Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Government Inspector - Liverpool Everyman - 01/06/2016

David Harrower’s wonderfully irreverent adaptation of Gogol’s satirical farce was made in 2011 for the Young Vic and Warwick Arts Centre. Director Roxanna Silbert has brought it to the stage with breath-taking energy in this new coproduction from Birmingham Rep and Ramps on the Moon.

Pre-show music that could have come straight from the soundtrack of Grand Budapest Hotel helps to set the scene in the slightly tired lobby of a once opulent hotel, somewhere in a forgotten backwater of Russia. Ti Green’s set is a multi-level skeleton affair with staircases, the revolving door beloved of farce and a fully functional elevator, all as transparent as the duplicity of the play’s key characters.

David Carlyle plays the manic Mayor, thrown into a spin by the suggestion that a Government Inspector is coming to town, or may already be in their midst. When Robin Morrissey’s dapper but itinerant Khlestakov turns up he’s immediately taken for the inspector and soon learns to capitalise on the mistake, with the whole town falling at his feet.

Carlyle and Morrisey are joined in the central sextet by Kiruna Stamell and Francesca Mills, who give towering performances as the mayor’s wife and daughter, Anna and Maria. Both fall for Khlestakov in a big way and literally hurl themselves at him at times. Michael Keane brings wry wit to Khlestakov’s servant Osip, while Sophie Stone is hugely expressive as the postmaster with a rather too keen interest in the contents of the mail.

There is also a splendid double act from Stephen Collins and Rachel Denning as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, a pair of local squires who propagate the idea that Khlestakov is the inspector. They display gleeful relish in the quick-fire delivery and the characters’ propensity to finish each other’s sentences.

Ramps on the Moon is a consortium of six major theatres and strategic partner Graeae Theatre Company, whose work in making theatre accessible to all is ramped up to a new level in this production. The cast of deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers seamlessly blend signing and audio description into the performance. This adds to the frenetic movement on stage but gives so many additional cues, along with surtitles and projected words and imagery, that the clarity of the storytelling is magnificent.

There is occasional shadowing of characters, in some cases a speaking actor will be followed about by another who is signing their words for them. Elsewhere Judge Lyapkin-Tyapkin, played wordlessly by a signing Jean St Clair, has her spoken dialogue delivered by Rebekah Hinds, who follows along behind. Meanwhile Amanda Wright, playing a police sergeant, has a head-mike which she uses to provide the live audio-description to users’ headsets from the stage, rather than as more usually done from the control booth.

This is high-energy, wonderful farce staged with boundless imagination. The Government Inspector plays at the Everyman, Hope Street until Saturday 11th June and comes highly recommended.
David Carlisle and cast - photo (c) Robert Day
This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Thursday, 2 June 2016

George Egg, Anarchist Cook - Unity Theatre Liverpool - 31/05/2016

If you’ve ever thought the iron in your hotel room smelled odd or found bottles of shampoo in the mini-bar, perhaps George Egg has been there before you.

George is a stand-up comedian who spends half his life on the road (just look at the list of dates on his website) and far too much time for his liking in hotel rooms. Being a lover of fine food too, he’s got pretty fed up with arriving back late after a gig to find that the only sources of food are the night porter with the room service menu or the late night supermarket. So it is that he’s devised countless ways to rustle up something tasty with what he can find in the hotel room and a few items picked up on the way back.

George’s love of good away-from-home cooking meets stand-up in his show “Anarchist Cook” which hit Liverpool’s Unity this week after returning from a stint in New Zealand via London and Norway.

Part comedy gig, part demonstration, it’s hard to pigeon-hole this show, which is a feast for all the senses. In the space of roughly 80 minutes he rustles up a three course meal using a selection of simple ingredients, rather a lot of those little UHT milks and some forage from the hotel lobby. All cooked with appliances such as the iron, the kettle and the mini-bar fridge, the results look and taste good, being presented to the audience to sample at the end of the show. From home made cheese (really) to poached sea bream and fluffy pancakes, everything is done pretty much to perfection.

Coming to the end of the evening you’re left wondering whether you just dreamed it or did he really just do that, whilst delivering some great observational humour. Not only does he demonstrate the three courses that he presents on stage, he also throws in numerous other recipe tips, including a method for curing homemade salami that boggles the mind. You can even buy recipe cards at the end.

I can’t say I’d recommend trying this in the next Premier Inn you stop in, unless you don’t mind a surcharge, or using your own iron at home like this but the recipes do adapt for preparation with more conventional equipment.

George isn’t the tidiest of cooks (there’s a dreadful mess on the floor) but he has impressive knife skills to go with his infectious sense of humour. Anarchist Cook is a cross between Saturday Kitchen and the Tommy Cooper Show, and well worth a visit if you find it hitting a venue near you.

This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Physical Fest Double Bill - Unity Theatre - 27th May 2016

I was delighted to get an invitation to this double bill of remarkably contrasting performances, which forms part of this year’s Physical Fest and which had Unity buzzing with atmosphere. Oog, is a solo performance by Al Seed, which has been touring since its emergence in Glasgow in 2014. Cabaret from the Shadows is a locally-grown piece, developed at the Lantern theatre by Liverpool based but multi-national Teatro Pomodoro.

For Oog we enter to find a hunched, seated figure onstage, completely obscured by the folds of a mud and blood soaked army great-coat. Under a focused shaft of light, he begins to move by gradual increments, his dirt-caked face emerging tentatively from the upturned collar like a frightened tortoise hiding in its shell.

Here is a shell-shocked soldier, cowering in a subterranean world from which there seems to be a way of escape that he is too frightened to attempt. Al Seed animates his character with meticulous precision, every movement minutely synchronised to a pulsing, desolate soundtrack from Guy Veale, which appears to turn every breath and heartbeat into a terrifying memory of shell-fire and bloodshed.

This is one of those “had to be there” pieces that pretty much defies analysis, but is powerful and finely crafted physical theatre that leaves its audience simultaneously stunned and elated.

Al Seed - Oog - Photo (c) Maria Falconer

Cabaret from the Shadows changes the mood entirely, occupying a surreal world of unhinged comedy. Occasionally when the moon is full, we’re told, this group of misfits are allowed back from their shadow world to entertain us. Essentially a sequence of set pieces linked together by some running themes, the show uses the company’s skill with bouffon and musical clownery to give us a substantial hit of illusory weirdness – in a good way…

Opening, closing and interspersed by company musical cabaret numbers, there are some ideas here that seem to come from nowhere. Leebo Luby is a guitar playing chicken, continually taunted by Carmen Arquelladas who keeps carelessly smashing the eggs he lays. Miwa Nagai allows herself to be painted by a member of the audience, while Simone Tani becomes, among other characters, a risqué dancing Christ and a life-size voodoo doll, tortured for the sins of someone’s work colleague.

The entire cast play a variety of instruments, but it’s Duncan Cameron who must clock up the most, acting as a kind of half-crazed emcee and carrying the weight of the musical input. He also finds a very unusual way of playing a harmonica whilst wearing a straightjacket – you’ll just have to try and imagine that.

Cameron keeps challenging the audience to tell him whether they’ve gone a bit too far maybe a bit too soon in the evening, but this self-censorship just adds to the irony with which they dip their mischievous comedic toes into so many political subjects that theatrical productions seem unable to avoid allusion to.

This was a one-night-only folks, but watch out for Al Seed’s Oog and Cabaret from the Shadows, because as sure as night follows day they’re bound to be back.

Cabaret From the Shadows - Photo (c) Yoel Orgelby
This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Merry Wives - Northern Broadsides at Liverpool Playhouse - 24/05/2016

It's wall-to-wall Shakespeare this year as we mark 400 years since his death, and companies are doing their best to ring the changes by programming some of the less frequently performed works. One such is The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy said by some to have been written to please Elizabeth I who wanted to see something else with Falstaff in it.

The Merry Wives has become far more popular in various operatic adaptations from Verdi to Vaughan Williams, and there’s some reason for this, as it is hardly the strongest of Shakespeare’s comedies. The plot is a bit on the thin side and its characters can become caricatures, but it is a jolly romp nonetheless, so a seemingly good choice for Northern Broadsides who do like to keep things lively. It’s also a return to something more in their house style than their astonishingly well-crafted Lear a year ago or the wonderfully imagined Winter’s Tale last autumn.

This is vintage Barrie Rutter, playing the part of Falstaff not for the first time. The bluster and bombast of the character could have been written for him, although somehow he doesn’t quite achieve the pathos that exists in the part quite as he did in his understated Lear.

Rutter directs a fine cast on a sparsely decorated stage, which suggests art deco in its wooden trees, helping to place the action in the 1920s. “Windsor” has been omitted from the title for this production, which sets the play somewhere above a line through Liverpool and Mablethorpe. The fops and flappers have a variety of accents suggesting a generic, affable northernness.

Strong performances come from Tom Dyer Blake and Andrew Vincent as Shallow and Ford and Adam Barlow, Jos Vantyler and Ben Burman as Nim, Slender and Pistol. The show belongs, however, to the Merry Wives themselves, played with unrestrained glee by Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley.

Not the finest piece of Shakespeare you’ll ever witness, but the writing sees to that, and apart from a few saggy episodes the whole thing trips along as merrily as the title decrees, and it makes for an enjoyable evening.
Becky Hindley, Barrie Rutter & Nicola Sanderson - Photo © Nobby Clarke
This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Complete Deaths – Spymonkey at Liverpool Playhouse - 20/05/2016

When physical theatre troupe Spymonkey decided to take on Shakespeare together with writer/director Tim Crouch, they soon hit on the idea of collecting together every onstage death from the entire canon. Lunacy you may think, and it is, but of the inspired variety.

Toby Park begins by explaining that it is only the onstage deaths that will be covered, so no Lady Macbeth, no Antigonus pursued by a bear and no Ophelia, much to the dismay of Petra Massey who fancied herself drowning. However, this does leave some 75 deaths to enact, if we include the ill-favour’d fly from Titus Andronicus, and so the play moves on at a fair pace, with a scythe-equipped score-counter keeping track of the numbers on the forestage.

Some of the deaths are despatched at speed, at one point Stephan Kreis performs King John and Hamlet’s Gonzago simultaneously, but others are done with more lingering relish. Half the cast of Titus Andronicus are fed into a giant mincing machine, and Romeo and Juliet expire in a splendidly absurd suicide pact atop an upturned stock trolley. There is music too, with a lavishly costumed production number for Cleopatra’s demise that would not have looked out of place at Eurovision (methinks it would have gained more points than Joe and Jake). Another wonderfully contrived piece of surprise musicality is in the beating to death of hector by a mob armed with foam insulation tubes, cleverly cut to length so as to be musically tuned. Surely this must be the only time a Yazoo song will turn up in Shakespeare?

Throughout, Aitor Basauri strives in vain to be a “great Shakespearian actor”. The bard appears to him in repeated visions, advising him to “Always stand with your legs apart, roll your ‘R’s and spit when you speak”. Aitor takes him at his word and there is strutting, rolling and spitting in abundance, much to his co-stars’ confusion. There is also much gleeful confusion with language, including Aitor’s mistaken interpretation of Polonius being stabbed through the arras.

Add small paper puppets on a tabletop for Cinna the poet and shadow puppetry for the smothering of Desdemona, and all that’s left is the inclusion of flies – lots of flies – more tiny puppets that we see as they are followed by a live camera feed to a big screen.

Tim Crouch has tried to inject some moments of serious reflection into the piece, but Spymonkey’s madcap humour combined with infectious collaboration from the audience ensures that the whole evening is joyously bonkers.

Performances of The Complete Deaths at Liverpool Playhouse this weekend are part of a national and international tour, which continues with dates presently scheduled up to November.

Image (c) John Hunter for RULER
This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Vaughan Williams - Andrew Manze - Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – 05/05/2016

The RLPO and Andrew Manze went straight into the UK Specialist Classical chart at No.11 last month, with the first in a projected complete Vaughan Williams symphony cycle with Onyx Records. The first disc contains symphonies 2 and 8, and Manze was signing copies after the concert at Philharmonic Hall on Thursday evening.

On this occasion, in an all Vaughan Williams programme, they were performing symphonies 3 and 4 in advance of recording sessions for the next album.

Whilst the city was holding widespread 75th anniversary commemorations of the May Blitz this week, the Phil’s programme serendipitously felt perfectly aligned to these events. Beginning with the quintessentially English pastoralness of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the first half moved on to the anger and brutality of the 4th symphony, widely considered to be Vaughan Williams’ response to the mounting tensions that presaged World War II.
The second part of the concert returned to gentler mood beginning with mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston in the short but beautifully formed Linden Lea. This was followed by the 3rd, Pastoral Symphony, a work of serene reconciliation, opening and closing in splendid stillness around its central folk-dance scherzo. As the originally engaged tenor was indisposed, a late decision was taken to use the suggested alternative to the wordless cantilena, beautifully articulated by principal clarinet Benjamin Mellefont.
Vaughan Williams is repertoire that the Liverpool Phil have long associations with and it runs in their blood. It’s well over 20 years since their acclaimed recorded cycle with Vernon Handley and in Andrew Manze they have once again found an intelligent interpreter who really understands this music. The playing was immaculately articulated and imbued with tremendous warmth, and it is clear that orchestra and conductor really enjoy working together.
As the current concert season nears its end we await the announcement of the 2016/17 programme, and this week’s audience will surely be hoping for more of the same from Andrew Manze. Meanwhile, he returns this coming Thursday and Friday to conduct a programme of Rossini, Mozart and Mendelssohn.
Andrew Manze - Image (c) Chris Christodoulou

This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool

Pleasure – Liverpool Playhouse – 04/05/2016

Pleasure is a new one-act chamber opera by Liverpool born composer Mark Simpson, to a libretto by Melanie Challenger. One of a series of co-commissions from Opera North, Aldeburgh Music and the Royal Opera House, the production played for one night only in the composer’s home city at the Playhouse on Wednesday, en-route from its premiere in Leeds toward dates in Aldeburgh and London.

A cast of four soloists are accompanied by the Manchester-based contemporary music ensemble Psappha conducted by Nicholas Kok.
Lesley Garrett sings the role of Val, a faded beauty of a toilet attendant in a gay nightclub, to whom the regulars pour out their hearts as a mother-confessor. Timothy Nelson is Nathan, Val’s estranged son, who sneaks in to leave a gift for her, and here begins an emotional and ultimately tragic encounter between mother and son.
There is a sub-plot, in which club regular Matthew (Nick Pritchard) admires Nathan’s beauty and propositions him, which perplexes Nathan who is not gay but who seems to be deeply affected by the advances.

The only person to understand much of Val’s past is Anna Fewmore, the resident drag queen, sung here by Steven Page. The part is by turns grotesque, comic and knowing, much in the manner of Shakespeare’s fools, and provides a sounding board for Val’s thoughts.
The soloists are well cast in the roles and all are in fine voice, with the delivery pin-sharp making every line clear through the weighty textures of the music. The ensemble is placed on a raised platform overlooking the stage from the rear, and some of Anna’s numbers are performed from a projecting platform at this upper level, including a high-camp striptease with balloons.
Simpson has a distinctive musical language that’s hard to pin down, but nods toward the sound world of Thomas Ades. The score has a richness of texture and a strong rhythmic drive, and is well balanced with the voices. The composer has set the piece outside the club, in the toilets and out in the street, so that he only alludes to the dance music beyond. In his programme note he explains that this is a conscious decision to stay in his own musical style without having to resort to pastiche of techno or electronic music.
In the earlier scenes Melanie Challenger’s text is a little clumsy, with some of the character development feeling rather clichéd, but it settles down as the work progresses.
Director Tim Albery negotiates his cast sinuously around the obstacle-course of a set from designer Leslie Travers - a massive, deconstructed neon sign that depicts the various passageways and plumbing of the club.
The narrative, though short, is one of traditionally operatic tragedy. Val and Nathan’s story could have happened anywhere, but Mark Simpson chose to set it in surroundings familiar to him from his teenage years, basing Val on a real toilet attendant who many Liverpudlians still recall, if you ask in the right places.
Pleasure is at Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh this weekend followed by a week of performances at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Steven Page as Anna Fewmore - Image (c) Robert Workman

This review was originally written for Good News Liverpool and Seen Magazine