Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Two Gentlemen of Verona - Liverpool Everyman - 11/10/2016

Since it came to life in the Everyman’s rehearsal rooms back in April, this co-production with Shakespeare’s Globe has been on a marathon tour, visiting venues across the UK and Europe before finally coming home for a 4 week run in Liverpool.

During the first day of read-throughs in April, director Nick Bagnall outlined his motives in setting this late 16th century comedy in 1966. It’s a story of young people breaking free from the tedium of their drab homelife and setting off to find excitement, adventure and love, and for Nick this immediately resonated with the youth culture and music of the 1960s. His Verona is all beige cardigans and Jim Reeves, while Milan is a very different world of long hair and flower power.

Valentine heads off to Milan while his friend Proteus remains in Verona to be with his beloved Julia, but then Proteus’s father sends him off to Milan after all. There Valentine has fallen for Sylvia, daughter of the Duke, but she is already promised by her father to Thurio. When Proteus sees a picture of Sylvia he immediately forgets his love for Julia and we’re on target for a four way tug of love, with all the deceptions and intrigues that Shakespeare goes on to use again in many of his later plays.

The period setting provides opportunities for a lot of music and, as the various love notes and messages are passed about on 7 inch vinyl, the characters break into song to deliver them. The entire cast play multiple instruments, with Guy Hughes as Valentine showing a prowess on the guitar that enables him to join the outlaws’ band in the forest.

There is much doubling of roles, with Amber James who plays Lucetta and Panthino also drawing on a moustache to bring us the self-important Thurio. Launce, servant to Proteus, is a great comic turn from Charlotte Mills, who engages wonderfully with the audience, while T J Holmes’s Speed justifies his name with a little bag of mysterious pills. When you’re touring so widely it’s not practical to have a dog in the cast, so Launce uses an ingenious device, guaranteed to raise a laugh, to bring us his dog, Crab.

The distinctively ’60s set acts like a climbing frame that the cast use every inch of, clambering up and down ladders, and Garry Cooper’s Duke revels in viewing proceedings from on high in a hugely physical performance full of exaggerated gestures.

Nick Bagnall loves the play but has never believed the problematic final scene. His solution gives us a happily ever after that isn’t shared by everyone and it really does work. His use of a song made famous by Janis Joplin brings an inspired twist and a weighty message to the ending. It’s a hugely funny production full of great performances, and by all accounts the ensemble has tightened up tremendously during the tour to give us the pacey show delivered here.

Recalling James Brown’s 1966 lyric, the play is set very much in a man’s world. It’s not intentional scheduling but it’s interesting to note nonetheless that there are many striking parallels with the patriarchal society of Sheridan’s Rivals that I reviewed last week at the Playhouse.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona plays at the Everyman until Saturday 29th October.

Cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on tour - image (C) Gary Calton
This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Rivals - Liverpool Playhouse - 06/10/2016

Director Dominic Hill gave us a good view of the backstage workings of the Playhouse in his 2013 Crime and Punishment, and he begins this new staging of Sheridan’s 18th century comedy with a similarly bare stage, soon to be filled with the various elements of Tom Rogers' evocative set.

Everything about this production, including the chairs, is like a series of picture frames; an art gallery being constantly hung and re-hung with vividly lit tableaux. The performers in lavish costumes are directed in a way that turns every scene into a stunning visual image. Amidst the period garb and enormous wigs, Hill throws in some witty anachronisms with the props to remind us that the misogyny of the story is not as dated as it might at first appear.

But the show is not solely a treat for the eyes. As Mrs Malaprop might say, the text and its delivery are the very pineapple of perfection. The entire cast have enormous fun with their lines, tripping out the sharp wit of this comedy of manners at a rattling pace.

Desmond Barritt as Sir Anthony Absolute tries to persuade his son Jack (Rhys Rusbatch) that he must marry a wealthy young lady chosen for him in order to lay hands on her fortune, whether he cares for her or not. “If you have an estate you must take it with the livestock as it stands” he is told. What neither know is that the chosen woman is the girl Jack is secretly wooing, Lydia Languish, disguising himself as a poor serviceman, Ensign Beverley. When this becomes clear he goes on to regain his father’s favour by pretending that he will consent to marry purely to appease him.

