Category Archives: Touring Mouse

PRESSURE TR Bath & TOURING

 DANGEROUS DAYS AND COURAGEOUS SCIENCE

 

 

This terrific meteorological thriller, set in the crucial days before D-Day, is written by – and stars – David Haig. In 2014 at Chichester a lot of us predicted (nay, demanded) a West End transfer, and were thwarted. It has been touring, under the banner of Cambridge Arts and the Touring Consortium, and to catch it in Bath was more than a treat. Capital city, you now have your chance. Don’t blow it…

 

 

Directed by John Dove with sure, sharp concentration, it is a beautifully researched and immaculately pitched piece about the British meteorologist Dr Stagg (adept in spotting temperamental weather here) who had to defy Eisenhower’s own met-man and tell the vulnerable expeditionary force first not to go on D-Day – and then, even more audaciously, to take a run at it in the 8-hour lull between storms the next day. It should outlast the actor-writer who made it, and become part of the canon of WW2 dramatic chronicles, like Flare Path or The River Line. My 2014 review is here – and gives you the bones of the story:
https://theatrecat.com/tag/pressure/
But I would now add to that that Haig’s performance is even more refined, a scientist under terrible pressure to tell his truth to power, sometimes tremblingly afraid of being wrong, passionately calling in more and more information. To create an edge-of-the-seat thriller in which minutes on end have to consist of people taking down figures off the telephone is achievement enough: to humanize it like this, even better.
The casting is spot-on too: Malcolm Sinclair was born to be Eisenhower, snarlingly charming, towering over valiant little Stagg, softening in his encounters with his lover Lt Summersby (Laura Rogers, also excellent). And honour to Michael Mackenzie’s facial expression as Admiral Ramsay when – in charge of those flat-bottomed landing-craft and cumbersome concrete floating harbours – he hears Stagg speak of possible 10ft waves. Which would have drowned thousands, had Ike not believed the Briton.
And Mackenzie also turns up in one of the useful moments of light relief, as an electrician, one of the craftsmen drafted in to the D Day HQ at Southwich House. And not allowed to go home, because once you knew the immense secret of Operation Overlord, you were sequestered.
As I say, I stand by my original review https://theatrecat.com/tag/pressure/ and every last mouse of it.

https://touringconsortium.co.uk/show/pressure/Touring: Richmond next week, then Park Theatre NW
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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LEAF BY NIGGLE Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MEETS MINDFULNESS IN THE MIDST OF TOLKIEN’S TIMEWASTING

J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other things, is famous for two: his unending ability to procrastinate, and his heated (and repeated) refusals that his work could (or should) be read allegorically. He dismissed those who looked for the mud of the Somme in the grim marshes on the borders of Mordor with cold contradiction; he may well have spent more time playing Patience than writing or working; and he would no doubt have been flatly unimpressed by the myriad allegories my brain kept irrepressibly chasing through Leaf by Niggle, a tale entirely free from elves or dwarves (though its enervating, endearing hero, “a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make… but did not hurry with his preparations” might surely have just a pinch of hobbit). This is a story whose undoubted magic is surreal and spiritual, rather than wrought by sorcery: and its intensely imagined world, told with folklore simplicity, seems to glow with hidden meanings from every well-judged word, here delivered complete on stage with exquisite clarity by Richard Medrington in a virtuoso solo performance.

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle starts gently, discursively; the story comes upon us unawares, almost in spite of itself, but grows inexorably gripping, even terrifying, as it twists dynamically from lackadaisical charm to surreal brutalism, and onwards to curious, open-ended enlightenment. Performer Richard Medrington begins by telling us his own history: how, long ago, he thought of adapting Leaf by Niggle for puppetry performance, but the idea never got off the ground; how he started writing an enormous fantasy novel, then “triumphantly!” put it aside unfinished. Irrepressibly, life always kept getting in the way of his creative projects: life’s practical, intimate family tasks, like repairing a house damaged by flood, or going through the accumulated treasures of a large family attic when his elderly mother needed to move into sheltered housing. But this, he realised, on re-reading it several years later, is exactly what Leaf by Niggle is about: the “tremendous crop of interruptions” which constantly distract us from our chosen task if we let them. The props on stage, accordingly, are harvested from Medrington’s own “crop”, with many glorious finds from that attic: each one provokes its own history or memory, often intersecting with parallels or similar pathways in Tolkien’s life (or Niggle’s). Leaf by Niggle thus takes shape inside a peculiarly personal, well-fitting frame which feels genuinely original: and Medrington’s circumstantial, disarmingly direct chat quietly morphs into a masterclass of assured, compelling storytelling, Medrington acting all Tolkien’s small cast of characters in turn, against a gentle, intriguing folk-instrumental soundscape by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.

