Barbara Hughes-Moore

Rebus: Long Shadows, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Rebus: Long Shadows is a new story written by critically-acclaimed author Ian Rankin and adapted exclusively for the stage by award-winning playwright Rona Munro. Starring Ron Donachie, Cathy Tyson and John Stahl, the story follows the titular DI, one of Scotland’s most famous fictional detectives, now retired, as he exhumes the faux pas of the past to find justice in the present.

Though I don’t claim to be a Rebus aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve enjoyed the various incarnations of the character, though for different reasons. DI John Rebus, played onscreen by John Hannah and Ken Stott, is the archetypal hard man, a gruff detective and former SAS soldier with PTSD and a serious drinking habit. Hannah’s Rebus was a youthful yet world-weary DI with a whole host of personal demons despite his fresh-faced looks. Stott’s Rebus, replacing Hannah in season 2, was a more convincing cynic given his age and natural gruffness. Both versions boast a bleak brutality, but Hannah’s inner monologue denoted a more internal, psychological approach, whereas Stott’s Rebus was more external and thus retained a greater sense of mystery and ambiguity.

Long Shadows’ Rebus seems to be pitched somewhere between the two, played here by Ron Donachie who portrays the character in the BBC radio dramatizations of Rankin’s novels. Donachie is a very genial stage presence, a lovable curmudgeon who is plagued by the ghosts of past. Rebus is not so much an analogue detective in a digital age as a displaced Diogenes trying to make it in millennial Edinburgh.

It was disappointing not to see Cathy Tyson as Rebus’ procedure-driven protégé DS Siobhan Clarke (played by Gayanne Potter/Claire Price in the series), but understudy Dani Heron does a great job as the jaded DS even if she doesn’t look old enough to have been working a case for a quarter of a century. Her banter with Donachie is one of the show’s highlights, as both actors ably conjure that catty camaraderie of a long-lived friendship. She also gets one of the show’s best lines when Rebus frets about ‘the way lassies dress these days’, by responding that ‘young women can’t be prisoners of their fathers’ fears’.

The cast is brilliant across the board, from Eleanor House and Ellen Bannerman as the ghosts of the victims Rebus failed to save – the former of whom also plays the dual role of (murdered) mother Maggie and (surviving) daughter Heather – and Neil McKinven masters multiple roles with charm and skill whilst making each one distinctive and memorable. However, the standout of this production is John Stahl as ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, Rebus’ amiable nemesis. There’s a layer of artifice to every actor in the show except Stahl, who imbues an earthy authenticity into the vibrant, larger-than-life (in name and nature) character. Stahl’s deliciously imperious performance captivates from the second he steps onstage, slipping seamlessly from debonair to devilish in a way that could have be cartoonish in the hands of a less capable actor. His performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Rona Munro’s script is interesting and engaging, and
Robin Lefevre’s skilful direction guides the audience through the murky mystery. The surname Rebus originates from the phrase ‘Non verbis, sed rebus’ (‘not by words, by things’), a phrase which describes a form of heraldic expression used in medieval times that used symbols, pictograms and illustrations to represent new words/phrases. This was taken up by Sigmund Freud, who believed dreams could be (re)interpreted in a similar way. It’s a fitting name for a gritty detective who has to sift through reams of fakeries and facades to find the villainy behind the civil veneer.

The production has a number of discretely creative touches, predominantly Ti Green’s evocative set featuring a central curving staircase that takes us down into the lair of Rebus’ mind, and a set which functions interchangeably as a poky flat, a nightclub, a pub, and a swish penthouse suite. The Gothic touches of the ghostly apparitions (aided by Chahine Yavroyan and Simon Bond’s lighting) are effective as they berate and motivate Rebus, but their near-constant presence reduces their potency. This element might have been more effective if Rebus had been the lead investigator of the cases in question, which would have given a sense of urgency and regret, and a more compelling motivation beyond just a general obligation to justice.

As such, the mystery of who the true antagonist is falls a little flat, because it’s fairly obvious from the moment they appear. Relocating the crime drama to the stage already reduces the nuance of a book or film/tv show, which can include breadcrumbs in the background – a throwaway glance, a name on a file, a news report – whereas onstage everything is rather unambiguously right there in front of you. The scene at Cafferty’s swish apartment, while engrossing, goes on for far too long, and despite the talented female-driven creative team, DS Clarke is frustratingly side-lined by the narrative, and Eleanor House’s Heather (though intriguingly layered) is stopped mid-potential by the arbitrary ending. I would certainly be interested to see how her character develops, especially in conjunction with Stahl’s Cafferty, if we ever get a sequel.

Interesting and enjoyable, Rebus: Long Shadows is a compelling addition to the longstanding, multi-media mythos of its eponymous investigator. Playing at the New Theatre until Saturday 9th February, it’s well worth a watch, especially if you’re already a fan of Rankin’s crotchety copper.

Review American Idiot (UK Tour), New Theatre Cardiff

Aka Disaffected Youth: The Musical

When Green Day, the minstrels of jaded adolescence, released their rabble-rousing, game-changing manifesto American Idiot in September 2004, the world stood to attention. A brash rebuff to the powers that be, the bombastic battle cry was a defiant call to arms that enraged and enraptured many an angsty teenager, myself being one of them. Because of this nostalgic tether, I was nervous to see how they would relocate those beloved songs into a sensical story without damaging their integrity.

Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews, the musical/(punk-)rock opera centres on best friends Johnny, Will and Tunny, self-styled as the Jesuses of Suburbia, as they embark on a narcotic-fuelled voyage of discovery in post-9/11 America. Johnny and Tunny decide to move to the Big City while Will opts to stay home with his pregnant girlfriend Heather. Tunny quickly becomes disillusioned in their new urban surroundings and joins the army, while Johnny falls in love with the ambiguously-monikered Whatersname and develops a nasty drug habit, and Will becomes disillusioned with fatherhood.

