Thursday, 21 December 2017

Tale as old as time… Beauty and the Beast, Kings Head Theatre

Spot the cast from the mob! All photos by Nick Rutter
At one point two cast members chime “please don’t sue us Disney…” but it’s far too late for that! This is now the only true version of Beauty and the Beast and Disney can afford to over look their casting errors in the recent live action film.

This production puts the cheek back into tongue in cheek right from the get-go with a mime of Mickey in Steamboat Willie (fnar!) followed by a torch-lit shadow-puppet introduction from within a child’s canvas castle that must have literally cost pounds. It’s a pitch-perfect piss-take that treats its source material with such affection that you could scare call it beastly.

If anything, it restores the earthy heart of the fairy tale, the lust that goes with the love and the humble faults that all heroes must have – even in Disney. Beau (Jamie Mawson) is a handsome bookworm who longs for a better life away from his ordinary, illiterate little town… every plastic prince must escape from the tawdry to a higher level. His mother Maureen (Allie Munro) is an artist fond of “lesbian ceramics” who wants only for her son to meet a girl who loves Jane Austen as much as he and to exhibit at the Camembert Art Fair.

Jamie Mawson photo by Nick Rutter
But Beau is coveted by Chevonne (Katie Wells) an alpha female fond of hunting all round and specifically concerned with capturing this winsome fellow. In truth they’re ill-matched but she has eyes only for surface attraction and is in every respect so like a man oblivious to the loyalty from La Fou Fou (Allie Munro again).
The plot dances round the well-worn narrative playfully inserting overt commentary that everyone who grew up on VHS copies of the cartoon would now be old enough to appreciate. It’s bawdy but then everyone’s old enough to vote.
Maureen sets out for the Art Fair with her wares on their trusty steed, “bicyclette” but is ambushed by Lynx ending up imprisoned in a mysterious castle… Beau sets off to find her and ends up swapping places after meeting her captor the Beast (Robyn Grant). The Beast is really a princess who was bewitched by an itinerant and highly-judgemental magician (Aaron Dart) who cursed her to remain as a beast until and if she could ever find a man to love her for herself.
Tough task… but once Beau settles in he begins to realise that there’s more to this gal than horns, hooves and hair: she’s well read for a start and that is, you know, so important.
Allie Munro attacked by lynx on Bicyclette! Photo by Nick Rutter
The castle is also populated by talking house hold objects, a Clock, a Teapot and his daughter, a cup called Crack. They also sing a song about that awkward eating time between breakfast and lunch, “eat our brunch” … well, be their guest!
It’s looking very like a fairy tale and we know how its going to go but Chevonne has Maureen committed in an attempt to lure Beau to her lap and things get complicated…

Beauty and the Beast is a riot from start to finish and the audience is so much in on the joke as the King’s Head’s performance space is used to maximum impact. It’s a perfect seasonal treat for all those who secretly believe in fairy tales but who have a mortgage to pay and jobs to hold down… somewhere out there amongst all the beasts is our sweetheart! And he/she might well have a sense of humour!

The cast are a blur of madcap invention with Allie Munro at one point playing two characters almost at the same time either side of Katie Wells. There’s a terrific impersonation of the Pixar Lamp by Aaron Dart who also plays a mob with the aid of two brooms. Robyn Grant makes for a perfectly beastly heroine and sings as passionately on the matter of eggs as she does for her Beau. Jamie Mawson harmonises so well with his Beast and is soppily sincere throughout.

Jamie Mawson and Robyn Grant photo by Nick Rutter
The troupe is well drilled and clearly used to playing together as part of the Fat Rascal Theatre company. Fat Rascal Theatre strive to create fresh and funny feminist musical theatre and here they succeed emphatically well.

