+3 Review: Life According to Saki (C: 3-29 Aug: 14.15: 1hr 10mins)

“As good as Fringe theatre gets… a triumph”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

It’s always telling when I leave a performance I’ve been reviewing with an almost empty page of notes. It doesn’t happen often, but in this case I was so engrossed that I simply forgot to write much down.

Set in the trenches in WW1, Saki writes to his dear Ethel at home, recounting stories to kill time. His fellow soldiers become the characters in each story and the piece flows seamlessly from one to the next like waves crashing against the shore.

Written by children’s author Katherine Rundell, the script maintains a playful and slightly mischievous feel throughout, expertly capturing the style and tone that Saki’s short stories are known and loved for. For those unfamiliar with his work, think Roald Dahl, but a bit more grown up. Among others there are tales of a man who becomes a living work of art, a couple who can’t get married due to already having 13 children between them, a politician forced to share a room with a pig and a chicken, and a small boy who believes his ferret has god-like qualities. It’s all good clean fun, but with a moral lesson behind each one. Oh and they are funny. Very funny.

The cast keep the piece moving at a fair pace, whipping out props and costumes seemingly from nowhere ready to set the scene the moment it is introduced. Their dexterity is something to be marvelled at, and Jessica Lazar’s direction makes the most of every look, tableau and minor character for maximum impact. It’s a show that pays great attention to detail, which I very much admire.

While the ensemble cast is fantastic, playing a multitude of characters of differing genders, ages and nationalities to comic perfection, it’s David Paisley (playing Saki himself) who stands out at as the star performer. Gentle, engaging and with great emotional sensitivity it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with him.

Yes, the props and set are quite basic and the narrative is little more than Saki recounting stories while killing time in the trenches, but the soul and spirit of this piece are really what makes it. And when I really think about it (which in this case I did, long and hard), in my humble opinion this is about as good as Fringe theatre gets. Simply, a triumph.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 7 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

1984 (Festival: 31 March – 2 April ’16)

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

“A spine-tingling masterpiece”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

To this day, Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on a stage, so I was excited and intrigued to see what the company would do with another classic novel, albeit a completely different genre and tone. What they’ve created is another spine-tingling masterpiece.

Jonathan Watkins’ choreography is created with all the intricacy and intelligence necessary to portray the complex ideas and changing moods within Orwell’s book. The workers’ unison sections are very crisp and powerful, with many recurring motifs of straight lines and triangles, both in individual movements and formation, which cleverly reflect the “all seeing eye”. Canon variations are used throughout for interest, which work very well to create production line style sequences, again very relevant to the era. In contrast, the Proles’ movements are easily identified through curves, contact improvisation and individuality of style. The lovers’ duet captures all the breath-taking beauty one might expect from a traditional ballet, while the fight scene towards the end is both graceful and gutting, as we see Winston fall and give in to the higher power.

Alex Baronowski’s score is full of accented beats and staccato rhythms which perfectly translate to the repeated motifs of the workers under the control of Big Brother, while the more romantic elements are brought out with strings and flowing, rousing melodies. Much like experimental music of the time, the orchestra uses an assortment of non-traditional instruments to create clashing tinny sounds and altogether this results in an authentic, haunting and sympathetic accompaniment to the action on stage.

Northern Ballet dancers in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

Northern Ballet dancers in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

While the relationship between music and movement are clearly intertwined, the design of this production seems equally balanced with the other elements. Chris Davey’s lighting is stark and structural, creating yet more triangles and straight lines for the dancers to follow and stay within, and Simon Daw’s set of moving walls and simple blank spaces adds to the feeling of isolation and hopelessness. Use of colour is also very powerful, from the traditional blue of the workers uniforms, to the bright yellow of hate to the oranges and browns of the Proles, this is clearly a production that pays high regard to many details, making it a joy to watch.

As can be expected in such an interpretation, not every nuance of the book is covered on stage, and sacrifices have to be made to adapt the work for this new form. It’s a shame that some sections aren’t made more of – the final quarter in particular seems a little rushed – but overall the piece strikes a fine balance between narrative progression and beauty of form. For those unfamiliar with the story this production may be somewhat difficult to follow, but even then, the artistry on display is of such high quality that it almost doesn’t matter.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 April)

Go to Northern Ballet’s  1984

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Tipping the Velvet (The Lyceum, 28 Oct – 14 Nov ’15)

“An imaginative attempt at what could have been quite a bland adaptation”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

From the quills of established writer Sarah Waters and high-flying playwright Laura Wade, my expectations were certainly high on entering the auditorium for this new interpretation of the award winning novel. And with a very amusing opening skit and a dazzling number from Laura Rogers as Kitty, it certainly got off to a fine start.

