Review: Into The Woods at the Cockpit Theatre

Once upon a time… Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine got together to write a musical based on classic fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. But there’s a twist to this tale: the happy ending comes halfway through, and on reflection in Act 2 turns out to be not quite so happy after all – mostly because none of the characters is satisfied even after they get their wish. A lot of the show’s appeal lies in that simple fact: after listening to their stories all our lives, it’s oddly comforting to discover our favourite fairy tale characters are just as flawed as the rest of us.

In this revival of his 2014 adaptation, Tim McArthur takes that idea one step further, bringing the characters out of their fairy tales altogether and into a world inspired by 21st century reality TV. TOWIE, Jeremy Kyle and Made in Chelsea are all recognisable influences – although interestingly, the Baker and his Wife seem to hail more from Greggs than from Bake Off.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

It’s a clever concept, and works reasonably well in terms of entertainment value as the various characters are introduced, although it doesn’t really go anywhere after that. The story – and some of the characters – remain very much rooted in a world of myth and magic, where it jars slightly that even these very modern characters can’t just whip out their phones and Google how to get what they want.

For lovers of fairy tales, the musical itself is an enchanting blend of familiar and original. The story centres around a childless Baker (Tim McArthur) and his Wife (Jo Wickham), who have to collect four obscure items to break the curse put on them by the Witch (Michele Moran) so they can have a baby. Into the woods they go, where they stumble into the paths of Jack (Jamie O’Donnell), Cinderella (Abigail Carter-Simpson), Rapunzel (Louise Olley) and Red Riding Hood (Florence Odumosu) – who just happen to have all the things they need. All seems well, until in a considerably darker Act 2, a giant starts terrorising their village and the characters are forced back into the woods to fight for survival.

This production is staged in the round, which both works and at the same time, really doesn’t. On the plus side, it does mean that the audience feels surrounded by the action; you never quite know where an actor is going to pop out of next. On the other, even from my relatively high vantage point, I couldn’t see or hear much of what was happening on the other side of Joana Dias’ impressive but complicated set of many ladders, and consequently felt like I was missing out on half the action. This wasn’t helped by the score, which frequently has actors speaking or singing over each other, and to make matters worse, there were also a few technical problems with the sound system at this particular performance.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

In spite of these issues, the cast are generally very good, with standout vocal performances from Michele Moran and Abigail Carter-Simpson as the Witch and Cinderella respectively. Meanwhile Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke bring the house down with their hilariously posh rendition of Agony (yah), and Jamie O’Donnell and Madeleine MacMahon are good fun as Glaswegian Jack and his chain-smoking, beer-swigging Mother – although their accents are at times so thick, particularly in the musical numbers, that it can become tricky to make out what they’re saying.

Though not without some problems, Into The Woods is nonetheless an ambitious and entertaining show, which puts an interesting new spin on a classic whilst retaining the wit and charm of the original. Worth a visit for fairy tale family fun.

Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s new adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde takes the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and fills in some of the gaps. While this might not please everyone, I must admit I haven’t read the book, so personally I had no problem with the plot’s bare bones being substantially fleshed out. Inspired by Lane’s own experience following an accident that permanently damaged his neck and back, this production humanises the troubled Dr Jekyll and offers some justification for his actions… and even manages to raise a bit of sympathy for the villainous Mr Hyde.

The basic plot of the novella is reasonably well known; mild-mannered, respected scientist Dr Jekyll invents a serum that transforms him into a violent, remorseless alter ego: Mr Hyde. In this version, however, he also has a love interest – his friend Hastie’s wife Eleanor, whose fascination with his work and dissatisfaction with her own uninspiring life make her an unwitting catalyst to the devastating events that follow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The cast is small – just four actors play all the characters between them – but perfectly formed, working comfortably together as an ensemble but also impressing individually. Jack Bannell in particular gives an excellent physical performance, his demeanour, voice, and personality completely changing before our eyes as he transforms from the stooped figure of Jekyll into the cold, predatory Hyde. At first brusque and dismissive, Jekyll is softened by his love for Eleanor and his own weakening body, his desperation over both causing him to experiment on himself. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand – even if still impossible to condone – what led him to this point, and to sympathise with the temptation that keeps drawing him back to the physically stronger and more passionate Hyde.

Paige Round is similarly impressive as Eleanor. Far from a token love interest, she finds herself on her own dark path as she breaks away from good guy husband Hastie and is drawn inexorably to Hyde. It’s a bit of a clichĂ©, maybe – women like a bad boy, etc – but the actors make it believable, with a sizzling chemistry that’s noticeably absent between Eleanor and Ashley Sean-Cook’s nice but boring Hastie. The inclusion of Eleanor also allows for a bit of discussion on gender issues; both Hastie and Jekyll initially dismiss her interest in and understanding of their work, and it’s largely Hastie’s expectation that she stay at home and play the little wife that pushes her towards Hyde in the first place.

