Thoroughly Modern Millie is a stellar performance, which left me buzzing and thankful to be alive, as we follow a group of young would-be actresses set out on a life of adventure in New York – propelled into their new lives at high speed, with the optimism and exuberance of youth. Set in the 1920s, it tracks the period just after the 18th Amendment was passed, declaring Prohibition and banning alcohol in the United States.
The story is, of course, best known from Richard Morris’ 1967 screenplay – though the idea came from an earlier British musical called Chrysanthemum. This new adaptation won awards on its debut in 2002; featuring new lyrics by Dick Scanlan and a fresh score from Jeanine Tesori, it retains Morris’ rewardingly unpredictable plot-line.
From her very first appearance on stage, Millie Dillmount – masterfully acted by Joanne Clifton, best known as a professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing – captivated my attention with her zest for life and determination to both marry well and marry for love. A small-town girl from Kansas, she wants all that life can offer and is determined to create her own opportunities. Clifton has great stage presence to match the role.
Mrs Meers, meanwhile, is apparently a dotty, insignificant, rather large matron. But she’s not what she seems, and is responsible for much of the dramatic power and intrigue in the show; she delivers a lot of the laughs, as well. Lucas Rush should be applauded for his gender-transcending performance here – it’s very Brighton – and with an acting career ranging from Shit-faced Showtime to Shakespeare, I suspect he is always accomplished and at ease.
Jenny Fitzpatrick, of EastEnders fame, has a sublime voice – and is warm-hearted, cunning and convincing as Muzzy Van Hossmere, the wealthy widow who wants the best for all of the young people she meets. Katherine Glover, playing Mille’s best friend Miss (remember the title!) Dorothy Glover, and Sam Barrett as Jimmy Smith also entertain.
Despite a few echoes in the script of the stereotypes of the age, honours for cameo entertainment go first and foremost to Damian Buhagiar and Andy Yau, who play Ching Ho and Bun Foo: two Chinese brothers who are reluctantly complicit in the underhand dealings at the Premier Hotel. Rivalling them for the top position is the smooth Mr Graydon, played my Graham MacDuff, who provides hilarious slapstick humour in the second half when events do not turn out as he wishes.
Costumes dazzled with the razzmatazz of 1920s New York – reminding me of The Great Gatsby – and the orchestra accompanied the show with verve. Choreography was also excellent, with fast-paced dance routines throughout.
If you have seen the film, you will love this musical… but even if you haven’t, there are twists in the plot, problems to be resolved and a comforting sense that good triumphs over evil in the end. Each character is compelling and unique. This is professionally executed, feel-good fun, with a healthy helping of suspense as well; for theatre as well as musical lovers, I’d rate it a must-see. And it’s another triumph for Brighton’s Theatre Royal, which rarely disappoints in its selection of shows.
**** Five stars
All of my reviews are written for and published by Fringe Guru.
Invincible is about a clash of cultures and class when a middle-class couple from London move up north and try to forge a friendship with their very different working-class neighbours. Tensions within each couple are evident from the outset as well as between them, providing a lot of light entertainment.
In the first half I think the pace of the show is slow, let down by two-dimensional characters, each acting according to a stereotype. However, Invincible does offer a lot of laughs, particularly from Alan, acted by Graeme Brooks, who is a larger than life postman with a carefree disposition. He could not be more different to highly-strung Emily acted by Emily Bowker. She is left-leaning and if you met her, you would expect her to be a “spiritual but not religious” vegan with a passion for meditation and a set of ideals that do not match the messy lives they live.
I like the contrasting musical interludes between the scenes that provide a break from a dense script One problem is that the script introduces many, many ideas and ills within society without fully exploring or resolving any of them.
At the very end of the first half, the audience receives its first surprise and the drama begins. In the second half Dawn (acted by Elizabeth Boag) and Oliver (played by Alastair Whatley) take centre-stage and the secrets and lies start. If you like cats, prepare to be amused or horrified. The second half of the play does contain drama and twists as the two apparently more “normal” characters interact with their partners with a mixture of tenderness and hypocrisy.
