Ushers at the Arts Theatre

Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a top West End musical? ‘Ushers’ gives us an insight into the lives and troubles of five ushers, all struggling actors, and one sleazy boss, a failed opera singer, as they try to get ahead in life and keep their jobs. Filled with gags – “You’re about as passionate for the theatre as a Tory arts minister” – and squashed ambitions, this is the perfectly pitched piece to hardcore musical theatre fans.

Yiannis Koutsakos and James Oban have written some good music and lyrics with a few stand out numbers for the small cast to perform. The show is set in London’s ‘largest’ capacity theatre, just before the preview of a brand new jukebox musical. The venue is owned by Andrew Lloyd Macintosser’s ‘Theatre Nation’, a company which aims to make theatre – better! Throughout the show, instructions and information of his company pop up on screen giving us a rest from the live action. This was the weakest element of the show, as when doing things like this in musical theatre it can feel like cheating to kill time. It’s not great fun to watch a TV screen when you are at a live show.

Regardless of that, there were some fantastic performances from all the cast, especially the extremely comic and saucy ‘Theatre Ninja’, played by Alexandra Parkes. She had this critic in stitches all night long with her comic fan-girl-obsessive-stalker-usherette. There was some very accomplished singing and dancing though from the rest of the cast, made up of Ben Fenner, Rory Maguire, Cameron Sharp, Harry Stone and Corrine Preist. They all brought a huge amount of energy to this delightfully entertaining production from the word go. In fact we should say from before the word go, as it was them seating us, as real front of house ushers, when we entered the theatre.

Although this show didn’t really delve into anything too deep, it is sure to entertain you and leave you smiling as you leave the theatre. Great effort and energy from all, and some great set pieces and dancing to end the show.

Highlight of the show – Theatre Ninja’s solo number raising the roof – and the temperature – of the delightful Arts Theatre.

WIGS 4/5

Running until the 18th October at The Arts Theatre on Great Newport Street.

The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot at The Print Room

It’s been quite a while since we have seen anything at The Print Room and indeed nothing since they moved into their new venue, the old Coronet cinema. Tennessee Williams’ ‘Kingdom of Earth’ and Brian Friel’s ‘Molly Sweeny’ at their old Westbourne Grove venue were really incredible, so we were expecting good things in this bigger, more historic venue. A bigger space poses its own problems – it needs a larger audience and requires more building maintenance. Such things though, shouldn’t really be a problem if they continue to show good theatre.

Abbey Wright’s production of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Cocktail Party’ fell below our expectations. A couple seem to have come to a turning point in their relationship when the wife walks out on the eve of a cocktail party. With the husband covering for her absence he tells an unidentified guest that he is better off without her.  The unidentified guest however, manages to change the husband’s mind so that the husband cannot stop thinking about wanting her back. Some other characters attend the seemingly endless party until it transpires in the second act that the unidentified guest is a psychologist whom both husband and wife consult. The other guests also seem to consult with the psychologist about the couple’s situation. That roughly seemed to be the gist. There was another storyline about a slightly meagre man, and a restless women. Sadly however, much of this play seemed to disappear down the throats of some of the actors through swallowing lines and speaking too quickly. These problems together with the T.S. Eliot text, did not lead to good drama. It was one of T.S. Eliot’s most popular plays during his lifetime.  In the current production it was hard to see this.

Furthermore, one thing occurred on stage that I have never before witnessed in a professional production. Being seated behind a chap with two copies of the text I initially assumed we were sitting behind a massive keeno. It turned out he was there as a prompt and he was actually needed three times by the same actor! One particular scene in the second act had the actor in question sweating profusely and noticeably in a troubled state. I wish not to be too harsh on any professionals who undertake the art of performance, and maybe this particular actor had been called in at the last minute. Maybe they needed more rehearsal time. Either way suspending one’s disbelief becomes harder when an actor shouts out ‘yes please’ and is given his lines from the audience. There were a number of other occasions when actors seemed to be jumping the gun with lines, giving the general impression that maybe they needed another two weeks in rehearsal. This was only their second performance. It was, however, the first time we have seen anything like this before.

Other technical things jarred with us. The squeaky floorboard, which seemed to squeak with every turning step; the banks of lights at head height that seemed to cast shadows on actors’ faces; actors rearranging the furniture and tableware to set scenes all added to the overall impression that this was, in fact, an amateur production.

This was a bit of a let down. But theatres can’t get it right every time, and maybe all this play needs is a few more nights to get it into shape. Certainly we are looking forward to their next piece ‘Ubu and The Truth Commission’. We left very disappointed and will scrap this production from our memories.

Highlight of the show – the performances of Christopher Ravenscroft fresh out of the wonderful ‘High Society’ and Marcia Warren, both bringing a touch of class to this production with their delivery, charm and humour.

Wigs 2/5

Hamlet at the Barbican

We all know the sorry tale of this Danish Prince. Performed hundreds of times every year around the world, if you are going to mount a production, you better make damn sure it’s a good one. Tickets for the Barbican production starring Benedict Cumberbatch sold out before it was even close to premiering so for starters we must say that it is damn good business for the Barbican, and damn good business in theatre is hard to come by so for that well done.

The problems with this production are clear from the start. The Barbican stage is an absolutely mammoth space to animate. Filling it with Shakespeare’s tragic tale would present a challenge to most companies, unless it were performed as a circus piece with the doomed prince flying across the stage on a trapeze. As such we were presented with the most beautiful interior of a Danish palace more or less set in the 1930s  with turquoise walls and doors mounted with oil paintings, swords and antlers. Beautiful as it was, it seemed more like the set of a movie. Instead of being filled constantly with the action, it felt like it was being filled by extras, courtiers and servants, tidying things up and faffing about in the background.

The lighting was used very interestingly at times, with strange spiderweb like projections creeping onto the walls. Hamlet, in the course of his personal discourses would be accompanied by dramatic changes in lighting. Benedict Cumberbatch was tremendous as the protagonist, but the direction of the piece given the challenges of the enormous space was overdone. The introduction of a large toy castle and life-size toy soldiers, whilst used to support his feigned madness, seemed to be geared for laughs. What of characterisation: the young man brooding on his father’s death abruptly adjusting his youthful idealism to a deeply cynical understanding of the adult world in which his nearest family members have so blatantly transgressed?  Frenetic, manipulative and often a fury in the egotism of the young he goes headlong to death.

Although being quite beautiful to look at, and having a starring actor so adept as Benedict to portray Hamlet, the production didn’t quite seem to gel. Casing point would be the moment Hamlet goes to stab Laertes. The lights change, everything goes into slow motion, and all the people standing around start dancing. A bit odd. At other times, other smaller roles delivered lines very strangely. It was a bit of a shame as we had hoped for more from this production. In the end, the Ninegawa company’s Hamlet earlier this year conveyed the drama more effectively. Had it been in a smaller more intimate venue it would have been better, although what-ifs mean nothing in the real world. If you are going to do something so overly performed as Shakespeare you must make sure you do it in an interesting way. Sadly for this show, they brought nothing new to the table.

Highlight of the show – the sword fight.

Wigs 3/5

Dinner With Saddam by Anthony Horowitz at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Anthony Horowitz has written a tremendous play here. We would expect nothing less, having grown up with his stories of teenage spies and spooky schools that kept us thrilled for years. Venturing onto the difficult to pull off territory of farce, this comedy about dinner with Saddam Hussein fully succeeds.  We, at the Ginger Wig, so often on top of everything theatre, were, unsurprisingly, at the first public viewing of this show at The Menier Chocolate Factory.

So what would you do if one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century came to supper at your house? “Saddam, fearful of assassination attempts, was known to move regularly from private home to private home. Even before the war, he declined to spend nights in one of his palaces.” This excerpt from USA Today provides the plot. Saddam Hussein descends upon a regular Iraqi family for supper on the eve of the American bombing of Baghdad in 2003. Much hilarity ensues from some mislabelled rat poison, a suit that no longer fits and a confusion between a bag of dates and a bag of something else…

Lindsay Posner directs, having previously directed ‘Abigail’s Party’ at the Menier not to long ago. Here she again brings excellent direction to this similarly comic yet very different dinner party. Sanjeev Bhaskar brings the magic of his character in ‘The Kumars at No. 42′. He really is a master of comic timing and acting and plays the bored then panicked ‘regular Mo’ expertly. He is supported by a good cast with Shobu Kapoor and Rebecca Grant as his wife and daughter, panicking and fluttering around the house to get it ready. The women in this family are clearly superior in wit and resourcefulness to the father who, unlike them, has assimilated all the state propaganda believing that there is no threat whatsoever from American bombardment. Nonetheless they all live with the fear of terrible consequences if discovered for disloyalty of any kind, to their leader. There is also a massive dig at arranged marriage here.  The plumber/love interest who doubles as Saddam’s right hand man is played by a very adept and versatile Ilan Goodman; the slimy husband-to-be is Nathan Amzi, who has a very troubled time when meeting Saddam, whilst the man himself, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, or Horowitz’s concept of him, is played quite brilliantly by Steven Berkoff. If you saw Simon Russell Beale as Stalin in Collaborators at the National Theatre then think how Russell Beale combined a weary lacklustre exterior with a completely matter of fact approach to tyranny.  Thus with Berkoff.  In Dinner, the cast come together to deliver a show that has laughs and revelations about the Saddam dictatorship and delivers a sobering reality check on the impact of British and American and other foreign intervention in the region: one example, 30 or so military interventions by the United Sates of America around the world in Saddam’s lifetime and all of them failures as he explains. Western powers must really learn to stop intervening militarily in foreign affairs.

