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May 15th

Bohemian Rhapsody: The Music of Queen

By Steve Burbridge

 

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Bohemian Rhapsody: The Music of Queen – Darlington Civic Theatre

The decision to present a tribute concert based around the hits of one of the greatest super-groups of all time, Queen, is an audacious one. After all, who can mesmerise an audience like Freddie Mercury could? And who can play an electric guitar like Brian May can?

So, would Bohemian Rhapsody: The Music of Queen enable Spirit Productions to proclaim that ‘We Are The Champions’? Or would it be a case of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’?

The result was something of a mixed affair. Undoubtedly, the Queen back catalogue of hits provides a veritable cornucopia of classic anthems to be performed and despite finding themselves ‘Under Pressure’ in the first act, wherein the band often drowned out the vocals, the cast valiantly adhered to the old adage that ‘The Show Must Go On’.

Things improved as time went on and there were some impressive vocal performances from Amy Diamond, Rebecca Kelly and Kelly Ann Gower. The heavy weight of responsibility of stepping into Freddie Mercury’s shoes fell upon the shoulders of Nathan James. Whilst credit must be given to James for giving it his best shot, I felt that he lacked ‘A Kind of Magic’ that Freddie had by the bucket-load.

As with their previous production, Dancing Queen, which was at the Civic around this time last year, it is with the production values that Spirit Productions really let themselves down. The costumes were more Rocky Horror than Rock Gods, with the female performers parading around in red and black leather corsets and basques while the males donned leather trousers and waistcoats. And the sight of Giovanni Spano performing ‘I Want to Break Free’ in fishnet tights and suspenders, looking more like Frank ‘n’ Furter than Freddie, was as cringe-worthy as it was preposterous.

Executive Producer and Director David King may have had in mind ‘One Vision’ when he produced this show. Unfortunately, it is not shared by me. However, in the interests of objectivity, I must point out that the audience on press night did seem to be enjoying themselves and there was a rapturous round of applause at curtain call.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 18 May 2013.

For tickets telephone 01325 486 555 or log on to www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk

 

 

Mar 14th

DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE NEW END, HAMPSTEAD

By OLIVER VALENTINE

Death Of A Nightingale is a thought provoking play that questions the government policy of closing special schools in favour of sending their pupils to mainstream institutions.

Alan Share’s play offers a passionate defence of special schools and challenges the validity of  government policy for inclusion. Share was a governor of a special school in NE England between 1988 and 2004, and helped it’s parents fight against the school’s closure. During this time 100 other special schools were closed, and Share’s play is based on what he documented. Death Of A Nightingale is a fictional story of the attempt to close Brighouse School. It looks at the complexities of the issue, and argues that parents of special needs children should be able to choose between mainstream and special schools. Share states that the scales are weighted against special needs children in mainstream schools, and highlights that attempted suicides by SEN children are high in mainstream education due to bullying and an inability to keep up academically. 

Share’s play is a mixed bag. The quality of writing although generally very good, lacks consistency. Some scenes (especially the school closure decision scenes), are extremely well written, while others meander. The music scenes are far too repetitive, and the main one involving every religion seems to go on forever.

However the main problem with this production is the pedestrian direction by Tom Scott. Even the exceptionally talented cast are unable to drag this play out of first gear due a lack of imaginative leadership. The pace is not helped between scenes by the tedious and unnecessary repeated moving of chairs from one side of the set to the other, and the bringing on and off of props

What holds things together are the strong performances. Melanie Ramsey is superb as Head teacher Margaret Williamson, and is well supported by her on stage partner Ian Targett as John Errington.  Pupils from Oak Lodge special school in East Finchley act along the professionals, and Max Lewis plays the part of mischievous student Terry to perfection.

The timing of Share’s play aligns well with new developments about the ongoing debate around the provision of special schools. A Green Paper on SEN may now offer parents a real choice of schools for their children and make Share’s play a little redundant. Not that Share would mind, that is what his play argues for after all.

In these times of cutbacks where vital services now seem especially vulnerable, Death Of A Nightingale offers a stimulating night of theatre that is as relevant as it is moving.

OLIVER VALENTINE                                                               

                                        Run until 3rd April. Box Office: 08700332733




 

 

Sep 14th

Great Expectations - A First Class Theatre Experience

By Douglas McFarlane
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Taylor Jay-Davies at the Orangery in Kew Gardens


I had absolutely no expectations, I thought as I was planning to go along to review Great Expectations last night. I hadn't read the cast, researched any detail about the play, I only knew what time and day.  We do live busy lives, and theatre can help you escape by taking you into a different time and place. Well, theatre that is, done by an incredible creative team and a team of talented actors. I'm always hopeful for a gem to appear before me.

As I read the programme on arrival, I was starting to get a good feeling about the play. Conceived and directed by Graham McLaren, as associate director of the National Theatre Of Scotland and adapted for stage by Scots playwright Jo Clifford, this production was already was starting to interest me. An array of well known TV faces were also cast including Jack Ellis (Coronation Street), Chris Ellison (The Bill) and Paula Wilcox (Man About The House).   Scanning further into the cast biographies, I noticed that quite a few had been trained at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) including Taylor Jay-Davies (pictured above) who was playing the young Pip.

So, with a cast and creative crew like that, they now had my attention and I was wondering if they could deliver something unique.  In short, they nailed it.  Well, apart from one tiny moment when one of the actors cried out "line" in the midst of his wonderful over-the-top characterful vocals, a voice from the back returned the line, and in a split second he continued the monologue and delivered it perfectly. It was opening night after all, and it reminded me how high quality their performance was for a first night. The set is amazing and stunning to look at. There's a great use of a large table which divides the stage diagonally allowing for clever lighting to create different locations allowing the actors to flow from one side of the stage to the other. Very smart. The entire cast were first class actors young and old and the general flow, music and mood of the set was a credit to the incredible directing skills of Graham McLaren.

