Rebus: Long Shadows – 7th February 2019

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John Rebus (Ron Donachie) may be retired from the police force, but old ghosts – and old cases – continue to haunt him. The culmination of a twenty-five year investigation intended to put the notorious murderer Mordaunt behind bars looks set to be compromised by Rebus’ rash action from several decades ago.  Added to this, he becomes obsessed with solving a cold-case murder ….

This afternoon’s performance of Rebus: Long Shadows saw understudies stepping into two key roles – Dani Heron as Rebus’ protégée Siobhan Clarke (replacing Cathy Tyson) and Andy Paterson as crime kingpin and Rebus’ nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty (replacing John Stahl).

Whilst the indisposition of the ‘name’ actors was initially slightly disappointing, I have no complaints with either Heron and Paterson, who were both excellent.

Paterson’s performance was especially fascinating since he appears to be a very different character type to John Stahl.  Whilst I suspect that Cathy Tyson’s performance wouldn’t have been too dissimilar to Dani Heron’s, I’m slightly intrigued as to how Stahl would have tackled the role of Cafferty.

Presumably he would have been more physically imposing (as well as being a similar age to Rebus) but the younger Paterson’s take on the character was very appealing – a louche playboy encased in an ivory tower, with only Sheena Easton’s greatest hits for company.

Dani Heron’s DI Clarke was equally well-played – her gradual disenchantment with Rebus, for example – and whilst it wasn’t the largest part (one key scene in the first act, more of interest in act two) Heron was certainly good value.

Ellen Bannermen and Eleanor House operated as a ghostly chorus, two long dead victims pleading for justice.  This probably would have worked better had they’d been used more sparingly – when they pop up for the tenth or so time to berate the whisky-sodden Rebus you do get the feeling that you’ve seen and heard it all before.

Ron Donachie provided a solid centre to the play as John Rebus.  Pretty much onstage throughout, he pitched his performance just right (this Rebus might be physically declining but still possesses the cunning of a street-fighter).

Rona Munro’s adaptation of Ian Rankin’s original story is a brisk, efficient affair.  There are some twists and turns along the way, although no major shocks.  A decent way to kick off my 2019 theatre-going, Rebus: Long Shadows doesn’t have the same depth as Ian Rankin’s novels but is still a decent crime story in its own right.

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The Nightingales – 22nd November 2018

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Every week Steven, Diane, Ben, Connie and Bruno meet in the village hall to practice their acapella singing. This small ad-hoc choir exists for no other reason than to give them all a momentary respite from the stresses and strains of their everyday lives.  But two events – the chance to perform in a talent competition which might lead to a spot on Britain’s Got Talent and the arrival of a garrulous newcomer (Maggie) – exacerbate the personality cracks which were already lurking under the surface ….

The unreliable narrator is an interesting literary device (Agatha Christie used it to dramatic effect on several occasions).  It’s also deployed in The Nightingales as Maggie (Ruth Jones) begins the play by confiding to the audience that her time spent with the choir wasn’t a happy one.  But the reasons why are tangled and maybe slightly unexpected.

It’s not surprising that Maggie quickly gains the trust of both the audience and her new friends in the choir. She seems to be an open, friendly sort of person who delights in recounting some of her life adventures (the way her second husband ran out on her mere days after their wedding, the time she met the queen).  But when she tearfully confesses that she’s suffering from breast cancer, the first doubts are sown. Several small things (such as the identity of her consultant) don’t seem to hold water. Could she be making this up? And if she is, might her whole life story be a sham?

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Ruth Jones

What’s especially clever is that William Gaminara leaves the character of Maggie somewhat opaque – although we know a great deal about her by the end, it’s still unclear as to whether all of her tales were lies, or only some.  Ruth Jones delightfully freewheels through the early comic material but is equally adept at handling the darker scenes towards the end. She’s first rate.

But The Nightingales isn’t a star vehicle which relegates the other characters to second division status.  All six players are given their chance to shine, which is one reason why the play feels so satisfying.

Steven (Steven Pacey) and Diane (Mary Stockley) are a couple. He’s somewhat older than she is, which initially doesn’t seem to be a problem, although as she’s in her early forties she’s becoming increasingly desperate to have a baby.  Connie (Sarah Earnshaw) and Ben (Philip McGinley) are another couple. She’s a former model and deeply ambitious (longing to escape from her current humdrum existence) whilst he’s a former tennis player who’s extremely happy with their sedentary life.

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Mary Stockley and Steven Pacey

Then there’s Bruno (Stefan Adegbola) who’s something of a wildcard. An outsider in the village to begin with (the colour of his skin didn’t help) he’s found the choir to be a welcoming place, very welcoming in fact ….

