The Threepenny Opera (King’s Theatre: 15-16 September)

“A charming production full of talent”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The musical legacy of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s vibrantly satirical ‘play with music’ The Threepenny Opera is a curious one. Its opening anthem, “Mack the Knife,” has subsequently gained far more acclaim and recognition as a jazz standard in English since its debut in 1928 Berlin. The sultry refrain still tells of the deliciously violent antics of the notorious Macheath — every bit as much a bloodthirsty criminal as a salacious womanizer — but the original Socialist criticisms of capitalism and societal greed inherent in the original context of the character have somewhat faded. However, in their current production of Weill and Brecht’s piece, The Attic Collective yank the socialism and social Darwinism back into focus with grandiosity and verve to spare.

The assembled talent has carefully chosen a threadbare aesthetic and a frantic tone, both of which are appreciated considering it’s nearly three-hour runtime. The blocking, choreographed by Dawn-Claire Irvine, is frenetic, with bodies and props being hurled around the stage with sometimes dizzying energy. The set, managed by Tony King, is almost completely empty, save the minuscule bandstand area and temporary furnishings wheeled on to create a sense of space, which is accomplished well. The band is led with both humour and talent by Simon Goldring, whose musical direction fits well into the play’s dingy background. The most remarkably funny aspect of the stagecraft is the use of projected slides to flatly assert location. Before most scenes, white typeface bluntly explains context, and briefly puts up an Edinburgh equivalent of where these London-set scenes might take place, eliciting many a laugh for their timing and matter-of-factness. Had these been paired with a more self-serious, pretentious production, they would seem tacky; had they been employed by a less dynamic, more straightforwardly silly group, they’d be out of place for their dry humour. But to their credit, The Attic Collective’s decisions like this strike exactly the right tone (more often than not), between gormless and grandiose, threadbare and thrifty, funny and frank.

Max Reid is excellent as the appallingly villainous Mr. Peachum, particularly for the bombast he brings to his first scene, directly after the chorus’s “Mack the Knife” introduction. Reid successfully guides the audience from the familiar sounds of the standard to the viciously satirical tone of the rest of the production, which is no easy feat. As (occasionally) the cruelty and pitch-black comedy of Brecht’s script might come off as too much to find funny, it is particularly commendable that director Susan Worsfold has chosen to emphasise the comedy wherever possible. Toby Williams, as a hapless and clueless beggar, is hilarious with excellent timing, and Hannah Bradley as Mrs Peachum displays a genuinely impressive talent for balancing daft operatic turns of plot and phrase with an accomplished singing voice and terrific stage presence. And this is all the first scene.

Charlie West’s Mack the Knife takes time to get used to, but ultimately shines as the play pushes his character farther and farther from the archetypal ladykiller/people-killer role. His singing is good, and well-suited to the choppiness of Brecht’s plotting, as some intentionally off-kilter scenes and character dynamics look and sound more grating than polished. Given the tone of the production, these are presumably meant to be that way. West also displays nice comedic timing, but the truly gifted comedic dynamic was found more frequently among his criminal posse: Lewis Gribben, Elsa Strachan, John Spilsbury, Mark O’Neill and occasionally Conor McLeod. They all display real camaraderie and genuinely funny quips whenever present: another respite given the sometimes exhausting length of the proceedings.

Mack’s various women, played by Kirsty Punton, Megan Fraser and Sally Cairns, are characterised well, and each command the stage when given the opportunity. Special note goes to Cairns’ exquisitely gauche costume. In fact, the behind-the-scenes decisions are some of the most impressive aspects of the show: the use of the King’s Theatre’s actual boxes during a brothel-based interchange in particular is an inspired choice, delivering further hilarity.

The political and societal implications, are however, noticeably muddled, from the greediness and homoeroticism within head of police Tiger Brown (Andrew Cameron), to the jarring humour on display while Mack languishes in a prison cell waiting to be hanged by the distinctly humourless guard (Adam Butler). The spaces crafted by mime and sparse prop work, including a very funny use of a ladder as all-things-jail-call, but frequently have their implied rules broken, from doors switching to windows, walls vanishing entirely, locks fitting into keyholes where previously there was nothing, and entire crowds miraculously appearing and disappearing: the staging too often does not make any sense. Granted, these are aspects of Brecht’s dismantled view of theatricality in general, but when the plot twists and turns so freely it would have help to define spaces a little bit more.

