Barnum at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Book by Mark Bramble
Lyrics: Michael Stewart
Music: Cy Coleman
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Jugglers, acrobats, gymnasts et al entertain as the audience takes their seats – latecomers miss a treat. Spectacle and excitement with dazzling displays of circus expertise – Barnum has them all. Based on the life of American showman Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum who took his team of trapeze artists clowns, jugglers plus talented performers such as the singer Jenny Lind all over America and the major cities of the world, this is musical theatre traditional style given a new fillip by Cameron Mackintosh in this Chichester Festival Theatre production.
All the elements of the original Broadway production are here, but for those who were fortunate (or are old enough!) to have seen the production starring Michael Crawford which ran for a record-breaking 655 performances at the London Palladium after it opened in 1981, the big question must be: Does Brian Conley who is playing the demanding and exhausting role of showman PT Barnum live up to the almost-impossibly-high standard created by Crawford?
The answer has to be: Yes! Yes! And Yes! Conley’s Barnum is a likeable con man who could charm monkeys off trees – and does. Though when he forsakes his long-suffering wife Chairy, whose views differ radically from his as to what is right and what is not, siding with him becomes momentarily difficult. Even here, how can you feel anything but gut-wrenching suspense for a man who walks a tightrope to get to the temptation awaiting him on the other side in the shape of a delectable Swedish opera singer?? Metaphorically speaking, you say? No – in a daring act which took weeks to perfect, Conley actually does walk the tightrope. Indeed, throughout the show, along with the rest of the cast, he runs the gamut of acrobatic and dance skills with aplomb and style.
The bubbly Linzi Hateley more than holds her own as Chairy, the wife who despite brooking none of her circus-loving hubby’s nonsense, remains true to him till the end. The story of their marriage, with all its ups and downs, runs in perfect tandem with the on-going razzmatazz of the show, peppered with songs such as the foot-tapping ‘Come Follow the Band’ which opens Act I and Barnum’s theme song of ‘There Is A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute’ plus the poignancy of ‘The Colors of My Life’ sung with feeling by Conley and Hateley, as is ‘So Little Time’ later, in Act II. If there is a criticism to be made – and in such a polished production it seems almost invidious to do so – it is that Kimberly Blake as opera star Jenny Lind, while looking stunning and ethereal in an ice blue creation that would not look out of place at the Oscars, is a tad too ethereal. The lack of chemistry between her and Barnum renders their love affair not entirely believable – a minor hiccup in an otherwise five star production.
A considerable chunk of credit for the fizzing excitement that characterises this high-energy show must go to the ensemble. On stage for most of the time, the acrobats, trapeze artistes, high wire experts and dancers never flag. Some neat cameo roles, too, from David Birch as an anxiety-ridden Wilton, while Edward Wade’s Julius Goldschmidt is a gem.
With great costumes and breath-taking staging – including a mock-up of the nether limbs of an elephant – this show is a firecracker.
Runs until Saturday August 15th
The music, folky and rustic was the backbone of the play, and was much like the play itself, pitch perfect, warm, and a crossing through time. As ever, the work on the stage was wonderful, the evening and the garden behind turning a sparse stage into a well made wood, the perfect stage for our characters to play on.
Rosalind was performed well, but shone as Ganymede, who it was obvious the actress relished playing, and did so with perfect comedic timing and a real chemistry with Orlando, who stole the audience in his wrestling scene.
Though the actresses in the parts were wonderful, there was little point turning the Duke’s into Duchesses, especially after the deliciously evil one disappeared from the play promptly and had nothing much to do.
Celia was played warmly and with wit, Pheobe and her lovelorn puppy were brilliant comically, and Touchstone was a very well-played fool, but nothing particularly new was brought to the play’s most famous phrase.
The folk songs gave a sense of real community, both to the fictional Forrest and to the audience, and, as said before, were probably the best and most memorable element of the play, with the wonderful happy ending a joy to behold for even the most cynical.
All in all, this was a play with a warm heart and brilliant players, and Sophia Gardens made the Forest of Arden come alive.
As You Like it runs until the 1st August
Everyman have done it again; with a feel good, bubble-gum musical, with subtle intelligence and integrity in a candy wrapper.
Charity herself could verge into the territory of annoying with her relentless optimism, but the subtle grit of her allows for her buoyancy without ever giving the audience a cavity. Charity is played vivaciously, and her joy is as infectious as the songs. The big number, Big Spender was brilliant and brassy; a real crowd pleaser, to be honest every song was well delivered, and every dance expertly choreographed. The one weak note in the soundtrack, however, is one of the most well-known songs – while The Rhythm of Life is sung with as much power and passion as any of them, it didn’t seem as polished, and sometimes tripped over itself. By no means a bad song, it had moments of the trademark excellence, but felt mostly underwhelming. Still, the lesser known songs, and the entire soundtrack save that shone. The actor portraying Oscar had brilliant comedic timing, and won the audience over in his first appearance, while Charity’s best friends gave great supporting performances.
