Review: Sinbad the Sailor at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Guest review by Ross McGregor

The tried and tested conventions of the pantomime form are entrenched in our theatrical consciousness as deeply as Yorrick’s skull or Earnest’s mother’s handbag. The plucky principal boy (played by a girl), a 4th wall-breaking dame (played by a man), the slapstick comedy (borrowed from commedia dell-arte), the audience participation and the musical numbers all wrapped in a mythical fable. Panto season is old. But it is also, for theatre managers, big business. The pressure is on, then, with every theatre in the country performing the same set of fairy-tales, to make your pantomime a sure-fire success. 

At Theatre Royal Stratford East, director Kerry Michael and writer Paul Sirett have done exactly that. Sinbad The Sailor is a family-orientated festival of fun that honours the traditional archetypes of the pantomime form whilst allowing for refreshing modern twists. It is a fast and fluid, beautifully-realised pageant that champions community, acceptance and friendship.

The story is simple enough: Sinbad is in a competition for the love of a beautiful princess. It’s a race to find an artefact, the use of which ultimately sums up the production’s focus on the power of the human heart. It’s a quest across the sea, filled with monsters, pirates, giant monkeys, jungle fevers, rebellious genies, love, laughter and magic. 

Photo credit: Sharron Wallace
Photo credit: Sharron Wallace

Sirret’s sharp-tongued and astute script, as well as Michael’s meticulous direction make the action sing, with scenes interlocking and careening the audience through the adventure plot. There was a tendency to rely too much on Donald Trump jokes, which I suppose is only to be expected this year, but I did feel their power and punch would have been strengthened had they been fewer. Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius’s music and lyrics serenades us into the exotic world of the story – the highlight being a phenomenal gospel revival church number for the Genies – whilst carefully dipping into modern pop culture.

Rina Fatania plays the Green Genie Uzz. Fatania is simply a force of nature; her neck-high pantaloons are bursting with an effervescent energy. She is the purest essence of a clown I’ve ever seen, and her mastery of her character arc is at once charming, gorgeous and irrepressibly endearing. At her side is Globe Theatre veteran Michael Bertenshaw as the villain Prince Naw-Ze Uzz. A veritable jedi of the medium, Bertenshaw fulfils the Dame/Buttons roles here as the primary link to the audience. This is an interesting inversion of the form on the writer’s part, and Bertenshaw flourishes majestically in his cutting social commentary. His gimlet-eyed, glee-filled confessional with the audience is flawless, and his scenes with Fatania become a masterclass in comic timing.

Alim Jayda also deserves mention for his star turn as Captain Greenbeard, a cross between Beetlejuice, Alan Carr, Jack Sparrow and The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh.  Jayda commands the stage in every scene he’s in, and infuses the role with a verve and vitality that reveals the considerable depth of his talent, and his ease in the medium.  This young man has a bright future ahead of him.

Drama school graduate Julian Capolei plays the eponymous role of renowned adventurer Sinbad, another twist on the form being that it is actually his sister Sinbadda, played by Gabby Wong, who’s responsible for all the adventures, whilst Sinbad stays cosy and safe writing stories. The duo make a perfect pair, wide-eyed and happy-go-lucky, their onstage chemistry and affection for each other palpable. Along for the adventure is Marianna Neofitou as the Princess, who actually spends the majority of the play dressed as a young man, another clever inversion of the “principal boy” form, transforming her from the usual female prize/hostage to an active participant of the adventure. Capolei and Neofitou indulge in some wonderfully-realised gender-bending romance, revelling in the Twelfth Night-esque sexuality questions that plague Sinbad as his feelings for the feminine young man grow. It’s a beautiful thing to watch and perfectly rebrands the hetero-narrative of a panto romance with an arresting metrosexual and modern twist.

Photo credit: Sharron Wallace
Photo credit: Sharron Wallace

Rounding off the band of heroes is Funky the Monkey, puppeteered and performed by Gemma Salter. Funky is clearly an inclusion for the younger viewers, and yet Salter fills the puppet with a cheeky irrepressible charm that reveals a performance of precision and an undeniable skill for the medium. After the first few minutes, Salter disappeared, and the puppet came to life, and that I think, is a truly magical achievement. Salter is blessed with an electric stage presence that delivers nuanced and poignant comedy. She convivially scampers across the stage with a delightful charm, imbuing Funky with all the qualities that a young person could want in their best friend. 

