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Jul 25th

The Judgement in Stone at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

The stage adaptation by Anthony Lampard and Simon Brett of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 novel, A Judgement in Stone, gives a different twist to the crime. In the novel the first line - ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she couldn’t read’ - gives the reader the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of the ‘whodunit from the outset.  The interest in the novel lies in the psychology behind the criminal motive. In the Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s play the ‘who’ and ‘why’ are slow to be revealed, which should increase the tension throughout the play – is it the gardener, the cleaner, the boyfriend?

 The dénouement is through a question and answer formula – on February 14th two police officers  Detective Superintendent Vetch (Andrew Lancel) and Sergeant Challoner (Ben Nealon)  begin their interviews of  Eunice Packman (Sophie Ward). It is the day after the shooting of the four Coverdales. As their live-in cleaner for nine months Eunice was close to the family, at least in distance. Through Eunice’s and the other staff’s testimonies we are presented with the dead -  the parents, played by Mark Wynter and Rosie Thomson, and their children, in a series of flashbacks.  The past and the  present  are cleverly marked by lighting changes - a golden glow for the past and a cold blue for the present.

 The setting is very Agatha Christie – a country estate – Lowfield Hall  -with a collection of stock characters – upper class and lower class, a character with previous , a reformed  bible-bashing prostitute. The set is a reflection of upper-middle class life – comfortable but not luxurious. The Coverdale’s tastes are also discerning – opera, overseas travel, shooting and they employ others to look after them – Meadows the gardener, Eva the cleaner and Eunice the housekeeper. It is the Coverdale’s buying power which catches the killer in the end. Throughout the play we are told  about their modern devices, of the large TV in the sitting room, the one in Eunice’s room and the cassette player on which Melinda was recording opera when she was shot.

 The novel is well adapted to the stage to show the passing of time with the characters’ slick exits and entrances. The cast are word perfect. Their gestures and voices bring individuality to their roles. The most amusing and lively is the Post Mistress, Joan Smith (Deborah Grant) who brings, at least during her first appearance, liveliness and amusement. Unfortunately the characters relationships are not fully developed. I was unconvinced by the relationship between Joan and Eunice and unconvinced by the sudden killing -  Eunice had not expressed revenge towards anyone in the family except Melinda; moreover, her reaction to her dismissal by George was too accepting. In fact there was too little weight put on the psychology of the characters – the story was not believable. Perhaps the stage is not the right setting for A Judgement in Stone – television may do it more justice.

 

A Judgement in Stone is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 29th July

 www.atgtickets.com

 0844871 7652

 Booking fee applies

 

Jul 12th

Jane Eyre - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

Reviewed by Louise Winter

10 July 2017

JE poster

Having seen Sally Cookson’s creative re-imagining of La Strada earlier this year it was with very high expectations and great anticipation that I settled into my seat for her take on Jane Eyre.  What a thrill! Absolutely nothing in this production disappoints; it is stupendous and utterly satisfying on all levels.

Charlotte Bronte’s novel, which brought to the page much of her suffering and anguish as a young woman, was originally titled ‘An autobiography’ and published under the name Currer Bell. No one initially believed a woman would be the author of such an angry and passionately intense book and it created a huge stir at the time. There are numerous connections across Bronte and Eyre’s lives; the north-country origins, early deaths of siblings, and desperately unhappy times through boarding school and early work-life. The power of the story and its autobiographical elements, married with Cookson’s unique presentation and the powerful elements of the production design, combine to create an absorbing and mesmerising three hours.

JE BM

photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Michael Vale’s stage design is understated and dynamically effective.  A centre stage series of wooden frames, platforms and ladders, which remain immobile but are dynamically utilised by the players, serve as a child’s climbing frame, various residences and institutions and rooms within these. Depending on how this frame is lit and populated, the atmosphere veers from the oppressive to the expansive. Further suspended or carried frames suggest outside spaces through to imagined vistas and the changing of the seasons. A background of white drapes on 3 sides serve as screens for Aideen Malone’s colour projections creating shifts in emotional and physical space; the foreboding and punishment of the red room, the cruelty and starkness of the orphanage.

