Gemma Treharne Foose

Communications/PR/Digital. Copy Writing. Valley Girl. Siarad Cymraeg. Japan fan. Roller Derby. Feminist. Cake maker. Lover of all things glittery and theatrical. Mam. Wife to an American. Views personal.

Festival of Voice 2018: My review highlights (Gemma Treharne-Foose)

2018’s Festival of Voice, produced by the Wales Millennium Centre builds on previous years’ attempts to unite communities and celebrate voice in all its forms, drawing upon Wales’ wide cultural and musical legacy. This would be my first experience of the festival and it really kicked off in style.

Over the course of a week, I’d be bowled over, discover something new and completely unexpected and leave my typical comfort zone of only watching (and reviewing) theatre. Festivals like these are a smorgasbord of new opportunities to learn something new and develop your palate for new art forms and genres of music.

We were introduced to the opening of the festival from the centre’s Artistic Director and team, before being joined by community and advocacy groups – true to the centre’s vision to be inclusive and accessible, but I did wonder how ‘accessible’ it really is that unless you are familiar with the set-up and already know that you can verify your ticket – the £8 parking ticket cost to park in the nearest car park and see a WMC show would be pretty inaccessible to most carers and people on PIPs and other benefits.

I also need to point out the ridiculous set-up of the toilets in the centre. There are disabled toilets, sure – but the two sets of heavy doors, teeny-weeny area to dry your hands and the smallest bins I’ve ever seen in my life are deeply irritating.

But I digress….enough of the nit-picking and on to the main event…

CARERS CHOIR, GIG BUDDIES AND BILLY BRAG, WMC

Underappreciated, underpaid and perhaps an unlikely group of people to assemble as a choir, the festival was opened by a multi-generational group of carers, who sang with real spirit and heart. Knowing the obstacles and challenges they face in their day-to-day lives, their positivity shone through and the audience were visibly moved by their version of ‘What a wonderful world’ and ‘Lean on me’.

After rapturous applause, it was time for the Gig Buddy crew to crash into the foyer, clutching signs, banging drums and stamping their feet. They had formed a group to protest the fact that the support they receive does not take into account the fact that they too want to access music and arts performances – and these of course fall outside the typical office hours of supporters and carers. In association with Learning Disability Wales and Hijinx Theatre Company, the protesters delivered a skit about the fact that for most people – not being able to go to gigs, movies and performances like everybody else is not only unfair but naturally they’re quite rightly pissed off about it.

This was a brilliant opportunity to showcase the ‘Gig Buddies’ initiative where volunteers are matched (via their interests) to people with additional learning needs and various disabilities who need a little extra support to access gigs and shows. Bloody brilliant idea and I’m hoping to sign up myself.

The main event for the opening of the festival was ‘Topical singer songwriter’ Billy Brag (he doesn’t like to call himself a political performer in case it puts people off!). I knew the name Billy Brag but barely any of his actual material. This would be a new experience, not least for discovering the awesomeness that was supporting artist Nadine Shah, a Tyneside lass whose basy, punky songs are accompanied by soulful vocals.

Her edgy songs draw upon current affairs, world injustices and the hurt and heartbreak of modern life. Performing songs from her 2017 album ‘Holiday Destination’, she gave a fierce and raw performance. The song Holiday Destination and its refrain ‘How you gonna sleep tonight’ is a polemical nudge and critique on the holidaymakers in Kos who complained of refugees on the island ruining their holidays.

Shah tells the crowd “We need immigration – we make food taste better, we make the place look better and we make music sound better, too!”.

Shah’s heritage is Norwegian-Pakistani, and her Northern accent and humour shines through in her work. Billy Brag is – just like Nadine Shah, a storyteller. In between his songs, he delights the audience with his insights, his banter and his stinging observations about what’s going on in the world. He is unapologetic about his views, honest about his flaws and endlessly witty about politics in general.

He skewers Trump in the finale song based upon Bob Dylan’s ‘Times they are a changin’, which was changed to ‘Times they are a changing-BACK’). He tells the audience he wrote the song in a rage in 2016 when Trump was elected. His stories and rambles include the fact that he was schooled the last time he was in Cardiff for using a plastic bottle on stage at the Tramshed. “I’m sorry…I learned from my mistake. The oceans are full of plastic and shit, we need to do something about it.” Since then he’s used a ‘Gig Buddy’ aluminium bottle.

Of the grumpy artist Morrissey, he tells us “What is happening? He’s turned into a bloody gammon!”. Brag’s songs are clever and his set is largely improvised. He plays a song after an audience member shouts out a suggestion – and his final song is the famous classic ‘A New England’.

The entire audience shouts back the lyrics and it’s electrifying. I couldn’t believe I haven’t been following this chap’s career. Where the hell have I been the last 37 years? He has a new fan in the Rhondda, that’s for sure. The opening acts in the foyer and the main concert in the Donald Gordon theatre were rebellious in spirit and sound.

LOVECRAFT (NOT THE SEX SHOP IN CARDIFF), WMC (Ffresh bar)

I don’t know where Carys Eleri has been hiding out but we all need to see more of her. I didn’t know what the show ‘Lovecraft’ was going to be about – something to with science and love, I gleaned from the flyer. But it’s so much better than the event write-up promises.

I can’t praise the producers and director of this show enough for their vision. As sets go, it’s pretty low-tech, a cabaret-style set up within Ffresh bar serves as the set and Carys is accompanied by two screens which form a kind of visual aid and powerpoint for this hilarious one-woman show. The production is a romp through the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of love. What’s the ‘science’ behind love and sex? You’ll get to find out – via Carys’ brilliant stories.

It’s outrageously honest… and completely mental. This show will especially appeal to any women in their thirties who feel the pressure and expectation that society thrusts (‘scuse the pun) upon them.

