Review: Hamlet Part II at the Hen and Chickens

If you’ve ever wondered what happened next after the tragic conclusion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) an answer can be found in the snappily titled Hamlet Part II from the Theatre of Heaven & Hell, returning to the Hen and Chickens after an acclaimed run at this year’s Camden Fringe. Whether it’s the answer Shakespeare had in mind I’m not totally sure, but one thing is certain: it’s a lot of fun.

Fun? I hear you ask, and not without good reason. After all, most of us know how Hamlet (Part I) ends – bodies all over the stage and Denmark’s entire royal family wiped out in one bloody encounter. Making a comedy out of that scenario would take some doing, you could suggest. And yet when you stop and think about it, there actually is something slightly comical about a play in which every character gets wiped out; it’s so extreme that it almost crosses the line from tragedy to comedy.

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Writer Perry Pontac seizes upon this blurring of genres and runs with it, picking up not only on the excessive quantity of corpses but also the many other slightly ridiculous elements of Shakespeare that we all put up with because – well, it’s Shakespeare. The flowery language; the drawn-out death bed speeches; the Fool who talks complete nonsense; the soliloquies that none of the other characters ever hear, even though they’re standing two feet away… all make an appearance. The story’s also packed with references to Shakespeare’s other plays – some subtle, some not so much; you don’t have to be a major literature buff to find the humour in this very accessible show.

Part of Pontac’s ‘Codpieces’ trilogy, the story sees Seltazar (Darren Ruston) return home to Denmark, met by court librarian Fornia (Elena Clements) who reluctantly unfolds the recent tragic events; her list of the dead is so extensive she has to check them all off on a clipboard. Together, with a bit of ‘help’ from a passing Fool (Nicholas Bright), the two attempt to figure out who’s left to take over the throne – but just as they hit upon a solution, the rightful king (Brian Eastty) appears… and it’s not who you might expect.

All four cast members give it their all, though it’s Darren Ruston and Elena Clements who take centre stage as Seltazar and Fornia; their evolving love-hate relationship really is a hilarious joy to watch from beginning to end. And director Michael Ward finds opportunities for humour even when nobody’s saying a word; the opening moments are particularly enjoyable, and so totally unexpected it’s almost impossible not to laugh.

A common complaint about Hamlet is that it’s too long; there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, and – let’s be honest – it’s not exactly the cheeriest of tales. No such problems with the sequel; at just 45 minutes, any hanging around is very much part of the joke, and unlike its predecessor, Pontac’s parody is genuinely a laugh a minute, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not. Though I can’t promise nobody dies in this one – it is still Hamlet, after all.

Hamlet Part II is at the Hen and Chickens until 10th December.

Interview: Sleeping Trees, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves

Sleeping Trees are “comthreedians” Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith. Known for their surreal, physical and fast-paced comedy, the guys’ 2016 pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, is currently going down a storm with audiences of all ages at Battersea’s Theatre503 (check out my rave review to find out more).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

“This show does to Scrooge what Pop Stars: The Rivals did to Nadine Coyle,” is the Sleeping Trees’ concise and typically unpredictable summary of their panto. After the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit, Santa’s forced to turn to an unlikely hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, to save the day. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly co-operate willingly… can an unexpected journey to Fairytale Land change his mind?

The show is a unique and hilarious mashup of several classic stories – so where did the idea come from? The guys explain: “We’ve always enjoyed playing with well-known pieces of literature. We’d wanted to adapt Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for ages, and when the opportunity came along to write another Christmas show we thought there’s no time like the [insert joke about ghost of Christmas Past] present [insert joke about Christmas future].

“It began with just a title that we thought sounded funny, and then we ran with it. Once we had a rough script – which was about 150 pages too long – we started the editing process. We have an absolutely brilliant team that helped us get it to the show it is today. Ben Hales came in first with the music and composition of all the songs and lyrics etc. Then the excellent director, Simon Evans, came on board as we continuously read from start to finish, cutting, changing and shaping as we went. All the while our costume and set designer Zahra Mansouri would be a fly on the wall and each day come in with ideas and examples that were simply mind blowing. Finally our stage, lighting and production management team brought it all to life.”

All the characters in the story are played by Josh, John and James, which unsurprisingly makes for a fast-paced and fairly chaotic two hours. “We have 18 ‘main characters’ that we visit throughout the show, plus an array – or rather an onslaught – of about 30 other pantomime and fairytale characters that make an appearance for one-off jokes or theatrical devices. It’s a lot of fun playing all of them. Tiny Tim probably wins the Sleeping Trees’ favourite – either him or a prehistoric cameo… no spoilers!”

