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31 August 2013


The Butterfly Lion
Made in Colchester
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Saturday 31st August 2013

Michael Morpurgo is one of the most illustrious names in modern children's literature and many of his popular stories have been lovingly adapted for both stage and screen.  Most successful to date is the National Theatre's acclaimed production of War Horse, currently running in London's West End, Berlin, Australia, North America, and shortly to also be on tour around the UK and Ireland.  It is, however, the story of The Butterfly Lion that Morpurgo states as one of his most favourite, and the one which Daniel Buckroyd and the sterling team at the Mercury Theatre have brought to life in Colchester this week.

This beautiful story-within-a-story is told through runaway schoolboy Michael as he stumbles upon Millie, a fascinating old lady who narrates for him the tale of her husband Bertie and his friend the white lion.  We follow Bertie from his birthplace in Africa, via school in England, to war in France and then marriage and life back in England again in a life dominated by his relationship with this most rare of creatures.  Delicately structured, this layered story is both simple and yet brimming with detail, fast-paced and yet richly descriptive, exotic and yet full of relevance; something to genuinely enjoy for every generation of the family, many of whom left the auditorium wiping a tear from their eye.  

The staging is enchantingly theatrical, with the suggestion of time, place and character shifting seamlessly within the constant flow of the direction.  The puppetry used to breathe life into the majestic white lion matches this undulating flow; the inevitable comparison against the naturalistic intricacy of the life-size, three-man horses in War Horse making way for a far simpler one-man puppeteer-actor as the lion.  Lloyd Notice creates an absorbing character through the excellent puppets, as well as narrating sections of the story and giving this title character a disconnected yet integral voice of his own.  The storytelling is led by Millie, played with effortless grace by esteemed actress Gwen Taylor.  The narration smartly blends in and out of the action and Taylor is just as charming playing Millie's pre-adolescent kite-flying self as she is her more mature years.  Adam Buchanan plays Michael, the present recipient of Millie's story, as well as blending into the action as Bertie.  His portrayal of charismatic innocence is retained throughout, hinting constantly of Michael even while also representing the adult Bertie - an intelligent, considered and captivating performance.  

Following an unforgettable production of The Hired Man earlier this year, and an outstanding version of The History Boys at the start of the summer, Daniel Buckroyd's leadership has once again inspired a show that one would be thrilled to experience at any leading playhouse in the country.  Colchester have the fortune to be able to say "we saw it here first" as Bill Kenwright Ltd take this exciting production on a tour of the UK straight after its Colchester run, where families around the country will be able to share in this magnificent, life-affirming story.

28 August 2013


West End Production
Duchess Theatre, London
Wednesday 28th August 2013
Fences is the sixth play in August Wilson's ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle exploring the development of African-American race relations.  In its 1987 opening it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, and is still acclaimed as one of the "great American plays".  The plot explores the life and family of Troy Maxson, an ex-convict, ex-baseball player and current trash collector, living a poor but respectable life with is wife, Rose. 
Troy is a gut-wrenching, soul-searching, immensely layered character, and is given an interpretation by Lenny Henry that is nothing short of magnificent.  His characterisation is pitched ideally and developed subtly throughout to a truly affecting climax.  Henry's clear determination to transform his reputation from silly comedian to serious actor is paying off, and this production has followed on from his brushes with Shakespeare to propel his talent to compare convincingly with that of other contemporary actors at the height of their profession. 
He is flanked in this production by a cast of talented fellow performers.  In particular, his long-suffering wife Rose is played with intensity by Tanya Moodie.  Opening with a light, carefree front on the put-upon character of Rose, she builds up to a torrent of emotion by the climax of the second act that stands up to Henry's performance admirably.
The emotional depth, static pace and epic length of this play, which takes an age to build to any kind of incident, make for a tough evening for the audience.  The investment is necessary to make the drama of the script's turning point so moving, although the effort involved is somewhat exhausting.  Once away from the physical discomfort of such a lengthy time in a seat however, the hauntingly effective performances remain etched in the memory and are worth the lengthy scenes and drawn-out explanations.

27 August 2013


Relatively Speaking
West End Production
Wyndham's Theatre, London
Tuesday 27th August 2013

The heyday of Ayckbourn's newest work making West End history and breaking box office records may have petered out, but the sweeping popularity of his most famous scripts seems to be timeless.  With the recent West End success of A Chorus of Disapproval starring Rob Brydon, this new production of his first big hit also uses Ayckbourn's pet hate of a stellar cast to fill the seats at the Wyndham's this summer. 

