Wednesday, 28 September 2016

French Without Tears, Harrogate Theatre - 27th September 2016

English Touring Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre present Terence Rattigan's French Without Tears at Harrogate Theatre for just one week.  Rattigan wrote the play in 1936 and has been revived three times; 43 years ago at London's Young Vic and twice by English Touring Theatre including this production.

English Touring Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre's
French Without Tears
(Image contributed)

The comedy is about a group of young men who spend the summer at a French school to intensely prepare for their Diplomatic exams; the preparation doesn't go to plan as their focus is interrupted by the presence of Diana Lake (Florence Roberts), a beautiful though flirtatious visitor.

The men are seemingly in love with Diana; Kit (Joe Eyre), Bill (Tim Delap) and Alan (Ziggy Heath) and their feelings for her dominate them. Diane's return of love to each of the men is uncommitted and takes in her the stride the love they all have her.  To make things more complicated Jack (Jacqueline) (Beatriz Romilly) is in love with Kit.

Rattigan writes ahead of his time and certainly pinpoints the young men's masculinity and its appeared arrogance but beneath reveals their insecurity and vulnerability particularly experiencing women and romance.  Their attitude and preconceptions, indoctrinated by the expectations and culture at the time, toward women is unsurprising and states "an ideal woman with masculine virtues and feminine fiestas" and unable judge women with "standards of our own".

Men at the time weren't encouraged to express their feelings and display their emotions openly.  The "stiff upper lip" and "be tough" attitude at that time and men were conscripted to serve in the military during the First World War (and subsequently the Second World War) would have influenced this.  Expressions and displays would have been frowned up and/or censored by those in power in the name of political favour, particularly in Continental Europe, and patriotism. This comedy challenges their invincibility and masculinity and makes clear that men are just as fragile as to woman and this is shown with all of them being involved with Diana.

The cast work really well together and in unison - they are overseen by David Whitworth's Monsieur Maingot who keeps on reminding the group to speak only in French.  There is a continuous dialogue flow taking in account the plot.  There are unexpected twists and occurrences from all the characters' friendships, loyalties and long term secular goals are being severely tested - particularly at a time when they shared that "they may live up to their ideals but not to others".  Paul Miller directs the play and ensures the audience appreciate what the young men then faced.

Audience members who have a good command of French can appreciate the play's wit, irony and colloquialism.  Certainly hilarious throughout with the young men's misunderstandings of the French language and innuendoes attached.

Simon Daw's staging certainly has a continental feel with French writing on the stage's back drops.  It blends well with the story and its moods and Mark Doubleday's lighting compliments the staging.  A comedy which will give an audience to ponder as much as being farcically entertained.

Dawn Smallwood

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Company, CarriagworksTheatre, Leeds - 20th September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

LIDOS (Leeds Insurance Dramatic and Operatic Society) presents an amateur production ofCompany at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds. Sondheim’s award winning musical, based on George Furth’s book, premiered on Broadway in 1970. The musical focuses on Bobby (James Sidgwick), a 35 year old single man, who is unable to commit to a relationship. He associates with his best friends who are five married/engaged couples and has on and off relationships with three girlfriends; April (Mariah Young), Marta (Sophie Ketteringham) and Kathy (Gemma Buck).

