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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The War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s; a preview

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The Invitation Theatre Company rock ‘War of the Worlds’ at St. Mary’s, Devizes

On hearing of this production my thought process went something like this; War of the Worlds, that’s that old 70s album, right?  The Invitation Theatre Company, didn’t they make Jesus Christ Superstar kind of interesting?  St. Mary’s, oh, visuals, now you’re talking.  Steampunk?  Sold.

It was the very end of the nineteenth century when HG Wells penned his tale.  Men have a habit of fearing the apocalypse at these times, and Wells gave those fears form in this science fiction story of war between Martians and humanity.  It took till 1978 for Jeff Wayne to pick up the ball with his album, and until now for Anthony Brown to take a chance and run with it in Devizes.

I’ve been to the tech rehearsal.  I’ve been to the dress rehearsal.  I have been playing the album all day.  I want to go again.  Sold to the barking poet.  Utterly.

The visuals first.  It’s a medieval church for starters.  There are Martian lights in the lofty arches, soft reds and greens tickling the pinnacles, shimmers of Victorian velvet and shifting shadows on the walls.  Above the main arch the conductor’s shadow moves like a demon possessed, and the Red Weed (just say no, kids) doth spill across the stone like blood.  A lightfest, so it is, a delicious smorgasbord of colour.  The set; minimal, just the narrator’s chair on high and a tall tower o’ drums on the other side of the stage.  And cogs.  Massive wooden cogs.  No Martians.  No one dressed as aliens.  Thank goodness for that.  All conveyed with lights, it is, with lights, and sound, and a well placed stare.  Clever.

The band take up over half the stage.  There are (deep breath) four keyboards, four guitars, four violins, viola, cello, a big fat double bass, percussion, drums, and a conductor.  It’s a wonderful score, besides which everything else is mere illustration and tableau, beautiful but secondary to the sound.  The band are great, despite the fact that they have played together less times than the fingers on my hand.   Flutes from keyboards, sweet violins, drums, and old stone walls drowning in sound.   Nice.  Very nice indeed.

So nice in fact that when ‘The Eve of War’ kicks in I experience a sudden ‘wild trembling exultation’.  I do hope no one noticed.  Although one is prone to these reactions it is surely only a man with no soul or rhythm who would not shift a little in his seat at some point during this production.  Or shiver at Jemma Brown’s voice.  Or at some point during ‘Forever Autumn’.  Or at the haunting ‘No Nathaniel, no’ refrain, so sweetly sung by the elegant Mari Webster, in ‘The Spirit of Man’.  Oh dear, now I am listening to it again.  I blame TITCO.  Help me.

Opportunities for serious acting are thin on the ground in this show, but what parts there be are played very well indeed.  There’s real talent here.  Paul Morgan’s voice of the journalist is reminiscent of Burton and old wirelesses; perfect, archetypal.  His reading provides the cues for the music so his timing has to be right.  Safe hands, methinks, safe hands.  Jonathan Paget; excuse me but is he actually from this century; great look.  Chris Worthy as the Artillery Man giving ‘Brave New World’ everything he has…er, why isn’t he acting and singing professionally…just asking.   And Ian Diddams, channelling the angst of all humanity with a look, a stance, a hammer and a melodious tone; presence, man, presence.  All good.  All really good.  But my prize for best actor goes unreservedly to Sean Andrews, as the demented and religiously deluded Parson Nathaniel.  His duet with Mari Webster is stunning.  When he raises his cross and the light hits it…well, what can I say.  ‘Tis a moment, to be sure.  Well done, that man, take a bow.

What else?  Oh yes, great backing vocals, particularly in the chilling ‘Ulla’ Martian song of death.  And the women look gorgeous.  When you’re done with the dresses, if you’re stuck for somewhere to store them, I might have a bit of cupboard space.  Top hat and ribbons?  Why thank you, I don’t mind if I do.

Tricky moments?  The odd sticky mic.  And, to call a spade a spade, moments in the choreography that could do with tweaking.  It’s all so complicated, with so many factors to co-ordinate, and very little space.  Fingers crossed it will be alright on the night.  No, I’m going to stick my neck out and tempt fate by saying that it’s going to be more than alright on the night.  It’s going to be glorious.

Special mentions?  Anthony Brown, ably assisted by his partner in crime, Jemma, for being brave enough to direct and conduct such a complex production.  You may have played a blinder here, sir.   And behind the scenes, Tracey Lawrence and her crew; so much sourcing, so much sewing, so much work, and all so very beautiful.

And, finally, the band.  That’s some sound you’ve got going on.  Thrilling.  But also rather challenging, methinks.  So break a leg, bow, drumstick, whatever.  For you and the sound guys hold this whole show in your hands.

No pressure…

War of the Worlds at St. Mary’s, Devizes, in a nutshell?

Just go.

For yea verily, it is seriously spot on.

© Gail Foster 15th November 2016