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Glengarry Glen Ross

Caveat Emptor

Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

ATG, Act Productions, Glass Half Full Productions and Rupert Gavin, Richmond Theatre, until 20th April, then on tour until 4th May

A review by Matthew Grierson

The secret of a successful magic trick, I understand, is distracting the audience from the sleight of hand involved. But if sales is a kind of magic, then the customer can just as easily be distracted by being told the mechanism by which the deal itself is made. After all, if the salesman is telling you how he is doing it, he can’t be untrustworthy – can he?

The deals to which we are party in Sam Yates’s slick revival of Glengarry Glen Ross have exactly this quality about them. When we first encounter Nigel Harman’s mesmeric Ricky Roma, he is deconstructing the art of the sale over a drink in a Chinese restaurant, telling us how it depends on living in the here and now – as his own performance demands it does – and that one needn’t nurse remorse about what one wants or how one gets it. It doesn’t matter that what he’s talking may be BS: he absolutely sells it.

More to the point, he absolutely sells us the idea of Ricky as a seller. James Staddon as the hapless James Lingk hangs on his words as much as we do, and it gradually becomes clear Ricky is talking his fellow diner into a deal. As we’re reminded, ‘Always be closing.’ And as the first act closes, the lights dim and Harman seems positively Mephistophelean.

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Each of the scenes in the first half has something of this dynamic. The preceding exchange, between sales colleagues Dave (Denis Conway) and George (Wil Johnson) in the same restaurant, seems likewise to be a discussion of the way their workplace works, but the former is becoming increasingly apoplectic and taking the latter into incredulity along with him … Only it turns out that Dave is inveigling George into being a stooge in more than just comic terms. Again, Conway and Johnson sell this relationship beautifully, Dave’s diatribe, replete with throwaway bigotry, conjuring nervous laughter from the Richmond audience.

But the sell to which we are first exposed is the hardest of all: Mark Benton’s Shelly is trying to convince office manager John Williamson – Scott Sparrow, maintaining an icy and functional calm – that he is worthy of the premium leads that will restore his place on the chalkboard league table. Shelly’s struggle to negotiate his way back to success works in inverse correlation with Benton’s capacity to affect us; to put it another way, the actor’s stock is as high as his character’s is low.

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Chiara Stephenson’s impressive but otherwise empty restaurant set, in which all these scenes take place, concentrates the essential loneliness of the salesman’s art, the valiant or vain struggle of the patter against consumer resistance in the era of Reaganomics. It also allows the characters to sharpen themselves against one another for the second act, which returns us to their real-estate office the next morning, after it has been broken in to. It’s an impressive change of set for the interval, although given that it’s no more messy than a number of offices I’ve worked in, I wondered whether the stagehands would do better to take less rather than more care about how they put it together.

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As the pairs of the first half come into play against one another, we witness new aspects to each of them. Buoyed up by a successful morning’s sales, Shelly is now confident enough to tear Dave and John to pieces. His re-enactment of the deal he has closed again makes play of the fact that he has let the customers in on the secret of the sales. Why, even Benton’s glasses twinkle in the lights with the recollection of it. Such is his conviction that even Ricky marvels at it, believing he still has tricks to learn from the older man. But when Dave returns, Harman and Conway are circling each other like wild animals to give their machismo room to preen.

The salesmen are now competing not only with one another but with the law, though, in the form of Officer Baylen (Zephryn Taitte), whose height allows him to exert a presence beyond his limited dialogue. That presence is in turn used to emphasise the power of both Harman’s performance, when Ricky squares up to the cop, and the brilliant diffidence of Benton’s, when he equivocates between submitting to interview and maintaining a ruse set-up with his colleague.

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The play’s careful balance of tragedy and comedy is apparent here. Mistimed interventions from John and Baylen move the plot along, forcing Ricky to try to keep the reluctant Lingk on the chain – Harman is never more sincere than when he is selling – while Shelly edges round the room as though in a farce. Careful stagecraft does not labour the conflict Mamet has cleverly dramatised between the ruthless free market and the rule of law.

