Review: The Orchestra at Omnibus Theatre

The show must go on… but at what cost? In Jean Anouilh’s The Orchestra, set just after World War II, petty in-fighting and lingering suspicions between the members of an orchestra in a small French spa town contrast sharply with their jaunty repertoire. Under the watchful eye of the manager, they must play on despite mounting tensions, uncomfortable revelations, and an unexpected climax to the evening’s entertainment.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Set in real time, the 50-minute play alternates between musical interludes and the snatches of conversation in between, and sometimes during, the performances. From these we learn that leader Mme. Hortense (Amanda Osborne) and cellist Suzanne (Stefania Licari) are love rivals, fighting inexplicably over the orchestra’s meek pianist – and sole male – M. Leon (Pedro Casarin); violinists Patricia (Luna Dai) and Pamela (Sarah Waddell) clash over their very different views on sex and relationships; and flautist Leona (Jessica Hulme) is forced to sit and gasp appreciatively as Ermeline (Charlotte Laporte) talks at length about her marital problems. And all the while, the manager (Toph Enany) prowls in and out of the theatre – having also made his presence felt in the bar before the show – as a constant reminder of the pressure to paste on a smile and perform.

There’s an undercurrent of dark humour in Anouilh’s text, translated by Jeremy Sams, though it’s more of the satirical than the laugh out loud variety. Bickering and breakdowns are delivered with conviction by the internationally diverse cast, with Amanda Osborne particularly enjoyable as she tries to keep the group upbeat and focused on the task at hand. While the other characters’ conversations establish a backdrop of ongoing frustration with their own lives, the love triangle that connects Mme. Hortense with Stefania Licari’s melodramatic Suzanne and Pedro Casarin’s perpetually flustered M. Leon is more immediate and explosive, providing some drama and preventing the play from becoming too static.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Unfortunately the musical scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith’s production – with the exception of the final one – don’t hold our attention in the same way, and this frequent loss of engagement means the play never quite takes off. The cast do a convincing job of miming along with the recorded soundtrack, but besides a few sideways glances and the odd bit of dialogue, there’s often not that much going on. Perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the divide between the players’ professional and personal demeanours; that certainly comes across very effectively. But it does mean that after a while – each piece is a good couple of minutes – the audience is left with not much to look at, the cheerful tunes we’re listening to (composed by Felix Cross) already having been dismissed by members of the orchestra themselves as little more than background music for a polite but indifferent audience.

Most of us have, at some point, had to put aside workplace squabbles and present a united front in the name of professionalism. Anouilh’s play presents a heightened version of that scenario, taking it to absurd lengths and setting it in a very particular time and place, but it remains enjoyably relatable – and this production, while not perfect, is a welcome revival.

The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre until 17th February.


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Review: Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue at Mid Kent College Theatre

The latest show from Kent-based Fluffy Top Productions’ is Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue about the highs and lows of… well, parenthood. With an original score and book by Emily Moody (who also directs) and Pete Moody, the production takes the form of a series of over 20 individual vignettes, exploring everything from pregnancy to becoming a grandparent. It’s predominantly a comedy, and paints a hilariously accurate – and often less than rosy – picture of life as a parent. But for all the mess and mayhem we encounter along the way, ultimately it’s a celebration of the journey and everything that comes with it.

 

That journey includes the sleep deprivation of the new mum, deciphering fridge doodles, competitive parenting, navigating the treacherous teenage years, waving the kids off to start their adult life… and lots, lots more. Each scene is enjoyable in its own right – many of them very much so, drawing howls of laughter from an audience who could clearly identify with the characters. The score, too, is catchy and fun (though very much adults only, due to quite a bit of bad language and a few dance moves that are best not witnessed by younger eyes). However, the “sketch show” format of the performance, which sees each scene end with a fade-out followed by a pause while the next one is set up, gives the evening a rather stop-start feel. This, along with the lack of any particular narrative flow or returning characters for us to invest in, means the show does begin in Act 2 to feel a little bit longer than it needs to be.

