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Mar 29th

The Naked Truth

By Steve Burbridge

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The Naked Truth

UK National Tour

Reviewed at Middlesbrough Theatre

Dave Simpson’s smash-hit comedy play, The Naked Truth, which is set in a pole-dancing class, is now in its fifth fantastic national tour and its popularity shows no signs of waning. The show tells the stories of six very different women and boasts an all-star cast, led by singing sensation Maureen Nolan and former diva of the dales Claire King. There’s also ex-pop princess Michelle Heaton, Hollyoaks actress Julie Buckfield, the star of the West End show Hairspray, Leanne Jones, and the slightly lesser-known Alison Young.

Five women, who are all very different in terms of background, age, shape and personality, struggle to conquer pole-dancing under the expert instruction of the glamorous Gabby (Michelle Heaton). Each of them has their own individual motivations for being there and, as their stories begin to unfold and intertwine, they share laughter and tears in a play that demonstrates the solidarity of the sisterhood and celebrates strength through adversity.

Ex-Emmerdale and Bad Girls star Claire King plays Rita, a character you really wouldn’t want to mess with. But behind the bravado is a woman who is the victim of domestic abuse and is desperately protective of her two daughters. King is flawless in her carefully crafted characterisation of the tart-with-a-heart. Leanne Jones is the larger-than-life loudmouth who is looking for love in all the wrong places, Julie Buckfield is the self-obsessed snob Tricia, whose perfect life isn’t as rosy as it seems, Alison Young plays it strictly for laughs as the delightfully dippy Faith and Maureen Nolan completes the line-up as the demure and dignified Sarah.

As you might expect, there is much hilarity to be enjoyed as the novices acquaint themselves with the pole. Much of the comedy derives from physical clowning and Leanne Jones sends herself – and her size and shape – up with great sport and humility. The script relies heavily on ribaldry for the most part and the predominantly-female audience cackled along in delight.

However, when Sarah receives some devastating news, the others soon put aside any differences, pull together, and decide to turn their newly-acquired skill into a fund-raising charity event. Maureen Nolan is a performer who brings warmth and believability to any role (incidentally, she’s my all-time favourite, best-ever Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers) and she excels as the terminally ill housewife. It is to Miss Nolan’s credit that she had the courage and strength to accept such a part, given the impact that cancer has had on her family over the years.

Stephen Leatherland’s direction strikes the perfect balance between the moments of comedy and tragedy and there is never any jarring of the two. Despite such serious issues underpinning the production, the overriding themes are of triumphant resilience, the power of friendship and living life to the full. The Naked Truth is an empowering piece of theatre with a joie de vivre that is heart-warming and truly inspiring.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at Middlesbrough until Wednesday 30th March 2011. For further tour details log on to www.theatre-productions.com

 

 

Mar 8th

As You Like It

By Steve Burbridge

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As You Like It

Nice Swan Theatre Company at The People’s Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne

It’s Shakespeare, but not as you know it!

Nice Swan Theatre Company have taken ‘As You Like It’, the bard’s pastoral comedy, and given it a unique and innovative twist. Set in the modern day, the action begins with the characters enjoying a night on the town, where flirting, snogging, bitching, binge-drinking and all manner of other drunken revelry are the order of the evening. The famous wrestling scene is transformed into a ‘dance-off’ in the nightclub and there’s even a McDonald’s to boot!

This modern and ambitious production is presented by Nice Swan Theatre Company, a student-based group in Tyne and Wear, which provides a stepping stone between amateur and professional theatre for young talent, aged between 16 and 25, from all over the North East region.

Director Ben Hunt and Producer Jamie Gray have, once again, assembled a stellar cast – as they did for their production of ‘Spring Awakening’ - and they all play their parts to perfection, although there are a number of stand-out performances. Andy McAdam presents us with a charismatic Orlando and Laura Stoker is a feisty Rosalind. Thomas Whalley, as an outrageously camp Touchstone (in a tutu!) , leads the comic relief and is well-supported by Sean Bell as Adam/Audrey.

As usual, one cannot fault the production values of Nice Swan’s work. A sparse stage is transformed into the dance floor of the nightclub by some nifty neon lighting and then into Arden Alley by the inclusion of several overflowing dustbins. Andrew Milburn and Tom Jefferson accentuate mood and dramatic potential with their effective lighting design.

The creativity and innovation of this highly talented group is to be applauded. Who’d have thought that the language of Shakespeare would translate so well to being spoken in a broad Geordie accent? Shakespeare traditionalists may not approve of this particular interpretation of the play and might deride it as heresy, although, personally speaking, I strongly suspect that the bard would wholeheartedly approve.