For me, some of the humour throughout is slapstick, predictable and unconvincing. However, in the second half reasons for bizarre behaviour emerge and I am reminded that, DNA aside, environment and the past shapes everything and does indeed hold people captive.
By the end I had a tear in my eye which means that Torben Betts, the playwright, achieved his objective of delivering an “emotional punch.” It is a great shame that his characters lacked depth and complexity. I think the play has a great deal of potential and it was well acted but for me, the script let it down. Ideas overflowed and I enjoyed the mental stimulation but sadly, I never cared enough about the couples to truly suspend belief.
*** Three stars
Nell Gwynn is set in 1660’s London in Dury Lane during the reign of Charles II. Nell acted by Laura Pitt-Pulford is vivacious and bawdy with a love of life and a tendency to get her own way. A lowly orange seller and former prostitute, she interjects during a play and becomes the first woman on the stage. A series of jokes ensue about the physical merits of women on stage, primarily their “tits.” Nell dazzles theatre company and audience alike but eventually catches the eye of the King.
Charles II has great presence and plays Nell skilfully at her own game to win her affection. At first her confidence wavers as she encounters new worlds but in the second half, Nell grows into her royal position citing her many “responsibilities” when Sister Rose complains she never visits. She even sees off a French suitor from the aristocracy who threatens Nell’s proximity to the King. It is poignant that Nell’s association with the King undermines her ability to be judged on her merits as an actress.
Director Christopher Luscombe should be congratulated for casting. Esh Alladi played Edward Kynaston with great humour. Clad in a bra, he was typically the heroine and takes exception when Nell usurps his role. Full of hyperbole and theatrics, he steals the show on several occasions, even when describing an oak door. Actors will be actors. Another cameo part was played by Nell’s Old Ma Gwynn who ran the brothel in Cheapside. She vists Nell, berating her and stealing the silver at the same time. However, I think it is Mossie Smith who brings the house down as dresser Nancy when promoted to an actress towards the end of the play only to admit: “I hate acting!”
This comedy sparkles with wit and colour throughout and the songs add another dimension. All the instruments are contemporary and the musicians accomplished. The theatre company has most of the best lines but Arlington, the courtier, manages to inject a little menace towards the end, although Nell gets her revenge.
Four stars ****
Present Laughter fizzles with witty dialogue from the outset. It is one of Noel Coward’s most natural plays: full of humour, with characters you care for, and very few villains. The upper-class setting is just that, and the characters are genuine; although a discriminating audience may recognise some well-known traits, no-one is stereotyped or typecast. And therein lies the success of this production, masterfully executed by a convincing cast.
In the world of the play, Gary Essendine is an accomplished and renowned actor – but he’s bossed around by his staff and his ex-wife, and has to navigate an array of young fans (who are mostly, but not all, female). He is generally blamed for most of his misfortune, while his successes are taken for granted rather than applauded. Don’t feel sorry for him, though; for Gary, life is a play and he enjoys being centre stage, drawing the audience in to his domestic bliss. He’s accused of “always acting”, particularly when he’s not doing what his associates want – and yes, he exploits this.
Gary is nicely characterised by actor Samuel West, who is often found in Shakespearean roles but here shows his range. His Gary is self-possessed and able to laugh at himself, but still vulnerable to the storms of life and the isolation of fame. Liz Essendine, acted by Rebecca Johnson, would like to think she pulls the strings, but actually it is Gary who maintains the group’s confidences and has the discretion to keep them to himself. He is arrogant, declaring; “Everyone worships me, how nauseating!” Yet he revels in it – and so does the audience.
The set is impressive, but natural and homely: Gary Essendine’s lounge. Actors make the characters their own and Phyllis Logan, best known as Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey, steals some of the best lines, as she organises Mr Essendine’s life and has the thankless task of being his gatekeeper. Patrick Walshe McBride also deserves credit for a bold performance as aspiring playwright Roland, who criticises Gary’s choice of plays as frivolous and then retorts: “I love it when you are angry!” As the line illustrates, Gary cannot win, and yet he is totally in command.