If the blocking can attain the balletic, the delivery of dialogue can at times be machinic; but the full emotive force of it is paid out by the unfortunate customer as Lingk departs, distraught not by the fact that he has betrayed his wife but that he has let down Ricky himself, whose full skill and power are again thrown into relief.

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As the drama draws to its own closure, Ricky laments that the profession is a dying breed. Sadly, rumours of the death of the salesman are greatly exaggerated: 35 years after the play was originally put on we have a mountebank in the White House and daily talk on this side of the Pond about the need to get a deal done. Mamet’s script acquires particular new resonance in that it turns on the theft of customers’ personal details, a concern only more pertinent in the age of GDPR. Once more, the production is effective on this point for having not overemphasised it.

Of course, Glengarry Glen Ross’s true sleight of hand is that it sets up a plot that plays out, but not as we expect it to – let’s just say that a poor salesman makes for a poor thief. Mamet may have sold us a dummy, but on the strength of this evening I’m not cooling off any time soon.

Matthew Grierson
April 2019

Photography by Marc Brenner

The Importance of Being Earnest

Keeping Up Appearances

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

Q2 Players, The National Archives Theatre until 13th April

a review by Matthew Grierson

The Importance of Being Earnest is, at face value, a play about appearances. It relishes them and the fictions woven around them – the Bunburyism that is Algie’s creed – rather than the realities they conceal. To paraphrase another wit: sincerity is all that matters, and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

In this respect, Q2’s production of Wilde’s classic comedy works when it keeps up appearances, and suffers when it fails to maintain them. The confected lives of Jack and Algernon convince as long as one doesn’t linger too long over their absurdities; but this staging has a stop–start rhythm that in places fails to maintain its facades. In Jack’s interview with Lady Bracknell, for instance, Tim Williams makes for a game dame, but his responses to his prospective son-in-law sound like punchlines to jokes that haven’t properly been set up, as David Tedora struggles to convey the essential nervous garrulity that the scene demands.

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While her ladyship insists on Victorian formality, the set conveys the milieu in an unusually minimal way, making effective use of projections on a screen behind to offer some depth. But then instead of exploiting the space this lightly furnished setting affords, the action largely takes place in one plane, as though projected on a screen itself. It is only as the play moves towards its end and the couplings of Jack with Gwendolen and Algernon with Cecily are confirmed that we get some sense of a third dimension, with one beau pulling his respective belle towards him and the other repeating the action in front.

With so few moveables, the scene changes ought to be a piece of proverbial cake (plenty of which is served up in the action), but they are long, fussy bits of business; at the same time, they allow the awkwardly affectionate affair between Miss Prism and Rev. Chasuble to play out delightfully on the screen. Are the stagehands extemporising to afford us this entertainment, in much the same way as the characters do? If so, fair play to stage manager Charlotte Priestly and the two butlers who help her out.

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I’m making this sound like a curate’s egg, though, and I don’t think that does the show justice (Chasuble is a canon after all) because there is an eagerness to please that evidences the earnestness of the cast. To coin a Wildean apothegm, to play The Importance as a string of funny lines may be a misfortune, but not to play it as a string of funny lines would be careless. And one could hardly in this instance say the lines were immaterial, as they conjured the requisite laughter throughout Thursday’s audience.

Hugh Cox lights things up from the start, with his perky and expressive Algernon. I’d say he owes something of a debt to Bertie Wooster, only that would be a little anachronistic, and Algie is also quicker on the uptake than Wodehouse’s hero. Slightly less quick on the uptake is Tedora’s Jack, who hasn’t yet mastered the comic timing that should make the piece sing; never mind pulling one over on Gwendolen and her mother, he needs a more commanding presence if he’s to convince us that he’s as earnest as he makes out.

As Algie’s Aunt Augusta, Tim Williams takes this production down the line of the pantomimic; it’s a brave move, especially in the shadow – or the light of – the acclaim won recently by the much more diminutive David Suchet as her ladyship in the West End, but Williams gives a solid performance, in several senses, anchoring the particular tone of this staging, and he neither milks nor underplays the handbag.