The cast is completed by Zach Lee as Jekyll’s concerned friend and lawyer Gabriel Utterson; though his primary role is to narrate the uncovering of Jekyll’s secret, he also appears in arguably the most visually striking scene in the play: an intense, dramatic slow motion sequence that’s so perfectly choreographed we can feel every blow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The play’s performances are supported by Claire Childs’ lighting design, which makes great use of bold colours and projected shadows to establish a threatening atmosphere from the beginning, and haunting melodies composed by Tristan Parkes beautifully performed by Paige Round and the rest of the cast.

While perhaps not the story Robert Louis Stevenson intended, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde does remain faithful to the central plot, and offers an interesting – if rather more forgiving – interpretation of the story and its central character. Touching on a variety of themes, including gender issues, mental health and the ethical responsibilities of science, this chilling new adaptation certainly gives us plenty to think about.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Sound of Music at the Orchard Theatre

If the measure of a good show is how many people burst into song as they leave the theatre, The Sound of Music is surely well up there. Based on the true story of the Von Trapp family, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is undoubtedly a classic, featuring a host of much-loved songs, a heartwarming love story, some unexpected Nazis and the world’s nicest children. What’s not to love?

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Set in 1930s Austria, The Sound of Music tells the story of Maria, a young woman struggling to adapt to the restrictive life of a nun, who’s sent away to live with the Von Trapp family as a governess. Charmed by the seven musically talented Von Trapp children, it’s not long before she starts to fall for their father too. All seems to be turning out well, until the Nazis turn up and try to ruin everything (as Nazis do).

Bill Kenwright’s revival stars Lucy O’Byrne, who gives a pitch perfect performance in just about every way. Maria is a role that requires a lot more vocally than just do-re-mi, and O’Byrne wastes no time in showing off the incredible range that took her all the way to the final of TV’s The Voice, along with the irresistible joie de vivre that instantly wins over both Von Trapps and audience alike.

But it’s not just the star of the show who hits the mark vocally. Rebecca Caine comes close to outshining the rest of the cast, as she brings down the curtain on both acts with her stunning rendition of Climb Every Mountain. Former Corrie star Andrew Lancel produces a charming Edelweiss, and the Von Trapp children repeatedly melt our hearts with their polished performance and beautiful harmonies.

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Gary McCann’s set is one of the most impressive I’ve seen at the Orchard. The story takes us back and forth more than once between Nonnberg Abbey and the Von Trapp house, with occasional trips to other locations – and the set follows suit, without ever missing a beat or compromising on either scale or detail. And these frequent set changes happen so smoothly that the audience, absorbed in the story and music, barely notices them.

Nazis aside, The Sound of Music is very much a feel-good show; it’s difficult not to walk out feeling a little bit better about life (and, let’s be honest, even the Nazis aren’t that scary, really). It’s a love story first and foremost, but there are some other themes in there too, like growing up, finding your passion in life and standing up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone else says. Also, singing is good. As are hills.

For lifelong fans of The Sound of Music, this revival is a fitting tribute. For first timers or – dare I say it – sceptics, it may just win you over. Either way, it’s a production not to be missed.

The Sound of Music is at the Orchard Theatre until 1st October.

Interview: John Ginman, Frankenstein

2016 is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and critically acclaimed Blackeyed Theatre are marking the occasion with a brand new adaptation of the classic horror story. The production, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, will feature Bunraku-style puppetry designed and built by Yvonne Stone, with live music composed by Ron McAllister – and sees the company reunite with John Ginman, who wrote their hugely successful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 2013.

“It’s refreshing to work again with such a talented team who have a commitment to high standards,” John explains. “Blackeyed Theatre’s work keeps evolving but the key ingredients are always the same: a passion for distinctive live theatre, strong creative leadership, a company of multi-skilled performers, and a determination to take bold, innovative live shows to audiences throughout the country.”

Frankenstein, Blackeyed Theatre

In 1816, nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley composed the first draft of Frankenstein as part of a writing competition with Lord Byron, John Polidori and Percy Shelley, during a wet summer’s stay at Lake Geneva. Two centuries later, her novel continues to both fascinate and horrify readers and audiences across the world. But how can we explain this enduring popularity?

“It’s partly a matter of genre,” John suggests. “Gothic fiction has been popular with readers for more than two centuries – though it’s fair to say that Frankenstein has reached its largest audiences through its numerous stage, and later film, adaptations. In writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley has created a powerful new version of an ancient myth. Its narrative seeks unashamedly to ‘chill the blood’, which readers and audiences love. However, the story engages us even more deeply because it still poses questions that challenge us. Should we limit what scientists are allowed to research, in an age when boundaries to knowledge no longer seem to exist? And how can we ensure that we take responsibility for the discoveries we make?”

As with any classic work, adapting Frankenstein was not without its challenges: “The key challenge is to translate a 200-page novel into two hours of theatre for audiences who may or may not be familiar with the book. You have to be selective and identify what’s essential in terms of story, character, tone and themes. The bottom line is that the story has to be clear. It also has to work as theatre, and you have to achieve this with images, space, sound and rhythm, of which the spoken words are also a part. You have to remember that as you are writing.