There's so many great things about this production that I'd suggest you get along to see it as it tours the UK before settling down in the West End. I can't promise you the free champagne and canapes to celebrate with the rest of the cast as I did in the Orangery at Kew Gardens, but I can promise that your expectations will be met at Great Expectations.

See the video below for a view of Richmond Theatre and Kew Gardens. The official website includes the eery music from the set.

http://www.greatexpectationstheplay.com














May 17th

The Trial of the Jew Shylock at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

By Carolin Kopplin
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He who takes usury goes to hell,
and he who does not goes to the workhouse.

Eric Richard's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice focuses on Shylock and Antonio as bitter rivals in a battle for supremacy in the cold world of business where the winner takes it all and the loser is crushed underfoot. Race and creed are merely tools for the dominant 1% - greedy bankers, brokers, and usurers in Eric Richard's vision of today's Venice. The only thing that unites everybody in this world of extreme greed and avarice is the love for money. A very dark and dreary picture indeed.

The merchant Antonio is deeply in love with Bassanio so when Bassanio asks him for a huge amount of money(£375,000 in today's currency) to woo the rich Portia, Antonio relents. As his fortune is invested in a number of ships, he has to approach the Jewish usurer Shylock to obtain the required sum. There is no love lost between Shylock and Antonio. Although Antonio seems as gentle as a lamb, his deeply ingrained anti-semitism can surface at any given moment. Shylock is just as fanatical although in his case years of abuse can be blamed for his hatred. He gladly agrees to lending Antonio the money against a pound of his flesh, should he be unable to pay back the debt. Shylock's daughter Jessica also hates her Jewish father, which she clearly demonstrates by wearing a gigantic cross around her neck. She elopes with Shylock's assistant Lorenzo, stealing Shylock's jewels and cash. Shylock is livid with rage, worrying more about his jewels than his daughter. Meanwhile Bassanio arrives in Portia's palace to choose the correct casket and make Portia his wife - and even more important, to become rich. 

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Saul Matlock as Bassanio, Joe Shefer as Antonio, Josh Jewkes as Salarino,
Lisa Sheerin as the Duke, Ashley Gunstock as Shylock -- Photo by Poetic Justice


The play has been cut down to 80 minutes and focuses on the money theme and the relationship between Antonio and Shylock which, for the most part, works well. However, some of the characters have been cut so much that there is very little left to play with. Josh Jewkes gives a good performance as Lorenzo but there is little he can do with Salarino or Tubal. Lisa Sheerin's characters are more clearly defined. She is a witty, slightly flippant Nerissa, a dignified, authoritative Duke, and a self-confident but girly Jessica. Ashley Gunstock's Shylock seems polite and businesslike but is seething with cold rage. He will not ask for sympathy nor plead with his tormentors, he is beyond that, but his "If you cut us, do we not bleed" speech shows a profound sadness. Joe Shefer's Antonio is gentle and a loving friend to Bassanio, with whom he is clearly besotted, and it is he in the end who shows some mercy to Shylock unlike Portia who first preaches mercy and then does not show any herself. Emma Lyndon-Stanford's Portia is a very strong character who will probably be the dominant partner in the relationship with the rather weak and youngish Bassanio (Saul Matlock) who clearly appreciates his wife's riches far more than her. When Antonio caresses him after winning the trial, one wonders whether this is not going to turn into a ménage à trois. 

Director Susannah Lane Bragg's selection of songs for each scene worked very well, especially Pink Floyd's "Money" featuring opening and closing cash registers to introduce Shylock's business. I was not too convinced by the decision to replace the gold, silver and lead caskets by white, red and grey filing cabinets because it takes away from the significance of the choice but since Bassanio was the only suitor shown making a choice it is probably not too important. 

An intriguing adaptation showing how relevant Shakespeare's play is today.

By Carolin Kopplin


Until 1st June 2014

Rosemary Branch Theatre 
2 Shepperton Road, London, N1 3DT
Box Office: 020 7704 6665
http://www.rosemarybranch.co.uk/#/the-trial-of-the-jew-shylock/4582373551 
Dec 1st

Save Darlington Civic Theatre & Arts Centre

By Steve Burbridge

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The New Hippodrome & Palace of Varieties was formally opened on Monday September 2 1907. Its first Managing Director was Signor Rino Pepi, an Italian ex patriot who was originally a quick-change artist (or protean) and impersonator, whose love of theatre took him into a management career. George F Ward of Owen and Ward of Birmingham, a firm specialising in theatre building, designed the theatre and Owen and Ward were responsible for the building of the theatre. It is constructed from local Middlesbrough red brick with terracotta dressings. Above the Parkgate entrance is a 64foot high pyramid-roofed tower (housing a water tank) that gives the theatre's distinctive appearance and was used to provide high-pressure water for aquatic scenes that were popular at the time. The ornamental canopy is a replica of the original iron and glass structure, which was destroyed by a traffic accident in the 1960s.

Th
e theatre flourished during the 20 years Signor Pepi ran it but following his death in November 1927, its future became uncertain. Competition from cinema became a real threat and a succession of different managers struggled to balance the books. Indeed at one stage the theatre was equipped with a film projection box at the rear of the Upper Circle, this can be seen above the name on Borough Road side of the building. In 1966 after much hard work and enthusiasm from members of the community, especially Darlington Operatic Society, the Borough Council of Darlington assumed full financial, administrative and artistic responsibility for the theatre on behalf of the town. The ‘New Hippodrome’ became officially known as Darlington Civic Theatre.

Darlington Arts Centre began its life as Darlington College of Education, which was founded by the British & Foreign School Society. From 1876 to 1978 it was used as a teacher training college. In 1978 it became Darlington Arts Centre funded by Darlington Borough Council. On July 10, 2001, ownership of the building was officially handed over to Darlington Borough Council.

Now, as a direct result of the coalition government’s Strategic Spending Review, Darlington borough council have announced that both venues shall no longer receive any funding and will be closed in the summer of 2011 unless they can be sold as going concerns. The news has prompted angry reaction – not only from residents of Darlington, but also from actors who have performed there.

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Denis Lill (right) in 'Witness for the Prosecution' at The Civic.

Denis Lill

“I’d be surprised if the council would be allowed to close the Civic because it’s an historic theatre and a beautiful place to play and these theatres are getting fewer and further between. Would it later be replaced by a ‘one size fits all barn’ which can host a rock concert, a panto or a play?

From an actor’s point of view, it’s far more satisfactory playing a theatre that was designed for the acoustic of the human voice rather than a barn. I’d be very sorry if the Civic was to be closed. I’d campaign very much in terms of it staying open. It’s a joy and a privilege to perform at these old theatres.”

Denis Lill first performed at The Civic Theatre in the mid-Nineties in 'Mrs Warren’s Profession', alongside Penelope Keith. He also appeared there in 'Spider’s Web' and will play Sir Wilfred Robarts QC in 'Witness for the Prosecution' from Monday 15th November 2010 to Saturday 20th November 2010. He is also well-known for his television role of Mr Rose in The Royal.

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Debbie Arnold (far left) in 'Keeping Up Appearances' which played at The Civic.

Debbie Arnold

“Having performed at Darlington Civic in ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ in July (12th to 17th), I am very aware of the huge value that the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre represents, culturally, to the residents of Darlington and the surrounding areas. The Civic is a beautiful venue and is blessed with wonderful support from the Friends of the Theatre and patrons alike. I , and my fellow members of the cast and company of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, received a very warm welcome to the theatre and enjoyed the run immensely. We all must do what we can to preserve the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre for the future.” 

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Louise English (left) with Anita Dobson in 'Hello, Dolly!' which played at The Civic.

Louise English

“The North East has some beautiful theatres and Darlington Civic is absolutely stunning. I have very fond memories of performing at this wonderful and grand theatre in shows such as ‘Hello, Dolly!’, with Anita Dobson, and ‘All The Fun Of The Fair’, alongside David Essex. So, with the combination of a beautiful theatre and great audiences, how could anyone not love working here? It would be an absolute tragedy if it were to close. Please help save the Civic.”

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Lesley Joseph (far left) with the cast of 'Hot Flush!' which played at The Civic.

Lesley Joseph

"It would be a tragedy if Darlington were to close the doors of its theatre and arts centre, which have brought so many hours of enjoyment to so many people. When times are hard, we all need the arts to take us away from our own lives and to help us forget the hard times. I sincerely hope that a way can be found to keep these venues open for many more years to come."

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Su Pollard in 'Annie' which played at The Civic Theatre.

Su Pollard

" The Civic has always been a delight for actors and audiences alike. Apart from the stark fact that our profession will lose yet another venue to practice our craft, my main concern is that the loyal audience that has built up over the years will then have to travel further afield for their entertainment. As good as neighbouring theatres are, I believe adding what could be another two hours onto an evening out could have detrimental effects. There is no doubt the people of Darlington adore 'their' theatre. Please reward them by continuing to provide it. Selfishly, I adore playing there and don't want to stop. Many thanks, Su Pollard."
 
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Victor Spinetti (with Anita Harris) in 'Come On, Jeeves!' which played at The Civic.

Victor Spinetti

"For more than a century, Darlington Civic has provided the town's cultural heart and lifeblood. It is so unfair that the arts and entertainment industry is the first to feel the axe fall when any cutbacks are to be made. Especially when you consider that during the Great Depression it was music halls, theatres, roller-skating rinks and the like that flourished. In times of austerity, people turn to the arts and entertainment industry for escapism and pleasure. It is imperative that we save the theatre and arts centre."

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Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone in 'Blood Brothers', which played at The Civic.

Niki Evans

"I'm horrified to hear that the beautiful Civic Theatre is under threat of closure. Not only is the theatre a wonderful venue to perform in, but the people who work there are warm and friendly.The audiences are wonderful, too, and the place has a great atmosphere. It would be  a very sad event if this happened. Please fight for the Civic."
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Steve Arnott has performed in a number of pantomimes at The Civic, including the role of Dame Trott in 'Jack & The Beanstalk'

Steve Arnott


"Please give your support to saving this gem in the theatrical crown. With so much uncertainty in these austere times we need the Arts and entertainment to lighten our days."

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Ray Spencer (right) with panto partner Bob Stott

Ray Spencer MBE, Executive Director of The Customs House in South Shields, actor and comedian

"The Civic Theatre and Darlington Arts Centre offer a fantastically varied programme from the most commercial to the most thought-provoking work. They support and promote a rich cultural heritage for Durham and their loss would be a real blow to the North East arts infrastructure. Their offer to their local community and to the wider region is to be envied and the true worth to the people of all generations would be felt both economically and emotionally. Long may they champion the arts in Darlo!"

