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.

Robert Lindsay is chink of light in Birmingham Rep’s ‘flawed masterpiece’ Prism

TERRY Johnson is undoubtedly one of our greatest living playwrights, just as Robert Lindsay is one of our greatest living actors.

‘Prism’ is Johnson’s first full-length play in over a decade and one he has also elected to direct.

This powerful combination have a string of awards to their names, Johnson is almost as famous as a Broadway and West End director as he is a writer and Lindsay has given us some of the greatest TV and big screen comedic and classical offerings plus some sparkling musical theatre. With this thought in mind, I was perhaps expecting too much.

As with most of his plays ‘Prism’ concerns a unique person from show business history – in this case it is perhaps the greatest lighting cameramen and director of photography ever in the history of cinematography.

Jack Cardiff, who among a myriad of industry gongs, won Oscars for his legendary movies ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Red Shoes’.

In the Cardiff role, Lindsay is all consuming and offers perhaps the greatest stage performance of his career.

He totally captures not just the talents of Cardiff but also his magnetism to women – to whom he often made love not just with the camera but in reality.

Though as Jack says, he wasn’t a kiss and tell kind of chap.

Lindsay also touches on Cardiff’s experimentation with prisms which he used to create unique screen textures and colours known affectionately as ‘Painting with Light’.

At the time we meet Cardiff he is in the grip of dementia and so his recollections are often the past merging into the present.

There are patches where we, the audience, share his confusion and I‘m not sure this is what the writer intends.

Cardiff has come to live with his son Mason – a capable performance from Oliver Hembrough – and his wife Nicola, an exquisite outing for Tara Fitzgerald.

Mason and Nicola live in Buckinghamshire where they have converted their garage into a den of memorabilia for Cardiff to relax and relive and perhaps write his autobiography, which Mason has, designs on publishing.

Victoria Blunt completes this four-hander as Lucy, a carer-come-typist who falls under the charm of the ailing maestro.

The opening where we just see feet under the garage door as Cardiff demonstrates screen sizes via raising the Cinerama shaped garage door up and down seems to go on interminably before it actually rises fully and the action truly begins.

In truth I found act one in total a tad ponderous whilst the format of seeing life through Cardiff’s Alzheimer-fuelled eyes is established.

Lindsay, mostly rises above the clunkiness with some much-needed and obvious humour as release buttons.

The act does end on a magical note as the garage walls and roof fly out and we are transported deep into the heat of the sweltering African jungle.

I found act two far more satisfying from the moment it opens on the making of ‘The African Queen’ where Mason is Humphrey Bogart and Nicola is Katherine Hepburn – both put in fine cameos. Jack Cardiff is his young self and we see him in his prime.

As Cardiff’s dementia gathers pace and his grip on reality decreases the play becomes more like watching a film being made than a play being acted.

It culminates in a quite wondrous kaleidoscopic view of his final vision seen through his personal prism.

Heroes and masters of their craft indeed are Johnson and Lindsay – maybe I’m doing them in a disservice when I say I found this Prism a ‘flawed masterpiece’.

Like Jack Cardiff’s mind flitting in and out of his personal reality I too had moments of lost concentration – then again there were times when I felt I was witnessing theatrical magic.

Prism runs until Saturday, October 12.

Click here for tickets, times and more information.

Review by Euan Rose.

Blood Brothers flows better in the second half at the Hippodrome

WILLY Russell wrote the book, lyrics and composed the music for the much-loved ‘Scouse’ musical Blood Brothers – about two brothers separated by birth – nearly 40 years ago now.

Amazingly it failed to attract an audience in its first West End run – then Bill Kenwright got hold of it and breathed new life via a tour which gained in reputation at every outing until it went back to London like a gladiator entering an arena and  the rest is history.

I have seen at least four different productions and enjoyed every one including this latest 2019 version at the Birmingham Hippodrome directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright.

Lyn Paul has played the mother of the twins, Mrs Johnstone, several times over the last couple of decades – the programme note says this is her swansong in the role. She is excellent and stands out in a cast that is talented but fairly inexperienced.

It seemed to me that the two acts are two different shows – act one where the twins Mickey (Alexander Patmore) and Eddie (Joel Benedict) are seven-going-on-eight year-old children and along with elder brother Sammy lacked believability.

They simply tried too hard to act as kids and end giving over-hyped performances.

In act two, where they are older, everything is calmer and more engaging.

Danielle Corlass as Linda is quite delightful throughout – Chloe Taylor as Mrs Lyons is rightly disturbing whilst Hannah Barr makes the most of her cameos.

Robbie Scotcher, mostly seen peering out of windows and behind walls, gives a haunting performance as the all-seeing narrator.

The climax where the brothers discover they really are brothers and the tragedy that ends the sad tale is simply awesome.

The final number ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ is one of the most powerful anthems ever written and the company does it justice.

The standing ovation is deserved but would be even more so if the brakes were applied earlier.

Blood Brothers runs until next Saturday, October 12.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

Review by Euan Rose.