Overall, this was a real big winner of a show, whipping up a delight for the near packed audience.
Before starting this review I would like to congratulate the collaborators Hijinx and Punchdrunk Enrichment on arguably the most incredible and engaging immersive, site specific performance that I have ever had the pleasure of participating in, a bold statement that I hope this review provides justification for.
“We’ve all lost something: glasses, keys, memories, love, loved ones, our way…Are these things gone forever or have they found a home elsewhere? Hidden in Cardiff is a world of lost things. In the shadows, behind closed doors, we await you”
On Wednesday the 1st of July I joined a steadily growing queue outside the Maldron Hotel in Cardiff to see Beneath The Streets: Lost and Found. An exciting buzz of anticipation was rippling through the audience and before long a briefing on what was to come was delivered, along with mandatory dust masks. The buzz was now turning into excited curiosity as we were led to the front doors of Jacob’s Antiques Market.
Upon entering the space I was immediately drawn to the attention of detail that had been used. Given that I am familiar with the regular layout of Jacob’s Antiques Market I was extremely impressed with how the design team and stage carpenter had utilised the space given to create this incredibly beautiful maze spanning two floors. I will admit I had trouble finding my way around for the first 15 minutes. Everywhere you went you were met with a corner, a drape or darkness! Opening doors to nothingness, dim lighting that cast shadows over performers and beautiful decorations adorning different sections of this new world.
My particular favourite was a pyramid made from pages and pages of books in the section of lost words, the impressive set design continued as I found myself being led by an actor into a dark room lit with a few candles, to be told a tragic love story, only to find him conversing through a non-existent mirror with his lady-love. An extremely clever trick that left myself and the other audience member, that had been lured to the ‘other room’, in complete shock. Upon discovery of the lower lair I came across sets of actors telling different stories, all looking for something or finding something. Ascending to the upper we were greeted with corporate scenes, scientists, products, offices and even a small exhibition. Eventually a message sounded over the tannoy asking that all staff report to a meeting on the upper level, the audience then witnessed the delivering of an elixir which had side effects on every staff member. The staff began to engage with the audience, but in a different way than before – this was then our signal to be led out.
I feel that words simply cannot describe how beautiful, thought-provoking and magical the experience was. Every actor was superb, it was inspiring to see the relationships between characters and the chemistry felt in each situation, credit is due to all that participated. The set and costume designs were outstanding and considering how much effort had gone into stage production I felt this really complimented the actors and helped to bring the performance to life.
As an actor that has performed in immersive theatre I applaud with admiration each and everyone that performed in this flawless production, immersive theatre is the most exciting of theatre forms that I hope all actors enjoyed delivering to their audience. With the element of lost and found I can speak from personal experience when agreeing that I did lose myself here because I was so completely engaged with this perfect production, I will definitely be the first in line for tickets when Hijinx and Punchdrunk Enrichment honour the people of Cardiff with another outstanding show.
The Other Room has undergone a transformation and after a certain amount of hype, has opened its floodgates with the aim of producing a torrent of new Welsh plays, as well as a foundation of post-1950 classics. The first of these is Blasted.
The bus journey home after seeing Blasted – my first live Sarah Kane play, having read them all – was an interesting one. Unsure of how I felt I started projecting my feelings onto the world around me. A large boxer dog was wailing loudly fairly continuously for a few minutes, before a man approached it with his own, smaller, more placid dog held under his arm, like a gun. He held his dog close to the boxer so that they could sniff each other for a while before he returned to his seat. The boxer fell silent, its anxiety eased.
I felt like that boxer. I wanted to howl with it. I needed someone to sniff, to connect with, and to understand.
Blasted is not a good play, nor an enjoyable play: those are simply the wrong words. It is one heck of an experience however, and you will feel something, whether that’s disgust or arousal, horror or empathy.
This is Sarah Kane’s first play, and when it opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1995 it was called a “disgusting piece of filth” by Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail. This opinion was shared by many.
However, many critics backtracked in subsequent years, such as The Guardian’s Michael Billington who said “I got it wrong”. Since her suicide in 1999 – leaving five plays and one short film behind – she has gained further reverence posthumously.
Blasted manages to pile horror upon horror. It is only by going to such dark extremes that certain philosophical ideas come to light, and a moral is found. What makes one death worse than another? A life more valuable? To paraphrase one of the lines: your arse is not special.
In the face of abjection, each character has their own defence mechanisms; their way of rationalising the irrational. It is a wonderfully complex exploration of human interaction and broken, vulnerable minds.