Overall, The Threepenny Opera is a charming production full of talent and featuring some particularly inspired choices and aesthetics. There could be a little more there in the way of clarity, but hey, it’s Brecht. Most charmingly, it gives a whole lot of context for the flawless “Mack the Knife” standard itself, and for a superfan like myself that’s welcome. And if you weren’t a fan of the song beforehand, you will be once the curtains have closed.

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 15 September)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

War in America (Former Royal High School/King’s Theatre: 24-27 May ’17)

Connor McLeod as Mr Slype. Photo by Greg Macvean

“Some fine performances from the young cast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

War in America’s revival in the build-up to the current UK General Election is very apt – and almost feels as if it is written especially for this moment, though it is now over 20 years old. The narrative sees the rise of a female political leader (known only as “She”), who hides behind a variety of lies, disguises and games in order to get to the top. Meanwhile, in a pleasingly Orwellian set-up, our little man Mr Slype (a rather spineless MP) is bullied by rival parties to vote for a law he neither wants nor doesn’t want, and some rather underhand tactics see him inadvertently give his vote to She, handing her the reins of the country. What happens after gets a little confusing.

Given the setup and opening few scenes where the main characters and topics are introduced, the first fifteen minutes of this production really makes it feel like a cutting-edge, gripping political drama – not too dissimilar from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which I reviewed last year. Jo Clifford’s dialogue is cutting, intelligent and witty, Susan Worsfold’s direction is slick, and there’s palpable tension between rival factions to keep us on our toes. The production loses its way somewhat in the second half, however, and tries to cram in too much with too many characters and melodramatic revelations, that it becomes more of a slog to sit through.

That being said, there are some fine performances from the young cast, most notably Andrew Cameron as the cunningly-named and deftly acted Mr Fox, who is very charismatic and convincing and throughout. Scenes with him and his assistant Alfred (Mark O’Neill) were among the most compelling of the performance, and I could easily picture them on a bigger stage receiving great acclaim. Connor McLeod is also strong as Mr Slype, with great variation in swagger and guilt from scene to scene.

It is, however in the more dramatic scenes where the tension and integrity of the piece slips. She’s relationship with her estranged daughter fails to ring true throughout the piece – distinctly missing the deep emotional connection needed to be convincing, and its climactic resolution is very sloppy compared to the polish evident in other areas. Indeed, many aspects of the show like this come across as rather rushed, when a more considered approach would be more powerful. While in general it’s a gutsy effort from the young cast (and great for them to be getting involved with works on important subjects like this), I think in some cases it would have been beneficial to have some more experienced actors to give the brutal narrative the necessary punch it needs.

And the “too controversial” content, which led the show’s initial production being cancelled 20 years ago? For me that must have been a lot of fuss over very little, as the more overt elements were perfectly pitched within the overall mood of the piece, never seeming gratuitous or unnecessary. Indeed, the scenes with sexual content were handled and incorporated very well, and while spawning a few titters, were powerful insights and metaphors into the darker side of politics. If anything, I think these elements could be pushed further.

Overall this is a show with fantastic potential, and with some more development could be very special indeed.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 May)

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Lysistrata (Kings: 27 – 28 Jan.’17)

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata) Photo: Greg Macvean

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata)
Photo: Greg Macvean

“5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars: Outstanding

This is a tumultuous inaugural production by the Attic Collective. It has that shameless tumescent quality that really would ‘Make Greece Great Again’. Athens/Attica was still big in 411 BC but had been sorely bashed in Sicily and was hurting. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata must have been excruciating, urgent fun back then and it is remarkable that – in the right hands – it can still have the same effect.

As a play it’s less in-your-face than in-your-crotch. Just look at the tall curvy door, upstage centre, and reckon, pretty confidently, that it’s all about Pussy Power. Then there are the phalluses, not one of leather, but several of rubber and latex, and all impressive, but none more so than the Spartan emissary as gauche walking dick. Naturally enough there is supplication to Zeus for relief from priapism.