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Isla St Clair, who appeared in 'Eyes Front!' at Darlington Arts Centre.

Isla St Clair

"It is very sad news to hear that the authorities are actually thinking of closing the historic Civic Theatre and the important Darlington Arts Centre! One wonders who makes these decisions and have they really thought out the implications of such a move. I doubt it. I do hope the residents of Darlington will fight hard to keep these important venues and that allowing them to be closed will be a blow not only for Darlington but to the wonderful North East population in general."


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Top North East entertainer, Steve Walls.

Steve Walls, actor, presenter and comedian

"It would be sad to see such a beautiful theatre with such tradition go dark. The North East is proud of its theatre's, it would be a blow to the region."

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Elkie Brooks, who has performed in concert at The Civic Theatre.

Elkie Brooks

"I am shocked to hear about the possible closure of Darlington's glorious Civic Theatre.  I have played here on many occasions and always had a very warm reception from both the audience and the theatre staff.  I do hope a positive decision can be made which allows this most elegant of theatres to stay open and continue to attract high quality productions and performers."

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Kim Hartman has appeared at The Civic in productions including 'Keeping Up Appearances' and 'Daisy Pulls It Off'.

Kim Hartman

"I think it's shocking that the Darlington Civic should have had its funding withdrawn. Recreation is vital for us all and the enjoyment of every form of art and sport should be available to all society, wherever they live. The Civic has a flourishing group of Friends, supporters and helpers; the building is beautiful, comfortable and historic and we should be investing money into it with the view to it becoming a producing house again, not taking funding away. With love to you all and good luck. Kim"
 
 
 



     
 

 




 
Nov 23rd

Once a Ronan, always a Ronan - the music man

By Kate Braxton

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Since its West End opening in 2013, many have seen Once the musical and most reviewers have revered it. I actually chose to hit The Phoenix Theatre when a certain pop star took the lead role last week. Life is a Ronancoaster, I’ve just gotta write it.

Uniquely interactive from the start, theatre punters join cast members and musicians on stage for a drink. I sat taking photos, which is allowed at the outset. But once the theatregoers are gently encouraged off stage, the house lights stayed up for too long, which did weaken the mood positioning.

However, overall, Once is a joyous musical experience. Ronan plays Guy, a vacuum cleaner repairman and pub singer, opposite Girl, a Czech piano player. So the show has the carpet of an unconventional love story and despite the hike in prices to see Mr Boyzone, a pretty clean sweep enjoyed it. Occasionally raw, at times, raucous, with a symphony of Celtic ballads, I applaud everyone who’s been involved in bringing this show to The West End, and it will be going on tour next year.

So, to Mr Keating: He apparently never thought he’d ‘do’ a musical and has expressed being anxious about the experience. When the musical director gave him the anthem-like tunes such as Falling Slowly and Leave, it could have given him a complex.

But not Ronan. He and his Girl – played by Jill Winternitz - are well matched. There’s considerable effort required to get the timing right with this script and it’s not quite there yet, which made their relationship a touch unconvincing.  But it will get there very soon, because he can act, so can she. He plays guitar with passion, we know he can sing, and certainly doesn’t have a face for radio. And she’s equally gorgeous. Their comic moments were, well, cute but I still sensed nervousness during the performance.

Ronan hit some spectacular notes in the high range, with a fabulous belt followed by a crafted little sexy vocal crack (if you’ll pardon the expression). The cast are wonderfully talented together. They’ve got the Dublin Craic. There’s bounce, they blatantly love what they’re doing and they underscore the protagonists as a feisty and fun orchestra of actor-musicians.

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© 2014 Once London. All rights reserved. Photographs by Frank Ockenfels, Matt Crockett and Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The stage set is very simple. We stay in the bar throughout. Nothing flown in, just a piano wheeled out and emotive lighting effects. But we do go to a bridge above the pub where Guy and Girl duet against a plain brick wall backdrop. Couldn’t help think of West Side Story. There's a place for us, and all that. Yet the giant distressed mirror at the back of the bar held my gaze. It reflects everything to the audience from two perspectives. One: Ours. Two: The characters’. A lovely piece of simple, visual and experiential trickery.

And on the subject of looking at oneself, Ronan and I did a selfie at the end. I know he’s considering further acting roles and I'd love to see him more than Once, hoovering up applause. Rather like Girl's knackered vacuum cleaner, this show “does not suck”. But it’s still hard not to think of him as Mr Boyzone.

http://www.oncemusical.co.uk/

Running until 21st March 2015 at Phoenix Theatre, London

Oct 17th

Absolute Bloody Murder!

By Paul Tyree

                                 Murder on the Nile

      The Official Agatha Christie Theatre Company

The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.   Mon 15th – Sat 20th Oct

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As we entered the theatre on Monday night to review Murder on the Nile we were told that Kate O’Mara, the big name draw in this production had dropped out due to ill health and that Nichola McAuliff had replaced her for the rest of the tour. As we settled into our seats we thought no more about it but as the evening progressed I couldn’t help but wonder if Ms O’Mara’s illness might not have been brought on by the sheer awfulness of this production and therefore she had decided to politely withdraw rather than carry on with the charade.

Nichola McAuliffe, perhaps still fresh and unaware, is by far the best thing about this and acquits herself well as does Robert Duncan as Canon Pennefather the amateur sleuth who solves the crime. (No Poirot in this unlike the film version). Then again being the best actors in this play really isn’t a compliment.

The rest of the company are undone by some extremely dodgy accents, poor casting and lazy direction which means this play is the worst thing that I’ve seen in the theatre for years if not ever. Whilst the first half was uninvolving it was in the second half where the real stench that was the rotting corpse of this play began to waft around the theatre.