Steven, Diane and Bruno are all dissemblers (their public faces only tell us part of the story) although unlike Maggie we have a good understanding of their private issues.  Connie and Ben are totally different – what you see is what you get.  Earnshaw and McGinley fizz throughout, both of them (especially McGinley) being gifted plenty of decent one-liners.

Steven Pacey is a very familiar face and voice (thanks to his stint on Blakes 7 and the hundreds of audiobooks he’s recorded).  I never knew quite what a pleasant singing voice he had though (there’s several acapella performances throughout the play – with Pacey taking the occasional solo) but his acting skills were never in doubt.  He pitches his performance just right and never wavers.  Mary Stockley and Stefan Adegbola hit all the right dramatic beats too, making this a cast that’s rich in quality.

If the ending wasn’t too much of a surprise – the choir will continue, albeit slightly diminished – then there’s still enough diversions and subversions along the way to make it a very worthwhile journey.  The Nightingales might appear to be leading us down certain roads (it looks like Maggie the newcomer will be rejected by the insular locals) but things aren’t quite as clear cut.

Even though all the characters are archetypes in some way, the performances, allied to Gaminara’s sharp script, helps to ensure that the pace never flags, with the result that laughs and dramatic moments follow in quick succession throughout. Certainly one to catch if you can.

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The Messiah – 3rd November 2018

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Maurice Rose (Hugh Dennis) has a dream – to retell the story of the birth of Jesus Christ via the medium of a theatre extravaganza. He has the assistance of the sometimes willing Ronald Bream (John Marquez) and the vocal power of Mrs Leonora Fflyte (Lesley Garrett).  Needless to say, things don’t entirely go to plan ….

Patrick Barlow’s The Messiah was born in 1983, toured several times around the county, appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe and has also been adapted for television and radio. The original play was linked to Barlow’s most enduring creation – the National Theatre of Brent. The defining joke of the National Theatre of Brent is how its self-important director would attempt to tell the most epic of stories (The Charge of the Light Brigade, say) with only the scantiest of resources. The latest revival changes the character names and adds some tweaks along the way, but this central joke remains.

Quite why Maurice has decided to embark on such an ambitious production with only two helpers is never explained, we just have to accept it. It’s also never disclosed how he’s been able to secure the services of a top-flight soprano (surely this sort of thing would be rather beneath her). But best not to worry about such things ….

Although Garrett is game enough to take part in some of the physical slapstick and dressing up (sporting a beard as one of the Three Wise Men,  for example) her main contributions are all musical.  Whilst most of these interludes have comic underscores, it’s still thrilling to hear the sheer clarity and beauty of her vocal performances (Silent Night is delivered straight and is an undoubted highlight).

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So with Lesley Garrett wafting in and out as and when the story requires, the play is held together by the double-act of Hugh Dennis and John Marquez. Maurice and Ronald’s partnership is a classic one, which goes all the way back to Laurel and Hardy (if not further). Maurice is dumb, but believes he’s smart, whilst Ronald is just dumb.  Maurice’s play is a breath-taking concoction – the occasional lyrical moment sitting side-by-side with the most obvious textual blunders.

If the script is suspect, then Maurice’s day isn’t made any easier by the performance of Ronald (who’s sometimes compliant, sometimes surly).  I can’t say I was familiar with Marquez, but he’s an absolute joy as Ronald – a twitchy, socially awkward powerhouse who gets some of the plumb roles (Mary especially).

Dennis is equally as entertaining as Maurice, a man who – due to the stresses of the production – teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown (which occurs in earnest just before the end).  Although there’s the odd scenery malfunction, the production resists the temptation to go into full The Play That Goes Wrong mode – instead, the friction between the two men is the motor which drives proceedings.

There are numerous highlights (Mary giving birth to Jesus – all done with the power of mime, for one) and there’s a fair degree of audience interaction. If you’re sitting in the stalls then you may be called upon to perform a task – ranging from shouting something out, tending an invisible donkey or even popping onto the stage to perform as a baby lamb.

Finishing its run in Cardiff tonight and shortly to transfer to the West End, The Messiah is certainly something that I’d recommend catching if it comes to your area.

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Fame – 27th September 2018

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Remember their names ….

First staged in 1988, Fame – The Musical is based (somewhat loosely) on the 1980 film, although the score, apart from the Oscar winning title song, was pretty much rewritten from scratch. This production boasts three familiar names – Keith Jack, Mica Paris and Jorgie Porter – and it’s probably fair to say that out of the three Keith Jack ended up with the short straw. His character (Nick) is aiming to be a serious, classical actor. In fact he’s serious to the point of intense dullness with the result that despite a few nice solo songs Jack struggles to make much of an impression.

