Tragedy ‘Woyzeck’ at the Birmingham Rep was a brave move but rewrites and ‘less reading’ are needed

THE TRAGEDY ‘Woyzeck’ was written by the revolutionary dramatist Georg Buchner; he died of typhus in 1837 when he was just 24 years old, never saw any of his work performed on a stage.

Neither was he acknowledged as a writer until many years after his death.

‘Woyzeck’ is a favourite piece for lovers and exponents of avant-garde theatre to write countless adaptations and produce in every form of artistry from the realistic through the macabre to grand opera.

The REP has followed in that tradition with their huge production involving a cast of over 100 of what it terms ‘community players’ accompanied by just two professional actors Thomas Pickles as Woyzeck and Jalleh Alizadeh as his common law wife Marie.

The plot concerns a soldier/military barber returning home at the end of a war; trying to rebuild his life in peacetime.

He suffers from post-traumatic stress and eventually driven to madness by a combination of near starvation via a diet of canned peas fed to him by mad scientists, the sexual demands of his military commander and the infidelity of Marie who he stabs to death.

The undoubted stars of the night are the ensemble who dance, sing and perform like a well-drilled army.

Director Roxana Silbert and Choreographer Rosie Kay have produced some exciting and memorable set pieces.

When this army are on stage en-masse the production leaps across the curtain line and grabs you, when they are not it tends to retreat behind it.

The sometimes over complexity of Leo Butler’s script and the inaudibility of the leads made things difficult to follow resulting in too much audience time being spent reading the dialogue on the screens provided for the hearing impaired rather than watching the action.

The production would undoubtedly benefit from a text revision and cranking up the volume.

Despite its flaws this is a unique and brave production. Special mention goes to Richella McPherson who is simply magical as ‘The Robot’.

Review by Euan Rose

Crescent Theatre Company’s Urinetown is well worth spending the pennies on

In 1959, there was a TV AD campaign for a cigarette called ‘Strand’. This featured a man in a hat and raincoat smoking a cigarette on a dark, deserted street corner.

The legend ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ actually heralded advertisings greatest flop! It seemed no one wanted to be alone and the brand died before it could inflict a lonely death on its potential users.

The title ‘Urinetown’ is possibly the most unappealing title for a musical as it is possible to envisage;

“Where are you going tonight?” –

“Urinetown” – “Really?”

The title of this musical is not the only challenge for an audience as it revels in randomness offering up parody, provocation and passion by the bucket load, flitting twixt sentimentality and sadism via a book and score by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis.

The show is set in a near apocalyptic America where years of drought have brought about such a shortage of water that private bathrooms are banned and only pay-on-entry public loos are allowed (just like Euston station). Disobeying this law means you are carted off by the UGC (Urine Good Company) police to the mysterious Urinetown.

We are sharply introduced to the action by Officer Lockstock – Brendan Stanley – who can be forgiven the rocky accent as he offers such a full on and engaging performance as part brutal, part compere, part comedian and part soft under-bellied cop.

Next we meet ‘the queue for loo’ chorus, swaying and clutching their bowels as they wait in line to pay their money for their daily pee. (You’ll be grateful for having made that comfort break before the curtain at this point – if not – cross your legs ‘til the interval)

Sitting at the desk and taking the money is Penelope Pennywise who looks like a nightmarish prison guard and is played to wonderful masochistic perfection by Helen Parsons. Francis Mallon, every inch a rebellious aging CND hippy as Joseph Strong, breaks the line and the law with a public peeing and is carted off by the UGC to a fate unknown until Act 2.

His son, Bobby Strong, the love interest juve-lead nicely portrayed by Nicholas Brady, goes from toilet attendant to rebel leader.

Watching from the sidelines is the adorable Little Sally, a tiny, teeny, tart with a heart – played with lashings of lump-in-your-throat moments by Charlotte Upton.

Enter the big bad corporate wolf – Caldwell B. Cladwell – nicely nasty, slick and slippery and perfectly portrayed by Mark Horne. As always in times of economic and ecological crisis there are those who see a profit in poverty and dividends in despair – that’s Cladwell!

You could be forgiven at this point if you thought that Dorothy had been caught by the wrong twister and landed in Urinetown as Cladwell’s daughter ‘Hope’ joins us in a gust of saccharin innocence and privilege – a joy to watch and hear performance from Laura Poyner.

