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Rich Pickings on Smile Club

Smile Club Production Photo 002 Andrea Heaton Credit Robling Photography

Pic: Robling Photography

Red Ladder’s one-woman show premiered at Leeds Playhouse before touring including community venues. It benefits from a simply outstanding performance by actor and co-writer Andrea Heaton. She manages to shift from character to character quite seamlessly.

We totally identify with her main long-suffering character Lisa Goodwin and are chilled to the bone by the treatment she receives from those in power. This comes after she is pushed too far by a sexist railway station worker and lashes out. But instead of detainment in prison for her crime she finds herself in Smile Club, a clinic that enforces ‘happiness’ or at least surface ‘normality’.

Adam Foley’s lighting and video design gives the set a dystopian feel in its harshest most extreme sense. While Ed Heaton’s dramatic sound is intense and visceral, especially when Lisa sets off the fire alarm in the clinic. This is intensified by the cold form of communication used by the controllers: namely screens and intercom.

The abuse of a fellow inmate is glossed over by the regime but shows what can happen if you misbehave in the slightest way. So feminist thought is drastically suppressed, with Lisa just doing her best to fake it. There is more than a sideways nod to Orwell’s 1984, especially with the amount of secret observation going on.

But more than just being futuristic Smile Club has a lot to say about modern society. This is a must-see show and timed diligently to tie in with International Women’s Day.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Leeds Playhouse on 7 March 2020. Touring until 5 April, see Red Ladder website.

See trailer:

 

Rich Pickings on Oliver Twist

oliver Brooklyn Melvin (Oliver) in Oliver Twist. Photography by Anthony Robling

Photo: Anthony Robling

Ramps on the Moon are a consortium of theatres committed to putting D/deaf and disabled artists on stage and being more accessible to all audiences. They return to the Leeds Playhouse after their amazingly successful The Government Inspector and The Who’s Tommy which set a very high benchmark to reach. And it is my pleasure to inform you that their take on the Dickens classic Oliver Twist lives up to these very high expectations.

The first thing to strike you is Hayley Grindle’s bleak, stark and dark set. Slap bang middle of it is the screen for surtitles and occasional animation that only adds to the accessibility enabled by the cast’s signing and the audio description available. Basically this is a fantastic ensemble performance that benefits from Brooklyn Melvin’s ‘hero’ Oliver and, in an exciting gender change, Caroline Parker as Fagin.

The show comes with a warning that it displays high levels of violence (physical and verbal) towards the D/deaf and people with disabilities. This is due to subtle changes to the original in Bryony Lavery’s innovative adaptation that add extra hate rage to the usual class divide. The way director Amy Leach deals with this antagonism is worthy: for example, when Bill Sykes (an irrepressible Stephen Collins) is attacking Nancy (a much-abused Clare-Louise English) the actress moves to the back of the stage while Sykes pummels the ground fiercely. Far more effective than actually having seem to have seen her take the blows.

Right from the start it is clear that women are as much to be abused as the poor and disabled with Oliver’s mother dealt brutally during a childbirth that leaves her dead. While when we are introduced to Fagin’s gang Nancy and Luna (the latter a compulsive Rebekah Hill) get the worst of it. Oliver’s luck seems to have changed when he is taken in by the Brownlows but his good fortune does not last for long with the evil villains reclaiming their spoil.

After having been forced once more into a life of crime it comes as a great relief that Sikes goes to a grisly end and Fagin is incarcerated leaving Oliver free at last. But despite this fact, this is no feel-good show; it deals with the blood and guts of an oppressive society and carries on Dickens’ anger at the underdog’s mistreatment.

Rachael Canning’s puppetry for the baby Oliver and Sikes’ vicious dog add to the charm of the piece while Joseff Fletcher’s lighting gives a sombre and saddening atmosphere. And John Biddle’s sound really adds to the hyper-realism alongside Oliver Vibrans’ effective and plaintive compositions.

This a show that succeeds in so many ways to deserve a five-star review: accessibility, compassion, innovation, clarity and not without humour, albeit it pitch black. Prepare to be transformed!

Reviewed on 4 March 2020 at Leeds Playhouse by Rich Jevons. Runs until 21 March and touring.

Rich Pickings on Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

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In this fabulous production six young female servants tell the story of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from their perspective, replete with karaoke! You could almost think that this was improv by the way the cast are also stagehands, musicians, costume dressers, singers and dancers. They both act and interpret the characters of Mrs Bennett, her five daughters and their society as they look to marry into wealth.