The plot is filled with all the deceptions and intrigues of the genre, and the writing is generous with opportunities for all Sheridan’s characters to revel in its telling.

The entire ensemble produce splendid performances, but highlights must be Julie Legrand’s wilting Mrs Malaprop, with all her vocal confusions, and Desmond Barritt’s pompous Sir Anthony. The real show-stealer is Lucy Briggs-Owen, whose Lydia Languish lilts and swoons about the stage, arms flapping and hands fluttering, like something out of Ab-Fab or Made in Chelsea, with the vocal characterisation to match.

Atmosphere is completed with splendidly done lighting from Howard Hudson and subtle music played on a harpsichord placed to the rear of the stage.

Despite its vintage text and period setting, The Rivals feels bang up to date in Hill’s light handed, fleet of foot presentation, which is full of laughter but still packs a punchy message.

The Rivals runs at the Playhouse until Saturday 29th October.

Lucy Briggs-Owen in The Rivals - Photo (C) Mark Douet
This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Mark Thomas - The Red Shed - Liverpool Everyman - 16/09/2016

The Red Shed is exactly what it says it is, and is the home of the Wakefield Labour Club, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Mark Thomas gave his first ever public performance there as an 18 year old student and it continues to have an important place in his life, so he decided to make a show that paid tribute to it.

It’s a story about the miners’ strike, he tells us, but promises that there will be no brass bands and that no young boys will discover a passion for ballet.

He brings on stage six members of the audience (pre-selected in the theatre foyer, so don’t worry about being pounced on in the auditorium). With chairs borrowed from real The Red Shed and a selection of face masks, these volunteers help Mark in the telling of his story, by miming the parts of various characters from his past.

Mark has a very vivid memory of the miners’ march back to work in 1985, and seeing all the children through the railings of a school playground, singing to their fathers, uncles and brothers as they march past on the way back to the pit. He had been invited to join the march, but cannot remember the name of the particular village or pit, or of the woman who invited him.

The problem is that, over the intervening 30 years Mark has re-told this story so many times that he can no longer tell how much of it is the truth and how much might be his own memory romanticising the details. He resolves to make the journey to find the woman, the village, the school and the children, and to find the truth behind his memories.

So it is that, through a series of anecdotes, some true and some clearly imagined, we follow his quest up hill and down dale through the former mining villages. The sites of the pits are frequently marked by no more of a memorial than a new branch of McDonald’s, and schools have been demolished or turned into something else. Nothing quite strikes a chord, until...

To tell what conclusions he reaches would be to extinguish the magic of Mark’s storytelling, and he should be borrowing another recent show’s hashtag, #KeepTheSecrets. In getting to his tale’s destination, he finds a convoluted route that takes in a number of other quests, including the campaign to unionise fast food outlets, discovering a little known fact that finally makes eating a Gregg’s Sausage Roll a guiltless pleasure.

Those who recall Thomas’s previous work will be familiar with his unique brand of storytelling, in which he blends fact and fiction to achieve powerful delivery of a message. There is a deliberate ramping up of the emotional tension in the room, with audience encouraged to participate in building the atmosphere. In 95 unbroken minutes, The Red Shed brings us stand-up comedy mixed with something more theatrical and plays to our sense of truth, whether it’s a truth that we know exists or a different truth that we’d like to make happen.

Following its 2 performances here at the Everyman, The Red Shed continues its extensive tour via Bristol, Nottingham, London, Glasgow and beyond. See Mark Thomas’s website for ongoing tour dates.

Mark Thomas in The Red Shed - Photo (C) Sally Jubb
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Friday, 26 August 2016

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the BBC Proms - 25/08/2016

THE Liverpool Phil are on something of an emotional and artistic high this year as they celebrate their 175th anniversary and 10 years with Chief Conductor Vasily Petrenko holding the baton.

