Tuesday, December 03, 2013
EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES
National Theatre in the Olivier
Kastner's novel is not a period piece; it was written in 1929, about children living in between-the-wars Berlin.
It has remained popular ever since, with several film versions.
And now it follows His Dark Materials, War Horse, Nation and Coram Boy onto the Olivier Christmastime stage, adapted by Carl Miller, with music by Carl Englishby.
Two factors in particular make it the stunning success it is. One is the performances that director Bijan Sheibani gets from the huge troupe of children involved. They carry the bulk of the drama, setting the pace and the mood, drawing the audience in, advancing the plot. Three teams are involved [Drew, Marple and Sherlock – who could have dreamt that up ?]. Emil, a serious, determined young man from Neustadt, arrives, robbed and penniless, in the big city, where he meets his cousin, Pony the Hat, and the artful-dodgerish Toots, who help him track down the mysterious Mr Snow [Stuart McQuarrie], the man on the train who drugs him with chocolate and steals the money he's meant to be taking to his grandmother. These three principal children [not sure which team] all give confident, endearing performances, and there's support in depth from the rest of the detectives, too.
The other factor is the stunning design, faintly futurist, vaguely vorticist, by Bunny Christie. The huge stage is effectively used, with back projection often recalling the black and white adventure film of Emil's imagination. The Hotel Eldorado, a distant airship, the Kommerz Bank, all conjure up a wonderfully authentic atmosphere. Design aside, the staging is often very simple: the car chase, the tube train, and the sewers, where Emil's slow descent is one of the cleverest ideas I've seen this year.
There is a great six-piece band [Kevin Amos in charge], but this is not a musical. The direction, though, is often operatic in style – the apples, the final confrontation.
“Is this a happy ending, Mrs Tischbein ?” Emil earnestly enquires of his mother. “I think it is,” she replies.
And a gloriously fulfilling theatrical experience for audiences of all ages, I would add. There's even a chase through the stalls …
TWO PLAYS FROM GOD'S COUNTRY
Latchingdon Arts and Drama Society
The Tractor Shed Theatre, Latchingdon
Mary Redman was at the Tractor Shed ...
For people not familiar with the name of Lee Hall who created the two plays performed at Latchingdon, he is the award-winning North Country man who wrote the original Billy Elliott, Cooking With Elvis, The Pitmen Painters and the screenplay for War Horse plus the controversial children's operetta Beached. Beached was finally withdrawn after its language and scenario were criticised by commissioners Opera North and the children's school.
The two one act plays seen here are I Love You Jimmy Spud which dates from 1995 and Spoonface Steinberg dating from 1997.
In the intervening decades we have become much more familiar with families living from hand to mouth while people with cancer have given many more accounts of living with the disease.
The Hart Family of LADS were kept busy this evening with teenager Adam playing Jimmy Spud who is seen applying for the post of trainee angel. Firstly interrogated by a stern Angel Gabriel played by Keith Spencer, we then see him at home with Mum (Carole Hart) and his unemployed father (David Hudson) who develops cancer. Then there's grumpy on the surface Granddad (Robin Warnes) who later sheds tears with Jimmy over the death sentence facing his father.
Aaron Gardner is the bright Scout who becomes Jimmy's friend and in a hilarious scene is given sight of his robe and budding wings.
Adam is convincing in the role of someone who firmly believes that alienated beings will become celestial beings.
Kath Lang's costumes include Jimmy's intricate lace work robe and nascent wings plus Gabriel's full blown angel outfit.
All of this was accompanied by appropriate snippets from Handel's Messiah.
The North Country dialogue was sometimes a bit tricky to follow but the cast were genuinely deeply involved in this tale of an outsider.
Spoonface Steinberg, a sensation when first broadcast on radio because it is a no-holds-barred portrait of a young, autistic, Jewish girl of diagnosis, treatment and outcome of cancer. Against a background of Callas arias, specifically chosen by the playwright, she explores her reactions and attitudes to the disease and its effects. In the process bringing to life her parents, and Mrs Spud their cleaner from the previous play. A genius with numbers she has a shrewd, direct understanding of events and people despite any drawbacks from her autism.
It's a tour-de-force 45-minute monologue and Aimee Hart, who is scarcely more than a teenager herself, gave a gripping account of this play and this character who fades away before our eyes.
Directed by Arthur Barton assisted by Alan Elkins and Carole Hart it is a play that Tractor Shed founder director Peter Jones has long wanted to put on and he played a helpful advisory role in this production.
Discussing the use of the somewhat clunky revolve he is of the opinion that “we could not do it any other way”. It did, however, add a lot of wasted time between scenes. The other drawback overall seems that the prospect of two such hard-hitting plays may have deterred the audience which was small but very appreciative of LADS' efforts.
Friday, November 29, 2013
at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Not exactly an austerity panto, but this Dick Whittington is set in the grey postwar world of the 1950s. Diego Pitarch's inspired design has an illuminated Mansion House tube sign, and the tiled walls of the London Underground. There's a red phone box stage right for Fairy Bowbells, and manhole covers helpfully inscribed Foul Sewer London.
The transformation from rat-infested underworld to gold-paved streets is distinctly underwhelming, and only three characters have a costume change for the walk-down.
But no corners are cut in the performance; the ten actor-musicians give their all in this, the 13th rock'n'roll pantomime to hit the Wolsey stage.
It never ceases to amaze – a dame at the drum-kit, a cat on the trumpet, and full eight-piece backing band, plus vocals, for the big solo numbers. All drawn from the same super-talented team of ten.