If you appreciate Shakespeare being performed with a modern slant, and aren’t easily offended by some infrequent bad language then I’m sure you’ll find this production exactly ‘As You Like It’.  However, the production has only a three night run and ticket sales are extremely high, so you’ll have to hurry if you don’t want to miss out!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Wednesday 9th March 2010.

 

 

 

 

Feb 12th

Faith and Cold Reading

By Steve Burbridge

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Faith and Cold Reading

Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne

Attending the press performance of Faith and Cold Reading was an experience that, I’m certain, will stay with me for a very long time. It was also one that I have been unable to properly define in my own mind yet. You see, with this production, you don’t actually get what it promises on the tin. What am I on about, for heaven’s sake, you’re probably thinking? Well, I’ll try to explain as best I can.

You know when you are sitting with a box of assorted chocolates and you have studied the illustrations on the lid, made your selection, and popped your preferred choice into your mouth only to discover that you’re chewing on a coffee cream when you thought you’d actually picked the cherry liqueur? Well, this play looks like a cherry liqueur, but it’s actually a coffee cream – or is it a caramel keg? Who knows?

You see, it plays with genres so much and switches metaphorical horses so often that I was convinced that even writer Shaun Prendergast wasn’t at all certain what kind of play he’d penned. Is it a thriller? Is it a comedy? Is it a spoof? Your guess is probably as good as mine, I think.

The play tells the story of Sam (Christopher Patrick Nolan), a professional medium who lives with lap dancer Carla (Laura Norton). He has ended up getting himself into debt to Freddie the Suit (Stephen Tompkinson), a big-time gangster who has recently buried his mother. Sam is unable to pay back the money by the due date and his situation looks bleak until Freddie throws him a lifeline: re-connect him with his late mother in spirit and the debt will be written-off.

Stephen Tompkinson has a thoroughly imposing stage presence as the overly-superstitious Freddie (refusing to walk on pavement cracks and getting into a right old state when new shoes are placed upon the table – heavily borrowed from Blood Brothers, I suspect) and he gives an intense performance that is, often, very affecting. It is, undoubtedly, due to his considerable talent that the character of Freddie – which is, seemingly, written as a cross between the Kray’s and Count Dracula – is so much more than just a stereotype.

Laura Norton, too, gives a great performance as Carla. Always believable, and with a genuine likeability, she endows the character with humanity and vulnerability. Christopher Patrick Nolan bumbles brilliantly as the charlatan who will do anything to save his own skin, whilst Paul Joseph attempts valiantly to breathe believability into the stereotypical character of Mickey, the thug.

The promotional material describes Faith and Cold Reading as ‘gripping, sinister and savagely funny’ and, to be fair, it is – though never all at the same time and not throughout the entirety of the piece. The dialogue is often clichéd and melodramatic and doesn’t always sound feasible. However, if you want an entertaining evening out and are prepared to take the play with more than just a pinch of salt, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 19 March 2011.

 

 

 

Feb 8th

dinnerladies: second helpings

By Steve Burbridge

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dinnerladies: Second Helpings

UK National Tour

Reviewed at Darlington Civic Theatre

Following on from the success of their first stage adaptation of Victoria Wood’s cosy ensemble sit-com, dinnerladies, which has already toured nationally three times, The Comedy Theatre Company are back with a second stage version, appropriately sub-titled Second Helpings.

Essentially, in much the same style as the first production, the piece is a selection of scenes and storylines from the much-loved television sit-com - which ran for sixteen episodes over two series’ between 1998 and 2000 – weaved together in a way that is specifically designed to appeal to fans of the small-screen series.

To add an air of authenticity to the proceedings, two of the original cast members star in the stage show. Andrew Dunn reprises his role as Tony, the cranky canteen manager at HWD Components, a fictional factory in Manchester, whilst Sue Devaney doubles-up as both Jane from the planning department and Bren’s flatulent fantasist mother, Petula Gordino.

It must be acknowledged that this casting stunt pays dividends: Dunn is excellent as the manager who has to cope with a group of women who are either menopausal, menstruating, moaning or minding everybody’s business but their own. It is Devaney, though, who single-handedly steals the show with her raucous representation of the unruly woman and fantastic physical clowning.

The supporting cast have been chosen for their ability to look, sound and act like the performers who portrayed the roles on screen, and this works more effectively in some cases than in others. Laura Sheppard is remarkably successful in her portrayal of Bren; her mannerisms, facial expressions and voice being eerily close to those of Victoria Wood.

