Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Me and Me Dad. Reform Theatre Company.

Me and Me Dad is written by Nick Lane, writer of Housebound and My Favourite Summer and performed at the Derby Guildhall (on tour) by a talented cast of three by the Reform Theatre Company. The show originally started life through the Hull Truck Theatre Company though its programme and practice of developing promising writers and encouraging new theatre pieces.

The story of Me and Me Dad begins just after Dave’s mum dies and Dave has to make a decision about what to do for the best. Like many family units, Dave’s mum always did the cooking in the family household and was very good at it. On the death of his wife, Pete, Dave’s dad, suddenly finds he has no idea how to cook. He may be inept and ignorant in the kitchen, but he’s not stupid. In fact, like his son, he is very likeable but this is going to be one long grind in the kitchen. So, putting his failing acting career on hold for a month, Dave returns home to look after his father, primarily to teach him how to cook. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Playwright Nick Lane mines an emotionally rich seam of a very personal story and the play tackles an even more difficult and individualised subject than that of unrequited love that fed the prequel, My Favourite Summer. This time round the characters of Dave and his father are discovering how to fend for themselves, a loss of their own identities and how a young man can suddenly be forced to be a parent to his parent. Built into the story is the notion of the fear of getting things wrong, for all parties.

The two male leads are brilliantly and realistically played by David Walker as Pete and Ryan Cerenko as his frustrated son, Dave. Walker brings the husband and father who cannot let go of his dead wife poignantly to life and, to quote his son, “hovers around like a moth in shoes”. This character is no cardboard cut-out dad figure. Nick Lane has created a wonderfully believable character in Pete Lee, a man full of human variety; from obstinate to silly and full of lovable characteristics, even if very much set in his ways. Even his constant farting is somehow endearing.

Cerenko has the task of carrying the play through narration and acting out the often frustrating journey of the son in his mid-twenties. He is often subtly put down by his father and by the mad neighbour Joyce (Susan Mitchell) who treats him as if he is still a small boy. Cerenko carries this role off to perfection, instantly likeable as Dave, a character full of fluctuating confidence, one minute confident of his ability to teach his dad to cook and the next confused and hurt by his dad’s actions especially when his father tries to chat up his girlfriend, Susie.

The ragged jigsaw of a set, the family home, looks as blown apart as the family unit. As the play opens fine dust is rising in the living room as father and son are left alone to cope on the day of the funeral. It looks as if an emotional bomb has gone off but miraculously the furniture and the two estranged men are still standing.

The acting and direction are superb throughout but the acting honours must go to Susan Mitchell who plays the three female roles of Jean, the late departed mum and wife; Joyce, a loud and batty neighbour and terrible cook; and Susie the confidently brash girlfriend of Dave. As time flits back and forth throughout the play Mitchell inhabits each role to perfection: the caring and softly spoken mother Jean, very emotionally strong near the end in a tear jerking scene. Mitchell then becomes Aunty Joyce – a loud but well-meaning neighbour who cooks for and secretly fancies Pete and finally, as a complete transformation, we have the girlfriend Susie, smart, sassy, sexy and somewhat manipulative.

The dialogue is funny, touching, occasionally emotionally raw and judiciously uses a clever technique of two characters saying the same line in unison to reinforce the notion of family bonds. There are good displays of emotive bonding and the very believable cast’s chemistry works well to create a very engaging and rewarding evening at the theatre.

Me and Me Dad is directed by Keith Hukin

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews website 25th April 2013

Review by Phil Lowe.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Serious acting? Don't make me laugh...

Corpse. Noun and verb. Verb theatrical. Slang. 1 intr. Spoil a piece of acting by forgetting one's lines, laughing etc. 2 tr. Confuse (an actor) in the performance of his or her part. b. spoil (a piece of acting) by some blunder. Definition from the CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY.

I can be a bit of a giggler and it seems the more serious the acting piece is the greater the compulsion to laugh in inappropriate places becomes. My issue is not necessarily the nature of the piece but the person I am acting opposite. It boils down to the way a word is said, a particular look in the face of the other actor during a scene or sometimes just the position of the body. I can honestly say I have never ruined a play or a scene by laughing or giggling, but there have been some close calls.