It is a simply brilliant ensemble cast: Hannah Jarrett-Scott as Charlotte Lucas, Charles Bingley and his sister; Christina Gordon as Jane Bennett and Lady Catherine de Burgh; Felix Forde as Kirsty Bennett, Wickham and Mr Collins; Tori Burgess as Mary Bennett; Megan Tyler as Elizabeth Bennett; and writer Isobel McArthur as Darcy and Mrs Bennett.

It is a postmodern adaptation with seamless change of characters and locations. It is in its own way faithful to the novel but with an emphasis on fun and frolics. There is masterful direction by Paul Brotherston and the bourgeois society is put under the microscope and found wanting. There is a form of physical theatre at work here which only adds to the delight and wonder.

You will laugh till you choke and chuckle even on the way home!

Reviewed on 27 February at Leeds Playhouse. Tours until 14 March.

 

Rich Pickings on Quality Street

Quality Street Jessica-Baglow-as-Phoebe

Jessica Baglow as Phoebe. Photo: Sam Taylor

In his first production as Artistic Director Laurie Sansom has taken on a relatively unknown play by Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie. Phoebe and Susan Throssel are introduced as the two old maids of Quality Street with some important news in the offing. This plotline is sidetracked when a Recruiting Sergeant comes to call with classified information of a certain gentleman who has joined up.

This is intended to display to the lower echelons the importance of patriotism during the Napoleonic War. Another diversion is that they have lost out in an investment leaving them only £60 a year to live off. They are then visited by sometime companion Valentine Brown and both sisters expect him to propose to Phoebe. Instead it turns out that he is the very gentleman who has recruited. “I am your big brother,” he announces, much to their disappointment.

In a very clever move director Laurie Sansom has Macintosh workers (Quality Street, geddit?!) commenting on the play as it proceeds. So the sisters are forced into opening a school to make ends meet. Quite charmingly the children are played by puppets to much hilarity and light relief from the more serious side of the Throssels lives.

So we have stepped forward ten years when Mr Brown returns as a Captain and finds Phoebe as an old school ma’am, which he insolently observes. In a reaction to this Phoebe dons a gorgeous robe (in Jessica Worrall’s wondrous design) and takes on the ruse of impersonating her (non-existent) niece. Phoebe declares herself “tired of being lady-like” and the false role allows her to live out all the naughtiness she has missed out on grafting teaching.

So the second act features a decadent ball where the persona of Libby (Phoebe in disguise) is making a storm with the returning soldiers. In a speech on men J.M. Barrie puts in a radical feminist outlook for its time and this makes Captain Brown most distraught. So Brown soon tires of Libby and seeks the hand in marriage of Phoebe. No spoilers here but suffice to say after much subterfuge there is an ending that suits the observing factory workers to the ground.

Jessica Baglow and Louisa-May Parker as Phoebe and Susan make compelling viewing and hold the stage with heightened anticipation. Phoebe’s transformation into Libby is simply sublime in Baglow’s hands and Parker’s general confusion and shyness as Susan is well played too. Dario Coates’ Brown is completely masterful even when at the jest of the others. And the supporting cast, especially Jim English’s drag act as Fanny, are completely charming and wonderful.

Sansom’s direction keeps us alert at all times for shifts in mood and twists in the plot and the show benefits from Nick Sagar’s music for the ball, Beka Haigh’s puppets for the schoolkids and Ben Wright’s choreography for the dancing.

Rich Pickings does not give star ratings but if we did this would be a full five-star production. Once more Northern Broadsides have found an excellent text to Broadside (Yorkshire accents throughout) with a complex mix of emotions and wicked sense of fun.

Reviewed on 19 February 2020 by Rich Jevons at Viaduct Theatre, Halifax where it runs till 22 February and touring until 13 June, see Northern Broadsides‘ website.

Rich Pickings on Kneehigh’s Ubu

Kneehighs-Ubu-A-singalong-Satire-Katy-Owen-and-Mike-Shepherd-credit-Steve-Tanner-1024x683

Photo: Steve Tanner

Kneehigh’s Ubu is billed as a ‘Singalong Satire’ and indeed the entire show includes well-known songs for the audience to join in. These range from Bowie’s Heroes to the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK; The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun to Lennon’s Imagine; Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger to Elvis’ Suspicious Minds.

The congenial host sees Niall Ashdown as Jeremy Wardle, part MC part supply teacher (most of the audience for this matinee being school kids and their drama teachers). After a brief spate as President Nick Dallas Dom Coyote is resigned to being a singing ghost after his assaination by Mr and Mrs Ubu (Katy Owen and Mile Shepherd).

Owen is small is stature (not quite the huge Ubu I was expecting) while Shepherd really camps it up. One of the many innuendos is the name of security agent Captain Shittabrique (Robi Luckay) who adds some athletic dynamism to the cast. While Nandi Bhebhe and the Sweaty Bureaucrats as backing band give the show plenty of swing.

