If you’re lucky enough to live in Swindon, Salisbury, Newbury, Reading or Oxford then pick up an issue of the Ocelot and read my new theatre column. If not, don’t worry, you can read it here. It’s all about what Swindon’s TS Theatre Productions are up to, so check it out!
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film is given an imaginative reinventing in this comic stage production. The story follows the hapless Richard Hannay (Richard Ede) as he accidently discovers a secrete spy ring and is pursued around Scotland whilst trying to find out the truth. Like any good hero, he sets about getting the girl and saving the day while he’s at it. Richard Hannay feels like he’s straight out of a 1930s film, complete with three piece suit and pencil moustache. Ede’s over the top performance adds to the fun absurdity of the whole production.
The highlight of the show was its imaginative use of the set. Rather than being confined by the limitations of telling a story on stage, Maria Aitken’s direction makes use of the props to their full comic potential. Particularly funny is the door on wheels that is slid around the stage to represent every internal and external door in the whole production.
A lot of the comedy comes from playing with the idea of what can be done on stage. The two actors, Tony Bell and Gary Mackay, play a host of characters in hilarious role swapping, gender swapping mayhem. At times it seems difficult to comprehend that there is only a cast of 4 people.
When there are not props sliding around the stage or actors engaging in split second costume changes, the atmosphere is created by cardboard cut-out shadows puppets and conspicuously badly timed smoke machines.
The frantic pace of the show keeps the audience on their toes from beginning to end. There is something wonderfully British about the wacky, over the top characters and the unlikely situations that they find themselves in.
- The 39 Steps is showing at the Wyvern Theatre until the 9th Feb
Take the glitz & glam dial and turn it up to max. Soul Sister is the sequin studded story of Tina Turner and her rise to fame. We see her from her humble beginnings as a timid teenager singing songs that she learnt in church. As her career takes off, so does her turbulent relationship with co-star Ike.
Tina Turner’s story is unmistakably tied up with the domestic violence by her husband. The show does a good job of capturing the mood of the relationship both before and after Ike turns to alcohol and drugs. We see the charming young man who no one can resist before his greed and selfishness start to grow with the couple’s success.
Fans will not be disappointed as Emi Wokoma does a great imitation of Tina Turner. The audience are given exactly what they want, with some of Tina’s classic hits including: River Deep, Mountain High, What’s Love Gotta Do With It and The Best. She is accompanied on stage by a full band, giving the show an incredible live music feel. The audience is encouraged to get involved and sing and dance along; the band clearly loves the energy and excitement coming from the crowd.
The set mainly consists of comic strip style images projected onto the backdrop. This allows the couple to be transported all over the world from dingy back-room clubs to their extravagant house. Unfortunately the use of text and animation with these images is often distracting to what is actually going on onstage. However, this is easy to overlook given the competence of the performances.
The show delivers everything that it sets out to do. It’s full of flashy outfits and fancy dance moves. Emi Wokoma is a talented Tina Turner full of energy and bound to have everyone on their feet by the end of the night.
- Soul Sister is showing at the Wyvern Theatre Mon 28 Jan – Sat 2 Feb
Beautiful Thing is a love story following two teenagers, Jamie (Dominic Baker) and Ste (Joshua James Foyster). They battle first with themselves, to come to terms with their sexuality, and then against the prejudice that exists in their working class estate.
As much as this is a play about sexuality, it is also about family. We get an insight into Jamie’s complex and often turbulent relationship with his mother (Sarah Lewis). The story takes place outside three houses and these neighbours also become a sort of dysfunctional family. The dark side of family relationships is also explored with abuse and emotional breakdown. But don’t be put off; this is an uplifting story that will leave you with a smile on your face.
The production authentically captures the feeling of the deprived estate where the story takes place. Jamie’s mum and his defiant teenage neighbour, Lea, clash throughout the play. Ella Thomas brings believability to Lea’s larger than life character and Sarah Lewis is utterly convincing as Jamie’s conflicted single mother. The deeply flawed but loveable characters are well thought out and performed in a way that is a pleasure to watch on stage.
- Beautiful thing is showing at Swindon Arts Centre on the 28th & 29th Jan
Before you enter the theatre you are given a polite notice that you should feel free to leave your phones on and, if you like, take pictures. If that seems weird, things are about to get a whole lot stranger in Nassim Soleimanpour’s experimental play.
Nassim Soleimanpour was denied a passport from the Iranian government when he refused to do military service. Not able to travel around the world, his second best option was to write a play that could. He imagines, in the play, all the countries that it might go to, what the cities look like, what the audience looks like and what they will think of it.
Nassim’s presence is felt throughout the play (he even has his own empty seat in the audience). The idea of communicating through the barriers of time and distance by the medium of theatre is something that thrills him.
