Review: Macbeth the Musical at White Bear Theatre

If you’ve ever watched a production of Macbeth and thought the protagonist seemed like a bit of a muppet, then Stage Splinters’ irreverent new adaptation of the famous tragedy is the show for you. Leaving Shakespeare’s verse well and truly at the door, this musical adaptation performed by puppets playfully pokes fun at both the play and its characters, with the murderous monarch taking the brunt of the humour.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Following an unsettling encounter with three flirtatious witches called Agnes, Breanna and Madison, Macbeth heads home to his wife, who promptly bullies her spineless spouse into murdering the nice old king. Several fumbling attempts later, Duncan’s finally dispatched, and the Macbeths turn their attention to the loyal Banquo and an unexpectedly repellent Macduff – which would all be fine if their intended victims didn’t keep escaping. Elliot Moore and Eloise Jones make a hilarious double act as the enthusiastic but incompetent killers, with performances so expressive and engaging that it’s easy to find yourself watching them rather than the (albeit expertly handled) puppets.

The discarding of the majority of Shakespeare’s original text allows writers Chuma Emembolu and Ruth Nicolas to tell the well-known story from a fresh perspective. John, Rose and Conleth are servants in Macbeth’s household, who witness, discuss and occasionally participate in their bosses’ bloody goings on. At the same time, they put the Macbeths’ problems well and truly into perspective by sharing their own harrowing life stories: John has a bit of a drinking problem and only narrowly escapes having Duncan’s murder pinned on him as a result; Rose was sold into servitude by her father; and Conleth is a former soldier with a traumatic past.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

The result of all this is a curious mix: a laugh out loud comedy (the Duncan murder scene is particularly fun, as is Macbeth’s death) punctuated by some really dark moments, which are not only not at all funny but also have a tendency to happen very suddenly, and then be over with just as quickly, leaving the audience feeling slightly off balance. Both Bryony Reynolds (Rose) and Red Picasso (Conleth) give excellent performances in unexpectedly complex roles, and it’s frustrating that having worked hard to establish them as major characters, the show doesn’t then tell us how their stories end.

Having said that, Macbeth the Musical is still a very funny, very silly evening of tongue-in-cheek comedy, which you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate (though if you are one, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the countless in-jokes levelled at the source text and its gaping plot holes). The cast are impeccable, the songs are witty and enjoyable, and the puppets are great. Who knew murder could be this much fun?

Macbeth the Musical is at the White Bear Theatre until 7th September.

Review: 10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew at Greenwich Theatre

It is a truth universally acknowledged (if you’ll pardon the mixing of literary references) that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is, at best, problematic. It’s the story of a man torturing his wife into submission, after all, and to be honest there’s not really any easy way to sidestep that fairly significant plot point without completely rewriting the play.

While most of us would probably be willing to admit that Taming of the Shrew is far from Shakespeare’s best, Canadian actor, writer and comedian Gillian English has gone a step further and made a list of everything that’s wrong with it. And I give you fair warning: that list will take down not only Taming of the Shrew but also beloved teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About You (in spite of the manifold and much-missed charms of Heath Ledger, which are acknowledged more than once). Also A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare in general. Friends. Big boobs. Justin Trudeau. In fact there are very few people, places or things that make it out of this very funny but also very angry show unscathed.

And that’s because while Taming of the Shrew may be the starting point, it actually opens the door to a much wider conversation – about our obsession with reviving Shakespeare plays, even the bad ones, just because of who wrote them. About the damaging impact of romanticising misogyny and turning it into a Hollywood teen movie or a banging rock anthem. About the dangers of pitting women against each other, or telling little girls that boys are only mean to them because they like them. In a show peppered with hilarious personal anecdotes, self-defence classes and a demonstration of the opening number from Get Over It – which I’ve never seen but now desperately want to – it turns out there’s also a lot of serious stuff for both women and men in the audience to unpack and peruse at our leisure.

As a performer, Gillian English quite literally roars on to the stage, making no secret of her anger not just that Taming of the Shrew exists, but that everything bad within this 500-year-old play still needs to be discussed in 2019. She’s loud, in your face, and not afraid to be a bit confrontational, and yet there’s something about her enthusiasm and frank acknowledgment of her own failings that makes her irresistibly likeable (at least I thought so – I can’t speak for how the men in the audience felt about being taught the best way to rip off a penis). Add to that the fact that what she’s saying – even, or perhaps especially, the shoutiest bits – makes a huge amount of sense, and you’ve got the recipe for a show that’s a lot of fun to watch in the moment, but that also stimulates an ongoing discussion and a desire for change going forward.

