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Aug 20th

War of the Sperms - Edinburgh Festival

By G.D. Mills

After a glut of one and two man shows, which the Edinburgh show format seems to favour, it was refreshing to see a large stage teeming with life. The phrase ‘teeming with life’ seems particularly apt given that most of the eleven strong cast play individual sperm cells, inhabiting John’s testes and tasked with the mission of fusing with John’s girlfriend’s egg. Dressed all in white, including a swimming cap and a tail to match, this naieve bunch are instructed in the ways of insemination by a guru, an ageing sperm cell, who uses a flipchart to address the two rows of pupils, divided as they are into X and Y chromosomal categories. John is heralded as their supreme leader, while the occasional booming, omniscient voice-over provides the narration. Soon the sperms set out on their dangerous mission: most will fall by the wayside, others will be knocked off in battle, while only one will find his way to his intended destination.

This ingenious little play began life at the INK Festival and has since grown into a successful 60 minute show. It is littered with filthy puns, some of which creep up on you, and there is more than a good deal of physical comedy. War of the Sperms carries a clever concept right through into its well developed narrative. Some performances were notably stronger than others and there were moments where the skill of the writing isn’t entirely matched by its delivery. Overall, however, the cast as a whole were so irresistibly endearing this didn’t much matter: there is such a sense of anarchic fun that the audience seem willing to be led into the silliest, naughtiest and dampest of comedic crevices.

 At first I thought this show might be favoured by a student crowd and yet there were people of all ages in the audience. There was no shortage of laughter and a great deal of shared enthusiasm as people left the studio. Sperm may have a notoriously short lifespan, indeed the War of the Sperms has come to the end of its run in Edinburgh, yet it certainly deserves to have another life somewhere else beyond the fringe.

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Apr 13th

More twists and turns than an acrobat on acid - Mindgame at Malvern Theatre

By G.D. Mills

In Anthony Horowitz’s country house asylum for the criminally insane, things are not as they seem. The presiding doctor is more psychopath than psychoanalyst, the writer more comfortable with a scalpel than a pen in his hand, and the nurse’s increasingly febrile interjections hint at a terrible secret. 

Dr. Farquhar entertains a visitor, a writer collecting information about a serial killer who dwells in the asylum. Most of the drama swivels on the shifting relations between the two male characters and the slowly dawning suspicion that the inmates are running the asylum. Andrew Ryan’s Styler is an athletic, ambitious writer pitting his apparently sluggish wits against the avuncular, patrician Farquhar, played ably by Michael Sherwin.  

This psychological thriller takes on its highest form when elements of surreal menace (a tinny tanoy arbitarily emitting snatches of screechy symphony, for instance) and Pinteresque absurdity (when a long list of increasingly bizarre sandwich options are offered) creep in. But this is a genre piece more than anything, and so with a perfunctory twist here, and an obligatory turn there, it is especially gratifying when the final revelation puts paid to the sneaking suspicion that some of the plot ends don’t quite tie up. They do, very neatly as it happens 

Set in the doctor’s office, Sarah Wynne Kordas' deceptively static set begins to ennerve you. Are those beautifully manicured gardens through the window beginning to recede? And is that portrait slowly transmutating into something altogether more sinister? 

Delivering more twists and turns than an acrobat on acid, Mindgame with keep you guessing right to the end.  

 
Catch it now.

Visit  http://www.malvern-theatres.co.uk/events/event/mindgame/

Mar 25th

Bemusing and nutty - Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

By G.D. Mills

Iqbal Khan’s swiftly moving, ever-bustling production of Antony and Cleopatra superabounds with sex, death and exoticism. From the outset we are invited into a world that is Other: a hypnotic tribal dance dissolves suddenly to reveal a sexually-charged, post-romp exchange between two radically divergent figures.

This spectacular clash of cultural and physical difference sustains our wonder for a good while: a tall, black, slender Cleopatra prowls the stage like a feline on heat, while the pink-skinned, ginger-haired Antony lumbers, heavy as an ox. While opposites, as the adage goes, attract, this takes us to a whole new level.  