One of these things is not like the other: Will’s storyline is hardly comparable to the poignant physical/mental trauma experienced by Johnny and Tunny, and his character arc is far less persuasive than theirs despite a great performance from Samuel Pope. His baby mama Heather gets similarly short-changed in the narrative department, but Siobhan O’Driscoll stands out regardless with a truly impressive voice and a very sympathetic performance, especially in the lovely Last Night on Earth.

Joshua Dowen as Tunny gets perhaps the best character arc, starting out as just another brash upstart before the war leaves its mark on him physically and mentally. His beautiful performances of Are We the Waiting? and later Before the Lobotomy are utterly haunting, if undercut by the scene (Extraordinary Girl) that follows it. And Johnny, the self-proclaimed ‘son of rage and love’ who laments being ‘in a land of make believe that don’t believe in [him]’, is a vulgar hybrid of Joseph Gilgun and Iggy Pop. Swaggeringly played by Tom Milner, Johnny is a boldly dislikeable, grotesque portrait of 21st century adolescence who goes through a lot but seems to learn little by the end.

For its raucous anthems of youthful rebellion, American Idiot can be viewed as a modern-day Les Miserables or a twentieth century Hair (Hair Gel, if you will) that replaces barricade flag-waving with air guitar, grinding and a potent grunge aesthetic. Like Rock of Ages, it takes a little while for your mind to calibrate to its crassness, not to mention a set so purposefully grungy it makes you long to bathe in Clorox afterwards. Tosca, this ain’t. But once you wade into the mire, you’re in the zone and ready to stick it to the man. Combining songs from 2004’s American Idiot (as you might assume), 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown and a few tunes written for what is essentially a jukebox musical, the songs segue surprisingly well into a theatre setting, which maintains the raucous power of their anthems whilst enhancing their slower tunes with careful orchestration and stunning harmonies. However, it’s the nature of the jukebox musical that trips this up from the get-go, stemming from a cliché-ridden script that crowbars in a few emotional storylines which ultimately feel rather hollow.

The show is more about sensations than story; if you’re looking for narrative coherence, you’ve come to the wrong place. The news footage from the bygone Bush presidency is perhaps the only overtly political thing about the musical which (surprisingly for such an otherwise literal show) opts instead to show the social decay caused by such a system, and specifically how this societal dysfunction affects the working classes more than most. But the frequent tonal whiplash between scenes is jarring, and some of the songs are perfunctorily placed – American Idiot and Boulevard of Broken Dreams came way too early, Too Much Too Soon (ironically) came too late – but the strength and skill of the ensemble results in songs so brilliantly performed they transcend the material in which they are caged. And the band is utterly exceptional, performing with record-level quality and all-round excellence, even if they did drown out the singing at points. The show perhaps fares better when viewed as a pseudo-live concert experience in the same vein as This is Elvis.

And the songs really are the standouts, coupled with fiercely energetic performances and gorgeous harmonies. Holiday is a deliciously rowdy anthem to ‘the dawning of the rest of our lives’, and Boulevard of Broken Dreams is intriguingly staged, with a stream of cloaked unknowns swarming around Johnny as he makes his way through the city. The ensemble imbues particular power to lyrics like ‘your faith walks on broken glass’ (21 Guns) and ‘kiss the demons out of my dreams’ (Give Me Novocaine); the ballad of lost love Whatsername gloriously crescendoes into a bittersweet climax, and Wake Me Up When September Ends, a magnificently melancholic ode to grief, is wondrously realised.

The characters are intentionally archetypical, to the point where all of womanhood is represented by a person quite literally called Whatsername. The Jesuses of Suburbia are screw-ups, St Jimmy is far from angelic and the characters exist on a sliding scale of unlikable to downright hateful. And despite its rebellious ambitions, the show’s anarchic nature is more trite than tough, in the same way that adding a chain to your belt makes you a punk-rock rebel. But when it rocks, it rocks hard – and that’s mainly down to St Jimmy, the manically charismatic Luke Friend, who acts as a personification of Johnny’s dark side, the seductive Satan to his Jesus of Suburbia. As ‘the patron saint of the denial’ and ‘the resident leader of the lost and found’, Jimmy brings a sense of lawless joy whenever he springs onstage, like Beetlejuice by way of Billy Idol.  

Despite the gaudy grunge trappings, from Sara Perks’ scrungy set to Tim Deiling’s Hadean lighting and the appealingly pop-punk wardrobe, the show has a lot of heart buried beneath the band tees. It’s a mephitic snapshot of post-9/11 America and the malevolence of bourgeois apathy to the rest of society, celebrating the riotous angst of those who rail against compliance to ‘The Man’. Ten years later and the songs, bemoaning the dangerous presence of a corrupt right-wing looney toon running the nation into the ground, are scathingly pertinent to our own fraught political climate.

Sadly, the show has a less than right on view of women, who are confined in the ‘well, actually…’ prison of the male gaze for most of the runtime, functioning interchangeably as nags and lovers until Sam Lavery’s compellingly enigmatic Whatsername (who, like Frankenstein’s creature, is denied the dignity of a title to call her own) is finally allowed to express herself (in an explosive version of Letterbomb) well past the halfway point. And when the women of Green Day’s America do get a moment to shine – during a sublime rendition of 21 Guns – it’s framed as a moment of emotional labour in which they must cater to the traumas of their man-child partners, without ever being given the space to deal with their own pain.

Visually interesting and politically engaging, American Idiot is an ambitious, defiant treatise to the restlessness of youthful discontent that is well worth seeing at least once in your lifetime, and a must-see for Green Day devotees like myself. Some of the characters may go to that great mosh-pit in the sky, leaving little closure for ‘the kids of war and peace’ who are left behind. But, as everyone on stage sings us out with the iconic Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), there’s hope. Chaotic, frenetic and miasmic, American Idiot isn’t quite the welcome to paradise you’ve been waiting for. But if you hitch a ride on this walking contradiction of a show, you might just have the time of your life.

