Friday, 9 October 2015

Review: The Ugly Duckllng.

The Ugly Duckling at The Neville Studio (Nottingham Playhouse) may be a short and sweet production but the results for the children performing may have positive effects lasting for their whole lives.

In collaboration with Combat Bullying and Nottingham Playhouse this production brings together a fifteen strong group of 6-14 year olds (many of whom have never been on a stage) who have suffered from bullying. Directed by Nikki Disney the piece takes Hans Christian Anderson's classic tale of the new born ugly looking bird that is constantly picked on and practically left for dead on occasion. The children bring the story to life through dance and movement and each child gets an opportunity to assist Hans (Bradley Price) put together his story surrounded by a set of gigantic children's story books. The bird struggles on with its sad existence and cruel taunts from the other birds. The children are cleverly costumed in black clothes with white text from The Ugly Duckling as the patterning. Their ordinary school clothes are also worn by some to bring home the contemporary nature of the story's relevance.

Eventually the duckling (played by various children) grows up and sees a flock of beautiful swans. Sensing the same potential in itself  it wants to be near to them. As it sits on the water it is suddenly aware of its own beautiful and strong self through reflection. It is no longer a picked on duckling but a beautiful strong bird – a majestic swan.

With a packed and supportive audience on its opening night it is important not to underestimate the value of the creative and emotionally strengthening experience for these children. As little Hugo Waring (Duckling) aged 6 confidently says in the programme “I can't wait for my school to come and see it.”

This reviewer can do no better than to finish off with another quote from one of the participants Sophie Basra aged 13 - “Hopefully, our production of The Ugly Duckling at the Playhouse will make people realise how harmful and hurtful bullying can be.”

The Ugly Ducking runs at The Neville Studio until Saturday 10th October.

Combat Bullying "One in 10 children bullied at school have attempted to commit suicide, a further 30% go on to self-harm."

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Review The Rubenstein Kiss. Nottingham Playhouse

Ten years on from its original London run staring Samantha Bond and Gary Kemp, playwright James Phillips' play The Rubenstein Kiss makes its Nottingham début at Nottingham Playhouse for their Conspiracy Season.

The Nottingham Playhouse publicity for the play states 'The story is set in 1950s America and in the Cold War period when the McCarthy anti- Communist trials were at their height. The Rubenstein Kiss is inspired by a real life Jewish couple – Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who went to the electric chair for allegedly passing on US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. They protested their innocence until the very last. James Phillips' play explores what happens when truth and ideologies collide to reveal the anguish of a family and its quest for atonement.'

Director Zoë Waterman has returned to Nottingham Playhouse to direct this fascinating play and the finished result is compelling, stylish, stark but not without rays of humour and superbly acted by all of the cast.

Jacob Rubenstein and Esther Rubenstein are the play's protagonists who idealise Communism. As the quiet married couple actors Joe Coen and Katherine Manners completely encapsulate the characters of this period. These are just two human beings who have to make a life changing decisions that will not only affect them but could ultimately impact on the world in the future. The choices they are faced with are telling 'the truth' betraying their Soviet friends and receiving a long term prison sentence or having to die in the electric chair and suffer eternal public shame.

The themes in the play are about miscarriages of justice, compassion and the power of state control. The Rubenstein Kiss however, is not all doom and gloom. In fact it is mostly an uplifting experience and at its core there is a feeling of hope. It is about people doing the best they can in extra-ordinary circumstances and placing their family at the top of their concerns.
The 1940s/50s story of the Rubensteins, David Girshfield and Rachel Liebermann (Mark Field and Ellie Burrow) is told in flash back through two young people in their twenties who happen to meet at an art gallery showing iconic photographic images of  that period. Simon Haines is extra-ordinary in his role of son Matthew and researcher of law and past cases. Equally, Gillian Saker is utterly believable and sympathetic as Anna. A late comer into the play's action is Cornell S John as FBI agent Paul Cramner. John plays his role with a very human touch -strict as the police investigator but seen years later as someone who harbours a great degree of empathy towards the remaining families living with the legacy of the 'case of the century'.