And while Josette Simon’s performance is undeniably memorable, perhaps even show-stealing, it is difficult to get a grasp on. Her voice does unusual things. At one stage she mimics a squeaky pitched little girl, and at others drops to a heavy, African bass, but even at her normal register she gives us a kind of rarefied Jamaican lilt, with heavy stresses hurled onto every fourth or fifth word.

This is not Shakespeare as I know it, or Cleopatra as I know her, but something quite Other, which is, to be fair, exactly what Cleopatra is meant to be. And so what we are given is a performance that is quite wonderful. Or not.  

Antony Byrne’s gritty Mark Antony, meanwhile, gives us something more rooted and familiar, not least in the occasional, accentual nod towards Yorkshire.

Robert Innes Hopkins' lush, ever dynamic set punctuates an uneven production which doesn’t always engage. And the famous asp scene is both intentionally and unintentionally funny. It isn’t Josette Simon’s fault that the toy snake she removes from the basket looks like a toy snake. But we are being invited to laugh, presumably, when she impatiently provokes the snake into biting her with a punch to the chest. 

Yes, even her dying moments are bemusing and nutty. Simon is always working her Cleopatra, but I’m not sure her Cleopatra always works. On this, I think, there will be a neat divide. To quote Puccini, “Let the audience decide”.

Catch Antony and Cleopatra now. Visit

https://www.rsc.org.uk

Mar 25th

Surprising and occasionally shocking - Julius Caeser at the RSC

By G.D. Mills

Majestic collonades and a raised statue of a lion attacking a horse, a Roman symbol of elected government, form the simple, striking set for the first three acts of Angus Jackson's compelling new production. Ceaser (Andrew Woodall), tall, rangy and patrician, pumped up after triumphant battle with Pompey, looms over his adoring subjects while Brutus and Cassius mither and fret on the fringes.

In fact these two make for unlikely conspirators, more closely resembling peevish, put-upon clerks complaining of their manager’s untenable demands than senators with a taste for regicide.

James Corrigan, in what was perhaps a stab at abject resignation, instead gives us a surprisingly relaxed and matter of fact Mark Anthony as he stands over the deposed leader’s body and invites the co-conspirators to strike him down. Corrigan, rugged and charming, captures the duality of a man who must martial language as strategically as he martials his troops.

 By Act 4 Anthony and Brutus are at war and de Bella’s Lion Attacking a Horse, a symbol of nobility and justice (despite itself being unjustly pilfered by the Romans) has been removed from its plinth. The alliance between Cassius and Brutus is beginning to fracture and behind the colonnades the clouds bruise and the sky weeps blood. 

Terry King offers us a disappointingly tokenistic battle scene but there is a moment of true unanticipated horror at the end of the fighting when Lucius (Brutus’ boy servant, played endearingly by Samuel Little) is chased down and swiftly dispatched with a brutal and audible snap to the neck. There is a collective intake of breath from the audience as the young boy drops like a ragdoll to the floor.

The power of this performance lies in the principle of the phalanx, a formation in which Roman soldiers interlocked their shields: no one performance stands out, but it holds together by the strength of its parts.

See this production now, visit

https://www.rsc.org.uk/

 

Mar 22nd

'A glorious, colour-drenched riot of joy' - Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at Malvern Festival Theatre

By G.D. Mills

There were a couple of ill omens prior to the start of this performance and I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake. First there was a long, rather cheesy musical prelude as we stared at the faux-ancient arras masking the stage, and second, the music itself was reproduced on a keyboard, albeit played live, by an almost manically enthusiastic figure, his head bopping along frenetically to the tinkety beat. When the arras lifted to reveal a ziggurat, populated by tiers of small children, a number of inflated sheep, and Jacob, the superannuated sire, being loaded with a growing number of stuffed dolls to denote his alarming fecundity, I wondered if perhaps now was the time to slip out quietly 

And yet...and yet...by the end of the first half I was halfway convinced, and by the end I was as totally swept up by this glorious, colour-drenched, riot of joy as the audience were. Yes, there is a childish element to this production– a talking camel, speech bubbles, a moveable feast of primary colours  - these all feature, and yet they are all of a piece with an explosively visual production that delivers to audiences right across the age range. 