Frankenstein, Cascade Dance Theatre at Chapter Arts Cardiff

2018 has been quite the Franken-tastic year. With conferences a-go-go and a veritable funfair of Frankenreads events, the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s game-changing masterpiece has been quite fully, and rightfully, celebrated en masse. Having studied the book in-depth for thesis-y reasons over the past four years, I’ve consumed the story in myriad mediums from the filmic, to the televisual, to the orchestral, including a gender-swapped web series and that icky Sean Bean show loosely ‘inspired by’ Victor’s dodgy dealings with the (un)dead.

So I was thrilled at the prospect of Cascade Dance Theatre* translating the tale in their latest much-lauded production. I’d seen the Royal Opera House’s lavish stab at a Franken-centric ballet on TV a couple of years ago – but found their faithfulness to the source material resulted in a less powerful whole that, while visually spectacular, was ultimately undermined by the rushed, soap opera-esque ending. How, then, would Cascade fare with six performers, two musicians, and a single simple set?

Beautifully, as it turns out. Artistic Director Phil Williams (winner of Wales’ Best Male Dance Artist Award at the Wales Theatre Awards 2017) has carefully assembled an excellent adaptation that is small in scale but large in style and ambition, fulfilling the heart of Shelley’s tale in creative new ways. The ensemble is excellent across the board, with Stuart Waters as a suitably haughty, believably tormented Victor, and Jordi Calpe Serrats in an endlessly vibrant and deeply sympathetic turn as the creature. Their connection is compellingly ambiguous: there is no directly analogous relationship to theirs, meaning that Victor is in turns the creature’s God, father, masculine ideal, romantic interest and romantic rival. Their bond could have set a positive precedent for humanity; but their mutual violence to one another and people close to them renders them variously perpetrator and victim to the other until their battle concludes in bloodily Biblical fashion.

Although Frankenstein was written by a woman, and especially one with such a famous feminist mother, there is a curious dearth of female characters in the text that are afforded the same active roles and complexity as their male counterparts, being mostly passive recipients of male violence. It’s a lovely reversal, then, that the women of Cascade’s Frankenstein are the absolute highlight of an already-stellar production. Caldonia Walton shines particularly brightly as Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s far-superior fiancée; Walton imbues kindness, strength and a genuine warmth of character to what is often a thankless role, and lights up the stage whenever she graces it. And the tremendous trio of Anna Cabré-Verdiell, Desi Bonato and Luca Dora Bakos steal the show entirely – case in point…

…We open on a truly haunting image: the creature, encased in chrysalis-like bindings, being meticulously inspected by a trio of women whose white strobes cast the only light in a sea of darkness. At first, they seem like explorers; archaeologists hungrily inspecting the excavated remains of an ancient burial site. But as the drama unfolds, the trio’s more otherworldly nature is revealed; they seem at times to be angelic guardians, at others mischevious sprites, even mythological beings like the Graeae, the three sisters of Fate from Greek mythology, and their spiritual descendants in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Bonato, Bakos and Cabré-Verdiell (who doubles as the female creature) not only dance superbly, but inhabit multiple roles with ease and panache, and I felt at times that they acted as Mary Shelley’s muses, helping her to tell her story two hundred years later on that appropriately dreary night of November 2018.

The sumptuous performances are complemented and enhanced by the rest of the production’s creative endeavours, not least Hristo Takov’s atmospheric lighting, and Paul Shriek’s spectacular set and wardrobe design. The set is evocatively uneven, making the most out of jagged inclines and the morgue-like slab on which the creature is brought to life, and on which Victor ends as his creature started; the costumes are artfully-tattered and ethereally expressive with shades of Vivienne Westwood. All of which is tied up in a gorgeously Gothic bow by Jak Poore and Ben Parsons’ eerily emotive score, composed and performed live by the two on stage like Romanticism’s answer to Daft Punk.

There are scenes in this production so haunting and beautiful that I will never forget them, and are well worth the price of admission alone – you won’t believe how they perform the sending of a letter, but it’s an unexpected delight. The programme promised a more creature-centric narrative, and they definitely delivered – one scene follows his flight from a macabrely-masked mob who taunt and beat him. You totally feel the creature’s pain and the endless cycle of fear, frustration and rejection from which there seems to be no way out. And I’m not sure Mary Shelley would have envisioned her creature bumping & grinding at an Eyes Wide Shut-inspired rave, but Cascade makes it work (plus I think the rebellious Mary would have approved): a masked group writhe and worship at the monolithic neon altar of SHELLEY’S BAR, escalating in impressively incendiary fashion. And the dance between the two creatures, one living and one lifeless, was utterly breath-taking: Serrats and Cabré-Verdiell transform what could have been a deeply awkward encounter into the show’s emotional apex.

Not everything lands; having affectingly conveyed the creature’s birth, rejection, and loneliness without the need for words, it was jarring for Victor to suddenly start monologuing the ‘dreary night of November’ speech when we had literally just seen it happen before our eyes. The creative team should have had more faith in its superbly talented cast to convey the story through performance alone. If there had to be words at all, it would have been infinitely more effective if they were more sparingly used – though the creature’s first word being ‘father’ was an effective moment, Victor’s sporadic speechifying was not. And though Elizabeth’s letters were nicely presented, I still find the exposition a little clunky in an otherwise elegant retelling.

It was on a dreary night of November that the creature beheld the accomplishment of his toils; standing before the same slab on which he was birthed, on which now rests the bodies of his victims. He wraps them in the bindings that once imprisoned him, and retreats across the stage into darkness once more, all the while unfurling that umbilical cord-like tether, his last tie to humanity. It’s a fittingly melancholic end to a stunning production that I cannot recommend highly enough. Whether you’re a Frankenstein fanatic like myself, or if you have the most passing familiarity with the text, you’re sure to find Cascade’s adaptation wonderfully rewarding. It’s been touring around Wales since 1st November, but you should definitely catch one of the last two performances of this remarkable show either tonight or tomorrow (30th Nov/ 1st Dec) at Chapter Arts: https://www.chapter.org/frankenstein, http://www.cascadedancetheatre.co.uk/

 

*In co-production with Taliesin Arts Centre; supported by the Arts Council of Wales, Welsh Government and the National Lottery, with additional support from Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Ty Cerdd and Creu Cymru.

Rock of Ages, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Direct from the West End, this Broadway smash-hit jukebox musical, featuring 80s’ glam rock classics from Whitesnake to Journey, transformed a rainy evening in Cardiff into a hot summer night on the Sunset Strip – and had everyone on their feet and singing their hearts out by the final curtain.

A quick proviso: I came to this production as a fan of the show; this will have been the third time I’ve seen it (fourth if you count the movie adaptation), and it holds a special place in my heart, being the first show I saw with one of my best friends in our undergrad days. Suffice to say I went to this production with my rose-tinted glasses firmly in place – though it also made me slightly predisposed to be critical of a musical I hold so dear.

So I’m happy to report that I adored this production! I forgot everything that was troubling me in the real world and just basked in its frenetic charm for two and a bit hours. Joyfully directed and choreographed by Nick Winston, the show is a funny, sexy nostalgia-fest featuring the rampantly rowdy riffs of The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and Cum On Feel the Noize to name but a few. I’m not always a fan of jukebox musicals, but Rock of Ages employs the right songs in the right places to tell an intentionally conventional story in a new, entertaining and outlandish way – and with a soundtrack that good, you can’t help singing along.

The ensemble is excellent across the board, with high quality singing and dancing and a real sense of fun from start to finish. Small-town girl Sherrie (Danielle Hope) and city boy Drew (Luke Walsh) make for a lovely central duo with great chemistry and amazing voices, who have their moments both as a couple (the epically melancholic High Enough) and individually – Hope performs an excellent, edgy rendition of Harden My Heart, and Walsh brings bravado and lovable naivete to a cracking version of I Wanna Rock. And Adam Strong, Sinead Kenny and Bobby Windebank turn what could have been throwaway characters into standout supporting roles.

But Lonny is the lynchpin of the show, the naughty narrator who guides us gleefully through the increasingly raucous debauchery. If Lonny doesn’t work, neither does the show – and the character’s passivity in the 2012 film version was one of the many reasons that adaptation failed. Luckily, Lucas Rush is the absolute highlight of this tour: a hilarious punk-rock Puck who runs away with every scene he’s in – the second act suffers primarily because he’s not in it much. Channelling Sam Rockwell and Starkid’s Brian Holden – complete with John Oates hair – Rush brings Prince-like pizzazz to the proceedings and steals laughs, applause and our hearts as the show’s mischievously metatextual master of ceremonies.

His common-law business partner Dennis Dupree is gamely played by Kevin Kennedy, suitably shambolic as the avuncular guardian of rock who runs the paradisiacal Bourbon Room. Vas Constanti pitches his delightfully OTT German businessman Hertz Kunemann somewhere between Young Frankenstein’s Inspector Kemp and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Baron Bomburst, and Andrew Carthy portrays his son Franz as a kind of Bavarian Pee-Wee Herman.

Glamorous and gregarious, Zoe Birkett keenly plays the sharp, more sinister edges of Justice Charlier while also making her a sympathetic, entertaining and simply sublime stage presence. She owns the stage with every note she sings, bringing epic gravitas and impressive pipes to Shadows of the Night and Any Way You Want It.

Easily the most knowingly grotesque version of the character, Sam Ferriday’s Stacee Jaxx is the Nosferatu of the Sunset Strip: creepy, predatory and unsympathetic, he makes for an effective antagonist and a compelling caricature of 80s narcissistic stardom, giving entertainingly offbeat renditions of Wanted Dead or Alive and I Want To Know What Love Is. This is ain’t Tom Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx, redeemed rocker and eventual family man – Ferriday’s Stacee might just make out with you and off with your soul.

This is a gloriously inclusive show, where everyone is celebrated and teased in equal measure – but sadly they shy away from giving the only queer couple their deserved romantic dues. Yes, Lonny and Dennis still manage to bring the house down with Can’t Fight This Feeling (complete with a spritely, balletic body double for Dennis), but the number didn’t quite reach the (comedic or romantic) heights of other productions for me personally.

The 80s are a comforting time, near-mythic in their modern-day romanticisation. It’s comforting to look back at that era of hyperbole with a knowing grin, giggling at the outlandish outfits and big hair and the songs with choruses that can never die. Rock of Ages isn’t afraid to stoop too low for a joke, and not all of them land – it’s an 80s-set show, so hardly a bastion of wokeness – but it ribs itself in this regard with a knowing comment, wink or nudge to the audience. That said, the German caricatures are a bit uncomfortable at times, and sometimes the show basks in the stereotypes of its era a little too indulgently – and it wouldn’t hurt to have a more diverse cast.

Given that the last Rock of Ages-related property I saw was the disastrous movie adaptation, it felt like coming home to see it reign onstage once again. The film totally missed the point of the show: as musical!Lonny says towards the coda, ‘the dreams you come in with might not be the ones you leave with – but they still rock’. In the movie, everyone got a happy Hollywood ending with recording contracts and stadium tours a-go-go; but the message of the stage show is that the truly fulfilling dream is not to pursue the superficial adoration of celebrity, but to find someone who gets you, accepts you, and loves you for you. Justice Charlier’s dreams had to be snuffed out so she could survive in a cutthroat world, and Stacee Jaxx may well have started out as a wide-eyed innocent like Drew before notoriety corrupted him absolutely. Fame is hollow – your friends and family are the best fans you could ever wish for.

The full power of the assembled ensemble is left in no doubts after a powerful performance of act one-closer and show calling card Here I Go Again, and an affecting version of Every Rose Has Its Thorn. And If you aren’t energised and inspired by the incredible, deservedly iconic Don’t Stop Believin’ finale, then you’ve either never had a dream or you ain’t got a pulse. Raucously raunchy and joyfully uncompromising, Rock of Ages is energetic escapism of the highest calibre that you should absolutely see at the New Theatre this week – just maybe don’t watch it with your mum…

The Messiah, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

It’s nigh-impossible to read the title of the newest play by The 39 Steps scribe Patrick Barlow without calling to mind that most iconic of Monty Python one liners – and Life of Brian is definitely an influence on this comedy about a hapless theatre troupe putting on a shambolic production of the greatest story ever told. Whilst it doesn’t reach the comedic heights of Cleese & co. arguing about what the Romans ever did for us, it manages to be a triffic trip through theatre tropes nonetheless.

Hugh Dennis is entertainingly harried and haranguing as Maurice Rose, an actor admirably fighting to stage his dream production despite diminishing resources and will to live. Although the play constrains Dennis’ natural flair for improvisation by trapping him in a rather fruitless ‘straight man’ role, he gamely leads the increasingly (and intentionally) chaotic performance of the Nativity story with deadpan wit and a sort of hangdog brio that grounds the action even as the humour gets curiouser and curiouser.

John Marquez as Ronald Bream is a revelation; he gives a 5-star performance in a play that desperately needs but doesn’t quite deserve him. Part Charlie Chaplin, part Michael Crawford, with a bit of ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Officer Crabtree thrown in for good measure, Marquez owns the stage in every word, gesture and intonation. His delivery alone makes a so-so line sensational, and there was very little he did which didn’t result in hysterics from the audience – his lovably oblivious mispronunciation of words in particular had us all in stitches. But the crowning glory of his performance is a Terry Jones-esque rendition of Mary, and his bickering with Dennis’ somewhat browbeaten Joseph is worth the price of admission alone.

Lesley Garrett rounds out the trio as diva Leonora Fflyte aka Mrs F, bringing glitz, glamour and a truly beautiful voice – but is ultimately wasted in a thankless, tangential role. Although she performs stunning renditions of Silent Night and In the Bleak Midwinter, her character adds nothing to the plot in a play which could have easily been a two-hander. Given the purposefully scrappy nature of the comedy, it would have worked better with the theme if Lesley Garrett played an opera singer who couldn’t sing (after all, it takes an excellent musician to portray a bad one – as Les Dawson proved some years ago). And it would have been more interesting if Mrs F was Maurice’s much-discussed ex, making their professional dynamic fraught with interpersonal tension.

The play is consistently entertaining – when it’s funny, it’s hilarious; but when it’s not, it really shows – and there are a few standout scenes which elevated the action: an atmospheric recreation of the Three Wise Men following the star had an otherworldly magic to it, and their subsequent flight from Herod had a sense of genuine urgency and thrill to it. This was especially noticeable in a play which had little drive throughout, and a perceptible lull in the second act – though they made up for it with a hilarious re-enactment of Jesus’ birth involving a lengthy Call the Midwife homage.

And the set is absolutely gorgeous: a dilapidated circle of Ancient Roman columns rotates dramatically when the drama requires, framed by a luxurious lapis lazuli curtain decorated to look like the starry night sky.  The title ‘THE MESSIAH’, picked out in gold on a blood red cloth, is held aloft by two medieval angels that look as if they’d been airlifted straight out of The Book of Hours. And the ambience is aided by some neat lighting and smoke effects, plus a cool little light-up Bethlehem (complete with stable) and a rather grand heavenly star (the celestial kind) that swings in imperiously when needed. I’m not usually a fan of piped music in theatre productions, but this is one of the few exceptions: they chose absolutely brilliant scores that underlined and enhanced the emotions in any scene, from the Ben Hur/ The Ten Commandments-style epic orchestral numbers, to the excellent use of Wojciech Kilar’s sumptuous score from Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

Although the play sells itself on its comedically haphazard tone, there were some odd things about the production that made me question its intentions. The doors didn’t even open until about 5 minutes before the curtain was due to rise, and even when everyone was settled in the auditorium, the play still started late. Instead of making up time after Act 1, the interval also ran over, making us wait to see a second act which ultimately felt overlong in execution. The fair bit of audience participation (which I object to on principle) is all in good fun as long as you’re not in an aisle seat – though attempts to recreate an ‘I do believe in fairies’ moment and pass the farce off as a ‘spiritual discovery’ feel forced.

And finally… there’s a truly great play hiding within this; cut the interval and the superfluous stuff and make it one single act played straight through (which was a great move in Mischief Movie Night), make it a two-hander or develop Lesley’s character and give her more to do. As presented, it’s a production with a bit of an identity crisis, with little clarity as to what it wanted to be or say. Murder for Two and The 39 Steps deconstructed theatre in clever, inventive ways, but in this it feels as if the theatre symbolically (and occasionally literally) is falling down around them. It’s not the Messiah, it’s a very messy play.

Lord of the Flies, Sherman Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Theatr Clwyd/ Sherman Theatre’s bold restaging of William Golding’s timelessly-relevant novel follows an all-female main cast as they delve into the heart of darkness within us all. Marooned on an island after their plane crashes and their guardians perish, a group of schoolchildren in an ambiguously modernish wartime era band together to form their own society in a world that promises freedom and danger in equal measure.

