31 July 2021

The Comedy of Errors (RSC) Review

Audiences are welcomed back to the Royal Shakespeare Company with their brand new outdoor theatre space, The Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre and their production of The Comedy of Errors.

Before I delve into the production, I'll talk about the theatre space itself. The outdoor roofless 500 seat theatre is fantastic. Although the space is open to the elements - travelling down to Stratford-Upon-Avon from Leicester it was very heavy rain that left me rather concerned for how dry we'd be throughout the show, thankfully the rain stopped in good time - but if you're caught in a downpour their are RSC poncho's on sale for £4. 

A panoramic view of the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. Photo by myself.

To enter the theatre we went through the usual entrance in to the theatre buildings, walking through the shop (which is currently closed), up past the RST get in doors and on the left there are a bar and toilets and on the right a mini shop. Once out the other side of the building, near the stage door area, you head down the ramp and the theatre is in front of you, you head around to what is the back of the space to enter (with bag checks and track and trace check in).

Once inside the theatre you're greeted by a member of the RSC team who guides you to a seat in your section - the seating is unreserved. Interestingly I found after being to some big London theatres which no longer have socially distanced seating, here they leave a one seat gap between each party. Another thing that is different is being outdoors you can take your mask off once in your seat - you are asked to wear it at all other times.

The space itself is so brilliantly thought-out and brought to life. It uses the space on the near end of the Swan Gardens, making it close to the theatre buildings. The seating is comfy and offers a great view of the stage. It's all well lit and the use of microphones allow for the actors to be amplified enough to be heard. Naturally there's some outdoor noise - particularly wind at the performance I attended but none of this affected the performance. 

Jonathan Broadbent as Dromio of Syracuse and Guy Lewis as Antipholus of Syracuse. Photo by Pete Le May.

The production itself, The Comedy of Errors, which should have ran in the RST last year is brilliant. Phillip Breen's direction brings out the laughter and the joy that RSC audiences have been missing.

For those unfamiliar with the play we are in Ephesus where two sets of identical twins, Antipholus and his servant Dromio. The two sets of twins, who don't know each other happen to be in the same place. go through plenty of mishaps through mistaken identity to often riotously funny results.

It begins with Egeon, father to the Antipholus's, delivering a long speech which gives important background to the piece - it's once we get to Ephesus that the comedy and the mishaps begin. One of the real delights of this production is the physical comedy that is delivered with real skill by the company. Movement director Charlotte Broom has done a fine job that allows for the humour to play out with tremendous results.

Guy Lewis is tremendous as Antipholus of Syracuse - the one who has just arrived in town and to such he ends up with much confusion, as he is dined by his 'wife' (who is the wife of the other Antipholus), and is presented with a gold chain. The wide eyed dumbstruck performance by Lewis is wonderful. He's matched by a brilliant Jonathan Broadbent as Dromio of Syracuse, here is an actor so comfortable with humour and the role - there's a particular scene where he's on fire and runs off stage to return completely soaked 10 seconds later which brings the house down. Broadbent isn't afraid of an ad-lib too, especially as one joke didn't land which he broke the fourth wall to exclaim "it wasn't a very funny joke anyway". 

Rowan Polonski as Antipholus of Ephesus (centre) and the company of The Comedy of Errors. Photo by Pete Le May.

Rowan Polonski is also fantastically cast as Antipholus of Ephesus, he comes to the fore more in the second act as his maddening rage and confusion grows. There's a great wresting scene as Riad Richie's officer tries to hold him down to arrest him - the pair spend a good few minutes grappling and rolling around the stage before Sarah Seggari bounds in with a rugby tackle! Greg Haiste's Dromio of Ephesus is strong too, he's another actor very comfortable with the comedy and delivers great laughs.

Hedydd Dylan's Adrianna is another who really captures the rage and frustration at the crossed lines between her husband and her twin. Dylan is pregnant and this is used to great effect and adds a lovely layer of texture to the relationships, especially as she is reunited with her husband at the end of the play. Her sister, Luciana, is energetically portrayed by an excellent Avita Jay.

There's a standout turn from the duo of William Grint as Second Merchant and his bodyguard played by Dyfrig Morris - the RSC has done some fantastic work with inclusivity and diversion and this continues here with BSL incorporated into the piece. Credit to Patrick Osborne too, and his myriad of wigs, which he uses to great comic effect.