Early in July, a concert to mark Petrenko’s 40th birthday featured Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony and the Cello Concerto No.1 by Shostakovich, composers that have become prominent in the orchestra’s repertoire both in concert and on record. On that occasion the cellist was Truls Mork, who was scheduled to repeat the work with the Phil at last night’s Prom, alongside the Rachmaninov Symphony.

When Mork had to withdraw due to illness on the morning of the concert there was some nail-biting in the Phil camp until the 25-year-old St Petersburger Aleksey Stadler came to the rescue, flying in just in time to get in one rehearsal with the orchestra before delivering a performance of huge stature. The Shostakovich concerto is a large and technically demanding piece, with the prescribed fireworks for sure, but with a deeply passionate core surrounding its central, extended cadenza movement. Nobody could have guessed that there had been so little time to prepare, as cellist and orchestra were so emotionally in tune with each other and the performance received a rapturous response from the capacity audience in the Royal Albert Hall.

Another work with passion at its core began the concert, as the Phil presented the world premiere of Torus by Liverpool born composer Emily Howard. Howard’s background in mathematics features strongly in her work, and Torus is built around the eponymous geometric shape, like a ring donut, but described by Howard as being like a stretched ball held together by a central void. It is an expansive piece, running nearer to half an hour rather than the estimated 20 minutes, and between serene landscapes in the strings that open and close it there are passages sounding like anger and despair. In her program note Emily Howard describes imagining a sphere with its heart ripped out, and at times the piece felt like an elegy for the sphere on which we live. There is a cinematic quality to the writing and in some of the desolate string passages it was almost impossible not to conjure images of the recent devastation of the Italian earthquake.

The program ended with Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony, not often enough heard on the concert platform. If Emily Howard’s music sounds as though it might have been written for the screen, it’s easy to see how so many writers of film scores have been influenced by Rachmaninov, with the passionate sweep of the melodies and the vivid, technicolour orchestration. The Phil were on sparkling form here and with Petrenko’s mastery of the balance between emotional depth and sheer Hollywood glamour it’s clear why audiences fill houses for their performances.

At the end Vasily threw us a parting gift with Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot, played with characteristic humour and flair and charming the socks off the prommers.

Flying the flag for Liverpool on the world stage, at this most prestigious of music festivals, The Phil showed us again why the city is so proud of them.

Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO - Photo (C) Mark McNulty
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Edinburgh Fringe Previews - Unity Theatre - 21,22&23/07/2016

UNITY Theatre played host to three nights of preview shows last weekend, as a line-up of performers fine-tune their acts en-route to the Edinburgh Fringe. We managed to catch a selection of the comedy on offer and here’s our pick of the bunch.

Adam Rowe calls his show Bittersweet Little Lies and it evolves from a story about the day his dad taught him it was ok to lie sometimes. Rowe can accelerate from deadpan delivery to full-scale rant in the blink of a lazy eye and uses skeletons from the family closet as the basis for much of his set. This is good solid comedy that hits its mark well and the honesty of the delivery belies the title.

Tom Little used 31 Teeth in My Mouth as a title, but he’s already thrown this out and by the time it reaches Edinburgh it will be “Chicken Supreme? No, is isn’t”(probably). Whilst there are some well-judged comic pauses in his act, Little has his audience breathless following the seemingly random trail of weird and wonderful observations he makes. There’s nothing random about it though, as much of the material relies on convoluted construction and repeated links back to earlier segments. Here’s the sort of humour that builds laughs upon laughs – fasten your seatbelt.

Brennan Reece closed the weekend with his show called Everglow, which he has recently brought back from Australia. Beware this sort of comedy, as it has a sting in its tail. There is a disarming frankness in Reece’s manner and he has a tremendous confidence, using the whole of the stage in a very physical way. What is particularly special, though, is the architecture of his material, which comes full circle in a hugely satisfying way and, startlingly, manages to bring in elements of pathos that are genuinely moving. Expect the unexpected with this one.

At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Adam Rowe plays The Caves at 17:20 from 5th August, Tom Little is at Nightcap at 13:10 from 6th August and Brennan Reece at Pleasance Courtyard at 18:00 from 3rd August.