Ploughing a well-planned and executed path through the minefields this show presents, director Alan K. Marshall neither makes it too dark or too silly – he offers spectacle first and cerebral pondering on greed and exploitation second – quite rightly letting the audience be happy, yet mindful. He is served by an extremely well drilled, well sung, fleet-of-foot company, who never once lose their focus.

Musical Director Gary Spruce has done a grand job and he should be justly proud of the voices and music he has nurtured to excellence. All the numbers are good but ‘Run, freedom, Run’ is a total showstopper!

The costuming and setting are excellent and a special shout out to sound creation by Kristan Webb who provided the perfect balance.

Urinetown by the resident group at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre runs until June 2 – My verdict is ‘awesome’ and well worth spending the pennies on!

Review by Euan Rose

Theatre group ‘Ramps’ up the quality with ‘Our Country’s Good’

‘RAMPS on the Moon’ are an annual touring company made up by a consortium of six major theatres including the Birmingham Rep.

Each theatre takes a turn to produce a show with an integrated cast of D/deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors and performers alongside a top drawer creative team. This year it is the turn Nottingham Playhouse and their associate director Fiona Buffini.

Part of the brief is to explore new ways of storytelling to audiences across the broadest spectrum.

When the show opens we are offered up audio description screens either side of the stage plus three of the cast signing to the audience.

There is also another large audio description on a ships sail in the centre of the stage which mercifully is only used for opening as it is an overkill leaving us literally, not knowing where to look when we should be concentrating on the action.

There the criticism ends as this brilliant company bring to live Timberlake Wertenbaker’s rather dark tale based on the real life records of officers, marines and convicts in Australia’s first penal colony.

There is much wailing, whipping and hanging and emphasis on the class gulf between a society where officers and marines are the ruling class who can do no wrong and the convicts, whose only crime, was to be born into poverty can do no right. Their sole purpose for existing being to cater for the sadistic pleasures of the elite whilst tilling the seemingly unfertile soil of Australia.

The Governor-in Chief, an intelligently observed portrayal by Kieron Jecchinis, encourages the staging of a play by the convicts, namely ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar.

It is his hope this will break down some of the barriers in the new world order. Cptn Jemmy Cambell, beautifully played by Jarrad Ellis-Thomas, forms a company against all odds’ his transportation ‘Dirty Dozen.’

Theatre as it always does, becomes the leveller; prejudice and class are left at the rehearsal room door and the golden rules of loyalty and mutual encouragement abound – ‘cast before class’. The play ends in stark contrast to where it begins where it begins – curtain up on hope and optimism at the convicts’ first night to the show’s curtain up on hopelessness and despair.

This is a very strong company with no weak links; a special shout out to Ghemisola Ikumelo who is so moving as convict Lis Morden; Alex Nowak doubling as hilarious pickpocket convict Robert Sideway and bigoted Reverend Johnson; Saphire Joy who is beautiful both in appearance and character as comvict Mary Brenham; Fergus Rattigan as the hilariously energetic ‘Ketch’ (he is also the company’s fight captain); Milton Lopes as the ever watching Aboriginal Australian and man of the show Garry Robson who moves us to tears as midshipman Harry Brewer.

Don’t go and see this because you want to support a show where the majority of the cast are disabled in some way. Do go because this is an exciting company offering quality theatre well worthy of the standing ovation it received.

Review by Euan Rose.

‘Happy’ Heroes tale at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre is pulled off by terrific trio

HEROES’, currently being performed at the Crescent Theatre until tomorrow, started life in 2003 as piece of darkish French Theatre by Gerald Sibleyras.

His original title ‘La Vent des Peupliers’ literally means ‘The Wind in The Poplars’.

I think it was a wise move by Tom Stoppard in his translated version to rename it ‘Heroes’ – less with a slip of the tongue we could be expecting to meet those wild-wooders from ‘Wind in the Willows’.

Instead of Badger, Ratty and Mole we have Henri, Gustave and Philippe – in both cases the plays concern a trio of adorable chums but there we’ll leave the comparison.

Our three heroes are veterans of the Great War where they endured unimaginable horrors. Whatever happened to them in the four decades since the end of that abomination is unclear and for our purposes, irrelevant; for when we meet them it is 1959 and they are in a French Military retirement home run by nuns.