 

Stripped almost entirely free of spoken dialogue this well known Biblical tale, of a favoured, prodigal son brutally dispossessed then reclaimed by his brothers, is presented entirely through music and movement. And what the backing track lacks in authenticity is more than made up for by the sugary, full bodied vocals. And those tunes, by now so familiar, are given their own stylised tweak so that we are taken on a musical journey to ancient Cairo by way of 1920s Paris, 1950s America and even 21st-century clubland.  

Joe McElderry, much acclaimed winner of The X Factor in 2009, inhabits his role entirely and seduces with a face that is angelic and a voice that is rich and syrupy. His stage presence grows ever larger as the show hurtles towards the finale, by which time he is almost flouncing and shimmying across the stage. He clearly draws a large and vociferous following – never before have I seen this auditorium so prone to spontaneous outbursts of standing applause. Lucy Kay sings boldy and bodaciously as the narrator and Ben James-Ellis delivers an awesome, hip grinding version of a regal, rock n’roll king.  

Credit must also go to Henry Metcalfe (Jacob and Potiphar) whose patriarchal decrepedness stands in stark contrast to the fluid waves of youthful energy that flow around him. 

Exaltant and exuberant, this high-octane production will fuel all your family’s musical needs for months to come. Go see Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat now.

 http://www.josephthemusical.com/uktour/

Mar 17th

Brimfull of bawdiness - Nell Gwynn at Malvern Festival Theatre

By G.D. Mills

When Nell Gwynn, legs akimbo and fan swinging in lieu of a certain appendage, melodiously invites us to stroke her ‘cock...cock...cockerspaniel’ , we know what kind of night we are in for.  

Brimfull of bawdiness, and peopled with figures from 17th century theatrical London, Jessica Swale’s metaplay takes for its material the bare details of Nell Gwynn’s life, a Cheapside prostitute and orange seller who ended up, via King Charles II’s bed, one of the most celebrated comedy actresses of her age. Most of the action occurs in and around the theatre as Nell, closely watched by her kingly suitor, prepares for performance.  

A whole range of 21st century themes (feminism, celebrity, European politics) gatecrash our attention under the guise of Restoration comedy. For starters, we are presented with one of the first women to grace the English stage, and one who manages, for a while at least, to subjugate the most powerful man in Britain, while the exchanges between Charles II and his advisor drip with dramatic irony: Charles cavalierly suggests England detach itself from the politics of Europe, in response to which his advisor as good as calls him an idiot.  

The stage and costume is ablaze with gold, and the occasional musical numbers, replete with comic choreography, further dynamize an already bustling stage.  

Ben Righton presents us with a charming if roguish king, one more dedicated to the pleasures of the bedchamber than to the pedantry of politics, while Michael Cochrane’s Arlington, Charles II’s right hand man, is both lordly and lecturing, offering a rare note of moral censure in a world otherwise dripping with licentiousness. 

Edward Kynaston (Esh Alladi) is outrageously catty as the company’s ousted player of female parts while Laura Pitt-Pulford handles a challenging lead role with wit, charm and precision: she is a hard bargaining, yet likeable, sexual provocateur who shrewdly negotiates the terrain between backstreet bordello and regal bedchamber.  

This high-energy, swiftly moving play has so much comedy and caricature in it that there is little room left over for character depth or development, a small minus perhaps in an otherwise masterful production. Acclaimed in London when A-lister Gemma Arterton played Nell, this slightly revamped version is now touring the provinces.  

Catch it now, visit

http://www.ett.org.uk/whats-on/nell-gwynn/dates-tickets

 

 

 

Mar 10th

"Let the audience decide!" La bohème at the Malvern Festival Theatre

By G.D. Mills

 

 

Based on Henri Murger’s novel La Vie de Bohème (1851), La bohème is one of the most performed operas ever written. Giacomo Puccini’s life as an impoverished young student in Milan must surely have provided a source of inspiration here even if, later in life, he could be found in his Tuscany villa feasting off the fruits of his musical success.

Act 1 finds us in the company of a quartet of roistering bohemians (a writer, a painter, a philosopher and a musician) in a perishing Parisian garret on Christmas Eve. It only requires three of them to leave the writer, Rodolfo, alone, and for a chance encounter with neightbour Mimi, a beautiful young seamstress, to set the plot going.