Darlington is the first venue on this latest tour and there were one or two minor glitches that, I’m sure, will be ironed-out before the end of the week. Also, the first act was a little slow to gather pace and, at times, the quick-fire dialogue that hallmarks Victoria Wood’s writing lost some of its impact as a result of timing issues in its delivery.

That said, the show was received extremely well by an appreciative audience who delighted in the deliciousness of Victoria Wood’s flair for depicting both character and situation.

Steve Burbridge.

 Runs at Darlington until Saturday 12th February 2011.

Touring to Windsor, Lincoln, Durham, Cardiff, Hull, Wolverhampton, Blackpool, Bradford, Malvern, Buxton, Peterborough, Colchester, Norwich, Brighton and Stoke.

Read Steve Burbridge’s review of the first tour of dinnerladies at: http://www.uktheatre.net/members/profile/8/blog-view/_169.html

Feb 4th

The Man and the Donkey

By Steve Burbridge

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The Man and the Donkey

The Customs House, South Shields

As Ray Spencer, Executive Director at The Customs House, points out in the programme notes, in most stories ‘told with the background of war the hero usually takes lives . . . our hero saves lives and eventually gave up his own in the effort to save more.’

The particular hero of The Man and the Donkey is the relatively little-known John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Hailed as a war hero in Australia, he has never been given the same level of recognition in his home town of South Shields. This is something that Valerie Laws sets straight with this affecting drama based upon the short life of Simpson Kirkpatrick, who was killed when he was only 22.

The ninety-minute production spans the shores of South Shields to Shrapnel Gully and chronologically tells the story of his life. Jamie Brown plays the hero with warmth and a genuine likeability. He is ably supported by an ensemble of five (Russell Floyd, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Gary Kitching and Jacqueline Phillips) who each play multiple roles with apparent ease and aplomb.

The dual-level set, designed by Simon Henderson, is relatively uncomplicated and there are no superfluous props – if it’s there it earns its place, often rather ingeniously. The stage is beautifully lit with soft shades of red, amber and blue and James Henshaw’s lighting design is magnificently evocative. The sound design, by Chris Allen, incorporates pyrotechnics and original music from Simon Hanson and James McCutcheon.

Director Jackie Fielding uses the short scenes to her advantage, keeping them taut and punchy and the production progresses at a good pace. She opts not to use a real donkey, perhaps for practicalities, and instead provides the most imaginative and effective representation of a donkey possible – I was amazed and impressed.

This production boasts values that are second to none: a talented, hardworking cast, a worthy and compelling story, and a first-class creative team. The Customs House is to be applauded for its commitment to staging productions that tell local stories about local issues performed and produced by local people. With this world premiere of The Man and the Donkey they have cemented their status as one of the best producing houses for miles around.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 12th February 2011.

Jan 27th

Pride and Prejudice

By Steve Burbridge

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Pride and Prejudice

The Customs House, South Shields

When you sit down to write a review and the first phrase that comes into your mind is “Oh, dear!”, you know that you are going to be in for a hard time.

Whilst I have no doubt that the hearts of all those involved in Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s production of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ were in the right place, I must say that they were the only things correctly placed in this lack-lustre and disjointed offering.

There is no doubt that the appetite for period costume drama is voracious at present – you need look no further than the Sunday evening television schedules to be convinced of that – and with productions including ‘Cranford’  and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ doing the touring circuit it would suggest that this trend has infiltrated the theatre world, too.

However, to compete or even stand up to comparison with the sumptuous small screen offerings presently available, the production values need to be considerably higher than they are in this dreary drama. Indeed, every expense has been spared, every corner cut in this Regency rip-off.  The ‘classical Empire line dresses’, worn by the Bennett sisters, looked more like naff nylon ‘nighties’ obtained at rock-bottom rates  from the local catalogue clearance outlet and it was left to the ‘school project’ sketches in the programme to distinguish morning dress from evening attire, as each character only seemed to have been allocated one costume throughout.

It also seems apparent that the costumes, designed by Georgina Nurse (and, despite the name, she wasn’t able to make them look well), were made with the possibility that cast members may change during the course of the tour. The consequence of this one-size-fits-all approach is that some gowns simply hang on the actress, whereas others appear ridiculously short.

I admit, it may not be an easy task to adapt a Jane Austen novel and abridge it to a two hour stage play but, nevertheless, that is no excuse for the significant and unforgivable compromises that are made at each and every stage of this dreck production. To illustrate my point, Laura Turner has even dispensed with one of Mrs Bennet’s five daughters, Kitty. Though, in her defence, if she was to have been played as irritatingly as the other four then perhaps I, too, may have been tempted to start bumping them off one at a time!

