Tag Archives: Cardiff

REVIEW SPIKE, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

‘I told you I was ill’: this is the epitaph of one Terence ‘Spike’ Milligan, who holds the rare honour of being able to make people laugh long after shuffling off this mortal coil. Milligan was the man behind The Goons, a satirical radio show broadcast by the BBC between 1951 and 1960. As co-creator, chief writer and one third of the titular trio along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, Milligan took postwar Britain by storm and influenced comedic greats from Monty Python to the Muppets. Premiering at the Watermill in January and now ending its successful UK tour at Cardiff’s New Theatre, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s SPIKE celebrates the man behind the madness.

The cast concludes the play with a raucous performance of The Goons’ ‘Whistle Your Cares Away’, which inspired Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. All images credited to Pamela Raith.

Directed by Watermill AD Paul Hart, SPIKE takes place during the tumultuous making of The Goons, which was just as chaotic and surreal behind the mic as it was in front of it. This trio of working-class lads had a penchant for the surreal and direct line to your funny bone – but, as with anything creative, tempers flared and egos clashed. Robert Wilfort (aka Gavin and Stacey’s Jason – he of the infamous fishing trip) is nothing short of stupendous as Spike, no small feat when considering that the man was a one-off who was always ‘on’. Determined not to play him as a ‘Tears of a Clown’ caricature (for more, check out our interview with Robert here), Wilfort plays Spike as the beleaguered eccentric he was – a loyal friend, a frustrating colleague, and a loving if distant husband. Wilfort captures Spike’s soul in all its anarchic, defiant glory, and has the comic chops to make his iconic quips soar.

The cast’s recreations of classic Goon gags are nothing short of stellar

He’s supported by a rabble-rousing, gag-tastic cast who collectively had the audience in stitches. While this is Spike’s show through and through, Mischief Theatre alums Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd as Peter Sellers and Wales’ own Harry Secombe, not to mention Ellie Morris as Spike’s first wife June, all have their time to shine. Warner and Lloyd are uncanny as their comic counterparts – and when they share the stage with Wilfort, they nail the Goons’ very particular magic: they’re just three (extra)ordinary people who enjoy making each other laugh. Robert Mountford does a brilliant job as both a haughty BBC Executive and as one third of a toffee-nosed trio of critics, along with James Mack and Margaret Cabourn-Smith (who also plays enthusiastic sound engineer Janet). It’s no surprise that cast and crew have been nominated for multiple Broadway World UK awards.

The flashbacks to Spike’s time serving in World War II are effective and affecting – not to mention an inventive recreation of the writing process set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’

While the show focuses on a relatively narrow portion of Milligan’s life, it covers a lot of ground, from his service in the Royal Artillery during World War II to his struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder and the breakdown of his first marriage. Most vividly, it captures his infamous battles with the BBC: you see, the war never really left him, and neither did his rebellious attitude to authority. When he discovered that the Officer Class were to have command over him again, this time as the pen-pushing Heads of Department who nixed anything vaguely novel, Spike took up arms anew.

Spike infamously died on his feet during a solo set in Coventry, telling the booing audience: “I hope you all get bombed again.”.

In the excellent post-show talk (of which the New should do more, if possible), co-writer Newman admitted that the play gave him and Hislop (The Wipers Times) the chance to ‘steal all of Spike’s best jokes’. While the play lacks something of a dramatic through-line, the love for Spike is in every second; there’s a reverence about his irreverence that makes it as moving as it is hilarious. Even Spike’s daughter, Jane Milligan, expressed how much she misses her dad’s ‘anarchy’, and his ability to hold power to account – remember that even the reigning monarch did not escape unscathed from Spike’s cutting wit.

SPIKE doesn’t gloss over the hardships Milligan faced, but it portrays both the rough and the smooth with a lightness of touch and a fondness for the man that radiates from the stage

While Peter Sellers went on to great success in movies like The Pink Panther and Dr Strangelove, and Secombe (iconic as Oliver!’s Mr Bumble) went into music, Milligan became a prolific memoirist (Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), poet, and children’s author – but never reached their flashy heights. His influence, though, is immortal – and SPIKE is, in true Goonish fashion, an eccentric celebration of a man who, even after a lifetime of making the world laugh, was still gone too Goon.

SPIKE concludes its UK tour at the New Theatre Cardiff this week – make sure to catch it between 22 – 26 November before it’s Goon forever! More information on the show and how to book tickets here.

REVIEW BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Mahler 9 with Markus Stenz             

Reviewed by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The Cardiff Classical 2022-23 continues with its latest concert at St David’s Hall, featuring one of the finest symphonies by one of the greatest Romantic composers. German conductor Markus Stenz leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales through Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, the last completed symphonic work before his death in 1911.

The 9th is something of a culmination of Mahler’s lifelong fascination with death, which we can trace from the ‘Polka with Introductory Funeral March’ which he composed aged seven. That doesn’t mean Mahler was aware of his unravelling mortal coil when composing the 9th, although – like Beethoven and Schubert before him – he died without completing his 10th symphony. After losing his daughter and being diagnosed with severe health issues himself, Mahler moved his family to their summer residence on the Austro-Italian border, to grieve and to recuperate. The gorgeous natural surroundings of Toblach were one of the key inspirations behind his final work, and its fascination with nature can be heard in every note, from the earthy second movement to the volcanic eruptions of the third.

Conductor Markus Stenz

And, as conductor Markus Stenz mentioned in the excellent pre-show talk with Jonathan James, you have to be personal with Mahler – the success of any performance is about what you put into it. It’s no surprise, then, that performances of any Mahler piece can vary significantly in timing and style (including those conducted by the man himself!) To play any piece of music is to be in dialogue with the composer – and Stenz’s connection with Mahler is positively subatomic. He received a German Critics’ Award for his recording of Mahler’s 5th with the Gürzenich Orchestra, and conducted Mahler’s 2nd with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra earlier this year.

Markus Stenz and the NOW in rehearsal. Photo credit: Yusef Bastawy

Stenz, who studied with Bernstein and who has performed on three continents this season already, is a characterful and expressive leader who embodies every emotion of Mahler’s vivid tapestry. The Orchestra is on fine form, and there are myriad ‘Mahler Moments’ to be enjoyed here, including a slew of terrific solos by the NOW’s finest, from lead violin Lesley Hatfield to principal percussionist Chris Stock (who, before the concert began, was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society award for his charitable work in Patagonia).

Markuz Stenz and the NOW take a bow. Photo credit: Yusef Bastawy

While many Mahler symphonies journey from darkness into light, the 9th goes from the living to the otherworldly, with Stenz and the NOW seguing seamlessly from the frenetic bombast of the Big Bang to the emotional serenity of the closing Adagissimo. These fading refrains, according to Adorno, marked the first steps into modernity. Having begun with a universe bursting into being, the symphony culminates in a peaceful acceptance of mortality; a beautiful controlled stillness, like lying in the grass looking up at the stars. While death is inevitable, Mahler crafts beauty in its last breath – and Stenz and the string section’s delicacy and restraint are positively unearthly here, as together they conjure heaven in the Hall.

James Murphy, CEO of the Royal Philharmonic Society, presents Chris Stock with the society’s orchestral award. Photo credit: Yusef Bastawy

Stenz returns to Mahler (Adagio from Symphony No. 10) in January with the Philharmonia Zürich, after conducting the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra through Wagner’s Operas in December. He will tour across Europe and America through next year, conducting pieces from Beethoven and Bruckner to Tchaikovsky and Liszt. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales continue their spellbinding 2022-23 season with Stravinsky, Ravel and Boulanger, conducted by Sofi Jeannin, at BBC Hoddinott Hall at the end of November before playing a succession of Christmas concerts in Cardiff and Swansea.

REVIEW How My Light is Spent, Chapter Arts Centre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Last year, Company of Sirens and Sight Life Wales collaborated on an innovative installation piece called ‘With Eyes Closed’, in which people with sight loss shared stories from their lives. The theatrical space was transformed into a beach, and the performers would unearth a memento from the sand and from their past. Their second collaboration, ‘How My Light is Spent’, was postponed in August due to covid, and finally premiered this week with two highly in-demand performances at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. It takes inspiration from the sonnet of the same name by John Milton (author of ‘Paradise Lost’) who lost his own sight around the time of its publication.

Lou Lockwood in ‘How My Light is Spent’

The company’s phenomenal debut caught me completely off guard, and it meant that I walked into the ‘sequel’ with high expectations – and it exceeded every one. What the creative team has achieved here is nothing short of profound: a level of emotional authenticity and community that sets a new standard for what theatre can achieve.

Jane McCann in ‘How My Light is Spent’

Many of the performers from ‘With Eyes Closed’ return here, and it is a joy to see them grow to new heights both as individual storytellers and as a group – so, first and foremost, kudos to Roz Grimble, Sharon Hale, Emma Juliet Lawton, John Sanders, Lou Lockwood, and Jane McCann. Their reflections here centre on their experiences in lockdown, and of their relationship with their senses and with nature.

John Sanders in ‘How My Light is Spent’

Each performer brings their own distinct light, letting their unique personalities and voices shine (they also do this literally: when each takes centre stage, they are illuminated by a different colour, having worked with lighting designer Dan Young to convey the unique shade of their story). Alastair Sill provides characterful audio description and acts as both guide and emcee, leading them to the stage and lending an attentive ear to their stories. In the forest setting, his performance takes on an otherworldly quality: a sweeter, gentler Puck watching the dreamers’ visions unfold.

Alastair Sill in ‘How My Light is Spent’

The set, designed by Edwina Williams-Jones, is strewn with autumnal leaves and twigs that crackle underfoot, creating a tactile image of a forest out of time. Sion Berry’s multimedia films, Chris Durnall’s direction and Stacey Blythe’s music are, themselves, sources of light: they guide, encourage and illuminate the performers without turning the attention on themselves. The piece is cleverly bookended by Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ and Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ which resonate with the themes of the piece, and Blythe’s use of both accordion and harp interweave the merry with the melancholic (and there really aren’t enough accordion dance breaks in modern theatre!)

Stacey Blythe in ‘How My Light is Spent’

The piece is a rich, engrossing experience: stories of happiness and hardship alike are told with compassion and without compromise, and always with a light touch and a sense of humour. What the cast does here transcends ‘acting’: this is soul-deep communication, a placing of story in the palm of your hand. The sense of community, too, is moving. You see, the forest can liberate but it can also entrap: only by telling our story, and guiding each other through the darkness, can we be truly free.

Roz McGrimble and Alastair Still in ‘How My Light is Spent’

The first play was themed around water – this one, earth. Perhaps in their third collaboration, Company of Sirens and Sight Life will take to the skies. In many ways, they already have.

‘How My Light is Spent’ performed at Chapter Arts Centre on 18 and 19 November 2022. Company of Sirens will restage ‘Stone the Crows’ in February 2023 (you can check out Get the Chance’s five-star review here) before premiering ‘Rhapsody’, a new play about pioneering Welsh writer Dorothy Edwards, at Chapter in May.

An Interview with Chris Durnall, Director of ‘Rhapsody’

Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with Chris Durnall, Artistic Director of Company of Sirens, and director of the upcoming new play ‘Rhapsody‘ about the life of Dorothy Edwards, one of Wales’ greatest writers. While little-known nowadays, Edwards was a highly influential member of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of radical English writers which also boasted the likes of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. The play is written by Gary Raymond and performed by actors Gwenllian Higginson and Gwydion Rhys, with music by Stacey Blythe (though not a traditional ‘score’ as such – more on that in a bit). ‘Rhapsody’ will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in May 2023.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Hi Chris, tell us a little bit about why you wanted to tell the story of Dorothy Edwards.

Dorothy Edwards a writer who has clearly been repressed due to her gender, her Welshness, and her working-class roots. When she was part of the Bloomsbury Group, she was called the ‘Welsh Cinderella’. That wasn’t necessarily she reason she did what she did, but her creative life was different [because of] where she came from. I think she got swamped by the big personalities in the group like Virginia Woolf and David Garnett. So, it’s about bringing her life out and finding a way to tell that story that is contemporary, so that it’s not a piece of history. It happened in the 1920s and ’30s but its themes are relevant for now. For us, it’s about making it current and contemporary, otherwise it becomes a museum piece, and when theatre becomes that, then it loses relevance. There needs to be a reason to make it, and that reason has to be something that’s happening in the world today.

How have you ensured that the creative process retains that immediacy and relevance?

We wanted to begin with Dorothy’s suicide and work backwards. The short pieces seen [in the R&D in November] actually started with Dorothy in Bloomsbury, then it went to her introduction into London society, then we touch on her return to Cardiff and worked with [Ronald Harding, a married Welsh cellist]. Really, it’s working backwards: starting with her suicide and then trying to explain what happened to her. What were the factors that led to her being relatively unknown, and unhappy in her personal and creative life? We try to answer those questions. Her suicide note is very well-known [“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship and even love without gratitude and given nothing in return.”] After that, the rest of the play is exploring what that might have meant.

Does that mean you follow a strict structure – x has to happen at this point, y at the other – or do you keep it quite loose?

It’s very loose, and it shifts focus. The film ‘The Hours’ is quite a similar reference point because of that. We wanted to avoid was a straightforward linear storyline: we wanted to play around with time shifts and theatrical styles. So, first of all you have the sonata form: the three different strands of a sonata, based upon musical notation, [provides the structure for the play]. Then within each of the three acts, you have three very different styles of performance / musical instruments – within those you have three sections as well. So, the sonata form is kept throughout the three sections of the play.

That’s really important for us because she was so musical: her novel was called ‘Winter Sonata’, her short stories called ‘Rhapsody’, and they’re all based on musical form. How then do you capture that musicality within the production and within the text, and how do you make the music not something that is a soundtrack but is an integral part of the production itself?