At times, this feels like you are catching up with one of your girlfriends from Carmarthen who is every bit as outrageous and filthy as you are – and you’ll love her for it. The science narrative is informative, but not the main point of the show. You’ll be drawn in to her off the wall stories, brilliant observations about her Mam (“Carys…can’t you put on a bra..?”) and the dirty and embarrassing secrets we might all experience growing up – ‘fanny gallops’, hallucinogenic trips in the back of a taxi being driven by a unicorn and waking up naked next to another girl. We’ve all been there, right?

The song ‘Tit Montage’ is the highlight of the show, perhaps of the entire festival – and in my opinion would be a credible entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.

The song ‘I brain you’ is pee-your-pants hilarious. If Carys Eleri was running for Prime Minister, I’d probably vote for her. I BEG you to see this show – its been to Edinburgh Fringe already and has attracted a steady stream of adoration from audiences at the Festival of Voice.

There is so much life left in this show – and I hope it tours again (I will be sure to gather as many of my filthy friends as I can to share the experience with). My only negative points are that I could have happily sat through another hour of it before it finished and I now want Carys Eleri to be my best friend/drinking companion even though she has no idea who the hell I am.

RHONDDA RIPS IT UP (WNO), New Theatre

After a somewhat lukewarm experience at my last opera, I wasn’t sure if I was an ‘opera person’. But anyone following the #MeToo movement, who calls themself a feminist or admires the women who took part in the recent ‘Procession’ in Cardiff to mark a hundred years since women obtained the right to vote REALLY shouldn’t miss out on this show.

Led by Emcee Lesley Garrett, this is a look back at the stuffy Victorian era and the legendary Margaret Haig (Lady Rhondda) – a politician’s daughter and activist who led the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The indomitable Margaret Haig was an outspoken radical who along with other women, was judged and ridiculed by the Asquith’s liberal government for her efforts.

Played by Madeline Shaw, Lady Rhondda is a fearless campaigner. Along with her friends Edith and Prid (played by Paula Greenwood and Meriel Andrew), the production satirises the ‘old boy network’ of both the government and society at the time and pokes fun at the uptight/prissy way in which women were expected to behave.

I had no idea opera could be this edgy or this level of hilarious. Everything from the choreography, the physical comedy of Garrett and other cast members, the originality of the songs and cheeky/camp way they are delivered is a treat for the audience.

The stand out scenes are the songs ‘My girl’s pussy’ (yes, really!) and the song about the fondant fancies, complete with all the flair and foppishness of the Edwardian music hall tradition. This is Women’s Institute crossed with #MeToo.

There are also guest appearances from the WNO community chorus (who deliver a rousing performance as fellow suffragettes) and a nod to Haig and Helen Archdale’s gay relationship, demonstrating the extent to which Lady Rhondda tore up the rule book and challenged convention, albeit discreetly. There is a telling scene in the show when Margaret Haig and her friend are on the train (with their bomb-making materials) and they overhear a man saying “Suffragettes! If that was my wife, I’d give her a darn good thrashing!”.

Queue a hilariously camp sequence with a bunch of ‘men’ thrashing each other’s behinds with rolled up newspapers in a homo-erotic fashion. Nowadays we’d call this toxic masculinity at its worst – back then, those kinds of attitudes were de rigueur.

I am no opera buff, but WNO have delivered a phenomenal tribute to Lady Rhondda and her contribution as a suffragette and business pioneer.

It was sensitive without being syrupy and witty without being cruel. Not everyone will get the satire, apparently – one audience member overheard in the loo commented she didn’t understand why ‘men were being made fun of’ and that she preferred the WNO community chorus to the production itself. For me, the main feeling I got was one of immense gratitude – that so many women like Haig faced violence, imprisonment and the scorn of society and for their dogged determination to change history for the better.

Their first victory was not a resounding success, the first bill allowing women to vote was only for women over 30 with property. There was plenty more to fight for – and with world events and pussy-grabbing presidents reminding us daily, some might say the battle is far from over. But as the legendary suffragette Emily Pankhurst once said:

“Never surrender….never give up the fight.”

GWENNO, WMC (Weston Studio)

A former member of indie band The Pipettes, Gwenno has already amassed a strong critical following and fanbase after the release of album Un Dydd Olaf in 2015 and Cornish language ‘Le Kov’ in 2018. Her dedication and tribute to Edrica Hughes at the Festival of Voice was a moving tribute to the poet and patchwork quilt artist Edrica Huws (1907-1999).

There was a packed house in the Weston Studio for the one-off performance, entirely created and composed by Gwenno, but this time with the support of a violinist and harpist (Angharad Davies and Georgia Ruth). The stage was dressed like a set – a lived-in parlour with an old-fashioned crib, a fireplace and the markers of domesticity from a time gone by.

At the foot of the large screen above the stage stood Gwenno’s mixing decks and computer, flanked by a triple harp and wooden toys – the musical set and hi-tec equipment is a curious accompaniment to the ironing board, clothes horse and lamp on stage, denoting the ordinary, humble life of Edrica. On the screen we saw vignettes of slices of history sketched and animated on the screen, accompanying the synthy electric-pop landscape being played and mixed live in front of us.

We saw suffragettes marching in 1907, weaving in and out of the war, a grimy London landscape of the humdrum existence of everyday life, love, relationships and duty stitched together with the dreamy melodies and an almost hallucinogenic quality to the music. I hadn’t known about Edrica’s work or story before. An ordinary wife and mother, she didn’t start expressing herself artistically until age 51.

She became a ‘patchwork pioneer’, breaking the rules and conventions of art and design in terms of subject, material, tone and texture to become a celebrated exhibitor and artist/poet around the world.

Animated by Tad Davies, the on-screen vignettes to not distract so much as heighten the experience for the audience and Gwenno’s gentle vocals, the poppy disco beats, baseline and meandering harp and violin are a thing of beauty.

Gwenno’s soundscape is punctuated by poetic whisperings, especially poignant and beautiful during ‘Anrhefn Pentyndod / The chaos of childhood’ and kooky and marvellous when she donned a cat mask for ‘Y Gath’ / The Cat in tribute to Edrica’s ‘Cat on an ironing board’ piece.