The company of The Comedy of Errors are the curtain call. Photo by Pete Le May.

The design is well thought out for the outside space, with some hilarious use of props and the space in general. Max Jones has done a good job of incorporating the outdoor space with his design that had to be re-adapted for the outdoor space. The stage though has fallen a bit foul to the weather with the top level beginning to peel away in places but this doesn't hamper in any way.

The play ends with the reunion of the characters and this metaphors the emotion and warmth that it is being reunited with the great stage work of the RSC. The production and the space welcomes back audiences with a warm and uproarious gem of a production.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - a frantic, farcical, unmissable delight welcomes audiences back to the RSC 

The Comedy of Errors plays at the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre until Sunday 26th September 2021. The production then tours to Nottingham, Canterbury, Bradford and ending with a run at The Barbican Theatre in London between 16th November and 31st December 2021. For tickets are further details visit https://www.rsc.org.uk/

The Company and audience at the curtain call. Photo by Pete Le May.

29 July 2021

Stones in His Pocket - Barn Theatre Review

The award winning comedy, Stones in His Pockets, is playing in it's 25th anniversary production at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester.

The two hander by Marie Jones is well revived helmed by director Matthew McElhinney. It tells the story of two local lads in rural Ireland whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a Hollywood studio to film their latest blockbuster. Told through the lads eyes they soon realise that Hollywood's romanticised dream of Ireland is a long way from reality.

Photo by Danny Kaan.

The hilarity is there from the start, the only line of cutting the fog because "this isn't Phantom of the Opera" brings an early roar of laughter. The opening sequence sees the breaking of the fourth wall with the runners jumping of stage to inspect the films extras for the day right from the opening sequence with the two film hands checking on the extras, exclaims of "that's not very period" and "grab some dirt of the floor and rub it on your face" really get the audience involved.

Shaun Blaney and Gerard McCabe seamlessly switch between multiple characters, both playing a myriad of colour people from director to leading lady. They capture the roles with excellent comic timing and high energy - especially as the switch between roles happen so fast. 

Their main roles are Jake Quinn (played by Blaney) and Charlie Conlon (played by McCabe), both play extras in the film which is being led by two well known American stars. Charlie is a hopeful writer and Jake his cynical friend. As the play moves on through it's clear how the 'American  Dream' isn't exactly what they dreamed it would be. That message of lost hope or broken dreams runs throughout Jones' play. 

Photo by Danny Kaan.

The plot twists and turns with the varied characters but really hits home towards the end of act one when troubled teenager Sean Harkin is banned from the movie set after attempting to talk to the films leading stars, he subsequently fills his pockets with stones and drowns himself. 

The design by Gregor Donnelly combines great use of props including multiple travel cases but the crowning designing glory is the use of the video projection on the backdrop which easily distinguishes the location for each scene. The piece is beautifully lit by Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner's lighting design.

Rating: ★★★★ - fast paced tragicomedy with two brilliant energetic performances.

Stones in His Pockets runs at Barn Theatre until August 22nd 2021. Visit https://barntheatre.org.uk/ to book.

Photo by Danny Kaan.

27 July 2021

Educating Rita Review

Willy Russell's brilliant comedy, Educating Rita, continues to delight audiences as part of its 40th anniversary touring production which has arrived in Northampton at Royal and Derngate.

A two-hander set all in one room introduces us to two tremendously written characters. There's Frank, a frustrated poet a tutor and a drunkard. He professes to disliking his students and says he only teaches as it allows him to continue his drinking habits. Then there's Rita, a working class hairdresser and Frank's latest student, who wants to learn all about literary classics and broaden her horizons. 

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and Jessica Johnson as Rita. Photo by Nobby Clark.

The play is told through various scenes with time passing between each. The scene changes often allow for Rita to change into a different outfit whilst Frank remains unchanged.  As the play goes on the relationship between the pair becomes rocky, especially as Frank is continually consumed by the drink and as Rita becomes a little busier to attend the sessions.

What makes this production are the two magnificent performances of these characters. Stephen Tompkinson captures the frustration and the lostness of Frank being consumed by his drinking habits with such skill. He portrays the strain and frustration but also opens up so you his heart and how much he wants good for Rita - Frank often telling her she's wasting her time or that she'd be better off without.

