Murder, Marple & Me – The Customs House, South Shields
Margaret Rutherford’s performance as Miss Marple made her a true movie icon, but it nearly didn’t happen. This intriguing new play, by Philip Meeks, humorously unearths the fascinating reasons why.
Janet Prince, playing Rutherford, Agatha Christie and Miss Marple is nothing less than a one-woman wonder. Seldom have I seen a performer own a stage and single-handedly hold the attention of an entire audience for more than an hour in the way that she does. Everything about her performance is utterly compelling – from the way she inhabits each character with a complete conviction that seems effortless, to the glint in her eyes that flash frequently with dazzling intensity.
As it should be, Murder, Marple & Me is a deeply intimate production. As we witness a clash of two of Britain’s most influential women in the arts in the 1950s and 60s who staggered through a mutual distaste for each other, and a serious aversion to each other’s work, Meeks demonstrates the trademarks of his craft that have confirmed him as one of the defining playwrights of his generation.
Beautifully-written and masterfully crafted, the ebullience of Rutherford’s personality is pitched perfectly. This contrasts nicely with the demure spinster sleuth, Miss Marple, who sits on the sidelines, knitting all the while, and acting as something akin to narrator, and the clipped, cut-glass tones of the rather haughty Dame Agatha. Often moving and, at times, deeply poignant, Meeks avoids over-sentimentality by lacing the script with some wonderfully witty one-liners that have a tendency to take you completely by surprise.
Indeed, this first-class production, which is now touring having enjoyed a sell-out run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, offers a fascinating foray into the life of a flawed, fallible woman who endured a traumatic childhood which would result in her spending periods in mental institutions and embarking upon eccentric relationships with stuffed toys.
On stage, we are drawn into the interwoven story of three intriguing, larger than life characters and, in the same way that Rutherford, Christie and Marple were a force to be reckoned with, off stage it is the talented trio made up by actress Janet Prince, writer Philip Meeks and director Stella Duffy that have created a wonderfully entertaining and truly memorable play.
Runs at The Customs House until Wednesday 16 May 2013, before continuing to tour until the end of June.
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.
Runs until Saturday 18 May 2013.
For tickets telephone 01325 486 555 or log on to www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk
ASCO: The Supermarket Musical – Boulevard, Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle’s very own cabaret showbar, Boulevard, played host to the world premiere of ASCO: The Supermarket Musical on Monday evening, proving that price-wars have never been such fun!
The evening was hosted by the venue’s very own Miss Rory – seven feet of sequins and feathers with an acidic tongue that could strip wallpaper with just one sigh! Nobody is safe from her caustic quips, especially when, as on this occasion, she has the BBC 3 cameras to play to. Having warmed-up (or frightened to death?) the crowd, Miss Rory progressed to introduce the main event.
The story centres around Dale (Tom Whalley) a young primary education graduate who, by sheer misfortune, finds himself working in ASDA. This was never the ‘career’ he’d hoped for and he initially despairs at his situation, struggling to comprehend the importance placed upon corporate politics and the battle between ASDA, his employers, and the branch of Tesco situated at the opposite side of a shared car park.
Tom Whalley, who also wrote the book and lyrics, demonstrates great talent as Dale, the idealistic, young would-be teacher whose life spirals into supermarket despair. His geeky, gangly physicality contrasted perfectly with a fantastic vocal prowess that raised hairs on the back of necks as each note travelled from the stage to the rear of the auditorium.
Indeed, the entire cast deserve praise for their talent, energy and enthusiasm. The musical numbers, composed by Alexander Proudlock, are belted out with unabashed gusto and are cleverly choreographed, too.
As you might expect, a supermarket is a rich breeding ground for stereotypical characters and witty one-liners. Whalley uses this as a distinct advantage. We meet Angela (Kylie Ford) and Alan (Liam Olsen) a couple who “met in 1969 at a holiday camp – it was a match made in Haven”, married and set up their own village store and post office which has since become another victim of the superstore in which they both now work; Gavin the greeter (Dan Mawston), as camp as Christmas (“I always find comfort coming in George!”) and still insisting that he is a heterosexual who just hasn’t found the right girl yet; Donna (Jessica Brady), the overweight checkout girl who develops a crush on Dale, despite the fact that he hardly knows she exists, and a whole host of other crazy characters.
Despite the fact that this comedy-musical is essentially a spoof of supermarkets, Whalley manages to pepper it with moments of genuine pathos and poignancy. He ensures that, no matter how exaggerated – or indeed caricatured – his characters are, we do care about each of them. And that’s no mean feat!