Writer Carl Grose has corrupt and megalomaniac politicians quite firmly in his sights and this amuses the teenage audience no end (anarchy is this year’s thing for them). While his direction with Shepherd maintains a keen humour and irony throughout, both in the interpretation of the script (which is pretty loose) and its physicality (lots of slapstick and extreme gestures).

Michael Vale’s design is dominated by a huge toilet into which all things deemed bad are discarded (again to the delight of the kids – good old toilet humour). And Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is fun and frolics throughout. My only reservation is that the sense of surrealism is a bit lost in all the ad libbing and improv in a way I’m not sure Ubu’s original Alfred Jarry would quite approve. But then Kneehigh are simply too irreverent to care!

An exciting and entertaining show that allows us to take out our frustrations on the Ubus to relieve our pent-up anger at the wrongs in society.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 6 February 2020 at Leeds Playhouse until 8 February.

Rich Pickings on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joseph 2019_Pamela Raith Photography

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Rice & Webber’s feel-good Biblical classic is a musical given the magic Kenwright touch to be the brilliant blockbuster it is so famous for. The show benefits from an outstanding performance by Mark McMullan who is a revelation as Joseph. McMullan may be known to you as a recent finalist on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent and succeeds both as an actor and vocalist.

Also the ensemble give their all in support with such rousing numbers as Poor, Poor, Joseph and One More Angel in Heaven. The choreography is based on Henry Metcalfe’s original but given a new style by Gary Lloyd. And Sean Cavanagh’s design is simply to die for. His costumes include a Caribbean and French flavour which give an ironic twist to the proceedings.

MD Mike Steel keeps the hit songs coming and provides excellent backing to the scenes too. You will be certain to have earworms galore after some of these catchy tunes, some of the best musical songs in Webber’s catalogue. Rice’s lyrics, of course, progress the narrative with many cheeky rhyming couplets and innuendoes.

The Alhambra Theatre is always a pleasure to attend and when the finale comes has almost the entire audience on its feet and clapping along. The dreamcoat becomes a huge parachute which floods the stage with colour. McMullan is really in his element here obviously overjoyed by the Bradford reception to this fabulous show.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 4 February 2020 at Alhambra Theatre, Bradford where it runs until 8 February.

Rich Pickings on Dr Korczak’s Example

Dr Korczak's Example. Photography by Zoe Martin

Photo: Zoe Martin

Dr Korczak’s Example is a three hander with masterful direction by Leeds Playhouse’s Artistic Director James Brining and impeccably written by David Grieg. It takes place in the new theatre space Bramall Rock Void and indeed Rose Resitt’s set is mainly made of rock with red brick walls adding to the sense of austerity and alienation.

This depicts the Jewish ghetto in 1940s Warsaw where Dr Korczak runs a 200-strong orphanage under the most unbelievably inhuman treatment by the Nazis. Rob Pickavance as Korczak warns us from the very beginning that “This did happen”. Pickavance is the perfect casting for his character getting across his belief that good will triumph and that children should have certain rights.

We first meet Adzio (a revelation in Danny Sykes) when he is caught stealing in the market but Korczak intervenes and takes him to join the orphanage. This street urchin straight away gets up to mischief and is tried for stealing another boy’s bread by a child court. But as time goes on his relationship with Steph (Gemma Barnett) seems to calm his almost feral nature.

However, he still wants to fight back against the Nazis while Korkzak prefers to lead by example. The show could be accused of minimalism but sometimes less means more. It leads us to question what we would have done if in the Jewish ghetto: as Crass put it – ‘would you just watch as the cattle trucks roll by / pretend it isn’t happening turn a blind eye’. This is a moving and vital piece of theatre that tackles the difficult subject of the Holocaust with care and understanding. Most importantly it is a message of hope.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 30 January 2020 at Leeds Playhouse where it runs until 15 February.

Rich Pickings on An Inspector Calls

an inspector calls

J.B. Preistley’s An Inspector Calls is a classic thriller that reveals the sordid depravity that lies beneath the veneer of the bourgeoisie. Ian MacNeil’s set plays a big part in the proceedings with its dining room at first concealed by a wall with windows through which we see the characters. Then later opens up to reveal its contents.

It is a smoky start with spindly kids on stage and an elderly cleaner. Inside there is a dinner party which allows us to start to know the cast. Arthur Birling (Jeffrey Harmer) dominates the group boasting about his upcoming knighthood and positions of power. His daughter Sheila (Chloe Orrock) is celebrating her engagement to Gerald Croft (Alasdair Buchan) who gives her an expensive ring.