Niggle is a “footler,” “the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees”, and his kind heart constantly distracts him from the canvas he endeavours (but keeps failing) to finish, often helping friends and neighbours instead, to Niggle’s resigned annoyance. The gentle chaos of his life doesn’t suit the Government, and, torn summarily from his art, he is plunged into the horrifying ordeal of the Workhouse Infirmary. But here, in a punishing and boring work regime, “he was becoming master of his own time; he began to know just what he could do with it.” Focusing steadily on tasks which are themselves a distraction, he unlocks, and learns to harness, an extraordinary power of potential. Returning to his work, the results are astonishing.

You’ll have to see what you think it is about. While every tempting allegory can be teasingly dislodged, for me, it was about life, death, Purgatory and Paradise; or about artistic struggle, frustration and fulfilment; or about the price we pay to learn to cultivate raw talent into honed skill… And each time my every allegorical reading slid off the next corner of his multi-faceted plot, Tolkien just winked at me calmly. Ultimately, it’s not about deciding or imposing a final answer. It’s about noticing the thoughts this story provokes in you, mindfully – and learning from them.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating and a touring mouse: Touring Mouse wide

Touring across the UK until 25 November: details here  

Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 15 November 2017 (but no puppets involved!)

Presented by Puppet State Theatre with the support of the Tolkien Trust, the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh and Creative Scotland

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THE DREAM FACTORY Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS HALF-TERM HEAVEN AT NORWICH PUPPET THEATRE

“Have you ever wondered where dreams come from? Or how they get into your head?” A thought-provoking debut production from House of Stray Cats, The Dream Factory takes us on an intriguing creative journey into the sometimes dark, sometimes brilliant world of dreams from the point of view of Sophie, a young girl who has suddenly lost her ability to dream. Picking up on the sensitive, courageous spirit of recent works for children like Inside Out, The Dream Factory eventually finds Sophie a new way to dream happily again, but, like life, this is isn’t a straightforward journey. Sophie has plenty of adventures along the way, some dreams that go wrong, and even a nightmare, all animated by beautiful puppets who swoop, swirl and swim before us, sometimes floating right up into the audience to interact with delighted children.

Sophie herself is a puppet, and we have a cast of three fully integrated actor-puppeteers who also appear as characters in the action in their own right, while also voicing the puppets we meet: Katriona Brown, Nicole Black and prime mover Maia Kirkman-Richards, who has also written and produced the show, as well as designing and creating the wider cast of puppets. A vividly evocative soundscape by Paul Mosley illustrates each change in mood as the story unfolds with a flowing combination of synths, piano, strings and other electronic samples, bolstered here and there with percussive ‘found sounds’ (like crunching glass) to give texture. We get plenty of good songs – setting Kirkman-Richards’ naively poignant lyrics to simple, clear melodies ideal for children – though the rest of the piece relies mainly on physical theatre and puppetry, largely ‘voiced’ with inarticulate gasps, cries or sighs, rather than any extended wordy narrative. This comparative wordlessness, outside the songs, allows the production to engage even the youngest children, while its elegant dreamscapes appeal visually to young and old. A simple set of white wooden furniture (designed by Maia Kirkman-Richards and Peter Morton) begins as Sophie’s bedroom, but wardrobe, bed and dressing table soon evolve dynamically into mountains, waves and the Dream Factory itself: like a dream, the action constantly develops, and often in unexpected or unspecified directions. Our own imaginations, happily, get to fill in the tantalising gaps.

