The Wharf Theatre presents; ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’

Hahahahaha!

Seriously, though…The Wharf’s production of Sondheim’s first musical, directed by Liz Sharman, is hilarious.  Based on the farces of the Roman playwright, Plautus, it first hit Broadway in 1962.  Don’t expect high art or political correctness.  From the first number, ‘Comedy Tonight’ (‘Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: a comedy tonight’), it’s clear that this is nothing but a fast-moving, light-hearted, old-fashioned, slightly dodgy, slapstick, pun-filled, fun-fest.

The set is beautifully painted, in authentic colours, with quirky touches.  Three doors, as is traditional with this play.  Not much space for the action, but perfect for the running about, in and out of dusty Roman windows, requirements of the show

It’s the story of how Pseudolus (Jonathon West), a slave of Rome in 200BC, buys his freedom using his knowledge of human nature, the help of hapless fellow slave Hysterium (Chris Underwood), and all other devious means at his disposal.  He lives in the house of Senex (Chris Smith) and Domina (Lesley Scholes), and their son, Hero (Tyler Bartlett), in the same hood as Erronius (John Craig), a befuddled ancient, and Lycus (John Winterton), a lascivious brothel-keeper.  The young Hero has his eye on Philia (Hayley Baxter), a young and as yet unbesmirched courtesan, and agrees that Pseudolus will have his freedom if he can get the twee couple together.  Other characters are the imperious soldier Milos Gloriosus (Nick Swift), various smiley Proteans, and (Good God, is that Miss Whiplash (Jemma Gingell)?) a trio of silent, but enthusiastic, fan wielding prostitutes.

The action gets sillier as the play progresses, and the web of lies that Pseudolus has woven begins to fall apart.  Just a bit of mare’s sweat, and it will all work out.  Maybe if we pretend she’s dead it will be fine.  Maybe if we all dress up as other people that will do the trick.  Not.  Quick song?  Go on, then.

This is a high energy show, with a lot of quick changes and movements.  I can’t fault the choreography, or the superb comic timing, but Sondheim only gets a B for the songs.  ‘Comedy Tonight’ is pretty catchy, and ‘Lovely’ is memorable, although that is partly due to Hayley Baxter (sweet voice, well-played coyness) and Chris Underwood’s interpretations.  Victoria Warren, Musical Director, played the score.  Lot of sharps and flats, apparently.  Difficult keys.

Acting awards?  Lesley Scholes (of course) as the bossy (‘carry my bust with pride’) Roman matron, Hayley Baxter and Tyler Bartlett for doing impossibly cute with straight faces, Jemma Gingell for bravery, Jonathon West for holding it all together, and the entire cast for being on it like a car bonnet whilst appearing to be having the most fun ever.

But it’s the performances of Chris Underwood, John Craig, and Nick Swift, that have me absolutely kissing myself.  The part of the camp and nervous slave Hysterium is the most challenging in the play, and Chris is awesome in the role.  His renditions of the anxiety song ‘I’m Calm’, and ‘Lovely’, are a triumph, and his drag shenanigans are a wonder to behold (clearly a career in modelling beckons).

John Craig plays the part of the doddery, partially sighted Erronius to perfection (John Craig, John Craig, he was witty, he was vague), and Nick Swift, as the arrogant soldier, dominates the stage (in a good way) with his enormous presence, booming voice, and massive wrath.

I haven’t laughed so much or so loudly in public since, well we won’t talk about that.  It was the dress rehearsal, so there was only a small audience, but everyone was in stitches from the outset, and by the end a few of us were incandescent with mirth.  ‘One of the funniest things I have ever seen at The Wharf’ (and he’s seen and been in a few) said Lewis Cowen.  ‘The funniest show I’ve ever been a part of’ (and he’s seen and been in a few too) said Chris Underwood.  I laughed till my stomach hurt, and I’m still laughing now.

When I’d recovered from the wild exhilaration of it all, and had enthused sufficiently, I had a word with Liz Sharman (well done, that woman!) about political correctness.  Liz said that she dealt with the whole prostitute thing by making the male characters seem silly in their dealings with them, and that she didn’t cut anything from the script.  I’d expected the show to be much ruder, and camper, and more along the lines of the (Ooh Matron!) Carry On films.  Undoubtedly some might find the very fact of prostitutes offensive, but apart from a bust, a whip, a fart joke and a few tacky comments, I found the humour quite polite, and the general feel of the whole thing quite…innocent.  Not much to upset your average four-year old, or your Gran.  But then it’s an American show, and I am hardly Mary Whitehouse.