Staged as a 45 minute one-act try-out, ASCO: The Supermarket Musical certainly has the potential to be developed into a full-length production. With more froth than an ASDA own-brand bubble-bath, more fizz than a bottle of Tesco bubbly and more mince than both stores’ butcheries combined, this is no bargain basement production. In fact, you are guaranteed to get more than you bargained for as it is sure to have you rolling in the aisles.
THERE ARE NO FURTHER PERFORMANCES SCHEDULED AT PRESENT.
Review by Ed
The title of this excellent debut piece by Steve Burbridge has a double meaning; testing as in being tested for a sexually transmitted disease and testing as to the turbulent and difficult times for the person and his loved ones when diagnosed HIV.
Burbridge, who also directed and produced the show, conducted extensive interviews with men infected with HIV and AIDS and has created a no-holds-barred but ultimately warm and at times funny, heartfelt story about suffering, friendship and compassion.
Dominic (Christopher Strain) is the 20-something who relates how he always knew he was different. At school he was bullied for wanting to play catchy kissy but on the girls’ side and he’d fight with is sister because he wanted to play with her dolls. Tynemouth-based Strain gives a heart-rending account of being sexually abused as a teenager and his joy when he later met Chris (Collin Baxter).
Chris gives his perspective of their meeting and life together and the initially wary response of Dominic’s loving mother Brenda (Pauline Fleming).
When Dominic is diagnosed HIV we encounter the public and inner angst and fears of all three characters.
HIV is incurable and not without major physical discomfort for the sufferer but it is a treatable disease. This play is not for the faint-hearted: medical facts are related in graphic detail.
Through a series of monologues and informal interjections we witness the tumultuous but ultimately loving relationship between all three. And your heart goes out to young Dominic whose sexual transgressions are minor on a scale compared with some heterosexual men at that stage in his life but he’s been unlucky.
The upshot is that this moving, well-crafted and well-acted piece could pertain to any family with a loved one suffering from a life-threatening disease.
Testing Times is at The Trent House, Leazes Lane, Newcastle, until Saturday 27 April. For ticket information and times contact (0191) 261 2154
CADFAEL: The Virgin In The Ice – Darlington Civic Theatre
Occasionally, a production comes along which promises far more than it is able to deliver – Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice is one such production. It is a great shame as I had high hopes that this adaptation would be a memorable one for all the right reasons. After all it is produced by Middle Ground Theatre Company, the same company who brought to the stage of Darlington’s Civic Theatre a number of high-quality productions including The Holly and the Ivy, On Golden Pond and Columbo: Prescription Murder, and it has Michael Lunney at the helm, as adapter, director and designer.
Sadly, Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice underwhelms and disappoints on many more levels than it should. Billed as “a classic medieval murder mystery”, the production is as much a victim as any of those murdered.
It is winter 1139 and raging civil war has sent many refugees fleeing north from Worcester, among them the orphaned Yves Hugonin (Daniel Murray), his beautiful sister Ermina (Hannah Burton) and a young nun, Sister Hilaria (Jenny-May Darcy). The disappearance of the aforementioned three sees Brother Cadfael (Gareth Thomas) embark upon a dangerous quest to find them.
So, the premise is fine – it’s the execution that disappoints. It is apparent that Lunney has attempted to deliver “a stunning new production”, it’s just that his ambition seems to outweigh his abilities. For the film projections, complex sets, snow-storms, bespoke music and other unnecessary gimmicks only serve to hamper the flow of the production rather than enhance it.
The fifteen-strong cast deliver decent performances overall, save for a few unintentional comic moments involving costume malfunctions, and Gareth Thomas is believable in the title role. However, try as they might, their earnest performances are not enough to detract from the amateurishness tone of the production as a whole.
Unfortunately, this production is under-rehearsed and underwhelming and, in my opinion, was nowhere near ready to be put before an audience.
Runs at Darlington until Saturday 23 March 2013.
To book visit www.darlingtonarts.co.uk or telephone 01325 486 555.
The Space Between Us – The Customs House, South Shields
The concept of Catrina McHugh’s The Space Between Us is an intriguing one. With freak storms and flash floods still very much ingrained in the collective memory of the North East, the concept of the region being gripped by a storm of biblical proportions does not require the imagination to be stretched too far.
Three months of rain fall in one day, roads are closed, rivers are bursting their banks and the region is submerged under water. Blown from four corners of the earth, four women seek sanctuary, security and refuge.