The habit can develop during rehearsals when you discover the 'funny' thing by accident or design and you collapse with laughter and then try to regain the equilibrium. Looking at the other actor between the eyes, not in the eyes, but between the eyes and above the bridge of the nose can help. But once you start down the route of self reprimanding “Stop it! Now just stop it!” the chuckle muscles have another reason to flex themselves again and again. I have seen actors smack themselves around the face to cure this disease. That makes me laugh even more. Occasionally we have had to move to a completely different scene to regain normality.

Turning your body and face away from the audience can help you focus on the seriousness of the matter, but they will often see the shoulders going up and down.

There are theatrical stories of some cruel actors (often bored on long runs) who play tricks on their fellow actors by various means to see if they can make them laugh i.e. placing objects in places they shouldn't be or writing funny notes for the actors and putting them in a 'serious' stage letter and waiting for the actor to crack up. In the industry there are several very established actors such as Judy Dench and Patrick Stewart who are inveterate gigglers.

I have a had few memorable times on stage and in rehearsals when I have had to contain my laughter and really work very hard at getting through a particular scene without corpsing. The ones that stand out are working with a lovely actor called Piotr for the first time in a musical play called Poppy. I was playing Tao Kuan – Emperor of China and Piotr was Lin Tse Tsii – Commissioner to China. There was a particular scene where Piotr (wonderfully expressive face) was spouting some serious verse and he just looked so comical. I could hardly stop myself from laughing each night and was mightily relieved to escape from the scene and into the safety of the wings without breaking into gales of laughter. In fact the Poppy play was so full of silly situations and silly names that I'm surprised that more of us didn't giggle more on stage.

I have often had similar situations acting with my friend, Alison Hope and in the play, Abigail's Party we played tetchy husband and wife. In one part of the play her character was supposed to come on stage out of breath and giggling. To achieve this realistically she asked me to tickle her each night as we waited in the wings and then she would explode on to the set as Beverley in tucks.

In the 1980s I went to Derby Playhouse to see a professional production of a Joe Orton play where there was a live actor playing the part of a corpse. Must of the time he was hidden from view behind a piece of furniture or a screen. On the night I went I saw this 'corpse' subtly scratch their left leg. I nearly died laughing.

"Look here Mrs Elvsted, at this document." "I'm not looking! You've written a rude word."

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Review: I Was A Rat! at Nottingham Playhouse

This fabulous stage adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s very popular book, I Was a Rat! has arrived for the first time in the UK via the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company, in association with Nottingham Playhouse, Ipswich New Wolsey Theatre and Teatro Kismet, Bari (Italy). It is adapted and directed by Teresa Ludovico with an English text version by David Watson.

Ludovico is the artistic director of Teatro Kismet in Bari, southern Italy and is best known in the UK for her thrilling and physical productions of Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen and The Mermaid Princess. Watson joined the Birmingham Rep's scheme for young writers in 1999 and has gone on to write twelve plays including I Was a Rat!

Author, Philip Pullman’s glorious and gripping story, of a boy called Roger who fervently believes he was a rat, is brought to life on the Nottingham Playhouse stage until 13th April 2013. It combines humour, fantasy, and a stunningly theatrical adventure and this moving and darkly comic tale slowly reveals its roots to a well loved fairy tale.

As the play unfolds, a scruffy young boy knocks on the door of an elderly London couple – Bob and Joan. They were unable to have a child of their own and take the boy in, feed him and give him a name. The lad claims, over and over, that he was a rat and is puzzled to be in an alien world full of human beings. The strange, but instantly likeable lad, begins to act just like the creature he claims he was by playfully rolling around and gnawing on anything he can find, including pencils. Bob and Joan, lovingly played by Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle, try to teach him some manners but are unsure what to do with him for the best. They decide to venture out with Roger to the authorities for them to sort the matter out. Unfortunately, they have no luck finding a home through these channels as neither the police, the school or the town hall clerks will do anything to help. The rat boy is very much an innocent in an unfamiliar world.

Roger instinctively runs away from a thrashing on two or three occasions and, once out of the protection offered by Bob and Joan, Roger is exploited and abused by all and sundry including The Philosopher Royal and the owners of a very scary Commedia del arte style circus and even a bunch of urchins that act like Fagin's gang. He is treated as a freak yet desperately tries to see the best in all his tormentors. In his despair he ends up imprisoned and sentenced to 'stermination. Will Bob and Joan rescue him? Will the lovable Roger ever find happiness again?