I must confess to only a passing familiarity with the original text; it was something I read during my angsty teenage years and promptly forgot in large part, except for a vague awareness of conch shells and pig heads and descents into moral turpitude. For a more informed analysis of the production as adaptation, I direct you to superb reviews by Vicky Lord and Roger Barrington; as for my experience of the play, it’s more a collection of my thoughts experiencing the story as if for the first time. And what a play it is! Masterfully directed by Emma Jordan, the story is immediate and intense, dropping us into the cacophony of beautifully distinct and dynamically-drawn characters who hold our attention and empathy just as the audience holds its breath right up to the final moment.

Lola Adaja’s fantastic, multi-faceted performance as Ralph anchors the entire production; vibrant and assertive, Adaja brilliantly leads the excellent ensemble and believably transforms from self-assured schoolgirl to stricken survivor by the play’s close. Her fraught friendship with Gina Fillingham’s Piggy feels earnest and earned, aided by the lovely chemistry between the two. The play is of course rather dark overall – but I was surprised by how funny it was too, and though every character gets a comedic moment in which to shine, a lot of the most entertaining moments are there thanks to Fillingham and her superb comedic timing. Piggy is entertainingly bureaucratic, constantly suggesting meetings and memoranda – but she also gives the play its heart, which makes her poor treatment at the hands of her peers even more painful to witness.

One of the most compelling performances comes from Kate Lamb as Jack Merridew, who believes that the divine right of choirmasters/ prefects makes her the only and best choice to rule their new realm. Lamb is delightfully domineering and priggish as the overbearing Merridew, so authentic in her arrogance that she feels like That Person we all remember from our own school days – which makes her twisted transformation all the more powerful. Hannah Boyce’s militant, murderous Roger is genuinely scary and violently unpredictable, nicely contrasting with Lowri Hamer’s uber-innocent Percyval. Olivia Marcus’ Simon adds a welcome serene presence and a calm gravitas to the increasingly grave proceedings. Lowri and Mari Izzard are charming as trouble-making twins Sam and Eric, while Laura Singleton’s Henry and Leah Walker’s Maurice make for an absolutely hilarious double act.

Matthew Bulgo’s anonymous, officiously angry naval officer arrives at the eleventh hour; a Fortinbras-like newcomer to the brutality only the audience had yet borne witness to. Scolding the surviving children for acting in a way he ‘wouldn’t expect of British girls’, the role of moral arbiter disappointingly defaults to the only white man in the story – but we the viewers are the true judges; what he infantilises as a ‘game’ we know to be a complexly brutal social hierarchy that acts as a microcosm for our own vicious world. After all, this is a story in which war rages both across the world and within the human psyche.

Nigel Williams’ adaptation neatly balances character and narrative growth with political commentary, though that means some elements are more developed than others: the major ones being the rivalry between Ralph and Jack, and the strange bond between Ralph and Piggy. Although the remaining characters are all very believably performed, they are given little time to craft their own unique transformations. It doesn’t help that the timeline is a bit confusing, making the inevitable moral downturn feel slightly rushed; and after the macabre mic drop of Act 1’s breathless climactic moments, Act 2 seemed like a hectic sprint through the falling dominoes.

The show is a marvel of innovative design – James Perkins’ jagged, fractured staging combines with Philip Stewart’s chilling music and sound design to convey an uneasily tangible feeling of being right there on the island as the action unfolds. There are a few particularly striking moments when Tim Mascall’s sensational lighting transforms the stage into a living painting – the most astounding of which centres on the hunters, crouched with spears at the ready, silhouetted against a blood orange sky (I haven’t seen such powerful use of chiaroscuro since Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

It’s always a privilege to be invited to speak on the post-show panel, and the discussion following this show was among the most interactive and illuminating yet. Chaired by Timothy Howe, the Sherman Theatre’s Communities & Engagement Coordinator, the panel featured myself alongside the play’s Assistant Director Jesse Briton, and David Mellor, Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of South Wales. Jesse spoke about how the creative team focused on the play’s emotional turning points, in which one moment, decision or mistake changed the course of the story irrevocably. David spoke of the gendered expectations of women, highlighting the sexist media response to Serena Williams’ recent on-court behaviour. And I spoke of the play’s excellent exploration of responsibility, the fracturing of mens rea/ the guilty mind across many, and the notion that even the audience bears tacit culpability for the characters’ crimes.

When there are no formal rules to follow, no pressure from the state and no loss of personal liberty or status to act as a deterrent, what else is there to ensure enforcement of order but the threat of violence? The scene in which the group commit a ritual-esque murder whilst already hopped-up on the glory of their first animal kill is distressing and soberingly gruesome. It’s the first breach of the unspoken moral code that only opens the floodgates to more bloodshed; what role can ethics play in a society that holds such depravity as currency? Ultimately, the malleability of the conch’s power reveals that laws only carry the meaning we assign to them.

The fact that the play translates so well with an all-female main cast demonstrates the emptiness of the concept of gendered (mis)conduct. Rather than proving the inherent monstrosity of men (as one reviewer of the novel argued), this version speaks to the notion that everyone has the potential to indulge their baser instincts if the ethical frameworks of law and order are removed; that everyone is fighting the duality of light and darkness with them. But the gender-swapped casting choice also facilitates a reading of the play as a rare exploration of female criminality, and a brutal reclaiming of women’s autonomy and agency in the #MeToo era.

Lord of the Flies is an utterly unrelenting, unmissable journey into our most uncomfortable, unconscious urges. In the characters’ stead, it asks what world you would build; who, or what, would you become?

Murder for Two, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Over the years I’ve had the distinct privilege of seeing excellent theatre productions in which a pared-down cast take on multiple roles to great success: 2016’s The 39 Steps at the New Theatre Cardiff (in which 4 actors played 150 roles between them), and, one of my favourite theatre productions ever, 2009’s Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff (in which two actors masterfully inhabited every role in that particular Shakespeare play). The Watermill Theatre’s new UK tour of the Off-Broadway smash hit Murder for Two, in which two actors play thirteen characters AND the piano, now ranks among those hallowed productions in artistry, energy and pure, no holds barred brilliance.