Gwenllian Higginson as Dorothy / Gwen the actress / herself in Company of Sirens’ ‘Rhapsody’

That’s the creative challenge – and within that, there’s a third layer which might be quite controversial, where the actress steps out of the story. That happened once in the R&D, but I would like that to happen a lot, where the actress steps out and comments on their life, so as to make a connection between the actress, the character of Dorothy, and the part she’s playing. It’s interesting theatrically to do something like this; it might seem confusing at first, but I think in the context of shifting focus / timeframe, that it would work. The device takes it away from a linear narrative. It is about Dorothy Edwards, but it’s also about Gwen, and about the actress playing her: you have three women investing in this role – the catalyst is Dorothy but it’s also a catalyst for their experiences as well.

You mentioned ‘The Hours’ as a touchstone for you – when I was watching the R&D, it reminded me of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’: where actors are playing actors playing characters, which shares the ‘triple layer’ device.

That’s a really interesting observation and something I hadn’t thought of! [Harold] Pinter did the screenplay for that, and I’d like this play to be a lot more fluid so that the three drift in and out constantly. In the first act particularly, Gwen and Dorothy shift all the time, as does the male character [played by Gwydion Rhys]. Once you’ve established a convention, the audience understands and goes with it. The risk you take when doing something different is that the audience might be a bit confused at first!

Do you think that choice brings out different things for the creatives and the audience?

I think we underestimate our audiences a lot of the time, and a lot of the work I see is rather ‘on the nose’. To me, that bypasses the whole point of theatre – which is about audience involvement, the audience thinking and making decisions for themselves based on what is presented to them. If you’re constantly given information without the opportunity to assimilate and interpret it, it’s easy to be entertained but it’s difficult to be moved by it because you haven’t invested enough of yourself in the performance. The audience wants to be part of the experience. For me, it’s about what’s underneath the words: the spaces, the gaps, the moments of reflection where the audience comes in and makes it their own.

Do you feel that theatre enables you to give the audience more of an active role in telling a story?

Definitely – I’ve done theatre all my life, and what I love about theatre is you can do anything with it, it’s so incredibly flexible. You can create anything onstage and the audience will go along with it: what works is when an audience suspends their disbelief. I think that’s true of all theatre, that the audience will invest in what you’re doing and will buy into it – we sometimes underestimate and spoon-feed audiences when they don’t want that. I go to the theatre wanting to be challenged.

Stacey Blythe

Would the challenge in this production be the musical aspect, i.e. Stacey Blythe’s music, which isn’t just an emotional score but a character in its own right?

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. In 2013, I worked with the Sherman Theatre on a production called ‘Matthew’s Passion’. I worked with an autistic actor and a musician, and I wanted the musician to follow the actor around so that everything they did was interpreted musically. It didn’t quite work in that instance and became more of a soundtrack. So, what I wanted was for Stacey to work with Gwenllian – her music is the soul of the actress, they’re in a rhythm together. Stacey has certain chords and codas in mind but is flexible enough to follow the actress and shift as needed, and vice versa – they work together in this beautiful dialogue. I find that fascinating. You’ve also got the script on top of that, and a rhythm to the script that is more evident in the monologues in the first and second act – but there’s a musicality to the script, the performance of the actress supporting the music, and those things come together in an interesting way.

There are a lot of trios going on here: the sonata, the actress, the rhythms.

That’s absolutely intentional. When you start something like this, I really believe that things happen independently of you making them happen. It’s sort of magic, theatre is: it’s based on ritual and performance, and that magic doesn’t go away, so things happen constantly if you allow them to, and if you don’t try to control them.

How do you manage to walk that line as a director, when you have to lead while also allowing for these magical ‘unexpected’ things to happen?

The first thing is, I don’t try to control the proceedings. Casting is very important, finding people who you can trust and support each other. Then I try to create an environment in the rehearsal room where people feel happy and free, where they have fun, and where they feel respected – for me, that’s the main job of the director, because once you’ve created that environment with very talented people, they’ll get on with it. The big problem, and I’ve made it in the past, is where you try to control something. Allow people to try things out, and if it’s not right it will become self-evident. A lot of the time I’m happy to admit when I don’t know what to do, or where to go, with a story – I don’t profess to know exactly what I’m doing. In fact, I very rarely look t the script once I’ve read it and talked about it. Staring at the script isn’t my job: I’m interested in what’s going on out there. The director’s job is to create an environment in which actors can be creative. If you do that, they’ll amaze you – but if you try to control it, you’re in trouble.

It’s evident in the work you’ve done, the creative freedom you give the actors.

In this country we have that tradition where we still think in terms of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan – don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but we have to move forward. Where’s the innovation otherwise? It’s fixed in time and set in aspect, which is okay if you want a bit of nostalgia. But what I try and do is make theatre when people go to the bar afterwards and say “What do you want to drink?”, but instead that they talk about the play.

What is it about Dorothy’s work that suits this looser, more collaborative way of creation?

I read her novel and her short stories, and I thought there’s something indefinable and great here a. Gary [Raymond] then did something for the Wales Art Review on Dorothy Edwards, I emailed him saying I’d read his work and was interested in what he’d said. He came to see ‘Stone the Crows’, and we got talking afterwards and exploring some of the ideas of musicality and character. There’s something special about her work and I don’t know what it is yet, but that it’s something to do with musicality, and about masculinity – all of her protagonists were men, which is extraordinarily unusual.

I wonder what the impetus for that: is it that great literature is often written by and about men, or was Dorothy making a subversive point by speaking through her male characters?

The form she chose to adopt (i.e., the country house novel) was quite old-fashioned, yet within that traditional structure is something really unusual that I think came from her background, who she was, her upbringing. Her father was a really important figure in her life in terms of her relationships and her political qualities: he was a firebrand Welsh radical that was part of the Labour movement. One of the things we wanted to explore here is the figure of the father: at the moment, it’s introduced in a recurring musical motif from the Chopin sonnet which we translated into Welsh. The father may not be in it, but his presence will be through this tune, and also in the male characters who do feature. If you look at her relationships with older men like David Garnett [a Svengali-type figure who introduced Dorothy to the Bloomsbury Set], there are qualities in them that they perhaps share with Dorothy’s father.

Maybe it was subconsciously a way of linking with people who were successful in the field, who had access to many opportunities she didn’t have growing up.

It was all controlled by Virginia Woolf and co., who were basically literary gods. But they were very exclusive, which might have been a shock to someone as idealistic as Dorothy. Expectations and reality are often very different. I can only relate it to my own experience: when I went to drama college, I expected everybody else there to be as passionate as I was about literature – I love those people, but I was really disappointed that they didn’t feel the same way about theatre as me. I can imagine Dorothy felt the same way about the quest for knowledge.

While Dorothy wasn’t a Welsh speaker herself, the character does speak Welsh in the play. How does Dorothy’s ‘Welshness’ factor into this production?

If you’re going to include the concept of Gwenllian playing ‘Gwen the actress’ playing Dorothy, and two of them are Welsh speakers, then you can’t ignore it – it’s part of who those people are. It was important for us to bring it into how we worked together on the play.