You may have noticed that, so far, this review has not named any of the actors who appear in this production. You may consider this an act of kindness, on my behalf, as I do not wish to impede upon their future employment prospects within the acting profession.

This production is lacking in each and every aspect and it limps its way through a long two hours. Suffice to say that I have seen donkey’s on Blackpool beach plodding faster and more interestingly.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs at the Customs House until Saturday 29th January 2011. Also tours to (amongst other venues) Alnwick Playhouse, Consett Empire Theatre and Darlington Arts Centre.

 

 

 

Jan 26th

Underneath the Floorboards

By Steve Burbridge

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Underneath the Floorboards – BalletLORENT at Northern Stage, Newcastle

Anything that helps get kids hooked on theatre and the arts, at the earliest age possible, is a good thing in my opinion. So much the better when the production is of the quality of balletLORENT’s ‘Underneath the Floorboards’.

Aimed at the under 5’s, this enchanting show tells the story of John (Jon Beney) as he prepares to pack up his toys in readiness for moving house. Whilst in the process, he discovers a strange world beneath his bedroom floor. But, when he can’t find his way back, he worries he’ll be left behind . . . until a host of weird, wonderful and curious creatures begin to appear from the shadows.

Firstly, he meets a shy fawn (beautifully brought to life by the amazingly agile Gwen Berwick), then a mischievous, shaggy character called Gruffy (Gavin Coward) and, finally, the enigmatic Mimic (Philippa White), who mirrors the movement of those she meets.

Ben Crompton’s story is beautifully beguiling and is simple enough for the youngsters to engage with and, because it isn’t contrived or patronising in the least, it is strangely absorbing for adults, too. The piece integrates Kit Haigh’s music and catchy songs seamlessly and Matt Britten’s lighting design creates evocative atmospheres extremely effectively.

Paul Shriek’s costume design incorporates a range of fabrics, textures and colours to stimulate the youngsters’ sense of touch and sight and, indeed, they are actively encouraged to be tactile with them.

The show has an intimate setting, to ensure a comfortable viewing experience for both children and adults, with ease of access to encourage the young people to freely interact with the performers and the story.  The theatre space has been kitted out with a soft floor, cushions and a seated area.  This approach continues to champion the defined methodology delivered by balletLORENT and Northern Stage intended to entertain and inform this age group.

 

Liv Lorent’s choreography compliments characterisation and it is the perfect way of introducing movement and dance to small children. It has been carefully constructed to enable them to safely get close to the dancers without putting themselves in harm’s way.

 

Indeed, every aspect of this delightful dance production is commendable and the most ringing endorsement of all came from the youngsters, some of whom engaged with the piece so actively that they almost stole the limelight from the four highly-talented dancers.

 

Steve Burbridge.

 

Reviewed at Northern Stage on Wednesday 26 January 2011. Transfers to Gateshead Old Town Hall on Thursday 27 & Friday 28 January 2011.

 

Jan 19th

Sawdust and Stardust

By Steve Burbridge

Sawdust and Stardust

The Studio, Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne


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Described in the theatre’s season brochure as ‘the story of 30-something Stella in her ultimate quest to make a change and reach the top’ this ‘heartfelt’ one-woman show, performed by Beccy Owen, is a bit of a hotch-potch affair that never quite fulfils the promise it delivers.

I was expecting to see a show that chronicled one woman’s personal journey to self-awareness and discovery, a piece that encouraged its audience to embark upon the said journey with her and leave the theatre pondering all kinds of profound questions about life, its meaning and our part in it. Instead, I left feeling underwhelmed and disappointed.

The decision to stage a production based only upon one performer delivering an extended monologue is an audacious and risky one that, in this case, plummets faster and further than a rock dislodged from a mountain summit.  The writing isn’t good enough, the performance isn’t strong enough and the story isn’t interesting enough.

The only ‘discovery’ that Stella seems to make about herself is that she has developed something of an unhealthy obsession about the woman who is her climbing companion, that borders on lesbianism. An obsession that, like most unhealthy obsessions, ends badly.

The rhetoric that claimed the production would be ‘weaving together a heady mix of quixotic music and imaginative text’ could best be translated as follows: a series of bizarre, jarring, whaling noises punctuating a script that is as flat as a glass of week-old cola.

Staged in Live Theatre’s intimate Studio, the performer and the production should have had the qualities  and abilities to draw the audience into the epicentre of the piece and make them feel part of it. Instead, due to some inadequate staging, I spent much of the duration of the performance looking at the back of Beccy Owen and musing that the white thong that became increasingly visible over the waist of her jeans was hardly a suitable undergarment to wear for mountain climbing.