As a picture of parenthood, however, it’s spot on – or so I was reliably informed at the end by the ladies sitting next to me (their review of the evening: “that’s exactly what it’s like!”). Even for a non-parent, it’s clear that the comedy is very well-observed and brutally honest; much of the humour lies in the fact that the writers – who are parents themselves – aren’t afraid to say what they really think, instead of wrapping the experience of having children in excessive sentimentality. While that’s undeniably a good thing, the more reflective moments that do exist feel very few and far between, and the show could perhaps benefit from a little more emotion to balance things up a bit.

The cast of nine give strong comedy and vocal performances, despite being let down quite badly at the performance I attended by problems with the sound system. The show is very much an ensemble piece, and the variety of scenes provides each member of the cast with an opportunity to showcase their versatility, as they perform not only as a multitude of different characters, but also in a range of musical styles and some delightfully eccentric costumes (highlights include Astra Beadle’s show-stopping Superman/Princess outfit and Jordan Brown’s memorable appearance as a star in the school nativity).

As a brand new piece of musical theatre, Parenthood has much to recommend it, and with a bit of tightening up it has great potential for future development. There’s a lot to enjoy for parents and non-parents alike; the former will be able to recognise elements of their own stressful but rewarding experience, while the latter – like Auntie Jen in one of the musical numbers – can sit back, relax and revel in a childfree life of contraception and wine.

Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue was performed at Mid Kent College Theatre from 15th-17th November. For details of future performances, visit fluffytopfriends.com.

Review: The Fire Raisers at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The Fire Raisers was written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1948, reportedly as a response to the Communist takeover in Prague – though the play never specifically references that event. Instead, it takes as its setting the home of respected middle-class businessman Gottlieb Biedermann, whose town has recently been targeted by serial arsonists. Biedermann is one of the first to speak out against the attacks – but when two fire raisers talk their way into his home, making absolutely no secret of their intention to burn it down, he flat-out refuses to acknowledge the truth that’s right in front of his eyes.

Described by Frisch as a “lesson without teaching”, the allegorical play can be seen as a comment on any number of 20th or 21st century political events that have seen even the most respectable citizens turn a blind eye to blatant wrongdoing. It’s left to the audience, however, to decide specifically where and how we apply that message. This new production by Theatre of Heaven and Hell is similarly non-specific – although the inclusion of original songs by director Michael Ward does give the play at times an unnecessarily didactic feel, particularly during a rather heavy-handed and superfluous final number.

The cast of actor-musicians generally manage the comedic chaos well, with strong central performances in particular from Darren Ruston as Biedermann, and Marius Clements and Jake W Francis as the two would-be arsonists. Ruston’s Biedermann is very much the everyman, despite his many flaws, and even as we laugh at his stubborn stupidity, we can understand – if not condone – why he behaves as he does. When he turns to the audience and demands to know what we would have done in his shoes, it’s a particularly uncomfortable moment for everyone.

Similarly, we can’t help but be charmed by Clements and Francis, even though we know full well they’re up to no good. Each time they openly admit they’re plotting to burn down Biedermann’s house, we laugh along with both them and their victim because it seems so ludicrous; who would confess such a thing if they really meant to do it? Watching them, we’re reminded of those leaders who use their charisma and the appearance of buffoonery to slip under the radar (in keeping with the spirit of the play, I won’t name names – but I think we can all think of a couple of examples…).

At once an enjoyable absurdist comedy and a cautionary political parable, The Fire Raisers is a fun show with a bit of an edge. There are times when the production feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to get its point across, rather than allowing Frisch’s script to speak for itself – but that grumble aside the play has lots to say and, for the most part, says it well.

The Fire Raisers is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th November.

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Review: The Full Brontë at The Space

The life and works of the Brontës have been the traffic of many a stage over the years – but I suspect never quite like this. Scary Little Girls’ two-hander “literary cabaret” The Full Brontë is a joyously chaotic homage to the famous writing family, which features song, dance, storytelling, Kate Bush, Black Lace, a “ukelady”, quite a bit of audience participation and several packets of crisps.