However, while the amount of creativity on show – from daring aerial sequences, to lush period costumes and a Victorian Music Hall arrangement of a song famously featured on a Diet Coke advert – was impressive, unfortunately, this production’s lack of cohesion and staccato structure made it nigh-on infuriating for me to sit through.

In saying that, the show wasn’t without its laugh out loud moments – a landlady dressed in exactly the same design of fabric as the wallpaper in her house and lines such as “You exquisite little tart” certainly caused a few chuckles. However, the comedic aspects were pushed to their limits with a section involving animal carcasses being used as puppets in a song, and a certain “adult” section depicting Nancy’s experience as a prostitute. Definitely not recommended for the easily offended.

Sally Messiah is certainly charismatic as Nancy, Amanda Hadingue is very likeable as Annie (among other characters she plays), and Ru Hamilton delivers a delightful turn as gender-bending Alice. However, for me the most credit in this production should go to the stage hands, whose alarmingly efficient scene changes left me in a state of amazement on numerous occasions.

Much of Lizzie Clapham’s design was visually impressive, but use of space could definitely have been improved: at times the central characters would appear very lost towards the back of a somewhat empty stage, hindering the sense of intimacy they were trying to create. In a production with so many scenes, locations and jarring cuts between them all, a much more fluid approach to location and action would have been more engaging.

There were various musical numbers interspersed throughout the piece, almost all of which were interpretations of modern songs. In some instances, these worked well as a way to bring relevance to today’s audience, but in the second act when Nancy is desperate for a place to live, she belts out a line from one power ballad after another, with farcical impact. Rather than being able to relate to her struggle, she is instead alienated, and it becomes difficult to then reconnect with her in the following scene. This is part of what frustrated me the most about this production: at times we were allowed in to develop a bond with the characters, while in certain sections it was impossible to do so.

The constant bouncing between styles, coupled with the distinct over use of the compere/narrator/MC character, who incessantly dove on stage with needless interruptions between every scene, made this production feel like it was having some sort of pubescent identity crisis between Brechtian fable, cabaret variety show, and an episode of Jeremy Kyle. I could have handled any of those interpretations individually but all in one show was just too much.

In some ways I’m glad this production took some risks to create an imaginative attempt at what could have been quite a bland adaptation. It’s just a shame that so many different styles, techniques and devices were used in the process.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 October)

Visit the The Lyceum archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

In His Own Write (The Voodoo Rooms, 8 – 30 Aug : 17.10 : 1hr)

“A thoroughly enjoyable performance, accessible to adults of all ages”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

In His Own Write is a delightfully bonkers collection of short stories, written by none other than John Lennon. Last staged at at the National Theatre in 1968, it seems incredulous that it hasn’t been seen since. However, perhaps this version has been given the ok due to its very simple and honest approach to just telling the stories, without any of the pomp, prestige or impersonation that could be associated with adapting such a work.

The show opens with (and indeed each story is preceded by) a short pencil-sketch animation in the style of the illustrations in the original book. Immediately the tone is set as being playful and non-fussy – embodying the spirit of the book perfectly. The trio of performers set straight to it, capturing the innocence of each story with energy and clarity, but at no point going over the top into pantomime.

What makes this collection so enjoyable is the wordplay used by Lennon on selective phrases, often changing just one or two letters to make a new word with a completely different meaning. My favourite came quite early on, in Flies on Trash, where a character is described as “a former beauty queer”, and is portrayed by the actor accordingly. Another character later on is described as “dead and duff”, and another “wandered lonely as a sock”. The deadpan delivery of every line was the perfect accompaniment to the absurdity of the writing in letting it speak for itself.

Of course, for a piece written in 1964, there are bound to be some words and phrases used that today we find a little unsavoury, and use of them could probably get one sacked from the BBC. But given the honest style of the show’s delivery – presenting the work just as it was written without any comment or spin – such phrases ring home very naturally, and don’t seem out of place in the context. If anything, they give an added layer of hilarity.

As a performance it is very slick and professionally put together, and there’s also great variety used in the techniques to share each story. A couple are sung a capella, one or two are delivered solo, some contain a few outlandish props, but all delivered clearly, with great vitality and passion for the craft. It’s well rehearsed and the transitions are smooth, maintaining the level of interest and engagement throughout.

I think for what the company were trying to achieve in the faithful presentation of the book, they succeeded with aplomb. Whether this piece is everyone’s cup of tea, or could have had more dramatic structure or development is another question. Either way, it is a thoroughly enjoyable performance, accessible to adults of all ages.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Feature: John Lennon’s ‘In His Own Write’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

In His Own Write-89

John Lennon’s short stories adapted for the stage for the first time since 1968

When actor Jonathan Glew was a humble and hungry student at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, he stumbled across a bizarre book of short stories in a second hand bookshop. That book was the start of a wild love affair that would see him perform the work in its entirety at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 18 years later.