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Let’s not forget that this is a pantomime, so audiences should be prepared to get involved in all the usual – and some not so usual – ways, much to Sleeping Trees’ glee. “Oh yes, we are thrilled with the participation we’ve created for this show. It will certainly be a unique experience for every audience member coming to see it. Nothing too stressful – just a lot, a lot of fun. After all, pantomimes remind everyone it’s Christmas, and who doesn’t like Christmas? Apart from Ebenezer, but trust us, we’re working on it!”

Sleeping Trees have now been together for seven years, and are looking forward to a bright (and busy) future. “We’ve been together since 2009, making theatrical comedy shows whilst collaborating with artists, comedians and musicians, and now have nine full length productions that we tour. It started once we got a taste of the Edinburgh fringe and have been a growing brand ever since. 

“The company aims to continue making comedy for stage and hopes to adapt our comedy for radio and television. We’re looking to begin touring internationally from 2017 onwards, with our latest trilogy of live action movies, Mafia? Western? and Sci-Fi? as well as writing a brand new Edinburgh Fringe show. We’re going to go back to our roots and write a stripped back show with just the three of us on stage. So the future is exciting for the entire team, and it will be our biggest tour to date, so we hope you can all come along and experience the journey with us. Merry Christmas folks.”

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves is at Theatre503 until 7th January.

Review: Her Aching Heart at the Hope Theatre

Her Aching Heart is the Hope Theatre’s third and final in-house production of 2016, billed as “a bodice-ripping musical full of gothic silliness and sapphic tomfoolery!” Who could say no to that?

Well not me, as it turns out, because I loved it. Bryony Lavery’s lively comedy, in the expert hands of the Hope’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker, transports us into the pages of a gothic romance novel – with all the flowery language, heaving bosoms and melodramatic sighs you might expect.

Photo credit: Roy Tan
Photo credit: Roy Tan

In modern day London, Harriet and Molly are taking their first tentative, awkward steps into a relationship, while simultaneously in 18th century Cornwall, the fictional Lady Harriet Helstone, an aristocrat with an unfortunate habit of killing innocent wildlife, meets Molly Penhallow, a kind-hearted country girl who wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney movie. Despite having nothing in common, not to mention clashing on their first encounter over the grisly fate of one of Molly’s fox friends, the two women find themselves unexpectedly drawn together, in an irresistible love story guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart.

From the moment the first chapter, “A Nun has a Nightmare”, is introduced, we know we’re in for a fun evening. Collette Eaton and Naomi Todd throw themselves into their roles with infectious enthusiasm, not only playing both versions of Harriet and Molly but an assortment of other characters too, and doing it all to perfection. Making creative use of a cramped space that offers barely enough room to swing a – er – fox, the two performers manage to wring every last drop of comic potential out of the most unlikely scenes – who would have thought a roe deer being trampled by a horse could result in such howls of laughter?

That said, there’s also a genuine chemistry between the two that makes the fledgling relationship of their modern counterparts both moving and believable. The present day story of Harriet and Molly, to which we return at various points throughout the evening, marks a clear and occasionally jarring change in tone that takes a bit of getting used to. Each time the red velvet curtain swishes closed and the actors break into one of Ian Brandon’s musical numbers, we’re thrown into an altogether more contemplative mood, and reminded that love is far more complex than cheesy romance novels would have us believe. These scenes, though they may seem like an afterthought to the comedy action, we ultimately realise are the true emotional heart of the show. Real life can be painful and difficult – but it can also at times be infinitely more rewarding than fiction.

Photo credit: Roy Tan
Photo credit: Roy Tan

Her Aching Heart is a laugh out loud comedy and touching romance, which simultaneously pays tribute to and affectionately pokes fun at the Mills and Boon genre by which it’s inspired. An unexpected delight, in which all the elements – great writing, fantastic performances and quality production – come together to produce a magnificent whole, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this show.

Her Aching Heart is at the Hope Theatre until 23rd December.