In the role of his/her daughter Gwendolen, Rachel Burnham offers a full, and fully crafty, portrayal, from which it is hard to take one’s eyes. Even in a small gesture such as pretending to follow her mother offstage, when she has been forbidden to converse with Jack, the single step Burnham takes before remaining precisely where she stands is a model of playful poise.

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Equally watchable is Ellie Greenwood as Cecily, confined to the countryside by her guardian but living an imaginary life through her diary. Once she has ensnared Algie, who is posing as Ernest, there is an endearing twinkle to the way she reads this diary back to him, to reveal that – in her version of events at least – they have already been engaged for months.

With the characters of both fiancées nicely established, the stage is set for their meeting and misunderstanding. Their first encounter, which starts the second half, does not disappoint: the manners of the maidens run the gamut of faux-friendliness, passive aggression and finally fellow feeling – I punched the air when they pronounced themselves sisters as the boys had predicted – the scene perfectly played, paced and blocked.

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There is a likewise enjoyable dynamic between Laurie Coombs as Miss Prism and Craig Cameron-Fisher as Chasuble, whose romance plays out in the background – I derive the metaphor from the literal here – of the two young (well, youngish) couples. Chasuble could merely have been a stooge for Jack and Algie’s impromptu demands, but Cameron-Fisher has him perk up with pecuniary interest when a funeral or christening is in the offing; and he is nicely balanced by Coombs, who allows Prism as much girlish fantasy as her charge, in remembering the sentimental three-volume novel she composed as a younger woman. We all place our faith in such fictions.

If these pairings work, the denouement is nevertheless a bit of a strain. While individual lines get their laughs, Sarah Hill’s direction at this crucial juncture lacks sufficient zip or zing to suspend our disbelief. Lady B’s ad lib about looking up the name of Moncrieff Sr in the National Archive is on its own terms fine, but it throws Jack off and gives us all pause to ponder the unlikelinesses that have stacked up to get us into this situation. While it may be difficult for Jack and Algie to maintain their earnest fictions for the women in their lives, Earnest needs at least to sustain that story for the audience.

Matthew Grierson
April 2019

Photography by Simone Germaine Best

Annual Photography Exhibition

Concentrated Imagination of Observation

Annual Photography Exhibition 2019

Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society at Landmark Arts Centre, Teddington until 22nd April

Review by Diana Bucknall

The Landmark Arts Centre is situated in the towering remains of part of a French Gothic church, the ‘cathedral of the Thames Valley’, formerly St Alban the Martyr, once ruined, but patiently and laboriously restored. It is now a thriving arts venue. Until the 22nd April the Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society is staging its annual photography exhibition.

Of the 150 members, 63 have chosen a theme and been allotted a panel on which to hang their work. Some are displaying panels of images which recently gained them distinctions with the Royal Photographic Society.

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Poppies at the Tower by James Kirkland

It is interesting to step into these differing scenarios and see the world through different eyes. To focus on the elegant curve of an Art Deco staircase and, then by another member, the beautiful upward spiralling staircase in the Queen’s House in Greenwich, or another of white sandstone steps fading into a hazy Mediterranean mist. There are photographs of grand architectural buildings on the Isle of Dogs, street art in Shoreditch and a small white walled church on the shores of a distant loch.

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Chiswick Park, by John Penberthy

We are taken on safari and gaze into the eyes of a lion and come too near to a rhino even with a long lens from a Land Rover for my liking. There are flights of swans and a scattering of landing flamingo, a huddled kestrel, an egret in a tree and several stages of an iridescent kingfisher catching and eating a fish which must surely be bigger than itself.

The unnerving stare of owls catches the attention, the downward sweep of its wings rendering one owl into a feathery ball. Equally unnerving are hooded Spanish Paschal penitents seeking absolution.

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Glasshouse Semi Circles by John Penberthy

For balm to the senses there are early morning mists rising over dewy meadows, the brume lifting from seashore creeks and, gazing out to sea, towering craggy protuberances dotting the view to the distant horizon.