Although Inside Out and Up were groundbreaking in their unflinching psychological detail after the shiny Disney universe which had held sway over children’s entertainment for so long, emotional seriousness has always been the backbone of any good children’s story, all the way back to the dark, disturbing tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Dream Factory deals with profound themes of grief, loss and fear in a constructive, original spirit which does not seek to minimise or ignore pain, but rather to acknowledge it, accept it and watch life move beyond it into something not necessarily better, but different and more bearable. It’s an enchanting, enlightening and ultimately comforting watch.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

[Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 23 October 2017]

Touring across the UK until 14 November: details and tickets here Touring Mouse wide

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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THE PEDLAR OF SWAFFHAM John Peel Arts Centre, IP14

CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DREAMS COMING TRUE IN MEDIEVAL NORFOLK

In Norfolk, we tend to be quietly, fondly proud of our surroundings – with an emphasis on ‘quietly.’ The tradition of Norfolk understatement is legendary, rivalled only by our keen attachment to the smooth horizons and vast skies which dominate our severe rural landscape. Accordingly, it shouldn’t have surprised me (as a local) that I had never heard the Norfolk folktale of John Chapman, the dreaming pedlar who found a fortune buried in his garden and used it generously to restore his beloved town of Swaffham, even though the story is almost six hundred years old; because we don’t shout about things, most of the time, round here.

However, we should. Alan Huckle has dusted off the pedlar’s adventure for posterity, bringing Chapman’s story of dreaming conviction and calm defiance to life for a new generation, and giving his characters plenty to sing (if not shout) about, in a simple, clean production with minimal scenery, Medieval costumes and natural Norfolk accents. Swaffham is in thrall to the evil Lord Thomas Styward (a joyously dastardly Alan Bolton), the town crumbling into disrepair as Styward siphons off taxes into his own coffers. Chapman, though penniless, proclaims that he will himself start the fund for the town’s restoration, by following the instructions of his dream to find treasure; and he actually finds not one treasure, but two, in the course of the plot, stubbornly clinging to his dreams in the face of hardship and ridicule. Styward, meanwhile, has unpleasant matrimonial designs on Chapman’s pretty daughter Margaret (Beth Spaul), who is already warmly attached to the bashful shepherd Garth (Gary Stodel); other Swaffham noblemen grow progressively more suspicious of Styward; and three angry Essex farmers are battling Styward in a dispute over land, now turning ugly. Throw a spectral, unscrupulous yet dim henchman into the mix (Rob Backhouse as the well-named Mudworthy), a couple of fabulously no-nonsense alehouse landladies (April Secrett as Rosie, Cherryl Jeffries as Desima) and some strong company scenes – complete with a dog on stage – and quite an evening’s entertainment unfurls.

Standout central performances from Tim Hall, gloriously clear-voiced as a lovable and ultimately admirable John Chapman, and Julie Bolton as his superbly strong, straight-talking wife Catheryne, with skilled support from Peter Sowerbutts as Rauf Yolgrave, lift this production from earnest am-dram into something altogether more genuine and interesting. Huckle’s score, with piano and violin accompaniment occasionally fleshed out by drums on stage, is at its best in catchy, folk-inspired numbers: from the rollicking, sprightly “Never believe in dreams” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Pedlar” to charming slower pieces: “The pale moon rising”, and moving soprano trio “Be Strong”. The libretto goes from deadpan to hilarious: a brilliant duel-duet between Chapman and his wife entitled “The Pig Sty” (you’ll find out why) provokes ripples of laughter. But there’s wholesome folk wisdom too, and everywhere the unimposing warmth and calm honesty of rural life. The cast is uneven, the performance feels patchy here and there, and pace might be improved with a few judicious cuts, particularly of repeated choruses. But for charm, sincerity and real worth, The Pedlar of Swaffham is worth staying with until journey’s end.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Touring: 22 September at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (01986 897 130) and 23 September at Convent School Theatre Swaffham (joan-h@live.co.uk – charity performance) 

Rating: Three (and a rural outing for the Musicals Mouse)3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI Donmar, WC2

AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS, 1964

 
When Teresa May at the Tory Conference quoted the Sam Cooke lyric “A change is gonna come” , many on the left suffered, not unreasonably, a violent conniption of indignation. A Conservative hijack of a civil rights anthem from the US 1960’s, by a soul genius shot dead not long afterwards!   Yet hey, anyone may respond to a great, wild, yearning song of hope. And by glorious serendipity, the Donmar brings us Kemp Powers’ play, imagining the genesis of that song: a startling, powerful, moving hour and a half directed with heart by our own Kwame Kwei-Armah.