JE BrinkhoffM+Âgenburg

photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Benji Bowers’ compositions and Dominic Bilkeys’ sound design, are integral to everything that happens on stage. All original apart from three pieces, it is eclectic and performed centre stage by a small group of musician/actors. Far from being a distraction they are absolutely vital to the story and lend a further element to the story and atmosphere. There is often a hypnotic sense to quieter moments on stage created by the soundscape until contrasting speeds, genres and volume shift the timings and dynamically propel us again through Jane’s journey and emotions. The fully integrated and balanced use of the designers’ use of all elements of structure, sound, space, colour and movement ignite the audiences’ imagination fully in Cookson’s take.

JE BM

photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

 

A very small cast with actors playing multiple parts means everyone is on stage for most of the time. Outstanding one and all, this group of  actors and their sense of unity creates the completeness of the experience rather than the relying on lead players. Melanie Marshall, at first appearing to be an understated narrator or commentator later emerging to be Bertha Mason, is still and poised emerging from the shadows to perform with the most entrancing operatically powerful voice. Her stillness symbolising her trapped life perhaps, with not a hint of chaotic madness about her but rather a measured clarity of purpose.  Nadia Clifford as Jane is brilliant and the difficult and tumultous relationship between her and the excellent Tim Delap as Rochester is palpable, never veering into caricature but believable and true. Paul Mundell (Mr Brocklehurst/ Pilot/ Mason) is markedly different in his roles, very funny and unusual as Rochester's dog. Evelyn Miller (Bessie/ Blance Ingram/ St John) is outstanding and proves her versatility in this range of parts as does Hannah Bristow in her five roles.

A dynamic, energetic, absorbing and stunningly presented piece of physical theatre which brings a new dimension to Bronte’s book. 

Jane Eyre is at MK theatre until 15 July and then continues on tour 

Box Office: 0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)

Groups Hotline: 01908 547609

Access Booking: 0844 872 7677

Online Booking: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (bkg fee)

 

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Jul 5th

Dreamboats and Petticoats at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

 D&B poster

Dreamboats and Petticoats is either, for the baby boom generation a nostalgic trip back to their youth or, for their grandchildren, an introduction to the revolution in music and fashion of ‘teenagers’ - a term surprisingly only coined in 1957 - in the late 50s and early 60s.

The story line of the musical is simple and somewhat hackneyed; a garrulous grandfather is giving his old Fender guitar to his granddaughter - and through a series of flashbacks we learn that Bobby, the grandfather, had been an aspiring singer and song writer, a member of St Mungo’s youth club, that he had been smitten by an unsuitable girl, but that he had eventually realised his true love was the sister of his best friend.  We are presented with the angst of teenagers – pimples, lack of money, jealousy. However, this uninspiring scenario is just an excuse for some wonderful musical hopscotch of the pop and rock songs from that era, such as Bobby’s Girl and Runaround Sue, Only Sixteen and Teenager in Love, sung and played with energy and confidence by a very talented cast. Norman, (Alastair Hill)  a Billy Fury lookalike, with swivelling hips, wonderful voice and a Brylcreemed quiff is a most believable ‘bad boy’, while Bobby (Alistair Higgins) portrays a good, yet foolish, teenager. The two female characters that partner these young men are sexy Sue, (Laura Darton) and  demure Laura, (Elizabeth Carter) – who play their respective roles endearingly.

The script by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran closely harkens back to everyday life of the 60s with mention of a twin-tub, the opening of the M1, Butterkists, and Formica. The scenery and costumes emphasise those years – advertising posters, elasticised belts, a duffle bag, the caretaker’s brown coat and polka dots on the girl’s skirts. Two memorable scenes are the slow- motion fight and the dodgem car on Southend pier – although more could have been made of the latter.

But the real stars of the show are the songs – performed by a great band and singers; it was easy to forget that the cast were singing and dancing and playing throughout and never once did the quality of the performance lapse. Three noteworthy renditions were Poetry in Motion, Only the Lonely – great hand movements – and the perfect harmonies of Sweet Sixteen.  In the finale the participation of the audience to C’mon Everybody, Hey Baby, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans and At the Hop showed that the music had struck a chord with those who had been around when the songs first hit the radio. A very enjoyable evening.