There are portraits of many kinds, some posed and some natural. One set of photographs of native African women showed them relaxed and smiling, certain in their trust of the photographer. Others showed Indian men working at their various trades. There were theatrical portraits, many of dancers and behind the scene sets.

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Shadow Dancers by Jay Charnock

Digital photography has afforded many differing techniques, photoshopping allows manipulation of the image, special papers produce varying results, the framing and presentation of the prints has an effect too. Images of leaves taken with an infrared lens in the plant house in Kew are particularly beautiful. Huge patience is needed for the macro shots of insects showing great detail and there is one of a lovely hairy bumble bee taken on its pollen-laden flight.

Many of the members of the photographic society are of more mature years but a promising youngster Amy aged fourteen has a panel of her own showing scenes on her allotment, most notably one with a large sunflower in the foreground.

Also showing at the centre are excellent imaginative photographs from pupils at St Catherine’s School for Girls in Twickenham and the Royal Photographic Society’s Visual Art Group’s 2019 Print Exhibition.

Although there are over 500 photographs shown, the exhibition is well laid out with plenty of space to see all the exhibits. Many prints will be available for sale. There are refreshments in the Landmark café for the weary and a feast for the eyes.

Diana Bucknall
April 2019

Photography by James Kirkland, John Penberthy, and Jay Charnock

 

Footloose

Let All The Children Boogie!

Footloose

by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie

HEOS Musical Theatre at The Judi Dench Playhouse, Questors, Ealing until 13th April

Review by Andrew Lawston

The stage of the Judi Dench Playhouse at Questors is largely bare, with some scaffolding at the back, with a burger bar and a petrol pump (or should that be gasoline pump?) decorating the wings. The playing area is clear for a lot of dancing.

This might seem odd on the face of it, given that we’re here for a musical based on the 1984 film Footloose which, famously, is about a town where dancing is banned.

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But as the band strikes up, and the scaffolding poles reveal themselves to be suitably festooned with strings of LEDs, it’s clear that we’re in for a night of rock and roll excess, 80s style. HEOS Musical Theatre gamely adopt American accents and cowboy hats for Laurie Asher’s new production of Footloose, with just a few opening night technical jitters from the sound system.

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Bacon is off the menu, but Chris Yoxall leads the cast with a strong and likeable performance as Ren McCormack, the Chicago kid dropped into the backwater of Bomont. Coupled with Gina Ackroyd as Ariel Moore, the minister’s daughter, who brings the house down halfway through the first act with a belting rendition of Holding Out For A Hero, the two of them scream at trains and belt out numbers with great gusto throughout, holding the show together.

Reverend Shaw Moore, the grief-stricken minister responsible for coming up with the law prohibiting public dancing within Bomont’s town limits butts heads with most of the young cast and quite a few of the older characters as he defends his stance. Chris Gibson is called on to play a challenging role, as the actor has to find new ways of delivering ideas that the character essentially repeats endlessly throughout the show. His wife, Vi, played with energy by Sue Yoxall, gradually takes on greater authority as Shaw’s moral stance rings ever more hollow. I felt this couple were the most interesting characters within the play, in terms of the journey they went on throughout the show. They also provided an effective contrast with Sarah La-Plain’s down-but-not-out Ethel McCormack, Ren’s mother, who seems to feel just as trapped as her son in Bomont’s oppressive and conformist atmosphere.

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While the musical numbers were always going to be the main attraction, Andrew Murphy stole much of the show with a perfectly-timed comic performance as Willard Hewitt, complete with cowboy hat and in dangerous need of dance lessons. His hesitant attempts to court Holly McIntosh’s vivacious and loquacious Rusty provided many of the production’s best laughs.

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Antonio Spano also shone as the belligerent Chuck Cranston – a truly despicable character, with not a great deal to do except to intimidate and manhandle people, Antonio managed to make the role believable, and oozed aggression and imminent violence whenever on stage.