Murder for Two reassembles the Olivier-award winning In the Heights’ producer-director double act, Paul Taylor-Mills and Luke Sheppard, in the furtherance of a cleverly comical take on the murder mystery genre – it’s like Poirot, but with songs. With such a madcap mashup of genres and a huge burden placed on its only two actors, it’s a miracle they pull off the show at all, let alone do it so well.

Ed MacArthur (left) plays Officer Marcus Moscowicz, the hapless yet hopeful would-be detective who gets embroiled in the crazy case of a famous novelist who was murdered at his own birthday party. Jeremy Legat (right) plays, well, everyone else, infusing each of the numerous suspects with their own distinct physicality and stage presence, from speech patterns to mannerisms to a creative use of props and accessories. There’s no lull in the action or the hilarious antics on display as Moscowicz desperately tries to uncover who the killer is before time runs out.

Legat is a one-man tour-de-force who commands the stage like the manic lovechild of Martin Short, Eddie Marsan and The Hoosiers’ flicky-haired frontman Irwin Sparkes. His credits in this play alone are as numerous as the characters on a Guess Who? board, and he flips through each with the ease of changing the channel on your tellybox. MacArthur plays a commendable straight man to Legat’s rollcall of affably eccentric characters; channelling the leading likability of musical contemporaries like Aaron Tveit and Santino Fontana, MacArthur grounds the madcap antics and ably conveys that put-upon charm of someone just waiting for their chance to come. The chemistry between the two is delightful, balanced and mutually supportive, and the joy they take in playing these characters is utterly infectious – talented, hilarious AND they’re excellent pianists too? The level of skill on display here is simply stunning.

The play itself is just so much fun to watch; the audience’s responsiveness alone is a testament to that fact, genially engaging with the actors’ fourth-wall breaking interactions – and I haven’t laughed this much in a non-Mischief Theatre production for quite some time. The music is also wonderful, not only entertaining to listen to, but which also proves integral in delivering plot points and character motivations. Some standouts include Protocol Says (Moscowicz’s ode to order), A Lot Woise (a Gee, Officer Krupke!-style ditty about having seen too much too young), and the show’s first act-closing magnum opus So What? which simply has to be experienced live.

Gabriella Slade’s set design is appealingly ramshackle in a suitably Sherlockian fashion, all elegantly worn furniture and exposed brick walls gradually dissipating into the ether – the perfect amount of things with which to interact, without seeming too cluttered, and every bit of which serves the story and sets the mood. The lighting (designed by Chris Withers) and sound (co-designed by Michael Livermore and Tom Attwood, the latter of whom was also responsible for musical direction) are both innovatively intertwined into the action, and highlight the emotions of any given scene with subtlety (whilst applying appropriate bombast to a scene near the end I won’t spoil, but which involves a disco ball and lots of bubbles).

This dazzlingly dynamic production will, as the tagline promises, ‘put the laughter in manslaughter’ and bring a smile to your face. Anchored by two tremendously talented leads, this exhilaratingly excellent show never lets up for a second; it’s the Deadpool of musical theatre: a magnificent meta masterpiece that plays like a love letter to theatre in the guise of a farce. It’s at the New Theatre through to Saturday 27th October, and if it’s humanly possible for you to see this show, you absolutely should (though perhaps think twice about getting an aisle seat in the stalls…)

The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The multi award-winning Mischief Theatre company, of The Play that Goes Wrong fame, returns to Cardiff with their new Olivier Award-nominated show: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Branded as Ocean’s Eleven meets the Marx Brothers, it follows the zany antics of a motley crew of would-be crooks as they attempt to steal a priceless diamond from the city bank.

Written by, but not starring, Mischief makers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields (who were last seen at the New Theatre as a Disney hero, a sadistic narrator, and an anthropomorphic Sylvester Stallone-voiced lasagne respectively), Bank Robbery is yet another winning production in Mischief Theatre’s highly-renowned repertoire.

The cast are brilliant across the board, from Liam Jeavons’ mercurial mastermind Mitch Ruscitti (channelling Nicolas Cage via Peter Serafinowicz), to Damian Lynch as the suavely slippery bank manager Robin Freeboys, and Julia Frith as his creatively cunning daughter Caprice. However, a few performers stood out among the excellent ensemble: David Coomber as the enthusiastic prison guard-turned-amateurish-crook Neil Cooper, Seán Carey as lovable con artist Sam Monaghan who becomes increasingly (and grudgingly) embroiled in the progressively perplexing con, and George Hannigan who is credited as ‘everyone else’, and impressively performs a fight scene as three different characters.

There are some absolute standout scenes here: the prison escape  (no spoilers, it’s right at the start) is hilarious and endlessly inventive, on the level of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. They manage to draw lots of laughs from the way in which the actors portray windscreen wipers, and there’s a really entertaining car chase using laundry hampers (yes, really). And if you do go (which I recommend you do), just look out for a flock of seagulls who might just be the jewel in the crown of this show.

This being a scripted show, I hold it to a higher standard than the completely-improvised Mischief Movie Night – and, as such, not everything lands. Jon Trenchard plays Warren Slax, the bank’s (Paul) Reubens-esque pariah, and is often used as the show’s whipping boy, to the point where it oversteps into upsetting territory – culminating in the scene where Freeboys hits him repeatedly with a book, a cane and a desk. The Freeboys/ three boys confusion wears out long before they give up the ghost; and some scenes, storylines and character interactions feel a little forced or on-the-nose (even for a farce). But the enthusiasm and talent of the cast more than make up for any missteps.