Robyn Grant wrote the book and lyrics with Daniel Elliot and the music was written by James Ringer-Beck and well performed on the night by Nicola Chang.
Beauty and the Beast runs at the Kings Head until 6th January and if you’re looking for a more adult rendering of the classic tale with songs and humour then please don’t think twice - tickets available here. Male or female, in any combination, this story is indeed enduring… Disney won’t need to sue at all.

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ****

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Jazz-age Jitters… Thark, Drayton Arms Theatre

The Twenties, the decade when we started our liberation through a vibrant mix of our own music, dance and style: a movement to joy that never really stopped, give or take a war or two. As a deep-diver in the world of silent film I can see the influence of the original The Cat and the Canary on this play not to mention the romantic comedies of Ivor Novello, the loaded direction of an Ernst Lubitsch and the flapper energies of Colleen Moore. There was so much invention at this time and broadening of cultural opportunities...

I don’t know much about Ben Travers but he, along with PG Wodehouse, would have set templates that are still being mined and this play is very much what you’d expect a “farce” to be: witty, clipped wordplay, delivered at speed with no let up from start to finish. In the hands of director Matthew Parker, Travers’ play becomes a Hi-NRG romp, with machine-gun diction and a cast that carries on with expression even when they have no lines… exactly like a silent movie! It’s like a competition, a free-form exhibition – no doubt highly rehearsed – of movement, expression, pantomime and even vocalise: when the butler’s name is called, it’s almost sung, “Hoooo-ook!!” whilst the bizarre maid at the supposedly haunted house, Mrs Death (called Jones, for obvious reasons…) lets out a sequence of strange, foreboding moans.

On top of this you had an audience whooping and laughing almost constantly throughout the play: they were having a ball and that provides more eloquent comment than my words could convey.

Ellie Gill, Isabella Hayward, Alexander Hopwood, Charlotte Vassell and Sophia Lorenti ((lhphotoshots)
There was also dancing and Beyoncé too! At the end of the first act the cast suddenly started dancing as a jazzed version of Crazy in Love boomed out of the speakers. This was unexpected but before we had time to react it got funnier as one by one the troop began stepping out. The icing on the cake was Lionel Frush (Alexander Hopwood) gurning his way in the middle of the women but the 10 Strictly points go to Isabella Hayward whose Cherry Buck was the jazziest baby and has early had extensive experience of the Charleston and possibly the Black Bottom too.

Farces can seem thrown together, but they require discipline and perfect control of space and time: those doors won’t open by themselves and the plot lines won’t tangle without due diligence and all the players and pieces fell exactly where they had to tonight.

As Matthew has said in interview, the men tend to be the idiots whilst the women are far smarter, but the beauty of the writing is that everyone finds their way on the end as gentile society is lampooned for the amusement of all.

A lady calls: Robin Blell and Isabella Hayward ((lhphotoshots)
The young cast clearly relished the chance to play “period” comedy but the writing is smart and the feel is very contemporary: it was a knowing decade. Having seen so many silent comedies even the play on words for “queer, very queer…” echoes a title card in Hitchcock’s’ The Lodger in which the famously gay Ivor Novello’s character is knowingly referred to as a queer fellow and that’s nothing compared to William Haines cheeky male-bottom pinching in Spring Fever: the twenties saw the beginning of liberation for all.

Indeed, the play’s very foundation point is marital infidelity as Sir Hector Benbow (Mathijs Swarte) starts the ball rolling by inviting Cherry Buck, a young window dresser he had met in London, for dinner at his house whilst his wife is away. Sadly for him, not only does Lady Benbow (Charlotte Vassell) announce her unexpected return at precisely the same time as his naughty tryst but so does Mrs Frush (Ellie Gill) and her son.