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This production boasts an enormous cast, some of which get more to do than others. Gemma Hunt and Deborah Alawode add weight to the girls’ songs as Ariel and Rusty’s friends Urleen and Wendy Jo, most notably for Holding Out for a Hero and Somebody’s Eyes. Tyrone Haywood, David Claffey, Melissa Chitura-Bidwell, Vanessa Plessas, Richard Abel, David Nolder, Anne Murphy, Alex Turner and Richard Nolder round out the teenage and adults casts respectively, with Pam Armstrong appearing on roller skate for the first time, according to the programme notes! With a host of additional dancers swelling the ranks for big numbers such as I’m Free/Heaven Help Me, Still Rockin’, and of course the various iterations of the eponymous hit Footloose, Michelle Spencer’s choreography makes full use of the theatre’s wide playing area and the multi-level opportunities provided by the scaffolding set. By the end of the show there are dancers in the aisles, and all over the stage, a real spectacle that must have required a huge amount of coordination in rehearsal.

Two musical directors, Richard Fairhead and Terry Gardner, do justice to the music in Footloose, with a band of seven musicians (including Fairhead on keyboards) supplying the evening’s soundtrack. There seemed to be occasional glitches with the sound system and levels that I was sure would be ironed out throughout the run, but the band played a blinding variety of tunes, with heavy emphasis on 80s synths and big guitars.

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Laurie Asher and Stuart La-Plain’s empty set is dressed with swift efficiency and spartan scenery elements for each new scene, with benches being dragged in for the church, or a basketball hoop being fixed to the scaffolding for a school gym. With Rob Luggar’s crisp lighting defining rooms and locations, and varying the feel of the stage enormously, the effect is of a much more varied and lavish set. And Fiona MacKay’s costumes add to the visual spectacle, a riot of colours and glitter for the teens, and frumpy muted colours for the repressed adults.

Footloose is presented here very much as a boy meets girl musical, and HEOS have pulled it off in spectacular fashion.  All in all it’s a great night of fun at Questors.

Andrew Lawston
April 2019

Photography by Margaret Partridge

The Cat in the Hat

Zinging with Zaniness

The Cat in the Hat

by Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), adapted by Katie Mitchell

Curve and RTK Productions at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 21st April

A review by Mark Aspen

Zip, zap, zing ! Here’s a show with go: slow, no; a show with go! Pulsating rhythms propel The Cat in the Hat, a show bursting with energy and gushing with fun. Don’t sit still: there’s audience interaction, which the Rose audience of excited children of all ages did not hold back on. But, whether you are seven or seventy, don’t try this at home!

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Nevertheless, it all starts a little more downbeat(ish). Boy and his older sister Sally have been left at home. It’s raining; they can’t go out to play; they are borrrrred. Mischief rears its head. Out come the giant water pistols. There was a health warning in the foyer, but they’re dressed in yellow sou’westers, we are not. Of course on press night a lot of water is aimed towards the ranks of critics with their open notebooks (but it won’t water down our reviews).

Sally is, half-heartedly, in charge. So, she says, let’s read a book … or perhaps play with my new chemi-set. (Sally is a budding scientist.) Boy is more interested in larking with Mum’s newly iced birthday cake, or perhaps with the goldfish bowl. Sally’s attempts to prevent mini-disasters cues in lots of opportunity for athletic physical theatre, later to develop more and more into full-blown circus skills … but more of that later.

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Melissa Lowe’s Sally veritably fizzles with her wide-eyed sense of fun and of wonderment, which the audience finds infectious. Sam Angell makes a perfect foil as Boy, as his head-scratching feel of bewilderment has the children in stitches. It is a fresh, young retake of Laurel and Hardy, with oh yes, plenty of slapstick.

Sally resorts to the towering bookshelf and pulls out Dr. Seuss, whose books taught so many American children to read (and British ones to misspell). Seuss’ rhymes and onomatopoeia made him a much-loved children’s author, to say nothing of the sheer anarchic zaniness of the “plots” … a zaniness totally undisguised in this The Cat in the Hat.