As in the style of Italian Commedia del arte, the Playhouse stage is mainly bare. Through a combination of thrilling lighting effects, theatrics, mime and dance and the tremendously talented cast, whose witty physicality and engaging fluidity allow the story to unfold, each moment becomes a truly magical piece of theatre. There is a feeling of improvisation bursting from the performers but the show is magnificently rehearsed to the point where the actors are very confident and professional in their story telling expertise and appear to be 'playing' with the piece. The audience loved each new event and the style of presentation.

The outlandishly fabulous costumes and live music give the piece a historical context and a nightmarish sense of the absurd, ranging from the bizarre and silly, tall hatted, policemen to the garish tormenting clowns of the circus and the eerie beaked politicians and macabre, Judge and Jury. All was beautifully and energetically choreographed and each episode of the story of the rat boy carried the spectacle along in and easy to follow but, often unpredictable way.

Various props were used including regular usage of a very tall chair that allows the performers not only to make terrific use of the stage area but also, to give an advantage of loftiness or power to particular characters as Roger encounters them. The various fight scenes were spectacularly done as were the energetic dance sequences performed by Fox Jackson-Keen, as Roger. He is a fine actor and dancer and has previously played the lead in the West End Musical, Billy Elliot and Roger in the Birmingham Rep production.

The story's local newspaper, the Daily Scourge, was a common theme throughout with the news hounds vocally 'hounding' the 'Monster Rat in the Sewer' and exploiting every possible angle to sell the papers through scandal and sleaze. The scene in the sewers with the scared police officer seeking out 'the monster' was priceless, at once dark and scary and then comical as the two meet head to head.

There are some stunning quick changes from the main cast of eight to the point that the audience didn't even realise that certain actors were playing two or three characters in one scene. All of the multi-talented cast were superb, including the Playhouse youth group as the urchins.

The posters for the show recommend the minimum age of audience to be seven plus. It is an intelligent show for all the family but not for the tiny tots. This is one of those funny and intelligent shows you would happily go and repeatedly see in order to catch all the theatricality again and again.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Review: I Love Derby. Hardgraft Theatre Company

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.

Originally posted at

“Nothing at all ordinary about this comedy”

The comic story of Joyce and Burt Priory and their extraordinary day is heralded by an engaging and lively postman (David Crowely) who immediately connects with the audience to get them in the mood for the localised comedy written by Mark Whiteley of Hardgraft Theatre Company.

We discover frizzy haired Joyce Priory (Rayyah McCaul) as she is opening the charity shop as a volunteer. She is excited at the prospect of meeting Darren Dawes – a new pop sensation – who has been scheduled to officially open the new charity shop. Otherwise it is just an ordinary day. Things are about to dramatically change and take the ordinary into the extraordinary, with hilarious and touching consequences. The interval literally ends with a bang as a carrier bag containing a revolver, a ski mask and a tatty paper bag full of fifty pound notes is found in the charity shop and threatens to throw a spanner in the works of this ordinary day. Has the husband been killed? What will they do with the money? Will Darren Dawes turn up?

The writer, Mark Whitely, also plays Burt Priory in this fast paced production and there is a great sense of fun and camaraderie between the three players, McCaul, Crowely and Whiteley. McCaul and Whiteley particularly shine as a very believable and lovable husband and wife team on the horns of several comical and moral dilemmas. Their witty dialogue often has the audience in tears of laughter and spontaneous clapping during the play. This is especially true during a very amusing, partly mimed reconstruction, of husband Burt giving his terribly nervous wife a driving lesson.

Overall this production is enhanced by great comic timing and lovable, well drawn characters. It is obviously written from the heart. Croweley offers great support work through his humorous interpretations of the postman, a policeman and a potential cross dresser.

As you might expect in a play called I Love Derby there are references a plenty to the city of Derby that amused the appreciative Derby audience. As this is a touring production and changes its town name at each venue the writer and cast have to be applauded for working with the changes and keeping the comedy fresh for each new audience.

The set design was a simple set of screens festooned with clothes and detritus that one might find in any charity shop across the UK. The sound effects were spot on, often helping the action along and creating comic moments of its own.

The play at the Derby Guildhall is well directed by Keith Hukin who also directs for Yorkshire’s Reform Theatre.