And after all, these things were acceptable in the 60s.  And 70s.  And 200BCs…

I enjoyed this show so much that I’m giving it ten out of ten.

Hahahahaha!

Seriously.

© Gail Foster 28th April 2018

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In To The Woods at The Wharf

The Invitation Theatre Company’s performance of ‘In To The Woods’; a review

*

I was delighted to be invited to the dress rehearsal of TITCO’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘In To The Woods’ at The Wharf, directed by Peter Nelson.  TITCO are a quality act, and I always enjoy their shows.

I watched.  Cute.  Fun.  Some great duets.  Haha! Ian Diddams as the cow.  Woah, Jemma Brown as a bitchy witch (be afraid, be very afraid!).  Neat cape, Tracy Lawrence.  ‘Scrumptious carnality’?  Goodness me.  Love the screen device, and the sepia film.  Clever.  Nice birches.  Ooh, blood.

And then Happy Ever After.

?

As I rode off on my bike I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing.  Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

That would have been Act Two.  Thought it was a bit short.

So, Monday, opening night, and I’m back again.  Ah, there it all is.  The finishing touches have been put to the stage and it’s all pretty with birch and blossom and soft greens, with a backdrop that leads to…who knows.  And someone has clearly been working hard in the Mojo department, because TITCO are bursting with a confidence and enthusiasm that I just didn’t see on Sunday…

It’s a moral tale of good versus evil, this, set in a dark and mysterious wood where anything could happen.  It’s a mash up of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, starring Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk Fame, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.  It’s a quest for a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.  If only we could find these things then the curse would be lifted and all would be well…

Be careful in the woods, and be careful what you wish for.  ‘Nice is different than good’, after all.

I’m used to TITCO being good.  One can’t enthuse enough really.  These people work together really well, and they’re all worth watching.

As far as acting goes, however, a few performances stand out for me.

Lottie Diddams plays Little Red as Violet Elizabeth, or Queenie from Blackadder, all foot-stamping and pouty, with great comic timing.  Paul Morgan as The Wolf is superbly sinister.  Jemma’s Personality Disorder Witch is terrifying.  Ian Diddams chews cud really well, the Victorian Ugly Sisters are witty, and there’s real tenderness shown in the performances of Naomi Ibbetson as Cinderella and Teresa Bray as the Baker’s Wife.

But TITCO shine brightest when they sing, and in this show it’s the duets that shine the most; The Witch and Rapunzel (Lucy Burgess), Little Red and The Wolf, and anything involving Princes (Mari Webster and Simon Hoy) in particular.  As far as ensemble songs and choreography go, well that’s all good too, and it’s impossible to fault the complex ‘Your Fault’, in which Jack (Lewis Jackson) gets to find his voice.

It’s dark in The Woods, don’t you know.  And it gets darker.  People die.  People reveal the worst and best sides of their natures.  Some of it is positively Freudian.  Just when you think it’s a Happy Ever After…it isn’t.  There be giants and stuff, really good special effects and scary bits.  And there be also, and perhaps most terrifyingly of all, randy Princes…

My award for ‘Man of the Match’ without doubt goes to Mari Webster, for her startlingly sexual thigh-slapping performance as ‘Cinderella’s Prince’ and her hilarious duets with Simon Hoy and Teresa Bray.  Whilst ‘In To The Woods’ is not a pantomime, she plays the part in classical principal boy fashion.  She’s well timed, hugely witty, great to look at, and utterly fascinating to watch.

In summary; In To The Woods, at The Wharf…

Slightly confusing, as plots go, but deliciously entertaining.

Looks cool.

Good performances all round.

Lots of laughs.

Great singing.

Mayhem.  Magnetism.  Mirth.

Moral tale?  Fairy tale?  Musical?  Not-quite-a-pantomime?

You decide.

Call it whatever you like, but don’t miss it.

It’s a fun frolic.

And it is well good.

Nicely played TITCO.

Again.

© Gail Foster 6th June 2017

PS And after this, if you’re hungry for more excellent Devizes entertainment, why there’s Devizes Arts Festival…

…and they all lived happily ever after 😊

Little Voice at the Wharf Theatre, Devizes; a review

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*

It’s many years since I watched the film of Little Voice.  I had dim memories of Jane Horrocks giving Shirley Bassey some serious welly in a bedroom ‘up North’ somewhere, and an expectation that Jemma Brown’s production would be well worth a watch.  I expected to be impressed by Lottie Diddams’ voice, and a well-chosen cast, and to come away feeling that my money had been well spent.