She is not a wild or attention-seeking performer in the sense of other unique artists (like Bjork for example) but she is completely enigmatic – a quiet genius in many senses. She creates riffs and spacey echoes using props – one song loops the sounds made by wooden toys and they are overlaid with a base-heavy disco beat.

It is weird and wonderful and strangely soothing. Edrica is a feast for the senses, the thinking person’s mind disco – and you’ll be richer for having witnessed it.

In between each song, the audience is almost deathly silent for a few seconds – not because the show is bad (because it was clearly bloody brilliant) but because they know they had witnessed something magical and weren’t sure what the rules were. Should we get up and dance? Applaud wildly? Edrica Huws broke the rules during her lifetime and Gwenno is doing the same.

5 stars 

Type of show: Music / Theatre / Opera / Performance Art / Poetry

Title: Festival of Voice Venue: Multiple Locations

Dates: 7-17 June

Produced by: Wales Millennium Centre (and partners)

Author: Gemma Treharne-Foose

REVIEW: ‘SON OF A PREACHER MAN’ BY GEMMA TREHARNE-FOOSE

(3 / 5)

It helps when you see a show if you take along someone who actually remembers the era the show was set in. When I saw ‘Sunny Afternoon’ at the Wales Millennium Centre, my theatre companion (who happens to be my Mum) remembered the energy and the buzz of the musical revolution of the 60s.

Through them, you get to imagine what it was like – they are the ‘litmus paper’ for the legitimacy and authenticity of the storyline, the music, the fashion and the dancing. Sunny Afternoon captured the wonder, the outrage and the rebellion of the era – and even if you have no direct experience of it, you admired it and felt part of it. It was beautifully done without overly relying on nostalgia and famous songs. Although I didn’t know anything about Dusty’s life, I knew many of her songs through my mother and was hoping for a feel-good good show which would bring her original material to life – perhaps even a sense of nostalgia for my own childhood, where I spent many happy hours dancing in the kitchen and living room to my mother’s vinyl records.

Son of a Preacher man is clearly written to cater to the boomers and the sense of nostalgia they feel about their teens. The British public clearly still have a sense of loyalty and affection towards Dusty Springfield, whose memorable songs were the soundtrack to their youth.

My mother recalls seeing Dusty Springfield perform in Cardiff during her teens. In a nod to the rivalry (real or imagined) between Dusty and Sandy Shaw, Dusty came on stage wearing massive comedy feet – taking a pop at Sandy’s reputation for singing on stage while barefoot. Perhaps this is testament to Dusty’s rebellious spirit and humour. I hadn’t known until my Mother relayed it to me in the interval but Dusty’s real life was marred by a set of tragic and difficult events, from her early childhood in a children’s home run by Catholic nuns, to being in the closet then losing her eyesight at an early age.

The production doesn’t really pick up much on Dusty’s legacy or life story – this is a show punctuated by her musical repertoire plus a few additional tracks from the era. This production looks back wistfully at a more innocent time – spent in Saturdays in record shops, dancing, and dating.

The three central characters all have a connection with the ‘Preacher Man’s’ record shop. Somehow they all end up going back to find him – and find their histories and collective futures become intertwined. We blend in an out of the 60s back to present day, through the youngest character Kat (played by Alice Barlow), Michelle Gayle’s character Alison and Paul – who on the night I attended was played by Gary Mitchinson.

Audiences will surely remember Michelle Gayle, best known for playing ‘Hattie’ in Eastenders and releasing a number of hits in the 90s including ‘Sweetness’. Her role as Alison is a little awkward at times – she doesn’t really suit the character she plays.

Hats off though to two of the show’s stand out stars – the incredible Alice Barlow who played Kat – her vocals were incredible and she is magnetic on stage. Also, the charismatic Nigel Richards who plays Simon (The Son of a Preacher Man) had a beautiful baritone voice and great comic delivery.

It was easy to forgive some of the cliches of the script when Alice Barlow was performing. It’s a credit to the cast that they were able to rescue the credibility of the show with their fabulous ensemble performances and blended vocals. Michelle Gayle is far too fabulous for the role of Alison – but her vocal performance is still hitting the spot years after ‘Sweetness’ was released and she is an accomplished singer and dancer.

The jury is still out on how well the show straddles both the 60s flashbacks and present-day vignettes. We get scenes talking about Tinder interjected with a cheeseball 60s routine with an unhealthy dose of Dad-dancing. So much Dad-dancing! But perhaps I wasn’t the right demographic for this show. When I whispered to my Mum ‘Look at that Dad dancing!’ she said ‘That what it was like – it WAS hammy and cheesy.’

Perhaps best known for his attachment to the show as Director with a musical staging credit is Strictly Come Dancing’s outrageous judge Craig Revel Horwood. His flamboyant touches are evident throughout – and don’t always land in the way they are perhaps intended – the ‘Cappucino Sisters’ deviate between 60s dancing and the occasional twerk, bump and grind.

I’m going to be frank. The story was a little…underwhelming. A teacher falling in love with a teenage boy, a teenager falling in love with someone she saw on Tinder and a man who is still in love with a guy he danced with a few times in the 60s. It was weak and was held up (just about) from the talent of this great cast and fabulous on-stage musicians. For me (and I speak as a lover of the poptastic and the cheesetastic), I found certain elements a little cringeworthy. The show was overly wistful, the opening scenes with the smoke and the ‘I remember it…. I remember it….I STILL remember it…’ were overdone and made me fear for what was ahead.

Was it just me?

Apparently not, according to the criticisms I heard in the queue in the lady’s loo during the interval. You know you’re in trouble as a theatre producer when you hear a lady say to her friends “The music is brilliant, but the story! It’s like pulling teeth” and everyone else in the queue laughs and agrees.

Theatre producers should be made to listen to reviews of their shows in ladies loos – they could learn a thing or two and perhaps even improve it before they tour with it.