 

Dreamboats and Petticoats is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 8th July

 

www.atgtickets.com

 0844 871 7652

 Booking fee applies

 

 

 

May 4th

MAMMA MIA! - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

Reviewed 3rd May 2017

MAMMA MIA! poster

Oh, what a delightfully uplifting evening! The Milton Keynes audience collectively skipped out into the cold night, warm and energised by the Greek sun and sing-a-long finale! Truly an international stage phenomenon; running in the West End for almost twenty years, and a film adaptation which is still the highest worldwide grossing live-action musical film, MAMMA MIA! is cross-generational and resonates on a number of levels. This touring production is just wonderful and well worth a visit if you can get a ticket; MK was jam-packed last night with an enthusiastic, vocal and appreciative audience.

Judy Craymer creator/producer has said it was difficult to convince people initially that the play was to be an original story using ABBA songs and not the story of the band itself.  Incredibly, this particular play is so established that it is seems hard to imagine there was ever any doubt. Strikingly female-centric with the respective love lives of mother and daughter on show, it is also a story of a mother’s love for her daughter and the poignancy of that relationship. Craymer states that she noticed the songs by ABBA’s writers Bjőrn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson ‘fell into two generations: younger more playful songs such as ‘Honey, Honey’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ and more mature, emotional songs such as ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ – the latter in the style of story-telling, conversational songs that can be interpreted as between two people or the dialogue of inner turmoil. They might be ‘pop’ songs but there is so much more to them and this is what creates the synergy between the story, the songs and the performances in this production; credible, honest actors here tell stories through poignant and meaningful lyrics. There is an integrity at the heart of this show and ABBA’s music is universally loved, as evident both on stage and in the auditorium last night.

MAMMA MIA - Donna, Tanya, Rosie

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

A strong cohesive cast, led by Donna (Helen Hobson) and Sophie (Lucy May Barker), are obviously having a blast every night and are spot on with dramatic and comic timing. Hobson is sexy as hell and Barker is charming. Both have strong voices and a lovely on stage chemistry – believable as mother and daughter. Their performance of ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ was emotional and touching. 

MAMMA MIA! boys

 Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Sophie’s ‘fathers’, Harry (James Hogarth), Bill (Christopher Hollis), and Sam (Jon Boydon’ are perfect. Donna’s ‘girl group’ friends Tanya (Emma Clifford) and Rosie (Gillian Hardie) are a complete hoot. Their rendition of ‘Chiquitita’ created guffaws and snorts from the stalls and ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and ‘Take a Chance on Me’ were laugh out loud funny; reminiscent of ridiculous elements of French and Saunders in their prime.

MAMMA MIA! Hobson and Barker

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The ensemble, a young and very dynamic group, are strong of voice, exceptionally fine of figure – particularly the young men(!) and exuberant from start to finish. Setting and staging is straightforward and refreshingly uncomplicated, costumes a combination of flippers, flares, sequins and sandals, choreography (Anthony Van Laast) cheeky and superbly executed and the live band led by Richard Weedon are superlative. 

MAMMA MIA! stags

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

All in all, a perfect night out!

 

MAMMA MIA! is at MK Theatre until Saturday 20th May

Box Office: 0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)

Groups Hotline: 01908 547609

Access Booking: 0844 872 7677

Online Booking: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (bkg fee)

 

Apr 21st

Casanova at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

By Alison Smith

Casanove copyright Guy Farrow

image by Guy Farrow

Giacomo Casanova is renowned for his sexual exploits but in the eighteenth century he was famous for so much more. He was, amongst other things, a translator, a violinist, a papal knight, a trainee priest, a spy and a philosopher. Casanova’s own memoirs - not intended to be published apparently - are the reason that more is known of his sex life than his other activities. He was, significantly, an adherent to the ideas of the Enlightenment and hence a participant in a revolution of freedom of expression, tolerance of sexual differences and escape from the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church.

This ballet is adapted from the 2008 biography, Casanova, by Ian Kelley. Casanova, the ballet, depicts the man’s life from postulant to gambler to writer, from virgin to Lothario to broken hearted lover, through a series of delicious vignettes. But it is impossible to convey the richness and sensuality of the dancers, the atmosphere created by the music, set, costumes and wigs, which make the ballet an outstanding experience, in mere words.