The 'The Rubenstein Kiss' play is a moving portrayal of human dilemmas questioning the nature of loyalty towards family and country and ultimately the big question 'what would one be prepared to die for?' Another superb production at Nottingham Playhouse.

Runs until Saturday 17th October 2015.

Review King Charles III at the Theatre Royal Nottingham

In Mike Bartlett's quasi Shakespearian telling of the fictional death of Queen Elizabeth and the automatic succession to the British throne of her son Prince Charles (now King Charles III) we get over two hours of brilliant political theatre with a dark comic edge.

The magnificent set, almost mediaeval in look – crumbling ancient walls – tall guttering candles – dark entrances and a sea of faded painted faces right across the middle section is designed by Tom Scutt. The atmosphere is heightened throughout with superb music from composer Jocelyn Pook and splendid sound design from Paul Ardetti. Lighting designer is Jon Clark.

King Charles III benefits hugely from excellent direction (Robert Goold with Whitney Mosery) and the whole play flows along like a stricken royal barge dangerously navigating the river Thames at night. As the story glides by it takes in the difficult politics in Parliament due to King Charles refusal in signing a legal document concerning freedom of the press. Social unrest ensues and along the way, with a few nasty bumps into the proverbial riverbank we eavesdrop on certain major players in the current royal family and their entourage.

None of the royal characters are caricatured and Robert Powell is terrifically stubborn and vulnerable as the new King who just wants an easy life after waiting almost a lifetime for his mother to pass away and for himself to rightfully attain the throne. Son, Harry 'Prince of Wales' just desires to be a 'normal bloke that shops in Sainsbury's and has a house that he has paid for'. Richard Glaves lights up the stage as the confused and love-struck Harry and Lucy Phelps plays his new girlfriend and staunch republican in a very natural way – at once in awe of her situation and politically pulling the opposite way.

William and Kate (Ben Righton and Jennifer Brydon) are almost perfect look-a-likes for their roles; William forever holding his hands together at waist level; intelligent, polite and strongly built and Kate – beautifully dressed and initially demure. As the play evolves however the tides turn and Kate comes into her own; acting much more ambitious and vociferous, pushing her husband William to usurp his father as king. Supporting King Charles III himself is his wife Camilla (Penelope Beaumont) and shown as an equal to Charles whose loyalty to her husband is tried to the utmost as the country goes into civil war and Charles struggles to reason why.

The two major politicians Mr Stevens and Mr Evans (Giles Taylor and Tim Treloar) appear to walked straight out of the real House of Commons and even with their dialogue being mostly governed by the strictures of iambic pentameter, their performances are very natural and powerful on the stage.

This complex and potentially controversial play from the Almeida Theatre (on tour)  is brilliantly written and performed and although the story is dark and - even includes a recognisable ghost predicting destiny- it is not without a great deal of wit.

For those coming to the play to see Robert Powell as the lead they will be delighted in his tour de force portrayal in the challenging lead role. For those interested in witnessing 'a play of the future' today with a superb ensemble look no further than this terrific production.  Charles III runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 10th October 2015.

Review: 1984 Northern Ballet

Northern Ballet are the winner's of Best Company at the Taglioni European Ballet Awards and this innovative company are considered by some to be Europe's best dance company. It is with these and many other dance credentials that they are currently touring and wowing audiences with their new work 1984. This week they are at Theatre Royal Nottingham.

For a fan of Orwell's bleak novel with its central themes around disallowed thoughts and the crushing of anti Party sentiments embodied in the hero, Winston Smith, the idea of a ballet work being capable of expressing 1984 solely through dance may seem unlikely. Not so in the superbly capable hands of choreographer and director Jonathan Watkins and through the original score created by Alex Baranowski.

Orwell's story of Winston and Julia's ultimately doomed love story; his secret diary recording his anti Big Brother sentiments; the robotic workers at the Ministry of Truth; the Thought Police and the Proles all come terrifyingly to life through Northern Ballet electric dance forms. Winston (Tobias Batley) and Julia's (Martha Leebolt) pas de deux is at once joyful and yet sorrowful, sexy and yet has an edge of yearning sadness.