Is that important for this story specifically, or something that theatre in Wales can and does focus on – the layers of language and ‘the self’?

The Welsh language is an important part of who and what we are – and when you’re exploring national identity as we do here, you need to address it. What that does for us here is that it feeds the production, that bilingual element. I’ve been to quite a few Welsh language shows over the years – and while I don’t speak it myself, if it’s done well, then I can follow the narrative.

What about Gwydion’s role – he seems to play combinations of characters, like Dorothy’s fiancée, and David Garnett, and ‘himself’. It’s not called ‘Dorothy and David’ – while it’s Dorothy’s story, it’s interesting to see how his role feeds into hers

You have three strands to him too – he plays the cellist she had a relationship with in Cardiff, who wasn’t her intellectual equal; David Garnett; and the actor Gwydion as well. He also represents the men in her life including her father, but we haven’t at this stage yet explored Gwydion’s role fully within the piece the way we have Dorothy’s.

‘Rhapsody’ premieres in May next year. Has the R&D process in November crystallised certain things for you and the team, and can you see aspects changing already?

We’re getting there! We will have 3 weeks to rehearse and there will be space between the R&D and then, where we can explore what we haven’t thought of yet. When you go back to something you’ve done before, you’re faced with these moments that you missed – time gives you the space to assimilate what works and what doesn’t. I’m so keen to produce work. I just want to get stuff out there all the time. I often feel like I’m treading water sometimes, when all I want to do is make new things.

The Monumental Welsh Women project

What are your plans for where ‘Rhapsody’ goes now, following the R&D?

What we like to do is to perform an extract as part of the Monumental Welsh Women week at the Wales Millennium Centre in March next year, because the event celebrates the lives of Welsh women that have been largely forgotten, then stage it at Chapter, and then look for other ways to perform extracts of it at festivals. I think you can take it to various places, tour it around Wales, Dublin Fringe, Edinburgh, maybe even Germany and the States.

What has surprised you the most, either about Dorothy’s story or the creative process?

The speed with which it developed over two weeks. We now have a script – the conversations I had with Gary and the performers created the script very quickly, and Gwenllian rose to the challenge so quickly. When you set a two-week development period, you expect to come out of it with a few scenes and themes – but as it was, we had the first draft of a script! The way the actors really entered into the whole piece, pleasantly surprised me. They just did it! The second act, which is basically a monologue, just poured out of them. My job is to allow that to happen, not to tell them what to do; to guide them so they do it themselves

What do you want people to take from it, and talk about at the bar?

I would like them to make connections with their own life; that’s the whole point – to see that what they’ve experienced on the stage e.g. I’ve been through that or thought that or felt like that. When you’ve done that, you’ve achieved a lot. I want them to take something of the play home with them. To me, that’s the nature of art: taking something and saying, I understand that. It’s like looking at a painting: even if you’ve never seen it before, there’s something of you in there that you recognise. Whenever I read a book or see a play, I visualise a place within my own life that I can place it in – it’s making a link between the general and the person, and it goes to your heart not your head. You can analyse things in your head, but when it really works is when it goes to your emotions.

Finding something that resonates on your frequency.

It’s indefinable – if you try to analyse it, it kills it. You don’t have to have a reason in art, sometimes there isn’t one: there’s an internal logic but it can’t be defined. You just have feel it.

Company of Sirens is working with Sight Life Wales to perform ‘How My Light Is Spent’ at Chapter on 18th and 19th November. Company of Sirens will restage ‘Stone the Crows’ in February 2023 (you can check out Get the Chance’s five-star review here) before premiering ‘Rhapsody’ in May.

REVIEW My Fair Lady, Wales Millennium Centre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

There are few things more magical than a classic Hollywood musical: a lavish spectacle with characters to adore and songs to die for. And there are few more beloved than My Fair Lady, one of the last golden age musicals, in which a snooty phonetics professor vows to transform a Cockney flower girl into an English rose. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, the film starred Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins and featured iconic Lerner & Loewe songs like ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’. It’s a classic for a reason – and, direct from the West End, the Lincoln Center’s dazzling new revival is here to remind us just how loverly a show this is.

Charlotte Kennedy and the My Fair Lady ensemble (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Lerner & Lowe also brought us the musical delights of Camelot, Gigi, and Brigadoon (not to mention the vastly underrated Paint Your Wagon) – but it’s easy to see why My Fair Lady is their most beloved work. Directed by Bartlett Sher (helmer of the critically-acclaimed revival of The King and I), this new production – the first major revival in fifteen years – comes with revitalised sets, costumes and musical arrangements. The score has never sounded as magnificent does here under the musical direction of Alex Parker, and you won’t find a finer chorus this side of the Edwardian era.

Michael D. Xavier, Heather Jackson and Charlotte Kennedy (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Having made her professional debut in Les Miserables in the West End, Charlotte Kennedy puts her own instantly-iconic spin on the beloved character of Eliza Doolittle. Her powerful voice and equally powerful performance makes her the beating heart of every scene she’s in – and her hilarious conversation with the aristos in Ascot is truly one for the ages.

Michael D. Xavier, Charlotte Kennedy and John Middleton in My Fair Lady (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Two-time Olivier Award nominee Michael D. Xavier (who performed opposite Glenn Close to great acclaim in Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard revival) brings a haughty charm to Henry Higgins, pitched somewhere between David Tennant and Dickie Attenborough. Xavier brings a beautifully self-aware silliness to the totally oblivious Prof, especially in ‘An Ordinary Man’ and ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’. His rapport with Emmerdale’s John Middleton as Colonel Pickering is especially fun to watch – and their ‘Eureka!’ moment with Kennedy during ‘The Rain in Spain’ is a joy.

Adam Woodyatt and the My Fair Lady ensemble (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

EastEnders’ Adam Woodyatt is perfectly cast as the lovably roguish Alfred P. Doolittle, a role he was born to play – in his hands, ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’ is delightfully puckish, but it’s the barnstorming ‘Get Me to the Church On Time’, culminating in an exceedingly camp can-can, which really brings the house down. Woodyatt flexed his dramatic chops the last time he performed in Cardiff, to great effect – but it’s brilliant to see him really let loose here.

Lesley Garrett, Michael D. Xavier, Charlotte Kennedy and John Middleton in My Fair Lady (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Tom Liggins brings a boyish charm to Freddy Eynsford-Hill (and a sublime rendition of ‘On the Street Where You Live’) while Heather Jackson, known to many as the West End’s Madame Giry (The Phantom of the Opera), brings gravitas even in just a few scenes as Mrs Higgins, as does world famous soprano wonderful Lesley Garrett, who – if slightly under-utilised – brings warmth to the role of Mrs Pearce, and lends her beautiful voice to some of the show’s best numbers. And kudos to Tom Pring for stealing scenes as a sardonic butler.