Never has an hour seemed so long!

Runs until Saturday 22nd January 2011.

Dec 24th

Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

By Steve Burbridge


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Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

Whitley Bay Playhouse

Well, the programme notes promise to “take the original ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ fairy tale and give it a new twist as only New World can!”  But, that rather ostentatious hyperbole aside, Whitley Bay Playhouse’s seasonal production has an awful lot going for it.

Okay, so it may not boast big-name star-signings, spectacular special effects and all manner of showbiz schmitz, but what it does do is provide a double-dose of festive fun for kids and adults alike.

The cast is, undoubtedly, led by the North East’s number-one comic Steve Walls who, as principal comic, Muddles, wins the entire audience over with his child-like charm and near-the-knuckle one-liners. Walls works the audience like a true professional and has a natural affinity with young and old. He is superbly supported by ‘Byker Grove’ actress Anne Orwin (who despite lacking the glamour of Anita Dobson, Lesley Joseph, Vicki Michelle, Linda Lusardi, and other more famous ‘queens’) plays the role of Queen Griselda perfectly.

Walls and Orwin are, in my opinion, the linchpins of this show and they are to be commended for their energy and enthusiasm, which never flags once. Lucy Dixon, from ‘Waterloo Road’, and Jonny Freeman, from ‘M.I. High’ play Snow White and Prince Florizel, respectively, and - it must be acknowledged - do their best with the most unrewarding of panto parts – principal boy and principal girl. Simon Barnard is a suitably stupid henchman as Herman and Hazel Pude completes the line-up of principals as the Forest Fairy.

The dwarfs are played by members of the ‘babes’ with recordings of adult voices dubbed in place of their own. Although this had the potential to go disastrously wrong, in this case, it worked reasonably effectively.

However, what really makes this pantomime a success is its faithful re-telling of a well-loved fairy tale. All the necessary magic ingredients are there – a bitchy baddie to boo at, a sweet, simpering Snow White, a proud and pompous Prince, a jovial jester, a hapless henchman a flirtatious fairy and a magic mirror.

It just goes to show that pantomime does not only rely upon big-names, big-bucks and big ideas to succeed. Instead, other production companies could do much worse than take heed and do what this show does - bring the magic and enchantment of the story to a new generation.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until 3rd January 2011

Dec 12th

Jack and the Beanstalk

By Steve Burbridge

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Jack and the Beanstalk

Tyne Theatre & Opera House

The North East of England is proving to be a veritable smorgasbord of festive fun with a diverse range of productions entertaining audiences over the Christmas period. There’s a show-stopping stage adaptation of a well-loved Paramount picture at Sunderland Empire, a re-telling of a children’s literary classic at Northern Stage and a sensational selection of traditional, good old-fashioned pantomimes at The Customs House, Durham Gala and The Tyne Theatre & Opera House.

The latter sees the stalwarts of Newcastle Pantomime Company make a welcome return with their ‘giant’ production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Maxie Peters and Billy Mitchell, as Worzel and Scrumpy, a couple of comedic farmhands, are joined by fellow regulars Kevin O’Keefe (Dame Trott) Catherine MacCabe (Jack), Charlie Richmond (Silly Billy) Paul O’Shea (Fleshcreep) and Kim Atkinson (Mrs Blunderbore), whilst Samantha Phyllis Morris (Princess) makes her debut with the troupe.

Although the story is set in the village of Muchpiddlingshire, this is yet another pantomime that is rooted firmly in the locale. Regional references and Geordie slang abound, with people ‘gannin’ geet radgie’ left, right and centre (that’s ‘going rather berserk’ for those of you who are not fluent in our local dialect!).

As with all traditional pantomimes, there is a certain amount of thigh-slapping, audience participation, sing-along’s, comedy, romance, danger and – ultimately - good triumphing over evil. Yet it is the flair and enthusiasm with which it is all executed that makes this production what it is. There is not one weak link amongst the principal cast and they are supported by an energetic chorus of five pretty girls to boot.

The scenery is beautifully painted and vibrantly colourful and I would have credited the designer with a mention had their name been included in the programme. Emily Swan’s choreography is effective without being overly-complicated and Peter Millican’s lighting design makes the stage look like pages from a book of fairy tales. Brendan Healy’s direction ensures that the pace and momentum is maintained throughout - indeed there are absolutely no lulls in this production.

Perhaps, though, most enjoyment is derived from the fact that the show is full of ‘all the super stuff that proper panto’s are made of’ (as stated in the programme notes) and performed by a cast who are not only able to connect with the youngsters in the audience, but who also understand the importance of doing just that.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Sunday 2 January 2011