Long before the end people began to walk out much to the amusement of the crowd and embarrassment of the actors. At one point whilst discussing a gunshot wound one of the actors said that ‘Infection might be setting in’ to which someone to my right loudly said ‘let’s hope so!’.

You could tell that not one of the actors believed in this play or indeed what they were saying. At one point when one of the cast got shot, instead of being dramatic, it got the biggest laugh of the night. The play by this point had descended into farce and was beyond salvation.

Most of the acting seemed like the efforts of some well-meaning amateurs rather than professionals and you could tell that the entire cast just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. (A sentiment shared by the audience believe me). This then is a play to be avoided at all costs. No theatre goer should have to suffer in the way that we poor unfortunates did on Monday night and believe me if I’d paid for my ticket then I would have asked for my money back, it really is that bad. If you value Agatha Christie’s memory then please buy one of her books instead. The poor girl will be spinning in her grave about this one.

Jun 24th

"Elvis People - A New Play" (New World Stages, New York)

By Luke Tudball

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Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…” – Elvis Presley

 

Elvis Presley is perhaps one of the best-known musicians in recent history. His records have sold many millions of copies worldwide. According to American Demographics eighty-four percent of Americans say that their lives have been touched by Elvis in some way. Well. That’s good to know. I have to say that I have never really been a fan of ‘The King’ and this show does nothing to change that state of affairs.

 

Walking into the theatre at the New World Stage, “Elvis People” seems a little out of place before we even start. The NWS building is modern and rubberised, purpose-built from the shell of an old movie theatre – perhaps which showed some of Elvis’s movies years ago. Elvis is a relic of a bygone era, and the set highlights this with a various Elvis-style ‘suits’ hanging on the wings along with some cutesy dresses, and what maybe records covering the entire back wall. The juxtaposition of kitsch and modern does not do well here, and I found myself a little unsettled – especially as the rest of the set is glaring white. Things improved a little as the opening music kicked in, and some interesting video projections ensued on the record wall. However, the transitions dragged on and I found myself thinking, just get on with it already.

 

Henry Wishcamper’s production of Doug Grissom’s new play comes only two years after “All Shook Up”, another Elvis-based musical which did little more than vibrate the audience a little, and unfortunately also fails to really excite. The blame should not be levelled entirely at Wishcamper however, who does a serviceable job with the materials available. In the same vein, the ensemble of actors in this production have fine heritage and there are some interesting performances, but I feel that Grissom’s overly sentimental script and the tedious design does them no favours. There are some nice moments though, and I certainly found myself engaged by Ed Sala in the ‘Elvis in Vietnam’ sequence. Likewise, there are not many laughs in this show, but mention should be made of the ‘Robbery’ sequence which, though a little clunky, brightens a murky second act.

 

“Elvis People” will close on Saturday, June 23, 2007 after a very limited run at the New World Stages (barring a massive upturn in ticket sales) and I cannot help but think this is a good thing. Separately, the elements of the show promise much, but the vehicle they inhabit when united fails to live up to the hype. I certainly left not so much ‘all shook up’ but feeling more like I was checking into the ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.

 

“It’s rare when an artist’s talent can touch an entire generation of people. It’s even rarer when that same influence affects several generations.” - Dick Clark

 

Cast: Jordan Gelber, Jenny Maguire, David McCann, Nick Newell, Nell Page, Ed Sala

 

Director: Henry Wishcamper

 

For more information on the show, please visit: www.elvispeople.com orwww.newworldstages.com

Mar 21st

These trees are made of blood - Southwark Playhouse

By Dan Zbijowski

At its best theatre has the potential to excite, shock, educate and provoke. "These trees are made of blood" does this in abundance.

 

Last year the Southwark Playhouse won the Fringe Theatre of the Year and on this form its difficult to see it going elsewhere this year.

 

‘These trees are made of blood’ tells the story behind the real events of a dark period in Argentina's history that became known as "La Guerra Sucia" - "The Dirty War”. Starting with a military coup in 1976, a dictatorship seized control of the South American country for 7 years, during which time an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped and 'disappeared'.

 

The mothers of some of the missing started a protest in Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in 1977, whilst their numbers have dwindled, 38 years on they still meet every Thursday to demand answers for their missing children.

 

These trees are made of blood "Never forget, never forgive" powerful words for a powerful production

The play is set in comically named “Coup, Coup” cabaret bar with the audience sat in and around the action. With a band playing in the corner and the air thick with smoke (or in this case dry ice) you could be in any bar in Buenos Aires. There is no divide between audience and cast, the spectator is very much a part of the production, sometimes actively involved. This heightens the drama and serves to make the events that unfold all the more powerful.

 

The show is compered by 'The General', the excellent Greg Barnett, who is at ease cracking jokes and interacting with the audience. He introduces 3 acts one by one, the first seemingly having little relevance other than being ‘burlesque’, but the 2nd and 3rd do segue into the themes of the show. In truth the first 15 minutes of sometimes humorous gags are a light hearted preamble and set-up the main thrust of the show, all delivered with some audience interaction by the 3rd cabaret artist. Whilst having limited relevance to the plot as a whole, it relaxed the crowd lulling them into a false sense of security that makes the impact of the show even greater.

 

Nb. don’t read your programme before the show to avoid a spoiler.

 

During the interval grab a stiff drink, because Act 2 becomes less forgiving and has some truly chilling moments. Val Jones is inspired as the increasingly desperate mother searching for her daughter. The dialogue at times is hard, but never overstated and when it becomes a little heavy handed the musical interludes bring it back brilliantly. The songs are emotive and powerful, lyrically poetic, and musically uplifting which provides great contrast to the action.