Louise Collins plays the innocent Cate, and manages to straddle the chasm between waif and harbinger-of-doom. She gives us and Cate her all, complete with tears, snot and unnerving blackouts. From the moment she steps fresh-faced and wide-eyed into the room, to the pallid, red-eyed bowing at the end, she undergoes a slow catharsis throughout the play. A brutal transformation and performance.
In contrast, Christian Patterson is the foul-mouthed, capricious Ian – a tabloid journalist paying for the two’s stay in a hotel in Leeds. He is every bit the antithesis of Cate, who he manipulates and hurts in order to appease himself. Christian bares all; despite his character’s anger and bigotry, he allows us to see the hurt and the fear. There is humour too, which bobs to the surface when desolation sits like oil.
If Ian is the great white, Simon Nehan gives us the Megalodon as the Soldier. He is vicious and feral; yet for all his barbarism he too is darkly comic. He executes the bloodiest and most heinous acts that society is too ashamed to call its own. Blasted is arguably an anti-war play; it certainly shows war to be the worst of humanity. Within a character that is extreme and highly symbolic, Simon mines little personal nuggets of truth and reason.
Director Kate Wasserberg has no doubt spent a long time with the actors, pushing them to places which had me squirming in my seat and neurotically twirling my pencil. A feeling of tension prevails throughout.
The production benefits from a commissioned soundtrack by composer Nick Gill. Piano, marimba, whisperings and static haunt and fill the darkness between scenes.
The Other Room really is small: with just 44 seats the audience are in the hotel room in Leeds, which despite being expensive looks unsettling from the start. A large and oppressive painting evocative of the River Styx hangs above the neatly-made bed, contrasting with angelic white curtains that surround the venue’s fire escape. There is a smoky whiff of The Royal Court.
Kane said of the theatre “I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind”. Last night, completely by chance, a cloud of dense white smoke curled behind Ian and the Soldier, and formed what I thought was a ghost. I was simultaneously horrified and praising of the production values. It soon dissipated and I realised my mistake, but I am thankful The Other Room provided such a personal and uncanny experience.
To return to my bus journey home: I sat beside a man listening to heavy metal and thought how anxious and stressed I would be listening to that- why on Earth does he?
Then I realised, Blasted is heavy metal.
As part of The Other Room’s ‘Life in Close Up’ season, it runs until March 7th; tickets are available from their website www.otherroomtheatre.com.
I recommend getting along and seeing what this budding new theatre has to offer.
Review by Eifion Ap Cadno
Production photo by Pallasca Photography
Credit Warren Orchard
Choreography: Deborah Light, Eddie Ladd and Gwyn Emberton
Director: Deborah Light
Caitlin; Eddie Ladd
Dylan: Gwyn Emberton
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Based on the writing of Caitlin, the wife of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, this dance production tells of her life with the poet through the medium of a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous which she started to attend some twenty years after his death. Similar in style that of the one-woman show performed at the Sherman Theatre in 2003, it could equally have been named ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy.’
Caitlin’s recognition of the destruction wrought upon her life is portrayed in a series of dance moves, many of them violent in the extreme. In focussing on the turbulences of the Dylan marriage, director choreographer Deborah Light adheres closely to Caitlin’s own perception of her alcoholism and her life. The athleticism and technical skills of Eddie Ladd as Caitlin are showcased brilliantly, although there is a tendency to over- use of repetition, which can be tedious at times. One thinks of Ladd as a dancer but Light also allows her to speak, albeit briefly. Her speaking voice enthrals as much as her dance technique and makes a considerable contribution to Ladd’s characterisation. Her reiteration at intervals throughout that, while Dylan was a poet, “I could have been a dancer” adds poignancy to the overall projection of chaos, with dancers and furniture crashing around the stage for much of the time.
Ladd’s boundless energy is phenomenal, as is that of Gwyn Emberton, as Dylan. Many of Emberton’s dance moves require him to roll around the floor or balance precariously on a pyramid of stacked tubular and plastic chairs that teeter ominously. The said chairs are an integral part of the production, being used by the dancers use not only to represent actual objects – a baby’s pushchair, for instance – but also mood. There is no set, and these are the only props, barring a paperback book and four glasses of water with sweets in. Seated on some twenty chairs of the same ilk are the remainder of the cast (actually the audience), representing the members of the AA meeting which Caitlin is addressing.
In the year which marks the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth and the 60th anniversary of the iconic Under Milk Wood, it was inevitable that all aspects of his life would be explored in theatrical performances both nation and world-wide. His lifelong battle with alcoholism has been well documented; that of his wife Caitlin possibly less well so, In portraying this, and showing that while in some aspects it bound them together, Light’s production shows how eventually it destroyed not only their marriage but both of them.