The Birlings’ son Eric (Ryan Sainders)is rather tipsy and making a spectacle of himself. But as the party is in full swing the inspector of the title calls. No spoilers here but Inspector Goole (as he is known) goes through the revellers one by one to link their connection to a young girl who has committed suicide. Their responses to his questioning lead to some grave misdemeanours being revealed by all. But Priestley keeps back the truth till near the end.

Stephen Daldry’s direction is masterful and Stephen Warbeck’s music extremely suspenseful. The ensemble are entirely believable especially the two younger actors (Orrock as Sheila and Saunders as Eric) who are both at first baffled but then frantic in their guilt. The family unit manages to fall apart and it is almost painful to watch. For Eric’s confession a crowd come on stage to show the events the investigation is uncovering will be known by all.

As the inspector Liam Brennan is playful and ironic but at other times forceful and almost sadistic. This is nothing though compared to the cruelty of the five accused and this also is practically overbearing. A fine thriller which keeps you on your toes until the very end.

Reviewed by Rich Jevons at Alhambra Theatre, Bradford on 29 January 2020. Runs until 1 February.

Rich Pickings on One Under @ Leeds Playhouse

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Photo: Patrick Baldwin

One Under is a play about suicide, where a person jumps under a train and this action is called a jumper. The opening of the play is set in Brixton train station where the set is simplistic and therefore able to absorb the props to give a different feel each time there was a scene change. The train station is a theme and connection that runs throughout the play and like life, everyone is just passing through.

The play opens with Cyrus (Stanley J. Brown) and Nella (Stenagh Govan) having a conversation about jumpers. There are two stories that run parallel to each other. One story is present day and the other is the story of Sonny’s past (played by Reece Pantry). This device is used for the audience to get to know Sonny and therefore there is more impact on an individual life lost yet still being symbolic of all jumpers.

Sonny throws himself in front of Cyrus’ train and Cyrus believes he is Sonny’s father, which is disputed in the end by Nella having photographs of Sonny’s real father. Cyrus’s character is driven to find the reason why Sonny killed himself and he is trying to go through everything at Nella’s home in order.

We are constantly informed Sonny is being chased by gangsters and is also connected with the Home Office. When he seduces Christine (Clare-Louise English), he reveals a large amount of money on his person which seems to suggest something is going on. However, mental illness would put Sonny as a paranoid schizophrenic and his suicide, a part of that illness.

Zoe (Evlyne Oyedokun), thought Sonny was ill and having an episode when he jumped. She is fed up with Cyrus trying to dig for information and is exasperated with him in the end saying,

‘It’s over Cyrus.’

Zoe says to Nella,

‘I’ve tried to make you happy’ and questions Cyrus’s friendship with her mother as she is always so miserable when she is with him.

The most poignant part is Sonny’s last words,

‘I’m waiting for a train.’

The piece was well acted, if not a little slow in places. Over all, the acting is believable and the story is interesting.

Reviewed by guest writer Jane Austwick at Leeds Playhouse, now touring see Graeae website.

Rich Pickings on Mamma Mia!

mamma mia

Although this is a jukebox musical none of the songs are shoehorned into the narrative and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ Abba classic compositions are absolutely superb. There is a contrast between some of the songs’ naivete and others with a wealth of emotional experience on display.

Emma Mullen as bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan is simply lovely and totally endearing. But there is a snag to her wedding plans when she finds an old diary from her mother (Sharon Sexton who excels as Donna). It indicates that her father could be one of three men – namely Harry, Bill and Sam (Daniel Crowder, Jamie Kenna and Rob Fowler). So without telling her mother she invites all three to the Greek island where she and her mother live to get to the bottom of this mystery from the past.

Mark Thompson’s design is camp and proud of it with those shiny silk bell-bottoms that spangle brightly as the cast belt out some of the best pop songs of all time. And the show simply wouldn’t work without Anthony Van Laast’s lively and inventive choreography.

No spoilers here but the wedding doesn’t exactly go to plan although I can report a happy ending which received a well-deserved ten-minute standing ovation. Back in the day I was quite snobbish about reviewing musicals, usually sending one of the interns to see the shows. However, Blood Brothers changed my mind and since then I can’t get enough. And quite right so when they can be such fun but still have emotional depth. In Mamma Mia! this is mainly the cross-generational factor which gets one thinking about the nature of love and family. A tour de force of a production with wit, style, passion and power. And my sister Sal gave it a five star rating too!

Reviewed by Rich Jevons on 31st October 2019 at Alhambra Theatre, Bradford where it runs until 23rd November 2019.