But…what’s this?  This isn’t just about a voice (but oh that voice!).  This is hilarious and emotionally devastating; about love, and loss, about mental health, alcoholism, and coping strategies, about ageing and falls from grace and exploitation.  This is something else, that’s what this is.

Jim Cartwright’s witty and poignant play, ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’, unfolds in the early 90s, in the home of Mari, a single woman who is past her prime and determined to catch herself a man.  Mari lives with her daughter, LV, who spends all day in her bedroom listening to her dead father’s records and perfectly impersonating her favourite divas for amusement and psychological escape.

Allison Moore, as the drunk and desperate Mari, all ‘liquor and lacquer’ and ‘personal Mother’s nerves’, conveys the mood swings and behaviours of her alcoholic character to perfection; the false brightness, the wailing self-pity, the blaming, the ‘dancing’ round the living-room with the ironing board.  Her lines are ripe with innuendo (just what is a ‘twat bone’, exactly?), her comic timing and physical comedy are right on the button, and the monologue she delivers on realising the extent of Ray’s deception is tragic and heartrending.

Her fall guy is the bovine but supportive Sadie, acted with humour and tenderness by Claire Warren, who provides the perfect balance to her drama.  It’s not much fun to be sick and sit with it running down your shirt, and it’s no mean feat to play a ‘patient fat get’ with sensitivity, without tipping into unbelievable farce.  Sadie, along with Billy and LV, uses her silences well, leaving her body language to speak volumes.

Paul Morgan, as the manipulative and seedy Ray, slides slickly through his scenes (and Mari’s knickers) with persuasive oily grace, turning on the charm to lure LV to the stage with honeyed tales of bluebirds, intending only to exploit her talent and line his pockets whatever the cost.  His rejection of Mari is brutal, and his subsequent downfall both well-acted and well deserved

Ian Diddams, in his first role at the Wharf, plays the cheerful telephone man, and the bluff Mr Boo, the owner of the local club, with characteristic ebullience.  There is more to Mr Boo than meets the eye; he sees through Ray and Mari’s treatment of LV, and articulates perhaps the most significant line of the whole play; ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth. But when, eh? When?’

At the very heart of the story is the tentative and sweetly portrayed story of the friendship between Billy and LV.  These two young actors play it to perfection, with blushes, with awkward pauses and self-conscious hesitancy.  Will Sexton’s performance as Billy, the thoughtful geeky lad who is obsessed with lights, and who genuinely cares for LV, is simply wonderful.  It’s the timing, the subtle movements, and the silences, again, that make the dynamic between the two characters so believable.

Lottie Diddams as Little Voice…oh, that voice!  When she first sings the entire audience holds its breath.  That voice appears from nowhere, comes as Judy Garland, as Edith Piaf, as Marilyn; smooth and sweet, raucous and in your face, without a dropped note or a single rasp; appears from the shy silence to flower into sound, transforming Little Voice into the divas of her dreams.  That voice, suppressed for so long, explodes with rage when LV discovers that Mari has smashed her precious records, in a devastating scene of such emotional power that it is reputed to have reduced the cast to tears when they first rehearsed it.  Lottie’s notes are pure and true, and her voice control is frankly awe inspiring; she keeps us captivated from her first song to her last, and when she is standing on the ladder singing, as Billy’s happy lights whirl all around her, our hearts soar with hers.

My only (small) criticism of this play relates to the brevity of the fire scene, which I missed because I blinked.  I also have to add that every time I have seen a balcony scene at The Wharf I have felt distinctly nervous about people leaning on the scenery.  Oh, it’s OK, I thought to myself as Billy dangled on his pulley in front of LV’s window, at least he’s roped up…

Special mention also has to be made of the magnificent Curtain, a device of some complexity invented by Chris Greenwood, that rolled down at the front of the stage to make the backdrop for the club.  The Curtain had its moments during the show’s run, and may have achieved minor fame in its own right in the annals of The Wharf, and in more than one verse.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was a triumph of a play, amusing and emotionally challenging, the impressive result of the hard work and talent of a fine cast given good direction and a superb script to work with.

It was also a fitting expression of the love that Jemma Brown has felt for Little Voice since she first saw it in the West End.  ‘When I saw it in 1993’ she said ‘I could barely breathe.’

It left us, the audience, breathless more than once, and one particular audience member crying all the way home…

Well played, methinks.  Very well played indeed.

*

© Gail Foster 2nd October 2016

photograph of Lottie Diddams reproduced with the kind permission of Jemma Brown