 

The score is every bit as catchy and profound as anything you’ll see in the West End and would draw worthy comparisons with ‘Les Miserables’. Darren Clark should be applauded for being able to pull together such dark themes in his music and lyrics in a way that doesn’t overwhelm.

  

One of the great songs from 'These trees are made of blood'

 

This is a highly charged, roller coaster ride of a production, the climactic reveal is one of the most powerful scenes I've witnessed. By the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Director Amy Draper deserves enormous credit for taking a vision of a very tricky subject and translating it so successfully to stage. Political productions can often feel forced and didactic in tone, forgetting the primary purpose of theatre... To entertain. This production achieves both thanks to great songs, fantastic direction and a superb cast.

 

If you see one production this year make it this. 

 

By Dan Zbijowski

 

Until 11th April

Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD

Box office: 020 7407 0234 

More information: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-little/these-trees-are-made-of-blood/

 

Nov 18th

An Interview with Brent Spiner

By Carolin Kopplin

Creation Con Chicago 010.jpg
  Photo by Carolin Kopplin

Best known for his role as the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner is a versatile and multi-talented performer who started his career in the theatre. Born in Houston, Texas, Spiner first began pursuing his interest in acting while in high school, where his inspirational drama teacher, Cecil Pickett, started the careers of a group of young actors and directors including Spiner, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid, Thomas Schlamme, and Trey Wilson. When Pickett went on to teach at the University of Houston, Spiner followed, but he quit university before completing his degree and moved to New York. Brent then appeared in various Broadway and off-Broadway productions, such as A History of the American Film (1978), The Seagull (1980) at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), The Three Musketeers (1984),and Big River (1985). After starring in the play Little Shop of Horrors, he moved to Los Angeles, where he played a number of character parts in television films and series such as Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and the recurring guest role of Bob Wheeler (1985-1987) in the popular NBC sitcom Night Court. In 1987, Spiner landed the role of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.Following a seven-year run on television, he appeared in the Star Trek feature films Generations, First Contact, and Resurrection, and performed in and co-wrote the story for Star Trek: Nemesis. He also co-starred with Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), for which he was nominated for a Golden Satellite Award, and appeared in films like Independence DayOut to SeaPhenomenon, and The Aviator. On stage, he played Ivanov in the touring production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1992) and was nominated for a Drama Desk award as Best Actor in a Musical when he returned to Broadway playing the role of John Adams in the Roundabout revival of 1776 (1997).  A few years later, Spiner co-starred in Yasmina Reza’s play Life x 3 (2003) at the Circle in the Square Theater and played the title role in Man of La Mancha(2009) at the Freud Playhouse. In 2008, Spiner developed a new concept for a “musical of the mind” and released the intriguing CD Dreamland, an audio “film” beautifully performed by Spiner and Maude Maggart. Recently, Brent has done voice work on The Simpsons and Young Justice and has appeared in Alphas and The Big Bang Theory. He is currently filming ten new episodes of the web series Fresh Hell, which Spiner describes as a “sit-trag”—a comedy with elements of tragedy, highly comical but also touching on very serious issues: http://www.youtube.com/user/freshhellseries?blend=13&ob=5 

I talked to Brent Spiner at the Star Trek convention in Chicago in October 2011.

CK: First of all, I’d like to thank you for your time because I know you’re busy.

BS: Never too busy to do this.

CK: That’s very nice. Right. What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

BS: The most beautiful thing I’ve seen. (sings to the tune of “Maria,” West Side Story) The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…. (talks) It’s really hard. You know, it’s like “What’s your favourite food?” in a way.

CK: Let’s change it to “one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen”. That might be easier.

BS: Well, my son. He looks just like me. He’s incredibly beautiful. (Ponders the question.) I like Clare Danes a lot too, by the way.

CK: Ah! So let’s talk about something related to your career.

BS: All right.

CK: You’ve done so much, so many different things, on stage, on TV, films—Star Trek, Threshold, The Aviator, Independence Day; in the theatre, 1776. What was your best experience about doing 1776?

BS: It was actually being on Broadway again. There were many wonderful experiences doing that show. I worked with some amazing people. Everyone connected with the show was just great - Peter Stone, who wrote it, Pat Hingle and Tom Aldrich, and all these other wonderful people. Working at the Roundabout, which is a great organization. It was a magic experience. But I hadn’t been on Broadway at that point in twelve years.

CK: How did you cope with the fact that that you were being back on stage? You have to project on stage, it is a different medium.

BS: Right. Particularly that show, which requires a lot of volume because it’s all about arguing. You’re debating the entire show and it’s a long show, it’s three hours. My character, I played John Adams, had eight songs and lots of debate. There is a time in the show, forty-five minutes without a song because this debate is going on and I’m at the centre of it. So I was really worried about my voice. It got to a point in rehearsal where Paul Gemignani, who is the greatest conductor in the musical theatre now, he was doing the show, came up to me and said: “Be careful of your voice.” And I went: “What?” He said: “You could lose your voice, I can hear it.” And I thought: “Oh my God.” So I got really scared. It was at a point when we’re just going into the theatre, when we’d been given dressing room assignments. I was in the dressing room with two guys, Tom Aldrich, who just passed away, he was a fantastic actor, and Jerry Lanning. Jerry happened to be a voice teacher and I said to him, “Jerry, I am really worried I’m gonna lose my voice.” He said, “You’re not.” I said: “Really?” And he said: “Your vocal chords are really challenged right now because every day you wake up you’re stronger than you were the day before. Don’t worry, you’re getting stronger, you’re not getting weaker.” Everything turned for me at that moment. I knew I wasn’t going to lose my voice. I knew I was fine. He was dead right and I got stronger every night. I did the show for eight months and I never missed a performance. I did 250 performances. And I never came close to losing my voice. By the end I was stronger than I was in the beginning. It was just a psychological thing.