Jorgie Porter (as Iris) looks delightful and moves very well. She shares a reasonably interesting relationship with the feisty Tyrone (Jamal Kane Crawford) who’s a talented dancer with a chip on his shoulder thanks to his inability to read. But it’s Kane Crawford who really catches the eye out of the pair – especially during his standout number Dancin’ on the Sidewalk in the second act.

Mica Paris, as the implacable tutor Miss Sherman, doesn’t have a great deal to do to begin with (except stand around and look disapproving) but she too is gifted a showstopping number – These Are My Children – which is easily the highlight of the show. Fair to say that Ms Paris can still belt out a tune – amazing stuff.

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Molly McGuire (as Serena) is another performer who’s really able to hold a note. Serena – for some inexplicable reason in love with Nick – is able to turn her anger at their non-existent relationship into song and the clarity and control of her vocals was another favourite moment of mine.

Although most of the musical is fairly upbeat, the story of Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) is one of the points where a little drama is allowed to develop. Chasing her dream all the way to LA, it’s possibly not a surprise to learn that there was no gold at the end of her rainbow and so she returned to New York in a broken, drug-dependent state. These scenes are well played by both Rojas and Simon Anthony, who appears as Carmen’s boyfriend – the improbably named Schlomo Metzenbaum.

Humour is provided by Joe (Albey Brookes), a supremely self-confident braggart. The tone of his character is set early on, thanks to the song Can’t Keep It Down (a subtle ditty referring to the problems he has in keeping his penis under control). His highly developed cod-piece (for a later scene in which Joe is rehearsing his role as Romeo) certainly seemed to entertain a certain section of the audience.

Although the story paths of all the students are a little predictable, since the performances were engaging my interest level remained high. By the time that Stephanie Rojas and Mica Paris took it in turns to trade vocals on the final song (Fame, of course) the audience were up on their feet. This isn’t a musical that’s reinventing the wheel, but it does what it does very well and provides two hours of solid entertainment.

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Rain Man – 13th September 2018

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Charlie Babbitt (Ed Speleers) is a highly abrasive wheeler-dealer who – apart from his girlfriend Susan (Elizabeth Carter) – appears to have no emotional connections. The news that his father has died sparks the merest flicker of remembrance – and this is only when he recalls how he left the familial house aged sixteen, never to return.

With his automotive business on the verge of collapse, Charlie could use a piece of the family fortune. But he’s staggered to learn that the three million dollars from his father’s estate has been left to Raymond (Mathew Horne) a brother he never knew he had. Raymond, an autistic savant, has led a highly sheltered life – Dr Bruener (Neil Roberts) doubts that he could ever function outside of the facility he has lived in since childhood.

Charlie decides that half of his brother’s fortune should rightfully be his, and he elects to take him to Los Angeles. Due to Raymond’s fear of flying this necessitates a road trip, which affects both brothers in different ways ….

The inaugural production from Bill Kenwright Ltd’s The Classic Screen To Stage Theatre Company, Rain Man is obviously going to draw comparisons with the 1988 film, but both Speelers and Horne make the parts their own.

Mathew Horne gives a stunning performance. Whether it’s when Raymond is reeling off at breakneck speed a list of impossible things he’s memorised (a chunk of the phone book, say) or simply deadpanning the briefest of lines, Horne is impossible to ignore.

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Raymond might be the role with all the fireworks, but Charlie’s part is absolutely key and Speelers is so solid throughout. At times it’s a fairly thankless part – to begin with (basically throughout the whole first act) he’s monumentally unlikeable and incredibly foul-mouthed. The expletives fly thick and fast for a good half hour (I could hear the faint inhalation of breath from those around me when the first “fuck” was uttered).

But Speelers takes it on the chin and (even if you haven’t seen the film) it won’t be difficult to guess that over time Charlie begins to form a real bond with his brother. Their final scene together – the last scene of the play – generated a real “awww” moment from an audience who had seemed gripped all the way along.

Since Charlie is initially such a monster, it’s hard to fathom what a nice girl like Susan is doing with him. This mystery is never answered, but Elizabeth Carter is another who impresses. Regular visitors to the New might be familiar with her (between 2012 and 2017 she appeared in five productions – alternating between Dreamboats and Petticoats and Save The Last Dance For Me). No singing was required today, but there were some lovely dramatic touches (her fiery rage at Charlie, a tender dance and kiss with Raymond).