The men suffer because the women have crossed their legs. Lysistrata leads a women’s revolt that denies sex to husbands (and wives) until the Peloponnesian War ends. They occupy the Treasury – a smart kick in the balls –  and wait for their men to come to their senses, as it were. They are finally brought to it by the body beautiful of Kim Kardashian, aka. Aristophanes’ figure of Reconciliation. Of course, the women are frustrated too and invent desperate, hilarious, excuses to return home.

Conor McLeod (Men's Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

Conor McLeod (Men’s Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

This is when a 5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’. ‘Tits not Targets’ is the message. It’s summery: the men are in a uniform of white shirts, cropped chinos and canvas slip-ons. Not a spear or bronze helmet in sight. Just helmets from the Urban dictionary. Cinesias (Adam George Butler) has his shades. Their leader (Conor McLeod) is a dapper, convinced and convincing kind of chap. Meanwhile the women are a riot of colour with their white faces and ‘war paint’ and they soak the men with Water Blasters. It’s loud too, especially when Charlie West hits his box drum.

Arguably the on-stage debate is one-sided. Determined Lysistrata (Cait Irvine) and cocky Stratyllis (Megan Fraser) reduce the men to defensive huddles and oddly impotent hakas. Deciding  to dump the split Choruses of the old men and women of Athens does tilt the balance in favour of the youthful and the libidinous (no real loss!) and the sense of the words can go AWOL in dionysiac chant and jabber but there’s no doubting the drive and sense of the piece as a whole. Director Susan Worsfold and Musical Director Garry Cameron succeed in sustaining dramatic form, resolved in celebration, from a plot that is about as carnal and abandoned as it gets.

By the by, a Belgian lady senator called for a sex strike in 2011. It was meant as a provocative joke but it excited the Christian Democratic opposition to remark that “Politicians are not there to strike. On the contrary, politicians are there to arouse the country.” Hear! Hear! (Aristophanes).

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 27  January)

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Legally Blonde: The Musical (King’s: 16 – 19 March, ’16)

“Catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

For those who know the film, the premise of the musical is almost exactly identical – blonde bombshell and fashionista Elle Woods from Malibu, California is determined to bag her man, so she buries her head in books and chases him to Harvard law school in the hope of impressing him. The accompanying score is very poppy and upbeat, and while not to my personal taste, even the sternest of faces can’t help but bop along with some of the numbers.

On the whole, local troupe the Bohemians Lyrics Opera Company handle this big production very well – with some impressive dance routines and real powerhouse vocals throughout. The mind boggles at some of the quick changes performed, especially those done on stage, so credit where credit’s due for the risk and professionalism to carry those off. At times, particularly in Whipped into Shape, the performance felt a little flat and a stretch too far for this amateur group – perhaps a bit of shakiness on opening night or not quite having the musical tempos nailed – but otherwise it’s very well rehearsed and full of personality.

Lydia Carrington gives it her all as leading legal lady Elle Woods, and shines with fantastic energy and likeability. Her spirit never falters throughout – impressive considering she is barely ever off stage – and she shows great range and versatility to reflect the changing mood in each scene. However, it’s Lyndsey McGhee as Paulette who raises the biggest cheer of the night with the very moving Ireland (watch out for that towards the end of Act 1). Her voice is deep, rich and she delivers a knockout performance. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of her throughout the show.

While the leads very much hold their own throughout the performance, for me it is some of the cameo roles that make this production really enjoyable: Ross Stewart is eminently watchable as UPS guy Kyle, while Sam Eastop and Andrew Knox make a great comic pairing in Gay or European. And of course, there are dogs. Scene-stealing dogs. You have been warned…

Yes it’s cheesy, yes it’s American, and yes at times it’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s also a show full of catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty (my favourite line being “I see dead people” in relation to the rather bizarre inclusion of a Greek chorus). If you like the sound of all that then you’ll love this production.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Perfect Murder (King’s Theatre: 1 – 5 March ’16)

Jessie Wallace and Shane Ritchie. Image credit: Honeybunn photography

Jessie Wallace and Shane Ritchie.
Image credit: Honeybunn photography

“Dark humour and plenty of jumpy moments ensure sheer entertainment”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

An (almost) Perfect Murder is taking place at the King’s this week, which, on the whole, I think is worth witnessing. Despite the slightly shaky plot and occasional drop in pace and energy, this stage adaptation of Peter James’ original novella is filled with enough dark humour and jumpy moments throughout to ensure a thoroughly entertaining production.