(A couple of teenagers approach Brent.)

Teenage Boy: We have a question.

BS: You know what, we’re really right in the middle of an interview. We’ve got a recorder going.

Teenage Boy: Sorry.

CK: You’re on it now. You’ll be online, you know.

Teenage Boy: Me and my friends were wondering. What would Data eat at McDonalds?

BS: This is the stupidest thing anyone has ever asked me. The single dumbest thing anyone’s ever said. Would Data eat at McDonalds? Data wouldn’t be so stupid to eat at McDonalds. Data would go, “I want something nutritious. I don’t wanna kill myself, I wanna live, right?”

Teenage Girl: What if you were starving?

BS: He would just starve.

Teenage Boy: Sorry to bother you.

BS: Don’t worry about it. See you in a bit.

(The teenagers leave.)

BS: There you go. It was interesting that you were taping and involved in that. If you say to somebody: “I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of an interview”, they barrelled right through that as if I hadn’t said anything. People have their own agendas. If they want something, they will go for it. It does not matter what you said.

CK: That’s really rude.

BS: Rudeness is just, you know, it’s part of the human condition, right?

CK: I think you enjoy doing new things and challenges. You are doing Fresh Hell, which is very different because it is an online series on YouTube.  

BS: Right.

CK: Why did you choose to do it online? To reach a new audience? Because more young people will watch things on YouTube?

BS: No, not really. I would love to have a television series, but nobody has offered me one and so the Internet allows you to do whatever you want.

CK: That’s true.

BS: If you’re creative.

CK: It’s an interesting idea to do it on YouTube.

BS: It’s not staying on YouTube. We’ve a got a new website that’s been designed for the next episodes.

CK: Oh yes, I saw that. But to do it online, in this format….

BS: There are people who say to me, why would you do that, and my answer would really be, why not do it? Everyone was saying, “Do a web series ,” years ago, “that’s the future.”

CK: Yes, that’s what I think. You think there’ll be TV forever?

BS: There will be TV but it will come off the Web.

CK: Fresh Hell, it’s about celebrity. What are your experiences when people meet you for the first time? Do they project ideas onto you because they don’t really know you?

BS: Right. Certainly.

CK: I expect many people think you’re like Data.

BS: That’s right. And of course I’m not. Because I’m an actual person from Texas. So obviously I’m nothing like Data except that I’m incredibly brilliant….

CK: That goes without saying.

BS: Exactly. I mean, we do have some similarities. I look a bit like him, too.

CK: Yes, you do.

BS: But I do have emotions.

CK: When you first met your fans and they approached you as if you were Data, how did you react?

BS: I tried to be nice about it, but….

CK: What did you feel?

BS: Well, it’s not like I’m not a fan of other people. I like a lot of actors, I like a lot of performances. When I met William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy for the first time, I didn’t talk to them like they were Spock and Kirk, I didn’t think they were. I kind of got the idea they were actors who were playing those parts. It is kind of peculiar. Even to this day, if I write something on Twitter that is so counter to what Data would have been, if it’s ironic or if it’s sarcastic, whatever, the things that I am, people think: “Oh man, I don’t really like you. You’re not like I thought you were.” And my reaction is: “That’s too bad! You know, you’re not like I thought you were either! I thought you were an adult.” (Laughs.) 

CK: Well, I think, just because you don’t know anything other than the character you play and some of the interviews you give, people have a certain image of you and….

BS: Right. But I’m not responsible for that. I’m responsible for being me. And being honest. And you know what? You can’t please all the people all the time.

CK: Of course not, who wants that?

BS: Exactly.

CK: But, let’s get back to the theatre. Would you like to do something in England?

BS: I’m dying to do something in England. I’ve wanted to forever. I’ve had a couple of opportunities. Didn’t work out at all. When I was 24 years old, 23 years old, I auditioned for a play in London and the producers wanted me for the part and British Equity wouldn’t let me do it. And then, years later, I was offered a play in London and I couldn’t go because I’d just bought a house. It was in the middle of being remodelled so I couldn’t leave. And so I’m waiting. I’m ready to go.

CK: Do you like London?

BS: Love London.

CK: What do you like about it?

BS: Well, I like that there is so much history. I’m a big history buff. I’m not too much into the future. My preference is not sci-fi or even fiction, for that matter. I like history, documentaries…I am reading David McCullough’s book about Paris in the 1830s right now. I love the book. I love the idea that people experienced in 1830 the same thing I do when I go to Paris, how beautiful it is. And London for me is the same. We did a convention in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, and I walked out on stage, and I thought about the people who had walked on that stage before me. Unbelievable! I love the theatre; I love just the whole feel of London. I love the way London smells. It smells different than most towns.

CK: Yeah.

BS: I like it.

CK: What kind of play would you like to do if you had the choice?

BS: I’m not that picky. I’d just like it to be good.

CK: Yes, that’s the first thing. Are you interested in doing modern plays? For example, this “in-yer-face” kind of theatre, like Sarah Kane, or Jez Butterworth, or Anthony Neilson?

BS: Do people enjoy those plays?

CK: It depends on the people. I like them.

BS: Well.