A J Dean, a fresh-faced, winsome Dick, sporting a cheeky smile and the obligatory spotted handkerchief, brings a very authentic rock'n'roll style to the song and dance routines. His Alice is a very energetic Nicola Hawkins; she has a wonderful way with the vocals, too, her First Cut Is The Deepest a highlight amongst the 21 musical numbers.
“Hiya, saucepots !” - it's Sarah the Cook, a man-hungry dame very much in the old-fashioned mould: funny walks, mildly suggestive, easily outraged, besotted with Steve in row B. A superb performance from Sean Kingsley, who has impressive West End credentials. The other comedy star is Tim Bonser as Billy Bungalow, with just the right blend of pathos, physicality and sheer silliness [bubble pipe, rat-a-pult …].
Wolsey favourite Shirley Darroch is back as the good fairy. She has a down-to-earth Cockney delivery, and certainly knows how to sell a song - “Turn, turn”, a clever choice, is excellently delivered.
Jofre Alsina makes a pompous Alderman, and Dan de Cruz, ducking and diving as King Rat, leads an epidemic of rodents, including the Rat Pack of Punks giving their Sex Pistols tribute. CiCi Howells, who'll play Polly Peachum here next year, is a lovely, slinky Taffy the Cat.
The playlist is eclectic: real 50s classics [Tutti Frutti] jostling with Meatloaf, Mud and Bonnie Tyler. “Walking on Sunshine” works very well, as does the high-octane encore “Tiger Feet”.
Peter Rowe's script retains all the key elements of the traditional show – some lovely rhyming couplets, too – but manages to bring sophistication and freshness to it at the same time. Like the music, not everything is retro – both Boris J and George O get a name-check – and as Sarah points out, “it's not all about Dick!”. And there is an ominous sign that last year's gangnam might be this year's twerking.
There's a welcome sprinkling of the surreal – Derek the Fly, a few bars of Cats, a tumbleweed moment – and the self-referential - “Seeing stars ? Not in this panto, mate ...”. Even the sound effects – often proudly flatulent – are the object of the Dame's frustrated fury.
Not so many local jokes this year, but every reference to Dick's home town is met with a proud cheer from the packed Ipswich audience, welcoming back this uniquely enjoyable blend of panto and popular music.
production photograph: Mike Kwasniak
BRITTEN'S GOT TALENT
A Chamber Musical with cabaret songs
Allegra Productions at the New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich
What better birthday celebration for Baron Britten of Aldeburgh than this irreverent musical comedy by Suffolk writer Robin Brooks ?
Despite the flippant, catch-penny title, there's plenty of food for thought to be savoured along with the birthday cake, mixed in with the silliness and the cabaret songs.
Not, alas, Ben's own cabaret songs, to Auden's verses, but workmanlike, clever little numbers from Damian Evans: “At Home in Aldeburgh”, “Pacifism” and the keynote quartet “Britten is Blessed”.
The musical oeuvre, generally, is in short supply. In one final black comedy moment, it's that Mahler Adagietto on the Lido that proves the final straw for this “silly old heart”. The finale, though, has the composer conducting his Young Person's Guide, coincidentally the closing music for Bennett's Habit of Art, which covers some of the same uneven ground.
Brooks has imagined a compelling drama, a dreamscape of the Kafka kind, where time flows in all directions and the shadow of a mysterious “tribunal” hangs over Britten's head.
So there are anachronistic pops at The Scallop, and a scathingly witty critique of Grimes on the Beach.
The Dirk Bogarde deckchair is not the only reference to Death in Venice. There's a mysterious, and very versatile, Death figure, done with some relish by Sam Dale. Like the baritone in the opera, he's a sort of ferryman, and the barber who speaks of the sickness driving people away, not from La Serenissima, but from Suffolk's “Notting Hill on Sea”.
The piece has a lovely central performance from Keith Hill as Britten. He catches exactly the boyish enthusiasm, the innocent sense of fun, the insecurities - “ping-pong and the piano: all done on the nerves” - and the relentless pursuit of youthful beauty.
The young Polish boy who embodies that beauty [excellently acted and sung by Sam Bell, alternating the role with Theo Christie] shares several key scenes with Ben – and in this play he does speak to the child – ducks and drakes, fear of the storm, swimming in the chilly North Sea, but not going in too deep, or too far …
Death apart, the characters are all drawn more or less directly from life: Pears with his college scarf [Jonathan Hansler], Miss Hudson the housekeeper [Hansler again], and Charles Mackerras with his salty Australian gossip about “The Twilight of the Sods”. David Hemmings is quoted but not named. Other characters are an amalgam – the rejected librettist with his science-fiction opera and his version of Mansfield Park, and the tragic Marcus, who hangs himself before his wedding and comes back, in cricket whites, to haunt Ben who's sleeping in the boy's old room at Mallards. One of the most affecting aspects of the drama, this, beautifully played by Joseph Reed as the boy grown too old, thrown over for a new tennis partner … As he tells us, he speaks for all Britten's boys. Joy, his mother [Gilian Cally] and Sir James his disapproving father, also represent many members of the Aldeburgh society with its ambivalent attitudes.
A brief mention for the programme, one of the cheapest and classiest in recent memory, based on the Letts schoolboy diary that Ben famously used well into his twenties.
Not everything works, not all the numbers are as sharply scored as they might be. And it would help to be up to speed on Britten and all his works. But the concept is great, and a clutch of fine performances from the cast of six makes this a uniquely affectionate tribute to this most famous son of Suffolk.this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews