Laughter, tears and thought provoking theatre as the ‘Groan Ups’ head to the Wolverhampton Grand

THE FIRST thing you notice when entering the auditorium at the Wolverhampton Grand, are the giant chairs either side of the stage. They are huge versions of those classroom chairs we all knew so well – Formica the colour of beech wood, stretched over a tubular metal frame.

They set the memory cells floating back to early schooldays and how big everything seemed to our tiny eyes, from the wheels on the bus to the teacher’s desk and the omnipresent hamster cage.

This is clever scene setting by designer Fly Davis and director Kirsty Patrick Ward adds to this by opting to have the fairly lengthy first scene played on the apron, against a closed curtain – with a simple ‘Bloomfield School’ sign displayed to tell us where we are.

It’s here we first meet our ‘famous five’ who are actually four in years – we are going to follow through their schooldays to double digits and finally becoming grown-ups – or as the title states and the action identifies ‘groan’ ups.

Picture by Pamela Raith Photography. s

Yolanda Ovide, Dharmesh Patel, Lauren Samuels, Daniel Abbott and Matt Cavendish – aka Moon, Spencer, Katie, Archie and Simon literally hit the stage running through the stalls and onto the stage. It’s here the size of those two giant classroom chairs put early schooldays into perspective.

So too does the chant of “What did you do the weekend?” as each child in turn bids to outdo the rest in telling what they and their parents got up to – right down to the innocent relating of listening to parental sexual activities.

When the curtain finally goes up, we enter the classroom where everything is still big but not as colossal as the first chairs and yes, there is the hamster cage. From here on in, every scene takes us one step further as our famous five grow bigger and the furniture gets smaller.

Act Two is the Bloomfield High School reunion. Now the chairs are too small for grown ups to sit in. What hasn’t changed is the way Moon, Spencer, Katie, Archie and Simon relate to each other. Old love is rekindled as is rivalry and bullying.

Ovide’s Moon is as bossy, arrogant and vulnerable as she was when we first met her – but add lovable to that too. Samuels’ Katie still worries about everything, Abbott’s Archie is still in denial of his sexuality but his precociousness has been replaced with the art of social management.

Picture by Pamela Raith Photography. s

Patel’s Spencer has graduated from class jester to jokesy pet shop owner and Cavendish’s Simon bears the scars of being the butt of every classroom prank and joke.

Simon brings with him long-legged escort Chemise who he tries to pass off as his glamorous partner. Jamie Birkett puts in a scene stealing performance as Chemise – but then she does have some great lines.

Mischief Theatre writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have become legendary for their modern twist on plays that go wrong, winning an Olivier Award along the way – but with Groan Ups they have added a whole new dimension to their scripting. They belie the myth that schooldays are the happiest days of our lives. Happy days for some yes but for most it’s an emotional battleground – a melting pot we all get thrown into and when we come out we are of course wiser – that is the purpose of the academic exercise after all.

There are moments in this production when you want to reach out to cuddle and comfort the kids and others that make you cringe with embarrassment. There are also times of pure joy and others of true tragedy.

Laughter and tears – who could ask for anything more from a good night out at the theatre?

Groan Ups runs until Saturday, November 13. Click here for times, tickets and more information.

****

Review by Euan Rose.

Euan Rose Reviews.

JESSICA Swale’s Nell Gwynn

Here’s my thoughts on The Crescent’s first show. Of their new season

JESSICA Swale’s Nell Gwynn is a gem of a show to kick off the new Crescent Theatre season with and my word they do her justice.

Sumptuous cossies, a set to transport you to ‘The famous Globe’ of old London town and music from Christopher Arnold to grace any royal parlour – and that’s before we get on to talking about the acting.

At approaching three hours long, dear Nell could have been an endurance test, even for the theatre faithful. But there is so much crammed in here to relish that you’re left rather begging for more not screaming for mercy.

The play is set after the death of Oliver Cromwell where 30 year old King Charles II comes has returned from exile in France to grace the throne once more.

The story is not just about lovely orange-selling, part time hooker Nell, but concerns theatre and theatrical folk. It’s the game-changing time when women were first allowed to grace the stage as actors –Heaven forbid this step should cascade them into being allowed to vote and workplace equality!

No this is the time when women ruled with the power of sex and cunning whilst men just thought they ruled and enjoyed the sex.

We meet a company of actors struggling to put on performances in the Kings’ own theatre – artistry must be tempered with political correctness but whatever happens – the show must go on!

Laura Poyner is our hardworking Nell – she rarely leaves the stage as she acts, sings, and cavorts her way into our hearts. In a dress as bright as the oranges in her basket she is simply joyous with a performance that sucks you in and keeps you there until her final epilogue.

Alice Macklin puts in fine support as Nell’s sister Rose, Pat Dixon is as delightful as she is funny as Nancy, Jaz Davison gives up a delicious double as Charles’s wife, Queen Catherine (if any of you have seen the series ‘Get Shorty’ then think the Mexican Cartel boss lady) and sad Old Ma Gwynn, Nell’s brothel keeping mater.

Joanne Brookes completes the main cast female line in another splendid double as we get two mistresses for the price of one – the hissing court bitch Lady Castlemaine and the clever French beauty Louise de Keroualle.

