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Feb 28th

Macbeth - Nice Swan Theatre Company

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Macbeth – Nice Swan Theatre Company, The People’s Theatre, Newcastle

 The Scottish play is one of William Shakespeare’s darkest and most powerful tragedies, awash with blood, terror and the weaknesses that make up humanity - which makes it a perfect piece to be given the Nice Swan Theatre Company treatment.

Bold, daring and not afraid to use artistic license to its full advantage, Nice Swan are an eclectic group of talented youngsters who have carved for themselves an enviable reputation for delivering high class, exciting and edgy productions which challenge and stretch the abilities of the company and, indeed, the boundaries of the pieces they perform, too.

When watching a Nice Swan production, it is easy to forget that a number of the performers have only recently completed their professional training in the performing arts and that many more of them are still undertaking the process. Such is the commitment, professionalism, exuberance and talent of all concerned that, all too often, they make some seasoned professional actors seem jaded and unenthusiastic by comparison. Their production of Macbeth is no exception.

Upon entering the auditorium, one is first struck by Kirsty Emery’s impressive set design. The ramparts of Macbeth’s castle and a Sleepy Hollow-inspired gnarled tree, made from swathes of fabric dominate the stage, whilst a cauldron bubbles menacingly in the foreground. This, combined with Chris Miller’s atmospheric lighting design and Andrew McTeer’s evocative sound effects, immediately sets a gloriously gothic tone. The commitment to authenticity is also evident in Mary Ann Trigg’s featured costumes. Indeed, the overall production values are sumptuously sublime and second to none.

The company’s unabashed audaciousness in its approach, once again is triumphant – this time in the decision to cast against type. Michaela Forbes is an actress whom I have always associated – and only ever seen her perform in – understated, mousey roles. Yet, her Lady Macbeth is a compelling, steely, ruthless creation and, despite her petite stature, she is every inch the diminutive diva. It may be open to debate as to whether Lord and Lady Macbeth ever achieved it, but there is no disputing that Forbes and Dale Jewitt (in the title role) are a true partnership of greatness.

Strong support comes from the ever-impressive Tom Whalley (Banquo), Charlie Martin, Laura Stoker and Charlotte Casey (the Witches), Dylan Stafford (Ross), and Jessica Brady (Lady Macduff).

Far from being a cursed production, Nice Swan’s Macbeth is a towering triumph of theatrical talent. The combination of passionate performances, slick staging and technical perfection is a headier brew than anything that could be conjured by those weird sisters. Indeed, if I could change one line in the play, it would be: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something stunning this way comes.”

Steve Burbridge.

Nice Swan Theatre Company’s Macbeth runs at the People’s Theatre, Newcastle until Friday 1 March 2013.

Tickets £12.00 adult, £10.00 concession. Special school and group discounts apply. Box office: 0191 265 5020.

Feb 27th

Go Back For Murder

By Steve Burbridge

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GO BACK FOR MURDER – Darlington Civic Theatre

 Carla Le Marchant (Sophie Ward) learns a disturbing family secret; her mother, Caroline Crale, died in prison after being convicted for poisoning her father, celebrated painter Amyas Crale (Gary Mavers). Caroline leaves an intriguing legacy in the form of a letter professing her innocence and, believing this to be the truth, Carla is determined to clear her mother’s name. Enlisting the help of Justin Fogg (Ben Nealon) the son of her mother’s defence lawyer, Carla searches out all the players from her tragic history and brings them back to the scene of the crime to uncover the truth.

 Suspects, secrets, and red herrings abound in this highly stylized production and if you look beyond the overly-exaggerated performances and implausibility of certain aspects of the plot you will, in all likelihood, have an enjoyable – if undemanding – evening’s entertainment. After all, there are many aspects which deserve praise: Simon Scullion’s wonderfully functional set; Douglas Kuhrt’s atmospheric lighting design and Brigid Guy’s period costume design, to name a few.