“The other challenge is to honour the novelist’s vision. In this case I wanted to put on stage the important aspects of the novel that are often excluded in adaptations. We’ve used Robert Walton’s story as a frame to focus the whole action, which allows The Creature to tell the story from his point of view – it’s clearly important to Mary Shelley that we understand how he thinks and feels.

“It’s also wise to be aware of any shortcomings the book might have. In this case, surprisingly perhaps, the female characters have less depth than the men, and I’ve worked to give more substance to Elizabeth, in particular.”

John reflects on his previous collaboration with Blackeyed Theatre back in 2013: “Dracula confirmed my sense that you can achieve almost anything in a live show with very simple theatrical elements, and that you have to trust the skill and versatility of the performers to create the effects you need. The script is like a musical score and so really comes to life when it’s being performed. Also, I noted the hunger of audiences for powerful live theatre in venues large and small the length of the UK, and that’s been very encouraging.”

In a unique and exciting twist, the production will feature a full-size 6’4″ Bunraku-style puppet, which needs up to three people to manipulate it. It’s been designed and built by Yvonne Stone, who’s working with Blackeyed Theatre for the first time, and whose previous credits include Warhorse and His Dark Materials for the National Theatre.

What does John feel this use of puppetry adds to the play? “That will be for the audience to say! Puppets can be remarkably expressive and add more dimensions to the experience of a live show. Bunraku has a wonderful, long tradition in Japanese theatre, but we’re using its techniques here in a completely contemporary way.”

Audiences across the UK will have the opportunity to see the show as it embarks on an extensive tour later this month, taking in over 30 venues before Christmas and additional locations in the spring. “My chief hope is that the audience will enjoy a powerful two hours of theatre, something quite distinct from watching a film version, for example,” concludes John. “I also hope that they will realise there is much more to the novel than the familiar horror story about a crazed scientist.”

Frankenstein opens at Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, on 22nd September. Full tour dates and ticket info can be found on Blackeyed Theatre’s website.

Review: Anna Karenina at Jack Studio Theatre

If, like me, you’ve often thought about reading Tolstoy but been put off just by looking at the list of characters, let alone the number of pages, help is at hand. In their first non-Shakespeare production, Arrows & Traps have pulled off the astonishing achievement of compressing a 1,000-page novel into a little under three hours, with a cast of just eight, whilst still remaining faithful to the plot.

Anna, the respected wife of provincial governor Karenin (Adam Elliott), abandons her duty and reputation when she’s swept into a passionate affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Will Mytum). Meanwhile landowner Levin has money and power, and the freedom to do anything he likes, but is desperately in love with Kitty (Pippa Caddick), the woman he believes will give his life purpose. Anna and Levin’s lives fit together to make a whole, with each possessing what the other longs for, and Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, directed by Ross McGregor, highlights this synergy beautifully. The stories unfold in parallel, and though Anna and Levin have never met, from the outset each becomes the voice of reason for the other, the one they confide in and from whom they seek help and comfort. Their dialogue also serves a second, more practical purpose, filling in the gaps with regard to setting and context, so that each time one asks the other, ‘Where are you now?’ it’s as much for our benefit as theirs.

Anna Karenina

As a result, the production needs little in the way of set or props, and the story is carried almost wholly by the fantastic cast. Most of them take on multiple roles, but keep them perfectly distinct, so we always know who we’re looking at, and even the comparatively minor roles are memorable (I particularly enjoyed Hannah Wilder’s giggling, superficial Princess Betsy). The two leads, Ellie Jacob and David Paisley, each capture to perfection the essence of their character: Anna’s charm and quick wit, which enchant everyone she meets, have a similar effect on the audience, while Levin wins our sympathy as a good, honest man radiating quiet desperation at the lack of direction in his life.

A third plot thread involves Anna’s adulterous brother Stiva (Spencer Lee Osborne) and his long-suffering wife Dolly, who’s played by Cornelia Baumann in a truly heartbreaking performance. Of all the stories, Dolly’s is perhaps the most devastating, as she lets Anna convince her to remain in her unfaithful marriage, and consequently ends up feeling she’s never really lived at all.

What’s particularly impressive about Arrows & Traps’ production is the way it somehow manages to be both intimate and epic, getting right to the heart of the characters but also capturing the scale of the novel. There are a few moments – the ballroom, the races, and in particular Anna and Vronsky in the snow – that feel almost cinematic, which is quite an achievement on such a tiny little stage.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina has a bit of everything – romance, tragedy (by the way, the death scenes are brilliantly done, and in one case almost a bit too convincing), drama, social commentary, and even a few moments of comedy to lighten the mood. With 1,000 pages of text to condense down, it’s no surprise that this is an intense and gripping production – but one that I’d happily go and see again tomorrow.

It’s even made me consider reading the novel. Well, maybe…

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