Review – Pinter Five

Pinter Five, part of the Pinter at the Pinter season, brings us Harold Pinter’s first play, The Room, from 1957. In it Jane Horrocks plays Rose Hudd. We find her preparing a meal for her taciturn husband Burt (Rupert Graves) in their one-room flat. In a scene reminiscent of Shirley Valentine, where Shirley prepares a meal for her absent husband and talks to her kitchen wall whilst doing so, Rose is busy talking about the coldness of the weather, the possibility of someone living in the basement flat, the dangers of going out driving in the cold. She goes on at some length but reveals very little of herself. Her husband says nothing and then goes out. The landlord (Nicholas Woodeson) then turns up. He seems unsure why he’s there, unaware even of how many floors there are in his own house. Potential tenants Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) also find themselves in Rose’s flat. Things become more bizarre as the landlord then introduces Riley, a blind man, (Colin McFarlane) who has a message from Rose’s father. When Burt returns things take a serious turn for the worse for Riley.

It’s all a bit ‘Inside number 9′, but with the one act plays in this Pinter season I’ve learned it’s not always rewarding to attempt to solve the apparent puzzle. In the end too many questions are left with ambiguous or no answers. Is Jane Horrocks’ character a ghost? Her husband seems not to be aware of her and she claims never to go outside the room. What is the secret that Riley’s arrival threatens to expose, a secret so potent that Burt reacts to it with extreme violence? Jane Horrocks does the heavy lifting in this piece, her expressions showing incomprehension and fear brilliantly, as the outside world breaks into her safe, cosy one-room existence. Nicholas Woodeson’s Mr Kidd is just off-centre with the world. His manner is carefully peculiar but not so much you put your guard up.

Victoria Station is not really a one act play. Lasting just 10 minutes it’s almost an extended sketch. Colin McFarlane is in the cab office trying to get a sensible answer from one of his drivers (Rupert Graves in his second taciturn, dishevelled role of the evening). He becomes more and more frustrated at his driver’s inability to answer even simple questions, like ‘where are you?’ It follows what I’m coming to learn is the Pinter signature format with many of these short items. Things start in an almost boringly ordinary situation which gradually, by often comic turns, becomes more and more surreal until a tipping point is reached when things turn either bleak or tragic or both. Colin McFarlane plays exasperation well, whilst also showing his dawning realisation that all is not well in the cab in question. What has actually occurred is not made explicit so you can apply your own solution. The degree to which you find this satisfying will govern the amount of pleasure you get from these plays.

Family Voices began life as a radio play. It’s a series of letters between Luke Thallon as a son living away from home writing to his mother (Jane Horrocks) and the mother writing to him. I say the letters are between them. In fact it’s clear none of the son’s letters are reaching the mother who becomes by turns worried, distressed and angry. The boy’s father then joins the conversation even though we’ve been told he’s dead. Once again we find ourselves in a typical and relatable environment but where the action takes a turn for the just plain odd.

There are fewer laughs here than in Pinter 6 which is also running until 26 January, but once again it’s a joy to be able to see such a fine cast excelling on stage right in front of you.

Pinter 5 runs at the Pinter Theatre until 26 January.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.


Review – Pinter Six

The Harold Pinter season at London’s Pinter Theatre reaches number six in the shape of two one act plays, both of which offer a comment on social inequality in the form of guests at a party. But if that description makes this seem like an earnest, politically correct evening then you should also be ready for some sharp and witty one-liners and several laugh-out-loud moments.

1991’s Party Time is set at a stiff and swanky party for society’s elite. The chit chat at the beginning tells us little more than that these are people who consider themselves important and are out to impress. Gradually a darker tone impinges as it becomes apparent Jimmy, the brother of one of the characters, is mysteriously missing. Other clues emerge about the nature of the society outside the party compared with that within. We are in some sort of authoritarian state where the upper echelons live in fear of the lower orders, a fear which they dispel by taking draconian steps to control them. The host at one point, for example, apologises for the traffic problems guests experienced on their way but promises steps will be taken to prevent this happening again. At the same time it’s clear they also live in fear, or at least trepidation, of each other.

In the second half Celebration from 2000 is on the surface an altogether more jolly piece centred on a wedding anniversary taking place at a posh restaurant. Although this time the guests are far from posh themselves. He does that classic comic thing of allowing us to feel superior to the characters we are watching. They reveal themselves to be ignorant, culture-less and boorish. Whilst doing so they provide many a good laugh as they forget what food they’ve ordered and can’t even seem to agree on whether the event they attended before dinner was a concert, an opera or a ballet. Meanwhile the waiter drops into these some hugely diverting diversions as he muses on the distinctly highly cultural escapades of his grandfather in a sort of fantasy aside in which his relative knew and met everyone from Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence to Ernest Hemingway, like some sort of Forrest Gump figure.

As one might expect from an evening of Pinter all this gives the audience plenty to chew on. But it’s also deftly flavoured with generous amounts of high and low comedy. On top of this we are rewarded with a high quality cast who sizzle through the lines and have the chance to show off their skills as they all appear in contrasting roles in both plays. In Party Time John Simm’s Terry appears all charm to his hosts but is plain nasty to his wife. Phil Davies is playing against type as Gavin, the sophisticated and eloquent host. In Celebration he seems more at ease, or perhaps just on more familiar ground to those who know him from television, puce of face and foul of mouth, but at least honest in his views, however unacceptable. Tracy-Ann Oberman is almost unrecognisable as the darkly brooding Charlotte in the first half and then enjoys herself enormously in a huge blond wig as the subject of The Celebration. Celia Imrie, meanwhile, is brilliant in both parts. Clipped and severe in Party Time and also donning a huge wig for Celebration – which suits her fabulously although it does seem to put the piece visually in the 80s even though it was written for the millennium. You’ll recognise all the other faces as well. Ron Cook is brilliantly watchable, especially as the increasingly drunk Lambert celebrating his anniversary.

This is one classy night at the theatre.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Pinter at the Pinter runs at The Pinter theatre until 23 February 2019.

Review – Aladdin at the Orchard Theatre

The panto at Dartford Orchard Theatre starts with a bang. Literally. No gradual dimming of the lights and gentle mentions to turn off your mobile phone! Having got our attention it proceeds to hold it across the whole show with a succession of spectacular moments and perfectly executed comedy routines.

The big name is Marti Pellow who plays the baddie, Abanazar, nemesis to our hero Aladdin. He exudes menace and plays the part dead straight, as it should be, despite the sometimes chaotic comic scenes going on around him. He looks the part, he moves like a snake and sounds devilish.

Comedy is provided by Ricky K as Wishee Washee and David Robbins as Widow Twankey. Ricky K is a bundle of boundless energy and enthusiasm who delivers the requisite panto jokes with enough of a twinkle to sell even the oldest of them with conviction. David Robbins is a brilliant Dame, making every entrance in a different costume (all of which he designs) and wig (all of which he makes), each more outrageous than the last. I should mention at this point that all the comedy is very family friendly with only a couple of double entendres and some mild innuendo, so this a proper, traditional family panto and great way to introduce children to the magical qualities of theatre.

It was a pleasure to see again Landi Oshinowo as the glamorous Empress of China, having seen her this time last year in the musical Big Fish with Kelsey Grammer. Alexis Gerred does a fine job as Aladdin, with an extremely likeable stage presence in a part which can so easily be bland but which he makes entertaining and watchable. Stephanie Elstob is a beautiful Princess Jasmine, the subject of Aladdin’s desires, but struggles to inject much personality into an under written part. Where she comes into her own, though, is in the big dance routine in Act Two. Lucy Van Gasse, however, as Scheherazade (effectively Aladdin’s fairy godmother) shows what can be done with a small part, bringing her own sparkle to the sparkly effects which greet her entrances.

It is slightly disappointing that the music is pre-recorded as, although it sounds great, the presence of a live band is always better. But the money saved in the pit appears to have ended up on the stage. The show is a visual spectacle. The sets are beautiful and there are some amazing moments, such as a stage-filling King Kong (don’t ask why or how he ends up in Aladdin!), a breathtaking magic carpet ride, a stunning 3D flight and a giant serpent. All of which contribute to this being quite the most spectacular pantomime.

Review – The Band

Filled with Take That’s numerous hits over the last almost three decades, The Band  can all but guarantee its audience an enjoyable trip down memory lane. However, with some ingenious staging, impressive projection effects and an emotional plot, The Band offers warm nostalgia coated in a slick West End production.

The stage is set from the moment you walk in to the auditorium, with a ceefax screen displaying the latest up to the minute news from October 1993. We follow five young women, and their teenage lust for a boyband and more importantly, their unwavering love and support for each other. Once inseparable, circumstances arise resulting in a reunion after 25 years apart, once again brought together by the music of the boyband they so loved as teens.
Young Rachel (Faye Christall) guides us through the first part of the show, she masters the art of being bubbly yet sensitive. All of the young cast (Lauren Jacobs, Sarah Kate Howarth, Rachelle Diedricks and Katy Clayton as well) deliver strong, believable performances which made the audience audibly gasp and giggle along with them. Their older counterparts, (Alice Fitzjohn, Emily Joyce, Rachel Lumberg and Jayne McKenna) have a slightly more difficult task, treading that fine line of once close, now distant friends. However, what comes across through all the women is a sense of warmth.
Winners of the BBC’s Let It Shine, AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Sario Soloman and Yazdan Qafouri play the titular ‘Band’ and find themselves appearing from the most unlikely of places throughout the show. They have to jump (many times literally) from emotive, moving performances to over enthusiastic 90s dance moves within the space of seconds and do so with ease and style.
The show uses Take That’s vast catalogue of music well, showing off Barlow’s impressive songwriting skills. ‘The Band’ perform the majority of the numbers, with gorgeous harmony and some dance moves fans will definitely be familiar with.
Overall the show has a surprising amount of heart in it, alongside all the classic pop tunes audiences turn up for, don’t be surprised if you leave with a tear in your eye and a song in your heart!
Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Review – A Christmas Story…the musical

A Christmas Story is an American institution. The musical version of the 1983 film (from the people who have gone on to write La La Land, The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen) tells the story of young Ralphie Parker in 1940s America, whose only wish for Christmas is to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun. Despite warnings from all the adults that ‘you’ll shoot your eye out’ he remains determined to win over his parents, school teacher, and department store Santa.

To the uninitiated this may sound like a strong does of American schmaltz, but the genius of the film, replicated on stage, is to have Ralphie’s and his classmates’ view of the world seen through the lens of his adult self in the form of a narrator. This brilliantly cuts through the schmaltz with a strong undercurrent of off-beat humour. Gary Freer does a superb job of getting us into Ralphie’s mind and expertly captures the tone and style of the author Jean Shepherd, who wrote the stories on which the film and musical are based and who is the narrator in the film. It would be easy to underestimate the importance of his role, but it is absolutely crucial to making A Christmas Story unique.

The other comic elements come in a series of episodes threaded through the central plot of Ralphie’s Christmas wish. These include his friend Flick being triple dog dared to lick the freezing school flagpole and duly becoming stuck in a ‘Sticky, sticky, sticky situation’, a show-stopping number in which the children are lead by their teacher Miss Shields – Jenny Gayner – in an outstanding full-blown song and dance routine. Also Raphie and his little brother Randy being picked-on by Scut Farkus and Grover Dill. And, of course, Ralphie accidentally losing the wheel nuts whilst helping his father change a flat tyre, exclaiming as he does ‘Oh fudge’ – only, as his adult self tells us, “I didn’t say ‘fudge.'”

As Ralphie’s mother, Lucyelle Cliffe brings caring and motherly warmth to proceedings with some delightful numbers of her own. As Ralphie’s dad – referred to only as ‘the old man’ – Simon Willmont enjoys battling with his neighbours dogs, the furnace that heats his house, his unreliable Oldsmobile and his crossword puzzle. In the case of the latter he eventually comes up trumps and duly wins ‘a major award’, which turns out to be what fans of the film know as the iconic leg lamp – a lighting feature in the worst possible taste which he insists on displaying proudly in the window.

The real stars are, of course, the child cast who, without exception, are a delight – fully committed to their roles and tackling some complex music in the process. Stand-out for me amongst them was Ethan Manwaring as Ralphie’s little brother Randy.

Director Gerald Armin has cut the show down to size to fit the 100 seat Waterloo East theatre (a bit of change from its New York outing at Radio City Musical Hall!). In a lot of ways this suits the homely, cosy feel of the story admirably. And with a live band squeezed behind the scenes, at times one forgets just how small-scale this production is.  But cutting out the dance breaks means some of the numbers are over too soon so fail to make as much of an impression as they might otherwise.

It would be great if this European premier could lead to something bigger next Christmas. In the UK we are only just beginning a tradition of Christmas shows other than panto, with Elf playing the Dominion theatre a few year’s back and Nativity coming into the Apollo this year. But I guess for a producer to take on A Christmas Story on such a grand scale needs the source material – the movie – to be far better known here. On American TV it regularly plays 24 hours a day at Christmas. Here, I don’t think it’s ever been scheduled.

So get to see it now so you can say your saw the European premier. It’s a great Christmas show and you’ll become part of an exclusive club for whom Christmas will never be quite the same again.

A Christmas Story the musical is at Waterloo East theatre until 22 December.