 The problems with this piece lie in the casting and direction – and I am sure the former contributed to the latter. For instance, although Sophie Ward gave an engaging performance in the dual roles of Carla, and Caroline and switched effortlessly from one to the other, her unconvincing Canadian accent when playing Carla proved something of a jarring distraction and it could easily have been omitted from the production without any real consequence at all. Similarly, Liza Goddard (despite being a fine actress) failed to convince as Miss Williams, the staid spinster Governess, and Lysette Anthony unashamedly over-egged the pudding in the role of femme-fatale, Lady Elsa Greer. By contrast, Robert Duncan (as Philip Blake) and Antony Eldridge (as his brother Meredith Blake) seemed to merely ‘walk-through’ their roles. And as for Sammy Andrews’ performance as Angela Warren (both in childhood and adulthood), well my compassion for humanity prevents me from offering an honest critique.

 In fairness, the second act is pacier and more enjoyable than the first and Christie once again employs her knack for leading the audience up the wrong track. However, that was not enough to redeem the production as a whole and, at the end of the performance, I was left with the feeling that the production had over-promised and under-delivered. I certainly would have expected a Bill Kenwright production to be an altogether slicker affair.

 Steve Burbridge.

 Runs at Darlington until Saturday 2 March 2013.

 For more information and to book tickets visit www.kenwright.com

 

Feb 7th

Macbeth Preview - Nice Swan Theatre Company

By Steve Burbridge

Macbeth - Nice swan Theatre Company

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 In 2011 Nice Swan Theatre Company thrilled audiences and reviewers alike with theirunique and innovative twiston Shakespeares As You Like It. Set in Newcastles Bigg Market, it certainly defied convention. This February they return to the challenge that is Shakespeare once more but this is a wholly different beast: a classical interpretation of the Bards shortest yet bloodiest tragedy Macbeth, a play so dark that it is even reputed to be cursed.

 The productions traditional approach to theScottish Playadheres closely to the original text and the intention behind this is two-fold. Firstly to project the play as Shakespeare intended; to engross both audiences that may well have known and loved the piece and newcomers that perhaps are currently studying it. Secondly, the accessibility of the play and its themes are as relevant as ever, with no need ofupdatefor modern society.  As Lee Rosher, Director, statesThis ensemble retelling of the play aims to transport the audience back to an age where madness rules, men were embroiled in a constant war between their own desires and honour, and women were far more powerful than ever given credit for.  This may well be a description of our own present time. Macbeth is as contemporary and universal as ever.

 From the measured nature of Banquo to his re-emergence as bloody- faced ghost, from the apparent throws of a country united in victory to the slaughter of many including the innocent McDuff family, from the metaphysical prophesising of witches to the very real results of this, each character embarks on a journey that twists like any modern soap-opera. None more-so than Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who veer from vaulting ambition to murder, puppet-master to crest-fallen mad-women respectively. Their relationship is one of theatres most compelling gender power struggles.

 The classical design and setting is enhanced by an atmosphere that is as fresh as it is gothic, all the high class and edgy production values that have come to be associated with Nice Swan Theatre Company are in place.

 Macbeth is being Produced by Jamie Gray - also Managing Director of Nice Swan Theatre Company and the man behind their most recent productions including the North East premier of HAIR the Musical back in September and The Crucible and A Streetcar Named Desire in February last year. ‘I’m so pleased to be bringing another classic to the Newcastle stage this year and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working with Lee and the rest of this very talented, dedicated team. Our productions are always well attended by the North East theatre fans, and this one in-particular is proving very popular with the local schools as it appears throughout the school curriculum’.

 Insanity, tragedy, fear, regret, the real, the unreal, sword fights, spectres, guilt, blood, power, terror, human nature at its best and worse. The ingredients for a thrilling night of theatre. As the Second witch so aptly puts itBy the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.

 Nice Swan Theatre Company’s Macbeth shows at the Peoples Theatre, Newcastle from Wed 27 February - Fri 1 March 2013.

 Tickets £12.00 adult, £10.00 concession. Special school and group discounts apply.

 

 

Dec 27th

Cinderella - The Playhouse, Whitley Bay

By Steve Burbridge

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CINDERELLA - THE PLAYHOUSE, WHITLEY BAY

Following on from his hugely successful performances in Aladdin and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Steve Walls returns to the Playhouse, Whitley Bay, for a third consecutive year. Continuing in his regular role as principal comic, this year sees him play the part of Buttons in a production of Cinderella which includes star-names Keith Jack (Any Dream Will Do) and Jennifer Metcalfe (Hollyoaks) as Prince Charming and Cinders, respectively.