Ben Goffe plays the Sultan, father to the Princess, but it’s in his other character-based roles where he truly shines. Whether as an off-shore delivery man, a nine-headed monster, or a soul-singing genie, he emanates a versatile and capricious glee. Goffe and Josephine Melville (Clanker and Sultana) also provide one of the most beautiful and stylish tap routines, harkening back to the halcyon days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – a moment both tragic and uplifting.

Johnny Amobi is the Nurse, and whilst this role is presumably supposed to fill the “dame” requirement, Amobi has transcended the casting and delivered a multi-layered and deeply faceted performance that perhaps would be more suited to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It offers a modern take on the role, and perhaps a much needed representation of trans-issues for the medium. He is not simply a man in a dress, he is a force of acceptance and discovery, and should be applauded for creating a loveable, twerking-winking-singing queen of the comebacks.

The set is simple in nature, and has a certain charm in the sense of its nod to kitsch and gaudiness, often drawing back to let the actors have full use of the space. Particular kudos must go to special effects consultant Scott Penrose, whose use of high-calibre magic stage effects were truly spell-binding at points and incredibly effective at selling the more supernatural elements of the production. There were slightly too many points where lights were shone directly in the audience’s faces to cover a trick – the creatives should have faith perhaps in their own illusory skills and not seek to hide so much of what is a fantastically designed production in terms of its business.

In its final moments, Sinbad the Sailor reminds us through its closing song that there is more that connects us than that which divides us, that we are all one people, and our strength is at its zenith when we are united. And, in the last days of 2016, this seems incredibly timely and well-judged.  Stratford East have a pantomime that is hilarious, warm and filled with heart – but most of all, its message for us right now is a vital one.

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… 😉

Interview: Joe Sellman-Leava, Labels

Joe Sellman-Leava is co-artistic director of Worklight Theatre, and writer of the award-winning Labels, a solo show that tells a very personal story and invites us to consider its implications on a much broader political scale. In this interview, Joe explains a little about the show’s background, and how it’s been received so far.

Labels can currently be seen at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30th April – you can read my 5-star review over at Carn’s Theatre Passion – before embarking on a national tour.

If you could sum up the show in one sentence, what would it be?

A personal, political odyssey through right-wing rhetoric, prejudice and family. 

What inspired you to write Labels?

I was in a drama workshop at Exeter University in 2009, exploring racism and inequality. It was led by Emma Thompson, who was doing a series of talks and events at the University after her son Tindy experienced racist abuse during his degree. I wrote the beginnings of what eventually became Labels, in preparation for that workshop. Afterwards I kept writing and developing it in small bites. A year later, in early 2015, with a general election looming and national debate dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric, I felt it was time to finish the show and start touring it.

Emma Thompson described the show as “simple, powerful, important and funny”. What does it mean to you to have such a successful and influential supporter?

It means a lot! Firstly, it’s a huge validation, especially when the show was initially inspired by her workshop. Also, getting new audiences to trust you is hard, and Emma’s words have meant that people who might never have connected with us have now seen the show, told their friends and will hopefully stay interested in what Worklight are doing next.

Photo credit: Ben Borely
Photo credit: Ben Borely

The show is obviously very current. Did it develop in the way you expected when you started writing it, or has it taken other directions as a result of world events?

Specific events in the last 12 months or so have definitely made their impact on the show, and we felt we had a responsibility to respond to what was happening given the themes and content of the show. That said, things were different 6 years ago when I started writing this, and different again when my parents were experiencing some of the things the show discusses. As well as responding to what’s happening now, we’ve always tried to acknowledge the timeless elements of the show (people have always migrated), as well as the fact that history repeats itself: for instance, we cite Enoch Powell’s speeches alongside those of David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

You share several very personal and quite difficult memories – both your own and your family’s. Has that been hard, and does it get any easier the more you perform the show?