The My Fair Lady ensemble in full swing (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Michael Yeargan’s sets are nothing short of an architectural marvel and make an ingenious use of the Millennium Centre’s impressive stage. Especially extraordinary is the way in which Higgins’ luxurious London townhouse rotates during musical numbers to show off an elegant hall, a stylish study, a chic bathroom and a leafy alcove within which an amorous young couple meet by midnight. The sets transport you from the East End to the Embassy Ball, aided by Catherine Zuber’s exquisite costumes which capture every inch of the scale and grandeur of the classic film.

The My Fair Lady ensemble dressed to the nines for a day at the races (photo credit: Marc Brenner)

While there are a few aspects that might benefit from a modern touch – the decision to keep all of Higgins’ unpleasantness towards Eliza does threaten to undercut the budding romance and has an impact on how you view the ending – the sheer talent on display makes My Fair Lady an unmissable night of sumptuous entertainment. With a little bit of luck, you’ll not only have a bloomin’ loverly time, but you’ll dance all night too!

Touring throughout the UK, My Fair Lady is performing at the Wales Millennium Centre for 3 weeks only from 9 – 26 November. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

GET THE CHANCE INTERVIEWS ROBERT WILFORT ON SPIKE (UK TOUR)

Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor Robert Wilfort, who plays the title role in SPIKE, a new play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman which charts the rise of Spike Milligan and The Goons. Milligan was the head writer and one third of The Goons, a working-class British comedy trio which also comprised Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (and, later, Michael Bentine), who took the nation by storm in the 1950s. Despite frequent run-ins with the BBC, The Goons’ avant-garde silliness inspired countless comedic greats from Monty Python to Mischief Theatre. The UK tour ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Robert chats about what it’s like to play such a beloved icon of British comedy, and why Spike aficionados and newcomers alike will leave the theatre laughing!

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Robert!

Thank you for having me.

Tell us a little bit about SPIKE.

The Spike of the title is Spike Milligan, played by me. It’s a new play written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman written about Spike and The Goons, particularly focusing on the time round about when they were starting to become popular in the 1950s. For those of you who don’t know who Spike Milligan is, he’s a hugely influential comedian, writer, poet, performer who burst onto the scene in the early 1950s with this anarchic radio comedy show called The Goons which was quite unlike anything that came before it. It was hugely popular and hugely influential, so this play is exploring the development of that time and a celebration of his work.

How surreal does the play get? The Goons toyed with that kind of comedy.

They did! They were absolutely mad; they took these huge surreal logical leaps. We’re not too surreal: we try to tell the real story of his life, but we do have some fun surreal moments in the playing of it. Spike breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience quite a lot, and the staging is quite fast and fluid, and funny, strange things happen; we mix scenes together. There is a nice surreal thread running through the show.

How do you bring that into the creative process: is the comedy quite regimented or do you keep it quite loose?

We keep it fairly loose – if we interact with the audience we do have room to go off a bit, but we do tend to stick to the script! It’s a great script – the play is very fast and snappy so that was the thing we were trying to capture the most, because The Goons have a huge energy to them. Most of their clips are on BBC Sounds. They’re fast, snappy, they don’t let up with the jokes and we try to capture that energy in the play. If you don’t like one joke, there’s always another one along in a minute! I think what Ian and Nick wanted particularly to capture is that, when we see things on tv that talk about comedian’s life it’s often quite dark, tears of a clown – and Spike did have that side to him; he did have that side to him. He got shell shocked in WWII and had serious mental health issues throughout this life which he was always very honest about. We deal with them but we don’t dwell on them: the tone of the show is joyful and silly and happy, because I think that’s what people need at the moment.

Was it important then to bring those two tones together in the show?

That’s been the big challenge: finding when Spike is ‘on’, which he kind of always was. He was always funny and always telling jokes, he just couldn’t help it. But he could also be quite argumentative and difficult to work with and worked himself into a breakdown. He used to write an episode a week, thirty episodes in a series, and he pretty much did it on his own. It was his passion project, so he would just work and work and work. We showed the effect this had on his marriage. For me as a performer it was about finding the moments of being real as opposed to the jokes.

There are a lot of jokes, a lot of Spike’s jokes – Ian and Nick will freely say that they wrote this show because half of it was written already! We do also act out parts of Goons’ shows as well, with the microphones as if we’re recording them. So there’s a lot of original Spike material in there. It was all about finding the pattern, finding a real person in amongst all the jokes and the tomfoolery.

How do you even begin to approach playing a real person who is so eccentric, unique and beloved? What is your way into that?

When I was offered it, I thought ‘what a great part!’ then I started to get slightly worried because he’s one of the funniest people who has ever been – no pressure! I tried not to let that worry me too much. It helped that I was a fan and I knew his work, my dad was a big fan and he grew up listening to it first time around. I felt like I knew the style of the comedy and then I read and watched a lot about him. I knew his performing style but I wanted to try and find footage of him from the time. I think a lot of people have an image of him as a grumpy old man figure, but he was quite young when he started. So it was about trying to capture his energy and essence without trying to do a picture perfect impression. It’s our version of Spike, our story we’re telling. Ad it was really good fun to research – lots of silly videos!

How do you interact with the other cast members playing The Goons, and get that sense of camaraderie?

Luckily, everyone in the company is really lovely and naturally funny themselves, so it hasn’t been that much of a challenge to look like we’re having fun. It’s about getting the speed and the timing right so it feels like it’s flowing. We have some scenes where they are just messing about in the pub, because that’s how it started (and how a lot of great comedy starts: good friends messing around together in a pub!) Jeremy who plays Harry Secombe is fantastic; Paddy Warner who plays Peter Sellers is fantastic too – so it’s not been hard, we just kind of keep throwing things around and see what works. We still try and play around with it, never try to do it exactly the same every night but tweak it a bit and catch the other person off a little bit. It’s about trying to make other people laugh!

Is that one of the joys of touring this kind of show? That you not only play the different interpretations on the stage every night but different audiences react differently?

They do! That’s the fun: that every theatre presents a new challenge, and a different space and size. You have a different experience depending on where you are. We definitely notice that different towns have different feelings to them – I’m sure Cardiff’s going to be the best, though!

All my friends and family are coming to the Cardiff shows – I’m from Porthcawl so I grew up only half an hour down the road.

Have you ever performed in Cardiff before?

I haven’t performed onstage in Cardiff since I was in the National Youth Theatre – I’ve done TV and radio in Cardiff since but never a play, so I’m really looking forward to it. We’re there the last week in November, we finish on the 26th.

Just before Christmas!

Come and do your Christmas shopping on Queen Street and then see our show – it’s a great day out!

The Goons in 1956

Even if people didn’t grow up with The Goons, they will have grown up with those who were influenced by them, like Monty Python, Mischief Theatre and the Horrible Histories crew.

We acknowledge that at the end of the play, actually: just how many people have been influenced by him. The Goons started in 1950, so you had people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney listening to it, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as well as all of the Pythons. I don’t think you would have had Monty Python and all of these people without Spike. You can hear the influences in later classic sketches, like ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike!’, there’s a version of that on The Goons twenty years before Dad’s Army. People would gather round listen to it on the radio. It was like the rock and roll of comedy: the parents didn’t understand it, but they did. I think Ian and Nick thought Spike may have been forgotten – I’ve actually explained who he was to a lot of people my age.