Is it Sally’s chemi-set or the Seussist imagination that suddenly brings a new manifestation to the goldfish bowl? For suddenly in a bubble storm the mantelpiece, where the bowl lives, parts as Fish spins in in a large zorb-ball. Clad in beautifully imagined gold scales, Fish is the moderating voice of reason. And it is the voice of the genteel governess, strict, refined, the clipped tones contrasting with Boy and Sally’s provincial timbre. But when Charley Magalit, in this role, sings, her operatic background is obvious. Her coloratura soprano hides a Queen of the Night wanting to get out. All this whilst zorbing as she dances in a confetti swirl. But all the cast are multi-taskers par excellence.

The versatile music and accompanying songs by composer Tasha Taylor Johnson (who also composed for last year’s just as subversive yet fun-filled George’s Marvellous Medicine at The Rose) are just right for the ambiance of The Cat in the Hat. The soundscape is complemented by sound designer David Gregory’s neatly integrated, and many, sound effects.

The sense of magic hangs in the air, but I did mention mischief rearing its head, but now mischief personified knocks on the door. It is the eponymous Cat, suave, urbane, seductive, with a Sir Jasper-ish sniff of danger about him. He wears The Hat, a floppy barber’s pole of a stovepipe topper. Sally and Boy let him in.

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Cat summarises his philosophy in song, “It’s fun to have fun but you have to know how”. Then he demonstrates it in various ways. Nana Amoo-Gottfried is a magnificent Cat: he has the character spot on, down to a whisker, sings and dances with a feline agility, and is a great equilibrist with tricks that must need nine lives to rehearse. Cat’s antics culminate in his standing on a rolling knee-high ball whilst balancing a dozen items on his extremities, paws, feet, The Hat, and tail (do cats have prehensile tails?). However, Cat’s modesty is not constrained, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now!” he sings. But, as they say, pride comes before a fall. The first half, to use a current term, crashes out.

Zany and zanier, the second half zips zestfully in. The balanced items now hang from the cornice, the rafters, swing from the chandelier. These include the goldfish’s bowl’s contents now in the teapot up on the roof, whence Fish’s voice of reason tries to become the voice of conscience.

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When Cat promises “the only thing larger than life” it is a big black box, ostensibly and “provably” empty. Various incantations (in-cat-ations?) later, and a loud chorus of purrs and meows from the whole theatre, open this Pandora’s Box. Out spring the impish figures of Thing 1 and Thing 2, and the mayhem is ramped up. The hyperactive Things bounce around like demented kittens after a caffeine overdose. The terrible twins, with their alarming bright blue coiffure, burst through paintings and literally run up the wall.

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The Cat in the Hat was conceived in association with the National Centre for Circus Arts, and it shows. All the cast has consummate circus skills, but these skills reach their apogee with international gymnastics gold medallist, Celia Francis as Thing 1 and graduate circus artist Robert Penny as Thing 2. They seem as nimble and lively and are almost as destructive as the squirrels that devastate my garden. Their dismantling of a bed and their flying indoor kits complete the havoc. Certainly Francis and Penny’s tumbling skills, all done a break-neck speed are second to none. In the audience near me, even though her brother was helpless with laughter, a little girl was aghast; as was the very proper Fish, marooned on the roof. Then from her vantage point, Fish sees the approach of Mum!

All is solved with a giant vacuum cleaner and sorting out machine driven by Cat, which would have made Heath Robinson green with envy. This is one of many whacky design triumphs by the team led by designer Isla Shaw. The house is a Seuss look-alike cartoon pastel, but cram-packed with special effects that dismantles and reassembles itself with seeming automatic ease. Lighting designer Zoe Spurr has a team of nine to create her magic and its associated animated gauze effects and chases. The whole design is a technical tour de force.

One can only imagine the huge fun that the whole company under director Suba Das, an Associate Director at Curve, must have from the undoubted hard work in pulling this cat out of the hat, whilst of course avoiding any cat-astrophes in pushing physical theatre so far.

As critics, we must of course see the deep existential meaning behind the play. But with The Cat in the Hat this play is play, and you will pleased to know there is none … oh, but hold on, there is … don’t leave your children alone in the house, whatever you do!