It’s a moment of sheer brilliance too when the only villain of the piece to have some standing within the group is branded a “wretched prostitute” by an innocent young suitor, who knows nothing of her intrigue and fails to see the ironic similarities in their situation. Overall, then, this play is a delight, a glittering script brilliantly executed. In the best tradition of Noel Coward, it is light on action but sparkling with dialogue. Expect to be entertained.
**** Four stars
Footloose is about a young person’s desire to celebrate life following a tragedy in small town America.
Footloose is primarily about young people wanting to celebrate life. Based on the original film produced in 1984, the show opens with the actors playing instruments, singing and dancing – an energetic musical extravaganza. Accomplished actors and detailed direction from Racky Plews make the complex choreography look effortless.
A boy from Chicago, Ren McCormack, arrives in the small town of Bomont with his mother Ethel, after his father walks out on them. An excellent, versatile set captures the five different locations around Bomont where the action takes place. At first people distrust Ren, a streetwise stranger, who is direct and forgets to charm the adults. Teachers often blame him unfairly, but Ren treats them with spirited disregard and wins over his classmates.
Characterisation is good throughout. Ariel, the daughter of Reverend Shaw Moore, feels trapped in Bomont under the constant watchful glare of her father. The church casts a large shadow over the town, and the Reverend was instrumental in passing a law against dancing following an earlier tragedy.
Reverend Moore’s difficulty in relating to his teenage daughter is masterfully captured – he has a good heart, but has lost touch with the confusing world of adolescence – while his wife Vi is wise and humane, seeking to understand not judge. (Vi, incidentally, is played by Maureen Nolan, of the legendary Nolan Sisters, one of Europe’s first girl bands.) Ren’s mother is equally supportive of her son; both mothers recognise the need to give teenagers wings as well as roots. The young people are “pumped up with promise and wrestling with rage.”
Above all, Ren, acted by Luke Baker, epitomises the vitality and vibrancy of youth. He challenges Ariel to see that “running away will never make you free.” He may be hyperactive, but he is also a careful operator, who takes time to get to know his peers and never wavers in wanting to live life to the full today instead of dreaming of a better tomorrow. It is Ren, encouraged by his mother, who risks vulnerability with the Reverend and thereby uncovers the solution to the conflict between young and old.
While some of Ariel’s friends lack depth, the interaction between Willard (acted by Gareth Gates) and Rusty provides humour throughout the show. Willard, often tongue-tied, grows in confidence because of his friendship with Ren, and enjoys his moment of glory in his shorts.
My overall impression is that the show makes me glad to be alive. Life is a gift; let’s revel in it.
**** Four Stars
It is Brighton Festival this May 2016 and I am reviewing plays for Fringe Guru.
Festival plays include Torn Apart.
The Communist Threat (four stars)
Read my review of Blackbird here reproduced in full below.
Blackbird is a controversial play, that exposes a cocktail of emotions – triggered when Una confronts the much older Ray, 15 years after he abandoned her at the age of 12 in a seaside hotel room. As the story unfolds, we hear about the aftermath of this illicit liaison. Ray was imprisoned for having sex with a minor; Una had to remain in the community where they both lived, facing the everyday disapproval of friends, their families and neighbours. The bad news spread like a forest fire, however much her parents tried to protect her.
Throughout their charged encounter, Una is filled with questions. She is angry, humiliated, lonely, confused and entranced in turn. Ray may have served his sentence, but has he really understood how it feels to be sexually abused as a child, and the legacy most victims carry into adulthood? He has felt the full force of condemnation from society, but was there opportunity for rehabilitation? Did the authorities believe he could reform? Do we believe it?
And Una’s character, for me, is even more complex and interesting, stealing the show and leaving me deeply uncomfortable. Her 12-year-old self was still drawing her back, pushing her to transact with Ray as she had in the past. At one point she asks Ray: “Why did you leave me in the hotel?” and there is a sense that this is the question that has dominated her life. I expected guilt, shame and self-blame, misplaced emotions which survivors commonly battle – I am not sure we witnessed these.
The play lost some pace in the second half, though this does at least offer a little respite before an eruption of even deeper, more highly charged emotion. Dialogue and confrontation move on from that lull inexorably towards a chilling conclusion.
Lucy Laing and Martin Hobbs offer us a confident and compelling performance, with Annabelle Hollingdale in support. There is very little set to speak of, but the sparse backdrop, scant props and small stage only heighten the intensity – and at times the irony – of this drama.
I would recommend Blackbird as a thought-provoking piece of theatre, well-executed and raising many questions. From a feminist perspective, it’s disconcerting, but David Harrower’s play is well worth seeing – because it challenges stereotypes, and explores the difficulty of unravelling complex, heartfelt emotion. There is a reason why people say the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference.
And the review of Rosie Wilby here.
Ida unpacked by Rebecca Lenckiewicz
Screenwriter and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz has written poignantly of clashing cultures between a worldly communist judge and a catholic Jewish nun in the film Ida, set in early 1960s Poland. She co-wrote the screenplay, which won an Oscar for best foreign film earlier this year, with director Pawel Pawlikowski.
Ms Lenkiewicz, aged 46, is open about being a table dancer fleetingly in her youth and that episode inspired her first play, ‘SOHO: A Tale of Table Dancers.’ She was an actress for the Royal Shakespeare Company when the debut play was performed and she acted for the Royal National Theatre. This acting experience gave her the necessary insight into writing dialogue, allowing actors the space they need to develop their characters.
SOHO: A Tale of Table Dancers was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s fringe festival and won a fringe first award at the Edinburgh Festival.
Her Naked Skin about suffrage was the first original play written by a living woman to be performed on the main Olivier stage at the Royal National Theatre in 2008. The honour was surpassed only by Ida’s success.
Ida charts the journey of novice Anna with her Aunt Wanda, who tells Anna that she is Jewish and her name is Ida Lebenstein. Together they return to the family farm to discover how her relatives died and where they are buried. This is a trip that hard-nosed judge Wanda, previously a distinguished state prosecutor, has avoided for most of her adult life.
The farmers who hid the Lebensteins, later killed them, either out of fear or greed before taking the property. A complex crime that underlines the good and evil of Nazi occupied Poland and the horrific dilemmas constraining people, distorting their motives and actions.
Ida juxtaposes the emptiness of modern, cosmopolitan life, peppered with chance encounters in hotels and the creaking, deafening silence of the convent. Modern life is seen in the film as a constant running away, alcohol fuelled oblivion and transient sham intimacy. Cloistered at the convent there is only oneself and God, no escape, limited human interaction and hard work.
The camera is completely still for all but two scenes of this black and white masterpiece. Wanda and Ida are often still, looking at each other, trying to bridge the gulf between their contrasting worlds.
Only fragments of a soundtrack exist and tinny, jarring music in the car during this very personal odyssey and lighter moments when a hitch-hiking saxophonist, Lis, playing John Coltrane, woos Ida.
Lis helps Ida experience and understand that she is sacrificing sexual intimacy and family life in taking religious orders at the convent. Ida has never lived anywhere else because Wanda felt unable and unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her sister’s child.
Lis epitomises a new Poland, at peace, joyful and more prosperous but the birds beckon Ida back from life as we know it to the safety of her convent, sparse, silent yet familiar, perhaps virtuous.
There are many empty scenes but no clear value judgements about secular society in 1960s Poland or religious life. The story unfolds with little commentary to direct the viewer and therein lies its power. The crimes are complex and opaque.
Wanda’s layers of grief and anger are observed but not explained. Ida’s experience of life is narrow and she remains an enigma. Neither life is promising, mirroring the sparse, monochrome, empty landscapes of a battered, war torn land, hiding guilty secrets and heinous crimes.
Ida is not without controversy: 40,000 people have signed a petition protesting about the film’s failure to mention Germany’s occupation of Poland.