Both the choreography and direction create rich tapestries of a dark dystopian life and the constantly changing sets include startling media design and telescreen graphics dominated by Big Brother's constant stare. Befitting the calibre of Northern Ballet's well earned reputation in the dance world the 1984 company's dance standards are exemplary.

Especially good are the dance sections expressing the daily conditioning of 'two minutes hate'. Here the dancers let loose their emotions as dictated by the Party in order to demonstrate their utter distaste against the enemy. Orwell's book has stood the test of time and resonates with readers all around the world. It is truly a book that makes you think about how we live today and Northern Ballet's brilliant dance adaptation brings all those challenges alive on stage in a 101 different ways.

Originally written for Nottingham Post October 1st 2015

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Interview with David Longford re: The School For Scandal

Interview with David Longford - Creative Learning Manager - at Nottingham Theatre Royal.

As the historic Nottingham Theatre Royal celebrates 150 years of theatrical existence Phil Lowe visited David Longford -former professional actor – now Creative Learning Manager and director of the theatre's community theatre group's (The Royal Company) recent acclaimed production of The School For Scandal. David was keen to promote the theatre and especially the hard work and non-professional local talents that made the promenade show such a huge success with Nottingham's theatre going public in September 2015.

The School For Scandal performance echoed Sheridan's day in terms of text and costume but also the students of Nottingham Trent University's Theatre Design degree course had huge input with their cross referenced costume and wig designs that combined the fashions of the mid 1800s but added in very modern touches with wigs made from modern day gossip magazines. The props of the piece included mobile phones and contemporary branded shopping bags to carry the play's messages across to a modern day audience. The whole combination worked extremely well and was backed up with periodic pop music tracks that introduced the characters at points during the show.

David Longford director and the show's narrator picked up on how the show worked and on the history of recent amateur community shows that have had and, benefited from, professional input throughout the rehearsal processes.

David Longford

“I started here in 2001 and there was no educational community role whatsoever in the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall. It was a brand new job and I had previously worked at the Mansfield Palace theatre as their education officer. Before that I was a freelance actor and director mainly working in young people's theatre. TIE has a real appeal for me. In the Nottingham Theatre Royal job I was lucky enough, in July 2001, to be employed full -time and to build everything up from scratch. My brief was, and still is, to work with all the visiting companies and to make the venue much more 'open' and publicly accessible and to get the community involved in our work. So, one of my first decisions was based on the thought that I wanted to set up a community theatre company so that we could engage with the public directly and within the spaces in the Theatre Royal and, as it turns out, also around the city of Nottingham.”

“The aim was for every one of the community projects to be a real 'in depth' process. Not just learning the lines but treating it with the seriousness and passion of a pro theatre project with as much professional input as chances would allow. I wanted to totally engage the participants by bringing in external practitioners in order to learn from them and bring a professional approach and discipline to the essentially 'amateur' actors experience and make them feel and grow from being really challenged. I always say to people as we go through the audition process – 'This is a big commitment – I will be asking a lot of you but I want to challenge you and I also want you to have some fun too.' We did a production here of the Government Inspector in 2002 and that was a promenade piece too. However it was not as extensive as The School For Scandal. We mainly used the foyer spaces. Our theatrical statement was that we wanted to do things differently and with local people involved. That went down extremely well and so The Royal Company was born.”

“My job includes working with Northern Ballet and Opera North (regular visitors to our theatre) and within my role with The Royal Company we often work alongside other venues such as when we did Fahrenheit 451 where we combined with the local amateur arts venue - Nottingham Arts Theatre. In 2005 The Royal Company show was held at Nottingham Castle and we rehearsed and performed Tony Harrison's version of The Mysteries, in a huge marquee, a very gritty and very northern piece. This version was originally done by the National Theatre in the 1970s and is all about working class folk putting together a passionate piece about the last days of Jesus Christ.”

“We have also done three productions on the Theatre Royal stage. One especially memorable one being Oliver Twist (2004) where we really used the Victorian interior of the Theatre Royal to best advantage with narrators in the boxes and the Nottingham Trent University Theatre Design course students who brought in their amazing talents. The shows we have done on the main stage have done extremely well, This is mainly because we have chosen sell-able titles and therefore they become commercially good sellers, but at the same time they still offer the all important challenges for the participants.”