Company doesn’t follow any particular storyline but instead it focuses on the characters themselves, none chronologically, after the celebration of Bobby’s 35th Birthday. It is set around the dates of his girlfriends and conversations over dinner and drinks with his married/engaged friends. The common themes, Company is one of the first musicals ever to deal with this, are around adult ones and the reality of relationships.It opens with a catchy musical number Company with reprises throughout.   Robert spends time with couples whose actions clearly see that marriage isn’t really what it is cracked up to be along with being in any relationship. Thoughts and feelings expressed in Joanne’s (Janine Walker) sarcastic and The Little Things You Do Together and the mocking The Ladies Who Lunch; Harry (Chris Hall), David (Andy Ashley) and Larry’s (Leon Waksberg) Sorry-Grateful and Amy’s (Claire Sidgwick) decision not to tie the knot in Getting Married Today. Each couple’s relationship doesn’t appear problem free when Bobby witnesses his friends and the various issues and challenges the couples face.
Bobby certainly is valued as a friend with the company’s What Would We Do Without You? at the beginning of the second act even if the couples do not give up their wish to see him married. In conclusion he however bravely comes to terms that being in a relationship with its challenges is worth it for meeting someone who is Being Alive. The live musical numbers are played beautifully by the pianist, Beth Blundell, and the singing and music are directed by Lucy Eyre.
Company is wholeheartedly and energetically performed by this company. The acting, singing and choreographed movements, directed Kimberley Lyon, are performed smoothly in the Upstairs at the Carriageworks studio’s intimate staging space.   The staging is interesting with photographs, framed on the walls and hung from the ceiling, and summarises Bobby’s relationships with the five couples and his casual girlfriends. This is an excellent performance by LIDOS including the cast and its production team.

Anniversary, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - 15th September 2016 (Originally reviewed for North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

It is a pleasure to be at this unique production of Anniversary, currently playing in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre. This contemporary production offers an opportunity for a group of 11 older performers, some who had begun performing as far back as the 60s, to share their life experiences on stage through a kaleidoscope of story-telling, poetry, movement, dance and music.

Image credit: Anthony Robling

A Performance Ensemble and West Yorkshire Playhouse created and developed Anniversary and last year the production was commissioned through The Baring Foundation Late Style programme.   Anniversary is unique as there is a particular emphasis on celebrating the present instead of living in the past or in the future.
The performance begins when performers announce key anniversary dates which later on in the show will link to significant events that have happened in their lives. The performers share honesty “an anchor” at different stages during the show and reiterate how such events shape and strengthen who they have become today.
Optimism is shared by some of performers such as Namron and Villmore about making wishes, dreaming dreams and never knowing what the future holds. Alex shares his experiences and pleas for not to take my “sunshine away” during the company’s adaptation of Johnny Cash’s “You are my sunshine”.
A moving moment is certainly is the heartfelt singing of “Seasons of Love”, from the musical RENT, by the company and a sign language choir. It sums up the stories that are shared on stage and how, for some performers, the anniversaries are continuing such as the Phoenix Dance Company, which Villmore jointly founded in 1981, and the company is currently celebrating its 35thanniversary. There is also Connie whose “two year plan” on her arrival from Madeira to England in the 1960s is still ongoing.
The finale is unique with balloons filling the stage and the question being asked how balloons associate with one’s life whether it is a happy or a poignant occasion.   Anniversary concludes with a creative and reflective dance finale by the company and receives a heartfelt standing ovation from the audience.
West Yorkshire Playhouse certainly lives up to its reputation for being the “home of incredible stories” and this performance is an evening of such. The theatre takes pride in their creative arts programme, Heydays, for the over 55s. This is a very heartfelt and moving production where each and everyone in The Company have a role to play from its creation to choreography.

Blackthorn, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - 14th September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here

Blackthorn was developed through Furnace, a festival which celebrates new theatre from creation to production. Written by Charley Miles, it is about two children, the only ones born for a generation, who grow up, fall in love and part ways. Miles hails from North Yorkshire whereBlackthorn is set and the lighting and soundscapes, courtesy of Laura Sprake and Heather Fenoughty, reflects the idyllic village life and the surrounding nature.

Image credit: Anthony Robling

The two person play chronologically explores the changes that occur in both the characters’ lives; HER (Charlotte Bate) leaves the village and HIM (Harry Egan) stays and yet the bond they have between them still exists though strained with the impact of changes. The story focuses on the relationship with a place as much as a person and how it feels to leave or to be left.
The play also touches on childhood, adolescence, tragedy, love, relationships, loyalty, traditions and modernity and the audience is reminded how changes can have positive and negative effects. Miles writes beautifully the lives of HER and HIM and their affected journeys and links to the author’s upbringing.  
Excellent acting from both Bate and Egan who successfully portray both characters from childhood to later on in life when HER returns to the “special place” she calls her birthplace and struggles to come to terms how HIM eventually sees it.   Blackthorn is thoroughly directed by Jacqui Honess-Martin and she is supported by a talented creative team. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Barber Studio is intimately suitable for Blackthorn to be performed. The play is approximately 90 minutes without an interval – it is felt however it could have benefited with one for pacing the delicately packed story.
It is encouraging to see local playwrights and their plays being supported by the Furnace Festival and West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new writer development programme.