Musical theatre isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some complain that songs are shoehorned in, there are too many ‘filler songs’ and some even dread the moment an actor starts singing. With this production, I found myself hoping they would hurry up and get to the song. It’s hard not to enjoy the music and it’s done really well – it’s the saving grace of the production. But It’s such a shame the show didn’t quite hit the mark. It just doesn’t quite match up to the true legacy of Dusty Springfield – and she deserved better.

If you’re a die-hard Dusty fan, you need to take the show with a pinch of salt and keep a (very) open mind. If you go – go along for the ride, have a few glasses of vino and enjoy the music. The story is a bit of a stinking bishop, but who doesn’t love and look forward to a slice of cheddar or a Dairylea triangle now and again?

Son of a Preacher man is currently on tour and will play in Venue Cymru in Llandudno on May 29th-June 2nd. The production will then visit King’s Lynn Corn Exchange in Norfolk, Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, Orchard Theatre in Dartford and Empire Theatre in Liverpool.

Review, Awful Auntie, Gemma Treharne-Foose

 

(3 / 5)

Mini fans of Walliams will love this show brought to you by Birmingham Stage Company and there are plenty of the tried and tested ingredients of ‘children’s theatre’ that have become the staple: farts, tricks, screams, talking about pees and poos and generally making adults look a bit silly (of course!). It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you either have the stomach for David Walliams or you don’t.

Walliams – and Director/adapter Neal Foster borrow from the familiar narratives of Dahl. At the centre of each story is the child protagonist who fights against and overcomes the unfairness of life and its complicated and often cruel characters.

Teachers, headmasters or even your own family members can be funny, but they often despise children and treat them terribly. So it’s all the more glorious when these beastly brutes get their comeuppance…

For those unfamiliar with the story of Awful Aunt, Stella (Lady Saxby) wakes up from a coma to find herself covered in bandages. She’s told she’s been in a coma for three months. When she enquires with her Aunt Alberta about her parents, she tells Stella they were killed in a car accident.

Alberta is desperate to find the deeds to Saxby Hall so she can become the new heiress to the family fortune. But it turns out there is more to the story than a crashed Rolls Royce. With the help of ‘Soot’, the ghost-boy at Saxby hall, Stella uncovers a disturbing truth – and tries desperately to stop Aunt Alberta turning her beloved Saxby Hall in to a tacky Owl Museum.

Awful Auntie brings to life the mischievousness of Walliams’ book and there are some sweet scenes between Stella and Soot. The two eventually discover they have more in common than they initially realise (but no spoilers!).

The epicentre of the whole production and plot line is orchestrated and led by Leonidas. Her unshakable energy, childlike innocence and optimism never falters – and she carries the hopes and wishes of the audience with her as she struggles to escape from the clutches of her dreadful Aunt.

Alberta really is awful, too – so awful that she fought with the Germans in the Second World War because ‘the uniform was better’.

Aunt Alberta’s voice and physicality is expertly depicted by Timothy Speyer. He’s like a cross between The Two Fat Ladies and Cruella De Vil and his plummy tones, tweed ensemble and battle-axe physicality are spot-on.

Gibbon’s confuddled turn as aging Butler (played by Richard James) tickled us pink. To paraphrase Soot (the cockney chimney sweep ghost) – he hasn’t got a Scooby Doo what’s going on, but you’ll chuckle watching him.

Set-wise, there’s a great use of twisting towers to depict different scenes and settings and the towers are eerily brought to life with clever use of lighting by Jason Taylor and Jaqueline Trousdale. What’s striking is the use of puppetry throughout the show – particularly for central character Wagner the Bavarian Owl, puppetted by Roberta Bellekom. The design of Wagner was great, but it’s difficult to replicate on stage the character of Wagner in the book who was by far more dastardly and devious.

The staging and changing of locations was good, notable scenes include the car on the ice at Saxby Hall and ghostly goings on in the kitchen. Soot (played by Ashley Cousins) gives a sweet portrayal of the ghostly chimney sweep, reminding you somewhat of Lee Evans/Norman Wisdom and together, he and Stella complement each other well.

The final scene before the interval finishes very abruptly and falls a little flat, the lights come up before you realise what’s going on. The script could have made more an effort to leave you hanging for the second half.

The actors do a stellar job of portraying the characters – and although my daughter and I liked the production, it won’t pack the same level of punch, sass and cleverness that you might find at a Tim Minchin production of Matilda, for example. For me, the script for the stage production made it harder to engage with and keep you on your toes.

That being said, this is a great little show – and I’d definitely recommend it for a day/night out with the kids.

REVIEW: ‘SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES’ BY GEMMA TREHARNE-FOOSE

(4 / 5)

The New Theatre is billed as a top draw for Panto loving families and it was my first time to see what the New Theatre had to offer. I’ve been a Muni/Park and Dare Panto regular since a child and was used to a pretty raucous affair thanks to the likes of Frank Vickery, and his delightfully outrageous teasing and bitchy banter.

So despite being caught in an almighty downpour on the way to the New Theatre, my expectations were mixed for Cardiff’s premier pantomime venue. I knew it was going to be much blingier and higher budget than what I was used to but ticket prices aside, would it bring additional value?

I haven’t been a fan of Eastenders for years and (sorry Samantha!) my distaste for soaps and reality shows in general means I typically have low expectations for their actors and performers. I wasn’t sure how to feel when I found out that ex-Eastender Samantha Womack and real-life caricature of a preening prince (X Factor Famous Chico) would be top of the cast list.

But if you love Panto (as I do) or even have a begrudging respect for it as a traditional artform, you just have to go with it.

Samantha Womack as the Wicked Stepmother is bloody brilliant, she really is. Sorry for misjudging you Samantha! She was excellent at dissing the Cardiff crowd and there were plenty of us in the firing line. Her vocals are really strong, too – particularly during the famous Hocus Pocus movie version of ‘I put a spell on you’.