Kara Tointon plays Ginny, the attractive young apple of new boyfriend Greg (Max Bennett)'s eye.  As Ginny heads out of London for the day to "visit her parents", Greg's decision to ask for Ginny's hand in marriage, coupled with his niggling suspicion over her cagey lack of detail and receipt of copious bunches of flowers, cause him to follow her out to Buckinghamshire.  Their unsuspecting hosts Sheila (Felicity Kendal) and her husband Phillip (Jonathan Coy) are not, however, Ginny's parents - although she and Phillip are certainly no strangers - and the ensuing farcical confusion is the basis of the comic plot.

Performed with gusto, the comedy is wrung out of the long scenes and wordy speeches so often found in Ayckbourn's style of script by a worthy cast.  Predictable though the plot may be, the performances are a delight and this particularly British comedy sparkles with witty characterisations.  The period of the late 60s was well maintained through the excellent costuming and set design, making up for the slightly dated feel to the script.

A feel-good evening that it is difficult to imagine could do anything but make an audience leave with a warm feeling of shared enjoyment and a smile on their faces. 

20 August 2013


Private Lives
Chichester Festival Production
Gielgud Theatre, London
Tuesday 20th August 2013

This three act comedy, a staple of the Coward repertoire, enjoys a fresh, fast-paced outing in the West End following a successful run originating at the Chichester Festival Theatre.  

Coward is notorious for writing hateful women and in the juxtaposition of the sarcastic, aloof Amanda and the sickly, innocent Sybil, his talent for creating believable yet completely unlikable female characters is enticingly displayed. Strangely however, there is little to truly like in the men either. Boring, soft and stuffy Victor is the antithesis of the egotistical, obnoxious - albeit sexy - Elyot and by the curtain there is little to admire in either of them.  Unlikable as perhaps they all are, they are impeccably drawn and eminently entertaining with some classic and quotable lines about men, women, marriage and love.

The stage at the Gielgud is almost too large for the piece, and an element of the coincidencence of proximity in Act 1 and the depth of intimacy in Act 2 are somewhat lost with so much space to wallow in.  That said, the sets are certainly reminiscent of the period and are impeccably furnished. 

The cast have all absorbed the Coward spirit wonderfully and the direction is pitched ideally in period and pace. Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot are electric together and their excellently delivered interpretations are central to the success of this entertaining evening. 

14 August 2013


The Tempest
Shakespeare's Globe
Globe Theatre, London
Wednesday 14th August 2013

Following Kenneth Branagh's rousingly patriotic speech at last year's London Olympics, inspiring Danny Boyle's epic Opening Ceremony, the Globe have chosen to open their summer season with the play from which that inspirational speech originated.  Jeremy Herrin's production focuses on the comedic element of this mystery play, and his direction achieves a fresh feel to this classic Shakespearean story.
Roger Allum brings his deep vocal tones to create a masterful Prospero, with an innate sense of mischief and constant affection for his only daughter.  Miranda is played brilliantly by Jessie Buckley, managing to maintain an innocence and naivete while also displaying a natural allure, her performance is excellently pitched.  Her love interest, Ferdinand - a character often interpreted as simply dull and wet - is given a magnificently funny characterisation by Joshua James in a truly memorable performance.  The traditional comedy pairing of Trinculo and Stephano were slurred and staggered through by Trevor Fox and Sam Cox and Caliban was given an unusually comic yet also creepy interpretation by Globe veteran James Garnon.
The lighthearted effect of the direction worked ideally to generate an enthusastically warm reception from the wet and chilly audience.  An absence perhaps of the potential depth of story of Prospero's history, but this is a script with a huge bredth of interpretation and the comedic effect of this production is no less worthy.

03 August 2013


War Horse
National Theatre
New London Theatre, London
Saturday 3rd August 2013
A revisit to this impeccable show is well worth the effort.  I cannot more highly recommend it than in my first review and I maintain all the superlatives originally used.  If anything a second visit reiterates the grace of the puppetry that is so astonishing on initial viewing and leaves one open to the simple truth and beauty of the absorbing story. 
This extended West End run continues to thrill audiences across all generations, and is now also enjoying productions in Berlin and Australia, as well a tour across North America and an imminent tour around the UK and Ireland, starting in Plymouth at the end of September.  I cannot more enthusiastically recommend this show as a delight for all the family - catch it if you can!