As usual, Walls is a hit with kids and adults alike and demonstrates a talent for performing in pantomime which is second to none. From a comedic perspective, he is ably supported by Danny Jay and David Drewitt as the Uglies, Tulisa and Cheryl. Also seasoned panto performers, Jay and Drewitt complement each other perfectly in their roles as the mean, merciless and man-hungry siblings who set out to make their step-sister’s life unbearable. Making each entrance in an array of garishly fabulous frocks and wigs, their all-out awfulness to poor Cinders quickly ensures that they are on the receiving end of a barrage of boos and hisses.

However, in all the best fairy tales, good must triumph over evil and, ultimately, there is a happy ending in store for Cinderella thanks to her fairy godmother, played with aplomb by Sunderland’s very own Suzanne Richardson. Her West End credentials are utilised effectively and her vocal talents, combined with her wand-waving, rhyming couplets and determination to fight for what’s right, make her a formidable fairy godmother.

David Burton, as the bumbling Baron Hardup, and James Hedley, as a decidedly Geordie Dandini, complete the cast and add to the overall fun factor – especially so during an hilarious alternative version of The Twelve Days of Christmas. The routine was so physically demanding that I was worn out by just watching, yet their energy and commitment never flagged.

Add in the usual magical ingredients associated with the rags-to-riches story of Cinderella – a host of popular songs, high-octane dance routines, and a truly magical transformation scene with real Shetland ponies – and you have a lavish extravaganza that is sure to delight and entertain each and every generation of the family.

Cinderella is at the Playhouse, Whitley Bay, until Sunday, January 6, 2013. To book call 0844 2772771 or log on to www.playhousewhitleybay.co.uk

 

Dec 27th

Sleeping Beauty - Darlington Civic Theatre

By Steve Burbridge

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 SLEEPING BEAUTY - DARLINGTON CIVIC THEATRE

It was at Darlington Civic Theatre that Linda Lusardi and Sam Kane first met and fell in love, back in the 1990s. Now, happily married and with two children, the couple have returned to the venue to head the cast of this year’s panto, Sleeping Beauty.

This retelling of the tale of the princess who has a spell put on her that makes her sleep for a hundred years is a lavish and spectacular affair. No expense has been spared in providing spectacular scenery and sets, beautiful costumes and a consummate cast.

Linda Lusardi is in fine form as the cunning Carabosse, the wicked fairy who wreaks he revenge after being excluded from the christening celebrations of the Princess Beauty. She proves to be a top notch baddie and, whilst she elicits hisses and boos from the children in the audience, she receives a number of wolf-whistles from the admiring Dad’s and Granddad’s.

Sam Kane, as her unwitting henchman Oddjob, and Andy Jones, as court jester Muddles, keep the kids entertained with their comedy double-act which involves a slosh-scene which even finds its way down into the auditorium.

Darlington’s very own former Pop Idol contestant, Zoe Birkett, looks and sounds magnificent as Princess Beauty and is paired well with Will Tudor as the dashing royal hero, Prince William of Wallsend. Philip Meeks, once again performing in his native North East after his success as the Dame in Middlesbrough’s panto, has a wonderful warmth as Nurse Dolly, almost stealing the show with his version of I Am What I Am.

Throw in some stunning and magical illusions from Philip Hitchcock, in the role of King Stephan, and you have as near as you can get to pantomime perfection.

Sleeping Beauty is at the Civic Theatre, Darlington, until Sunday 20 January 2013. Tickets are priced from £13.50 to £21, with concessions available. To book call 01325 486 555 or log on to www.darlingtonarts.co.uk

 

Dec 17th

Robin Hood & The The Babes In The Wood

By Steve Burbridge

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Robin Hood & The Babes In The Wood
- The Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle upon Tyne

For me, a trip to see ‘the Geordie pantomime’ at the resplendent Mill Volvo Tyne Theatre & Opera House, a Grade 1 listed theatre, situated in the heart of Newcastle, is as much a part of Christmas as turkey and all the trimmings.