Casanova CDB Copyright Emma Kauldhar

image by Emma Kauldhar

The curtain opens on an austere stage – gloom, chimes, an incense burner, gilded pillars, but from this moment the audience is transported into many different worlds by small shifts of stage furniture and a remarkable use of lighting (Alastair West). The music (Kerry Muzzey) is so closely integrated with the movements on stage that it becomes as one with them and each scene segues into the next seemingly effortlessly as we are transported from one location to another. And what dancers! They are skillful not only in dancing but in conveying emotion through each bodily movement; especially notable were the beautiful lines made by the male dancers’ arms when they were clad in priestly vestments.  Of course the scenes with less clothing – the masquerade, the seduction by M.M., the party in Paris, allow an appreciation of bodies which move with the fluidity of water, which are expressive and beautiful. Accolades must be given to Kenneth Tindall the choreographer. It is difficult to portray sex scenes without falling into the trap of indecency and lewdness, but Tindall’s choreography has created a world of sensuality and intimacy.

Casanova image copyright Emma Kauldhar

image by Emma Kauldhar

The most sensuous was Giuliano Contadini as Casanova. He shone in the duets and trios with both male and female partners. His relationships with Bellino (Dreda Blow) and Henriette (Hannah Bateman) expressed the joy of their close, physical contact, an intimacy very different from the relations with Madame de Pompadour and Senator Bragadin.

Casanove Courtesans Caroline Holden

image by Caroline Holden

The corps de ballet in their roles as priests, guests at the ball, courtesans and gamblers filled the stage with movement and drama ; there was the occasional mistiming but whatever their dancing expertise - soloists, leading dancers or ensmble – all portrayed a world of grandeur, hedonism and beauty, which is unforgettable.

Casanova is at Milton Keynes theatre until Saturday 22nd April

www.atgtickets.com

0844 871 7652

Booking fee applies

 

Mar 28th

Shirley Valentine at Milton keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

Reviewed by Alison Smith 27th March 2017

Poster SV 

I have allowed myself to lead this little life, when inside me there was so much more. And it’s all gone unused. And now it never will be.’

This is just one of Shirley Bradshaw’s - née Valentine - lines by Willy Russell in his play Shirley Valentine and it encapsulates a universal truth – that we all have great potential within us. Jodie Prenger totally fulfils her potential in her role as Shirley Valentine.  It is true that she has an excellent script to work with, but alone on stage for two hours, Jodie captivates the audience with her sincerity, physicality and an obvious deep enjoyment of the part. Jodie becomes Shirley Valentine. 

Russell’s truthful portrayal of a middle-woman who regrets her dull existence is written with both wit and heartfelt emotion. Take away the quips and banter and what is left is the grey, lonely monotony of daily life for this woman who has few choices.  But Russell gives us a feisty woman with bittersweet lines and so we temporarily forget that her best friend is Wall, that her husband is domineering, that her children have left. The wit is earthy and northern… ‘I’m not saying she’s a bragger, but if you’ve been to Paradise, she’s got a season ticket’. ‘Sex is like supermarkets, you know, overrated. Just a lot of pushing and shoving and you still come out with very little at the end’.

SV imge copyright Manuel Harlan

image copyright Manuel Harlan

Jodie Prenger makes the script meaningful; her timing is impeccable, her delivery faultless and her body language truthful. The audience becomes her friend – much like Wall, and later Rock – and acts as her confidante – through flashbacks and clever impersonations we know Shirley, and so become complicit in her actions. 

At times the play seems somewhat dated; in 2017, 42 is not considered middle-aged, women do have choices and kitchens are not normally painted mustard.  There is also a great discrepancy in the settings of the Acts. In Act 1 the kitchen and utensils are carefully chosen to represent the 80s – a flowery cutting board, a round, white Fairy bottle,  sculpted pine doors. In Act 2, however, the setting is crude – large lumps of shiny black rock and a Marjorelle blue backdrop. 

None of this can detract, however, from the treat that this play is. It talks of the human condition, its loneliness and sadness and it underlines that with humour and drive, dreary lives can become exciting lives just as Shirley Valentine on her Greek island testifies.

'Dreams. They are never in the place you expect them to be'.