The collection of stories in question is the little known In His Own Write, by none other than John Lennon. And the show of the same name made its world premiere at the Fringe this summer, presented by Baldynoggin Productions, directed by Jonathan Glew.

While 2015 marks no special anniversary of the work, Glew decided to make it this year for purely personal reasons. He says: “I found the book when I was 20 and knew it would be great for a stage adaptation, but I was in no position then to do anything about it. It was only towards the end of last year that I decided it was make or break: I either did the show or I threw the book away”.

The journey begins

It all started with a letter to the lawyers representing John Lennon’s estate – a worthy work of literature in its own right by the time Glew had finished tinkering it. He admits that it took him three weeks to craft, as he was keen to convey how he didn’t want to impersonate, make any statements, or use Lennon’s name for his personal gain, but simply to present the work faithfully and in full. Easier said than done. “I knew that they must receive countless requests everyday, so it was really important for me to let them know I was in it for the right reasons and to do the book justice”.

After a couple of weeks he got his first response from Attorney Jonas Herbsman, and the dialogue began. Glew continues: “I reiterated my position, and how my approach to present the work as part of the Free Fringe was testament to my not wanting to make a profit from it. I answered their questions, and tried to focus on the artistic aspect – how I just wanted to represent the work in full to see if it would resonate with an audience”.

After that, more waiting, until just after Christmas he got the news he had been hoping for: “I was completely elated – but then when I looked at the book again and it was like I had never read it, as I was looking at it in a completely new light. There are references to old news headlines and outdated language, and I started to worry about how I could make the book ‘live’ for a 21st century audience”.

In His Own Write-80

Creative Development

Glew got straight to work, enlisting actor friends to assist him with reading and staging the piece. He even tried to get in touch with various people that had influenced or shaped the book: its original illustrator, Robert Freeman, and publisher Tom Maschler from Jonathan Cape. And despite what could be seen as huge pressure to present the work by someone so famous, last seen at the National Theatre in 1968, Glew took it all in his stride: “I got my team together and we worked through it slowly, making sure to be as faithful to the book as possible. The amount of serendipity within the creative process was just beautiful”.

Glew admits that yes, he did watch a first edition recording of the original National Theatre production, but in no way did he try to copy it: “Theirs was hugely different to what I wanted to do with it. They presented two pieces (In His Own Write and its sequel A Spaniard in the Works) as a bit of a mash up, and used the performance to make a broader comment about childhood and growing up at the time. But I didn’t want to say anything, rather let the work speak for itself”.

Making the dream a reality

However, aside from developing a theatrical adaptation that Yoko Ono would be proud of (an idea that terrified Glew 18 years earlier), his biggest challenges lay in the production side – just how do you get a show to the Fringe?

He started by launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the basics like travel and accommodation for the company. He revealed, though, that crowdfunding was “one of the most stressful things in my life” as he felt like he asked everyone he had ever known to contribute. He was perhaps helped in his mission by a tweet about his project from Yoko Ono herself to her 4.7 million followers – certainly not something that happens every day! Thankfully, he raised enough money to develop the show and bring it to Edinburgh without any more worries. Or so he thought.

If all the world’s a stage…

Finding a venue proved to be the biggest challenge of them all. After an application to one of the free venue groups with what he thought would be a sure-fire hit, and a tantalising six week wait for a response, Glew was told in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t be guaranteed a slot, and he started to panic. With time ticking away, he then used his personal network of contacts to come up with a Plan B and get in touch directly with Peter Buckley Hill, who manages the PBH Free Fringe. After pitching his show and his predicament, Buckley Hill responded in less than 20 minutes with an offer of one of the largest performance spaces on the free circuit. He even signed off his email as “Arnold” as a tip of the hat to John Lennon and his work. “I owe PBH a lot, they really saved me”, says Glew.

In His Own Write-105

Now Glew and his production are here, performing to very healthy crowds, and garnering a fair amount of press attention, is it mission accomplished? “It’s been a fantastic experience and I’d love to take this even further. As soon as we finish the run in Edinburgh, I’ll be putting a report together for the John Lennon estate, including some ideas of where I’d like to see the piece go next. I can’t make any detailed plans though, as they may say the project has come to the end of the road, but fingers crossed.” Luckily Glew already has his next acting project lined up though, at the National Theatre no less, but he’ll be back at the Fringe before long, in one guise or another.

