Tag Archives: Barnum at Wales Millennium Centre

Review: English, National Theatre Wales, Dance House, WMC by Luke Seidel-Haas

English

 

★★★★☆

Afternoon tea, Apple, Belonging, Brexit, Cricket. What connects these words and phrases? Well on the surface, not much. In the black box space of the Dance House at WMC, with audience sat in the round and screens at two ends, words from a pre-arranged lexicon flash up in alphabetical order on a screen. With the encouragement of performer Jonny Cotsen we the audience are encouraged to stop the lexicon and discuss anything in relation to these. English is a collaboration between National Theatre Wales and Quarantine and forms part of the Festival of Voice celebration. It is a live performance which is by nature different every night, and blurs the boundaries between creator/receiver and audience/performer.

In typically British fashion, people are initially rather hesitant to contribute to the conversation and instead sit silently in their chairs. For Jonny this isn’t an issue – he is an excellent and engaging storyteller in his own right. As words flash up he regales us with stories from his own life; from planting an apple tree for his daughter, to his time as a shepherd on a kibbutz in Israel, to his struggles during voice therapy learning to make speech sounds by feeling the vibrations on a balloon. As someone who is profoundly deaf and who has only recently started learning British Sign Language Jonny offers a fascinating perspective on the use of English and the ways in which people communicate.

With a strict time limit imposed by the stage manager of 90 minutes, our progression through the words continues apace. As people warm up to the idea of contributing, discussions bounce across the space – from the derivation of the phrase ‘arse over tit’, to a reminder of the poisonous qualities of the ‘daffodil’ Topics of conversation are generally light, with more contentious words such as ‘Brexit’ and ‘de-colonisation’ generally considered the ‘Elephant in the room’ (another phrase on the lexicon) and skirted over.

Occasionally the lexicon is interrupted by a filmed segment, or an invitation to contribute to the piece in another way. These range from the wacky to the surreal. This is a great way of breaking up the structure of the piece and ensuring that the performance never feels too much like an empty void which has to be filled with conversation. Towards the end Jonny encourages us to use alternative methods of communication – instead of speaking we use paper and pen to all contribute our ideas and answers. This provides the audience with some fascinating insights, from people’s first language (English, Welsh, Spanish, Dog) to where they consider home (the USA, Wales, New Zealand, Unsure) and many more. These serve as a reminder that while English may be our shared method of communication, we all arrive at it from different perspectives and angles.

Finally it hit me what the connection between the words was. They were all things associated with English/British identity. It is interesting that a production by NTW does not have more of a focus on Welsh heritage or identity, with Daffodil the only specifically Welsh centered word. Perhaps on another evening, with a different audience this may have come up in conversation. When the word ’empire’ flashed up, it is interesting that the conversation turned to the Aztec, Inca and Mongol Empires rather than the obvious choice of the British Empire. This only further highlighted the anglo-centric bias of most of the discussions of the evening.

The main difficulty in reviewing a show like English, is that while the structure and concept of the show will remain the same, the show that happens tonight or the next night will be radically different in content to the show the happened last night or the night before. So much of the show depends on the generosity and openness of your fellow audience members. This type of collaborative method for creating a show may not be to everyone’s tastes. However if you’re interested in seeing something a little different, in becoming part of a conversation about language and identity rather than just a passive audience member then English is a fascinating piece.

English

Live performance/performance art

Dance House, Wales Millennium Centre

20th June 2018

Performed by Jonny Cotsen

Directed by Richard Gregory

Part of the Festival of Voice – more info and tickets here

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, sunglasses and indoor

Luke Seidel-Haas

 

 

Review Barnum at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff by Barbara Michaels

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Barnum at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Book by Mark Bramble

Lyrics: Michael Stewart

Music: Cy Coleman

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

Rating: 4.5

Jugglers, acrobats, gymnasts et al entertain as the audience takes their seats – latecomers miss a treat. Spectacle and excitement with dazzling displays of circus expertise – Barnum has them all. Based on the life of American showman Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum who took his team of trapeze artists clowns, jugglers plus talented performers such as the singer Jenny Lind all over America and the major cities of the world, this is musical theatre traditional style given a new fillip by Cameron Mackintosh in this Chichester Festival Theatre production.

All the elements of the original Broadway production are here, but for those who were fortunate (or are old enough!) to have seen the production starring Michael Crawford which ran for a record-breaking 655 performances at the London Palladium after it opened in 1981, the big question must be: Does Brian Conley who is playing the demanding and exhausting role of showman PT Barnum live up to the almost-impossibly-high standard created by Crawford?

The answer has to be: Yes! Yes! And Yes! Conley’s Barnum is a likeable con man who could charm monkeys off trees – and does. Though when he forsakes his long-suffering wife Chairy, whose views differ radically from his as to what is right and what is not, siding with him becomes momentarily difficult. Even here, how can you feel anything but gut-wrenching suspense for a man who walks a tightrope to get to the temptation awaiting him on the other side in the shape of a delectable Swedish opera singer?? Metaphorically speaking, you say? No – in a daring act which took weeks to perfect, Conley actually does walk the tightrope. Indeed, throughout the show, along with the rest of the cast, he runs the gamut of acrobatic and dance skills with aplomb and style.

The bubbly Linzi Hateley more than holds her own as Chairy, the wife who despite brooking none of her circus-loving hubby’s nonsense, remains true to him till the end. The story of their marriage, with all its ups and downs, runs in perfect tandem with the on-going razzmatazz of the show, peppered with songs such as the foot-tapping ‘Come Follow the Band’ which opens Act I and Barnum’s theme song of ‘There Is A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute’ plus the poignancy of ‘The Colors of My Life’ sung with feeling by Conley and Hateley, as is ‘So Little Time’ later, in Act II.   If there is a criticism to be made – and in such a polished production it seems almost invidious to do so – it is that Kimberly Blake as opera star Jenny Lind, while looking stunning and ethereal in an ice blue creation that would not look out of place at the Oscars, is a tad too ethereal. The lack of chemistry between her and Barnum renders their love affair not entirely believable – a minor hiccup in an otherwise five star production.

A considerable chunk of credit for the fizzing excitement that characterises this high-energy show must go to the ensemble. On stage for most of the time, the acrobats, trapeze artistes, high wire experts and dancers never flag. Some neat cameo roles, too, from David Birch as an anxiety-ridden Wilton, while   Edward Wade’s Julius Goldschmidt is a gem.

With great costumes and breath-taking staging – including a mock-up of the nether limbs of an elephant – this show is a firecracker.

Runs until Saturday August 15th

https://www.wmc.org.uk/Productions/2015-2016/DonaldGordonTheatre/Barnum/