Not everyone will love it; die-hard Shakespeare fans will no doubt take offence at the way their idol’s work is dismissed, and ironically the kind of men – and women – who most need to hear the show’s messages will probably steer well clear. But for those willing to open their minds, and who are okay with witnessing one of their favourite teen movies being ripped brutally to shreds, this is definitely one to see if it passes through a town near you.

10 Things I Hate about Taming of the Shrew is touring the UK, including heading to Edinburgh – for full dates, and details of Gillian English’s other shows, visit gillianenglish.com.

Review: One Giant Leap at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Othello, Three Sisters, Frankenstein, The White Rose, Taro… Over the last five years, Arrows & Traps have proved time and again that they know how to do serious drama (and also that there are an awful lot of different ways to die). That label cannot be applied in any conceivable way to their new play One Giant Leap, which is a very silly story with no other mission in mind but providing two hours of pure entertainment.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

It’s 1969, and Apollo 11 is all set to launch for the Moon. But it’s too hot up there to film Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s one small step for man, so CIA Agent Harris (Alex Stevens) has come to cash-strapped TV producer Edward Price (Christopher Tester) with a request: he needs him to fake the Moon Landing. There’s just one problem – Price’s cast and crew of misfits are too wrapped up in their own issues to focus on the job at hand, and time is ticking away…

Writer and director Ross McGregor has thrown literally everything at this historical sci-fi romantic comedy (there’s no kitchen sink but there is an alluring stepladder) and the result is an often chaotic but always enjoyable romp that culminates in a musical number I don’t think any of us will be forgetting any time soon. The characters are stereotypes – the arrogant leading man, the scantily clad actress, the frustrated producer – and the plot relatively predictable, but there’s enough detail to ensure none of them are ever lacking in substance. At times, this detail actually works against the production; with every character getting their own story, there’s a lot to try and keep track of at any given moment. This also means that the play’s conclusion, particularly following the unbridled hilarity of the Moon Landing sequence, feels a bit like a box ticking exercise to ensure we’re not left with any unfinished plot threads.

That said, one of the best things about One Giant Leap is that the cast are clearly having an absolute blast. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun up there: Will Pinchin as Howard, the world’s clumsiest cameraman; Lucy Ioannou as sweet but insecure Alchamy; Steven Jeram as casanova Daniel; Vivian Belosky as sharp-tongued and quite possibly permanently green Linda. Alex Stevens’ CIA Agent Harris showcases some impressive accent switching (and interesting wardrobe choices), and Christopher Tester and Charlie Ryall engage in excellent verbal sparring as increasingly desperate ex-spouses Edward and Carol. And Daniel Ghezzi, appropriately enough, steals every scene he’s in as frustrated actor and lover of all things jazz hands, Perry.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

As Arrows & Traps arrives at a crossroads before embarking on a new chapter with The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde later this year, One Giant Leap feels like the company is taking a welcome opportunity to pause and let off some steam. It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t have the beauty and eloquence of, say, The White Rose or Taro – though it is still visually quite a feast, with an incredible set designed by Justin Williams and some unforgettable costumes from Delyth Evans. I didn’t always know exactly what was going on but I had fun trying to figure it out, and sometimes that’s all you need. So why not boldly go and get a ticket for two hours of silliness and escapism, and – for once! – a happy ending.

One Giant Leap is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th July.

Review: Brexit at the King’s Head Theatre

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky could have come up with a more creative title for their acclaimed political comedy Brexit – but they didn’t really need to, given that actual Brexit has been a massive satire in and of itself for some time now. Nor did the writers have to stray very far from the facts; the play that was topical during its previous run at the King’s Head a few months ago is now, in the week that the horror show known as the Tory leadership contest officially gets underway, basically just mirroring reality.

Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne

It’s 2020, and Britain has a new prime minister – who’s somehow managed to get elected by Conservative party members despite having no policies, no backbone and, naturally, no clue how he’s supposed to deliver the impossible dream that is Brexit. Fully aware that whatever he does he’ll be crucified by one side or the other, Adam Masters (David Benson) opts for what he deems a foolproof strategy: do nothing, and hope it all goes away – much to the dismay of his campaign manager turned unofficial policy advisor Paul Connell (Adam Astill). It never occurs to the new PM, as he plays rival ministers Diana Purdy (Jessica Fostekew) and Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck) off against each other, that they might just have plans of their own…

Much like its central character, the play doesn’t attempt to rehash the referendum, focusing instead on the thing we can all agree on: that British attempts to implement the Will of the People have, so far, been less than successful. Khan and Salinsky – who also directs – expose Leavers and Remainers alike as power-hungry and manipulative, and more than willing to cheerfully prioritise their own ambitions above the needs of the country they claim to serve. Meanwhile the EU’s Chief Negotiator Helena Brandt (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) is sitting back with a glass of wine and a (metaphorical) bucket of popcorn, waiting for the Brits to stop in-fighting and realise it’s all been a terrible mistake. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressingly on the money.

And this is where Brexit hits a bit of a snag; when truth is even more ridiculous than fiction, it takes a bit of the joy out of laughing at it. The priggish new Trade Secretary Simon Cavendish is a brilliant piece of comedy acting from Thom Tuck – but somehow, stunningly, this character still ends up feeling like a watered down version of real-life caricature Jacob Rees Mogg. And while it’s fun to watch David Benson’s Adam scurry back and forth trying to keep all his plates spinning, we’ve been watching Theresa May do the same with increasing desperation for two years now, so it’s no particular surprise when it doesn’t end well.

Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne

But maybe I’m being a misery (thinking about Brexit does tend to have that effect, after all). For all that it can’t live up to the absurdity of real life, the play is very funny, with a polished cast expertly delivering such zingers as “You can’t continue to govern over Schrodinger’s Britain”, and the particularly well received “that bearded Labour Gandalf driving his motor-home up Downing Street”. For fans of political satire, Brexit (the event – if you can call something that never actually happens an event) has already provided countless hours of entertainment, and Brexit (the play) continues to prove that sometimes, there really is nothing left to do but laugh.

Review: Summer Street at Waterloo East Theatre

The idea for Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical (to give it its full title) dates back to 2004, when writer and director Andrew Norris was inspired to pay homage to the Australian soaps of his youth, and the stars who dominated UK pop charts and panto line-ups for much of the 80s and 90s. The result is a well-meaning, nostalgic and unashamedly ridiculous comedy musical that’s probably best appreciated after a glass of wine or two.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

The plot revolves around Bruce (Simon Snashall), Angie (Sarah-Louise Young), Paul (Myke Cotton) and Steph (Julie Clare), four former stars of popular musical “soapy”, Summer Street. All but one have failed to have any kind of acting career following their dramatic exits from the show, so they jump at the chance to reunite for an anniversary special – but all is not as it seems… While on camera one of the characters has to be rescued from an abandoned mine just before her wedding, life behind the scenes has its own share of drama as each of the four actors reflects on life post-Summer Street.

The show obviously takes great delight in sending up all the well-worn soapy tropes, from dramatic deaths to product placement. The on-screen characters are recognisable stereotypes – the doctor with an alcohol problem, the in-the-closet lesbian in love with her best friend, the nosey neighbour – and anyone who knows anything about Neighbours or Home and Away (or, to be fair, any of the UK soaps) will never fail to get the joke. It’s all enjoyably silly and there are some quite funny bits, often at the most unexpected moments – one character’s account of his wife’s tragic demise and the heroic actions of Pogo the neighbourhood dog are highlights.

The problem is that in trying to poke fun at the banality of the soap format, Summer Street ends up suffering a similar fate; the characters are under-developed, the story makes little sense, and several of the familiar jokes are repeated so often that they start to feel a bit tired. The same, unfortunately, goes for the musical numbers, which are for the most part catchy enough but tend to go on just a bit longer than seems necessary. (In Brighton only half of the songs were performed, which says quite a lot about their value within the production.)

The show may have its flaws but the cast enthusiastically make the best of it, and there are some strong vocal performances – particularly from Sarah-Louise Young, who steals the show in Act 2 with pop ballad Chains Around My Heart. The nature of the production calls for larger than life performances, and all four cast members seem more than happy to oblige, adopting suitably flamboyant Aussie accents, cheerfully reeling off lines of expositional dialogue – often at high speed – and throwing themselves without hesitation into Lauren Chinery’s comically stagey dance routines.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

To give credit where it’s due, Summer Street never pretends to be anything other than what it is: a spoof comedy musical that takes an already over-the-top TV format and takes it up another notch or three. In that sense, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Could it have been done with a bit more finesse? Yes, probably. But as it stands the show is harmless fun, and you can’t say fairer than that.