Thanks to choreographer Stephen Harris, the set list and routines were contemporary with an up to date song list. Kids will love the Ariana Grande opener, which gets you in the mood for the fun ahead.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Chico still isn’t my cup of tea – but as A-grade cheddar goes, he’s great for the role. I’m not sure we need to see quite so much of his pecs throughout the show and (sorry to be a spoilsport) the whole Step Mother lusting after a younger guy and repeatedly groping him thing doesn’t sit well with me, but…that’s probably overthinking it.

Mike Doyle…not enough is said about how great an entertainer he is. He is completely underrated in the Welsh media, but his turn as ‘Betty Berry’ and Shirley Bassey is first class. Even if you’re not sure about Panto and minor celebs, you must see Mike Doyle rinsing Shirley Bassey and of course- completely getting away with it. Again, while his whole performance is pure hammery (if that’s even a word), he is a truly fantastic singer. He even reminds us at one point: ‘I was trained by Stan Stennett, love!’

There are plenty of local/popular culture references which audiences will love. Snow White last saw her Father get on a bus to St Mellons (never to return), the magic mirror comes from Argos, Alfie comes from the magical kingdom of Bridgend, the royal carriage comes complete with a car alarm (well it is Cardiff) and the people of Lisvane are ‘too posh to join in’.

Special mention also for the fabulous ‘Magnificent Seven’ and their incredible vocals, Mike Coltman for the beautiful costumes and the overall set design (keep an eye out for the wonder of the Snow White cottage).

I did notice a marked difference in general audience participation between the Park and Dare and the New Theatre. The audience on my night was a little flatter than I was used to. BUT! There is a lot of added wow factor in this New Theatre production. The way the set is dressed, the musical repertoire, the size of the cast and the quality of the costumes will blow you away. This is festive bling 2.0.

2017 has been an absolute shocker of a year, but this show is a guaranteed way to blow off the cobwebs and let the New Theatre shower you with sequins and glitter. Let go of your apprehensions and scoff down this Christmassy treat so sweet it’ll make your heart sing and your jaw ache from laughing.

REVIEW: SECOND STAR TO THE RIGHT BY GEMMA TREHARNE-FOOSE

(4 / 5)

A Hijinx production really is a fabulous way of kicking off your Christmas celebrations. Following the success of The Snow Queen in 2016, Second Star to the Right by Llinos Mai is a re-telling of a familiar old tale. There’s a new dynamic this time. This story features three very modern, overstressed, selfie and health and safety-obsessed adults in place of children.

This time the Neverland newcomers are descendants of Michael, Jane and Wendy. As they navigate their way around the island, they learn to stop being so uptight and to dance, fly and synchronised-swim their cares away. Arthur – played by Simon Richards brings plenty of chuckles as he obsesses about the injury risks and dangers in Neverland and Blue Balmforth playing the part of Joe shines as a preening peacock – and he’s desperate to get back to his phone signal, hair wax and moisturiser. Alice meanwhile (played by Nia Ramage) is irritable and completely focused on getting to her meetings back in the city.

Created by Odyssey, a community group of disabled and non-disabled actors established by Hijinx Theatre Company, Second Star is more than ‘just’ a pre-Christmas show.

This year’s production is a celebration of a much-loved cast member Martin Vick, a long-standing performer with Hijinx for 15 years who sadly passed away in 2016. Martin had previously performed in Peter Pan and Wendy, travelled the world a special Olympian and more recently had performed with the award-winning Meet Fred, Directed by this production’s Artistic Director Ben Pettitt-Wade.

Odyssey theatre company is a community group brought together by Hijinx theatre company and don’t just create and devise imaginative theatre, they also run training academies to enable disabled actors to perform at a professional level. They’re the only company in Wales to do this. I was delighted to see Sara Pickard as the Captain in this show, having come across Sara in a professional capacity many months before.

The designer Kitty Callister and her assistants have created visually effective props and costumes – mixtures of slick modern black lines, whimsical multi-coloured bohemian and stripy sea dog gather under a star-kissed sky on window panels. Lost boy paint fights are depicted with handfuls of confetti and fairies are created via twinkling fairy lights. Its simple but creative, fitting the stripped back and intimate surroundings of the Weston Studio.

Attending a Hijinx show feels like you are part of the family, in on the joke and its informal nature is a great draw for families. This is theatre as it should be. Unselfconscious, approachable and completely inclusive.

The cast of actors have a wonderful synergy. Director Jon Dafydd-Kidd clearly has created an environment where actors of all abilities feed off one another’s energy, helping each other with the odd line and encouraging one another, just as Martin Vick had during his time with the company.

 

Review: How to Win Against History by Gemma Treharne-Foose

 

(5 / 5)

If you’ve never heard of the 5th Marquess of Anglesey or Henry Cyril Paget – that’s exactly what his family intended to happen when they erased him from their family history by burning every photograph and possession relating to his life.

Based on true story, this completely original production pieces together the charred remains and distant memories of the 5th Marquess of Anglesey – a cross-dressing dandy who inherited the keys to the kingdom in Victorian Britain, but lived fast and died young.

At one time the richest man in Britain, he rejected the duties of his title to live an outrageously opulent and controversial life, putting on elaborate plays, building over the chapel on the family estate to build a theatre and tour Europe with his ‘Electric Butterfly Orchestra’ – with himself as the leading artist, of course.

This is a fabulously foppish flight of fancy that will have you belly laughing from lights up until lights down.

The Marquess of Anglesey was an unapologetic narcissist, who if born in more recent times would no doubt be the subject of a gaudy commercial deal, a magazine spread or a reality TV series. But although the production pokes fun at the story, it is never cruel.

How to Win Against History is a high-camp, high energy extravaganza, subverting the almost homoerotic goings on within public schools, the aristocracy and the Empire.

Starring Seiriol Davies who plays (or should I say ‘slays’) as Henry Paget, this show chasses, minces and shimmies its way through his back story, shining a light on the social awkwardness of Victorian times, the absurdity and pomposity of theatre and the sheer hilarity of being a square peg in a round hole.

