Review – George

‘George’ is an exciting and often funny devised piece of physical theatre, charting the progress of George to an important meeting with the mysterious J. The cast of three are 2016 graduates from East 15 Acting School.

The supporting blurb tells us the piece magnifies and ridicules normal situations. We begin with performer Barbara Blanka taking to the single chair on the stage, picking out individuals in the audience and giving them the game show treatment – What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? This already upsets the natural order of things in the theatre. Are we being challenged to try and make sense of a life when it’s defined only by these three things? It’s further undermined by the next question she asks: “How much do you earn?” This attempt at breaking a massive cultural taboo so early on in the piece is swiftly followed by the information that Blanka’s character is in fact the eponymous George.

Max Percy, whose concept the piece is, and Igor Smith start the physical side of things soon after their appearance, becoming part of the fabric of George’s life as he prepares to go to bed, dreams and then is woken to find a letter inviting him to a potentially life-changing meeting with ‘J’. A pre-meeting trip to the hairdressers cleverly expresses the anxiety we often feel in having such an intimate encounter with a relative stranger, culminating in George being more anxious to please the hairdresser than admit the obvious anguish his haircut is causing him. All this told through a mixture of movement, dance, music and occasional dialogue – in this scene consisting of the repeated phrase “small talk, small talk, small talk.”

Various other scenes follow, up to and including George’s off-stage meeting with the ever unseen J, with at times the music becoming (I assume deliberately) painfully loud. This involved most of the audience putting their fingers in their ears – not a usual reaction to theatre! The climax involves a pillow fight with feathers flying – something the front row will be picking out of their clothes for the next week!

This was a different theatrical experience from any other I’ve had, and I really enjoyed it. It was only a little over 30 minutes long but felt less and left me ready for more. The young cast in their colourful outfits are appealing and professional, obviously taking their craft seriously whilst remembering to keep it light and often funny for their audience. The only critical observation I’d make is that they might consider the branding implications of having a company name (CTNGCY) that requires spelling out if it’s spoken and an explanation in parenthesis (it’s pronounced contingency) when it’s written.


Review – Spamalot

Some people must think Monty Python IS Spamalot. This show has a life of its own which surely puts it in danger of outlasting the flying circus from which it was born. It always seems to be on tour and, as King Arthur himself sings, “Spamalot is done by Am Dram a lot.” Doing the cunning thing and making it a period piece avoids any obvious signs of ageing. But Spamalot remains fresh and funny anyway.

This production is not lavish – just four in the band and a cast of 11. But somehow that’s, at least partly, the point. The Python film on which it is based (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was famously made on a shoestring. The tight budget is the reason we now have the iconic coconuts instead of actual horses. But the cast more than make up for any scrimping on the set, with huge and energy-filled performances. Whether recreating some classic scenes such as The Knights Who Like to Say Ni (greeted with cheers of recognition by many in the audience) or powering through some of the numerous and catchy new musical numbers, they all give their all.

There are, of course, plenty of famous Python lines to enjoy. Particularly effective was the scene when Arthur is insulted by the French guards (“I fart in your general direction!”). But there are also enough musical theatre in-jokes to shake a stick at, with Andrew Lloyd Webber coming in for most of the lampooning.

Director Daniel Buckroyd has really done a great job, packing in all the Python references whilst mining all the physical comedy he can. Bob Harms’s King Arthur is delightfully by turns bemused and wearied by the characters he encounters during his quest for the Holy Grail. Sarah Harlington has the required musical chops to do a knockout job with the big sing of The Lady of the Lake. Rhys Owen is Patsy, probably the only character who really knows what’s going on. He also gets the magic moment of ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’ – although with the entire audience joining in from the first line it’s hard for him to claim his moment! Jonathan Tweedie is a charismatic Sir Lancelot…but I can’t list all the cast here. All I can say again is that they bring huge energy and enthusiasm to the show and win the audience over in the process.

I was worried that, having enjoyed and perhaps revered Python in its original forms, Spamalot would somehow be a simple cash-in. Rest assured it’s not. This is a proper musical that’s also seriously funny.

On until Saturday 28 April 2018 at Dartford Orchard Theatre.


Review – Urinetown

As we enjoy a short heatwave this week it’s good timing for Bromley Players’ production of a musical about a water shortage to hit town. Although I’d heard of Urinetown (premiered in 2001 and not a title you’re likely to forget) I wasn’t aware of the story but was persuaded to see it by the description on the Bromley Players website. I was pleasantly pleased to find it’s all done in the best possible taste with a rich vein of dark and fourth-wall-breaking humour. Not the lavatorial jokes one might expect if this had been a British-authored show. Music and lyrics are by Mark Hollmann with book and lyrics by Greg Kotis.

The premise is that a permanent water shortage has resulted in the privatisation of all toilet facilities under the monopolistic control of UGC (Urine Good Company). With the local police in the pocket of UGC, citizens who fail to pay to use their ‘amenities’ (for example by sneaking out at night behind a bush) find themselves exiled to Urinetown. The central story attached to this is that Hope starts working at UGC where her father is CEO. A price-hike to use the ‘amenities’ results in a rebellion by one group of citizens, who refuse to pay. Meanwhile Hope has fallen for local bad boy Bobby Strong, and he for her – he not realising her family connections and she not realising Bobby is leading the rebellion against Daddy’s company.

We are guided through this by our narrator – Matthew Westrip as police officer Lockstock – who is immediately engaging with a winning way. He inspires confidence and cunningly lets the audience in on the game – under-cutting any concerns we might have about how a musical about toilets can work by addressing them head on. Westrip’s performance is right on the mark. He sets a tone and a standard that gets the audience on board for what’s to come and keeps that up throughout, helping us through this satire of corporate greed, politics and the American musical itself.

As the optimistic and altruistic Hope, Alex Warrham brings a wide-eyed innocence to her role, neatly transforming from fax slash copy girl at Daddy’s office to being smitten with Bobby Strong, all achieved in the brilliant duet Follow Your Heart, with her clear voice ringing out. ‘Daddy’ is Cladwell B C’adwell played with stern resolve and a kind of ruthless charm by Shane King. In his orbit is Laurie Brown’s Penelope Pennywise, who – fag always on – operates the amenities on the ground and has a presence to inspire fear and trepidation in anyone thinking of disagreeing with her. Adrian Smith is the corrupt senator Fipp who gets UGC’s wishes approved by the legislature, less then manfully struggling with both his conscience and an executive brief case. Cory Wordlaw has a ball as rebel gang member Hotblades Harry, who is more interested in killing anyone connected with UGC than in winning his right to pee free. His accomplice is Little Becky Two-Shoes. As played by Claire Goad she is reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner with her wild eyes and equally wild hair. A manic, intense and consistent performance through the whole evening. The are numerous other parts for members of this talented company to enjoy, all executed with individual style and not a duff moment from any of them.

Tom Harvey, meanwhile, as Bobby is the initially unlikely rebel leader, driven by guilt over his father’s death and love for Hope, to take on UGC. He’s a good looking and watchable leading man, sensitive as well as tough. He gets to lead the entire company in the show-stopping gospel-style Run, Freedom, Run!, a number which on its own is worth the price of a ticket and a masterclass for any theatre company in how to pull off a big number.

It’s not a large stage at The Bob Hope Theatre, but a simple, fleixible set combined with great lighting creates a space which the large cast (over 30 I guess) really uses well. And every one of the ensemble brings their own character to life. The band are great, expertly led by their (tap dancing!) MD James Hall, picking up numerous complicated cues effortlessly. The choreography by William Rye is snappy and smart, executed to a high standard by the dancers in the cast. And the whole show is full of invention and energy thanks to outstanding direction by Daniel Lawrence.

Urinetown is at the Bob Hope Theatre, Eltham until Saturday 21 April.