Mark Aspen
April 2019

Photography by Manuel Harlan

Copacabana

Feathers, Sparkle and Passion

Copacabana – The Musical

music by Barry Manilow, lyrics by Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman, book by Barry Manilow, Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman

TOPS Musical Theatre Company at Hampton Hill Theatre until 13th April

Review by Jennifer King

There was a great buzz in the foyer of Hampton Hill Theatre on the opening night of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana – The Musical. As a well-known larger-than-life show full of music and passion, this musical is a real feel-good concoction of feathers and sparkle, which this audience were clearly greatly looking forward to.

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The curtains opened to reveal a large-scale set with two sweeping staircases either side, designed and realised by Wes Henderson-Roe. Unflowery and versatile, and with minimal dressing, it never overpowered the piece and created a base to transport the audience into the varying locations of the action as it moves from New York to Havana. It has become the norm to secrete the band behind the set or off in the wings, but in this instance we were allowed to see them in all their glory and finery, appropriately attired for the atmosphere, upstage beneath the raised rostra which added to the sense of the nightclub environment. MD John Davies maintained great pace and level through all the players, and they believably created the feel of a swinging nightclub orchestra.

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The story opens with the character Stephen, working on the composition of a hit musical – or so he hopes. As we hear his wife from offstage calling him to get ready for their 5th anniversary night out, we realise that, entirely engrossed in his work, he is somewhat neglectful of their relationship. Tom Daniels as Stephen created a solid and consistent performance throughout, particularly excelling late in Act I in the number ‘Who Needs to Dream’, a beautifully smooth and congruent delivery laden with emotion.

Switching to the Copa nightclub in New York circa the late 1940s, Stephen morphs into Tony Forte who, whilst tending bar, is trying also to become a successful songwriter. The ‘Copa Opening’ number was delivered by the full cast with gusto, setting the scene for where the story is to take us. As Lola la Mar arrives in New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the ladies’ ensemble presented a montage of the hopes and dreams of young girls everywhere arriving and hoping to see their name up in lights one day in ‘Just Arrived’.

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Becky Silverstein as Lola was more than up to the task and seemed to relish the challenges of this role, especially during her audition scenes when she showed a good range of sensuality, exuberance and confidence, even in the face of continued rejection. When she connects at last with Tony her star is born, and as a team they move into ascendance.

Choreography by Kimberley Powell, a seasoned performer in professional theatre productions, was imaginative and effective, making full use of the large ensemble in the big company numbers. Whilst I applaud the use of the whole cast, they were sometimes hampered by the size of the stage; I felt that such an over-the-top musical merits a much larger venue to really showcase the dancing and the costumes, however the glamorous troupe of Copa girls more than strutted their stuff despite the limitations of the space.

There were some lovely featured moments for the dancers, including a solo with some really impressive lifts by Dance Captain Antonia Anthony and James Madge in ‘Bolero d’Amore’. In the ‘Dancing Fool’ number led by Stephen inside the Copa, it would have been nice if he had shown us a little more movement – as we saw later he was obviously a very capable dancer.

Bee Wilkinson gave a sterling performance as former Copa showgirl turned cigarette seller Gladys Murphy. With a consistently believable New York accent, her great comic timing and lovely voice offered us a fantastic version of ‘Copa Girl’, which illustrates the perks to which all the girls aspire. Bee was every bit the match to Ian Stark’s comedic and exuberant Sam Silver, owner of the Copa, who gave a strong and reliable performance.

Act I closes with the arrival at the Copa club of Rico Castelli, an Italian gangster with a predilection for running off with Sam’s showgirls. Dan Stark portrayed the part of Rico with a subtle and restrained, yet ever-present, menace, whilst his lover Conchita Alvarez was beautifully played by Cate Blackmore in a fully-realised characterisation, showing all of the nuances and layers of a woman wronged, yet so much in love. With an excellent singing voice, I would like to have seen her give even more pizzazz in her number ‘Ay Carumba’ at the start of Act II.