Pop up to Malvern Theatres to catch chef Nigel Slater’s biographical ‘Toast’

MY FAVOURITE chocolate treat for as long as I can remember has been a ‘Walnut Whip’ – it was always the prize at the bottom of the Christmas stocking.

I mention this random fact before getting into the nitty-gritty of the review as every audience member was given one as we re-entered for the second act – with the request that we all ate them collectively at the appropriate moment which would be made clear – more of this later.

Picture by Piers Foley. s

‘Toast’ is based on Nigel Slater’s best-selling bittersweet biography. The stage script by Henry Filloux Bennett probes deeply into Slater’s psyche whilst remaining quite enchanting – it’s lovingly directed and choreographed by Jonnie Riordan. Take my word it’s simply wonderful!

From the moment you enter the auditorium the experience begins, commencing with the pleasant aroma of slightly burnt toast wafting all around. It makes seated neighbours smile and join in silent cravings for the satisfying crunch that only wicked white toast smothered in lashings of butter can bring.

Libby Watson’s set comprises a stretched picture–book kitchen with the word TOAST hanging above so that the kitchen appears to be a slice of toast in a giant toaster, the fridge doubles as a door – ingenious.

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Carrying on with the creatives, a special shout out to the poignant soundtrack by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite who seemed to have included all my 60s favourites complete with scratching needle – all so apt with none more so than Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ – the sweetest of love songs which since David Lynch used it in the film of the same name has become a perverse omen.

Here it is the backdrop for one of the last beautiful moments between young Nigel and his mother as they waltz on the worktop before she becomes terminally ill.

The story is simple, but told with a complexity that is like the masterful icing and decoration of a common sponge – the production is a soufflé of satisfying theatre.

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Giles Cooper is splendid with out being soppy in an ‘adult-playing-child’ way, Cooper is immensely believable as he takes us into the inner sanctum of Nigel’s thoughts on his coming-of-age journey.

Katy Federman is delightfully dithering as ‘mum’ and Blair Plant gives a quite extraordinary performance as ‘dad’ – a father way out of his comfort zone with a son discovering his feminine side.

Samantha Hopkins as Joan has a better Birmingham accent than any Peaky Blinder and makes for a glorious wicked stepmother. Her ‘battle of the baking’ with Nigel is quite riotous.

Stefan Edwards completes the company doubling as the gardener Josh and a ballet student, both of whom are cornerstones in Nigel’s sexual awakening.

We were graced on press night at Malvern with Nigel Slater himself sitting unobtrusively in the stalls. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his culinary passion and shared his penchant for Walnut Whips – but resisted on both counts. I just dutifully bit the end off my treasure and ran my tongue around inside the chocolate cone when instructed to by the Nigel’s dad as he describes rather a naughty moment.

Many happy memories are based around food, friends and family – this is a show that merges food and theatre so cleverly that you want to lick the bowl.

Toast runs until Saturday, October 5, at Malvern Theatres. Click here to see how you get your slice of this tantalising piece of theatre.

Review by Euan Rose.

Pictures by Piers Foley

A refreshing Eyre of honesty as Blackeyed Theatre stages Bronte classic in Malvern

‘BLACKEYED Theatre’ is a new company to me, but one I shall certainly be watching out for in the future if this brand new production of Jane Eyre premiering at Malvern is the usual standard of their work.

There have many incarnations of this Charlotte Bronte feminist classic including most recently, the high energy, ‘Kneeehigh’ version.

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This was, as with all Kneehigh productions, a highly-enjoyable fusion of theatre and circus.

‘Blackeyed’ offer a more sedate, retro-repertory approach. They are seemingly a touring company traditional in playing style, and costume. Victoria Spearing’s set is the exception to tradition however as there are no flying cloths or moving set pieces  but a three dimensional labyrinth comprising a piano, wooden beams, ropes, steps and curtains, which cleverly become rooms, buildings and coaches.

There has been an obvious close collaboration twixt Charlotte Bronte adapter Nick Lane and director Adrian McDougall as script and production work in perfect harmony.

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As to the actors – Kelsey Short is just perfect as the heroine, Jane Eyre – she narrates her story as well as acting it and takes us along with her in an inclusive performance as we share her pain, her joy and most importantly her reasoning. She makes us concur with which of life’s paths she chooses to follow next and why.

Ben Warwick plays Bronte’s classic macho man Edward Rochester with panache and just the right amount of swagger. Warwick and Short make a believable and natural romantic duo.

Camilla Simson, Eleanor Toms and Oliver Hamilton perform a wide range of characters between them, completing this talented company of five – all of who also take turns on the piano and play fiddles and other instruments to perform composer George Jennings haunting underpinning score.

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This is a refreshing and honest adaptation of a classic tale of which I am sure the famous novelist would most definitely approve.

It’s a highly recommended splendid night out – catch it if you can this week at Malvern and if not then somewhere on its national tour for the next few months.

Jane Eyre runs at Malvern Theatres until Sunday, September 29.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

Review by Euan Rose.

Brum Rep’s Rebel is a tad disheveled

CO-CREATED by talented duo, Robin French, who is also the writer, and Alex Brown who is also the director, this in-house production explores the power of music against racism on the streets of Birmingham and Coventry.

It is set back in the bleak social and economic years of the late 1970s – in particular the joining together of  punk, reggae and 2Tone – ‘Rebel Music’.

It is a three-hander from a very talented trio –

Lauren Foster brings masses of warmth, wonder and disillusionment to Denise, a mixed race girl who pines from her missing Jamaican dad.

Hannah Millward is infectious as Denise’s madcap tartan mini-skirted blonde crack-a-jack, best-mate Trudi.

And Nathan Queeley-Dennis multi-tasks splendidly as a variety of character but mainly as Andrew.

There is some clever stuff and moving moments – Andrew’s lengthy monologue at the end of act one is a theatrical joy and the Sparkhill standoff between BNP and the anti-fascist alliance blood-stirring.

Whilst Rebel Music has much going for it, it is also work in progress.

It’s not as if it leaves questions unanswered – it’s more that it goes off down to many blind alleys, perhaps making this production a workshop on the road to a more rounded script.

The storyline needs more joining up of the personal journeys whilst the political ‘then and now link’ feels a little tenuous.

After it’s run at the REP it is touring around Birmingham and Coventry at various unusual locations including libraries where I am sure it will continue to evolve.

Music is a timeless and all-powerful rallying call  – the beat goes on.

Rebel music runs at The Door at the Birmingham Rep until next Saturday, October 5.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

Review by Euan Rose.

Shane Richie proves he’s a born Entertainer in Malvern

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MENTION John Osborne’s classic play ‘The Entertainer’ and Sir Laurence Olivier springs to mind – he made the part of infamous Archie Rice his own both on stage and screen. It is a brave actor who dares to follow in those hallowed 1957 footprints, but here we are some 60 years later with Shane Richie revelling in a role he too seems have been born to play.

When we first meet Archie, it is on stage as a club comedian seemingly left over from another age. He is pleasant enough and he engages us instantly – but is this pity we feel rather than admiration?

Director Sean O’Connor (I presume it’s him as there are no other writing or staging credits in the programme) has set this new version in Thatcher’s Britain of 1982 where we are about to embark on our last hurrah sending what’s left of the fleet to the Falklands for a bit of Argy bargy.

Normally I am very wary of updates just for the sake of it (the original chronicled the Suez Crisis of the 1950s), but this is a stroke of genius – the cap certainly fits and I’m so glad O’Connor didn’t try to tie it in with Brexit – tempting, as I’m sure it was.

Comedy went through a massive change in the 1980s – it was the time of the subtle clever stand-up replacing the obvious cheeky chappy like Archie.

His response is to resort to tasteless and racist, toe-curling humour and his love affair with the audience becomes more fractured every time he performs to us.

Of course he can’t see what’s happening – it’s our fault.

Running alongside the fall and fall of Archie Rice on stage is the disintegration of his dysfunctional family and home life. Seemingly the only common denominator they all have is an unquenchable appetite for endless tumblers of gin.

Everyone starts out as normal, take Granddad Billy Rice (an ebullient Pip Donaghy), himself an old entertainer, warm as toast in welcoming Jean, Archie’s daughter by his first marriage when she turns up unexpectedly. But this isn’t exactly a social call – Jean (a convincing Diana Vickers)  has come to lick her wounds following breaking up with her fiancée.  Her character unfolds like a flower – from bud to bloom in complexity. She has been an active protester against the Falklands war in direct contrast to her brother Mick who is Archie’s hero son away fighting for Queen (her majesty’s portrait adorns the lounge wall) and country (there are Union Flags hanging in the window).

Sarah Crowe plays Archie’s long-suffering second wife Phoebe – she perfectly captures a woman who tolerates the misogynistic treatment dished out to her because whilst she isn’t exactly happy to be a victim, the alternative frightens her even more.

Phoebe’s solution: drink more and smile. turn a blind eye to Archie’s philandering and constant put-downs and fuss over everyone like you’re a real mother hen.

Finally there is Frank (a sardonic, ever-smiley Christopher Bonwell), Archie’s other son whose job it is to introduce Archie on stage and be his gofer in life – providing him with whatever he wants.

O’Connor’s direction is very clever, he uses the political backdrop by way of red top paper headlines in a cacophonistic harmony with  Archie’s descent into obscurity and likewise family battles echo the political squabbles.

Shane Richie gives us a tour-de-force as the ubiquitous creature that is Archie Rice – like Lord Olivier he will be a very had act to follow.

He is not always an easy watch, in fact there are times when Richie’s Rice makes you squirm with embarrassment – even to the point of feeling unclean in his presence;  just like the master John Osborne intended.

There is much to relish in this production and perhaps even more to ponder over on the journey home.

The Entertainer runs at Malvern Theatres until Saturday, September 14.

Review by Euan Rose,

Check out the tour dates by following link :

Check out the tour dates by following link :

https://www.theentertainerplay.co.uk/