There is not a weak link in this cast – on to the males -Tom Fitzpatrick smiles majestically just like the picture that adorns so many pub walls as King Charles II’ all that’s missing is the spaniel on his lap – a perfect piece of casting,

Sam Wilson is gloriously outrageous as Edward Kynaston, the member of the company who got to don the frock and the face slap before Nelly takes over, Graeme Braidwood is a suitable harassed writer John Drydon, Alan Bull brings the right amount of bluster to Lord Arlington and Luke Plimmer as Ned Spiggett and Christopher Arnold as Henry Purcell also put in solid performances as actors playing actors.

Two special shout-outs firstly for Mark Payne as the lead actor of the King’s theatre troupe Charles Hart – he manages to demonstrate the whole range of acting skills when teaching Nell how to act  – whilst masking it in another layer of what Hart is really thinking –no mean feat for an actor playing an actor showing another actor how to act – if you follow my drift?

Secondly to a truly extraordinary outing for Andrew Cowie as Thomas Killgrew the company director. He is so funny, so believable and so intense – I can’t find sufficient superlatives. – ‘cept perhaps to say Bill Nighy (whom Cowie really resembles) couldn’t have done it better.

Sometimes there is nothing as real as pretense – Killgrew’s uproarious rehearsal room scenes are spot on and timeless. Within those walls plans are hatched, hearts joined and broken; dreams made and shattered – Viva la suspension of disbelief.

Of course all this would never have come to pass if there wasn’t a real director with a vision – Dewi Johnson take a well-earned bow. It didn’t escape my notice that the actors never stopped acting and muttering even when moving the scenery. The company did you proud and you welded them into one hell of a team.

Standards for the season have been set!

Nell Gwyn runs at The Crescent until Saturday.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

Review by Euan Rose.

Romeo and Juliet

THE TRAGIC story of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet has seen many versions over the centuries.

Of course the most famous is William Shakespeare’s play, (which itself was based on a 16th century poem), but this New Adventures production will surely rank as a new classic. It will surely come to rank alongside Bernstein’s West Side Story, the Franco Zeffirelli film and the  Kenneth Macmillan ballet created for Nureyev and Fonteyn.

Like Macmillan, Matthew Bourne uses the evocative Prokofiev score as inspiration, but Bourne’s is a very different interpretation – one which puts the teenage angst of the protagonists at its heart.

Picture by Johan Persson. s

Set in the ‘Verona Institute’ – a detention centre for troubled youths – this stark, clinical design by long-time Bourne collaborator Lez Brotherston with its prison-like walkways and barred doors brilliantly conveys the bleakness of the situation the teenagers find themselves trapped in.

Here, every aspect of the lives of the inmates is controlled by nurses and wardens – illustrated by the unrelenting, twisted, disjointed movements. One warden, Tybalt, (a menacing Danny Reubens) uses his power to take advantage of the young women, always selecting a different girl to sate his sexual desires.

He chooses Juliet as his latest victim. Their dance is an uncomfortable watch as Juliet tries unsuccessfully to escape his clutches.

Seren Williams as Juliet brings just the right amount of innocence, angst and feistiness to the role.

Enter Romeo (a dashing, innocent-at-large Andy Monaghan)– deposited at the Institute by his powerful parents, the Montagues (Mrs Montague is portrayed as a Teresa May lookalike) – who clearly have no understanding and little time for their troublesome son.

In a humorous scene Romeo is gently teased and shown the ropes of life in the institution by the streetwise trio of Mercutio, Benvolio and Balthasar.

The only brightness in the gloom for the inmates are the dances held by the hapless, do-gooding Chaplain, Revd Bernadette – an engaging, funny portrayal by Madeleine Brennan which brings some welcome humour. The inmates dance with mechanical, stilted movements under the watchful eyes of Guard Tybalt, but once he leaves, they become uninhibited – think school disco when the teachers have left!

Here Romeo and Juliet first set eyes on each other and there follows a pas-de-deux which beautifully captures the innocence and clumsiness of teenage first love – all snogging, fumbling and writhing.

But Tybalt still has Juliet in his sights and continues to exert his power over the troubled youngsters, culminating in a heart-stopping fight scene, danced with such precision, fear and ferocity that you are on the edge of your seat.

No spoilers as to who kills whom, but the spiral of despair and mental anguish is about to escalate, as the lovers are isolated. Juliet begs the Reverend to help her see Romeo again and she agrees, taking Juliet to his cell. There is less innocence and more sexual tension in this pas de deux as they are re-united, but for Juliet the sexual assaults inflicted by Tybalt cannot be forgotten and her mental anguish is painful to watch.

Picture by Johan Persson. s

The ending is, as we’d always known it would be, truly tragic and brilliant in its execution.

Bourne’s productions are built on precision from his dancers and this is no exception. The performances  throughout were faultless – the exertion and passion palpable and utterly compelling. What is even more brilliant is Bourne’s commitment to bringing on new talent – five of the creative team are trainees, and in every tour venue the company are working with six young local dancers aged 16-19, who are inserted into the cast so seamlessly that you can’t see the join. They rightfully got the biggest cheer of the well-deserved standing ovation.

This is a production that every parent of teenagers – and every teenager – should see.

The final performance of Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet take place at the Hippodrome tonight and tomorrow (Friday and Saturday, September 13 and 14).

Click here for more information, times and tickets, which start at £40.50.

Review by Johannah Dyer for Euan Rose Reviews