The plot centres around the rocky married life of Joan and Victor Smiley, played by Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie of Eastenders fame, as they each plot to kill the other in order to run away with their respective new lovers and start a new life on a beach in Spain drinking mojitos all day. Idyllic? These characters seem to think so, and what ensues is a darkly funny and occasionally completely ridiculous two hours, as they attempt to carry out their cunning plan.

The majority of the audience are clearly there to see ‘Kat and Alfie’ in action, yet as the play progresses and we witness the duo in their first scene alone on stage together, the shadow of the soap opera couple diminishes and Wallace and Richie prove they are not one trick ponies, with convincing performances of new characters. The chemistry that works so well between the two on screen is immediately evident on stage, and despite the potentially dull moments of petty marital bickering throughout the first act, the two carry this off with such exuberance and fine-tuned comic timing that it is more than bearable to watch. Wallace in particular, through her portrayal of Joan, is successful in being totally neurotic and batty, yet kooky and loveable at the same time, and for me her solo moments on stage were one of the play’s highlights.

While not quite matching up to the prowess of Wallace and Richie, the rest of the cast are largely commendable in their efforts to bring heart to moments in the plot that don’t quite work. Stephen Fletcher as Joan’s ‘new man’ and subsequent partner in crime, Don, was delightful in a simple, buffoonish performance that worked well alongside Wallace’s Joan. Equally, Simone Armstrong as the psychic Croat prostitute provides necessary comedy and warmth. Benjamin Wilkin’s DC Grace falls slightly off the mark, and there is an immediate drop in the pace of the action in his scenes with Armstrong. While Grace doesn’t seem to do any policing and comes across as quite an unnecessary character altogether, there is definitely potential for a deeper exploration of character to create more interest that Wilkin does not fully exploit.

Michael Holt’s set works well alongside the action, using large homey rooms built on top of one another in a house-like structure to provide the different locations in the plot. High-pitched screams and ghostly flashing lights, reminiscent of an old-school horror movie, do add a certain haunted air that ensures many a jolt of shock among the audience. Director Ian Talbot has led this cast to create an audience-pleasing production whose strong performances allow us to forget about the nitty gritty details of the slightly silly plot and instead enjoy an evening of dark comedy and ultimately, sheer entertainment.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Rachel Cram (Seen 2nd March)

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (King’s Theatre: 28 Nov. ’15 – 17 Jan. ’16)

Frances Mayli McCann as Snow White with Ensemble. Photos by Douglas Robertson

Frances Mayli McCann as Snow White with Ensemble.
Photos by Douglas Robertson

“Packed with laughs for audiences of all ages”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

I’ll admit, ever since the age of about 9, panto has never been very near the top of the list of my favourite art forms. And it’s true that I do tend to like my theatre a bit more high-brow. In saying that, this panto all but shattered my age-old preconceptions by being very, very funny, and at the same time embodying surprisingly high production values.

Where to start, but with Edinburgh’s pantomime royalty – Grant Stott, Allan Stewart and Andy Gray. Their on-stage chemistry is just as visible as they say it is, with lots of friendly jibes and presence that oozed confidence and star quality. The banter between them was great, and their improvisation and cover-up skills were spot-on. Stewart in particular impressed as Nurse May, with a dazzling array of seamless costume changes and a likeability that almost made the stage feel instantly more alive whenever he was on it.

Andy Gray, Allan Stewart and Grant Stott.

Andy Gray, Grant Stott and Allan Stewart.

Both Greg Barrowman as Prince Hamish and Frances Mayli McCann as Snow White also impressed with powerful singing voices, and their personalities perfectly balanced out those of their more esteemed cast members. But for me it was the dwarfs who stole the show, in particular the scene where they were riding an array of animals, and I was disappointed these characters were not used more often. The troupe showed fantastic energy and comic timing, and brought the ridiculous hilarity already on display to new heights every time they made an entrance (or exit!).