 

In His Own Write is showing at The Voodoo Rooms daily (17.10, 1hr) until 30th August.

Pajama Men: 2 Man 3 Musketeers (Assembly Roxy, 7-30 Aug : 20.20 : 1hr)

“Ridiculous, but genius”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The Three Musketeers is one of my all-time favourite books, and as an epic tale of friendship and valour, I was intrigued as to how it would work as a two-man comedy in under an hour. As it turns out, it is hilarious.

I lost track of the number of characters they played between them after just a few minutes – men and women of all shapes and sizes, an array of animals, and people that could well have been animals.

It sounds ridiculous, and in many senses it was, but it is also genius. They kept the plot fairly accurate (give or take a few creative embellishments) and it was – remarkably – quite easy to follow. But that is coming from someone who already knows the story – for those who don’t, I can imagine it looked like two idiots in pajamas running around with multiple personality disorder.

My absolute favourite of the characters portrayed was the slithering swamplike Cardinal and his range of repulsive yet hilarious noises. This was also the most clearly defined character in the performance, with strong physicality, accent and language. Other highlights for me were how the personalities of Athos, Porthos and Aramis (the real musketeers) were distilled into very simple caricatures, and how Allen and Chavez could jump between them seamlessly.

What really kept the show alive was the fact that throughout, the two actors always seemed to be keeping each other on their toes, with various, seemingly improvised, Family Guy-esque capers into similes and side stories. There were just enough of these to keep variety and energy, without them detracting too much away from the plot and purpose of the piece.

The pair were more than ably supported by musician Ignacio Agrimbau, who also seemed to semi-improvise sounds and music to support the action, given the selection of instruments he had in front of him. This was always done very effectively, and moments where actors and musician interacted were also very amusing.

What could be seen as a good or bad thing, or indeed just a thing, was that Allen and Chavez never once seemed like they were actually “acting”, more just capering around as if having fun in their own spare time. They were very knowledgeable and confident in what they were doing, very in tune with one another, and the piece flowed with the ease of a stream of consciousness or children in their own fantasy world. The apparent effortlessness gave it an incredibly professional feel and it was easy to engage with from the get go.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 8 August)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A New Musical Drama (Assembly Rooms, 6 Aug – 9 Aug : 21:30 : 2hr 45)

“The cast were undeniably talented”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I’m always a bit wary of American troupes performing very British shows in Britain, as I’ve so rarely seen them pulled off well. Unfortunately this production did little to change my mind, although there were some very promising moments.

This presentation billed itself as a new musical drama adaption of one of Austen’s finest works. And while I was expecting (and honestly would have preferred) slightly more Broadway than the Gilbert and Sullivan that was presented, the main fault with this show was something of an identity crisis – trying to force twee Jane Austen into a rather melodramatic and operatic saga just didn’t quite fit.

However – the positives: this is a big budget (by Fringe standards) show with fabulous costumes and incredibly detailed projection on the backdrop to show changes in location, time and weather. The cast were undeniably talented, with some incredibly strong voices on show in both solo and group numbers, and the band were faultless.

The narrative stayed very faithful to the original book, was easy enough to follow without ever feeling clunky, and that should be a feather in the cap to adapter Barbara Landis. The script contained enough detail to properly establish each scene and character in full, even if, at just under three hours (including interval), it’s a bit of a slog.

When it came to the acting though, there was a distinct contrast in styles between some of performers, which didn’t help the sense of jarring between what I think the company were trying to achieve and what we saw. While Jeff Diebold as Captain Wentworth showed great sensitivity to the emotion and style of Jane Austen, Barbara Landis as heroine Anne Elliot and John Boss as her father were perhaps the most guilty of over-theatricalising every line. This would have been great in a full-scale opera or vaudeville, but didn’t work with what should have been a more gentle approach to a British masterpiece.

Putting that to one side, the chorus numbers (in particular Who Could Love Like an Irish Man and A Sailor’s Life) were spectacular – they were performed with vim, energy and an incredible blend of voices. Moments like these brought a sense of contrast to a show that was in many other respects distinctly lacking in light and shade due to severe overacting in the more gentle scenes, which made them all feel somewhat samey in mood.

Overall, this show has a lot of the basics to be fantastic, and while the period music and libretto were not to my personal taste, the bones of this original adaptation were sound and would probably please anyone with a preference to more traditional theatre. Although there were some wonderful moments of character and hilarity, I don’t feel the piece really hung together as an operetta, and stricter, more sensitive direction and more variation in melody and musical style of each number could have helped bring out the layers of Austen’s writing.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 6 August)

Visit the Assembly Rooms archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED