Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Doll's House - UK Touring Theatre

Hawthorne Theatre, Welwyn Garden City
11 October 2014, 7.30pm

It is always a relief to find something to counteract the banality of Saturday night TV that I am usually sucked into watching and this week I found it at the Hawthorne Theatre.

Ibsen's 1879 drama A Doll's House is always thought-provoking - a fascinating study of how women, marriage and motherhood are viewed by a male world and mixed with a dose of financial shenanigans and his stalwart theme, "the sins of the fathers", so I was hoping for the best.

Thankfully UK Touring Theatre's take on it is a good solid production of a classic play that manages to create a sense of suspense even though I knew exactly what was going to happen.

Set in 19th century Norway, Nora Helmer seemingly has everything she needs, three children, a loving husband Torvald and secure finances thanks to his promotion.

Torvald sees her as a pet, a possession who just has to look pretty and admire him, but she is harbouring a secret, which if revealed would blow her marriage apart.

The arrival of an unexpected visitor on Christmas Eve threatens to do just that.

It is credit to the four actors, directed by Michael Woodward, that as it moved towards the conclusion I know so well, they kept me enthralled, and I ended up still willing Nora on as I did the first time I saw it - hoping that she would still actually make the decision she does.

The company's own new translation with more modern language allows the production to roll along at a lively pace and I certainly felt like I was on a runaway train on an inevitable path to destruction.

Felicity Rhys's Nora is an appropriate mix of skittish, playful and frantic which makes her change to more serious, steely and measured when making her final decision all the more stark.

Laura-Kate Gordon is a fine solid Kristine Linde who depicts well how she has been worn down by her own situation which, while very different, is still a result of a male dominated world.

Adam Redmayne as Torvald, the symbol of 19th century male society, is appropriately unseeing and annoying, showing weakness under his pride, and I think the fact I wanted to slap him meant he probably got it right!

The doubling up of the Dr Rank and Nils Krogstad parts undoubtedly showed the versatility of Christopher Llewellyn's acting skills especially as I had to double take to make sure the same actor was playing the two very different men - but once I realised this, my mind kept wondering to how he was managing his quick changes and was a little distracting.

Perhaps the fact one man played both made you ponder whether they both manipulated Nora albeit in very different ways - or maybe it just cut the costs for a touring production!

The simple set, also designed by Woodward, adds to the feeling of instability with separate standalone frames indicating the marriage is not solid - that it is made up of parts that are not linked and these are used to great effect to highlight the state of Nora's world.

At the end of the first half, the actors tilt the doors towards Nora to hint at a world closing in on her and the collapse of her relationship with her husband.

When you come back after the interval these frames and those on the wall are slightly skewed showing that everything that surrounds her world is deconstructing.

As I sat there pondering over whether things had actually changed, whether women were still judged with a male eye, the hollow laughter from the audience at Torvald's torrent of outrageous references to her subordinance made me realise that to some extent they have.

And as I inwardly whooped at Nora's final decision I wondered how many of my 19th century female counterparts had done so too - even if they couldn't express it.

But to me Nora Helmer is not just an heroic feminist she is an example to us all in finding out who we are and trying to be that person, whatever it may cost.

I therefore hope one day my four-year-old daughter - who thought I was going to see a real doll's house - will appreciate this play as much as I do.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Northern Ballet

Milton Keynes Theatre
22 May 2014, 2.30pm

This production was the first one that I ever saw Northern Ballet do and firmly established me as a fan of the company.

I thought it gave fantastic new life to A Midsummer Night’s Dream then, and now it's just as good as I remember.

The classic Shakespearean comedy is always an audience favourite but this production transports the quarrelling lovers and feuding fairies into a setting which the company will be all too familiar with.

The characters are now all part of a touring dance company and the shenanigans that are usually played out in a forest all take place on a sleeper train between London and Edinburgh as the dancers travel to their next show.

Twilight world
The company's final rehearsal has been a disaster and as they get on the train, the arguments continue.

As the train speeds north it enters a tunnel, tension grows and the company find themselves in a strange nocturnal world where they have to resolve their disputes.

