High Street, Dunstable)

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Bridge and The Killing (BBC4)

I have never been a great subscriber to populism. Prefer to do my own thing rather than follow the latest trend. If I had been born a greyhound I would have been so slow out of the traps I reckon the hare would have lapped me before I got going. Take your time I says, assess the situation, gather the facts. Form your own opinion. Stunningly astute or plain bloody lazy? Take your pick. I have no idea but it has saved me wasting a lot of precious time on things that, when you sweep away the hype, are patently abysmal. Following this sensible maxim has saved me from the worst excesses of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, Britain’s Got Talent, Downtown Abbey, The Daily Mail, November Moustaches, and Nick Clegg. To name but a few. Equally I have no desire to bungee jump for charity, wear a badge proclaiming my beliefs, or do anything on television. If it’s the fashion, the perceived wisdom, or the popular view I tend to veer the other way. Sheer bloody mindedness and a strong desire not to be controlled. Probably explains why I loathe practically all government initiatives. Especially the ones telling us what to do or think.

Does have its downside, of course. Except for Nick Clegg. Being so stubborn in my refusal to join in with fashionable hype or hysteria I have missed out on a few things. Took me years to discover the joys of an iPod, Calvin Klein underpants, and Robert Goddard’s cerebral mysteries. But I soon catch up. Eventually. Bt Infinity, Stieg Larsson, and Quantitative Easing are a cinch at my dinner table discussions. I particularly like Stieg Larsson. The success of his Millennium Trilogy obliquely launched numerous Scandinavian dramas and, belatedly, the TV executive suits woke up to a blindingly obvious fact. A lot of us can actually cope with subtitles. Suddenly BBC4 was awash with cerebral crime dramas which a few years ago would have not got a look in. Took me a while to find them but Arne Dahl and The Bridge on Saturday nights soon became a must see in our house. Belatedly I have been splashing out on sundry Nordic Noir DVD’s and it will surprise few who lap up this genre that I am completely hooked.

The Bridge (Series One and Two) still ranks as my favourite in spite of over stretched plots. The chemistry between the autistic Swedish detective (Sofia Helin) and her philandering Danish counterpart (Kim Bodnia) is quality acting of the highest order. In narrative that grips throughout, detailed police procedure interspersed with pleasingly complex storylines, attention is permanently held in a way that British TV crime drama rarely does. The Killing (Series One and Two) matches, and probably exceeds, The Bridge for in depth relationship and convinces me that my first taste of this latest fashion was no happy accident. These Scandinavians know how to craft and develop gripping stories that require a heavy dollop of attention span and trust they have an audience capable of applying it. Sofie Grabol as Sarah Lund, famed now for her unprepossessing jumpers, gives a performance that deserves every award thrown at her. Her dysfunctional detective is surrounded by quality actors, Morten Surballe is superb as her boss Lennart Brix, and in series one Ann Eleonora Jorgensen gives a riveting performance as the murder victim’s mother. If you see no other modern Scandinavian crime drama you could do worse than try series one of The Killing as a taster. It is long, twenty episodes covering twenty days, but its mix of police procedure, political intrigue, and domestic grief and recriminations gains a hold on your attention that never lets go. Or it did for me.

So I am now following a fashionable trend, even if a bit late in the day. Have just bought The Killing (Series Three) and Those Who Kill from the same director. So I have a lot to look forward to in the evenings when dreary British TV schedules offer up the same load of rubbish that they have been churning out for years. There are exceptions (37 Days on BBC2 was riveting World War One factual political drama) but they are like hen’s teeth. I generally prefer the radio. But I like, no love, these Nordic crime dramas. They tick all my appreciation boxes.  And, actually, I quite like Nick Clegg. Just being provocative. It’s Paddy Ashdown I can’t stand. Roy Hall