Indeed, none of the cast disappointed. Several – like Mairi Barclay and Adam Lilley – played multiple roles (Barclay was especially entertaining as Iris the Las Vegas hooker) whilst Neil Roberts, an actor with an impressive list of US TV credits, was gifted several strong scenes.

The staging was pretty simple throughout. The various different locations (motel and hotel rooms, a Las Vegas lobby, offices, etc) were suggested with a handful of props which were quickly wheeled off when the scene was over. But the simplicity of the set dressing did mean that the scene changes were quick and uneventful (which is always a plus).

It seems that standing ovations are a regular occurrence for Rain Man and so it proved once again today, as a substantial and satisfied audience rose to their feet to applaud the players. This is a strong production which is well worth catching, either during its short stay in Cardiff or elsewhere on tour.

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Mischief Movie Night – 19th July 2018

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few years, the output of Mischief Theatre should be pretty familiar. The Play That Goes Wrong is at present running in the West End and on Broadway (in addition to touring the UK as well as playing in numerous other countries). The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is now into its third year in the West End and is also due to shortly begin a UK tour. Christmas television specials over the last two years (a cutdown version of Peter Pan Goes Wrong in 2016 and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong in 2017) have also helped to spread the Mischief word.

In addition to this, Mischief Movie Night is now concluding its UK tour in Cardiff (having first played a sold-out season in the West End). Part of the attraction of this tour is that it’s an opportunity to see the original cast and writers of The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery (since they can’t be everywhere at the same time, the current Play and Bank Robbery productions feature new casts).

Not that the recastings appear to have harmed ticked sales. When The Play rolled into Cardiff again a few months back, it played to packed houses at each performance. Given that so many productions tend to rely on star names to generate business, it’s very pleasing when the play turns out to be the star. Indeed this might be the reason why Mischief Movie Night only played to a fairly modest audience today. I’d have assumed that those who have enjoyed Mischief’s output either in the theatre or on television would have been interested in seeing the creative team behind these hits (instead, it looks like the plays are more important than the people performing them to many).

But no matter. Although it wasn’t a sell out, those who did come seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. Since each show is totally improvised it’s not surprising to learn that satisfied customers tend to catch multiple performances – you can be guaranteed a totally different experience each time.

This afternoon’s extravaganza – Killer on the Carousel – was a baffling murder mystery set on an isolated island funfair. With a bewildering number of dead bodies (until they suddenly came back to life!), a gaggle of memorable songs (especially the Carousel one) and no shortage of possible murderers (just about everybody) the 75 minutes (with no interval) just flew by.

Complete with a remote control, it was Henry Lewis’ job to keep the movie on track (or alternatively to occassionly pause the action when events took an unexpected turn). With a sense of glee, he was able to point out some of the logical flaws in the increasingly complex story – such as someone faking their own death with a replica of themselves made out of pies. You don’t see that on Midsomer Murders ….

Given the shared history of the performers it’s no surprise that they all bounce off each other so well – this rapport is something that communicates itself to the audience, thereby enhancing the experience even more. Lovely stuff and if you can catch one of the remaining shows then you really should.

Cirque Berserk – 14th July 2018

I think that no matter how old you get, you never lose your love of the circus. Well I haven’t anyway ….

It’s been a while since a circus came to the New Theatre (the Moscow State Circus back in 2012). Today, Cirque Berserk certainly provided a spectacle that easily ranks alongside legendary troops like the aforementioned Moscow State.

With a thirty-five strong group drawn from many countries, Cirque Berserk is able to pack a great deal into each show – with so many performers there’s never time to get bored. It’s a cliche of course, but the split second timing required for so many of these acts simply takes the breath away. As does the possibility that something might go wrong. When you see people suspended high above the stage without a safety harness, it certainly sharpens the interest ….

All the acts were of a high quality, but the energetic antics of the Timbuktu Tumblers and the staggering sight of the Globe of Death (four bike riders racing inside a metal globe) were both standouts. The clowning of the Mustache Brothers kept the younger members of the audience amused whilst I was delighted to see a knife-thrower (Toni). Such a staple, I feel a circus wouldn’t be a circus without one.

Oh, and the big stomping robot was good too.

A family friendly show, the relaxed attitude of Cirque Berserk extends to encouraging the audience to take photos and videos (of course, sharing the sights and sounds of the show on social media is a canny way of generating free publicity). But even given this easing of a standard theatre restriction, plus the large numbers of children present today, the audience was remarkably well-behaved. No doubt the young ‘uns were just as spellbound as everybody else.

Cirque Berserk isn’t reinventing the circus wheel – all the acts would have fitted in with many big top extravaganzas of the past – but what they do (thrills and spills without a safety net) they do very well. Highly entertaining.