Entering a tense twilight world where numerous disputes are played out may sound like a normal long distance train journey in this country, but let’s face it, if this show was based on that, then all the action would have to take place on a replacement bus as damage to the overhead lines would have long since rendered any train useless!

But this scenario really works for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Not only do the characters translate well into this new setting - Theseus becomes the Artistic Director, Hippolyta his prima ballerina who he wants to retire, while the four lovers are competitive soloists - but the idea of hierarchy and battles of ego could relate to any working situation.

It therefore shows a modern understanding of some of the themes and shows once again how Shakespeare really understood human nature.

The comic fighting between Lysander and Hermia and Helena and Demetrius as they each fail to win the object of their desire is intricate, physical, clever and extremely funny.

And I have to say, that the men's skimpy boxer shorts that made such an impression on me the first time thankfully remained, and once again I was amazed that they didn't spilt - it was real edge of the seat stuff I can tell you! Hurrah for the wardrobe department!

Then there’s also the fact that it looks fantastic. Set in the late 1940s, the glamorous costumes reflect Dior’s post-war New Look, and range from the stylish black and white of the rehearsal room to a riot of colour in the ‘dream’ sequence.

But for anyone with even a passing interest in stage design and the machinations of the set, Duncan Haylor’s creation is very clever. It’s a real joy just to see the rehearsal room turn into the train and then the train move off the platform!

Northern Ballet have done a superb job once again. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is witty, vivacious, stylish and a lot of fun!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

I Can't Sing: The X Factor Musical

London Palladium
Saturday 15 March 2014, 2.00pm (preview)

I Can't Sing is absolutely bonkers.

What a treat, in what are sometimes depressing times, to watch a show that will just make you giggle.

This show is a colourful, fun and technically fascinating homage to what is now, love it or loathe it, a British institution - the X Factor TV show.

It depicts a trail of hopefuls as they move from auditions to live shows, but none can compete with heroine Chenice who cannot only sing but the fact she has to unplug her grandfather's iron lung in order to use the toaster gives her the most important of qualities to be a winner - a heart-wrenching back story.

She also believes she can't sing - although I don't believe anyone who enters the X Factor thinks this - it's usually the other way round and they really can't!

But this isn't a cruel parody. It packs in all the show's cliches in such an affectionate way that it made cynical old me, someone who had long fallen out of love with the TV show, want to love it all over again.

A host of other misfits with voices which pay homage to former TV contestants including a "Tesda" checkout girl, Irish twins, Wagner and bizarrely, a rapping Quasimodo. This seems maddest of them all - until the ending, when you realise his role.

I Can't Lie - I have always been a Nigel Harman fan and he could probably just have stood on the stage doing nothing and I would have thought it wonderful just to be in his presence.

But thankfully he puts in a great performance as a heightened caricature of the original - slightly more camp - and of course better looking than the real thing. A true triple threat - Harman sings, dances and acts and generally looks fabulous, even with a preposterous set of dazzlingly white teeth.

Cynthia Erivo's Chenice is a mixture of feisty and sweet. She has a tremendous voice to boot and her relationship with Alan Morrissey's boy next door Max is a vehicle for the show romance story.

Simon Bailey's Liam O'Deary is just a fantastic parody of X-Factor presenter Dermot O'Leary - every nuance of his movement is captured. I didn't even realise Dermot did that until Bailey heightened it in an impression. His song - I Love Hugging People I don't Know - was just genius!

Other favourites for me were Barlow the Dog, cleverly worked by Simon Lipkin, Jordy, the Geordie judge and a brilliantly understated but perfect Louis (Walsh).

Charlie Baker's hunchback was another highlight simply because it was so ludicrous!

Complemented by a very strong ensemble cast, everyone just looks like they are having the time of their lives - while gently poking fun at some of the technical problems the show had in preview.

It just needs interactive voting during the interval to make it complete but that would probably be a technical headache too far!

The final Simon Cowell reveal is just mad - but strangely appropriate - and to be honest all you would expect of the hilarious writer - Harry Hill.

If you have never seen the X Factor, you may well wonder what the heck you are watching, and I'm sure some critics will get on their high horse about it but I'd just say chill out, appreciate the madness and just laugh!