The script wasn’t so much littered as smothered with witty one-liners, topical references, football jokes, and a healthy sprinkling of good old-fashioned farce. Indeed, this show certainly has a bit of everything for the little’uns and their respective elders: there’s flying, dinosaurs, pyrotechnics, colourful costumes and a touch of audience interaction. I defy anyone not to giggle at at least one element of this offering.

The musical numbers were all delivered with aplomb, with dance sequences many grades above the step-ball-change choreography I was expecting. Song selection (mainly covers of popular songs) often seemed shoehorned in for the spectacle, but then again, one doesn’t go to panto for that. Still, the music was upbeat, in tune and full of fun.

I can forgive that the structure was a bit all over the place, that some of the scenes between the fab three bordered very closely on self-indulgent, and the almost never-ending rendition of a well-known Christmas song towards the end. It’s a show packed with laughs for audiences of all ages, and brings a lot of sparkle to brighten even the hardest of hearts. Oh yes it does!

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 December)

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Brave New World (King’s: 29 September – 3 October ’15)

Photos: Touring Theatre Consortium Company

Photos: Touring Theatre Consortium Company

“Trim, bold and emphatic”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

This is a didactic staging of a hugely instructive book, so here are two questions from the lecture theatre: how near do you like your future and do you shop in ‘lower caste stores’? For me the answers are (i) pretty close and (ii) it depends.

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, which seems a long time ago, but he was seriously long-sighted and along with keen definition came the vision thing. OK, his Doors of Perception (1954) is a mescaline trip but he really did see what might be and his World State is bad and appalling, unless that is ‘You’re worth it’, in which case you might love to bits its mind-numbing, slogan-ridden lifestyle.

As for the second question, I bought some excellent coffee at ALDI last week and am very pleased with my jacket from Tu Clothing at Sainsburys, which by Huxley’s reckoning makes me a quantifiable Delta. Naturally part of the ‘fun’ of reading Brave New World is knowing that at least you’re not an Epsilon-Minus lift operator.

Huxley’s story, this play, is about misfits in the sorted, post-apocalyptic society. Bernard is a maladjusted Alpha-Plus psychologist who sees his way to a snappy suit by introducing John, an impure bred, unconditioned primitive, to his lords and masters. Or rather to Margaret, Margaret Mond, Regional World Controller. Lenina, a Beta-Plus lab technician with dodgy longings for a monogamous relationship, joins Bernard on the visit to the Savage Reservation to look at those unfortunates, who still suffer childbirth, disease and aging and who still experience family, love and heartbreak. There they find John and bring him and his mother home to London. It all gets messy when John claims his right to be unhappy.

Mond (Sophie Ward) and John (William Postlethwaite)

Mond (Sophie Ward) and John (William Postlethwaite)

Dawn King’s adaptation of Huxley’s text is trim, bold and emphatic. Its Display settings are, if you like, maxed out: Bernard is so inadequate that voice recognition software won’t recognise him; Lenina is sweetly confused; Mond has an answer for everything and John would take an axe to the whole ignoble shebang. He won’t take soma though – a legal high gone stratospheric – or sex gum, which is a relief.

There is a whole new order to configure here so it is unsurprising that video, lighting and sound provide illustration and support for the ten strong cast. There are multiple screens, helicopter rides and ‘feelie’ films and an immodest electronic score by ‘These New Puritans’ that all make the use of a centre stage curtain look decidedly old-fashioned, if not clumsy.

There is no hiding, either, of the pared down script and my unfortunate impression was of good actors managing one educative but end-stopped line after another. Flow was there none. On the other hand, and to be fair, I read Brave New World so many times when I was at school that I’m a fastidious, prose bound geek and anyway Huxley’s narrative is ‘set’ on information overload. Nevertheless, I did like William Postlethwaite’s tousle-haired John, with his subversive use of Shakespeare. Even the uber-cool Mond (a poised Sophie Ward) would have him, which is way beyond Huxley; but Scott Karim as the rebel writer Helmholtz really isn’t given enough to say.

So, fittingly enough, this is Brave New World encapsulated as feature drama. It is a little plastic, a little lurid, but still potent.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 29 September)

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