The trailer is available to view here: Trailer of Ida
Interview with Rebecca Lenkiewicz
I started by asking Ms Lenkiewicz if she realised that Ida was a potential Oscar winner?
She said: “I had no idea that Ida would win an Oscar. We were concerned from the start whether there would be much of an audience for it. I was pleasantly amazed by the successes it had.”
How did you come up with the characters?
“Pawel Pawlikowski sent me a script and the characters were already there, Wanda and Ida. But we honed the women and changed and shifted them for a year on and off to get them right. Wanda, the aunt, was an amalgam of women he had known and heard of whilst Ida was a fictitious character as he was very keen to investigate someone who had complete faith.”
How long did it take to write and did the script change a lot during the filming process? Were you involved in this?
“There was already a script when I started on the process but by the end there was practically nothing left of that original script. The rewriting happened over a year and a half very on and off. Then Pawel started filming and again there were big shifts. A lot of cuts to the script and some changes and additions. I wasn’t involved with the filming at all but answered some emails about story problems.”
How did screenwriting compare with writing a play?
“Screenwriting was a very different process. I was co-writing with Pawel so the writing was a constant dialogue. The sharing of ideas was great and the research into the project together was very joyful. Playwriting is a much more solitary activity. The joy is there in a different way but both processes are fascinating.”
Do you see yourself focusing on playwriting or screenwriting or both in the future?
“I’m rehearsing two new plays at the moment and they have incredible highs and some lows. As does screenwriting. I would imagine I’ll write more films than plays for a while.”
What did you enjoy most about the writing / production process of Ida?
“I enjoyed the initial stages of Ida most just getting under the skin of the characters and meeting with Pawel where we were being forensic about the script and the world of it.”
How did it feel watching the film for the first time and where were you when you first saw Ida?
“I first watched it on the television at Eric Abraham’s (the producer’s) house. It was very strange and wonderful watching it. The script had changed slightly and I was seeing the cast for the first time. I was nervous about that but felt very quickly euphoric at the beauty of the film.”
Ms Lenkiewicz is currently reworking the script of ‘The Invisible’ which will be performed next month at the Bush theatre. It is based on real interviews with people affected by the recent cuts to legal aid funding. It explores the impact of these on justice for the poorest in society.
She is also casting ‘Jane Wenham: the Witch of Walkern.’ The character Jane Wenham is blamed for a death in Walkern in 1712 and charged with witchcraft, leaving the village divided about her fate.
Watching Amy Winehouse reminds me of Lily Oakes. She is a rare white singer who can sing soul and I miss it. She is versatile if troubled.
‘Recreating Memory’ at Hastings Art Forum in St Leonards on Sea
Do not miss the arresting images in the ‘recreating memory’ art exhibition at Hastings Art forum in St Leonards on the Sea. There are 15 artists exhibiting their works, masterfully curated by Sally Meakins. The artists reflect on the conflict between hope and loss in life.
The centrepiece is a digital painting called ‘Arrival’ by Hong Dam from Hove which depicts a young child fleeing her homeland through wrought iron gates and embarking on a long journey towards the light at the end of the tunnel. The colour is akin to kerosene oil.
Hong Dam paints charts the contrasts between the industrialisation of the West and the lush, purity of nature in Vietnam beautifully. However, Hong knows that since she left as a refugee, initially for China on a junk aged 17, Vietnam has also been developed and the land of her childhood no longer exists.
In stark contrast to the Vietnam of Hong’s childhood, the work of Sally Meakins, depicts the pristine sterility of the West: perfect, empty, soulless towns.
Clare Tyler creates collages to immortalise politics, sport and film. Clare’s range is demonstrated by another set of miniature paintings about voices and the torment of sleepless nights. Margaritta Dorrity, aged 96, is the eldest, versatile exhibitor moving with ease from politics in this exhibition to celebrating the natural world.
Jo Welsh charts her own journey of loss with five signs, including a cracked wishbone. Brian Rybolt depicts decaying grandeur with a forensic eye. Christine Jordan paints seemingly surreal faces which are skeletal with woven foliage.