CK: But…I mean, you have the audience that goes to the West End and the audience that goes to the alternative kind….

BS: Yes, but there is the audience that goes to both. I think I like just interesting theatre. If you look at what I’ve done in my life, it’s all kinds of things. There are musicals, there are straight plays, there are old plays, there are new plays. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s interesting and involving.

CK: Do you go to the theatre often?

BS: I don’t go that often. I go occasionally in Los Angeles. Whenever I’m in New York I go to the theatre. Whenever I am in London I go to the theatre. Well, not whenever, but most of the time.

CK: You, as a member of the audience, what do you like best?

BS: I like it if it’s short. (Laughs)

CK: No four-hour plays….

BS: No, a nice hour and a half, no intermission.

CK: That’s rare.

BS: A play that I really enjoyed. Did you see Red? Red was John Logan’s play? It was at the Donmar Warehouse? Alfred Molina and Eddie (Redmayne)….

CK: The play about Rothko.

BS: Yes, about Rothko. Eddie was great. A two-character play, an hour and twenty minutes, but it did its job efficiently and it left you provoked by the whole thing, thought provoked, interested in art and the nature of art. It was fantastic!

CK: What is one of the biggest challenges as an actor?

BS: To get hired is the only challenge, really. You have to think, if you get hired, it’s because the people who hired you think you can do the job and that’s pretty reassuring.

CK: That’s true. But once you have the job what was….

BS: What was the challenge?

CK: For example. It’s always difficult….

BS: Yeah, it is always difficult, I think. It is a series of problems to solve and that’s how I approach things. How do I solve this and turn it into something that people can receive, understand and relate to?

CK: If you went to London to do a play, would you just do it in the West End or would you be interested in doing it in other venues?

BS: I would like to work at some place where people would come. My friend Saul Rubinek wrote a play that Scott Bakula is doing right now at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that’s a fine venue.

CK: Yes, they do a lot of musicals.

BS: This is not a musical they’re doing, though. I know they do musicals. They do a lot of Sondheim.

CK: You were in Sunday in the Park with George.

BS: I was.

CK: Is Sondheim one of your favourites?

BS: Sondheim is the only genius in the last forty years working in the theatre. There are some young guys coming up that are really good but in terms of Broadway and Broadway musicals, Sondheim is the only true genius. He is an amazing man and a once-in-a-life-time talent.

CK: How much influence do you think theatre has? Say, if you do a political play to make people aware of something? Do you think this is preaching to the converted or do you think it actually….

BS: Changes minds?

CK: Yes.

BS: I don’t think any minds change ever, by anything. I think occasionally somebody will change their mind. But I think it’s very rare that you can actually change somebody’s mind about something. How many times have you been in an argument with someone and they stopped and said, “You know what, I think you’re right. I’m wrong.” Almost never.

CK: It depends. If it’s politics….

BS: If it’s politics they never change their mind.

CK: There is going to be a fight.

BS: Yes.

CK: What about verbatim theatre? Do you think it’s a good thing? Because it can be dangerous if it’s selective. I saw a play called Lines about a verbatim play that led to the death of an actor because he was making fun of a real person. He didn’t have anything to work with so he tried that, the director was an idiot, so he ended up getting knifed. Because this person who he portrayed was not a public figure and he was made fun of on stage every day, every night.

BS: Well, I guess you have to be careful, but that’s kind of silly to kill somebody for any reason.

CK: Somebody who was disturbed already.

BS: Then you have to be really careful. I don’t know that theatre influences anything. Maybe young people go to the theatre and think: “Oh my God, that’s illuminating to me.” But that it changes everything that I ever thought….

CK: Maybe not to that extent but to a certain extent….

BS: Yes, I hope it changes minds and enlightens. But I’m really of the mind primarily to entertain and if it happens to enlighten, well, that’s nice, too. But like Star Trek, for example, there’s a—I wouldn’t call it cult, necessarily, but there is a large number of people who take it very, very seriously and build their lives around it. It’s a religion to them almost.

CK: I met a guy who told me that The Next Generation was the Bible to him.

BS: Well, there you are. To me, it’s basically a western set in space and we’re trying to entertain people. And, yes, there is a little bit of a kind of philosophy running through it that’s kind of tame.

CK: You’re accepting everybody, the way a person is, which I like.

BS: I do, too. I like that about it, too. But I think there is an illusion about it. You know, if you ask somebody, why has Star Trek lasted so long, they always say the same thing: because it has a positive vision of the future. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know what is so positive about it. We are still blowing people away. We carry guns. It’s a joke. It’s like that illusion that it is somehow all about peace. It’s really not. It is a western, it is a shoot’em up. But it does have elements that are nice, like the fact that all people are celebrated for who they are, their differences rather than their similarities, and I think that’s a very positive thing. The positive thing about it is just that it depicts a future, and that is somehow reassuring, that there is going to be a future. I don’t think it necessarily depicts a future that’s better or worse than where we live right now.

CK: But people think if you don’t have the blowing people away there probably isn’t any conflict.

BS: There is conflict. Again, that’s what they say, but there is conflict. How is it that we are always blowing people up and blasting our phasers?

CK: I don’t like that, either. That’s my least favourite part of the show.

BS: That’s the shoot’em up, that’s the western. They asked Gene Roddenberry, he said, “Well, it’s ‘Wagon Train to the stars’.”

CK: That’s why it’s called “Trek.”

BS: Right, that’s what he designed. He did not design something that he thought would become a religion of any sort.

CK: Thank you very much for your time.

BS: I’m delighted. Okay. This is Brent Spiner signing off.


The interview was conducted by Carolin Kopplin.