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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 The Wipers Times by Jane Bisset

 

(4 / 5)

 

By Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Based on a true story from World War I, The Wipers Times is an insight as to life and amazingly laughs in the trenches.

Following the discovery of a printing press and indeed paper during an advance, Officers’ Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson decide instead of allowing it to be smashed and pieces used to bolster trenches that they would use it to produce a publication and bolster the moral of the men instead.

The publication, The Wipers Times, quickly gained notoriety and a following in the trenches which in the dreadful and soul destroying conditions the men were in must have been a tonic in itself.

There is something typically British in the way that the men went about ensuring that the Times was printed no matter what and despite disapproval by the senior officers it became something for the men to look forward to and for the editorial team and production team something to lift spirits and keep going for.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman must be commended for the wonderful way that they have brought this story not only to the stage but also into the public consciousness. Roberts and Pearson were real people who certainly made a great contribution to the moral of the troops and did by the vehicle of their publication encouraged many soldiers to write.

Hislop and Newman take little credit for the written material of the play. Instead they let the content of memoirs of the men who were there and the Wipers Times tell the story for them.

The set was atmospheric and with minimal and slick scene changes were accompanied by the men singing war time song, which were actually poems that has been published in the Wipers Times set to music.

James Dutton and George Kemp gave credible performances as Roberts and Pearson, that said Officers’ are only as good as the men they command and the cast brought the soldiers from the past to the stage to warm our hearts and to believe that in the face of adversity their strength of character and determination was what got men through these most dreadful of time.

Dora Schweitzer (designer), James Smith (lighting), and Steve Mayo (sound) are to be commended for an exceptional job of giving us a true feel of life at the front line which was believable and bearable.

War of course is not clever, not funny and is certainly not a holiday destination. In the blackness of war The Wipers Times was an antidote to the reality of the horrors surrounding them and the awfulness of everyday life. In true British style humour is what keeps us going and the more inappropriate and condemed by the ‘establishment’ the better we like it.

At the beginning of the evening I felt a little uncomfortable in even considering the war to be funny but as a true brit it wasn’t long before I, along with a packed auditorium, was laughing and indeed wanting more.

After the war Roberts and Pearson returned to civilian life and to occupations they were both familiar with.

The Wipers Times is their legacy of life and laughs in the trenches. The discovery of the printing press was by chance but the production of the paper was a concious decision to try to make best of things and to improve the mens’ moral.

It is thanks to Hislop and Newman that these two men will be remembered and after far too long Roberts and Pearson were recognised by the Times broadsheet newspaper when they published obituaries for the men.

Us Brits are a strange breed and our humour often does not transfer to other nations well. However, amidst the laughter, we must be thankful for all those men who gave their lives so that we can enjoy the freedom to laugh at the things we do.

And to people such as Messrs Roberts, Pearson, Hislop, Newman and all the anonymous men who have produced humour in uniform, we salute you.

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.

Get the Chance to be a music journalist at this years Sŵn Festival.

Are you aged 14+?

Interested in brilliant contemporary new music ?

Want to Get the Chance to see and review Songhoy Blues, Aquilo, Jen Cloher, The Amazons and loads more amazing artists at this years Sŵn Festival?

Want to access a free workshop which will give you an insight into the role of a music journalist?

Then, this is for you!

 

What’s involved?

You will take part in a 2 hour workshop with Guy O’Donnell Director of online magazine website Get the Chance at a venue to be confirmed.

You will need to be free to attend a range of performances during the festival.

To apply contact Get the Chance director Guy O’Donnell at getthechance1@gmail.com. All applicants need to be aged 14+

Here is a link to more information on this years Sŵn Festival

Presents

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.

The New Theatre, Cardiff – A Theatre Tour by Jane Bissett

As you step through the doors of the New Theatre, Cardiff you can feel the air of anticipation for what lies ahead. The warmth of the welcome, the buzz of the audience as they gather to enter the auditorium and witness the delights of being entertained by live performers. But what about all the supporting cast?

‘The Theatre Tour’ is a chance to see at first hand all the behind the scenes magic and  meet the people that make stars of the performers before our eyes.

Everyone who lives in Cardiff will be familiar with the exterior of the New Theatre as it has been a landmark in the city for over 110 years. This beautiful Edwardian theatre has changed little from the outside over that time but the interior has seen more changes and all of them improvements from performers and theatre goers alike.

As you walk through the doors with an air of expectation for the performance ahead you are absorbed into the very world of this wonderful old theatre and the people who are the beating heart that brings it all to life.

So for me, the chance of a behind the scenes tour of the New Theatre was not to be missed.

Visitors arriving for an evening at the New Theatre are always assured of a warm welcome by the front of house staff. So it was no surprise that when we arrived for our tour of the theatre we were met with genuine hospitality by the volunteer ushers, Colin and Linda who’s job it was to ensure we navigated the theatre in safety without getting lost or left behind.

Our host was Matt Smith, who has been involved with the theatre for many years and is somewhat of an expert when it comes to the history of the building and its previous owners.

We started our tour in the bar where Matt gave us an overview of how the theatre was built. The first owner, Mr Robert Redford and his wife Grace although not from Cardiff, held the city in high regard and Mr Redford worked for many years at another theatre in the city but felt that Cardiff needed a New Theatre, so he built one.

The foundation stone was laid by Grace in March 1906 and the theatre opened with its first production, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the December of the same year.

The foundation stone is now set in the wall of the ground floor bar alongside the ceremonial trowel which was given to the theatre in its centenary year after being held by the relatives of Robert and Grace who had emigrated to Australia.

At the stage door, we took the route of all actors and performers back stage to the dressing rooms. These were functional, ready and waiting for the next occupants to make them their own for the duration of their stay.

Dressing rooms are located over two floors and in keeping with the old traditions there are even fold down seats for the dressers to wait in the corridors for the arrival back to the dressing room of the actors (it is not considered etiquette for the dressers to be in the actors dressing rooms when they are not there).

It was then time to visit the ‘Fly Floor’ this is where all the scenery and effects are put onto the rope and pulley systems to ensure that they can be lowered and lifted into place at the correct time during the performances.

Del, who is now a ‘Technician’ but who started his career in the theatre as a ‘fly man’, clearly loved what he did (If he didn’t then he was the best actor of them all!). He gave us the opportunity to look back at times past and the hemp rope system which worked on the same lines as sails on a ship by ropes being locked off with a cleat system. Del demonstrated how the scenery would have been flown in and out being worked by a team of 13 burly men on either side of the stage and would have communicated through whistles and hand gestures.

Hemp rope tied off to a cleat.

The system used now is operated using counter weights. Sounding straight forward, it takes much skill and knowledge to get the backdrops and scenery where they’re meant to be, on time and seamlessly.

Exiting the Fly Floor you are on the level of the upper circle. This was a great location to be able to enter the auditorium and have an overview of the theatre. Being close to the ceiling it also gave the opportunity to take in the beautiful architecture that is so familiar but often overlooked.

The highlight of the tour was of course stepping ‘on stage’. There was no roar of the crowd, smell of the greasepaint or limelights but there was the chance to see how the lighting works, explore the role of the assistant director, and the chance to see the all important safety curtain from the other side as well as understanding how it works and why.

Standing on the stage, which is a 1 in 4 rake (this means that it slopes down towards the audience), with the house lights down and the stage lights up it was easy to see why the theatre is indeed a magical place for actors and audiences alike.

The last stop on this tour was at the back of the stalls in the control room where the mixing and control desks are. A sophisticated environment overseen by someone who admitted to coming to the theatre for work experience, and never really left, and having done various jobs has worked his way up.

The tour of the New Theatre leaves you in awe of everyone who works there and brings the touring productions to life.

Theatres and their staff are often referred to as a family, well family or now they certainly are a close knit team and are the unsung heroes behind all the magic and drama that we witness on the stage. From the lady (or gentleman) who mans the stage door to the fly man and the ever diligent fire officer who sits unseen at the side of the stage for every performance to ensure the safety of the actors, the audience and the theatre.

The beauty, history and heritage of this Edwardian theatre is only surpassed by the welcome of its staff. Their love of theatre and their dedication to their craft will continue to make our visits to The New Theatre, Cardiff, special, entertaining and magical.

For further details about forthcoming productions visit www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk or to book tickets call the Box Office on 02920878889.