Review: Dick Whittington at the Marlowe Theatre

You wait all year for a pantomime, and then two come along at once. Following Monday’s hilarious outing to Theatre503 for Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, my pantomime expectations were set sky-high. So did the Marlowe’s Dick Whittington, my second panto in two days, hit the mark? Oh yes it did…

Although a far more traditional pantomime than the night before, there’s so much to love in Paul Hendy’s production that it never once feels tired, despite the presence of all the usual tried and tested panto conventions. The gags – which include the usual local digs and up-to-the-minute topical references – are genuinely funny (even the ones you can see coming a mile off) and while there’s certainly no shortage of innuendo, it’s refreshing to note that Hendy’s avoided the temptation to go after the obvious Dick jokes. And there’s also a 21st century twist to keep us on our toes: a 3D section takes us into a dreamy underwater world that soon becomes more of a nightmare, sending the already impressive decibel level clean through the roof.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

The big name in this year’s Canterbury panto is TV presenter and magician Stephen Mulhern, who charms us with his scene-stealing tricks and infectious giggle. But he’s far from the only star on the stage: West End performer John Barr is a very stagey King Rat (very confusing for a musical theatre fan; half the time I couldn’t decide whether to boo or applaud, and usually ended up doing both). Gymnast Vladimir Georgievsky brings the house down with a jaw-dropping and entirely unexpected (unless you watch Britain’s Got Talent) trampolining display in Act 2. And Marlowe regulars Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett, appearing together for the sixth year in a row, are a dream comedy duo as Dolly The Cook and Captain Crabstick; clearly having just as much fun as the audience, they really are a joy to watch.

There are moments when you could even forget you’re watching a pantomime altogether, so polished is the production. There are some spectacular group numbers – not least the Act 2 opener, Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat from Guys and Dolls, and later a slightly tenuous but still hugely enjoyable celebration of everything that makes Great Britain great. And in a nice moment Chris Wong, the obviously hugely respected musical director of 22 years, joins the show’s romantic leads, Ben Carruthers’ Dick and Jemma Carlisle’s Alice, on stage with an acoustic guitar for the inevitable cheesy love duet.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

I haven’t been to the Canterbury panto for a long time, but if every year is as good as this one, I’ll definitely be back. Dick Whittington remains true to the pantomime spirit and format, so nobody who turned up particularly wanting to watch an assortment of odd characters sit on a bench and sing Ghostbusters goes home disappointed. But while it’s as predictable and cheesy as you might expect, the show never compromises on production quality, and proves a hugely enjoyable evening for audience members of all ages.

Dick Whittington is at the Marlowe Theatre until 8th January.

Review: Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves at Theatre503

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t really feeling the Christmas love when I arrived at Theatre503 last night; even being handed a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie didn’t quite do the job. Lucky then that the Sleeping Trees were more than up to the challenge of unearthing my festive spirit.

In this year’s pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, the comedy trio made up of Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith, are determined to make good on last year’s fiasco, when they forgot to book their 30-strong cast of actors. Surely something that disastrous couldn’t possibly happen again…?

You see where this is going.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Over the course of the next two hours, this hilarious tale brings to life a mash-up of Dickens and Disney, with Santa thrown in for good measure. Unlikely hero Ebenezer Scrooge is transported to Fairytale Land by Santa’s mother, charged with saving the day after the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit. I could tell you more – but I don’t want to ruin it, because it’s the twists and turns that make this story so fabulous; you literally never know (and it often feels entirely possible that the actors don’t either) what’s going to happen or who’s going to appear next.

I also fear I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the unique genius of Sleeping Trees’ creations, which include a depressed Mary Poppins, a gurning Wicked Witch and an overenthusiastic Broomstick, accompanied from a corner by composer and musician Ben Hales, who besides being a brilliant and versatile performer, also carries off a series of ridiculous hats (and an even more ridiculous Act 2 costume) with effortless style.

Scrooge is a family show, and although the audience last night was largely composed of grown-ups (in age, at least), I can imagine children adoring it – not least because they get to throw stuff, sing songs and join in with all the usual pantomime madness. In the intimate space at Theatre503, the banter flows easily and naturally between audience and actors, with the front row being particularly hot seats in that department…

Though the attention to detail and comic timing are second to none, like all the funniest comedy it’s not always clear what’s planned and what just sort of happens in the moment. The actors, who are clearly having a blast, seem frequently as amused as the audience, but also have the quick instincts of true comedians, enabling them to respond to whatever mayhem goes on (last night’s show, for instance, featured an incident which, if it was in fact unplanned, was the best example of falling with style I’ve ever seen).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
This is my first pantomime of the season, and while the others may enjoy bigger budgets and household names, they already have a huge standard to live up to. Face-achingly funny, with an imaginative and endearing story and songs that are far too catchy (24 hours later, I’m still singing the closing number), this is an absolute must-see that I shall be recommending repeatedly to anyone who’ll listen for the rest of the holiday season. Merry Christmas…

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves is at Theatre503 until 7th January.