Matthew Blake plays the part of Paget’s right hand man – the Victorian west end actor Alexander Keith and the pair have incredible chemistry and comic timing. Every movement, sigh and flick of the hand is played up and milked for laughs.

Imagine a show featuring Lawrence Llywelyn-Bowen’s lovechild on acid at Mardi Gras, mashed up with Monty Python, Downton Abbey and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. That wouldn’t even come close to how remarkable this is.

Despite the madcap silliness and outrageousness though, it’s a show with substance and heart. Seiriol Davies has created something quite heartfelt and poignant, the music and lyrics are sharp and clever and the incredible vocal performances of the trio on stage meander from genre to genre.

You really want Henry Paget to win and the way audiences are responding to this production shows that in the end – he has.

Some lights are too bright to ever be distinguished.

REVIEW: ‘SLAVA’S SNOW SHOW’ BY GEMMA TREHARNE-FOOSE

(4 / 5)

 

Slava’s snowshow is completely original and unlike anything you might have seen before,  although it may be triggering for those with a serious clown aversion (thanks to Stephen King and his fondness for drain-based terror!).

Polunin’s production straddles the traditional theatre show, mime, the avant garde, the clowning niche and pure spectacle.  The resulting concoction is one that surprises, delights and tickles the audience.  Balloons crop up here and there. A rocking horse, stars and a moon, a music box, a swing. Beautifully designed props and scenery by Ivan Yarapolskiy and Dmitry Khamzin pick at your childhood memories (and at times – your nightmares!).

Slava’s snowshow does not have a narrative or a beginning, middle or an end. It’s actually hard to know where the vignettes and sketches will lead, but beneath the playful care-free demeanour of the show, every step, breath and look is careful, choreographed and deliberate.

An insignificant nod of a head, a wink, a snail’s pace trudge across the stage – the movements toe the line between tenderness and tragedy, laced with clownery and foolishness.

This production deliberately disrupts the frenetic pace and convention of many modern productions.  It crosses the barriers between the audience and the action on stage and playfully invites adults to re-enter the colourful imaginarium of their youth.

You will instantly lower your guard, becoming absorbed in the wonder of the physicality and comic energy of the clowns the and sheer absurdity of the vignettes. But Slava’s snowshow truly succeeds in speaking to your inner child – and the sheer simplicity of this patchwork of comedy is effective and stunning.

The theatrical inspiration may have come from Chaplin, from Ukranian dramaturgs like Gogol and from street theatre and pantomime – but the language of Slava Polunin is completely universal.

The on stage action is part-dream, part-fantasy and complete spectacle. Polunin’s aim was to fuse together the tragic and the comic and create a kaleidoscope of colour, events and sound. His intention was to revitalise the way modern audiences respond to clowning…the result is more personal, more intelligent and intriguing than anything you might  have experienced at a birthday party or witnessed on cheesy Saturday night TV.

The scenes created on stage are wonderfully inventive – a bed becomes a boat, a coat stand becomes a person and curtains become snowy rocks.  The action on stage spills out into the audience frequently.  Slava’s clowns walk over the backs of audience chairs, a giant cobweb is passed over the heads of the audience and without spoiling any surprises – there is carnage in the theatre at the end of the show. I feel sorry for the people brushing that up!

Even if clowns really aren’t your cup of tea – this is unmissable.

4 stars

***

Type of show: Theatre

Title: Slava’s Snow Show

Venue: Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff)

Dates: 17-21  October

 

Created and staged by Slava Polunin

Stage Technician: Ivan Yarapolskiy

Sound Technician: Alexey Lavrentyev

Light Technician: Alexander Iakolev

 

Review ‘Oz With Orchestra’ by Gemma Treharne-Foose

(3 / 5)

 

I kicked myself for a few reasons last Sunday. The first of which, I came to discover, was not doing my research on major events in the city the same day I headed out to watch ‘Oz with Orchestra’.  The event at St David’s Hall clashed with the Tour of Britain final meaning my plans for a leisurely jaunt down the A470 to enjoy some pre-show family entertainment were almost scuppered by a 1hr 50m traffic jam.  We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Once I’d managed to make it through the rain and in to St David’s Hall, I was pretty much over the worst of my traffic jam rage. It was going to be fine, it was Wizard of Oz! Plus there were some jolly looking souls dressed up as Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion. My 8 year old was delighted to take part in a treasure hunt and there were other activities to keep kids entertained, though she deemed herself to be far too mature to enjoy a singalong with the WNO to the best hits from the movie. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them sing ‘over the rainbow’.

The other reason I kicked myself was because the event would have been a great opportunity to don some sprarkly shoes or a wee bit of festive cheek glitter. I suppose a 36 year old with a rainbow painted on her face would have been a step too far, though.

Seeing the volume of little kids and the size of the space, I wasn’t sure how well the film audio of ‘Wizard of Oz’ and a live 63 piece orchestra would work or if this could sustain the attention of very small children.

I’ve never seen any cinema classics accompanied by an orchestra but was amazed to see the orchestra pick up every cue, every dramatic effect with ease. Such was the level of intensity and emotional impact of this well-loved family classic, I was in tears in the opening bars (sucker!).  The tornado scenes were simply stunning – deafening crescendos, buzzing bases and whistling brass and percussion created a beautiful musical backdrop for the cinematic mastery on screen.

This was such a lovely and fresh addition to this cinema classic and Grant Llewellyn’s direction helped ensure that there was a synergy between the musical soundtrack and the duologue on screen.  The film and the music are so timeless, so sentimental and impossible to top and the orchestra was an ideal introduction for my little girl to enjoy this kid of musical performance.

I thought the WNO and venue did well to engage with families at this event and I’d take my little girl to see WNO again in a heartbeat.