Is that part of the impetus behind the show: to find out more about this person who influenced so much?

Yes! Also, it was an interesting and important time: all the Goons were in the army, and they would go and entertain the troops. The Second World War helped to create this whole generation of working-class actors, writers and performers. I can’t think of the same happening now: three working-class lads having their own sketch show seems like it would be rare now. It was an interesting and important time, and we want to celebrate that. Spike died 20 years ago, a whole generation have grown up not really knowing him, other than maybe doing his poems at school. We have had all ages in the audience! It’s a good night out for anyone whether you know the Goons or not.

Why is theatre suited to telling this story?

You get the instant reaction, the laughter. It could absolutely work as a TV project, it might have originated as that. Because there’s been no theatre for such a long time, and because there’s that communal feeling you can sense as the show goes on. Being in a space with other people all enjoying the same thing, I don’t think anything is quite like that.

What’s your favourite moment that’s happened so far?

We had a couple of drunk ladies in the front row the other week! That’s the joy of live performance – they were really enjoying it, and joining in. we had a strange moment in Brighton where a few kids broke into the theatre and were running around the royal boxes trying not to get caught! That’s all part of the joy: you never know quite what’s going to happen. The best moment for me is just having an audience being happy and entertained.

What makes you laugh like that? Who are your comedy influences?

My favourites are Vic and Bob! They were my heroes, along with people like Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and Steve Coogan. They have a special place in my heart: pure silliness, pure nonsense.

Speaking of Chris Morris, I often quote “Peter, you’ve lost the news!” out of context, totally unprompted. Do you have a favourite Spike Milligan joke that you find yourself dropping into conversation?

His poems always make me laugh: he has one that goes ‘There was a young man called Wyatt, whose voice was incredibly quiet, and then one day, it faded away, [mimes the rest of the line silently]’. It’s always the strange experimental moments in The Goons that make me laugh most: there’s a scene where a spy has been sent to the Secret Rendezvous, and the code is to knock the door six thousand times. It goes on for ages and the knocks get faster, then the door opens and he asks ‘Is this the Tea House of the Orchard Moon’? ‘No, next door’, and then he does it all over again! What the show deals with is how much Spike had to fight the BBC to get stuff like that on, because the bigwigs at the BBC didn’t understand the comedy. The core of the play is Spike’s battle with the BBC to get the show, and its special effects, how he wanted it.

He ended up transforming BBC sound effects. He’d ask for the most ridiculous things like Big Ben falling off Beachy Head, or a Wurlitzer organ travelling through the desert as fast as it can go. He was constantly pushing and challenging, and out of that came the radiophonic workshop and all the amazing things they did on Dr Who. He wasn’t just an influence on comedy but on radio and sfx as well.

What do you think is the secret of comedy: is it that boundary-breaking rebellion against authority that Spike embodied so well?

I think it is that. It can be saying the least expected thing or breaking the boundaries. Spike would find the surreal or the silly in anything: any turn of phrase he could make a pun out of. I think it is having a way that looks at the world that turns it on its head, that makes it come to your point of view. It doesn’t have to be taboo busting, though there is a place for that in comedy.

Spike wasn’t an overnight success: like all the best kind of artists, he spent years out on the comedy circuit and then people slowly came round to his style. I think the world came to Spike as opposed to the other way round; he didn’t emerge fully formed. He was aways funny; his war memoirs are always a great read because they’re very silly.

He has a joke even on his grave – “I told you I was ill!” – there’s not many people who could do that, and make you laugh long after they’re no longer with us.

And there’s not many people who could have got away with saying what he did to Prince Charles!

What do you want audiences to come out of this play, this theatrical comedy experience, to feel when they leave the theatre?

If we send people out there to explore his work who maybe wouldn’t have before, and to go back to The Goons as a lot of people haven’t listened to them. We just want to send people out happy, really. I want people to go out and say “That was the best actor I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Nothing will ever top that!” Send them out happy, and then dip their toes into this amazing world of comedy.

I’m sure they will, Robert – we can’t wait to see SPIKE!

Please come and see us, we’re really looking forward to Cardiff. My mum’s bringing a coachload of her friends to the Wednesday matinee. Fifty pensioners from Porthcawl!

I don’t think you could have a better audience!

The UK tour of SPIKE ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).

REVIEW The Lavender Hill Mob, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

There’s nothing quite like that Ealing feeling: the slew of indubitably British comedies that raised the spirits of postwar Blighty. There’s misbehaviour, yes – Kind Hearts and Coronets, for one, has more deaths than an episode of Game of Thrones – but it’s all done in a rather genial fashion. In Ealing comedies, hoodlums don spiffy suits and jaunty bowler hats, and stop to wish you a good day after they’ve mugged you. This is the spirit which infuses the new touring production of The Lavender Hill Mob, widely considered one of the finest British films of all time, which performs at the New Theatre in Cardiff this week.

Directed by Jeremy Sams and adapted from T.E.B. Clarke’s 1951 screenplay by Phil Porter, The Lavender Hill Mob follows Henry Holland (Miles Jupp), an unassuming bank clerk now living like a king in Rio. His unlikely rise has inspired a film director (Guy Burgess) to put Holland’s story in the movies – leading Holland and his entourage to re-enact the tale with much theatrical aplomb. It’s as funny as you might expect from a show which is led by two proud alumni of The Thick of It, with Jupp channelling Alec Guinness’ breezy RP charm and Justin Edwards doing an uncanny evocation of the great Stanley Holloway as the befuddled Pendlebury.

Holland’s friends are played by Tessa Churchard, John Dougall, Victoria Blunt, Aamira Challenger and Tim Sutton, with much of the laugh out loud moments coming from their playing of multiple of roles, each one more chaotic than the last. There’s a car chase in Calais, a mad dash through London, and the iconic scene on the Eiffel Tower (on whose novelty souvenirs the plot hinges).

While the heist never quite reaches the comic heights of its original, it’s a consistently amusing and well-played caper, with all the charm of its classic counterpart. For fans of modern comedies like The Play that Goes Wrong, it’s a night of fun and frolics – with The Lavender Hill Mob, you’ll be in criminally good company.

The Lavender Hill Mob is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff until Saturday 5 November. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

REVIEW Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The buoy band that breams were made of! Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical, written by Amanda Whittington and directed by James Grieve, is based on the true ragfish-to-riches story of the best Cornish export since the pasty: an acapella group comprised of local fishermen whose chart-topping rise to fame saw them playing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2011. The musical, which draws on the screenplay for the 2019 film starring James Purefoy and Daniel Mays, includes a raft of sea shanties (including lockdown TikTok sensation Wellerman) alongside original songs written for the show by musical director James Findlay. Having premiered in Plymouth in September, the UK tour drops anchor in Cardiff this week.

The UK touring cast of Fisherman’s Friends 2022

The story centres around the band’s discovery by Jason Langley’s Danny, a disgraced record producer who wants to use the Fishermen for his comeback, and who ends up falling for them hook, line and sinker. With the team at Island Records sceptical of the band being able to find an audience, Danny lies his way to London with the Fishermen in tow. A classic fish out of water, Langley’s interactions with the Fishermen – and his budding romance with Alywyn (Parisa Shahmir), ‘The Taylor Swift of Port Isaac’ – are hugely entertaining to watch.

The UK touring cast of Fisherman’s Friends 2022

This is in no small part due to the energy and enthusiasm of this wonderful cast, who are onstage together for most of the show. Kudos to the actors who play the titular Fishermen: James Gaddas, Robert Duncan, Anton Stephans, John O’Mahony, Hadrian Delacey, Dan Buckley, Dominic Brewer, and the double act of Dakota Starr and Pete Gallagher who won the toughest-fought battle of ‘having the most fun onstage’ I’ve seen in a while. (You can check out our interview with Dakota here). Mind you, everyone onstage (and in the audience) lit up during the scene where the Fishermen hit the Soho club scene – and if you were wondering whether you can disco-ify a sea shanty, then wonder no more.

The UK touring cast of Fisherman’s Friends 2022

The team have done an excellent job at translating the story and sense of place to the stage. St Piran’s Day is duly celebrated and Bodmin duly sassed, and Lucy Osborne’s gorgeous set took my breath away when the curtain went up, and the spectacular opening scene – where the Fishermen sing ‘Norman’s Blood’ on a stormy ocean – is something you truly have to see (or ‘sea’?) for yourself. With such a huge cast, the show nails both the raucous group numbers (like the jolly ‘South Australia’ and any scene in the Golden Lion pub) and intimate two-handers (like the first tentative steps of courtship between Langley and Shahmir, where they circle slowly around each other singing ‘Sloop John B’). Meanwhile, Cornish actors like Susan Penhaligon and Robert Duncan bring a sense of mischief, gravitas and authenticity, and Shahmir lends grace and passion to the stage in ‘A Village by the Sea’.

The UK touring cast of Fisherman’s Friends 2022

The sense of warmth and affection among the cast is sure to reel you in, as will the top-notch singing – these shanties have never sounded better. While you might struggle to remember every Steinman lyric or Osmonds riff, these call-and-response songs are easy to pick up and sing along to – the pitcher sings a verse, and everyone joins in on the chorus. Shanties originated as working men’s songs, designed to help sailors keep to a strict rhythm during everyday tasks on the ship, and to keep up morale. So if you’re feeling even the teensiest bit down in the dumps, a couple of bars of ‘John Kanaka’, ‘Drunken Sailor’, or ‘Blow the Man Down’ is sure to lift you up.

There really is something for everyone in this show. The songs have a sense of history and humour that make them a rich live experience. As one character says: these songs are for anyone with a heart, a soul, and a taste for adventure. Set sail for Fisherman’s Friends and you’re sure to have a fin-tastic time!

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is playing at New Theatre in Cardiff through to 29th October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).

The UK touring cast of Fisherman’s Friends 2022

REVIEW A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sherman Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the tale of four young Athenians who, caught in the throes of unrequited and forbidden love, seek refuge in the forest and find instead a strange new world of magic and mayhem. Sherman Artistic Director Joe Murphy’s joyous reinvention of the play, featuring Welsh Language adaptations by Mari Izzard (HELA) and Sherman Writer in Residence Nia Morais (Crafangau / Claws), sprinkles a little Welsh magic on this production, making it utterly unique and absolutely unmissable.

The play features some of Shakespeare’s most iconic lines and images: Bottom with an ass’ head, the love potion, and the chaotic ‘play within a play’ Pyramus and Thisbe (aka the original Play That Went Wrong) – and ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. And the Sherman’s version not only does justice to these classic moments but adds a new iconic spin to the tale that gives it an authentic Welsh flavor.
The play features some of Shakespeare’s most iconic lines and images: Bottom with an ass’ head, the love potion, and the chaotic ‘play within a play’ Pyramus and Thisbe (aka the original Play That Went Wrong) – and ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. And the Sherman’s version not only does justice to these classic moments but adds a new iconic spin to the tale that gives it an authentic Welsh flavor.

Leah Gaffey and Sion Pritchard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Central to this is the combination of Welsh and English dialogue used throughout (all Welsh dialogue is surtitled in English). The (patriarchal) Athenians speak English while the (matriarchal) Fair Folk speak Welsh – and the moment a character is put under a spell, they switch languages. Welsh becomes the language of magic and mischief, of freedom and control, of love and lust. As with English in the play, it doesn’t just represent one thing: and that blurring between binaries, boundaries and borders underscores the subversiveness of this production; a production which also swaps the gender of characters like Puck (Leah Gaffey) and Lysanna (Lauren Morais) and the roles of Titania (Nia Roberts) and Oberon (Sion Ifan).

It’s a choice that deepen the star-crossed love story at its core, and which brings exciting new perspectives on sexuality, gender roles, and also to the hierarchies in both realms, where the tension between the soon-to-be-married Theseus and Hippolyta mirrors the widening schism between the Fairy King and Queen. Roberts brings a feral grace to Titania and commands the stage even as the conquered Amazonian Queen. Meanwhile, Ifan relishes both the imperious Duke and the impassioned Oberon; his eulogy for his fallen disciple is genuinely moving, even if the uneven power dynamics complicate his grief.

Anyone feel the urge to Lipsync For Your Life?

The set, designed by Elin Steele, an imposing Art Deco amphitheater of emerald green, doubles as both an Athenian temple and a magical forest. Its striking central feature is a RuPaul-esque runway fit for a Queen – and yes, we are indeed treated to the sight of Titania and Oberon sashaying their way down the stage (Shantay, you both stay!) In fact, many of the magic-induced brawls between Lysanna and Demetrius (Tom Mumford), and Helena (Rebecca Wilson) and Hermia (Dena Davies, in her professional stage debut), have the knowing melodrama of a Drag Race feud.

Sion Ifan and Sion Pritchard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It’s tricky to pitch a Shakespearean comedy to modern day audiences, because the intricacies of the language and the shifting cultural touchstones mean that the punchlines don’t always land. But that isn’t the case with this production, which is easily the most hilarious show I’ve seen in years! Gaffey’s Puck ping pongs about the stage as an impish emcee with charisma to spare while the Mechanicals, led by Hannah McPake’s beleaguered Peter Quince and performed by members of non-professional theatre group the Sherman Player, lend a chaotic charm to their doomed dramatics. It’s brilliant to see these excellent young actors get the chance to shine in a professional production, and it will be exciting to see where Edward Lee, Cerys Morgan, Ariadne Koursarou, and Callum Davies go next.

Midsummer’s comedic lynchpin though is the marvellous Sion Pritchard as Nick Bottom, whose comic timing is a thing of beauty. (Anyone who has sampled the delights of S4C original comedy Rybish knows exactly what I’m talking about). His karaoke duet with Ifan’s lovestruck Oberon is a particular highlight – you’ll never hear ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ the same way again – and his Pyramus simply has to be seen to be believed (imagine a drunk Al Pacino doing an Elvis Presley impression, and you’re halfway there).