There, on a terrace they have claimed as their own, they reflect on life, death, sex and the burnt out embers of what remains of their ambition.

They are united in fear and loathing of one particular nun, though we never see any evidence of the alleged persecution; rather they are left alone to reminisce and dream.

Dreams turn to plots, which culminate in an escape plan devised by Gustave, their self-elected leader.

The mission is to reach the distant hilltop surrounded by polar trees they can see through binoculars from the terrace.

If all this sounds a bit grim then fear not as Stoppard has lost much of the darkness in translation. It has in fact gained by offering up compassion through comedy.

Claire Armstrong Mills has directed thoughtfully and skilfully applying a fine brush to the task rather than a trowel.

Thankfully there are no ‘custard pie’ moments – we are offered chuckle not guffaw material and the evening is all the better for it.

Inevitably the trio will be compared to the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ but to me, these old soldiers offer far more substance than that.

John Whittell as the gammy-legged ‘Henri’, Dave Hill as agoraphobic ‘Gustave’ and Brian Wilson as the gentle ‘Philippe’ who suffers periodic fainting due to a piece of shrapnel that has lodged itself into his brain, make a joyously talented threesome.

Never do they act at us, but rather allow us to eavesdrop on their world through an almost ‘reality show’ approach.

Any fourth wall acting barriers are down and we believe. The final tableau of them flapping their arms majestically like migrating geese on the wind is beautiful.

Alice Abrahall makes the most of playing a silent Nun and the stone dog on the terrace does its best to steal the show.

Keith Harris’ setting is both pleasing on the eye and practical for the mature company – a consideration worth praising.

Catch it till the May 19 – you’ll come away happy.

Heroes is on at the Ron Barber Studio at the Crescent Theatre until tomorrow.

Tickets are £12 (£11 concessions).

Call 0121 643 5858 or visit for more information or tickets.

Review by Euan Rose. 

Bold String Quartet’s Guide to Sex is enthusiastically received at Birmingham Rep

THE STRING Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety is an extraordinary theatrical experience.

It began with a silent and majestic entrance by Miltos Yerolemou via a forest of abandoned music stands and a wall of tubular chairs – by the time he reaches the front of the stage the silence is deafening.

This is broken when he recites a piece from ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ by Robert Burton. Gradually, Mairead McKinley, Cathy Tyson and Nick Harris, join him – all A list, award winning actors with pedigrees that speaks volumes.

They do not have character names, as the shows creator and director Calixto Bieito does not deem it appropriate for them to have them.

Rather they are destined to perform individually and when they are not performing to go on endless ambles around the vast stage in search of what is personal to them and deliberately kept unclear from us.

They are joined by ‘The Heath Quartet’, of Oliver Heath, Chris Murray, Gary Pomeroy and Sara Wolsenholme – wonderful musicians who are actually the fifth actor in this artistic cacophony.

So once the assembly is complete, the journey commences and we are taken through an often sad, sometimes beautiful, occasionally nightmarish, always challenging trip into the relationship between sex and anxiety disorders. This is achieved through a mix of acting, verse, prose, text and music.

There is the cleverness of melding soliloquies into duologues by the use of gesture and not quite making contact. In turn this signifies a powerful cry for help – after all depression is an illness never suffered alone.

The music goes from the nail-biting grating and experimental to the majestic and the joyous, which washes over players and audience like a soft comforting cloud of cotton wool.

The most moving words of the night come when Cathy Tyson tells us of the death of her child and most moving action when Nick Harris in his role of a OCD sufferer tries to stroke the cello.

There are visual highlights too – not least of which when the huge wall of chairs comes slowly forward and then cascades onto the stage so close to the players that you think they are going to be buried.

The evening fittingly ends in chaos as the back wall collapses revealing the speakers and lights behind – followed by darkness. Perhaps signifying the final mask has fallen revealing the frailty that lays beneath.

The REP has staged the world premiere of this bold piece of theatre.

It was enthusiastically received and gave the audience much to think on.

I feel it will either go on from here to become a transatlantic ‘must see’ in the West End and on Broadway or it will fail to find an audience and disappear.

Time will tell.

Review by Euan Rose.