The opera is neatly divided into four acts and, stripped to its bare essentials, unfolds thusly - Act 1 finds them falling in love. Act 2 witnesses them enjoying their love for each other, their backdrop the bustling streets of Paris. Act 3 discovers Mimi afflicted by TB. As the snow falls their relationship disintegrates. Act 4 drops us back into the garret with Mimi at death’s door. In her dying moments she clings to Rodolfo and recalls love’s ecstasy.

Driven by the much feted one-woman industry that is Ellen Kent, who has been producing opera and ballet for over twenty five years, this production delivers musically and visually. There is something pleasingly childlike in the three sets: the first an impressionist, pastel portrayal of a Nineteenth Century Paris yawning out towards the horizon; the second a convivial street scene set alight by humanity; the third a startling vision of Paris besieged by snow. The fourth act brings us back to the cramped, impecunious quarters of the soon-to-be bereaved.

There is a warmth and comedy to the stage action even if, at times, it lacks spontaneity. Iurie Gisca offers us a striking and bold baritone, Vitalii Liskovetsjyi charms with a friendly tenor but the show must go to Alyona Kistenyova, whose willowy frame somehow yields a sensual soprano both seductive and sad.

When Puccini discovered that his contemporary, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, was also modeling his opera on Murger’s novel, a public quarrel broke out between them. Both claimed to have priority’, both insisted on precedence. Let him compose. I will compose. The audience will decide,” Puccini eventually declared.

And, as history tells us, they did.

 

 

 

Dec 24th

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK A GIANT SUCCESS

By Kirstie Niland

Birmingham Hippodrome

If you’re looking for a side-splitting night out then grab your bag of gold coins and buy tickets to see this year’s panto at the Hippodrome. A host of household names are perfectly cast in this colourful, comical tale which has laugh out loud moments from start to finish.

Taking a break from playing Corrie Casanova and bad boy Peter Barlow, Chris Gascoyne is nicely menacing as the leather-clad Fleshcreep. Blue band member Duncan James provides additional eye candy as the good and handsome Jack. Comedian Gary Wilmot plays an excellent Dame Trot alongside the comic duo of Paul Zerdin as Simple Simon and Matt Slack as Silly Billy. Meanwhile singer and actress Jane MacDonald sprinkles them all with stardust and melody in her first ever panto role as the Enchantress.

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This fast-paced, action-packed show is an exciting explosion full of surprises -  a yellow convertible, a dodgem car, dancing neon butterflies – with the cast parading traditional elaborate costumes against a bold and bright set. Some jaw-dropping moments include a flying helicopter, an impressively sprouting beanstalk and an appropriately huge, red-eyed giant. The biggest surprise is the 3D scene which makes you feel like you’ve been drawn into a creepy panto version of Mario.

The gags come thick and fast, and for me Matt Slack stole the show with his high energy performance featuring some sterling impressions, including Corrie ones of course. Watch out for Silly Billy’s Mr Bombastic and Simple Simon's funny interaction with the volunteer kids at the end.

Other moments of note are Dame Trot selling her sweetie wares - Wispas and Gobstoppers may never taste the same again – and lots of inventive local leg-pulling: “Hello Jeremy I’m 16 and pregnant, and I’m from Dudley.”

There’s a great selection of songs to get the audience clapping along, including Pharrell William’s highly infectious Happy, with the cast rewarded for their hard work with appreciative roars of laughter throughout.

So...does the Yorkshire Fairy’s warning come true: will Fleshcreep regret the day he left the peace and quiet of Corrie? And does Jack's one true love get served up to him as a Royal Princess Balti?

Get your tickets to Jack and the Beanstalk and find out!

Runs until 1st February.

Tickets: £14 - £40 and are available online www.birminghamhippodrome.com or telephone 0844 338 5000. 5% transaction charge applies (excl. cash sales in person) plus postage from £1. Phone calls from 5p per minute. Prices and discounting subject to change.

