Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Habit of Art, York Theatre Royal - Wednesday 5th September 2018

Matthew Kelly and David Yelland, The Habit of Art
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

Alan Bennett's revived play, The Habit of Art, make its first stop at York Theatre Royal, before embarking on a national tour.  This joint presentation, by York Theatre Royal, The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Production stars Matthew Kelly, well known for presenting Stars in Their Eyes on television and David Yelland, a well established actor.

Under the direction of Philip Franks, it is known as a play within a play and the cleverly arranged "fixed" staging which welcomes one to the audience, courtesy of Adrian Linford, gives this impression.  The play rehearsed, Caliban's Day, is about a fictional meeting between two intriguing but legendary artists; the poet, W.H. Auden (Fitz (Kelly) and the composer, Benjamin Britten (Henry (Yelland) which takes place in the early 1970s and before their deaths.

Amid all this they are backed by supporting actors Stuart (Tim (Benjamin Chandler) and Humphrey Carter (Donald (John Wark) and also the creative crew of Kay, company stage manager, (Veronica Roberts) and George, assistant stage manager, (Alexandra Guelff) and the playwright, Neil (Robert Mountford).  In the director's absence the cast rehearse with a re-run of Caliban's Day and all share chaotically and farcically how the play should, in their minds, run.

The main characters, Auden and Britten, are explored with their contrasting personalities.  Auden, outspoken and crude with his suggestive innuendos and Britten, who somewhat has a more reserved diplomatic demeanour, is mysterious and intriguing with what he shares.  The ambiguity and tongue in cheek is Bennett's playwright hallmark however his writing style allows for key themes to be explored including sexuality, loneliness, dealing with demands of their art including friendship and rivalry, and subsequently death. Such themes were then somewhat more complex taking in account the societal attitudes at the peak of their lives especially sexuality and how they had to live with risks of social isolation and marginalisation. 

The Habit of Art has no specific plot but instead an insight into two unique artists of the 20th Century and an opportunity for the audience to interpret and appreciate what is being presented on stage.  The conclusion is left open to interpretation and for anyone to add towards its notion.  The production is entertaining as well as reflective and put well together by an excellent cast led by Kelly and talented creative and production teams.

Reviewed by Dawn Smallwood 
Playing until 8th September 2018

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Last Ship, York (Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub, June 2018)

Originally Reviewed for The Reviews Hub and the link can be found here

Image: Contributed 

Sting’s The Last Ship has been touring since March with York Theatre’s Royal marking the penultimate stop on this successful tour.  Due to technical issues on the night of this review, the musical started half an hour later.  With the complex hi-tech and intricate staging evident in this production, the late start must have been needed to ensure that “everything will be right on the night”.
The Last Ship is about a tight-knit community in Wallsend, a town in Tyne and Wear, and the pending closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard.  The shipyard workers fight to save their livelihood, before deciding to build one last ship, and for it to be launched and sail away.  The story explores some of the key characters, including Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman), a sailor who leaves town only to return 17 years later and Jackie White (Joe McGann) the foreman of the shipyard, who leads the fight to ensure “the last ship” sails, supported by his wife, Peggy (Penelope Woodman). 
The length of this production, three hours, may be somewhat off-putting for some viewers but this could be vetoed as necessary to reflect the spirit of Sting’s music and the deep melancholy and reflective messages brought from the songs.  The beautiful music and lyrics from his award-winning album, The Soul Cages, inspires this musical and is intertwined with singer’s own childhood experiences.  This production plays out at a steady pace, incorporating the characters’ narratives well; it is the people who make the shipyard, and the shipyard that makes the people who they are.
59 Productions’ staging with the assistance of Matt Daw (lighting) and Sebastian Frost (sound) is exceptional, making great use of hi-tech features for the shipyard especially, while transitions between sets are smooth.
The Last Ship is politically and socially charged, with themes that are no doubt familiar to many in the audience.  One is reminded of the continuous demise of the coal industry in the 20th Century, leading to the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike in response to the then Conservative Government’s so-called “name of progress”  economic policy.   The production also follows personal stories, particularly the estranged relationship between Joe and Meg (Frances McNamee) and their bridge being built in the beautiful When We Dance.
Under the direction of Lorne Campbell, the cast and creatives put on an excellent performance in telling such a poignant and moving story. Like a lot of industrial dependent towns, Wallsend’s Swan Hunter shipyard represents the community and people’s livelihood. It represents just how important it is to fight for what you believe, with heart, soul and spirit.
Shipbuilding has more or less declined in the UK, but its proud community roots, legacy and industrial heritage vividly live on in many hearts.  This may be one of the reasons Sting wanted to tell this story; to repay his “debt” to the community he grew up in, before leaving the town to pursue his dream as a successful musician.

