TITCO do Spamalot!

The Invitation Theatre Company at St.Mary’s, Devizes ~ a dress rehearsal review

England, 932 AD, and the country is ravaged by plague, purposeless, pestered by the French, and in need of a firm hand at the helm.  Enter Arthur, King by virtue of the fact that once he was given a sword by a watery tart, and his hapless servant Patsy, coconut clip clopping across the land in search of knights to save the day, the funniest fart joke, and the nebulous Grail.

Such is the plot of Jemma Brown and TITCO’s production of Monty Python’s musical comedy Spamalot, loosely based on the film ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ and first performed on Broadway in 2005.

There’s been a real buzz in town about this show, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to eagerly anticipate sinking into a pew in St. Mary’s and sighing with relief at having escaped from Britain’s current woes and impossible quests for a couple of hours.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Apart from being unable to resist comparing the England of Spamalot with the country today and our own search for a nebulous Grail I was completely lost from the outset in the world of mirth, magic, and medieval silliness that TITCO had created with a little help from their friends (knights who scaled the walls to black the windows out, masters of the lights and smoke, knights with needles and an eye for fabric and design) in what has to surely be the perfect venue for such a show.

For all its silliness, Spamalot is a complicated and fast paced show involving a lot of physical comedy and choreography, and multiple costume changes for some of the characters (particularly Ian Diddams, who can’t quite remember exactly how many but was most memorable as Tim the horny Scottish enchanter).  The cast did a great job of keeping up the momentum throughout, which bodes well for the rest of the run.  Fish slapping and Finnish dancing, creepy monks and can can dancers, flying cows and Trojan rabbits, loose-bowelled knights and mystical misunderstandings – at no time did the action flag and if anyone fluffed a line there was far too much going on to notice.

Anthony Brown stepped out of his role as Musical Director to give a creditable performance as the idealistic but naive Arthur with Debby Wilkinson doing a fine bit of character acting as Patsy; Terésa Isaacson with her powerful voice was an imposing presence as The Lady of the Lake; all the knights were hilarious, although I have to say how much I enjoyed the performances of Chris Worthy as the not-so-brave-or-continent Sir Robin, and Matt Dauncey’s macho-but-underneath-it-all-totally-gay Sir Lancelot (steady with that lance, sir, you’ll have someone’s eye out – just saying); and Will Sexton as Prince Herbert was wonderfully wet.

Then there were the nicely played cameos – melodious mischievous minstrels, legless knights and dancing nuns, political peasants and obstreperous Frenchmen – the old songs (who doesn’t need to be reminded to ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’?) and familiar jokes, and – my favourite Python thing ever – the Knights of Ni (‘Ni.’ ‘Ni.’ Etc.).

The only negative in my view (aside from the obvious stereotyping of gay people and the French) related to the script, and that was the ‘We Won’t Succeed On Broadway If We Don’t Have Any Jews’ song.  I’m still thinking about that and about what is acceptable in this day and age in the context of performance and historical record.  It didn’t sit well for me at all, but I’m sure that TITCO thought hard about including it and decided to keep it in in the spirit of authenticity rather than racism.

There’s so much that is good about TITCO’s show but for me the best thing about it is that this motley group of people, many of who would not be out of place in professional productions, are one big talented dancing singing and joking happy family, and their wild enthusiasm at working together shows in both the energy they display and the quality of their performances.

And who doesn’t like a good fart joke?

The Invitation Theatre Company’s production of Spamalot, despite its archaic political incorrectness, is just the kind of silliness we need in these ridiculously serious times.

Now, back to looking for that Grail…

(‘Ni.’)

© Gail Foster 25th June 2019

 

 

TITCO does Queen

A review of The Invitation Theatre Company and Full Tone Orchestra’s Queen show in the Corn Exchange, Devizes

‘It’ll be alright on the night’ is a phrase often said following a dress rehearsal of dubious quality.  As I watched TITCO perform their Queen medley prior to their sell out show I wondered if this would prove true on this occasion.  Seems like a big ask, I thought as I watched the cast fumbling through the numbers and trudging round the stage with what seemed to be very little direction or enthusiasm.  It’s rock, I thought, for goodness sake give it some welly!  ‘Another one bites the dust’ it said on the back of someone’s tee-shirt.  Indeed.  It was so bad that I didn’t feel I could review it, so I decided to go back on the first night to see if it was any better. TITCO have produced some great shows in the past few years, and the Full Tone Orchestra are a class act.  Both have reputations to keep up and fans to please, and both take pride in their work.  A fail at this stage would not be good for either. What if, heavens forbid, TITCO didn’t pull it off…?

From the moment I walked into the Ceres Hall on Friday it was abundantly clear that TITCO had been on the glitter, and that all would be well.  Energy levels on the stage and in Antony Brown’s orchestra were through the roof, and the audience were buzzing with excitement.

The format of Chris Worthy and Jemma Brown’s production was simple.  A programme of iconic songs alternated with less well known tunes and short audio clips of interviews with Queen members, the entire cast dressed in black Queen tee-shirts in front of a plain black backdrop, a thirty piece orchestra and four guitarists to do justice to the music, solos and duets from Sean Andrews, Will Sexton, Chris Worthy, Simon Hoy, Paul Morgan, Lottie Diddams, Jemma Brown, Naomi Ibbetson, Mari Webster and Lucy Burgess, rousing altogether-now ensemble numbers by the whole company, and more glow sticks than you could shake a glow stick at.

The usual suspects gave good song, as is to be expected given their wealth of experience, but Will Sexton’s Mercurial ‘I Want To Be Free’, Jemma Brown and Mari Webster’s mellow and melancholy ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’, and Chris Worthy’s delightfully raunchy interpretation of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ were the performances that did it for me on this occasion.  And everyone loves ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘We Will Rock You’, and (it was acceptable in the 70s, really it was) ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’…

The show wasn’t perfect, but on the Friday night the cast brought just the right amount of attitude and anarchy to the show to make any little slips irrelevant and unnoticeable, and their obvious enjoyment in delivering the songs and interacting with the audience was infectious.  The choreography was a bit dodgy, but there had been no opportunity to rehearse in the performance space prior to the dress rehearsal, so I might let them off that one.  And anyway, nobody cared…

Because on the night the Full Tone Orchestra upped the pace and TITCO upped their game, and between them they totally smashed it.

I’ve not seen an audience react quite that strongly to a musical show.  They sang, they waved their arms, they clapped their hands (‘Buddy you’re a boy, make a big noise’ etc), they stood up and whooped in appreciation.  Maybe it was something in the beer.  Maybe they were blinded by the glitter.  Maybe the dream combination of TITCO, Queen, and the Full Tone Orchestra tipped them over the edge.  I know that people love TITCO, but I didn’t realise anyone still loved Queen quite so much.  Maybe there is a little bit of Freddie or a Killer Queen inside us all.

By the end of the show the entire audience was up on its feet, singing and swaying and waving their glow sticks wildly to ‘We Are The Champions’, and demanding an encore.

Brilliant.

So what happened between the frankly dire dress rehearsal and the show, I wonder?

Someone really needs to check that glitter.

© Gail Foster 1st July 2018

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.

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© Gail Foster 2nd October 2016

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