Jun 24th

She Stoops to Conquer - Creative Cow on tour

By G.D. Mills







Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy of manners, She Stoops to Conquer, with its gently satirical take on the opposing words of town and country, sophisticat and yokel, has been popular with audiences since its first performance in 1773. True to the spirit of a restoration comedy, there is misunderstanding and mistaken identity galore. Two hankerchief wielding fops from London find themselves duped into believing that the country home they are staying at is an inn, and so treat their expectant host with the kind of contempt they would habitually extend to a common inn keeper. The romantic heart of the play lies in the pursuit, by the hosts daughter Miss Hardcastle, of their metropolitan visitor, Charles Marlow, who when confronted by women of a certain class is reduced to a stutturing wreck. By disguising herself as a maid to incite his veiled passions, Miss Hardcastle ‘stoops to conquer’.

This production offers a solid interpretation of the play, and rises at times to a robust comic ebullience in the second half. Fresh faced and fresh out of drama school, George Jennings offers us a credible Marlow, whose strange disposition veers between querelousness and quarellsomeoness, timidity and temerity. Eventually, of course, he is snared by the buxom and beautiful Miss. Hardcastle, played by Leonie Spilsbury, who matches Marlow’s duality by adopting the shape of both dutiful daughter and devious seductress. Jope Bateman plays a roguish and generously girthed bumpkin, pursued in jest by Constance (Polly Hughes), his charmingly impish cousin. Presiding over the chaos is the increasingly apoplectic host, Mr. Harcastle (David Summer), who crumbles into rustic disaray upon meeting his impudent guests.

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Creative Cow, a touring theatre company conceived on a Devonshire farm, offers us a simple yet fluid set composed largely of four gilded picture frames which capture the characters, tricked out as they are in all their ridiculous frippery and finery, as if in a series of tableaux. Inevitably the final tableau is one of resolution and reconciliation: friendships are restored and lasting concords established. ‘Pshaw, pshaw! This is all the whining end of a modern novel’ says Mrs Hardcastle. Whining or no, this also marks the end of one of the genre’s most enduring classics.

Malvern was the last in line of this particular tour, but for upcoming productions visit their website here

May 22nd

MonologueSlam UK at the Birmingham Repertory Company

By Clare Brotherwood

During a recent visit to New York I went to a diner where the waiters are wannabe Broadway stars and sing when they are not serving their customers, hoping they may be discovered.

MonologueSlam

In the UK, however, aspiring actors, film makers, writers - and just about anyone else in the industry, don’t have to go to such lengths. They just need to apply for one of the many events organised by award-winning actors Fraser Ayres and Jimmy Akingbola under the umbrella of TriForce Promotions.

A few years ago Fraser, who also writes, directs and tutors, and Jimmy, AKA The Malick in BBC’s Holby City and Mick in BBC’s Rev, and now making a film with Dustin Hoffman, started a networking club for people in the industry to connect and make things happen. Now they not only have a monthly ‘Welcome’ social event in London but they have also created a platform for new writing, a short film festival, workshops and the MonologueSlam showcases for aspiring actors.

Held regularly in London, the Slam has also been to Los Angeles and Manchester and, last week, it made its Birmingham debut at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

As always there was a distinguished panel to judge the young hopefuls who opted for a one-minute or three-minute speech or an improvisation. This time it was the turn of actress Lorna Laidlaw (receptionist Mrs Tembe in BBC’s Doctors); Peter Lloyd, a senior producer from the BBC; Hannah Miller, head of casting at the RSC; agent Siobhan Kendall, and Tessa Walker, associate director of Birmingham Rep, to pick out the best from 22 competitors who ranged from an 11-year-old to young actors who already run their own companies.

I’ve been to one of these MonologueSlams before and it’s amazing, and invigorating, just how wildly enthusiastic and supportive the audience can be, and how diverse and well-performed the audition pieces are.

The evening, however, is no doubt inspired by Jimmy (known in the industry as Mr Nice), who began his career at the Birmingham Rep in Bill Alexander’s The Nativity in 1999.

Said Jimmy at the last MonologueSlam I went to: “These (MonologueSlams) help you as actors. You are shaping your acting skills. We can’t promise you jobs, but things happen. Basically, it’s about doing it and whatever comes after is a bonus. It’s affecting and changing people’s lives in a positive way.”

This is live theatre in the raw, and things really do happen for people who choose to go to TriForce Promotions for help.

Log on to their website www.triforcepromotions.co.uk for future events and auditions.