The ensemble were fully committed to their various roles throughout the piece. Special mention goes to Sue Neale as the Copa soloist who also demonstrated virtuosity on the saxophone, and Ellie Barrett and Alex Alderson who featured in singing numbers later on, showcasing great stage presence through their entirely believable performances.
Costumes were presented at the perfect level throughout and demonstrated great variation, especially for the showgirls who had quantities of quick changes. However it does slightly irk me when I see mismatching undergarments and shoes, which for a group of showgirls at a premier club such as the Copa, should really be all the same. Sound was consistent and balanced throughout, and whilst lighting was generally excellent, it must be noted that there were a couple of moments when lights facing the audience were a little blinding.

Overall, TJ Lloyd’s direction presented us with a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment which showed his skills in facilitating such a large cast. When we return to Stephen’s apartment at the end of the show and we see him realise that his dream-girl character Lola was actually an incarnation of his wife, it renews his love for her, a classic happy ending which left the audience on a huge high.

Jennifer King
April 2019

Photography by Ace

The House on Cold Hill

Jump, Squeal and Try Not to Panic

The House on Cold Hill

by Peter James, adapted by Shaun McKenna

Joshua Andrews Productions at Richmond Theatre until 13th April

Review by Eleanor Lewis

“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us!” pleads the Scottish prayer, and yet there are few things more thrilling than snuggling up in a dim theatre, looking forward to being scared out of our wits by a decent ghost story.

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The House on Cold Hill is definitely a decent ghost story. At first sight it could be a predictable story too as Michael Holt’s set presents the kind of ancient, creaking house with the potential for both loving restoration and all the horrors imagination can conjure. Typical ghost story-type in fact. Into this ‘project house’ move Joe McFaddon as Ollie, Rita Simons as Caro, and Persephone Swales-Dawson as their phone-addicted, teenage daughter Jade. Ollie is starting his own web-design business, Caro is a solicitor and Jade, though appalled at being removed from big-city civilisation, takes it on the chin with wit and a philosophical attitude. This is a happy little family. Various other characters appear from time to time to help the trio settle into their new house of horrors.

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As might be expected, a series of events (no spoilers) then begin to unnerve the three of them and a slow, gentle build of tension in the first act, beautifully complemented by Jason Taylor’s subtle lighting, ramps up considerably in the second, causing the audience to jump and squeal in a very satisfying way. The elderly house, though unnerving in itself, is far from the only unsettling feature of the unfolding story.

HouseCold10McFaddon, Simons and Swales-Dawson play an attractive family without being sentimental. Similarly Tricia Deighton manages to make Annie, the part-time village Medium, endearing without tipping into caricature, and Charlie Clements produces a closely observed, quite physical portrayal of ‘tech whizz’ Chris, who contorts his body when moving in the self-effacing way specialists who know the rest of the world doesn’t understand them, so often do.

HouseCold9Leon Stewart plays the builder we have all met, complete with long intakes of breath when giving a quote; and an attractive, non-stereotypical vicar, not entirely keen on dealing with exorcisms, is neatly portrayed by Padraig Lynch. (Attractive clergy seem to be the next big thing these days, yes, I speak of Fleabag).

So much of the success of these productions is down to the skill of crew and technical teams and all credit to Tuesday night’s crew and tech teams when those skills were in full and highly effective working order.

Issues were tiny: the musical inserts at times were a little clunky, the volume seemed high for the required effect; and the idea that a web-designer in 2019 would write something as quaint as a cheque to pay the builder seemed incongruous, but that is probably of no importance at all.

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The more predictable elements of the story were handled with style and humour – even an in-joke suggesting Ollie should go on Strictly was greeted with affection rather than groans (McFadden won the competition in 2017) – and the use of the wayward Alexa is inspired. This is a production that doesn’t take itself too seriously but still manages to scare the living daylights out of you from time to time. Shaun McKenna’s polished adaptation of Peter James’ novel has produced a great piece of theatre which totally engages everyone to the point of a near mass intervention by the slightly panicked – in a good way – Tuesday audience, towards the end! Huge fun.

A shockingly good night’s entertainment! Recommended.

Eleanor Lewis
April 2019

Photography by Helen Maybanks