As you may have guessed by now this is not your average play. And a word of warning to anyone who might feel uncomfortable being part of the story (yes, I mean audience participation, but not only that), you might find it a bit of a challenge.
When you walk in, the theatre is almost completely bare. Every night the play is performed by a new actor. He or she is led onto the stage and given an envelope. Inside is the script. They have never seen it before and experience it for the first time, along with the audience. The only information given to the actor before the show is how to pronounce the writer’s name and that, at some point, they may have to imitate an ostrich.
Everyone is free to make their own decisions. Everyone is responsible for the decisions they make. If there’s something in the script that you think is wrong, should you stop the play? If you’re in the audience and you do nothing, are you complicit? These are the questions that Nassim asks. He also muses on mob mentality and the risks, and rewards, of being singled out as different.
It is less a play and more a conversation with the author. And yes, it’s a two way conversation; he tells you how to contact him and he wants to know what you think. Having a conversation with a random Iranian playwright might seem like a strange way to spend an evening but the play is so absorbing you won’t give it a second thought.
The play is challenging and thought provoking, but also gentle and funny. Whether you end up on stage or not, you won’t be able to forget this play for a while.
- White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is showing at Bristol Old Vic until the 19th Jan
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”1
My Boy Jack is based on the true story of the writer Rudyard Kipling – well known for, amongst other things, his poem If. The play explores the relationship that he had with his son at the start of the First World War.
Rudyard Kipling’s extreme patriotism seemed to run at odds with his parental instinct. He wanted, more than anything, to encourage his son’s desire to be in the war – despite him being under age and extremely short sighted. Fighting, and even dying, for your country was, for Rudyard Kipling, the highest honour. He felt that it was every man’s responsibility to fight and it was no different for his own son.
On stage, two very different scenes were set. Extending out into the audience was an old fashioned living room. There were Persian rugs scattered over the floor and a decanter of brandy on the table. The writing desk was complete with books and a small silver framed photograph. Behind that, on the raised stage, were WW1 trenches, with jagged barbed wire tangled on top of piles of sandbags.
Including the scenes from the trenches was an ambitious move. It could have drawn attention away from the main story. In fact, the contrast between the two settings, the bleakness of the trenches and the cosiness of the living room, serves to intensify the family’s conflict.
At the heart of the play is the complex relationship between Jack (Dan Lea) and his father, Rudyard (David Gosling). Jack’s motivations for wanting to join the army are mixed. He wants to please his father, but also to escape the smothering environment where he feels treated like a child. It’s fascinating to see this relationship unfold on stage. Rudyard is overbearing and his motives appear bizarre to his family; Jack feels stifled and yet still seeks his father’s approval.
As the play progresses the family slowly start to unravel. Rudyard’s wife (Caroline Groom) cannot understand why he would want to put Jack in danger and their daughter (Cara Withers), who fears the death of her brother, asks the questions that neither of her parents are able to say out loud.
The only criticism I have is that the ending felt too drawn out. The play comes to an explosive climax, and then just keeps on going. As interesting as the resolution to the play is, it would work better if condensed, leaving us resonating with the power of the ending.
- My Boy Jack is showing at The Mission Theatre in Bath until the 19th Jan.
The reputation of this play precedes it. It’s a truly terrifying experience, its organisers claim. But can a live experience really capture the same qualities of horror that we see in films – with their fast scene changes and mood music. The answer, is yes.
It seems unlikely when you enter the theatre and see the sparse stage – punctuated by a couple of chairs, a small chest and a coat rack – that this could be a setting that could evoke fear.
The play has a humorous start. A middle aged lawyer (Julian Forsyth) fumbles over lines that he reads out from a book. Abruptly, a young actor (Antony Eden) calls out from the back of the theatre, telling him to speak up and to think of his audience. The lawyer appears to take this in, and then starts again, quietly mumbling to himself. No, the actor implores, think of your audience. The lawyer stops and takes stock, then starts again. But he can still only muster little more than a whisper.
The action soon becomes more intense as the lawyer asks the actor to help him tell his story: his terrifying encounters with the woman in black.
The fact that this epic tale could be told by only two actors is a credit to their skills. On stage the actors switch effortlessly between roles and yet each one feels natural and engaging.
The set, which at first glance looks so simple, proves to be deceptively complex. By using curtains, backlighting and projected images the audience is transported between an empty theatre, the interior of a house, a graveyard and a child’s bedroom. The use of light and shadows throughout the production is excellent; imagine a candle lit face in a room surrounded by darkness or barely perceptible movement in the shadows of the stage.
The play increases in tension until even the opening of a door can leave your hairs standing on end. It’s a fun and frightening experience that will leave you talking about it all the way home.
The Woman in Black is currently showing at the Wyvern Theatre as part of its 33 stop tour. So go and see it, if you think you’re brave enough.