Really though, it is the writing of Anthony Horowitz that truly triumphs here. He has written a well researched play, and used farce to tell a story which being told in a democracy provides a very entertaining evening with important messages. Had it been performed in Iraq, it would have resulted in death for the participants: a two-edged sword indeed.

Catch this show at the charming Menier Chocolate Factory for a night of sheer hilarity. Fantastic writing from Anthony Horowitz! Catch his latest hit and find out how Basingstoke contributed to Saddam’s glory! Running at the Menier until the 14th November.

Highlight of the show: Saddam’s parting gift…

Wigs 4/5

Bakkhai at the Almeida

First Oresteia and now Bakkhai have been transformed by The Almeida from seemingly, old, boring, Greek tragedies into cutting-edge and dynamic modern theatre. This young critic must be blamed for clearly having a juvenile view of Greek tragedy as terribly boring, indeed when I first found out the Oresteia was nearly four hours long I almost had a fit. Although, like the Oresteia, this new production of Bakkhai written by Anne Carson and directed by James Macdonald, has revealed to me that Greek tragedy is far from boring and is, in fact, right on the peak of relevance today.

Bakkhai is one of Euripides’ works, produced posthumously along with ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’. Different from his contemporaries, Euripides was critical, sceptical and individualistic, wanting to free Greek thought from religious subservience.

Dionysus, Greek God of wine, revelry and theatre, comes to Thebes determined to convert its stubborn King Pentheus from non-believer to full on wine guzzling, lady loving reveller. This is met with total contempt and jail time as indeed the Bacchic followers (all women) have. Riling up this seemingly mischievous God, won’t end up with comic misfortune as handed out by ‘The Mask’, Jim Carrey’s comic performance based on this petulant God. This God has a far more violent and retributive response to non-believers. The message: always question your gods, never relinquish the ability to reason and think for yourself and challenge unjust rule. Do not let a belief system legitimise outrageous, unjust and immoral acts. And when it comes to gender in this play: hysterical women are a threat to men and power.

Ben Whishaw, as the God come to Thebes in man-form, is sensational in his characterisation, playing the light and cheerful god in his jest, but also in his fury. He supports this with roles as Tiresias – the blind hermaphrodite seer – and a messenger. The other big name here is Bertie Carvel who plays King Pentheus with a serious and strong performance, who rules his people with a rod of iron. He also plays his own mother, Agave. The transformation when guided by Dionysus to disguise as a woman is seamless and performed with convincing naturalism. This is an actor adept at playing both genders, seen before as Miss Trunchbull, but this was no Roald Dahl childish terror. This was sheer acting, when as Agave, he comes to terms with the brutal actions Dionysus lead her to carry out. Finally we must mention one other performance; Kevin Harvey playing a number of roles, including Cadmus, all completely differently and unique to the point where one might think it was three different actors. Three different actors it was not, and we congratulate Kevin, for his superb character performances.

The chorus narration was a mix of speech but mainly song. And from their very first lines, completely in-sync, I knew we were going to be in for a special choral performance. One current member of ‘The Shout’ – the renowned vocal group – was among a group of ten female actors and singers – The Bacchae – followers of God Dionysus – commentating on the action throughout, interspersing the main scenes. This was tuned, synced and performed to perfection and added a dynamism to this piece never seen before by the Ginger Wig.

Peter Mumford’s lighting was literally electrifying, blending in perfectly with the mood of the piece, and then suddenly jumping out at you when godly passions were raging. A huge drum-like light, hung high on the ceiling, moved remotely above the stage creating different angels and lights for the scenes. The opening electric sparks and the scene of Dionysus’ damnation of Agave and her father, Cadmus, were highlights for the lighting, and the back wall lightings added beautifully to the whole composition.

The design as well was spot on, with a lovely mix between contemporary with rags and robes. Subtle touches including the makeup on Bertie’s face while marching about in a suit added hugely to the production.

You don’t get second rate at the Almeida. This was truly a top production. Hats off for the acting and singing, lighting, directing and adaptation. And indeed of course to Euripides himself for taking us away from the belief in Gods as above us. Relevant today as ever “Gods should not resemble men in their anger!” – men should not be angry full stop. Thank you Almeida for making Greek tragedy cool again!

Highlight of the Show – Dionysus’ entrance in bull form under the electric lights to damn Cadmus and Agave to a life time of exile and pain.