The Frusts had bought a country house, Thark, from Sir Hector who was acting on behalf of his ward, Kitty Stratton (Natalia Lewis) who also happens to be romantically entwined with his nephew Ronald (Robin Blell) … Needless to say, every relationship is quickly up for grabs with lie piling upon lie as Sir Hector tries to get the hapless Ronald to meet Cherry only for Kitty to get the wrong end of the stick and that stick to be swung in both men’s general direction.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... (lhphotoshots)
It’s almost by way of distraction that the men decide they need to prove Thark is a sound investment by sleeping in the most haunted part of this most haunted house. Cue things that go bump in the night and a grandstand finish.

Thark is a far cry from Matthew Parker’s last play, Brimstone and Treacle and it shows his comedy chops especially in his joyous cast. Everyone is lovable with Blell deserving special mention for his facial displays of contorted horror and his elaborate attempts to communicate new lies through mime. Daniel Casper plays the long-suffering servant Hook, who always takes the blame even when he has to put off seeing his new baby daughter. Sophia Lorenti has a double role as the Benbow’s maid as well as the aforementioned Death/Jones when she really takes flight.

Sophia Lorenti gets a telling off from Mathijs Swarte's Sir Hector (lhphotoshots)
Kieran Slade pops up as the journalist Whittle and it’s interesting to see that even in 1927, little time was had for this profession with Sir Hector’s preference is for shooting first before answering any questions.

Thark plays at The Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington until 6th January and tickets are available from the box office site.

Don’t hesitate old bean, it’s a hoot!!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ****

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The invisibles… FCUK’D, The Bunker

“You’d be surprised how many people you don’t see, not really…”

The author Christopher Priest wrote a book and play called The Glamour which theorised that the art of not being seen could, by logical extension, make some people invisible. It sounds daft but those of us who stand unnoticed at the bar or walking on the shady edges of the pavement may indeed be difficult to spot. Of course, when the person looking actively doesn’t want to see you… then you vanish.

So it is with the children on the edge of relative and actual poverty whose home environment leaves them ignored by parents addicted to the search for fleeting oblivion through drink and drugs: if they don’t want to notice even themselves what time have they for children?

Some 100,000 children run away from home each year, a Wembley full of unloved and damaged individuals who still haven’t coalesced as adults, every year. Niall Ransome, a member of the Olivier Award-winning Mischief Theatre Company, drew on his own experience of growing up in Hull in writing FCUK’D, his first play.

He wanted to take a closer look at those who end up with no future simply through accidents of birth and environment: just the kind of people that so many of us Guardian-readers have sympathy with but sometimes find inconvenient and intimidating.

This is a subject you don’t run at head long and Ransome’s use of verse enables the construction of a visceral and empathetic fable, which perfectly suits the damaged children at the centre of the narrative. The main character, Boy, is a teenager already run out of track but who has a younger brother, Matty who is bright and has a chance.

Will Mytum plays Boy and gives a remarkable performance of threatening vulnerability occupying the stage for an hour of monologue, character-play and pantomime in its original sense. Will waits outside school for his brother, jumps from his bedroom to avoid the social services, runs through the rain with his brother and steals a car and I swear you could hear the brakes squeal as they made their getaway.

This all action approach is matched by the syntax of the verse with some exceptional passages describing in vibrant detail the streets in which they live as well as their speed of escape. The pace picks up in the most visceral way during this escape and also the play’s conclusion and it takes a heck of a performer to play these words so well!

You are completely absorbed by the story as the two boys pursue their hopeless quest…  Ransome, who also directs, makes the most of the Bunker’s darkly intimate space where the watchers can be watched by the performers. All of which makes Mytum’s performance all the more remarkable.

By the end you have sympathy with this lad, this scally (in Scouse terms), who you’d normally cross the road to avoid. All we need is understanding and a little love…

FCUK’D truly is, as promised, an alternative show for the festive period and I would highly recommend it as a play for today that humanizes shell-suit culture in a way that should make us all the more determined to fix ourselves and a society in which so many fall through the cracks. We need to notice people more…

It plays at The Bunker until 30th December tickets available from the box office site or telephone: 0207 234 0486.

IthankyouTheatre Rating: ****