Adam Rowe, Tom Little & Brennan Reece
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Queens of Syria - Liverpool Everyman - 15/07/2016

To light a candle is better than damning the darkness.

So explains one of the women during one of the interpolated video segments of this production from Developing Artists and Refuge Productions, brought to the UK on tour with the support of the Young Vic.

Queens of Syria began life as a 2013 drama therapy project in Amman for Syrian women displaced from their homeland, working toward playing out Eurpides’ Trojan Women. The parallels with the ancient drama are clear, but what we see on stage is no longer 13 women presenting a piece of classic theatre. It has become something close to documentary – a kind of community autobiography.

Verbatim theatre often takes the words of real people and places them in the mouths of actors, but there is no way to fully describe the power of hearing a group of women retelling their own experiences in this way. Theatre audiences will have become familiar with frequent references to “The Refugee Crisis” in mainstream performance in recent years, and the participants in Queens of Syria fire a broadside at this in the closing segments of the work.

“Shall we make a play about it” quotes one. “That’s a sad story, but do you have a sadder one” says another. These jibes about the (usually) well-meaning efforts of theatre and media producers, directed straight at the audience, are a reminder that what we are seeing is not staged for effect, but to help us put real faces and real lives to the reports we’ve heard in news bulletins. To humanise the inhuman experiences that people have suffered. To make us recognise that every one of them had homes, lives and families like our own that have been shattered forever.

This is not easy to watch, but if it can use the lighting of its own small candles to start illuminating the darkness of the horrors created by civil war, then maybe we can stop seeing a problem and begin looking for solutions.

Queens of Syria gave two performances as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival at the Everyman on Friday and Saturday and continues touring to Leeds, Edinburgh Durham and London.

Queens of Syria - Photo (C) Vanja Karas
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Stefan Pop - Recital at St George's Hall Liverpool - 25/06/2016

Following on from recitals earlier this year with Ekaterina Lekhina and Yunpeng Wang, Liverpool Opera Four Seasons introduced Liverpool to yet another former winner of the Placido Domingo Operalia competition, lyric tenor Stefan Pop.

Pop has appeared at many of the world’s greatest opera houses, from La Scala Milan to Deutsche Oper Berlin, and from Mikhailovsky St Petersburg to London’s Covent Garden.

In the intimate setting of St George’s Hall’s concert room he gave a recital featuring some of the most popular tenor arias including music from, among others, Verdi, Puccini and Rossini. Opening with Questa o quella from Rigoletto, it was immediately clear why comparisons are being made between Pop and Pavarotti. A powerful, bright, colourful tenor voice combined with a lively and hugely engaging stage presence immediately had the audience captivated. In the first half of the programme he also gave us Oronte’s act 2 aria from I Lombardi and took us to the interval with Che gelida manina from La Boheme.

Being a “Pop” concert it naturally came plus support, and we welcomed Barbara Ruzsics (who appeared with Lekhina earlier this year) and Andreas Z Magony. Ruzsics gave a delicately phrased Exultate Jubilate and Debussy’s Nuit d’etoiles, while Magony added concert arias as well as E lucevan le stelle from Tosca. His is a strong voice but his phrasing was at times a little awkward and he had some tendency to focus on projection over tuning.

After the interval the stage belonged to Stefan Pop, beginning with Rossini’s impossibly complicated tarantella, La Danza, which he navigated with thrilling flair. This was followed by the act 3 duet from La Traviata, where he was joined by Ruzsics.

After two more solos for Pop and Magony, the singers began to play musical games, turning solos into duets and duets into trios, with Pop and Magony sharing roles, and ending with two encores – the Brindisi from Traviata and a duet version of Nessun Dorma.

The evening was again beautifully accompanied at the piano by Kirsty Ligertwood who on this occasion also gave us an instrumental interlude in part 1, with a heartfelt solo performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Liverpool Opera Four Seasons will continue their series in the autumn and have promised us some surprises. Keep an eye on Good News for details of what’s coming up next.

Stefan Pop - Photo (C) Lucian Enasoni
Review originally written for Good News Liverpool