The show is hosted by “actor-manager” Maria (Rebecca Mordan) and her amiable, much put-upon assistant Brannie (Sharon Andrew), who does everything else – music, props, wardrobe, stage management… you get the idea. It quickly transpires that what was supposed to be a celebration of the Brontës is in reality intended as a celebration of Maria’s great artistic talent – or at least it would be if Brannie didn’t keep stealing all the best lines and showing her boss up with a more in-depth knowledge of the Brontë family history. Somewhat predictably, though Maria casts herself as the star, Brannie quietly – and quickly – wins us over, so it’s no surprise that in any moment of conflict between the two, the audience always sides with her.

It’s also no particular surprise that despite the title, there’s not actually much about the Brontës in the show. References to their novels and poetry are sketchy at best, often straying on to other topics including (of course) a couple of awkwardly shoehorned jokes about Brexit and Trump. Even the extended scenes based on the Brontës’ two best-known novels – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – reveal far more about the tense partnership between Maria and Brannie than they do about the literary works that inspired them.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however (although anyone going along to actually try and learn something about the Brontës might disagree), and the comedic talents of Rebecca Mordan and Sharon Andrew more than compensate for the show’s lack of literary substance. Both audience and actors are kept on our toes by the threat/promise that most of us will be “used” at some point during the evening, and it’s often these improvised exchanges with audience members – when neither party quite knows what might happen next – that get the biggest laughs.

The Full Brontë is without doubt a very silly, chaotic 80 minutes, during which you’ll learn next to nothing about the Brontës (except that they may or may not have been Cornish…?) and may well come out a bit more confused and considerably more flustered than when you went in. But even so, it’s hard not to be charmed by this thoroughly entertaining comedy duo, and for an evening of good-natured fun, the show is well worth a visit.

The Full Brontë is at The Space until 3rd November.


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Review: Pickle Jar at Soho Theatre

When you’re at school, you tend to assume your teachers are fully functioning adults who have life all figured out. Then a few years pass, you reach the age they were when they taught you, and you’re startled to realise that perhaps they weren’t quite as together as you thought.

In Maddie Rice’s one-woman play Pickle Jar, Miss is a young English teacher struggling to find her footing both in and out of the classroom. Away from work, she’s just been dumped and can’t stop obsessing over how bad her life is compared to everyone else’s. At work, her approach to teaching is to try and be friends with her teenage pupils, who fascinate her with their apparent confidence and worldliness – it often seems her attempts to connect with them are as much for her own comfort and support as they are for her students’ benefit.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Maddie Rice, who previously starred in the touring production of Fleabag, was encouraged by that show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to write something that made her laugh or cry. Pickle Jar ticks both boxes. Directed by Katie Pesskin, the first half of the show is straight-up, laugh-out-loud comedy, as Miss reflects on everything from her meagre Instagram follower count, to the night her ex broke up with her (shortly after advising her to get tested for chlamydia), to her fumbling attempts – egged on by best friend Mairead – at flirtation with Mr Ellis, the much-fancied food tech teacher.

And then, about halfway through, the story takes a dark turn, and just keeps getting darker as one twist follows another, ultimately catching us off guard with some very uncomfortable, and topical, questions around consent and victim blaming. The humour is still present, but the laughs become far less frequent, and the overwhelming emotion we feel as the show comes to an end is much closer to anger than amusement. Even in the #metoo era, the fact that a female character feels she has to shoulder any of the responsibility for a man’s actions shows how very far we still have to go.

One thing that’s immediately clear is that Maddie Rice is an exceptional performer, bringing an extensive cast of characters, a complex back-and-forth timeline, and a number of different locations to life without ever missing a beat. Colleagues, friends, students, strangers: they’re all here, and all perfectly distinct from each other. Miss in particular is a well-drawn, realistically flawed character who most of the show’s target audience – women in their 20s and 30s – can identify with to some extent (whether we’re willing to admit it or not). The half hour that we spend getting to know her, laughing with – and at – her, never feels like wasted time, even though it delays the show getting to its actual point.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

There’s so much to enjoy about Pickle Jar, a very funny and brilliantly acted hour of theatre that will no doubt resonate with teachers, women and indeed anyone still trying to figure out how this whole adulting thing works (which, let’s be honest, is most of us). But behind the laughter, the play does have a point to make – and it’s a point that needs to be heard and acted on, however uncomfortable that might be.

Pickle Jar is at Soho Theatre until 10th November.

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