REVIEW: ‘HAIRSPRAY’ BY GEMMA TREHARNE-FOOSE

(4 / 5)

If you’ve toyed with the idea of seeing Hairspray on stage but doubted whether anyone could top Ricki Lake’s original 1988 portrayal of Tracy  – or indeed Nikki Blonsky’s 2007 film version, you really needn’t worry.

The new stage version of Hairpray brought to you by producers Mark Goucher, Matthew Gale and Laurence Myers will delight new and old fans from start to finish.

The show hasn’t lost an ounce of its popularity, having first swept the board at the Tony Awards on Broadway in 2002 and the more recent film version introducing a new generation of fans to the musical and original film.

Set in 1960s Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad dreams of  a starring role as one of the teenage dancers on the popular Corny Collins show – a cheeseball TV format of young beautiful things dancing and miming to the latest pop / rock n roll records.

Already at a disadvantage due to her shape, she encounters the realities of colour segregation rife in Baltimore and the US at the time. Only white teenagers were allowed to dance on the show, apart from ‘Negro Day’ every other Friday.

Based on real events with the real ‘Buddy Deane Show’, on which Hairspray was based, the story sees Tracy lead a group of friends to storm the TV studio and force the live broadcasting of integrated dancing, leading a protest against colour segregation and challenging preconceived ideas about women of shape at the same time.

The show is perfectly aided by a riot of technicolour staging and costume courtesy of TAKIS, while Drew McOnie’s superb vintage choreography will have your heart fluttering and your foot tapping.

But the story reminds us that for all the iconic fashions, bubble-gum scented nostalgia and fondness for the golden era of pop and rock and roll, black Americans were denied basic civil rights across America.

Such was the power and divisiveness of segregation, we see ‘seemingly nice’ young all-American kids suddenly spewing hatred and vitriol when the status quo is challenged.  Underneath the petticoats and the chucks and the varsity jackets and polite manners, there is suddenly spite and anger.

Hairspray is gently subversive, poking fun at the idiocy, prejudice and fear at the heart of  white America. What’s all the more cutting is the reminder that while the 60s may seem far away, the lurking presence of racism is rearing it’s ugly head again in the US.  

Two years ago I used Hairspray (the movie) as a vehicle to talk about civil rights and race in America in the 60s with my little girl.  Suddenly, it’s time to return to that ugly, awkward conversation.  We’re at a crossroads once again – because ‘nice guys’ in middle America are waving around swastika flags and white hoods.   

It’s not too hard to believe that the ‘nice polite white kids’ at the Corny Collins dance might have been the same kids lining up to shout abuse at kids entering the first integrated schools or kicking off at the lunch counters they thought were their domain when black protesters sat in ‘their place’.

So as an audience we laugh when Penny Pingleton’s Mum screams when she finds her daughter in bed with a black boy and shrieks ‘But what about the neighbours….the house prices!?’, when her deep-rooted instinct is to flinch/cower when Seaweed gives her a hug or when others gasp with horror as Tracy Turnblad admits she WOULD swim in an integrated swimming pool.

In some shape or form, we’ve all encountered the tropes and the stereotypes surrounding integration and mixed heritage relationships. We’ve rolled our eyes at the staggering lack of awareness even the nicest of people have, just like those kids at the hop in the ‘Nicest kids in town’ song in the first act.

I was overjoyed to once again see Layton Williams (in the role of Seaweed) at the WMC, who previously slayed in the role of Angel Dumott Schunard in RENT earlier this year. I’ve decided it is utterly impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he is on stage.  Former X Factor contestant Brenda Edwards was spellbinding as Motormouth Maybelle, with vocals that shook the rafters and I loved Annalise Liard-Bailey’s squeaky/dorky portrayal of Penny.  Ensemble cast member Graham Macduff was also hilarious in all his guises.  

As anyone who’s seen the 2007 film adaptation of Hairspray will tell you – you can never unsee the sight of John Travolta in a dress, but Matt Rixon and Norman Pace (of ‘Hale and Pace’) had a wonderful on-stage presence together and clearly enjoyed each other’s company

Hairspray recognises the ridiculousness of racism, blinds it with sequins and deafens these ugly faults with a soundtrack of rock n roll, pop, cha-cha-cha and motown.  

It calls racism out for what it is and still dares you to believe that the future will be different.  It’s hammy, it’s cheesy, it’s sweet and it’s a glitter bomb of cherry-cola scented joy.

Review: ‘Swarm’ Fio Productions by Gemma Treharne-Foose

(5 / 5)

 

I don’t know about you but usually the mention of ‘immersive theatre’ brings about a slight sense of unease and dread. It’s a bit like when your team leader at work says there’s going to be a role playing exercise for the team.

I am also still slightly annoyed/scarred about the Antonin Artaud-style absurdist ‘theatre of cruelty’ workshop I was once subjected to at University. In that, audience members were herded into a room, plunged into darkness, doused with cold water and played a disturbing series of images projected onto a wall with a screechy soundtrack. I have distrusted and shied away from ‘immersive theatre’ ever since (and realised at that very point that I am definitely not a true thespian and should probably just leave it to the professionals).

A sign saying Refuge Here

However, when a topical play by a theatre company nominated by the Kevin Spacey Foundation as the Artist of Choice in 2016 puts on a play in your back garden (or down the hill from your house!), it would be really absurd not to get excited about it. Especially when this company’s last play ‘The Mountaintop’, about Dr Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, gave you goosebumps, sweats and bellyflips galore. This is a production company that knows exactly how to push your buttons and manipulate your emotions (and have you thanking them for it afterwards).

Local collaboration

Pop Bottle Mural in the Pop Factory, Porch

‘Swarm’ picks up on comments made by former Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2015: “You’ve got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life”.

Director Abdul Shayek unpicks this throwaway comment, holding a mirror up to society’s deep-rooted fear, misunderstanding and sheer distrust of refugees. He pulls the audience into the world of the refugee so they can experience first hand what it’s like to run and fear for your life, leaving everything and everyone you have ever known.