 
It is the February night when Cassius Clay, only 22, becomes heavyweight champion of the world. He spends it with three friends in a hotel room: the host is Malcolm X, of the black-power “Nation of Islam” , guarded by the devoutly humourless Karim at the door, he is nonetheless shortly to break with it for a less radically racist and segregationist faith and ideology. They’re joined by the football star Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. The four argue, joke, and needle one another. Malcolm, older, watchful and serious, has converted Cassius; they pray together, and the famous name-change to Muhammed Ali is imminent. The other two laugh about the impossibility of giving up Grandma’s pork-chops and white girls, so muh more “obstreperous” and fun than X’s ‘temple sisters’.

 

 

Moreover Jim is working towards parlaying his sporting fame into a film career, though as ‘sacrificial negro’ his character gets killed early on, and Sam is in love with the idea of connecting with the soul of his white fans as well as his black brothers. Malcolm X taunts him, citing Bob Dylan – a white kid from Minnesota – expressing more anger and rebellion against injustice than Sam. The men leap, joke and fight, lithe as panthers; the Reverend Minister Malcolm, sometimes visibly irritated, pushes the radical, vital revolutionary line, excoriating the carefree athletes as “monkeys dancing for an organ-grinder.. bourgeois negroes too happy with your scraps”. Sam protests that he liked JFK and that Malcolm’s “chickens come home to roost” comment about the Dallas murder was wrong.

 

 

In one fascinating row, the gleamingly black Jim hits back at him with “kinda funny how you light-skinned cats always end up the most militant”. When Sam storms back from a row with a brown-bagged bottle of whisky, the preacher’s sanctimonious “You haven’t considered the offence to brother Cassius, who does not drink now” is met with “You haven’t smelt his breath in the last hour”.

 
Comic laddishness and earnest idealism, thoughtless energy and political extremism clash and mix at a key moment in America’s struggle towards racial justice. The cast are wonderful: Sope Dirisu as Cassius scampering, dancing, reliving his bout, elastically athletic and merrily bumptious, “OMG why am I so pretty!?”. David Ajala is solid thoughtful Jim, Arinzé Kene a Sam conflicted, angry at insults, creative.  Twice, with startling brilliance, he stops the show with real numbers: once leaping through the audience and flirting the front row into giggles with a soulful fully-backed love song, while his young friends fall about hysterically onstage. Then, when he admits he has been writing something different, he delivers a tremendous a capella rendering of the big song. Francois Battiste – the lone American – is a striking, contained Malcolm X: finally moving as his own political change becomes clear. What could have been a static, one-room piece throbs with life and soul and the complexity of the road to justice. Terrific. Sing!

“I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will ..”

 

Box Office: 0844 871 7624 to 3 December
rating    4 Meece RatingOh, and another one just for Arinzé Kene , as troubadourTouring Mouse wide
Supported by Barclays MS Amlin Simmons & Simmons, Clive & Sally Sherling

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The long life and great good fortune of John Clare – a note

 CREATIVITY, DEPRESSION,  REPUTATION

This is a shout-out for a touring production I admire.   I welcome it in with the latest Roger Hardy logo,  the Touring Mouse. See below…
Here’s why.  When Tony Ramsay’s play for Eastern Angles first opened – I saw it in a hall in Beccles –  I reviewed it for the Times (still available, paywall but  http://tinyurl.com/o8q23ne).    Now that its tour is  approaching the Pleasance,  I commend it again.
It is an original, oblique telling of the story of the peasant-poet John Clare:  his harsh agricultural life, and the extreme mental illness which led him to spend his final 27 years in asylums,   belie the beauty of his work.
Edward Bond’s furious play “The Fool” used Clare as an exemplar of working-class persecution by a toff establishment,  but Ramsay’s thoughtful research throws a different light on his times and his condition,  and the respect in which he was held in his troubled lifetime.  It becomes a powerful meditation on creativity and deprssion.
My original review obviously is Times property,  but I can quote the conclusion of its four-star view:
      “It is a finer play than its  regional small-space tour might suggest; in concept, language and performance it honours poetry and pain alike.   When Richard Sandells finally speaks the lines  “I am, yet what I am none cares or knows…”  you catch your breath.”

http://www.easternangles.co.uk
Tour: Peterborough on 2 Nov,  01473 211498;
from 5-9 Nov at Pleasance, London N7  0207 6091800  – tour continues to 16 nov.

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