Wigs 4/5

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regents Park Open Air Theatre

This less well known musical was put on in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre recently to great affect. Never before has a theatre setting so perfectly suited the show itself. The aisles in the arena made for perfect mountain paths allowing the characters to cross from one side to the other. The wooden- framed stage stood out perfectly in front of a canopy of trees. Yes, this was the Ginger Wig’s first trip to Regents Park Open Air Theatre and it certainly won’t be the last.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is, we must say, slightly dated. After all, it is about one man going into town to procure himself a wife. He achieves said goal without mentioning his six brothers. What ensues is a crash-course in  civilising a group of swamp-beast brothers transforming them into handy dandy charming farmboys, in order to woo the girls of the town. Circumstances prevent successful courtship and so what follows is a mission not dissimilar to the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’. Of course no one really minds in the end, apart from Milly and Adam, the two leads, who eventually sort out their beef and have a baby. Old fashioned? Just a tad…

A young cast was on display at the Open Air Theatre and, boy, did they bring their A-game. The energy on display was non-stop as they performed some incredible dance routines and numbers. Alastair David to thank here for his remarkable choreography.

Alex Guamond was terrific as the eldest brother Adam, leading his brothers into that daring and downright cheeky kidnapping of the six towns girls. Laura Pitt-Pulford was in fine form as the indomitable Milly, tasked with the terrible job of sorting Adam’s brothers out.

A note on the audience for a our particularly show, as we had quite a pair either side of us. During one very old fashioned jibe from Adam, on a ‘women’s place’, one Sir Bufton Tufton behind us applauded loudly, to some wry titters and assorted scowls. Whist on the other side of us, a lagered-up tattooed gentlemen, with a look of sheer insanity, lobbed a cork down to the front rows, hitting a girl on the back of the head.

Maybe during the incredible avalanche scene these two particular patrons could have just been swept away with the snow. Not to bother, overall this was an absolute triumph. Musical theatre delivered absolutely perfectly. Comedy, action, laughs, and entertainment and some fine musical numbers and dance sequences. Congratulations to Rachel Kavanaugh for this wonderful revival. And indeed to those two forgotten composers Saul Chapman and Gene de Paul who wrote the music for this piece. They too must be congratulated.

Highlight of the show – Undoubtedly the Lament (or Polecat Song) unique in style to the rest of the music, performed in perfect harmony by all of the brothers.

WIGS 5/5

The Edinburgh Ginger Wig Awards 2015

And here is our summary of the 2015 Edinburgh Ginger Wig Awards !

Things kicked off with the GWSM Venue Award given to our favourite venue at this years festival. Nominated for the award were, Underbelly’s Big Belly, The Traverse Theatre, The Voodoo Rooms and Pleasance Courtyard’s Pleasance Two. The Voodoo Rooms took the award for their gorgeously decadent cabaret venue. Big Belly took the runners-up award.

Second was the Young Wig Award, given to our favourite act created by young performers or for a show aimed at young audiences. Nominated we had Disparat Theatre’s ‘Rebounding Hail’, Bad Habit Theatre’s ‘China Doll’, Erasmus Production’s ‘Birdland’ and Tap Tap Theatre’s ‘Captain Morgan 2: The Sea of Souls’. Disparat Theatre picked up the award for their magical ‘Rebounding Hail’ with Erasmus Productions scooping the runner-up award with ‘Birdland’.

Next was the Premiére Award for a show premièring at the Fringe. Nominated was ‘China Doll’, ‘Paris Communal Shower’, ‘One For My Baby’ from Now You Know Theatre and ‘Rebounding Hail’. Now You Know Theatre took the award for ‘One For My Baby’, their beautiful and striking play about Frank Sinatra. Bad Habit Theatre took the runner-up award for ‘China Doll’.

The Strolling Man Award is given to the show we find most interesting and thought-provoking. This year’s nominees included ‘Spillikin: A Love Story’ from Pipeline Theatre, ‘The Christians’, produced by the Gate Theatre, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London by New Diorama Theatre and Institute from Gecko Theatre. The Gate Theatre took the prize for ‘The Christians’ an incredibly powerful and thought-provoking piece. Runners-up were New Diorama Theatre for ‘Spillikin: A Love Story’.

And finally the main award – The Ginger Wig Award itself. Awarded annually to our favourite show in any discipline at the Edinburgh Fringe. This year’s nominations ranged from clown and comedy, to theatre, circus and puppetry. Nominated was ‘L’Enfant Qui’ from Belgian theatre group Théâtre d’un Jour, ‘Paris Communal Shower’, ‘One For My Baby’ and ‘Bruce’ from The Last Great Hunt Theatre. Taking the grand prize was ‘Paris Communal Shower’ for their frightening, absurd and hysterical clown show. The runner-up prize went to Théâtre d’un Jour for ‘L’enfant Qui’.

Congratulations to everyone who put on shows at this years Fringe. You are all winners to us. Keep making beautiful art and we will see you all back at the fringe next year!