As the drama begins, the performances are strong and the action is fast-paced. We are introduced to four very different women from contrasting cultural backgrounds: Eyshan (Ioana Tudor), a Czech Roma; Eman (Seda Yildiz), a Syrian Muslim; Zeyna (Joana Geronimo), a West African asylum seeker, and Cheyanne (Jessica Johnson), a gypsy traveller. Soon, they find themselves in a battle, not only with the rising tide and each other – but also with humanity itself.
The writing effectively and emotively conveys that each of these women is the victim of inequality, injustice and humiliation. Yet, rather than a bond being borne as a result of shared experiences, initially, the women are as discriminatory towards each other, just as society, at large, has been to them as individuals. The audience is suddenly thrust into a mix of ignorance, misunderstanding, intolerance and conflict.
Gradually, as the individual back stories of each character is revealed, layer by layer, and because the women are forced to operate as a unit in order to survive, they each find common ground which, ultimately, leads to new levels of understanding, respect and hope being reached.
The piece is produced by ‘Open Clasp’, a women’s theatre company which specialises in staging theatre from a female gaze, aimed at mixed audiences. Whilst this ethos is evident, to their credit, in the truthful portrayals of the female characters they let themselves down in their attitude towards men – or, to be more specific, they certainly do in this play, at least.
As a feminist myself, I do not dispute that women all over the world are oppressed, brutalised and even killed at the hands of men – the shocking statistics speak loudly enough for themselves. However, I do take offence that all men are lumped, collectively, together and tarred with the same brush.
Throughout the 100 minute female-only performance, I do not recall hearing a single positive reference about the male of the species. Indeed, the only representation of masculinity at all was in the form of a pair of heavy boots, the protective body armour vest of a security guard and a wallet containing a driving licence and two hundred pounds in cash. This, in my opinion, could only be construed as a metaphor for control, authority, force and objectification – an inexcusable generalisation that completely flies in the face of aiming to appeal to ‘mixed audiences’.
A couple of other issues marred my enjoyment of what would otherwise have been a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking piece. Firstly, the lack of an interval (an hour and forty minutes is a long time to sit listening to the sound effects of rainfall without having the appropriate opportunity to take a comfort break!) and, secondly, the lack of any real resolution or denouement. It seemed to me as though McHugh had merely ran out of ideas for a conclusion and, instead, simply stopped writing.
The Space Between Us could, I am certain, evolve into the production it has the potential to be – provided that some skilful editing is undertaken and the writer/production company adopts a far less strident attitude in its approach towards men as a gender.
Touring the North East until 20 April 2013. For venue details and booking information visit www.openclasp.org.uk
James and the Giant Peach – Darlington Civic Theatre
The zany and surreal world of Roald Dahl has, once again, burst on to the stage of the Civic Theatre. Following on from the 2010 production of George’s Marvellous Medicine, the Birmingham Stage Company are now presenting a new adaptation of the classic Dahl story, James and the Giant Peach.
Dahl is an expert at making the implausible seem totally plausible – it is easy to suspend disbelief and accept that James’ parents were devoured by a rhinoceros rampaging along Regent Street, during a shopping trip to London – and, similarly, so is the BSC.
Once again, David Wood has vividly and vibrantly adapted the original Dahl novel and perfectly captured the magically grotesque qualities of the colourful characters. The performances are strong too, with Claire Greenway and Sioned Saunders making a marvellous double act as the hideous aunts, Sponge and Spiker. Holly White’s costumes splendidly aid the physical characterisation of Centipede (Chris Lindon), Earthworm (Rhys Saunders), Grasshopper (Iwan Tudor), Ladybird (Claire Greenway) and Spider (Sioned Saunders).
However, as was the case with Clark Devlin in George’s Marvellous Medicine, it is Tom Gillies’ James who drives the story and steals the show. Gillies’ boyish looks and keenly-observed mannerisms completely convinced the audience that he was a seven-year-old boy.
The imaginative use of props and puppets provides an additional focus to retain the attention of potentially wandering young minds and the set is both functional and visually impressive.
Whilst this production has a lot of plus points – not least of which is the incredibly talented cast (who also spare the company the additional expense of a band/orchestra by playing all of the instruments themselves) – it is not without flaws. In a conversation with a fellow reviewer, we both bemoaned the fact that what was happening in the wing-space was constantly on view, thus perhaps causing something of an irksome distraction and dispelling a certain amount of magic for the youngsters in the audience who were so readily willing to be totally transported into the weird and wonderful world of James and his insect friends.
Runs until Saturday 9 March 2013.
For tickets visit www.darlington.arts.co.uk or call 01325 486 555
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.”
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.
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.
Runs at Darlington until Saturday 2 March 2013.
For more information and to book tickets visit www.kenwright.com