9 to 5: The Musical, Grand Opera House, York -9th September 2016 (Originally reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

York Stage Musicals present their latest production, 9 to 5: The Musical, at York’s Grand Opera House. It is a musical comedy based on the 1980 film of the same name. The book is written by Patricia Resnick and the music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. The story goes back to the 1970s when Violet (Julie Anne Smith), Doralee (Alicia Roberts) and Judy (Jo Theaker), three office workers, have had enough of Hart (Darren Roberts), their sexist boss, and are determined to do something about it. This is all set to Parton’s award nominated hits and musically directed by Sam Johnson.

Catchy 9 to 5 opens the show and Parton visually appears “live” during the musical number when she introduces the three women. It is set at a time where sexism and sexual harassment were commonplace and particularly in the workplace.
Hart, the company’s boss, is introduced with the crude Here For You which contains sexual innuendoes and his general attitude towards women. I Just Might and Doralee’s Backwoods Barbie analyses how bad things are and more so with the nasty gossip relating to Hart’s perverted attitude. 

Violet, Doralee and Judy plan their revenge and prove to all that Hart is a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. Their plans are creatively executed on stage with Judy’s slick cabaret styleDance O’Death; Doralee’s country and barn danceCowgirl’s Revenge (One thinks of Dolly Parton); and Fairy tale themed Violet’s Potion Notion. Those three musical numbers are executed well and combined with the ensemble’s singing and dancing, choreographed by AJ Powell. A festive rendition of Joy to the Girls celebrates womanhood and liberty and Shine Like the Sun evaluates the unexpected events concerning Hart.
Act 2 sees Violet what it is like to be One of the Boys and the three women’s determination to give their office a makeover dream in Change It. After exposing Hart in hilarious and outrageous circumstances it ends in a sing and clap along Finale: 9 to 5 with Parton again appearing “live” and all ends well for the brave three women who against odds have changed the women’s role in the workplace and beyond.
9 to 5: The Musical is entertaining but crucially thought provoking. In comparison to the 1970s the society has progressed with time where there are more career opportunities for women; increasing rights in the work place; and policies ensuring equal opportunities are available for all. There are also mechanisms in place should discrimination and sexual harassment arise. Still issues remain however; it has been reported recently on the news that women are still earning less than men doing the same job and discussions of salaries among colleagues are still considered taboo today.   Violet, Doralee and Judy have believed that “success is out there for the taking” and many women across the world are achieving more now than what previous generations would have dreamt about.
This is certainly a feel good musical with Parton’s catchy tunes, which leaves one with a lot of food for thought. York Stages Musicals, under the direction of Nik Briggs, has put together an excellent production and performed by a talented cast and creative crew with its great staging reflecting the story’s era.

Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - 6th September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

Northern Ballet opens the autumn season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse with presenting Wuthering Heights. This production is part The Brontë Season and marking the 200th year anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. Emily Brontë’s classic, set in the moors, is loved by many and known for the obsessive and passionate love affair between Heathcliff and Cathy. Set to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music; the talented company interprets the classic with a combination of simple and intricate dancing with Ali Allen’s stunning staging and David Nixon’s strong choreography. The focal point is obviously the relationship between Heathcliff (Javier Torres) and Cathy (Dreda Blow). Their childhood affection, from being inseparable, grows and deepens to a love which overwhelms them as well as devastates; particularly from their forced separation initiated by Hindley (Giuliano Contadini) to Edgar’s (Nicola Gervasi) hand in marriage to Cathy.