Caroline Sax presented Cargo, Jo Welsh crafted a white glove from a bygone age, Alice Maylam’s paintings were darker, ‘in the forest.’ Wendy Philips makes intricate jewellery and Kathleen Dawson produced a unique blue collage. Nigel Oxley provides light relief with ‘Women on the Beach’ and Nick Weeks composed a sound piece.
The common theme running through the exhibition is loss and the overriding question is: where do I belong?
Kathleen Fox, another refugee, exhibited some fragments from her own story, ‘Good Enough to Eat.’ Kathleen’s family left South Africa for Prague in 1987, her child had all his belongings in a pre-school case. The family were tragically deported to Terezin Prisoner of War camp: ‘the child’s suitcase is a reference to the forced abandonment of all that’s known and loved, to being in transit, to the poignancy of a child’s vulnerable journey into an unknown, possibly violent space.’
This thought provoking exhibition must not be missed. It runs at the Hastings Art Forum, 36 Marina in St Leonards on Sea, TN38 0BU until 12th August.
Notes from the Great Escape Music Festival: 8th – 10th May 2014
Amber Run at Concorde 2: Great depth and blend of voices, three singers, the lead had depth and soul. Mix of rock and folk music. Their music speaks of experience without introduction. From Nottingham. Timeless music crosses genres to give it wide appeal. They may feel the need to ‘vamp up the rock’ but they should have courage to true be to themselves, sing from the heart and let the full range of their voices be heard.
Rae Morris: Pretty, accomplished, earned respect but did not have the presence of Amber Run (in my opinion.) I hope she survives the rigours and temptations of a career in music. There is something vulnerable about her that endears and unsettles. Do I underestimate her? Probably… one to watch.
Jenn Grant: played at the Spiegelpub (bad venue, people talking.) Her voice could have had more power.
Missed Paul Thomas Saunders
Courteney Barnett: abrasive voice, I left after two tracks.
Mighty Oaks: This was my bonus band. Acoustic folk, all three guitarists sing, their melodies are catching and poignant. Their voices have a good range. International group: Somerset lad, drummer is German, Italian on guitar, lead singer from Seattle. Where did they meet?
Alice Bowman: Did not live up to expectations. She introduced a haunting echo to her music which detracted from the purity of her voice. Check out her earlier music: it is much better.
Tracks: stop the world, I want to get off…
Does no one in Brighton ever fancy heading deep into the outback? I do… far from the madding crowd, silence, time to hear myself think, to breathe, to wonder in the magnificence of nature, to lose myself in its grandeur, to remember my insignificance and revel in it.
The film Tracks is a must see, now showing at Duke’s in Komedia, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson. It charts the journey of a young woman, Robyn, who set off to walk to the ocean on the west coast in Australia across 2000 miles of desert from Alice Springs.
Robyn was the daughter of a man who wandered through Africa in his youth. She had her dog and camels for company. The kindest man she met was an Afghan who honoured his agreement and gave her some camels as a payment in kind for hard labour. Occasional visits from a photographer friend both eased and marred the isolation. She camped under the stars, lost in her thoughts and the haunting emptiness of her endeavour. There was deep peace and nightmares, devastating exhaustion and the unexpected kindness of strangers. Her desire was to leave ‘civilisation’ behind.
She met kindly Aborigines who warmed to this mad ‘camel woman’ experiencing a bond with the land not often found among white people. Language was no barrier. There were echoes both of Life of Pi as she found a way to frighten rather than shoot wild camels and Dances with Wolves with the big skies, harsh landscape and crossing of cultures. Robyn Davidson walked on and walked alone.
This film is not sentimental or existential, it is simply a journey that we are ironically invited to watch by the camera shy, solitary, spirited Robyn. If you miss the film, Robyn has written a book charting her voyage. An invitation to get to know a little more about this restless, beautiful and magnetic spirit.
We may have to make do in Sussex with the Downs or an empty beach but there is a purity in nature that I often strain to grasp. No one to impress, no need for a mask to maintain a certain image. There is water, birdsong and pastures to feed the soul as summer approaches… and there is films!