“In 2006 we did our most successful production to date – 101 Dalmatians. We had one professional actress in that. This was Toyah Wilcox as Cruella DeVille. Toyah came into our rehearsals two weeks before the show opened and she was incredible. She had no qualms whatsoever working with a talented amateur cast. In fact the whole cast's theatrical outlook and performance level went up several notches with Toyah's presence. It makes me quite emotional thinking about the commitment those non-professionals put into the show to make it a piece to be hugely proud of. Once again there was a real physical theatre challenge about how do we create a world of dogs without having 101 people in cute doggy outfits!”

“Sometimes, I find when people ask what is the difference with working with professional and amateur community performers, and I think some of the performances in 'Scandal' were extraordinary high, I believe it is that confidence to 'play' within the rehearsal room to build on the role and its place within the play itself.”

“Generally, The Royal Company is an amateur company that is based at Nottingham Theatre Royal but doesn't limit itself to purely performing solely at the venue. We have even done schools tours in the past and some of our talented members have gone on to engage in professional theatre school training with the emphasis on a career in the theatre arts. Plus, we have encouraged the art of story-telling in a dramatic medium and our actors have gone out into the community to develop and show off their skills.”

“With the 150th Anniversary of Nottingham Theatre Royal we felt that we needed to do the obvious production that was the inaugural production way back in 1865 – Sheridan's The School For Scandal'. It was cast by starting from a clean slate. We extensively advertised the opportunity to be involved through various local and national media and everyone, even people we had used before, had to audition with a single audition piece. Then we did group auditions and whittled it down. We had a lot of ladies audition so the production evolved with many of the male roles being played by women. This was so successful in creating a diverse, interesting and sexually charged piece that I almost considered having the whole cast as women! I loved the fact that Joseph and Charles were both played by young women and this was echoed through audience feedback too.”

“A practitioner called Gerry Flanagan came into the rehearsal process and helped with important clowning and physical theatre aspects of the play. Gerry is very thorough in his workshops and he really did push them. Interestingly we had three drop outs along the way but that doesn’t surprise me because in every single community show that I have done we have had a similar amount of drop outs. Sometimes people don't realise the hard nature of the commitment and sometimes they drop out for unfortunate personal reasons that no-one can predict. We just have to re-adjust and consider how to move on within the scenes. Each production is different and there were some extra pressures with this show because of the 150th Anniversary and the promenade aspects. I kept saying to everybody that when we are moving the audience around the theatre to each different place – that is still part of the performance. Overall, I truly believe that all the potential playfulness of Sheridan's comical play encouraged all creative aspects of the final piece and brought out really professional performances from a talented group of non-professional or amateur performers. I can't wait for the next project but I am so busy with the Nottingham Theatre Royal's 150th Anniversary celebrations that presently I have no idea what that might be.”

All production images are from The School For Scandal copyright Alan Fletcher.

All other images copyright author Phil Lowe.

For Phil Lowe's review of The School For Scandal click HERE.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review Brassed Off - Derby Theatre

Many happy years in this reviewer's life were spent in a hapless non- critical capacity just enjoying theatre as a form of entertainment and pleasurable education and there's nowt wrong with that lad. Then in the late 1980's this same reviewer took an unexpected big step into the world of higher education - an arts degree no less. This happened after a sudden redundancy from the Derbyshire based butchery firm he worked for at the time. Times were definitely 'a changing' as a certain Mr Dylan sang. Back then the papers and telly were full to bosting with news of the miners' strikes, the new and hated Poll Tax, Mrs Thatcher's government this and that - force for good - force for evil - dependent on the individual's and popular tabloid's bias. Be it political with a capital or small 'p' there was no escaping the dark mood of the apparently 'United Kingdom' in the 1980/90s and all domestic and economic security seemed to be going to rack and ruin for many. Communities in nearby or neighbouring Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, in the period covering the mid 1980s towards a decade later, felt the crippling effects of the changes and the devastation of once solid and mutually supportive mainly - working class - hands on - hard graft - industrial societies.

