The Crucible, The Old Vic – Performance review

by Rachel Creaser
Star rating
****
A heartening piece of pure drama.

There's great physicalistation from the ensemble (Credit: Johan Persson)

There’s great physicalistation from the ensemble (Credit: Johan Persson)

Last night’s thunderstorm may have been forecast, but I have a feeling it may have been the doings in The Old Vic which spurred the storm to build to such intensity …

The design really sets the tone for this production: the space is awash with a dreary sepia tone and a constant smokiness in the air – there is no bright and lightness in the place. The Crucible is part of The Old Vic’s second in-the-round season – it fit the world of the play very well, and drew the audience further into the murkiness.

Directed by Yaël Farber, she hits us hard from the very beginning, and doesn’t let up throughout the three-hour production. With a story of Salem witch trials, false accusations, lies, revenge, power, God and the devil – how could it not be hard-hitting?

Richard Armitage’s portrayal of John Proctor is authoritative yet touching: he’s just as compelling to watch in quieter moments as when bellowing out in anger. Armitage has great chemistry with both of his leading ladies: Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Anna Madeley, and the formidable Abigail Williams, played by Samantha Colley. Both women have great presence: Madeley has a gripping emotional intensity, while Colley forcefully commands the attention of the audience.

Armitage's turn as John Proctor is commanding to watch (Credit: Johan Persson)

Armitage’s turn as John Proctor is commanding to watch (Credit: Johan Persson)

The movement in the play is a real highlight. Marama Corlett (playing Betty Parris) kept me engrossed as she contorted herself during a fight with an internal spirit. The movement work from the other young girls in the ensemble was also engaging and bewitching.

What I found most impressive about the production was that I found myself involuntarily shaking my head in disbelief on several occasions; I was utterly frustrated with Judge Hathhorne and his cronies – showing that the power of Arthur Miller’s storytelling is yet to dampened by time. The play may have left me feeling slightly depressed at the unfairness of life, but the most important outcome of this production is that it left me feeling something.

For people looking to go and see some impressive theatre this summer, this production has a lot to offer, and is highly recommended.

The Crucible runs at The Old Vic until 13 September 2014. Visit www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2014/the-crucible to buy tickets and for more information.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea – Performance review

by Rachel Creaser
Star rating
****
A perfect first theatre visit.

Tea time with the tiger (Credit: Alastair Muir)

Tea time with the tiger (Credit: Alastair Muir)

David Wood’s stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s classic children’s book is visiting the West End this summer. In 2012, the show was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Family.

The production, for children aged three upwards, has been carefully crafted to help make the young audience’s journey through the story as interesting and stimulating as possible.

Many theatrical conventions and devices are introduced in the play: the show opens with the cheerful ‘Hi, Hello’ song, where the actors welcome the audience to the performance and thank them for coming along. They then explain that they are here to tell a story, which will be about a girl called Sophie and her mother – it is at this point when they begin to adopt the role of their character in front of the audience. The gesture and characterisation throughout the performance is strong, providing an interesting and animated visual picture. The passing of time on this day where the story takes place is marked by clearly and is a recurring motif with a sing-song ‘tick, tock, tick, tock’.

While the narrative of the play is quite simple – a small girl’s unremarkable day at home with her mother, interspersed with visits from the postman and the milkman, is turned upside down by a visit from a well-mannered and very hungry tiger – it very clearly functions as a well-structured piece of theatre, with considered lyrics, movements, mimes, characterisations, costumes and everything else in between.

(Credit: Jane Hobson)

(Credit: Jane Hobson)

The story is brought to life by the characters, but the set, costumes and props work as fantastic accompaniments, looking as if they have come from the pen of an illustrator.

Among the use of common theatrical devices (mime, movement etc), the show also offers perhaps the most exciting theatrical element of all – magic. Food suddenly disappearing from plates, a bag which was empty becoming full without an obvious slight of hand – these are moments that children will remember and treasure as they recall their first theatre experiences.