It’s not hard performing it, but creating the show had its challenges with regard to including personal stories. So much of the content is derived from my parents’ first hand experiences of racism, as well as other experiences or conversations within our family. When the story isn’t yours alone, you have to tread carefully so no one feels used, or exploited when it’s made public. So yes, performing the show feels fine, but getting the show to a place where it did justice to the people whose stories it’s built on, that was challenging!

How have audiences responded? Have you had any unexpected reactions?

Responses have been very positive: after most shows people are keen to chat and lots of them tell us how the story resonated because they’ve experienced racism or other forms of prejudice in their own lives. Or because they’ve seen a friend or family member on the receiving end of those experiences. As for unexpected reactions…there are sometimes people who disagree with certain opinions expressed in the show, and to be honest we always welcome this. Theatre should be a space where people can discuss, debate, disagree, and Worklight try to embrace the opportunity live performance has to create this kind of experience for audiences which, for instance, film or TV can’t in quite the same way.

Photo credit: Anna Bruce
Photo credit: Anna Bruce

You do a lot of impressions in Labels. Which was the toughest one to get the hang of? And which is your favourite?

I find the Australian accent quite tricky, so Tony Abbott is probably the toughest! My favourite is Ed Miliband… let’s hope he finds something new to do soon, or I’ll have to retire his impression!

When did Katharina [Reinthaller, the director] come on board? How has it been working with her on developing the show?

Katharina came on board in March 2015, via Jessica Beck – a director both of us have worked with a lot. Her input as director and dramaturg has been invaluable and took the show forward in new, exciting ways. She has a fantastic ear for the power of language, imagery and the way stories resonate, so the countless hours spent working through the many, many drafts of the text with her were a joy. And her equally brilliant eye for proxemics, energetic shifts and rhythmic changes meant she took the performance to a new level. It’s her first collaboration with Worklight and we’re thrilled she’ll be directing our next show, Fix!

How does it feel to be launching the new theatre space at Stratford East?

It’s a real privilege and very exciting! Stratford East is truly committed to being “a people’s theatre” and you can see this in their programme, their audiences, the very building itself. We couldn’t think of a better fit for the show.

What’s one thing you hope your audiences will take away from the show?

We want people to leave thinking about and talking about what they’ve seen!

Theatre round-up: 8 Nov 2015

Right, I haven’t done a theatre round-up for weeks – not because I haven’t been going to the theatre (far from it) but just because of lack of time. There are definitely not enough hours in the day lately.

So in an attempt to get back into a routine… this week I’ve had two theatre trips. And one of my recent reviews, of The Forbidden by Doll’s Eye Theatre, got a mention in an article on the Guardian website, which was pretty exciting 🙂

Anita and Me, and Rotterdam

Rotterdam (Theatre503)

It’s New Year’s in Rotterdam, and Alice is finally ready to come out to her parents by email – until her girlfriend Fiona makes the sudden announcement that she wants to start living as a man. Suddenly finding herself in a relationship with Adrian, instead of Fiona, leaves Alice wondering if this means she’s now straight. This touching and heartwarming comedy by Jon Brittain considers the labels placed on us by society, but also those we place on ourselves. Well worth a look if you can get there – it’s on until 21st November.

Review of Rotterdam for LondonTheatre1

Anita and Me (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Based on Meera Syal’s 1997 novel and adapted by Tanika Gupta, Anita and Me is the story of 13-year-old Meena, and her friendship with the rebellious Anita. Faced with changes within their family and their neighbourhood, the girls have to decide what’s most important to them. This is a fun, entertaining play with some catchy tunes – but it tries to squeeze a bit too much in to a relatively short time, which makes it hard to get into the story or identify with the characters. I didn’t love it – but definitely didn’t dislike it either; it has a lot of potential to be a really good show.

Anita and Me review for LondonTheatre1

What have you seen at the theatre this week? Any recommendations?

Next week’s theatre

Puttin’ on the Ritz – Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Staying Alive (Blackshaw Theatre Company) – Pleasance Theatre