Lilies on the Land – Highbury Theatre

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This play was being performed for the first time ever at the Highbury Theatre. A story that will probably be more familiar to many in the guise of the 1998 film “Land Girls” starring Rachel Weiss, and the 1994 novel of the same name by Angela Huth. Those that had worked as Land Girls baulked at the way that both works portrayed them. “Lilies on the Land” is the result of first hand reminiscences from those who did work the fields, creating a drama of indisputable authenticity. It was first performed in 2010.

 
The role of the Land Girls, digging for victory, is a lesser publicised part of the British war effort. The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was established in World War One, but was re-founded shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, in June 1939, to provide extra labour.

 
Women were initially asked to volunteer for the WLA. However, in December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act, which allowed the conscription of women into the armed forces, or for vital war work. At first only single women between 20 and 30, and widows without children, were called up, but later the age limit was expanded to include women between 19 and 43. Women could choose whether to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By 1943, more than 80,000 women were working in the Land Army. It is an irony of the Second World War that the National Service Act of December 1941, which extended conscription to women, had no equivalent in Germany.
Director Ian Appleby had two options in casting. The principal cast is of four women, but there are almost a dozen minor characters. Would he go small, or large? He opted to go small, asking the women to assume multiple characters as the story unfolded, creating a demanding load for the actresses.

 
A simple, single, set suffices for the entire evening, dressed with vintage posters, and featuring a video screen playing contemporary news footage and photographs. The audio plays an important part in creating atmosphere, and where there is no audio, the cast fill in with some very impressive animal noise impersonations. The table proves to be exceptionally versatile, becoming in turns a bath and a toboggan, as well as a table.
The cast of four, Margie (Linzi Doyle), Peggy (Sharon Clayton), Poppy (Bhupinder Brown) and Vera (Emma Woodcock) approach their task with effervescent enthusiasm. Another feature of their demanding roles are a number of wartime songs, which they have to sing largely unaccompanied, a task which they tackle with verve and pleasingly good voices. At one point they also have to dance, dragging an audience member to his feet to make up for the lack of men on stage, a nice touch. Whatever “Britishness” is, they display it in spades.

 
Linzi Doyle is a joy as a bubbly earthy Margie. Sharon Clayton is a reflective Maggie at her best when recounting the tale of tearing her best and only dress while climbing a six foot gate. Bhupinder Brown is superb as the posh girl in unfamiliar and alien surroundings. Emma Woodcock plays Vera with maturity and charm. None try to steal the limelight during their respective monologues, a real team effort.

 
The play itself is a narrative collection of monologues. Each woman tells her story as the four seasons, and war, unfolds. This combines the humour of mice racing, the trials and tribulations of field toilets, and the dangers of unwanted male attention and exploitation as they struggle in their task a long way from home. The first half is quite lengthy at around eighty minutes, the second half, a much sharper forty- five minutes. A beautiful poem appears to wrap things up before a rousing sing along “Jerusalem” provides a crowd pleasing finale.

 
Ian Appleby has done a fine job bringing this production to the stage. The audience was quite old, not surprising given the subject matter, but the themes transcend generations, and theatre goers of all ages will enjoy this show.

 
“Lilies on the Land” runs until Saturday 2nd July.

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Spoken Word at Caffé del Nino , Cannock– 9/7/17

 

I had heard about this event for some months but not had the opportunity to catch it. I was curious for two reasons. Firstly, I always like attending new poetry evenings so that I can learn how o improve my own event Poetry Alight in Lichfield, secondly, hitherto Cannock has not been a hotbed of poetry.

 
With my partner visiting her mother’s, I had a spare night so pitched up on the spur of the moment, only to discover fellow event frontman Rick Sanders cruising the streets to find the venue too. Together we succeeded, and upon entering there was another event organiser, Steve Pottinger propping up the bar along with Lichfield’s Poetry for the People organisers Emily Gavin and Phil Knight.

 

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Host Charlotte Postings

MC for the night is the irrepressible Charlotte Postings. I lift this excerpt from in house magazine 24 Housing about her:

 
Sanctuary Supported Living (SSL) resident Charlotte Postings, 22, had a prior love of writing, but had yet to explore poetry when she first arrived at its Avalon House service 17 months ago.

 
Staff at the service, which supports people with mental health needs, encouraged Charlotte to develop her love of poems, which she acquired through a local support group, and to host her own poetry nights.

 
Her first night, which was held in March at Caffe Del Nino, hosted 14 performers, with a second in April attracting 17 people reading. The events are open to everyone and have attracted artists from a wide range of backgrounds, including several from the LGBT community and one with cerebral palsy.

 
Charlotte said: “My poetry and spoken word nights are for anyone and everyone who wants to come and freely express themselves, but I did not foresee how popular they would be – the venue was full to the brim with people.”

 
http://www.24housing.co.uk/yournews/poetry-and-support-enable-charlotte-to-thrive/

 
What defines this evening, and makes it different, is the frequency of the breaks. There are no headliners, and poets are asked to read no more than four poems for no more than ten minutes. I am pleased to say that all poets displayed commendable restraint, with the vast majority reading for three or four minutes. Every quarter an hour or so there was a break in open micers, music came on with a commendably hip playlist, and there was plenty of opportunity for poets to chat, socialise and network, and for the bar to take more money.

 
Generally, I liked the frequency of the breaks, it gave us all a chance to reflect on what we had heard, a criticism though, was that towards the end, it meant that the evening lost a little momentum.

 

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Emily Galvin

Phil Knight gave the best performance I have heard from him, joined by Emily Galvin. Rebecca Lockwood was my surprise “find” with a set of unassuming excellence. An oddity was a member of the bar staff ( I did not catch his name) who delivered a poignant prose piece about a fatal confrontation with the Taliban. The content was excellent, with editing, it would be outstanding. Someone find him, and help him.

 

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Phil Knight

A great addition to the poetry circuit. I was delighted to see not only a strong thirty plus turn out, but also a large number ( the majority) of young men and women under thirty years of age of commendably different perspectives, experiences, and voices.
The facebook page for the event giving details of future events is here:

https://www.facebook.com/speakingoutmidlands/

 

 

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The Crucible – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Crucible
***

I first, and last, saw Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 1974, twenty- one years after its premiere, as part of my “O” level school studies. It made an enduring impact. Although the McCarthyite purges had long since gone, the “Reds under the bed” paranoia still lingered, and the Cold War was at Arctic temperatures. “The Crucible” is an allegory for those times, and I was curious to see how, forty- three years on, its themes had endured.
A towering panelled set with rotating central stage and mature tree trunks provides the backdrop for the first scene, accompanied by a foreboding pulsing soundtrack, creating both a sense of openness, and claustrophobia. A journalistic maxim is to “say it in the first paragraph”. Miller does exactly that with an opening which embraces possession, secrets, naked dancing, adultery and jeopardy for the protagonists. An object lesson in fine, gripping, drama.
Productions of this play walk a tightrope. Scenes of demonic possession can either be scenes of disturbing hysteria, or hysterically funny. Fortunately director Douglas Rintoul achieves the former, rather than the latter. The box office names are Charlie Condou ( Reverend Hale) and Victoria Yeates (Elizabeth Proctor) famous for “Coronation St” and “Call the Midwife” respectively, yet it was Lucy Keirl ( Abigail) and Cornelius Clarke ( Rev Parris) who caught my eye.
It is difficult not to make the second half of this play a success with its ingredients of courtroom drama, and personal moral conflicts. Jonathan Tafler seizes the part of Judge Danforth, with an imperious, imposing, dominating performance, “ a person is either with the Court, or he must be counted against it”. However the second half belongs to Eoin Slattery ( John Proctor) as he wrestles with the dilemma of telling the truth about his adultery with Abigail, as the price for exposing her lies.
As a play, its stature has grown in my estimation to become one of the essential plays of the twentieth century. In writing fear of witchcraft as an allegory for fear of Communism, Miller has crafted something in which the allegorical element can be interchangeable with many things. Currently, it is Muslim terrorism.
As a production, it works, but not unreservedly so. Victoria Yeates gives us a measured, restrained Elizabeth Proctor, bewildered by what is happening around her. Charlie Condou is a fine actor, but seemed uneasy in the role of Rev Hale. Furthermore, I was sat half way along the stalls, and struggled to hear some of the lines, not least because too many were delivered downstage. Yet as an ensemble piece, it convinces with the mass hysteria palpable, the sense of injustice raw.
Lucy Keirl is terrific. Did she use John Proctor, or did he use her? Are her actions the result of Proctor’s offered, then withdrawn affections? Or is she really a malevolent schemer? The strength of Keirl’s Abigail is that she forces us to ask all of these questions, but provides no answers.
Proceedings are greatly enhanced by a fine set designed by Anouk Schiltz and striking costumes which contrast women in period 17th Century dresses and men in tweed suits. The latter a nod to the timelessness of the themes. The projected stage directions as characters came on stage was innovative, and effective. Be aware that it is a long night, the playing time is just over two and a half hours, including the interval that means it will be three hours before you emerge from the theatre again. A particularly pleasing aspect of the evening was a younger than average, ethnically diverse, audience. Realised by Selladoor productions and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in association with Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg and Mathew Cundy Productions, “The Crucible” continues to Sat 10th and continues on tour in Glasgow.
Gary Longden

 

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Cyrano de Bergarac – Derby Theatre

Cyrano – Derby Theatre

northern

Written one hundred and twenty years ago, this French play,  in rhyming verse by Edmond Rostand, has endured for a very good reason. Everyone enjoys a joke about a big nose, and in Cyrano de Bergerac, there are lots of them (jokes not big noses). The plot is simple enough Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, is a cadet  in the French Army. He  is  brash, roguish and talented .  As well as being a swordsman of some repute, he is also a poet and musician. Enough to engage any woman you might think? Wrong. He has an extremely large nose, which  “gets in the way” of his pursuit of the beautiful Roxanne played by the comely Sharon Singh. Will true love win the day? Or is beauty skin deep?

This adaptation is by Deborah McAndrew whom I remember fondly as an actress in Coronation Street in the 1990’s,playing Angie Freeman opposite Curly Watts. She  has been with Northern Broadsides company since 1995 and is married to their Musical Director Conrad Nelson who also directs this show. Unsurprisingly, there is quite a lot of music , which works well and entertains, breaking up what is quite a lengthy production. When you are involved in the tedious siege of Arras, what is there to do other than sing a song?  

Although set in the Thirty Years War in 1640 Paris,  the dialogue is frequently contemporary, making it accessible and easier to be comic in. There are not many laughs in 19th century French for a 21st Century Derbyshire audience.

A youthful  earthy provincial Christian Edwards delights as the eponymous poetic hero, Adam Barlow is the perfect, superficial, shallow  foil as his love rival, Christian de Neuvilette, who appropriates Cyrano’s poetry to woo Roxanne. The costumes are lavish, the instrumentation and  baroque songs easy on the ear, and tragic-comedy soft, poignant, and at times  raucous ( the nose jokes).  Paul Barnhill, as master baker, and  less than master poet Ragueneau,  has a fine time  as he seizes his moment of glory  by smuggling  cakes onto the battlefield for his hungry countrymen.

This is a bold production from a provincial company determined to give the production a provincial feel. Celebrating the outsider, and it works. The closing drama is a well -executed finale, raising the tempo for a two and a half hour long production which runs till the end of the week, then closes at the Oxford Playhouse from May 23-27. Fun, imaginative and with plenty of live music, this affecting and quirky revival is a hoot (er).

Gary Longden

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All Star Stand Up Tour 2017 Derby Theatre

 

****

all star

 

The All-Star Stand-Up Tour returned  after a memorable 2016 show with a fresh bill apart from Kiwi  Javed Christmas, who was  moving from doing  a headline slot last year  to the more flexible  role of presenter and in between slot raconteur. Jim Tavare had been due to play the tour, but sadly he was involved in in a near fatal car crash in his home city of Los Angeles on March 6th, from which he is fortunately recovering.

Christmas was far more at home as presenter than he had been last year with just his own spot. Teasing the audience, instant comedy, sharp retorts, and one liners are clearly his forte and he was the star of the show.

First up was, fresh from Phoenix Nights and 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Justin Moorhouse. Rotund in frame, and easy going in nature, he was the perfect opener, pushing the smutometer along a few notches and easing the audience into the evenings comedy. Mike Gunn wound up  the first half and for me was the star of the show. Lanky, laconic and very funny, he was confident at ease, trotting out a familiar, but no less amusing, final gag about wedding dresses. An absolute comic delight.

After the break came  Canadian one-liner king and star of Mock The Week and Live At The Apollo Stewart Francis who unsurprisingly excelled in one liners, reducing the appreciative audience to fits of helpless laughter, with Christmas appearing again in able support.

The attraction of  show like this is that inevitably some acts will appeal more than others, but with a variety bill, there is bound to be something for everyone.

It was pleasing to see Derby Theatre almost full  for this two  and a quarter hour show with an audience which was quite different from the regular theatre going crowd, reinforcing the venue as a comedy destination for the country’s top comic talent. This thirty date roadshow continues on tour nationwide.

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Dinosaur World at Derby Theatre

****

dino

A children’s show, primarily aimed at the under 7’s which capitalises on the enduring love affair children, and their parents, have with dinosaurs. The dinosaurs themselves are cleverly manipulated as puppets by puppeteers coming in an impressive array of shapes and sizes.

It opens with our heroine, Miranda, being washed up on an island where strange shapes move amidst the trees, a cross between Treasure Island without the pirates, and Jurassic Park without the jeopardy. Miranda, enthusiastically and warmly played by Danielle Stagg, soon makes friends with her new companions including a Giraffatitan, Triceratops, Segnosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, and gives them names, instantly humanising them for the young audience.

The puppet dinosaurs convince, as does the movement and vocalisation of the puppeteers, and before long not only has Miranda made friends with the creatures, but so have the audience, as awestruck youngsters are invited on stage to help look after them. But it is not just the lucky few invited on stage who are involved, so is the whole audience who are invited to sing a lullaby to send a baby dinosaur to sleep and alert Miranda of the impending hatching of an egg. Cleverly we are lulled into a false sense of security as a precursor to the highlight of the show, the arrival of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, announced by the dimming of lights and an ominous growl.

Director and writer Derek Bond has done a good job at providing light entertainment for young children, whilst also weaving in some sound natural history to educate as well. There were times when Miranda spoke too quickly to be readily understood, and sometimes the natural history was  beyond the school age audience. But at  fifty minutes it engages, without outstaying its welcome and the large, lifelike dinosaurs are the stars.. Jacob, aged three, and Harry aged five, loved it.  Continues on national tour.

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Evita – Wolverhampton Grand

evita 4

****

Almost four years ago, Bill Kenwright’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” played at Wolverhampton. It was one of the best productions of the show I had ever seen, so I approached this new production, with a fresh cast, with some trepidation, topping the last show was going to be difficult. 

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Director Bob Tomson has significantly reworked the show creating something neither better, nor worse, but different. The part of the Narrator is taken by  Gian Marco Schiaretti, making his UK musical theatre debut. He is magnificent, boasting a strong voice, and an imposing physical presence which delighted the women in the audience, particularly when he strutted in a red vest top. He commands the stage in an unusually prominent portrayal of the part. 

 

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Gian Marco Schiaretti as Che the Narrator

Emma Hatton takes the part of Eva Peron having recently completed a West End run taking the title role in Wicked. It is a distinctive reading of the role. She eschews any attempt at a Latin accent , speaking and singing with a London timbre, brash and confident. “ Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is well dispatched, but it is in a moving, “ You Must Love Me” and self- congratulatory “High Flying Adored” that she puts her stamp on the role. 

 

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Emma Hatton as Eva asks us not to cry for her

 

 

Scott Sheady has created a lavishly costumed piece to compliment Mathew Wrights lavish set. These pleasing visuals are accompanied by beautiful and stirring orchestration, in the hands of musical director David Steadman. The standard of singing both from the leads, and the ensemble is impressively high throughout, never more so than when Sarah O’Connor, as the mistress, delivers a stunning “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”

 

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Sarah O’Connor as the Mistress about to pack her suitcase

 

This story of power, politics and intrigue, although first performed almost forty years ago now plays to an audience experiencing a political world which has Trump and Marine Le Penn amongst its cast, and the life of Lady Diana spencer as context for mass adulation and hysteria. Thus, this tale of the rise of Eva Peron has worn well, and earns its place as a contemporary drama in ways that Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice could not have anticipated when they wrote it. 

The centre of gravity of this production has shifted towards the Narrator . Gian Marco Schiaretti has set a new benchmark for the role as he stalks the stage, Eva, and the story. He is no bystander or supine commentator, becoming part of the action.  

Emma Hatton in the first act, has Eva more as a girl gang leader, than closet first lady. It is in the stunning “ High Flying Adored” sequence, complete with chorus wheeling portable full length mirrors that her Peron comes into its own. In that first act, and for “Don’t cry For Me Argentina” I feared that she lacked the poise and finesse to carry off the role, but those fears were allayed as the second act races to its conclusion and she becomes Eva Peron, particularly in an evocative, poignant, tear jerking finale. As  Schiaretti thrilled his female fans in his tight vest top, so Hatton  teases her male fans with an onstage costume change revealing her stockings and suspenders.

 

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“High Flying Adored”

 

 A great show. A production which will  reward those who have seen the show before, and impress and delight those who are experiencing “Evita” for the first time. Runs till the 13th May and continues on nationwide tour.

Gary Longden

 

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