This is a warm, friendly and fun show which is perfectly pitched for its age range. The Tiger Who Came to Tea would be a great introduction to some of the conventions of theatre, as well as its most important quality – its magic.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea runs at the Lyric Theatre at Shaftesbury Avenue in London until 7 September 2014. The show will also have a Christmas season at Birmingham Town Hall this December. For more information, visit www.thetigerwhocametotealive.com.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre: Twelfth Night, Re-imagined – Performance Review

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Iain Johnstone leads the Twelfth Night cast as Feste in a musical rendition (Credit: Johan Persson)

by Rachel Creaser
Star rating

*****
Same stage and sunshine, but a new adventure each year at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s ‘Re-imagined’.

Around this time last year, I attended The Winter’s Tale: re-imagined for everyone aged six and over. I recall (helped by re-reading my five-star review of the show) having a great time.

With the ethos the same each year, it could be feared that the ‘Re-imagined’ shows get samey or stagnant. This is definitely not at all the case with Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre: the energy and techniques used to deliver the desired outcome for ‘Re-imagined’ feel completely fresh. There’s an ease in what ‘Re-imagined’ does to connect with young audiences; the relationship between Shakespeare and young people isn’t forced – it’s genuine.

I felt that Twelfth Night had a slight more sophistication about it than A Winter’s Tale, which is still had the age-appropriate introductions to characters and plot, they felt more part of the world of the play – character’s introduced themselves in character, but in the third person. The production is colourful, energetic and fun without being brash.

One of the most enjoyable elements was the live music. Feste (played by Iain Johnstone) playing the accordion added a atmospheric ‘folksy’ feel to the piece. It also helped the audience dance participation feel more at home within the play. One of the ways in which this felt like a real ensemble piece was how the actors swapped instruments – once even during mid-song.

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Sarah Ridgeway and Guy Lewis as parted twins Viola and Sebastian (Credit: Johan Persson)

Performances from the whole cast were very enjoyable and engaging: Sarah Ridgeway’s ‘boy’ impersonation was funny, but not overdone or distracting; Riann Steele had great confidence and presence as Olivia; and Wayne Cater’s drunken Sir Toby Belch and Iain Johnstone’s Feste and pirate Antonio added darker notes to what was largely a fun and upbeat character make-up.

The set evoked the feel of a folk-esque funfair. The ‘love-o-metre’, which rang each time a character fell in love, was a fun set piece but also helpful at marking key moments in the narrative.

This production acts as a great introduction to Shakespeare for young people: it has mistaken identity, love, madness, humour and a man in yellow stockings.

Even if the rain had poured down, I can’t imagine that I would have enjoyed the show any less.

Twelfth Night re-imagined for everyone aged six and over runs until 12 July. There is an accompanying education resource pack available on the website, containing rehearsal images and post-show activity ideas: https://openairtheatre.com/production/twelfth-night-reimagined

TD attends relaxed performance of MATILDA THE MUSICAL

Attendees of Matilda The Musical's relaxed performance

Attendees of Matilda The Musical’s relaxed performance

By Ruth McPherson

On 15 June, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented the inaugural ‘relaxed’ performance of Matilda The Musical at Cambridge Theatre, building on the programme of relaxed performances that the RSC has been running in Stratford-upon-Avon since 2013, when it was among the first to adopt and promote the concept. The National Autistic Society worked closely with the RSC on this special performance offering full access to the theatre for people with autism and learning disabilities.

The performance provided a relaxed environment, with elements of the production adapted to reduce anxiety or stress. Lighting and sound levels were adjusted to soften their impact and there was a relaxed attitude to noise and moving around the auditorium during the performance.  Designated ‘chill-out’ areas were provided outside the auditorium with soft seating and activities for people to use if being in the auditorium became overwhelming for them. All audience members were also sent a visual story to help them familiarise themselves with the plot, characters and the setting before they arrived at the theatre.

Tickets for the show were offered at the reduced rate of £20 and it was a sell-out performance. Catherine Mallyon, executive director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said ‘Relaxed performances are a fantastic way of offering a warm and inclusive welcome to those families, giving them the chance to experience high quality, live theatre, often for the first time. We are delighted to be part of the growing number of theatres across the UK helping to make relaxed performances a standard feature of British theatre-going.’

The cast of Matilda The Musical. (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

The cast of Matilda The Musical (Credit: Manuel Harlan)

Several other major London shows have also presented successful ‘relaxed’ performances recently, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Romeo and Juliet, The Elephantom, Mamma Mia! and The Lion King.  The National Theatre has recently announced that they will be putting on a relaxed performance of War Horse in September.

Shakespeare’s Globe: The Merchant of Venice – performance review

The Merchant of Venice (Credit: Ellie Kurttz)

The Merchant of Venice (Credit: Ellie Kurttz)

Star rating
***
By Rachel Creaser, TD editorial assistant

Currently playing at Shakespeare’s Globe is The Merchant of Venice – part of the theatre’s Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank season, now in its eighth year. It provides 17,000 free tickets to state-funded London secondary school students. Subsidised tickets for schools from outside London have also been made available – 8,400 for this particular production.

This production of The Merchant of Venice has been specifically created with an audience of 11 to 16 year olds in mind. The Playing Shakespeare initiative allows students the opportunity to experience Shakespeare live, and for some this may be the first time they’ve seen the Bard’s work in action: and it’s a great first experience.

There was lots of energy in the production right from the off – as I made my way to my seat, I was accompanied by live musicians (who were fantastic throughout), watching the cast dance on stage, and move round the space interacting with the audience. This initial connection and atmosphere helps to ward off any feelings that Shakespeare and his ‘olde worlde’ language are off limits to young people.

The story follows Bassanio who is hoping to win the heart of wealthy heiress Portia, who is looking for a suitor. Lacking funds, Bassanio turns to his good friend Antonio for help with money to pursue his love interest. Antonio, acting as a guarantor, secures a loan for Bassanio with Jewish moneylender Shylock, who agrees to charge no interest – but, if the debt cannot be repaid, Antonio must repay Shylock with a pound of his flesh. When Antonio’s ships are reported lost at sea – his only source of income to repay his loan to Shylock – he is brought before a court of law to plead his case.

Both Bassanio and Antonio look as if they’ve stepped out of an episode of Made in Chelsea in their sharp suits, and Portia is also decked out in stylish dresses and heels. These modern flecks help to make what is a relevant story to this era seem even more pertinent.

Catherine Bailey as Portia was enjoyable to watch – both confident and commanding, while still providing moments of wit. Mark Kane also had a great stage presence; particularly as the rather goofy clown-like Launcelot Gobbo – he received the biggest laughs of the evening.

This production is a great jumping off point for exploring the themes of the play further: Ognen Drangovski’s portrayal of Shylock sought audible sympathy from the audience, so it would be interesting to discuss with students how they felt Shylock was treated by the other characters. And what implications they felt his Jewish faith brought to the story. Also, what did they think was more important to Shylock:  money or his daughter Jessica?

The show’s microsite is just as user friendly and enjoyable as the Globe’s usual offerings, so take a visit to make the most of the resources available: http://2014.playingshakespeare.org.

The Courtyard Theatre: Poilu & Tommy – Performance review

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Poilu & Tommy at The Courtyard Theatre

Star rating
***
By Sarah Lambie, TD editor

Being the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, 2014 has already brought with it a spate of artistic, musical and theatrical works to mark the occasion. One such is Poilu and Tommy, a production from Strasbourg-based theatre company Théâtre Volière with a mixed-nationality cast from England and Alsace.

The first thing to say about this production is that a good 30-40% of it is in French. This is something to consider taking a sensible and focused A-level group along to: there is a good deal to be had out of it with no French at all, but it is certainly the case that I enjoyed it more because I was able to understand both languages. For the purposes of a more general drama trip this may not be the first choice, but this review treats it as a production, rather than necessarily a production for teachers.

Mick Wood, the playwright and co-founder of the theatre company with his director-wife Natasha, writes in the foreword to the programme: ‘The marvellous poetry that emerged from the trenches has perhaps blinded us to the marvellous poetry that helped to dig them’ – this is a play which tries to elucidate ‘just what it was about the European culture of the fin-de-siècle that made it such fertile ground for the nationalist warmongers of 1914-18’. The fact of the cast being made up of actors from two nations really aids this aspect of the play – the tensions even between ally countries; the hints at the tensions within Alsace – so long fought over by France and Germany, are all made clearer by the linguistic and national characteristics displayed on stage. The play is shot through with French poetry, delivered well even if the audience doesn’t understand every word.

A number of performances stand out from this production which make it particularly worth seeing. Tom Grace plays beautifully the line between tragedy and comedy as Alfred, a young soldier in the trenches. He lands throwaway moments of comedy perfectly as he battles with Lula Suassuna as Charles – whose character is also created with commitment, but who lacks in a few moments the same perfection of timing. I saw the play on its opening night, and would imagine that the cast has since become ready to wait for unexpected laughter from the audience – the impression given was that they weren’t expecting to be funny, so they drove straight through a few lovely moments.

The real stars of the show are the two young boys, Jan and Gabriel Wood, as the young Charles and Alfred. With perfect French and English, and a simple and natural emotional truth, both are a true pleasure to watch. The production values are necessarily limited in a studio production from a touring company, but the set was well used – my only reservation being that the stomping of hard-soled shoes on sand-covered studio wood flooring was in danger occasionally of obliterating the lines altogether.

Poilu and Tommy plays at the Courtyard Theatre, London, until 8 March 2014. 
www.thecourtyard.org.uk/whatson/360/poilu-tommy

National Theatre: King Lear – Performance Review

King Lear

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear (Credit: Mark Douet)

Star rating
*****
By Sarah Lambie, TD editor

I have seen four stage-Lears in my time – each excellent in some element or other – but for emotional truth this was unquestionably the most affecting. I attended with reservations: Simon Russell Beale has for many years been one of my favourite theatre actors, I returned twice to see his George in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers at the National Theatre 10 years ago – but I couldn’t picture his Lear.

Immediately my fears were allayed. I felt disappointed by the production values of the opening, kingdom-dividing scene: classic Olivier Theatre stage-filling, two long lines of stern looking supernumerary soldiers, microphones and boardroom etiquette. I found myself transported to a large number of other Olivier productions which seemed to have begun (and continued) just the same, and wondered to myself how many of them had been directed by Sam Mendes.

However, Russell Beale’s performance snapped me back into the world of the play. He charged about the stage with a small-minded meanness, a cruelty, in fact, which decision and execution was a credit to actor and director alike. This was not to be an avuncular Lear treated badly by two impossibly selfish and heartless daughters, but a quick tempered tyrant whose offspring, with the exception of Cordelia, who is an exception rather than a chip off the old block, could be seen to be products of their upbringing. The whole thing made sense more than ever before, and the unrelenting progress of the tragedy brought me to tears periodically, throughout the production.

There are several reasons to bring any drama students to see King Lear: the simple truthfulness of the performances being foremost – Russell Beale, Adrian Scarborough as the Fool and Stanley Townsend as Kent each give beautiful accounts of themselves. However, for students studying the play I would say this is an essential production. Mendes makes the strongest decision I have seen about the strange textual anomaly which is the disappearance of the Fool relatively early in the play. An audience’s perception of the stricken King is inevitably and boldly altered when we see him in the fit of his madness beat his fool’s head in with a piece of lead pipe. One thinks back to Lear’s desperate sad plea to his loyal and open-hearted fool just a few scenes before: ‘O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven … Keep me in temper, I would not be mad.’ This production is a harrowing necessity.

King Lear is playing at the National Theatre until 28 May. All performances are sold out, except for day tickets and possible returns www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/king-lear.

The production will be broadcast to cinemas by NT Live on 1 May 2014: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/44084-king-lear

Theatre Centre – Staging in schools: CPD masterclass – workshop review

 (Credit: Marigold Hughes for Theatre Centre)

(Credit: Marigold Hughes for Theatre Centre)

Star rating
***

An interesting session considering engagement with space. 

I attended a masterclass at Greenwich Theatre run by Theatre Centre, who are currently touring Roy Williams’ Advice For The Young At Heart.

The session, looking at staging performances in schools, was led by the company’s artistic director Natalie Wilson. For this workshop, in particular, it was really interesting to have Wilson leading. As the artistic director she has to think constantly about the bigger picture – which is exactly what the session was trying to broach: how does a play work on all levels? You may have the words of a fantastic playwright to work with, but if the way in which you’re staging a performance  doesn’t reach out and connect with your audience, it can become a lost cause.

This masterclass isn’t directly linked to the content of Advice For The Young At Heart, which attendees get to watch post workshop. I think the idea behind this is to allow participants see the work of the last two hours put into practice by the company – however, that evening’s show took place in a professional theatre, not the school halls and canteens in which teachers find themselves putting on performances, and which often play host to Theatre Centre productions.

The content covered was quite basic: we looked at forms of staging –  in-the-round, traverse and end on. Several participants in my group were trying to push the boundaries of our given ‘end on’ setting to stage our piece with a more creative use of space. But it was good to bring it to a simple form: considering how your use of space can engage students is important.

(Credit: Marigold Hughes for Theatre Centre)

(Credit: Marigold Hughes for Theatre Centre)

The exercises that formed the masterclass worked well in demonstrating the diversity in performance created when using the stage space differently. However, I personally think a slightly more lengthy, slightly less practical session from Wilson would have benefited participants more. She had produced and presented a graph model explaining the influences between narrative, performer, audience and staging, and how they affect one another. It was really interesting,  and well explained by Wilson, but I would have found it more effective perhaps to have a case study of one of Theatre Centre’s own shows during the session to demonstrate how they consider alternative spaces and audiences when they tour.

To find out more about Theatre Centre’s CPD sessions and touring performances, visit www.theatre-centre.co.uk.

National Theatre: The Light Princess – Performance review

Nick Hendrix as Digby and Rosalie Craig as Althea in the National Theatre's The Light Princess

Nick Hendrix as Digby and Rosalie Craig as Althea in the National Theatre’s The Light Princess

Star rating
*****
There are all sorts of reasons to bring students to see this production.
By Sarah Lambie, TD editor

Comparisons are weak for a show which has a beauty all of its own, but to put the National Theatre’s new musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson into context, I am drawn to reference The Wizard of Oz (and, by extension, Wicked) and The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, combined in both magic and darkness through the eyes of the brothers Grimm.

In reality, the original core of the story was written by the Victorian Englishman George MacDonald: friend to Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland. It draws on a rich history of fairy tale – the traditional subject matter of prince and princess, warring kingdoms, indiscriminately evil baddies – but has that dark and human edge that was lost when the Grimms’ and Hans Christian Andersen tales were taken over by Disney. Its emotional heart has depth and truth which are as compelling for an adult audience (almost exclusively so on the press night I attended) as for the young people for whom the piece is ostensibly written.

Amos and Adamson tread the line carefully between the cliché and the seemingly new, and the musical writing helps a good deal in creating a sense that something unexpected is happening here – the orchestration is imaginative, and while there are only really a couple of melodies one takes away after the first hearing, it’s fulfilling musical whole.

Rae Smith’s designs for the production are nothing short of magical, and each new scene finds a different way to draw the audience’s eye around the stage. I suppose it could almost be accused of being distracting, but really I just felt that I ought to come back and see the show again in order to have a good look at the details I’d missed. There is, despite its beauty, no danger of the performances being upstaged by the set, because these too are wonderful: Rosalie Craig in the title role sings beautifully, and apparently effortlessly as well, despite being continually either harnessed to the flies or manhandled around the set by four acrobats whose strength, commitment and discretion gained the biggest cheer of all at the curtain call.

The choreography by Steven Hoggett is understated: this is not a dance show in the way that other musicals are, but as a fan of actors moving around the stage in a way that has been clearly designed (I know that others aren’t), I enjoyed it very much. This is an ensemble of individual actors with individual characters rather than the slightly homogenous sense that one can get from more traditional musical choruses. A central love scene in which the light princess never once touches the ground is also beautifully choreographed, and I found myself wanting it to go on for twice as long.

There are all sorts of reasons to bring students to see this production. While they will often concentrate only on the performances, this also has the potential to be inspirational for young people from the perspectives of direction, writing, composition, and design: set, lighting, and sound. On this latter subject, I must say that this was the third musical I’d seen in a week – one other being an extremely long-running and successful West End show – and the only one of the three in which I could hear without effort, or even downright irritation, every single syllable. A testament to the sound designer, Simon Baker, but also to the quality of the performers and a director (Marianne Elliott, whose recent successes for the National include War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) who understood, in the minority it would sadly seem, that a microphone on an actor doesn’t negate the need for articulation and clarity. The piece also touches on a number of issues that arise both within drama and in other subjects – equality, fairness, peace, gender and sexual discrimination, conservation and the environment … there is much for students to discuss having watched what began as an ordinary fairy tale.

The audience of which I was a part at its official world premiere gave The Light Princess a standing ovation, and one of which I think it was utterly deserving.

The Light Princess, a new musical, by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson, playing at the National Theatre until 9 January 2014. 

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre: The Winter’s Tale, Re-imagined – Performance review

Star rating
*****
A sun-soaked Shakespeare that works as a great window to young children’s beginnings with the Bard. 

At the particular performance I attended of The Winter’s Tale: re-imagined for everyone aged six and over, the sun was blazing down on an excitable audience of school students and young children with their parents at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. But I feel, even on a grey day, this ensemble’s energy would brighten any dampened crowd’s spirits.

Sometimes referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, The Winter’s Tale may not appear to be the most obvious choice for a young people’s adaptation. However, it showcases all that Shakespeare’s good at: drama, tragedy, love, rivalry, jealousy and comedy.

The performance began with the six ensemble members (three women and three men) entering the space ten minutes prior to when the play was due to begin, moving round the stage space and at times interacting with audience members. The cast members then went off stage to put on their first costumes and reappeared dressed for the opening.

The ensemble then proceeded to explain the plot of The Winter’s Tale in rhyme (it may have even been iambic pentameter – but I was too slow to count the beats!) and introduced the audience to the characters they would be playing. I’ve reviewed a couple of adaptations of Shakespeare’s work for young people, including the work of Tim Crouch at the RSC, but I haven’t seen this kind of device used before. It worked brilliantly – it avoided any confusion, and not only made clear the relationships between the characters, but, for younger children perhaps not too familiar with theatrical devices, it also laid clear the multiroling  taking place.

This straightforward, hit-the-nail-on-the-head introduction then led in to a great Shakespearean production – while accessible to children with added laughs, overplaying and accessories (including a motorised mobility scooter dressed as a boat), it retained Shakespeare’s written word and authenticity. A special mention must go to Sirine Saba, who portrayed Hermione and Autolycus, who gave both a touching  performance as the Queen and bounced energetically across the stage as Autolycus.

The second half of the play was much more interactive, involving singing, dancing and audience participation. There were many eager young children replicating the dance moves at instruction, while slightly older almost-teenage school students sat very still!

Director Ria Parr, who previously directed a young people’s production of King Lear at the Young Vic, gets the mix of authenticity and fun spot on. Watching this reminds me what Shakespeare’s all about – we may hold Shakespeare up in high esteem, but ultimately he was a playwright who wanted to entertain. And sitting out in the hot sun with the other ‘groundlings’, it was lovely to watch young people get involved and excited about theatre written hundreds of years ago.

The Winter’s Tale re-imagined for everyone aged six and over runs until 20 July. For more information about the play and other productions in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2013 season, visit http://openairtheatre.com.

Winters tale High res for print - RESIZED