Shirley Valentine is at Milton Keynes Theatre from Monday 27th March to Saturday 1st April

 www.atgtickets.com

 0844871 7652 

Booking fee applies

 

Mar 26th

WNO's Madam Butterfly at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

by Alison Smith

Madam Butterfly

image copyright Jeremy Abrahams

Puccini’s Madam Butterfly (a Japanese Tragedy) is a passionate drama with beautiful music.  But it is also a tale of power and control, of abandonment, of despair and death. The words in the duet at the end of the First Act give a clue; the ironic ‘Love doesn’t kill, but brings life’ …and the more foreboding -‘If a man captures a butterfly he sticks it to a board’. Warnings of the tragic outcome abound, but the protagonists caught up in their love – love for Cio-Cio,  ownership for Pinkerton – ignore the implications.

The tale seems simple.  A relationship between a man and a woman, but the twists and turns of the tale are anything but. The man is an American naval officer in Nagasaki; the woman a very young, beautiful Geisha girl. The marriage is an arranged one, and for the groom a dissolvable one – an early example of sex tourism: cost 100 yen. Cio-Cio (Butterfly) believes this marriage will take her away from the difficult life she leads and open up new possibilities. She adopts Americanisms, calls herself Mrs B.F. Pinkerton, and changes her religion, for which she is rejected by her family. She is a faithful, loving wife, whereas  Pinkerton is  crass, shallow and lustful, playing with Cio-Cio until he marries a ‘real’ American wife. He is full of Western superiority with clear contempt for the Japanese and their culture. When he returns after three years with his new wife, Cio-Cio kills herself.

Madam Butterfly

image copyright Jeremy Abrahams

The setting is beautiful; the stage and costumes are in sepia shades. This lulls the audience into believing such tales only belong to nostalgia – like the old photographs of our ancestors; Pinkerton’s obsession with his camera underscores the idea that Cio-Cio is part of his holiday snaps. The technique of using shoji, the classical Japanese sliding screen doors, opens up the stage, but these screens also act to imprison Cio-Cio in her lonely married life.

Joachim Herz’s  version of Puccini’s opera, is a clever blend of delicate, oriental music and melodious occidental music; in the wedding scene the Japanese national anthem is incorporated and the Star Spangled Banner occurs frequently - this was the American Naval anthem until 1931 when it became America’s national anthem. The two stars of WNO’s Madam Butterfly – Karah Son as Madam Butterfly and Johnathan Burton as Lieutenant Pinkerton - excel in their roles.  Karah Son’s singing is first class and the expresses both innocence and heartbreak in a totally believable manner. Burton was so credible that he was booed at the first curtain call.

The WNO orchestra conducted by Andrew Greenwood is flawless.

 www.atgtickets.com

 0844871 7652

 Booking fee applies.

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 14th

The Play That Goes Wrong - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

Reviewed by Louise Winter 13th March 2017

 TPTG Helen Murray

Image copyright Helen Murray

This very silly, very exhausting, highly physical play from the "Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society" is a result of their attempt at putting on of a 1920's whodunnit 'Murder at Haversham Manor'.

As the audience takes their seats, stagehands Trevor and Annie are pottering about trying to fix parts of the set and with things already going wrong a member of the audience is dragged up to 'help out'. Gradually becoming aware of the antics on stage, the audience starts laughing away and it is clear what sort of daft events and are going to unfold. Even before the play-within-a-play has started the stage is well and truly set for disaster!

TPTGW Helen Murray 

image copyright Helen Murray

Once the pompous director of Cornley Poly, playing lead Inspector Carter has formally introduced the play, gaining plenty of laughs along the way, we hit the ground running so to speak; this play starts as it means to go on and everything that can go wrong does so from the outset. There's no lead into the chaos of the show gradually falling apart, but instead it doees so from the first minute: forgotton lines, missed cues, collapsing scenery, misplaced or broken props, injured actors and so on. There is not a moment's pause and starting at such a high point means that by the end it is positively manic.  From the start it is bedlam and whilst some of the audience loved this descent into slapstick and disaster from the start, barely able to breathe through their guffawing hysterics, others seemed to regard it as all a bit too much too soon. If highly farcical comedies such as Fawlty Towers are considered (and director Bean incorporates some of Basil's traits and responses), or Noises Off for example, the extreme physicality and damage done to characters along with the ridiculousness of some of the scenes was made more so by the subtlety and 'normality' of other aspects. This balance seems to be lacking here. Regardless of individual taste this is a very enjoyable multi-award winning show! 