Titanic The Musical, Sheffield (Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub, May 2018)

Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub and the link can be found here

Image Credit: Scott Rylander

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 is one of the most tragic maritime events on record, where sadly 1517 souls were lost.  Many will know and have watched James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning film, Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  The same year as the blockbuster film, Maury Yeston’s Titanic – The Musical, opened on Broadway, winning numerous awards including a Tony Award for Best Musical.  The musical, based on Peter Stone’s book, isn’t a factual narrative about what exactly happened to the “unsinkable ship”, instead, there is a specific focus on the characters on board.
The narrative in the first act follows the characters’ dreams, hopes and aspirations, including those who are planning to make a life in the New World, such as The Three Kates as in the song Lady’s Maid (Emma Harrold, Devon-Elise Johnson and Victoria Serra). There are those who are planning to propose to their loved ones, as sung by Frederick Barrett (Niall Sheehy) in The Proposal/The Night Was Alive, while Lady Caroline Neville (Claire Marlowe) and her fiancĂ© Charles Clark (Stephen Webb) are eloping to America, sharing their love in I Give You My Hand
As representatives of the class system on board, the characters could not be any more different. The Third Class passengers are seeking a better life in America while the Second Class passengers such as Alice Beane (Clare Machin) whose husband has done well with his business, were able to treat themselves a trip of a lifetime. Alice is a social climber and aspires to be among the First Class, the movers and shakers, the billionaires such as the Straus’s (Dudley Rogers and Judith Street).  Also not to forget Captain Edward Smith (Philip Rham), J. Bruce Ismay (Simon Green), Thomas Andrews (Greg Castiglioni) and William McMaster Murdoch (Kieran Brown) who all open their minds to their thoughts and feelings about the ship and passage itself.  They are involved in the crucial decision making as reflected too late in The Blame.
Titanic- The Musical, accompanied by Yeston’s beautiful score, is written as a tribute to those who have lost their lives as well as to those who have survived.  It is a celebration of the human spirit and the imagination beyond experience on the “ship of dreams”.   The score includes the memorable Goodspeed Titanic and the poignant The Foundering which mourns and remembers those lost at sea.  Thoughts and expressions are sung in varied musical numbers which are sensitively constructed for the passengers and circumstances, from the optimism and normalcy during the first act through the second act which is fast moving and poignant, predominantly concerning the Titanic’s fateful final hours.
David Woodhead’s stunning staging compliments this production, with its steel hull, its railings and stairways and ropes certainly giving the ambient feeling of being on a ship.  The set coordinates well with Howard Hudson’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s soundscapes, while the staging space is imaginatively used by the cast under the moving direction by Thom Southerland and musically by Mark Aspinall and the live orchestra.
The cast is formed of performers who have been successful in London West End’s theatre, the Southwark Playhouse or the Charing Cross Theatre productions of Titanic – The Musical.  This stellar cast gives first class portrayals of the characters and together with the ensemble share a wonderful chemistry in telling this unique experience.
On the night of this review, the production was received well by the audience and credit must go to the cast and also the creative team. Titanic – The Musical offers a window of opportunity for the passengers onboard to dream and aspire to something more, although fated and unknown at the time, how this journey would change their lives forever.

The Last Ship, Leeds (Originally reviewed for Fairy Powered Productions, May 2018)

Originally reviewed for Fairy Powered Productions and the link can be found here.

The Last Ship Review
Leeds Grand Theatre – Until Saturday 5th May 2018
Reviewed By Dawn Smallwood
Sting, under the direction of Lorne Campbell, brings this critically acclaimed musical, The Last Ship, to Leeds which is currently part of the UK and Ireland tour. The musical is based on the singer’s music and lyrics and looks back to the ship building community in the Tyne and Wear during its industry decline in the 1970s.
The story is about Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman), a sailor, who returns home after spending 17 years in the Navy and is confronted with the past and present tensions concerning his family, particularly his ex girlfriend, Meg (Frances McNamee) and the town’s community. The demise of the shipbuilding industry is evident with their local ship yard closing and the town is determined to fight saving the ship and the yard. This is lead by Jackie (Joe McGann), the yard’s foreman, and his wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick). The story is in similar vein to Sting who grew up in a similar community, left the town to pursue a music career, and returned to tell this tale.
Sting sought inspiration from his album, The Soul Cages, to generate the moving and powerful musical score and lyrics to the musical. The musical numbers includes the memorable Island of Souls, All This Time, When We Dance and The Last Ship and tells this political and personal stirred story – this is quintessential to many communities who earnestly fought to save the towns’ industries and the livelihoods it generated. One can think of the coal mining towns and villages’ role during the 1984/85 Miners Strike. Each song sung depicts the emotions, passions and the souls of the community and how much the shipyard and the livelihood mean to them. The songs are sung with such conviction from individuals and united in chorus from the ensemble.
59 Production’s staging is stunning with its hi-tech backdrop and life size ship yard from where the story is told. The space is utilised very well with successful transitions being made between each scene. The lighting and sounds, courtesy of Matt Daw and Sebastian Frost, compliment the staging particularly with the notion that one is by the sea and the waves crashing in the background.
The Last Ship is delivered excellently from the cast who perform wholeheartedly and in unison, particularly the songs’ choruses, from beginning to the end. Every single performer has a part to play and impressions are certainly left. A lot of thought, heart and soul have been put into the story along with Sting’s musical and lyrical ingenuity. It is a realistic poignant beautiful musical to see and is highly commended and recommendable during its tour.