Jenkin Street in Porth

Following the success of the original show staged in Cardiff, where Production company Fio collaborated with members of Butetown football team (Tiger Bay FC), the show’s popularity struck a cord with audiences and the company received funding to work with more arts companies and local communities including Cwmbran and Merthyr.

The Pop Factory show in Porth was supported by ArtWorks/Valleys Kids and children and young people from the local community. The production includes multiple community cast members – most of them children, mixed in with professional actors. The concept of the play is that Wales is at Civil War and you – a refugee – are trying to gain admission to a camp as war rages around you and closes in. Interspersed with the drama and chaos of camp life are alarms and sirens, sounds of bombing and news clips where vox pops of the British publish spill their worries, concerns and venom towards refugees.

Life inside a refugee camp

‘Swarm’ at The Pop Factory

At first, audience members are ‘processed’ in a holding facility, before being ushered into a safe zone. You are marshalled into lines and examined medically for signs of illness before being taken to camp. Once in ‘camp’, you come face to face with children already sleeping and living at the camp.

The Doctors and volunteers split you into groups. You are taken through the emergency drill (an air raid-like siren frequently sounds – and you are to drop to your knees in silence as you are instructed), you fill in a form about your intended destination, a photograph is taken of you, you are shown how to wash your hands and given a toothbrush.

Processing the refugees…

All around you, there are all the visible, breathable remnants and signs of human life and cohabitation – a line of drying clothes, makeshift beds strewn across the floor, a central mat for children to draw and play cards.

There are ‘missing people’ signs everywhere. An exasperated, traumatised actor ‘Kaz’ is frantically looking for his daughter. As you mill around, you are approached by actors: “Are you alone? I hope you are safe here…you ought to be safe but….please be careful.” Children ask you “Do you need help? Do you want to write a message on the wall?” One little boy tells me he hasn’t seen his Mam and Dad for four and a half months. My eyes prick with tears despite myself. I am in Porth inside an old Pop Factory I could see from my Grandmother’s old garden in Glynfach. Yet in that moment I am in a refugee camp, stunned and shocked and appalled at my own privilege ‘in real life’.

Eyeball to eyeball with child refugees

Signs in the Refugee Camp

It is cramped, it is uncomfortable and you don’t know where to look because as in life – when you are face to face with awkward, ugly situations you look at the floor. Or the children. Just focus on the children, because despite everything, they endure, they go on, they play. Anything else in the room was just too much to take in. In the midst of sirens, potential raids, tempers flaring, actors crying – the children drew pictures and played cards with audience members and laughed. Their innocence is entirely disarming and exposing.

Camp food from Refugee Camp volunteers…

At one point the camp volunteers gave out bowls of food. There wasn’t enough for everyone, they said. You can only eat if you have been processed. One of the children (from the community cast) sidled up to me, watching me as I debated whether or not we were supposed to eat the food. “I haven’t actually eaten today…” she said confidently. One of the other kids, who sensed she was going off script nudged her and said ‘Shhhh, we aren’t supposed to actually take the food from them…!” “Take it!” I said. The other kids looked around to check for reactions from the theatre staff and watched her wide eyed. “I won’t tell anyone..” I winked. I sat there momentarily mesmerized by a kid playing a role of a refugee and still slightly unsure of my own role in the scene.

I was given a blanket by a volunteer who told me she’d lost contact with her brother – a rebel fighter – and clothes if I wanted them. I was given a toothbrush and I read the messages on the wall over and over. Towards the end, one of the actors ‘Kaz’ is faced with the choice of staying in the camp with his sick son or leaving the camp to search for his daughter 5 hours away. We don’t get to find out if they were reunited. What would you do? How would you react? The whole experience from start to finish – away from the tradition and comfort of proscenium arches and plush theatre seats – begs this question and drags the audience into the story.

Blanket and toothbrush given to me at the Refugee Camp

Theatre without the frills

Although it’s been 15 years since the ridiculous ‘theatre of cruelty’ workshop I went to, it turns out that far from plunging the audience into a nightmarish, annoying episode they’d rather forget – Artaud’s actual intentions were that theatre should ‘wake us up – nerves and heart’. And Fio certainly does that.

New Refugees waiting to be processed…

The great theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht advocated stripping away the distractions of traditional theatre and exposing the realities of the human condition. For him, theatre was a forum for political debate. There is plenty to draw upon in this production and Fio challenges the audience from start to finish, adding context and authenticity to the refugee debate via its strong cast and convincing staging.

Speaking to Director Abdul Shayek after the show, I asked him what dimension he thought the kids brought to the show.

“People empathise with children a lot more…if you had a cast of adults, it would have been a different show, we would have lost a lot of the innocence. And actually when you talk about war and the refugee crisis…it’s the young people who will suffer. They are the future. They are a metaphor in a sense. They are the future and the future is being messed up. Young people have the same dreams and aspirations and they want the same basic things in life, whether they live here or in Syria or Iraq. They want to play, be safe and be fed – they want love and care…’

No matter what your political persuasion or views on the subject, it is surely utterly impossible to turn away from a child. So when some of the individual stories from the refugees were being relayed and the children milled around, they stopped dead in front of audience members and did nothing but look at them – directly into their eyes. Saying nothing. Because really at that point there is almost nothing left to say. Your instinct is to help and to comfort and to forget your own motivations and ‘entitlements’.

Missing people at the Refugee Camp…

Away from angry mobs and nasty online comment threads and peacocking politicians and boozy pub bravado and scarcity mindset and privilege hoarders who don’t want to share, can you look a child in the eye and tell them their life means less and your opportunity and wealth means more?

This is a production that will heighten your senses and open your eyes to what it really means to be a refugee. Superb.

https://www.wearefio.co.uk


Type of show: Theatre

Title: Swarm

Venue: The Pop Factory

Date: 28th July 2017

Directed by:  Abdul Shayek

Produced by: Fio Productions, ArtWorks Valleys Kids and The Pop Factory