Wuthering Heights is best enjoyed for its characters; particularly of Heathcliff, and the evoked emotions. Torres gives a superb portrayal of Heathcliff whose experience of degradation, humiliation, despair, anger, jealously and revenge is linked from the childhood innocence to the unwanted circumstances as an adult. Blow beautifully and passionately interprets Cathy who is always drawn to Healthcliff but is lured to Edgar’s love and the riches and luxury of Thrushcross Grange. Torres and Blow recreates the continuous obsession and passion that both Healthcliff and Cathy had for one another with the rising chemistry generating from their dancing duets and close up movements.
Northern Ballet, under the direction of Nixon and dramaturge input from Patricia Doyle, certainly works very hard to draw out the emotions from all the characters involved and creates the intensity and intrigue expected from the story.   There is a lot to pack in the two and quarter hour ballet and not once did it compromise the characters, the storyline and its emotive themes.
Allen’s sets are certainly of stark contrast but appropriate; the scenes swiftly switches in sequences between the sunshine, colourful and tame life of Thrushcross Grange to the isolated, dark and bleak landscape of the moors and Wuthering Heights. Alastair West’s revived lighting is appropriately applied and captures the moods of all the scenes.   Special effects are used as weather elements when Cathy and Heathcliff meet expressing their love and Heathcliff’s contemplation as an old man during the Epilogue.
Schönberg is well known for the music he composed for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. His creative genius captures the plot, characters and the explorative emotions for Wuthering Heights. Soft piano music and melodious instrumental tunes are played during the scenes at Thrushcross Grange and hauntingly dramatic, melancholic and fast paced music is applied for Wuthering Heights and the moors scenes.
Wuthering Heights has been well received from the audience that evening. The production has a special space in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Brontë Season. Following the success of Jane Eyrein spring this year; Wuthering Heights is another beautiful dramatic production which has a proud place in Northern Ballet’s repertoire.

Brassed Off, Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds - 1st September 2016 (Reviewed on behalf of North West End)

This was originally reviewed for North West End and the link can be found here.

Neil Knipe brings Brassed Off, a collective production by Northern Spark Theatre Company, Barrel Theatre & Comedy, Bite My Thumb and Gravitas Entertainment, to three venues across West Yorkshire. Brassed Off is based on Mark Herman’s film of the same name and the 1996 film honestly portrays life in Grimley, a fictional mining village in the north of England, and its community. The emphasis is on the harsh reality that the community faces - ten years after the 1984-85 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. In contrast to the fight the miners fought ten years ago, this community somehow tells a different story. The village’s brass band, led by Danny (Reece Andrews), is the focal point to the community and its arrival of Gloria (Leanne O’Rourke), a brass player and a professional for the National Coal Board.

The play opens with a visual screening of a National Coal Board advertisement about the “no ending need for coal”. Young Shane (Alfie Coles) narrates about life in the village and each character is introduced and all share with the audience how their lives are with the never ending hardships. However it is their pride, loyalties, and hope motivates them to continue fighting for what they believe in despite the village’s colliery facing the threat of closure.

The staging appears chaotic but works really well with the story telling scenes. Diverse musical hits from the early 20thCentury up to the 1980/90s are played between the scenes’ transitions and the music and lyrics are appropriate for the story and mood.   The City of Bradford Brass Band and BDI are well represented and supports the performers on stage during their “band practices” and “competitions”. Reflection and contemplation for the fight the community fought for is visually commemorated in Rodrigo’sConcierto de Aranjuez. The fight of fights of pride and solidarity is felt inLand of Hope and Glory.

The standout performances must be Richard Billings’ Phil – he fights in spirit his beliefs to the very end and succumbs to despair and dire straits in losing what he holds dear, and also Reece Andrews as Danny who is determined to keep the brass band going. The brass bands symbolise pride and the fight the villages fought for in order for the survival of their tight knit communities. The cast on the whole did well and represented the voices of this “modern folktale” that Knipe wants to be told.

Many former miners share that closure of the pits has a big social and economic impact to its communities and emotions still run high today. The then Government’s reasons for “progress” has been very different to those who have been affected by an industry now in total decline, with the last pit closing in 2015, and the audience is poignantly reminded of this but those affected and their way of life won’t be forgotten. The spirit will live on like “the miners united will never be defeated”.