Nautical Theatrical Highlights - July 2018

I would like to share some Nautical highlight from two amazing musicals with a ship theme I've seen on stage this year.  I had pleasure seeing and reviewing the following:

The Last Ship

    Image Credit:

Titanic The Musical

Image Credit:

Please see separately three posts for both The Last Ship and Titanic The Musical which were originally reviewed for Fairy Powered Productions (The Last Ship) and also originally review for The Reviews Hub (Titanic The Musical and The Last Ship).

The Last Ship  (Leeds, Reviewed for Fairy Powered Productions)
Titanic The Musical (Sheffield, Reviewed for The Reviews Hub)
The Last Ship (York, Reviewed for The Reviews Hub)

Plus here's my review of Titanic The Musical (click on the link) when I saw it Southwark Playhouse in 2013.

Friday, 27 April 2018

All About Me Blog Update

This is to let you know that I'll be no longer reviewing shows for this blog.  

I now review regularly for Fairypowered Productions and also The Review Hubs.  I used to review for the North West End but hope to review for them again in the not too distant future.  I'll post some reviews which I've done on behalf of the three reviewing sites on this blog from time to time.

I will still see many shows but if I'm not reviewing I won't be blogging!  Instead I'll share on social media my immediate thoughts of the shows I do get to see!

Thank you for your support always.

*post note*
I occasionally review independently and will post what I review on here.  However shows I review for other reviewing websites will be on their sites (occasionally I'll publish some here from time to time) but certainly won't be reviewing if I've paid to see the show!

Contained, West Yorkshire Playhouse (Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub in March 2017)

This was originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub in March 2017 and the link can be found here.

Image Credit: Tim Smith

Mind The Gap Studios are known for their true stories from the heart, and this is certainly evident in this unique production of Contained.   The production features nine performers with learning disabilities and the show is in joint collaboration from Alan Lyddiard (Anniversary) and award-winning French Photographer and filmmaker, Denis Darzacq.
The performance begins when each actor, one by one, walks out to introduce themselves and share their compelling stories, invoking a range of emotions from the listeners.  The barriers and stereotyped perceptions the performers have had to face are unbelievable.  It is sad that even today, people can be judged primarily on their disability, casting a shadow on what they, as an individual, are capable of. Jez Colborne, the show’s composer, inspired by Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up, is determined to stand for his rights, no matter what his personal circumstances are. He asserts that one is neither my judge nor my jury and one should focus on ability. 
Many will know Liam Bairstow for his role as Alex Warner in Coronation Street. During the production he shares his somewhat harrowing experiences, and how he eventually overcame them, securing a role on Britain’s longest running soap opera.  There is also Howard, who drums to “forget all things” and his girlfriend, Zara, who experienced discrimination at a mainstream school, labelled as stupid, among other titles.  The performers assure one another that they are all there for each other, the bond between them palpable.

Another actor, Paul, turns to the performance arts to combat stress and anger from his experiences but is grateful for his current foster family, who love him for who he is.   The remaining performers share their stories, including Alison, from Bradford. She has lived through some poignant experiences and is also a talented saxophone player.

On stage, the performers are supported by Charli Ward, the company’s academy director, who works holistically and in unison with the actors.  The show is accessible with visual screenings of texts, kinesthetic use of videos when stories are shared one by one, and a sign language interpreter is also present on stage.

At the end of the production, each performer consolidates their story, and there is a heartfelt and optimistic finale of I am fine, sung collectively.  This emphasises their beliefs in freedom and being themselves, not conforming to existing perceptions.  Significantly, it is about not being figuratively contained and is thought-provoking for all to reconsider disability in general.

Contained is a moving, poignant and powerful production that celebrates ability and artistic successes.  The production is colourfully reflective, giving the viewer an opportunity to learn about the world through the perspective of those with learning disabilities.  This is an unmissable production and one which is incredibly well done, and well received by the audience from beginning to end.