Runs at Chapter for two more performance: Thursday October 30th at 6.30 and 8.30
Performances on Mon 3 + Tue 4 Nov at Volcano, The Iceland Building, 27-31 High Street, Swansea.
Photos by Nadine Ballantine
One of the most recognised British metalcore bands of the 21st century, I was rather impressed to see that Bring Me The Horizon had included a date in Wales on their Sempiternal tour alongside Crossfaith (whom I undeniably looked forward to seeing, as their music has literally appeared to spring on to the music scene from nowhere) and heavy progressive band Empress from London. An easy representation of their recent fame is proven in the fact that tickets for this singular Cardiff date sold out within an hour or two of release. Luckily, I was not about to miss this opportunity and made my way downstairs at the early hour of 9am to ensure I got tickets to this unmissable tour date.
Anyway, I arrived on the night, May 5th, an hour before. The line was already filled with ecstatic chants and eager conversation of those who were there before me. Some even arrived earlier on in the day and sat around towards the front of the queue; dedication of fans is often unquestionable in the rock scene.Upon enetering the venue I followed through the hall straight to where crowds were gathering in front of the stage. Empress were already playing by this point. Though I hasten to add the lack of enthusiasm across the room, the band is relatively small and unknown, but they were cheered on and listened to regardless. For a rather insignificant band, yet to make their impact on rock magazines and television, they delivered a rather impressive, heavy set list. Lead singer Ollie Loring also promised to hang around by merchandise after the show for anyone who wanted to strike up a chat, and they seemed like a decent group of friendly guys.
Between Empress and Crossfaith, pits began to open up and I was pushed to the front few rows of the crowds where I awaited Crossfaith’s entrance. Considering the band is Japanese, don’t speak much English and have never been to the UK before, many were apprehensive, but their doubts were quickly swept away. Bursting in with their hit single Monolith, the fans erupted with loud outbursts and movement. Members of Crossfaith certainly took pride in stage movement; jumping around and into the crowd to join the rest of their fans. I knew their music was impressive before, but the adjective ‘lively’ would be such an understatement that I feel it unsuitable to use. It was hard to keep both your feet on the ground from the excitement that echoed through the hall during their set. They take the crown so far for the most impressive support act I’ve ever seen. If you’re into deathcore, circle pits and violent head banging, I genuinely put this band forward as a suggestive music alternative.
Time came for Bring Me The Horizon to soon make their way on stage. At this point, I was one row away from the barrier and surrounded by fans holding letters and toys to throw up on stage to the members during the set. Conversation bubbled around the room as stage technicians set up the instruments and everybody prepared for a terrific end to an already good night. The lights went out and there wasn’t one person in the room not roaring or screaming in anticipation. By this point, some people had already broken down into tears as they prepared to meet their heroes. Strong strobe lighting illuminated the room, and lead singer Oli Sykes, surrounded by the rest and equally credited Bring Me The Horizon members took center stage. They opened with the globally recognised new single of theirs; Shadow Moses. Fans gladly sang along and it made me pleased to see Oli genuinely smiling about the fact that he was there.
Fortunately, by this point I was fully at the front, on the barrier. I was able to see every member of the band enjoying themselves (including Jordan Fish, the recent synth player addition to Bring Me) as well as getting a good view of everything that was going on. The significant point I noticed during this gig was that every song had an even greater impact on the band members than the crowd. As lead Oli began to scream his own lyrics, he stood up to face everybody and there were tears in his eyes already, this early on into the gig. The fact that somebody who wrote and had heard the song a thousand times was so easily broken down by it really showed the emotion and meaning behind what they stand for as a band.
He got on his knees, and sung into the floor while he trembled and took sharp, short breaths from trying to stop himself fully breaking down in front of everybody. Never have I seen anybody so close to their own music before in my life, and I thoroughly applaud him for his vibrant, inspiring expression of emotion during this concert, and it quickly blew BMTH’s vastly growing ‘mainstream’ reputation away from my mind. The rest of the night was equally as brilliant. Even fifteen rows in front, I could still feel the pushes and shoves from the mosh pit at the back of the room, and felt the crowdsurfers landing on my head to be brought over the barrier by the security guards. The good thing about rock music is that there’s always a beat for every fan to follow even if they don’t know the words, and an amalgamation of old and modern tracks on the setlist proved a very successful idea.
Overall, the night was one of the best of my life. Empress and Crossfaith members were hanging around merchandise; making friends and signing tickets. I briefly had photos and talked to them (genuine friendly guys) before leaving, and it was only when the cold night air hit me that I realised how incredible the night actually was. To summarise how much I recommend Bring Me The Horizon to mediocre metal listeners, at 11pm I was still sat outside the venue, bawling away because it would be ages until their next tour. A fantastic mid show to Bring Me’s Sempiternal tour.
Review Hannah Rhianne Newberry
Photos Nadine Ballantine