Matching Stephen's Frank is Jessica Johnson, she is quite brilliant from the get go. Her boundless energy in the early encounters where Rita doesn't allow for Frank to get a word in and throughout she is perfectly cast here. Jessica captures Rita's journey and transformation from the uneducated hairdresser to academic student by the end with real quality. 

Jessica Johnson as Rita. Photo by Nobby Clark.

Stephen and Jessica's own real life relationship allows for the pair's ease with each other on the stage, they have tremendous chemistry and bounce off each other with enhances how they play the relationship of the two characters. 

Patrick Connellan's design features a study with full bookcases, with each shelf hiding a bottle or four. It's well thought out with plenty of lovely details and transports the audience into the room itself. Clever effective design but spare a thought for the stage hands who have to put all the books back at the end of each performance!

This timeless piece continues to delight audiences, I overheard the ladies on the row behind discussing how they should go away and watch the film adaptation and another lady a couple of seats away exclaimed to her friend it was "the best play she'd ever seen". After the period of time away it's great to hear laughter in a non-distanced audience in the Derngate again and this timeless comedy delivers plenty of laughter along the way.

Rating - ★★★★★ two outstanding performances light up this classic comedy.

Educating Rita runs at Royal and Derngate until Saturday 31st July. For tickets head to www.royalandderngate.co.uk The show is touring thereafter, for full dates visit https://www.educatingrita.co.uk/

Stephen Tompkinson as Frank. Photo by Nobby Clark

22 July 2021

Gin Craze! review.

Grab a glass, pour your tipple and pull up a chair for rollicking new musical Gin Craze! The musical is a co-production between Royal and Derngate in Northampton and China Plate in partnership with English Touring Theatre. This booze-soaked tale roots the audience in 18th century where the streets overflow with gin, a time where the average Briton drank 1.5 litres a day, and where the authorities try to restore sobriety.

The company of Gin Craze! Photo by Ellie Kurttz

The new musical written by April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers is a wild and often hilarious ride through the streets as the struggles for the poor who try to make a living as gin sellers with the powers tightening their grip to stop this happening. It centres around two main characters, Mary and Lydia. We meet Mary as she becomes pregnant and loses her job, she must find life on the streets with her new born. To protect her baby she gives him away to Suki who promises she knows someone who will look after her.

Mary meets Jack (who is Lydia but covering up to reveal her true identity) who takes her in and reluctantly takes her in to help her with her gin business. Together the pair form a relationship, with neither Jack revealing her true identity or Mary revealing about her baby. When Evelyn, who runs a rival gin establishment, discovers about the baby she threatens Mary to make her leave. All this is undercut by the powers, The Queen and the Magistrates who look to restore order by introducing licencing for establishments to continue.

I shall not give away the full story but the character's journey continue to weave throughout the second act heading towards a powerful conclusion. The book by de Angelis is clever, she fleshes out the world and the characters with great skill and use of language although this is certainly not a show for the prudish audience, with plenty of swearing and many a sexual reference. 

The company of Gin Craze! Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Musically the show contains some wonderful tunes by de Angelis and Rivers, with a company of actor-musicians with musical direction and arrangement's by Tamara Saringer. A couple of tunes repeat a few times, particularly Mary's 'What Does A Woman Have To Do' which is a fantastic stand out number. There's some tremendous energy to the company providing the music as well as driving the plot forwards. 

Under the direction of Michael Oakley the company of 8, who like the backstage team made huge COVID sacrifices to form a show bubble, are clearly enjoying playing these characters and fleshing out this world. It's these characterisations that really make the show a joy. Aruhan Galieva plays Mary, her character certainly goes on a rollercoaster with highs and lows throughout and that journey is captured with real aplomb. Vocally she's pitch perfect, she's an angelic quality to her vocal tone. Paskie Vernon gives another outstanding performance as Lydia. She captures the right amount of bravado as Jack which switches a bit into the second act as you see the real human side behind Lydia.

Aruhan Galieva as Mary. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Debbie Chazen has a blast in the dual roles, which couldn't be more polar opposite, as Queen Caroline she captures the perfect controlling German monarch but it's her turn as Moll which is a delight to watch. She manages to capture the drunken heavily sexualised character with real skill and the result is something that is hilarious to watch. Paula James effectively portrays rival establishment owner Evelyn, who develops more in to the second act (again no spoilers).