The Newcastle Panto Company have brought their traditional brand of pantomime to the venue, annually, for a number of years now and audiences return in their droves, each festive season, to see stalwarts including Kevin O’Keefe, Charlie Richmond and Janie MacKenzie do what they do best – make people laugh.

This year’s offering, Robin Hood Hood & The Babes In The Wood is brimming with madcap medieval mayhem, beautifully detailed sets and scenery, colourful costumes, comedy capers, Geordie dialects and references, boy meets girl, romance and adventure, and good triumphing over evil.

This year, Maxie Peters writes, directs and stars in the production and his complete understanding of what pantomime is all about is abundantly clear. All the essential ingredients are present and correct and Peters also delights the audience by delivering the quintessential panto dame in the form of Nurse Nitty Nora.

The regular cast members are joined by several newcomers. I particularly enjoyed Glen Joseph, as Will Scarlett and Steve Wraith as the Sheriff of Nottingham, but was less impressed by Stephen Gregory, as Little John, and JoJo Hatfield as Maid Marion. Gregory seemed under-rehearsed and, for the most part, looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, whilst Hatfield displayed a confidence that exceeded her abilities.

It was left up to the regular cast to save the day. Charlie Richmond effortlessly wins over the audience as Numpty Norman and Janie MacKenzie can certainly sell a song. Special praise should also go to Kevin O’Keefe, a trouper who performed, as Friar Tuck, with one arm in a sling as a result of a shoulder injury.

Overall, this is a production which, despite a few minor flaws succeeds on most levels. Great fun for all the family!

Robin Hood & The Babes In The Wood is at the Mill Volvo Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, until Sunday January 6, 2013. Tickets are priced from £10 to £20, with concessions available. To book call 0844 493 9999 or log on to www.newcastlepanto.co.uk

 

Dec 17th

Sleeping Beauty - The Gala Theatre, Durham

By Steve Burbridge

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Sleeping Beauty - The Gala Theatre, Durham

As the programme points out, the Gala pantomime has firmly established itself as “a cultural highlight in County Durham’s festive calendar”. This season sees Simon Stallworthy present his fifth annual production which is a charming version of Sleeping Beauty.

As usual, it is a pantomime full of fun and familiar faces. Paul Hartley, as Silly Billy, returns for the tenth consecutive year and he is a firm favourite with the kids, whilst Neil Armstrong is, once again, resident baddie as the evil wizard, Scorchard. However, there are some new faces within the cast, too. Steve Fortune dons the flamboyant frocks and treats the audience to the truly delightful Dame Miriam, Samantha Phyllis Morris strikes the right balance of sweetness and feistiness as Fairy Melusine and David Redgrave is a bumbling but kindly King Tickle.

Of course, at the heart of every fairytale is a royal romance and the beautiful Princess Aurora, played with sincerity by Christina Cuttell, and the slightly self-important Prince Roger (Ian Curran) meet by pure chance and fall in love. However, the sentimentality is never over-played.

The essence of true panto is woven throughout the entire show, which sticks closely to the original concept: plenty of audience interaction encouraging the kids to get involved, references to local places and current events, the obligatory slosh scene, and of course the mandatory sing song towards the end and prior to the inevitable wedding. All tried and tested stuff – it’s what the audience demand and is certainly what is delivered.

Add in a clapped-out car, providing much hilarity, some super special effects, beautiful costumes and scenery, some near-the-knuckle double-entendres, and a bit of corpsing here and there, and you have a seasonal spectacular which ticks all the right boxes.

With demand high and tickets selling fast, a number of performances are already sold out – and that is probably the most resounding endorsement of all.

Sleeping Beauty is at the Gala Theatre, Durham, until Saturday January 5, 2013. Tickets are priced from £6.50 to £15.50, with concessions available. To book call 0191 332 4041 or log on to www.galadurham.co.uk

 

 

 

Dec 10th

Dick Whittington at The Customs House, South Shields

By Steve Burbridge

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Dick Whittington – The Customs House, South Shields

Affectionately labelled ‘the little panto with the big heart’, the Customs House has a reputation for producing a Christmas show which often puts bigger-budget blockbusters to shame. The secret to its success is simple – stick to the traditional tried and tested formula of true pantomime.