Even if the show wasn’t great (it is), it would be worth seeing for the innovative production design alone. David Farley’s set design is incredible, starting out with a silhouetted skyline of New York at night that effortlessly folds out into a whole slew of different settings as the play goes on. The set design works hand in hand with David Howe’s sublime lighting design, which at one point transforms a bare stage into an utterly entrancing underwater environment. And there’s an incredibly effective bit of staging where they make the back wall look like the office floor from a birds eye view, and simply has to be seen to be believed. This is the kind of magic you can only get at the theatre, and worth the price of admission alone.

Performing at the New Theatre through to 13th October, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is an absolutely unmissable night of splendidly silly fun!

Party at the Park Cardiff, 28th August 2018 by Barbara Hughes-Moore

I was lucky enough to attend Party at the Park last week, a fantastic festival which featured a superb line-up of beloved stars of the 1970s and 80s at Bute Park, Cardiff. With more fantastic musical acts than Depot 2018, and none of Burning Lantern‘s Queue-Gate drama, Party at the Park 2018 is the best festival I’ve had the pleasure of attending.

Now to the acts themselves: Big Mac’s Wholly Soul Band started off the musical line-up with a brassy bang, getting the party started with energetic renditions of Living in America, Get On Up and Proud Mary.

Next, we were treated to a vibrant set by Odyssey, a group responsible for some of those best floor-filling dance hits in living memory; of that dynamic discography, we were blessed with electric renditions of Native New Yorker, Inside Out, Don’t Tell Me Tell Her, and perhaps the most iconic of an exemplary back catalogue: Going Back to My Roots.

Next up was T’Pau (aka Carol Decker), who came on to perform such hits as her joyfully synthy bop Heart and Soul, the Frankenstein-inspired power ballad China in Your Hand, and melancholic new song Run. Carol Decker’s powerful, effortless voice has never sounded better, and she had such a wonderful, natural rapport with the audience and her fantastic backing singer/ tambourinist.

Special guest Tony Hadley, of Spandau Ballet fame, performed a brilliant set that incorporated some of his greatest hits with some lively new material, backed by a tremendously talented band. As with Carol Decker, Hadley’s stadium-sized pipes have never sounded better, belting out new hits like the James Bond-esque Take Back Everything and the nostalgia-infused Tonight Belongs to Us. But there was little that could match the nostalgic heights of Gold and True, two of Spandau’s finest songs, and the near-spiritual sound of the crowd belting out every lyrical inflection, as one.

The festival closed with headliners Al McKay’s Earth Wind & Fire Experience, reuniting the band’s past members to honour the legacy of Maurice White, the group’s co-founder and co-frontman who sadly passed away in 2016. The band who brought us Boogie Wonderland, Shining StarSeptember and more brought down the house – the quality of the live music was stunning, with every singer, dancer and musician at the very top of their game.

On a non-musical note: there were at least four bars situated onsite, and a number of street food stalls that kept the queues relatively small and fast-moving. They even had a fun fair and a VIP area; and, in addition to the tent that housed the main stage, there were two other disco tents playing piped music. These were all good additions, but they often drowned out the music from the main stage unless you were right near the front.

Party at the Park 2018 in Cardiff was a roaring success – from the sheer number of high quality acts on the billing, to the ready availability of food and drink of all sorts on offer, and the beautiful location of Bute Park – roll on next year’s festival!

At Last: The Etta James Story at St David’s Hall, Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Starring Vika Bull and the Essential R&B Band, this smash-hit Australian production tells the story of soul icon Etta James’ remarkable life and career through the incredible songs that have rightfully earned her six Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a place in history and our hearts.

This is the finest tribute to a musical legend I’ve seen since This is Elvis at the New Theatre; whereas that show dramatized it’s titular star’s two major comeback concerts in the style of a biopic, At Last: The Etta James Story punctuates an excellent narration of the singer’s tumultuous life with gems from her extraordinary musical repertoire – and it works beautifully.

Vika Bull’s effortless, extraordinary voice and charismatic performance achieves the almost unthinkable and does James justice. Along with her sumptuous vocals and charismatic narration, Bull possess that same raw gift of storytelling through song that set Etta apart, which is put to glorious effect in dazzling versions of I’d Rather Go Blind, All I Could Do Was Cry, and an absolutely staggering rendition of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World. The titular At Last, arguably the most iconic song of Etta’s spectacular career, was so powerfully performed that the audience rose to their feet before the song was even finished.

Bull is supported by an amazing band, and her rapport with every musician was such a wonderful aspect of this production. The love for music was palpable between this talented bunch, and their enjoyment of performing Etta’s songs was palpable. Musical director John McAll, musical director on piano, Chris Bekker on bass guitar, Anton Delecca on saxophone – not to mention a joyous John Watson on drums, and Dion Hirini gloriously shredding that electric guitar like the lovechild of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. Ben Gillespie on trombone also duetted with Vika Bull on a fabulous version of Wallflower (Roll with Me, Henry), and Tibor Gyapjas on trumpet also fantastically co-narrates the show with Bull as a truly dynamic master(s) of ceremonies double act.

There are too many excellent renditions to recount here, but I’m gonna give it the ol’ college try. Bull and the band perform sultry, soulful versions of I Just Want to Make Love to You, Spoonful, and Tell Mama, while Something’s Got a Hold On Me, Tough Lover and In the Basement made me want to get up and jive. And yet they approach the more sorrowful, soulful ballads with the same skill and passion, ascending to the heart-breaking heights of Sugar on the Floor, Would it Make Any Difference to You and Fool That I Am. And, if that wasn’t enough, the show closes with an emotionally epic encore performance of the Eagles’ Take it to the Limit, a song which Etta felt best described her tumultuous life.

At Last: The Etta James Story treats its eponymous icon’s songs and life story with respect, care and love – and I can only hope they return to the UK for a third time next year. Meanwhile, the show is touring around the UK through October, and if you can make it to one of these performances – whether you’re an Etta obsessive or an Etta amateur – I promise you won’t regr-etta it.