Meanwhile, this erstwhile and perhaps rather naïve theatre goer continued to haunt the Derby Playhouse, as was, and he saw every production at least once but, on the whole, considerably more times than that. The Derby Playhouse box office coffers swelled significantly at his generous and perpetual attendance.

Vicariously, he learnt so much psychological truth about other people's lives and gained much insight into the character's politics in all the senses; socially; politically; theatrically; surreally and even sexually. A certain German touring production of Miss Julie in the studio space even included real life naked actors!!!! Tut tut!

This theatrical house of 'well repute' was alive and kicking and still remains so today as it celebrates forty years of existence in its current form of the acclaimed Derby Theatre. Tonight this reviewer was honoured to help celebrate those forty years of theatrical excellence and wallowed in nostalgia as he chatted with friends new and old and counted at least 80% of the posters on the stairwell as shows he had enjoyed and even had been inspired to act in himself somewhat later in life.

Current artistic director Sarah Brigham, in a pre-show speech, referred to the hugely important need for a critical audience to share the theatrical experience and that notion can only be applauded and amalgamated into our shared theatrical consciousness. There are times in life when the spoken word can be perceived and truly understood as properly inspirational - not just some token 'put together' words for the occasion - but utterly heart- felt and honestly conveyed with a voice full with genuine hope and belief at its core. That is what I heard this evening. I heard of a Derby Theatre that has deep meaning for its community and beyond; one that is educational, inspiring and recognised. Here's to the next forty years and the future generations of theatre makers and theatre goers! I guess you were expecting a review of 'Brassed Off' so please read on...

Derby Theatre's gritty and realistic production of Brassed Off adapted by Paul Allen for the stage is as fluid and emotionally taut piece of theatre that you are ever likely to see on a British stage. It is directed with passion by Sarah Brigham and encompasses an incredible total of twenty-two actors (a professional and non-professional mix) who work on the piece over its entire run - plus a further, and much applauded commitment, from no-less-than forty members of the acclaimed Derwent Brass Band split between the shows. This band's involvement and talents cannot be under-estimated and must surely contribute to the standing ovations that the show has currently received every night of its performance so far.

Stage designer Ali Allen has brought to the stage a visual and working class concept that is abjectly poetic in its grimy coal crunching boot honesty. The fictional mining town of Grimley is conveyed through a clinging solid wall of grey dust and a clever perspective of council houses that desperately huddle together with coal dust hanging in the air and over every rimy roof - visually intimating a wintery despair for all. You can almost enter each property unseen in your head and visit the ghosts of Grimley's future. There they sit, angry, bleak and desperately cloying against mildewed wet-netted windows sodden with condensation under a pall of social doom. However, the tiny 'just visible' red light of the distant pit head depicts the ever prevalent human hope of the miners and their community. Imagination is all.

Well, this all sounds a bit Bleak House doesn't it? All is not lost though as this play offers a chance of hope and spirit renewed as the members of the fictional Grimley Brass Band struggle through their existences; their troubled lives; fatalities even, and as each political and social disaster befalls them mutual support prevails and prejudices are challenged for the better.

There are some excellent naturalistic performances from Garry Cooper as the passionate yet ailing Danny and Adam Horvarth as love struck Andy struggling between his feelings for old flame and talented brass band horn player Gloria (Seren Sandham-Davies) and the harsh realities of pit comradeship. Jimmy Fairhurst excels as troubled clown and miner Phil and his scene as he literally hangs from the pit head is heart-stopping and tragic.

At the throbbing heart of this poignant and often wryly funny piece are Darren Bancroft as Jim, Howard Chadwick as the lovable rascal Harry and the beating pulse of the piece belongs to the miners wives and girlfriends played with utter conviction and honesty by Jo Mousely (compelling as Sandra), Kate Wood as Rita and Lisa Allen as Vera. Supporting the female side are ensemble members drawn from Derby Theatre Community Ensemble - Nikita Mediratta, Sophie Whitebrook, Bethany Madden and Lucy Mabbit.

Brian Weaver Fellowship actor Jake Waring convinces us so well in his parts as miner, bailiff and announcer that he is barely recognisable in each separate role.