With no star names to top the bill and very little technical wizardry to make the audience gasp, it is up to the performers and the script to retain the attention of the audience – just as it should be!

And with Ray Spencer, as Tommy, and Bob Stott, as Dame Dotty, at the helm, there is no doubt that this version of Dick Whittington does just that. As a double-act, they have kept panto audiences entertained for almost forty consecutive years and it is testament to their skill and popularity that the punters return in their droves year after year.

Other familiar faces in the cast include Peter Darrant in his regular role of baddie (this year a gloriously camp King Rat), Steven Lee Hamilton as principal boy, Graham Overton as Alderman Fitzwarren, and Alice Stokoe as Alice Fitzwarren. But there are some newcomers, too. Swedish performers Ola Karlberg and Mia Wallin play the Captain and Mia the Cat respectively, whilst Jonathan Lee Wharton and Luke Maddison demonstrate great potential in their roles of Seamen Anchor and Weigh.

As always, the South Shields venue shows great pride in the heritage of its home town, with the action being set, largely, in Cooksonville – even the Little Mix chart-topper Wings is given the Dame Dotty treatment! North East references abound and the puppet fairy, Emma from the Dale, is voiced by Geordie actress Charlie Hardwick.

Add in the riotously colourful costumes and sets by acclaimed local designer Paul Shriek and you have a fun-filled festive treat with lashings of laughter for the whole family – and with ticket prices that won’t break the bank.

Dick Whittington is at the Customs House, South Shields, until Sunday January 6, 2013. Tickets are priced from £8 to £17, with concessions available. To book call 0191 454 1234 or log on to www.customshouse.co.uk

 

Nov 28th

Haunting Julia

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Haunting Julia – Darlington Civic Theatre

There is no disputing that Alan Ayckbourn is one of this country’s best contemporary playwrights. The trademark wit and masterful insight into the human condition sets him apart from his peers. However, with Haunting Julia, he seems to have ventured into a genre to which he is, clearly, not very suited – the supernatural thriller.

Chronicling the life – and subsequent suspected suicide – of Julia Lukin, a musical prodigy, from childhood to her demise at only nineteen, through three characters who all knew her to varying degrees, there should be plenty of opportunity to build tension and suspense. Unfortunately, Ayckbourn’s wordy and verbose monologues create something of a barrier which is reinforced by an implausible scenario and some clichéd characterisations.

The audience is introduced to Joe, the boorish, overbearing father who stifled Julia with his misguided parental pride; Andy, her former co-student and brief boyfriend, and Ken, a local psychic. The action takes place in the building which housed Julia’s cramped and dank attic flat, which has now been recreated into a visitor centre in her memory – complete with her room restored to the way it was during her student days.

It is established early on in the play that Julia shunned her father during her time away from home, despite the fact that her parents moved to within a few miles of her, and that he never visited her flat. That, in itself, makes it extremely questionable as to how Joe would have any kind of contact with Andy, as, in all likelihood, they probably never met. It is possible to pick other holes in the plot if one were inclined to do so.

What is more difficult to deduce is where to apportion the blame for the lack of credibility of the characters: is it the writing, the direction or the performances? Duncan Preston, as Joe, paces lethargically around the set – all hands like spades and feet like boats – as though imitating a giant sloth. Joe McFadden, as Andy, seems to offset Preston with his over-projection and exaggerated facial expressions (His eyebrows worked so hard as featured performers that they should have been allocated a dressing room of their own!), while Richard O’Callaghan, as Ken, adopted a ridiculously camp voice and eccentric manner.

The loud bangs, flickering lights and ringing alarms, which are supposed to elicit the jumps and squeals from the audience fall flat until the final scene, which is genuinely impressive. However, by that point, you are left with the feeling that it’s all too little, too late. Ultimately, Haunting Julia is a production which over-promises and under-delivers.

Steve Burbridge.

 

Haunting Julia runs until Saturday 1 December 2012.

To book telephone 01325 486 555 or visit www.darlingtonarts.co.uk