Rachel Winters as Sarah Fielding brings the feminist empowerment to the piece, she portrays the role with real humanity, especially as she meets Mary in prison and offers her a lifeline but proclaiming that she can't help everyone out even if she wishes she could. Rosalind Ford's Suki is a dark and twisted character who is believably portrayed especially in the revealing second act scenes. 

The two gentlemen on Gin Lane, Alex Mugnaioni and Peter Pearson, who both play a handful of roles, add a bit of masculine brutality to the streets. Mugnaioni's booming voice and power as Henry Fielding (the magistrate) but also switches to show the constable's human side as he wishes to not have to arrest his friends. Pearson is a great actor, he is particularly powerful in the early scenes where he's trying to prostitute Mary.

Visually, the design by Hayley Grindle, features marvellous lavish period costumes all of which are fitting with the style on show. I was a little less taken with the scaffolding set that creates a two level stage but that is dressed well with numerous props but still looks a little clunky. But there's some ingenious design, particularly the gin vending machine. The lighting designed by Jack Knowles cleverly amplifies the setting and the performances as does choreography by Paul Isaiah Isles.

In these difficult times it was nice to enter a world of wickedly bawdy characters who laden with drink and ambition create a joyous 2 and a half hour performance. To feel the swell of great music, fantastic performances. Sit back, have a tipple and enjoy this thoroughly excellent piece.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ and a half - a brilliant and bawdy trip to the gin dives with this new musical.

Gin Craze! continues at Royal and Derngate in Northampton until Saturday July 31st 2021. To book tickets visit https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

The Gin Craze Company! Photo by Ellie Kurttz

6 July 2021

Contractions - whatstick Theatre - Review

Whatstick theatre have reimagined Mike Bartlett's female two-hander, Contractions, and the result is a dark humoured step in to what can be the dark corporate world of business.

Directed by Georgia Brown the piece follows Emma (played by Ele Robinson) who is repeatedly interviewed by her unnamed manager (played by Kate Gabriel) about a romantic relationship with colleague Darren. It begins with a somewhat integration about the contract that Emma signed when taking on the role which clearly states that "no employee, officer or director of the company shall engage with any other employee, officer or director of the company in any relationship" and delves further and further into the of romance between the colleagues.

This one hour piece really hits first gear around the half way point during an interview where the pair discuss Emma's pregnancy with Darren at the six month point of the relationship, earlier in the piece Emma predicted the relationship might last six months and her manager takes that literally so when the six month comes and there is no end to the relationship she threatens Emma and Darren with dismissal with professional misconduct. The interviews becoming increasingly fraught and tense from here with threats of re-locating Darren to Kiev denying him seeing his son.

Even after the death of Emma and Darren's child, Stephen, the manager still keeps a grip hold on the control of the workplace. The believability goes a little out the window as the manager requests proof of the baby's death, requesting proof of the body after the funeral. This leads to the productions most moving and powerful moment as Emma is forced to dig up her own babies body to save her job once more. 

After bringing the body in, the manager explains that Darren has preferred to stay in Kiev. This leads to Emma questioning if her manager actually cares for the wellbeing of her workforce. This turns the action to Emma being more in control of her feelings and her shift the energy back onto her manager, how little she knows about her and questioning how lonely she must be but in the end the manager takes the grip hold of power. 

Gabriel is tremendous with her controlling delivery of the manager. She shifts her energy from small talk to delving and twisting deep into Emma's personal life and the relationship between the two colleagues. Robinson in the beginning is unfazed by the accusations but becomes increasingly unnerved and slowly unravels with the claustrophobic environment and the controlling nature of her manager. She's particularly powerful in the latter scenes.

The performance is staged on a fairly bare stage with the characters facing the audience rather than facing each other. The interviews are broken up by some physical movement with original music by Rachael Gibson. These moments capture an insight into the real chaotic relationship between the two and are a good way to break up the action - although it does leave the performers a little out of breathe as the next scene begins. 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ - two outstanding performances deliver a tense darkly humoured piece.

To find out more about whatstick theatre you can follow the company on Facebook and Instagram.

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