Sion Pritchard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Fun, flirty and fabulous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the perfect remedy for the past few years, with a tremendously skilled ensemble of Welsh and Wales-based actors bringing new life and fresh laughs to a familiar tale. By the time Midsummer concludes, the story might be done but the dream goes on. The endless potential for transformation – of language, of text, of self – is the true dream, and the Sherman has shown it can be our reality too.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performing at the Sherman Theatre until 29 October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).

BARBARA HUGHES-MOORE INTERVIEWS DAKOTA STARR ON FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS: THE MUSICAL

Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor and singer Dakota Starr, who is part of the touring cast for Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical. This feel-good new show charts the real-life story of the Cornish ‘Buoy Band’, who went from singing sea shanties in their beloved hometown of Port Isaac to performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. The show is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 25 – 29 October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Dakota, who plays Ben, one of the titular Fishermen, chats with us about the joy of singing sea shanties onstage, touring with such a tight-knit cast, and why audiences will come out of the theatre with a song in their hearts!

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Dakota!

Pleasure! Nice to be here.

Tell us a little bit about Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical.

Well, it’s a new musical based on the true story of the band The Fisherman’s Friends, who are a group of unlikely stars who were fishermen from the Cornish town of Port Isaac. They were discovered quite by accident by a record executive and shot to fame in the early 2010s. This show is a slightly fictionalised although based on reality musical about their rise to stardom and its effect on the community and their families.

What role do you play and how did you get involved?

I play Ben, who is one of the main fishermen. There are nine of us in total in the shanty band and I am one of the main singers, which isn’t something I could have said earlier in my career! Our voices blend together quite beautifully, which is an unexpected bonus. I got involved in the usual way: a couple of rounds of auditions, expecting not to get the job at every step!

So you’re already harmonising together as a team?

Absolutely! I’d say of the nine of us, there are probably 3 or 4 who are West End singers, and the rest of us are actors who can hold a tune. One of the clever things they did during the casting was to find nine individual voices that blend together in their natural ranges quite beautifully. The harmonies stitch together really nicely.

Do you have a favourite sea shanty?

There’s a song called John Kanaka which I’m a big fan of, and which we do a couple of times in the show: first, as part of the hometown concert singing for the local community, and later on the trip to London to meet the record producer for the first time. It’s the soundtrack to the band travelling on their minibus to London to seek fame and fortune. That’s my favourite shanty, but there are songs that have been written specifically for the show which are more like folk songs. One of these is sung by Parisa Shahmir as Alwyn, who’s the female lead of the show, and she has such a sensational voice. It’s a sight to behold.

How does the story translate to the stage?

We have a life-size boat that fills the stage in the introduction and then later on during the song Rattling Winches, where they take the wannabe manager out on the boat to see what he’s made of. It’s a real visceral way of showing the world these men come from and the dangers they face, and the graft they have to put in just to scrape a living as professional lobster fishermen. It’s a sight to behold, quite a spectacle.

How do you bond as a cast behind the scenes, especially on such a big UK tour?

It’s a unique cast as far as I’ve experienced in my career: right from the first day of rehearsals, it’s been an environment of kindness and togetherness. It’s fitting, as we’re in a show that’s based on such a close-knit community whose catchphrase is ‘one and all’, that the only way to survive is to come together as a team and as a community. They’ve managed to cast a group of people who’ve done that in the rehearsal room and then now on the road as well. Touring is always a strange and tiring and stressful journey, but today [for example] we had our day off, so I met up with one of the cast and we went for coffee and went shopping together. It’s a chance to bond with someone that I don’t spend any time with onstage. It’s a lovely cast to work with.

What’s your favourite scene to perform with the cast?

My favourite scenes are the ones that take place in the pub. Their entire community is based around a pub called The Golden Lion, which exists in the real Port Isaac. It’s where the men met and rehearsed and started singing together. It’s the hub and heart and soul of that village. The scenes that take place there are filled with camaraderie and a gentle teasing of each other, and a real feeling of a group of people who know each other so well, and who know each other’s histories so well, that they can laugh and cry and get under each other’s skin and have conflict and resolve that conflict all in one environment. Those things feel like the most community-based for the whole cast.

In the spirit of gentle teasing, who do you feel is most and least like their characters?

Parisa (Shahmir, who plays Alwyn) is the most like her character, because Alwyn is a very strong-minded young lady who knows her own mind and what she wants and what she doesn’t. Even having this romance with a record producer doesn’t tempt her into the world of professional music. She’s a singer-songwriter both in the show and in real life, and she’s given the opportunity in the show to chase a solo career if she wants one, and to see what the music business is like – and decides that she’s happy where she is. She sings and plays and lives in Port Isaac, and that’s where her heart lives, and she doesn’t want to be chewed up and spat out by an industry that has no interest in. parisa has that same strength of character and purpose – she’s very well cast!

I’m going to say Jason Langley, who plays Danny the record exec, is the least like his character. That character is kind-hearted, which Jason shares with him, but he’s a blagger, which Jason doesn’t. the character is very much out for himself at first, but he learns the power of community and the strength of respecting the people around you and the love a community can have for each other, which is alien to him. He’s happy to lie and cheat and get what he wants and fight his way in, which is very un-Jason: Jason is very team-oriented and looking out for everyone else all the time.

What do you want audiences to come out of the theatre feeling after this show?

I would like them to come out of the theatre feeling closer to the people around them, and feeling bonded to the places they come from and the people they know and the people they love. It’s such a story of people supporting each other and lifting each other up, and that we’re all greater than the sum of our parts; that we can all, as a community or as a team, be something quite special. I think, in this current climate, that a sense of community and of working together and helping each other is more essential than ever.

Have you ever performed in Cardiff before, or the New Theatre specifically?

It’ll be my first time performing in Cardiff! We have family friends who live in Cardiff so I can’t wait for them to see me on the big stage for the first time. I’ve visited many times but never performed here, so it’s exciting for me.

We’re very excited to see you perform in Cardiff! I have one last question for you: because the Fisherman’s Friends are known as a buoy band, I want to know: do you have a favourite boy band?

Tricky!

So many good ones to choose from, I know.

There are! I’m taking this question far too seriously.

You can’t be too serious about boy bands, Dakota!

I know! My favourite boy band is an acapella group called The Magnets: one of them is a beat boxers and the rest of the voices go from bass to very high tenor. They do incredible close harmony versions of pop songs that are done a cappella.

How perfect for the Fisherman’s Friends! Thank you so much for your time, Dakota – we can’t wait for the show.

Can’t wait to perform there! Thank you for having me.

Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 25 – 29 October. You can find out more about the production and book tickets here, and check out our syndicated interview with Dakota’s cast members Robert Duncan, James Gaddas, and Susan Penhaligon, along with director James Grieve and writer Amanda Whittington here.