The children in the Brassed Off play are as important as the main actors and tonight Oliver Watts as Phil's son Shane totally steals the show. In a ridiculously assured performance his wish in the programme notes to one day 'be' an actor are blown out of the proverbial water. He 'is' an actor and a darned good one at that. With such promise maybe in twenty years time we will be enjoying his performances on the professional stage as an adult.

In a theatre full of 'hope and glory' the audience rise in a standing ovation at the end of an emotionally fulfilling night at Derby Theatre and in their unifying victorious applause are determined that the spirit of community and love of theatre is alive in Derby and beyond!

See DERBY THEATRE WEBSITE for booking details but don't leave it too long as this one is fast becoming a near sell out production.

For a fascinating insight into the working lives of Brassed Off actors Howard Chadwick and Jake Waring check out their recent interview HERE.

Production photos credit: Robert Day.

Hood – the legend continues review.

As part of the Nottingham Theatre Royal's celebration of 150 years existence seven local theatre writers; experienced playwrights plus other exciting new and proven talents have been commissioned to bring about Hood – the legend continues, a new piece of theatre relevant to Nottinghamshire. Written by Andy Barrett, Tim Elgood, James Graham, Laura Lomas, Mufaro Makubika, Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon, Hood – the legend continues, is also co-produced by one of Britain's best and most innovative touring Nottinghamshire based theatre groups – New Perspectives.


The director is Jack Mcnamara and the quick change stage designs are down to designer Rhys Jarman and these are graced with atmospheric lighting by Mark Pritchard, music by Tom Mills and choreography by Chantry Dance Company.

Hood – the legend continues is allegedly based on the ballads of Robin Hood and set in the century and a half from 1865 (the year that the Nottingham Theatre Royal first opened) to the present day, thus reflecting the 150th Anniversary. It is promoted as a journey through a one hundred and fifty years of Nottingham's vibrant and colourful history through the eyes of Robin Hood. The question we may ask ourselves as an audience is 'does this theatre work also promote Robin Hood as an international figure or limit itself to local history?' The answer is most certainly the local history slant wherein each section of the story looks at one aspect of the character Robin Hood and presents a version appropriate to the historical period.

Keeping the writing in and around Nottinghamshire, the piece scores on the side of jokes about local areas and gets a lot of laughs throughout. Making fun of rival cities like nearby Derby works too, as well as it might in a pantomime setting. However this reviewer has his doubts whether a visitor from outside the East Midlands or even abroad would find the mostly Nottingham related wit in the piece amusing.

Equally, the six part episodic nature of Hood – the legend continues finds one in a succession of short historically based stories some of which don't actually seem to go anywhere and the narrative thread of the whole is stretched rather thin. In the final scene relating to the nature of the Robin Hood industry a row of what look like random supernumerary pensioners in a long line wearing modern day clothes and metal helmets are revealed to the audience. Sadly they look uncomfortably very out of place. The show in general is thankfully upheld by some spirited acting from the company especially Ed Thorpe as a very funny and engaging Alan A Dale.

Adam Morris as The Sheriff of Nottingham is best in the Second World War scene and as a greedy politician in the 1980s New Nottingham section. More darkly comical than pure evil Morris engages and entertains the audience throughout. Robin Hood himself (Jonah Russell) is presented in various rebellious guises. Mostly non-conformist in nature, this idea of Hood or Loxely is more of a man of words than an action hero although he does get into a few fights and scrapes along the way. Russell does have a good authentic rough Nottingham accent and this works to his credit.

Some of the most flexible acting opportunities are given to the two actresses Jasmine Blackburrow (Marian) and Alex Bedward (Scarlett) and both offer very enjoyable performances. Particularly funny is Bedward as a beer guzzling Nun and boy/girl newspaper seller. Lastly, Ewan MacIntosh bigs it up as Little John and brings out the comedy in all his various roles.

Overall, Hood – the legend continues offers the Nottingham theatregoers a chance to celebrate 150 years of theatrical fare in their beautiful Nottingham Theatre Royal and in a climate where theatres and entertainment venues unfortunately close this can only be a good thing.

Runs until Saturday 26th September.
Originally published and written for The Public Reviews. 19th September 2015