TPTGW Helen Murray

image copyright Helen Murray

Harry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shield wrote this play when they were all working in uninspiring, poorly paid employment and then performing at night. A dedicated trio who hit the jackpot with this and such is its appeal to a wide audience I can't see that it will ever going to stop touring. Milton Keynes is dealing with a sell-out show here and literally had only a couple of seats left so you may have to go out of town to see it.

I have never heard an audience laugh so much and with such abandon. Members of the cast cannot be singled out for praise. This is an ensemble piece, they are all incredible in their commitment and their energy. All deserve the highest accolades, I hope they are on danger money such is the potential for ‘real’ injuries!

The Play That Goes Wrong is at MK Theatre until Saturday 18th March

Box Office: 0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)

Groups Hotline: 01908 547609

Access Booking: 0844 872 7677

Online Booking: www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (bkg fee)

 

Mar 8th

Fantastic Mr Fox - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

Reviewed by Louise Winter

Fantastic Mr Fox

image credit Manuel Harlan 

This is an ‘interesting’ adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of animals vs humans and of sharing vs greed. While Dahl’s plot is followed, enabling the younger members of the audience to stay with the action at all times, the script and some of the scenes have been radically adapted.   

Starting sweetly enough with four bluebirds, two of them rather portly, dressed in rather tiny, shiny sports shorts there is an immediate sense of the bizarre which continues throughout the evening. Singing a bright jolly welcome song one of these innocent birds is shot by an oversized rifle from the side of the stage. Suddenly we are introduced to the deliciously vile farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Their introduction pulls no punches with gruesome language and lots of poultry guts on stage. The kids loved the gore and visual language. Whilst this is a kids production through and through there are hilarious moments of absolute adult humour which (thank goodness) definitely went over the heads of the younger members of the audience. Although, not in the original, stage adaptor Sam Holcroft has clearly considered that those of us accompanying the younger members of the audience need some reward!

 

Fantastic Mr Fox

image credit Manuel Harlan

Taking a nine year old nephew definitely enabled me to look at this production from the target audience’s perspective. I wasn’t keen on the costumes for the fox family but my nephew thought they were contemporary, creative and loved the ears. I thought that perhaps there was slightly too much of the story set to music and this might detract from the action but my nephew thought the balance was just right. Just goes to show. I’m definitely not sure about the introduction of Mrs Fox singing about Mr Fox’s misogynistic behaviour. I’m not sure it adds to the story in any way.  

Fantastic Mr Fox

image credit Manuel Harlan 

 

The cast are all fabulous, Greg Barnett as Mr Fox is energetic, dynamic, suitably conceited but charming. Lillie Flynn as Mrs Fox matches Barnett in the energy stakes and has the strongest and most beautiful voice. Richard Atwill, Raphael Bushay and Gruffudd Glynn as Bean, Boggis and Bunce are fabulously disgusting and very funny in their single-minded determination to flush out and kill Mr Fox. They have a great on-stage group presence. Atwill also plays Rat as a disgraceful drunk, Bushay is the rather gorgeous Badger, and Glyn is the naïve Mole. Mouse is played by Kelly Jackson in a truly sweet and delightful way. Stealing the show is Sandy Foster as Rabbit. Born to entertain, the audience giggled as soon as she came on stage and guffawed at some of her animations and lines. She brought a sense of the surreal and ridiculous into every scene and was definitely the audience’s favourite.

Fantastic Mr Fox

image credit Manuel Harlan

Credit has to go to Patrick Burbridge, Anna Fordham and Richie Hart, tas the bluebird actor-musicians who accompany the entire show with top quality live music played from high up on stage. Having the band present throughout really elevates this show.

While not a completely faithful retelling of Dahl’s story, the production is excellent, Marina Aberg’s direction is dynamic and creative, staging is visually exciting and the writing is sharp and hilarious in places. The bottom line is that while the adults in the audience were suitably entertained, the children thought it was  a great show and that is the proof of the pudding. 

Fantastic Mr Fox is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 11th March and then on tour

Box Office:                   0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)*  

Groups Hotline:         01908 547609  

Access Booking:       0844 871 7677 (bkg fee)*  

Online Booking:        www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes  (bkg fee)

Feb 22nd

La Strada - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

 

Reviewed by Louise Winter 20th February 2017

An evocative, poetic, striking, and enigmatic piece of art

Based on the Oscar-winning 1954 film by Fellini, La Strada (the road) tells the story of the Gelsomina (Audrey Bresson), sold by her widowed mother to travelling strongman Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin) in a desperate move to feed her other children. Gentle, 'artichoke faced' Gelsomina works as Zampanò’s assistant, setting up his act and passing around the hat. Zampanò is violent, beats Gelsomina into submission, spends all their money on booze and women, and gives her nothing to send home to her family. Gelsomina has no choice but to remain with him, being far from home and powerless. The pair are eventually taken on by a travelling circus where Gelsomina strikes up a friendship with The Fool, Il Matteo. Past events, which are never explicit, between The Fool and Zampanò lead to tragic events.

La Strada

image by Robert Day  

The approach of this company is to create the show, using the original film as a source, as rehearsals progress. There is no initial script and all elements of the production are developed organically by the cast and creatives. There is a seamlessness and unity in the production; a harmony of story, cast and staging as a result. 

The physicality of this production is central to the impact with almost all characters on the simple, stark stage set throughout. Much is portrayed by the ensemble who watch and comment on the action like a Greek chorus, creating the whooshing of the waves and the rattle of the rain with their bodies. The narrative is on occasion moved along by them yet who speaks and from where on stage is not always evident, adding to the sense of mystery and hidden elements of this story. Not all is laid bare on stage and the audience is left to interpret the characters and events to some extent. This oftentimes sense of looking beneath the surface is challenging and stimulating, more like reading literature where one’s imagination is key to completing storylines and character motivations.  The use of vignettes which flow into and through one another gives us fleeting glances into hidden aspects, yet scenes transform and move on before we see too much, leaving us to our imaginations and interpretations. This movement, created under the direction of Cameron Carver, waxes and wanes physically over the stage creating a sense of timelessness and impermanence.  

La Strada

image by Robert Day

Staging by Katie Sykes is a versatile set with simple backdrop, high telegraph poles, ropes and chains upon which the cast climb and hang. Crates are shifted to become tables, chairs, beds and Zampanò’s motorbike. It is a contained and at times effectively claustrophobic set, keeping Gelsomina confined with The Strong Man. Lighting by Aideen Malone creates warm golden sunshine, cold sharp nights, the inside of a circus tent or a bar at night - always a sense of time and place. 

Original music from Benji Bower and an ethereal soundscape from Mike Beer present wonderful energetic gypsy-like songs and instrumental moments in some scenes, all performed by the multi-talented cast ,and then strange other-worldly sensations at other times; a haunting, ghostly sense is a constant companion.

La Strada cast

image by Robert Day 

Director Sally Cookson’s international cast of supremely talented actors/musicians are outstanding. There is a sense of sure-footedness and cohesiveness to them which must come from the way the company develops its work.

Audrey Brisson is outstanding as the awkward Gelsomina. Tiny on stage, looking like a female Chaplin her stance, walk and physicality depict humour, vulnerability and fragility; at times uncomfortable and emotional to watch. Bresson connects with the audience immediately. Her transformation to a slightly more confident figure is done with subtlety – a small shift in her body language, a change in gear for her movement across stage. Bresson is spellbinding to watch. The final scene is a complete revelation; that such an incredibley powerful voice and purity of tone comes from the little clown Gelsomina is truly breathtaking.

Stuart Goodwin as Zampanò is completely commanding and dominating. Despite Zampanò's coarse, uncouth and violent behaviour, Goodwin gives us tiny glimpses of another layer to this man. The motivations behind his aggression and hate for The Fool (Bart Soroczynski) is unstated but The Fool’s mocking causes him agitation and to ultimately lose control.

Soroczynski demonstrates his consummate circus skills on the unicycle setting up the second half. As The Fool he is a jaded, melancholic clown and a soft-hearted kindred spirit to Gelsomina. Finding fun and pleasure where he can includes insulting and goading Zampanò but in doing so and his care for Gelsomin he holds a mirror up to humanity. As in Shakespeare, here The Fool is no fool but shines a light on others. 

This is a remarkable and captivating piece of theatre; intelligent, engaging and unusual in the midst of so much mediocrity. Productions like this need to be supported, embraced and treasured. 

La Strada is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th February 2017 and then on tour.

Box Office:                   0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)* 

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